Charlie Barnes is the EV Bus & Coach Project Development Manager at SSE Enterprise Utilities, part of the SSE Enterprise Electric Vehicle Sector, focussing on developing exciting new projects pushing the boundaries of EV infrastructure and logistics. Charlie specialises in the bus industry, working with clients to identify and develop opportunities to implement and optimise electric vehicle operation. She graduated with an MEng in Electronic Engineering with first-class honours from the University of Southampton and post-university she is an active member of Women in Transport.
“What I love about my job now is that there’s just so much variety. As a project development manager, my job is to go from the initial stage of meeting the customers and explaining what we can do for them, through to the point where I hand it over to the delivery team, and they start on-site and make the magic happen.”
My journey into transport
It’s been an interesting journey in that I started off in computing. When I was about 11 I taught myself HTML to make a website for my Neopets. That was what started my computer journey. When it came to following my career interests, I was always interested in maths and science.
An engineering course at university seemed like the obvious choice. From there, as I’d always enjoyed computers and I could program, electronics seemed like the area to focus on. I spent four years doing a Master’s at the University of Southampton. I always enjoyed the practical aspects of labs and projects (getting more hands-on and playing with things) rather than the software side of it.
Having graduated, I joined a graduate scheme for a London bus company because I liked the idea of getting hands-on and fixing real London buses. I spent nearly two months of the graduate scheme wearing overalls and covered in oil, repairing buses, which was loads of fun.
The graduate scheme was just under two years in total, and it involved learning all about the bus industry from purchasing the buses, to putting them on the road to operating them, maintaining them and driving them – I’ve even got a bus driving licence (known as a CPC)! The grad scheme was a fantastic start to launch myself into the transport industry.
Securing my dream role
I progressed through several roles for the bus company, I went from the graduate scheme to assistant engineering manager, where I was managing the operational side of the engineering part of the depot. I worked at several depots, the largest being up to 150 vehicles with around 30 staff. I was managing the maintenance regimes, Health & Safety, the staff, and the budget and all other aspects of a running workshop – basically keeping those buses on the road.
Because of my background, I always got involved in any side projects I could. From there, I had some work with the electric buses that they were bringing into one of the depots. They were looking for a project manager to coordinate how that would affect operations, so making sure everything kept running day-to-day while they were building the infrastructure, and then integrating the new electric vehicles into the day-to-day operations at the site.
I transitioned from my role in the operational side through to the project management side in the premises team, going from diesel buses to high voltage infrastructure – managing million-pound onsite infrastructure including transformers, low voltage distribution and electric chargers.
From there I thought: “I like electric buses so let’s lean into this!” And so that led to my role as they were looking to continue to grow in the bus sector. At that point they’d installed 90% of the electric bus infrastructure in London, so they were looking to target the rest of the UK as electric buses became more mainstream. My role was to scale up what I did with one depot to countrywide, which was exciting!
I’ve had an interesting career where I started off in programming software and small electronics, moved up to dirty diesel buses, and then high voltage electrical infrastructure, which is a bizarre journey from an engineering perspective.
What I love about my job now is that there’s just so much variety. As a project development manager, my job is to go from the initial stage of meeting the customers and explaining what we can do for them, through to the point where I hand it over to the delivery team, and they start on-site and make the magic happen.
It’s largely a communications journey with the customers. Keeping them informed and getting their inputs while I’m working with the commercial team, the design team, the delivery team, to pull that whole package together. On top of that, COVID aside, I get a lot of exciting visits to bus depots.
I’m such a bus nerd, I love seeing all the different operations, the different ways people do things, as well as keeping up to date with the charging technology and methodology to shape how the future of electric vehicles in this country looks, which is what I find really exciting about it.
Forming new bonds with colleagues during COVID-19
I joined a few months into the pandemic, in September 2020 so I’ve only met four of my co-workers in person in the entire time I’ve been with the company, so it’s been very strange with the transition of working from home, getting to know everyone & joining the company culture completely remotely.
One of the fantastic successes is the fact it’s now effortless for me to work with people all over the country – loads of my colleagues are in Glasgow, there’s quite a few all across the rest of England: Reading, Bournemouth, Liverpool. So, it’s cool, we get to pull everyone together, and it’s not out of the norm and no one’s having to travel too far.
It has been a challenge though, I can’t lie. I’m looking forward to going back to the office and building up a different level of rapport with my team members, as opposed to virtually as we do currently, because team drinks just aren’t the same!
Support from Women in Transport: Feeling understood on a different level
Several years ago now, Chloe Leach O’Connell wrote a fantastic article in an industry magazine, talking about what it’s like to be a woman in the industry and how she thought that we’re making progress, but there’s still a way to go. She wanted to bring together anyone else who was interested to help promote that change, essentially, and share good learnings and good practices from the industry.
So, of course, I reached out to her. She got about 15 of us together in the beginning, to start a committee to see what we could do to share intercompany learnings around the industry. Through that, I was introduced to Sonya [Byers], who’s the CEO of Women in Transport.
So, I started turning up to a few Women in Transport events. What was really amazing for me was to realise I could relax in a different way in this environment – I’m used to being the only woman at the table. When I was working on the engineering team with the London bus company, I was the only woman in the department aside from one female apprentice who was on the tools. To suddenly get into a space that was majority women was fantastic.
You just felt people understood you on a different level. This meant I could relax while talking about work, which was a different experience for me, so I threw myself into attending all the meetings I possibly could. They were always so useful – so many friendly people, and fascinating speakers on such a range of topics.
I then decided I would host my own event once my electric bus depot was finished. I organised a tour of our Shepherds Bush garage to show the other Women in Transport members all the cool things I’ve been doing, and I just built up my involvement from there.
Women in Transport has been fantastic during the pandemic, putting on so many extra virtual events to really bring people together and offer support. The fortnightly networking sessions are amazing. It’s nice just to touch base with a bunch of people and talk about whatever, from cycling to TV shows. That’s been a real benefit.
Turbo boosting my career progression
The Women in Transport mentoring scheme, Advance, is fantastic. I was paired up with an amazing mentor through the scheme, who motivated me to be comfortable applying for my current role at SSE.
Statistically, women tend to wait until they tick the majority of the boxes on a job description before they even think of applying. It was recommended to me by a colleague, and I looked at it and said: “I can’t do that, surely.” I would never have applied for this job otherwise.
I then spoke with my mentor, and he suggested breaking it down, which was when I realised that yes, I could do it. My mentor really helped get my confidence up, gear up my CV, and helped me prepare for the interview. I was absolutely thrilled when I got offered the job. It was a real step up in my career for me, and it was just so amazing to have that direct support from people around me.
The thing about Women in Transport generally is that when you’ve maybe had a bit of a miserable day, and maybe sometimes you’ve been worn down by someone you might have encountered, you can go and talk with loads of other fantastic and inspiring women that really kind of cheer you up for remind you why you’re there. I literally cannot sing Women in Transport’s praises enough. It’s such a fantastic organisation.
Nothing works without diversity
My favourite reason for diversity is when you’re thinking about your customer base, you want to be able to get into your customers’ minds in order to deliver the product they need. That’s especially when you’re talking about a problem or challenge that affects pretty much the whole world, which means you need someone from every different demographic to give their perspective to make sure you’re solving problems for everyone’s needs, and not just a subset of the population.
When it’s something affecting a huge amount of people, you need that diversity to bring that difference of thought and perspectives. I find it all the time in different jobs I’m doing. I challenge people about how and what I do. And sometimes it really surprises them. They forget people like me exist. Even back in the London bus company, I used to commute for an hour on a London bus nearly every day, but my colleagues thought that people only used buses for ten minutes to hop on and off down the shops.
I would love Wi-Fi on London Buses, for example, as it would really liven up the commute. Whereas if you’re only on it for five minutes to the shops, you might not need it. Unless you can understand your customers, you can’t design products and services that actually fit their needs.
From another perspective, it’s also important to feel welcomed and accepted in your place of work, so the more different people you encounter, the more accepting everyone is, the more comfortable you can be being yourself, which can be hard if you the alien in the room, as I wrote about in my blog for Women in Transport. It’s difficult being different, and it can be scary, so, the more welcoming environment is, the more you’re likely to speak up, be involved and bring your full self and your great ideas to the table.
Something about myself that is important to me is that I call myself queer. I’m a bisexual, non-binary woman. In my career, I’ve had multiple people ask if I’m a man or assume my sexuality in front of me and make comments about it. They never, or at least very rarely, mean it with any negativity at all, they just literally don’t understand it. And as much as I think it can be important and inspiring to be visible, it can also be tiring when you encounter a lot of misunderstanding.
That’s probably why I didn’t come out whilst I was still working in my last role. At SSE, I feel more comfortable now, my confidence is building and, to be honest, I’m just starting to put labels on it myself – it can be hard to explain something when it’s hard to define. I think it’s why it’s important to talk about these things and normalise them.
International Women in Engineering Day – kick-ass women doing kick-ass things
For me, it’s just a joy to see and know about so many kick-ass, women doing so many kick-ass things in the world. It should be International Women in Engineering Day every day, which sounds really cheesy, but it’s it genuinely excites me when I see people doing something really interesting.
And then when they kind of look like me, it makes it that bit better. Because it’s like: “Oh, cool, I could be doing that,” or “I could be friends with someone doing that.” It makes it seem so much more attainable. Also, personally, I love subverting expectations. I get this extra thrill, especially when I have short green hair and I don’t necessarily present myself as stereotypically feminine and I look even younger than I am. People get really confused about who and what I am and how I fit in, so I get judged quite a bit for my appearance.
Sometimes that’s frustrating, to walk into a room as a young woman, especially a room full of older men. You can see people looking at you and thinking: “Who is she? Is she here shadowing someone?” Then when I suddenly speak up and say that I’ve achieved this, I’ve done that, and I know what I’m talking about, then people sit up and start paying attention.
It’s a shame they weren’t really listening in the first place and I’ve had to prove myself before I’m given a chance, but there is this kind of pride of “yeah, I know what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter what I look like, I’m here to do my job.” I think celebrating that is significant, as well as reminding people that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Bringing exciting projects to life
Getting this job was such a stimulating move for me. It’s a real step up for my career, and I want to master this role. I’m nine months in and I’m working on some really large projects that are starting to come together. My motivation is all about delivering on these projects and being able to say: “I did that. That came to life because of what I did,” which I think is the exciting thing.
On a personal level, I definitely want to lean more into supporting more diversity, I’m really pleased to be a volunteer at Women in Transport, so I want to continue to do more, especially as the world starts to open up after COVID. I’d like to attend more in-person events, engage with more people and see what more I can do to support other people, rather than just being sat behind at my computer, as I’ve been doing way too much of that over the last year.