Q&A: How this engineer began a new career in global development

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BARCELONA — As co-founder of Abundance, a nonprofit operating in Malawi, and co-director of Sustainable Futures in Africa, Deepa Pullanikkatil’s working week involves juggling multiple roles and coordinating with colleagues in different parts of the world. Based in Eswatini, she also does consulting work throughout the region and serves on the steering committee for a United Nations Environment Programme project.

Pullanikkatil didn’t always work in development. With a background in engineering, she had been working in construction for several years when she decided to pursue a career in environmental science. In her spare time, she went back to school to retrain. Pullanikkatil says she never felt too old to be switching careers and encourages others to follow their passion for a rewarding career — it can feel like a huge adventure, she added.

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Pullanikkatil spoke to Devex about how she transitioned into development work and what skills have helped her succeed in her new career.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first develop an interest in working in development and how did you go about making that transition?

I worked in the civil engineering field for a number of years doing various construction projects, including construction of a hospital in India and rural water supply and sanitation in Lesotho … While lecturing in civil engineering there, I took my students on a field trip to see the construction of a road and stumbled across a water pollution issue where there were effluents [liquid waste] from a garment factory flowing down a small stream under the road and then leading onto a transboundary river that was shared between Lesotho and South Africa.

I got really intrigued and began researching that water pollution issue. While doing it, I realized that environmental science is really my passion. That’s when I diverted my career. I did a master’s in environmental management from a university in South Africa and then, after moving to Malawi, I was lucky to get into a climate change adaptation project.

Deepa Pullanikkatil, co-founder of Malawi-based nonprofit Abundance and co-director of Sustainable Futures in Africa. Photo by: Deepa Pullanikkatil

What skills from your engineering days helped you get started in your development career, or have helped you in your work since then?

It’s never a waste to have a good technical background like engineering. It’s actually a strength because in climate change adaptation or development work you tend to work across many sectors so you touch on agriculture, water, gender, so many aspects. No education is ever a waste and I use my technical knowledge from my engineering days in almost every piece of work that I do.

There’s a few things I had to unlearn. For example, for engineers, it’s the output that is the most important thing, and the process is just a means to attain the output. But in development work, the process is very important because if you get it wrong — even if you get the output right — the sustainability of the project can have problems later on. The process involves public participation, working with stakeholders, making sure everybody has buy-in to that project. It requires you to constantly reflect and engage deeply with these communities.

What exactly is the role of a climate change adaptation specialist?

[We work in] climate change adaptation projects, climate change policy, resource mobilization for those projects, knowledge management related to climate change, and technical support for projects and proposals.

It’s about having the skills to work in multidisciplinary teams because it’s a cross cutting issue. It’s a bit of policy, scientific research, proposal development, project management — all that comes together under the umbrella of climate change adaptation.

You worked for many years as a consultant for UNEP-funded project. What advice do you have for others looking to land a job with a U.N. agency, which can be very competitive?

I applied as an individual but with a strong reference letter from the NGO that hosts me. I was fairly new to Eswatini at the time so although I had the technical skills and knowledge, I did not have the local knowledge, so I needed their support ... I think that was what helped me get that.

When you apply, your CV has to be good, you have to show specific skills and experience relevant to that job, have good references. The moment they get your application the first they do is Google your name so it does help to have a good online presence — if you have published journal articles get them out there, [make sure you have a] LinkedIn profile, a ResearchGate profile, blog posts.

For some professionals, the challenge is figuring out when is the right time to take a career break and go back to school. Having completed a second master’s and a Ph.D., what would be your advice in making this decision?

You have to recognize and follow your passion so there is no right or wrong time. If you have found your passion then the time is right, no matter how old or young you are. I realized my passion for environmental science at age 29 when I stumbled across the water pollution project, I had a baby along the way, worked full-time while doing a part-time master’s, switched my career, then moved from Lesotho to Malawi, and also did a Ph.D. It was my passion that was driving me … It’s never too late.

How important have your formal qualifications been, versus the lessons and skills you learned on the job, in helping you progress your career?

I would say they are equally important. You need the formal qualification as the entry point for employment in certain types of work — especially if you are doing high-profile consultancy work they [often] require a Ph.D. Then to do the work properly you need skills and lessons that you have learned while working. Of course these things vary from job to job and country to country.

I think in today’s world what is most important is interpersonal skills, networking, communication, writing skills, and presentation skills. If you are a team player, easy to get along with, you’re a connector, you’re generally interested in people, then people want to work with you.

Devex, with financial support from our partner 2U, is exploring the skills and education development sector professionals will need for the future. Visit the Focus on: DevPros 2030 page for more.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.