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Alumni Dr. Joe Silmon’s career path takes him from Northallerton to Berlin

13 April 2021  |  G Denison

‘I was a student at the Allertonshire School from 1992 to 1995, and then Northallerton College from 1995 to 1999 (both now parts of Northallerton School). My favourite subjects were modern languages, maths and technology. I took my German all the way to A-level, along with Maths, Physics, Chemistry and General Studies (meaning a pretty full timetable for my final two years!).

I come from a low-income background but by taking up all the opportunities the school provided, I got a good enough education to get into a good university and I now have a very successful career as an engineer in the railway industry.

For most of my time at the school, my career plan was fixed on becoming an officer in a technical part of the Army, like the Royal Signals or Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. This ambition was driven by my involvement in the Yorkshire Army Cadet Force, in which I trained from 1994 to 1999. It led me to select those STEM subjects for my A-levels and to apply for university courses in electronic engineering at several universities. Shortly before I finished school, I successfully applied for entry to the Army’s officer training programme, to begin after I graduated from university.

Soon after I’d started studies at the university of Birmingham, I had a change of heart and turned my career plans towards another interest of mine: the railways. Thankfully, my choice of degree was very well suited to a career as an engineer working on some of the largest railway projects in Europe: Crossrail, High Speed Two and major technological upgrades to the London Underground. I’ve spent time working in train manufacturing with Bombardier, research and development at the University of Birmingham (leading to a PhD and the title “Doctor”), signalling with Invensys Rail (now Siemens) and Thales, and general engineering consulting with Atkins. I spend most of my time in offices and meetings, leading other engineers in how to approach design tasks more complex than anything previously attempted by humanity, but I still relish the opportunity to put a high-visibility vest on and go out on the track where the real action happens. When you feel the power of a high-speed train passing a few feet away at 200 km/h or faster, you begin to understand why safety on the railway is so important – and it’s in the digitisation and modernisation of railway safety systems that I’m currently working. I’ve landed a dream job for the German federal railway, working in a trendy downtown office in Berlin (when not at home due to Covid restrictions).

It hasn’t all been glamorous. I don’t come from a well-off background, so throughout school and university I had to work in kitchens for pocket money. Clearing the remains of posh seafood dinners off plates in a steamy kitchen in Sydney wasn’t what I had in mind when I set off for my university exchange year in 2002, but the opportunity was there and funded and I don’t regret a second of it. I know university funding has changed since I studied, and I’d still be paying off my student finance now if I had studied under current conditions, but be in no doubt: as an engineer, the earning opportunities are very good and there should be no reason to worry about paying student finance back.

I’ve come a long way from my school days, through difficult career and life situations, but I’ll always be glad of the teaching I received. In particular I’m grateful to the late Mr Dodd of the Maths department, who taught me a methodical approach to problem solving, and to Mrs Phipps of the Languages department, who seemed to have infinite patience with my forgetful approach to homework.

I would advise current students to choose subjects that will support them in a career they can be proud of, no matter if it’s baking bread or discovering black holes; to work hard even in the face of adversity; and use what they’ve learned to try and make the world a better place. Yorkshire is a great place to grow up but there’s a whole wide world out there: go, explore, and leave it better than you found it.’

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