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Neil C Webb
Featured Profile: 
At A Glance
Licensed Body: 
Scientist Type: 
South Africa
First Degree: 
Metallurgical Engineering
Consulting Corrosion Engineer.
Works For: 
Isinyithi Cathodic Protection.
B.Sc. (Metallurgical Engineering).
Pet Hates: 
National and Corporate Politics, incompetence.
Burning Ambition: 
To see Corrosion Protection achieve its rightful place in design, construction and maintenance of infrastructure.
I would like to fly.
Big Picture
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 
A steam engine driver – I loved trains
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist? 
Both my father and my elder brother were electrical engineers. I was fascinated by mineralogy and chemistry at high school, collecting rocks, growing crystal gardens, building rockets and making bangs – much to my parents and teachers consternation. I also figured 2 electrical engineers in the family was enough?
What do you love about your job and being a “scientist”? 
Applying sound technical analysis and good judgement to solve challenging issues where there are no precedents
What would you change? 
Having to bid for technical work on a financial basis when you know that to do the work properly will price you right out of the market. Engineers and scientists would do well to follow the medical and legal fraternities, where work is judged on competence, not price
What qualifications did you take at school? 
Why did you choose your first degree subject? 
I studied a 4-year degree in Metallurgical Engineering. I was torn between engineering and chemistry, and a colleague of my father suggested I try metallurgy as it was a mix between the 2 disciplines and I could move in either direction after first year if I wasn’t happy. It turned out to be the right choice and I have never looked back or regretted my choice
Do you have a Masters or PhD? If not, was it difficult to demonstrate Masters-level equivalence in order to achieve CSci? 
I do not have a higher degree. I have actively pursued applied research and product development in my career, and had no difficulty in being accepted for any of the professional grades applied for (MIMMM, FICorr, C.Eng, C.Sci )
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? 
It is difficult. Usually the one that works is “I stop things from rusting”
What is ‘cutting-edge’ about your work? 
Most of my work is associated with the corrosion protection of steel pipelines. This involves organic chemistry related to protective coatings, electrical circuit theory and electrochemistry. As new materials are developed, situations arise for which there is no precedent. We have to then develop new procedures, standards and quality requirements. Often when I approach my international colleagues with a question, I get the response “when you find out or solve the problem, please let us know”
What are the biggest implications your work will/could have in the future? 
Several international studies have indicated that the cost of corrosion in terms of deterioration and replacement of assets is equivalent to about 4% of the GDP of developed countries. Correct and timeous application of existing corrosion protection technology can save up to 40% of these costs. In South Africa, this figure equates to the total contribution of the mining industry. Corrosion is one of the major causes of pipeline leaks worldwide. Correctly designed and maintained corrosion protection systems have far-reaching implications in preservation of resources and the prevention of environmental disasters
Describe some of the highlights of your average day. 
You never know what the next telephone call or email is going to be. Receiving repeat business from a satisfied client, finding a solution to a technical problem, demonstrating the success of a new application or commissioning a project which works as designed are what makes the work exciting and satisfying. I have never been bored in my work
Describe briefly how your career has progressed to date. 
I spent two years doing post graduate industrial research after my degree. This convinced me that an academic / research career was not for me. I then started as a materials engineer with a small consulting organization specializing in corrosion control. This was somewhat ironic, as their main line of business was in protective coatings, and organic chemistry had been one of my least favorite subjects at university. They wanted to expand their activities into other materials. I worked as a relief inspector on many construction projects, gaining hands on practical experience. Because of my natural aptitude for things electrical, (having been brought up on electrons, so to speak) I became involved in electrochemical corrosion protection and started a new department within the company. The company was bought out by a larger international organization, and I was promoted (by default more than anything else) to a management position. This was never a happy marriage and I did not enjoy the management role, so I left the company (after 13 years) to work on contract for one of the large project engineering houses in UK in their materials department. I then returned to South Africa for family reasons and started my own consulting company, specializing in corrosion protection of pipelines and metallurgical failure analysis. That was 17 years ago. It has been a roller coaster ride but we are still going strong. I became a member of the Corrosion Institute of Southern Africa when I started work, and have served on the Institute Council for 23 years in various capacities, including President in 2005-2007
How is your job cross-disciplinary? 
Corrosion protection requires knowledge of chemistry (especially organic and electrochemistry), physics, materials, electrical engineering, chemical engineering mathematics, statistics and geology. Proficiency in interpersonal relationships helps, particularly when you get into failure analysis work. Many people may specialize in only one aspect of corrosion protection, such as water treatment. As an independent service provider, I have been fortunate enough to gain experience and work in a wide variety of fields. To give you an example, pipeline corrosion protection involves protective coatings (organic chemistry), cathodic protection (electrochemistry) and stray current interference (electrical engineering). Combine this with the geology of the route the pipeline is being laid through – and you have a multi-disciplinary application!.
How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for your field, and how much can this be expected to rise? 
Compensation is much the same as any other engineering discipline. I believe that engineering as a career is underpaid worldwide. Being self-employed. I cannot comment on salary levels. We live comfortably, but my wife believes I am not paid what I am worth
How do you see your field developing over the next 5-10 years? 
Through the unstinting efforts of the various professional institutions around the world and the publicity of a few spectacular failures attributed to corrosion, there is a growing awareness of the need for adequate corrosion control in design and maintenance. I therefore believe that this offers an exciting, challenging and rewarding career opportunity – money isn’t everything
What’s the most unexpected thing about your job? 
People. I never realized the importance of interpersonal relationships in technical projects, or the complexity of managing staff. I am an unashamed technocrat. One of the best things that has happened to me is finding a business partner with common ethics and beliefs whom I can trust implicitly who handles the bulk of the administrative load in our small business
What’s the biggest achievement of your career so far? 
Development of an intrinsically safe cathodic protection system for the corrosion protection of mounded LPG bullets. This is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.
Would you say you have a good standard of living/ work-life balance? 
Yes. I am fortunate to work from home, which saves me 3 hours of commuting on a daily basis. Although I work long hours, I see my kids every day, unless I am away overnight. This is more than can be said for a lot of fathers who leave for work before their kids wake up, and return after that are in bed. The technological era in which we live makes this possible through email and other IT facilities. One still needs the personal interaction with clients, contractors and colleagues, but this can be scheduled to take account of traffic and other travel issues
What do your friends and family think about your job? 
I think fiends are bemused by it, as they don’t understand what I do. This is exemplified by the comment I had from a student who worked with me over a university vacation. When he arrived he had never even heard of corrosion as a technological field. I gave him a project to do conceptual design and estimation for the corrosion protection system for a harbour jetty expansion. When he finished, he said in an awed tone “I never realized how much this would cost” – just the corrosion protection was a multi-million dollar budget. My family enjoys the fact that I am usually at home and accessible, and can take flexible time off for special occasions. The kids are fascinated by the places I travel to and the stories from site
What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax? 
I am passionate about steam engines. In earlier years, before I was married, I would chase around the country with a camera and a tape recorder, photographing, filming and recording steam engines. Unfortunately there are very few now, so I have turned my focus to model engines, both live steam of all kinds and HO gauge electric trains. I also make glass beads, play in a brass band and go hiking in the mountains
Why did you choose to apply for CSci and what do you value most about being a Chartered Scientist? 
Ironically, corrosion protection is not recognized in many countries as an engineering discipline. CSci provides an avenue to acquire professional registration. Being a Chartered Scientist gives your clients the comfort of knowing that they are dealing with someone who has a high level of expertise and integrity
What is the value of professional bodies? 
To provide a forum for exchange of technical information, To promote awareness of the field amongst other technical disciplines, To facilitate training and education, To acknowledge and reward outstanding achievement, To promote research and development, To regulate levels of technical competence
How important is CPD? What do you think of the revalidation process in ensuring that CSci is a mark of current competence? 
CPD is essential to ensure that people who hold CSci remain active and relevant. A CSci (or any other professional recognition) obtained 10 years ago is irrelevant if the person has moved from the technical field into commerce, for example. The technical sphere is expanding and developing so fast that it is easy to lose touch with reality. I think that annual re-validation is onerous and unnecessary – 3 years is an adequate interval. Perhaps it can be streamlined by the automatic acknowledgement of the online CPD log, for instance
Advice & Reflection
What words of wisdom would you give someone interested in getting into your field? 
Don’t be scared to get your hands dirty. It is essential for any engineer or scientist to get to grips with reality in the field of his chosen discipline before attempting to embark on the more lofty aspirations of design or research. Once working in design, it is essential to go back and see the results of your work. This also applies to project managers and construction supervisors – completed on time and under budget is of no benefit if the operating and maintenance staff are landed with a deficient plant or process. All too often we see the same mistakes being made over and over again because the personnel who design and build are never required to operate and maintain. Don’t be too proud to ask questions. Accept criticism gracefully – you might be wrong
How important is the mentoring process in your field and to you personally? 
It is essential. I still have fond memories and the greatest respect for the technicians and inspectors I worked with as a new engineer. It is of little use to tell your junior staff what to do, assuming they know what you are talking about. I have never asked a junior technical staff member to do something that I have not done myself. (Except in the field of IT) You need to work beside your staff, so that they can pick up not only the “how”, but the “why”, the ethics, the approach and the ever necessary enquiring mind to get to the root of the issue at hand. It is also vital for people to be humble, and not assume they know it all – when in doubt, ask a colleague. I had the privilege of being mentored by one of the great names in the South African Corrosion Protection Industry, and he never hesitated to acknowledge the mentorship he had received in turn
How would you define “professionalism”? 
Do not undertake work you are not qualified to do. Tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts. Do not run down your opposition or competitors – let your quality of work speak for itself. Do not allow yourself to become commercially biased. Do not compromise your work standard to suit a budget – it will come back to bite you. Always respect and uphold confidentiality
What would you do differently if you were starting out in your career now? 
I would learn to touch-type. I would do basic bookkeeping & business management courses. I would find relevant technical courses in the field in which I am employed
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist? 
When I was a junior engineer, I had dealings with a senior engineering director in a public utility – he was quite fearsome and extremely competent. He is now retired, but an active technical peer reviewer for major infrastructure projects. We have known each other for 27 years. I recently worked with him as a member of an advisory panel where we had to put forward recommendations for corrosion protection systems which will have far-reaching commercial consequences. At the end of the meeting he said to me “You never did believe in issuing yellow cards, did you? – You always go for the red.” I would like to be remembered for unbiased, factual evaluations, observations, reports and decisions, with no compromise
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