Wastewater nerd

Sophia Hernández Rode-Festersen (35 years)
"Since the early 2010s, climate change and how sewer systems affect the environment have become apparent to all of us.”

Her statement that COWI's new wastewater tool, S-PLAN, is her third child speaks to her deep investment in the large-scale project. Indeed, Sophia Hernández Rode-Festersen has nerded out on wastewater solutions for 15 years. And before you think this interview is ‘just’ about sewers, hear our wastewater nerd out…

In 2006, Sophia Hernández Rode-Festersen entered the door of her internship employer, water company Aarhus Vand, and that kicked off the mission that consumes every minute of her work day at COWI. Because this was where her nerdy heart started beating – for something as specific as wastewater management in Denmark.

“Here, I truly got to experience the specific projects that are carried out in the water sector. Back then, we were working on deculverting Aarhus River – an immensely interesting project with significant political interests and extensive media coverage. It was a great place to work – lots of humour, room for differences of opinion and impressive technical skills, and it was a decisive factor in my choice of career. I absolutely consider my current job a tribute to the ones who helped mould me during my time at Aarhus Vand,” says Sophia.
Back then, in the mid-00s, it was a struggle getting outsiders to grasp what was so interesting about wastewater management.
“Ha, ha, yeah, many were almost shocked because they thought that I was literally walking around knee-deep in sludge. So, whenever I felt like provoking a reaction, I would introduce myself as a sewer engineer.”

From wastewater to digital tool

During Sophia’s undergraduate days, it was implied that you were guaranteed a job because there was a backlog of sewer renovation works – and the need for such works has only increased given climate change and the massive volumes of rainfalls that we’re seeing in Denmark.

“Since the early 2010s, climate change and how sewer systems affect the environment have become apparent to all of us. For instance, we see how cloudbursts and flooding lead to flooded basements and affect the quality of our bathing water – suddenly, these problems become tangible in our personal lives, so the discipline has been given extra attention,” says Sophia.
Over the years, the amount of data and the need for data exchange related to Denmark’s wastewater plans have increased, and municipalities are required to report more data in more places. This called for the development of a digital solution to help municipalities comply with the numerous legal requirements in wastewater. And COWI considered Sophia the obvious person to spearhead development of S-PLAN:

Involved from day one

“One of our customers was looking for a solution to handle the vast amounts of data involved in a wastewater management plan, and when we soon discovered that a couple of other municipalities needed a similar solution, we decided to team up to develop one. S-PLAN allows municipalities to increase the quality of their data reports and avoid mistakes, while freeing up resources. It’s the craziest project I’ve been involved in. I’ve been involved from day one – from defining what functions and data to include, to currently selling the solution to Danish municipalities.”

“It’s been a cool experience conducting workshops with municipalities, jointly uncovering what tools were important to them and what they needed in their daily processes. All of the technical discussions regarding data, legal aspects, the body of legislation and not least interfaces between citizens, utility companies and municipalities. It’s been thrilling working with people with such diverse technical backgrounds – such as IT architects and programmers – and it’s improved the entire project and raised the quality of the end product to a completely different level. I’m not settling for S-PLAN version 1.0, though. I – and my users – have already compiled a healthy list of items I would like to further develop and add to the tool…”

How do you define being a nerd?
“To me, ‘nerd’ has always been a positive term. To me, nerds are specialists that I admire and that impress me. On the other hand, I’ve always considered myself an allround professional, but that’s probably because I’m constantly surrounded by specialists in COWI. When I enter the real world, I’m the (wastewater) nerd.”

Which nerd do you admire the most – and why?
“Hands down, my colleague Jakob, who is a wastewater specialist. He’s a chief project manager with years of experience in our field. I consider him my mentor because he’s taught me so much about, e.g., the legal challenges in our field. He’s the one I call, and even when he starts out by saying that he doesn’t have time to spare, we still end up nerding about legal and wastewater details for a while. He’s just extremely talented.”

What do you want to get better at – and why?
“I need to get better at leaving my work behind at the end of the work day – sometimes I am too passionate. In particular, I need to get better at being mentally present when I’m with my kids, taking time off and recharging. But that probably goes for any nerd or fiery soul, right?”

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