Off hours: Heriot-Watt University Dubai campus head on a learning curve

Ammar Kaka is head of the Dubai campus at Heriot-Watt University, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Mr Kaka, 52, from the United Kingdom began his car­eer in 1990 at Liverpool University as a faculty member. A decade later, he joined Heriot-Watt as a professor of construction economics and management. Mr Kaka spent eight years at the Edinburgh campus assuming various roles then joined the Dubai campus seven years ago.

How do you spend your weekend?

I use my weekends to spend quality time with the family and to do some cycling, particularly now in the winter when the weather in Dubai is great. I have developed a routine on Fridays and Saturdays where I’ll do at least 40 minutes of cycling each day. On Fridays, it is difficult to switch off from work completely given that it is a working day in our Edinburgh campus, so sometimes I can’t resist checking my emails. On Saturdays, football usually takes centre stage as my son and I are big fans of Manchester United and we follow the Premier League closely. Also, at home we have a rule where we don’t cook on the weekends unless it is a barbecue, so we have many lunches outside as a family. We are fortunate here in Dubai to have such a wide variety of international cuisines, so we do our best to experiment with different cuisines each time.

How did you become university head?

I initially joined Heriot-Watt University in 2000 in their Edin­burgh campus as a professor of construction economics and management. Becoming a full-time professor in a research-intensive university like Heriot-Watt requires a strong research track record, so I spent the 10 years prior to joining Heriot-Watt doing a lot of post-doctorate research in addition to the normal teaching and administrative duties expected of academics. In the years between 2000 and 2008, I had a number of senior leadership roles within the university in the areas of academic instruction, learning and research. This per­iod prepared me to take on the responsibilities that I currently have in my role as vice-principal of Heriot-Watt University and head of the Dubai campus. Throughout my journey, I have learnt that the most important thing is to appreciate every job and opportunity for what it can teach you, as they all had their own particular challenges and difficulties. It’s wise to remember learning does not stop.

What is your go-to gadget?

I have all of the main Apple products apart from the iWatch. The first smartphone I purchased was an iPhone, so once I got used to its operating system my collection of Apple technology only grew. Currently I am trying to resist adding the iWatch to my collection, but I must confess I do like gadgets.

What was the lowest point of your career?

I cannot recall a period in my life that I can describe as a low point in my career. Every job, regardless of seniority, came with its own set of particular challenges. Work can be stressful sometimes, but it helps when you recognise that the pressure you experience from your duties and superiors is a key component of your professional development and that there will be times when things improve.

What advice would you offer others starting out in your business?

I recommend aspiring academics to devote the first 10 years of their career to building a robust research record to help develop and refine their know­ledge and expertise in their specialism or subject area of choice. Academics are expected to both transfer knowledge to their students and to advance the academic knowledge that exists in their field of expertise. It is also critical that this research focus does not come at the cost of educating, as a fundamental part of what academics do is teaching the primary customers: the students. As the cost of education rises, so does the expectation of the students.

What is your most indulgent habit?

I drink too much coffee during my office hours.

What do you have on your desk at work?

My PC, my iPad (I like to use both) and my mobile phone. You find very few papers on my desk as I try to work paperless as much as possible, and of course, my coffee mug.

What can’t you live without?

Unfortunately, it has to be the internet.

How do you achieve a work-life balance?

I do this by leaving the house and spending quality time with my family. Doing so forces me to disconnect and encourages the children to stay away from their tech gadgets.

If you could swap jobs with any­one, who would it be and why?

There are too many interesting people and career paths out there to settle on just one – given the choice I would like to swap multiple times. I find it quite enlightening to be in ­other people’s shoes and to learn more about what others do.

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