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A day in the life of Derek Harris

by Australian Road Research Board on November 30, 2020

This month we're giving you an insight into what life at ARRB is like.

We will be covering the stories of several ARRB employees in the different Strategic Working Groups. Next up, we have Derek Harris from our Research Laboratories team.

Derek H

What does a day in your life look like?
My day normally starts off at 5:45am to the sound of Kookaburras, then I go through the usual morning tasks, and I aim to be out the door by 6:15am. My wife and I recently moved into a property in a service capacity as caretakers of the Baha’i Centre of Learning.
My commute will vary as I will either drive the car or ride the motorbike depending on the weather and other factors. The motorbike is the most efficient commute in Melbourne as the ability to filter through the long streams of traffic reduces travel time and is really satisfying.
I spend most of my day in the Laboratory either manufacturing asphalt samples or testing them, once I get started there is a constant stream of tasks that need completing, everywhere I look there is something else to do. I enjoy being busy and this work gives me such a wide variety that no two days are the same. Whenever I have spare time I will push through the paperwork, occasionally I will plan a consolidation day where I will not make a mix and spend the day on testing and completion of as many office and lab tasks that I can.
One of my biggest challenges is leaving on time as there is always one more task I want to complete, usually I want to finalise a test to see if my samples are in spec or set up the materials in the oven to get a head start on the next day’s work.
My days will be different depending on the projects I work on, coming up I have an ALF (Accelerated Loading Facility) pavement construction which will mean I will be at ALF for some days and I have even worked on construction sites during the day or night.
Once I get home, I start my second job, my dear wife will run me through her day, I will be tasked with anything that may need to be sorted on the property before we have dinner and settle into a bit of R&R.

What made you decide to get into your field?
My original career path was to be a commercial pilot, I learnt to fly when I was 16 and lived in South Africa for two years flying for a transport company, then returned to New Zealand and spent a year teaching people to fly. After a short medical issue, I decided on a career change and my strengths at school were technical subjects. My family history on my dad’s side is a long line of engineers, my grandfather during the 2nd World War was in the army engineer corps stationed in Burma, their mission was to strategically blow-up bridges. I enjoy building and working with my hands and brain, so I re-trained as a Civil Engineer.
My first job was for a consultant working in the grass roots of Roads and Highways Asset Management, I would spend most of my working days on the road collecting road asset data and seeing all manner of network failure.

I then worked for Fulton Hogan and got to play with the big toys building Airports, rehabilitating roads and working on some major projects.
Reflecting on my experience, I use the tools learnt to create better outcomes in my current role. In aviation there is a saying, a good set up, leads to a good base leg, leads to a good final approach and a good landing. From my asset management experience, data is king, I gather and use data every day to improve the results I get which can minimise having to do additional work to achieve the same result.

What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
I enjoy 95% of the work I do. I get the biggest kick when testing samples I made and get a result within the required specification. I also enjoy tracking the progress of my projects (moreso when they are on or ahead of schedule, not so much when they are behind).
My least favourite is when I have spent most of the day manufacturing asphalt and the compactor malfunctions or breaks leading to a big waste of my time.
I enjoy collaboration, and both being mentored and mentoring.

Name a career highlight of yours
One career highlight was the completion of the construction of the Foamed Bitumen Pavement, this project was a 13.6 x 7.6 metre concrete in ground tank with drainage both inside and outside the tank, all drainage is piped to a manhole leading to the creek. We filled the tank with a weak subgrade that was mined on site to a specified strength, then built, foam stabilise and seal the pavement.

The tank succeeded in its design of preventing water ingress into the pavement/subgrade layers for the duration of the test program.

Another highlight was the successful completion for the last NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities) audit where I demonstrated the manufacture and testing of all work that I do, the auditor had positive comments and I got signed off as laboratory signatory for all I was tested on.

What advice would you give for someone wanting to work in the industry?

  • Get experience early on in as many different aspects of the industry as you can, then move into the area that you are most interested in. Get a job you love, and you will never have to work another day in your life.
  • The first time something goes wrong is not a mistake, it is a learning experience, if the same thing goes wrong a second time because you did not correct it, then it is a mistake.
  • For laboratory work, put equipment back where you found it in the condition you found it in or better.
  • When brainstorming, there are no stupid ideas.
  • Work with joy and happiness, it is not what happens to us, it is how we react to it.

Read about the lives of other ARRB staff here:

The ride quality tester

The pavement engineer

The road safety expert

The road surveyor

Road survey logistics

Topics: ARRB News, Research, ARRB, Australian Road Research Board, Pavement, Asphalt