When Leung Tak-fai graduated in the late 1970s with a degree in civil engineering, he was spoilt for choice. Hong Kong's construction industry was booming and private developers were falling over themselves to offer enticing remuneration packages to attract the best young talent.
Mr Leung, though, after spending a few years in private practice to acquire his professional qualifications, opted to join the Transport Department and, having reached his current position of chief engineer of the road safety and standards division, feels sure that he made the right decision.
"Once you choose to study engineering at university, you already start to become part of the profession," he says. "However, the work of this department is something special because it touches the life of everyone in Hong Kong."
Soon after joining in 1986, Mr Leung was given responsibility for redeveloping the traffic accident data system. He enjoyed the job immensely and it led him to develop an interest in IT. "The job made me realise that, while there are standards and rules to follow in civil engineering, you can use more imagination and initiatives in IT," he says. "At that time, I had to visualise how to meet certain operational needs, without any manual to provide a step by step guide. I had to write and test new IT programs, which was very satisfying."
A few years later, Mr Leung was asked to transfer to the traffic control and surveillance division. He soon realised that the operation of each set of traffic lights, which he has previously regarded as fairly simple, is actually part of a vast and complicated network. They must be precisely coordinated to create the most efficient flow of traffic, and this takes specific knowledge based on extensive research. For example, the lights have to be reset to cope with the heavier volume of vehicles or different patterns of movement during rush hours, holidays, traffic jams or road incidents.
This involves detailed surveys of day-to day volumes, as well as a careful evaluation of the timetables for changing flows during peak hours and holidays. "It was very interesting and practical work," says Mr Leung. "I also had a chance to learn about the computer system and extend my interest in IT applications and programming."
He was able to pick up a completely different set of skills during his next posting to the Kowloon East and Hong Kong East regional offices. The working environment was different and the job had a much more public face. "I needed to liaise with the District Council and work like a PR person and a lobbyist," Mr Leung recalls. "We had to digest information and explain our systems and policies in plain language to the other people involved, while trying to understand their proposals and concerns."
There were lengthy discussions and meetings about local transport infrastructure and environmental issues with council members and regional representatives. However, these gave Mr Leung the opportunity to develop a professional image and become more self-confident in presenting ideas.
"When communicating with anyone, it was essential to be professional, persuasive and responsive," he says. "Whatever we did, the bottom line was that it should have no negative impact on the pubic, and the policies we drafted had to solve problems." Local interests had to be taken into account, but researching these gave Mr Leung the chance to network and make many new contacts. "I made a lot of friends and, although we worked together to deal with technical problems, the best part of the job was dealing with people."
In matters of road safety, though, human behaviour is still the biggest "problem", which means that ongoing education campaigns are vital. "We have to influence people's habits, promote the right attitudes, and make zero accidents on the road Hong Kong's goal," Mr Leung says. In his current role, he must ensure there is no delay in responses in case of major traffic accidents and that all policies and educational programmes are designed to meet today's needs.
This has included working on legislation for the compulsory use of safety belts and to make it unlawful to the use of hand-held mobile phones when driving. "We conduct research to resolve specific problems and also support the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau," Mr Leung explains. "Working for the government, you want to make a contribution and help society whichever way you can."
He advises anyone who wants a meaningful career to keep expanding their horizons and to learn to see things from different perspectives. "In a society like Hong Kong, an analytical mind and critical thinking are very important," he notes.