Michelle Hicks
Photo: Harry Parvin

Michelle Hicks was previously the Resort Theme Park Project Manager at Chessington World of Adventures, but in the last year Michelle has gone off on her own to start Firefly Creations, her own company which creates exciting theme park attractions around the world. 

Inspired by a childhood love of theme parks, it all began aged 14 when Michelle attended a lecture on rollercoaster design, which drove her to study Civil Engineering at the University of Surrey before starting up her own company working her dream job and creating theme park attractions.

Michelle is responsible for taking theme park attractions from initial conception, design and construction through to public opening. She says the best part of her job is being one of the first people to ride themed attractions before they open to the public.

Michelle is a part of This is Engineering Day, a day created by the Royal Academy of Engineering to celebrate the world-shaping engineering that exists all around us but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers who make this possible. As part of This is Engineering Day, the Royal Academy of Engineering has announced plans to create a new virtual museum named The Museum of Engineering Innovation, which can be accessed through QR Codes dotted around the country as well as by visiting Google Arts and Culture. To view the first collection of exhibits, which include Jonnie Peacock’s running blade, visit https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/museum-of-engineering-innovation. #BeTheDifference

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I studied Civil Engineering at the University of Surrey before joining WSP as a structural engineer where I had the opportunity to work on projects including the redevelopment of London Bridge Station. As my experience grew I realised I loved managing the design process so I joined Merlin Entertainments in a Project Management role, combining my experience in engineering with my passion for theme parks. Whilst working at Merlin I led the team delivering new attractions at Chessington World of Adventures Resort including The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure, Land of the Tiger and Tiger Rock.

I am now the co-owner and Executive Producer for Firefly Creations. We design experiences for theme parks, resorts, water parks, family entertainment centres and museums. This can include everything from thrilling roller coasters through to family friendly walkthroughs and everything in between! If you are interested in learning more about the projects, we have worked on there are further details on our website www.fireflycreations.uk. We work in an extremely varied industry and I love nothing more than working alongside our creative team to come up with ideas for never seen before experiences that will transport people to worlds they thought were only possible in their imaginations!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

It was always my dream to create theme park experiences and I studied civil engineering because I wanted to be able to design roller coasters. As I learned more about the industry, I became more involved not only with the civil engineering elements but also the technology and storytelling that drives these experiences. My role today allows me to work alongside roller coaster engineers, creative designers, audio-visual specialists and even robotics experts so I am continually learning and looking for new ways to apply technology.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Looking back there have been times where I have walked onto a construction site and noticed some surprised faces as I didn’t meet the typical expectation of a project manager on a construction project. Whilst this can be challenging by remaining confident in my own abilities, I was soon able to overcome any preconceptions by demonstrating my technical knowledge. Ultimately it all comes down to what you know so by demonstrating my ability I was able to build strong teams all working together towards the same goal to create the best experience possible.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Successfully opening a new tiger exhibit has to be up there! Seeing four endangered tigers running through their new habitat was an incredible experience. For Land of the Tiger at Chessington World of Adventures Resort, we built tiger bridges between three different enclosure areas so the tigers could explore, mimicking their natural instincts in the wild. We also had a functional water ride around the outside of the enclosures to add to the challenge! The area has since received an exhibit design award from BIAZA (British and Irish Association for Zoos and Aquariums) and it’s incredible to see the tigers so relaxed and enjoying their home.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I have always taken an interest in the work being completed by my colleagues from my days working back in an engineering design office through to my role today. Asking questions about the work being completed by the people I am working alongside including architects, mechanical and electrical engineers has helped build my knowledge which has been a huge help when coordinating designs for various new rides and attractions.  I still constantly ask questions because there are so many different skillsets working together to create theme park attractions and there is always more to learn.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Always be inquisitive and look for how technology can be improved or applied in new ways. When designing new attractions, we often have to apply existing technologies in new scenarios and overcome any challenges this presents. The more you can understand and question the world around you, the better placed you become to solve these problems. Being able to step back and think through a problem logically is an incredibly valuable skill, particularly in high pressure situations, and can be the difference between the success and failure of a project.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are definitely still barriers when it comes to younger girls considering careers in tech. There are still some that think the industry is “just for boys” but fortunately there are many initiatives helping to change this misconception. To really make a difference it’s vital that parents and teachers are passing on the message that there are incredible opportunities in the technology industry regardless of gender. I have certainly noticed a difference in the percentage of female engineers in my career so far so the initiatives are working, but there is a lot more to be done.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Helping women build their confidence to apply for more senior roles is key to making sure there are more women in positions across the industry. I have seen more female graduates entering the engineering profession, but there is still a shortage of female executives. It’s key we make sure these graduates stay in the industry and filter into more senior roles, so we see a higher proportion of women across all levels.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would wave my wand not only for women but any groups who could potentially face challenges when looking to start and build their career within the industry. I would take away any biases (conscious or unconscious) so that people are judged purely on their knowledge of the industry and passion to succeed. This will not only support individuals but create incredible teams formed of people from all different backgrounds. The different experiences and viewpoints this will bring together will lead to new ideas driving the industry forwards.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Networking events are so important to help build your understanding of the industry and bounce ideas off like minded professionals. I’ve made some great connections and friends by attending trade shows and conferences but unfortunately the majority have been cancelled this year due to COVID-19. That said, whilst face to face discussions have been few and far between, virtual events have made it possible to connect with more people around the globe. This has been great for building supplier networks and creating new streamlined processes for project delivery. So if the opportunity arises I would definitely recommend making the most of these events to continue learning about the latest developments within the industry.

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