Asian Americans in technology are leaders and teachers
Stereotypes and misconceptions still challenge Asian American tech professionals, but many see improvement
"Diversity can bring to light issues that would otherwise remain hidden." – Alejandro Ogata, senior project designer at HNTB
By Angela M. Hutchinson
Though Asian Americans are well represented within the technical workforce, and often considered a source of great technical talent in the global market, these professionals still face cultural stereotypes and other barriers in corporate America. But as time goes on, the growing realization of the value of diversity is smoothing their paths.
More and more corporations are realizing that a diverse workplace helps fulfill their global aspirations. According to Amy Simmons, HNTB's director of talent management, the company's commitment to diversity brings with it a litany of benefits, among them "the ability to better serve our customers' needs and compete for new business, and a more global mindset."
HNTB designer Alejandro Ogata: diverse input reveals great ideas
Senior project designer Alejandro Ogata has worked in the architecture practice of infrastructure company HNTB (Kansas City, MO) for the past eleven years. "Some days I work on traditional architecture and construction issues," he says. "Other times, we could be designing a team-building session or thinking about a marketing campaign."
Ogata was born in Lima, Peru to second-generation Japanese immigrants. When he graduated from high school, he received a Fulbright fellowship to study architecture at the University of Kansas. Leaving his family behind, he earned his bachelors degree in 2001, and later went on to get a 2009 masters degree, also in architecture. When Ogata first joined HNTB in 2001, he was unfamiliar with the company but knew that he was interested in working in Kansas City on relevant projects. He enjoys solving the variety of challenges his work offers.
"Civic architecture requires you to do many things. You need to understand the practical side of building, like budgets, materials and constructability," he says. "You need to keep up with the latest methods and technologies to achieve your goals. But perhaps most importantly, you must be able to stir people's imagination and emotions with a vision for their projects."
In the design field, Ogata explains that his teams often use 'chartettes' or 'pin-ups' to improve on a project. He says, "Project drawings and other content fill the walls of a room and people are asked to comment and discuss." The more diversity among the participants, the bigger the variety of comments and suggestions. "After years of doing this," Ogata reports, "I can safely say that people with similar backgrounds will make similar comments. Diversity is important to me as a design professional, because it can bring to light issues that would otherwise remain hidden."
Cummins IT director Saroja Bharath: a witness to evolution in diversity
Saroja Bharath is the director of corporate services IT at engine designer and manufacturer Cummins (Columbus, IN). "I partner with enterprise functions like quality, legal services, communications and corporate responsibility to understand their strategic business goals, and then advocate for the right IT solutions and technology to achieve them," explains Bharath.
On a typical day Bharath may meet with functional leaders on strategic roadmap updates for their IT needs, plan and implement IT solutions, or attend program status update meetings with IT services partners on an implementation in progress. "My day may also include one-on-one meetings with direct reports, daily stand-up sessions with teams on critical projects, vendor relationship management sessions, as well as working with global teams to put together and implement plans," says Bharath. She partners with IT leaders to advocate and represent business needs while ensuring that any constraints are relayed back to the business, which sometimes involves negotiation.
Bharath was born and raised in India. Her parents encouraged her throughout her education, and helped her pursue a masters degree in the United States. "My parents instilled in me confidence and a thirst for knowledge while not allowing ethnicity or gender to deter me from my goals. Growing up, my parents' jobs took us to various states within India and they helped me learn to thrive with changes each time," she says. "There were cultural differences and languages that were new; however, the people were always amazing. These experiences have influenced me over the years and have helped me build my relationships with the people I work with and support."
Early in her career, Bharath did encounter some cultural barriers. "When I started my career about fifteen years ago in the United States, the idea of a South Asian woman in technology was somewhat accepted, but moving into a management or leadership position was difficult," she says. "Now more people recognize, encourage and demand diversity as they change the perceptions they may have had."
Bharath graduated from Visvesvaraya Technological University in India with a bachelors degree in computer science and engineering. Then she went on to earn a masters in computer science from Ball State University (Muncie, IN). She also has an MBA from Kelley School of Business at Indiana University (Bloomington, IN).
Drawn to a diverse workplace
Before she joined Cummins in 2000, Bharath worked for three years as a consultant. She was attracted to Cummins by its core values, commitment to diversity and challenging assignments, and position as a global leader. "Seeing people from all parts of the world working together influenced me the most," she remembers.
"In a globally connected world, technical professionals from diverse backgrounds make products for global applications, apply technology in new ways and bring varied perspectives to the technical industry," says Bharath. "In our own company, our technical centers around the world let people connect and work on the same project around the clock by handing work from China to India to U.K. to the U.S. and back to China."
Comm chief Hon T. Luong: repaying the Marine Corps
When his family was rescued from Vietnam, Hon T. Luong remembers the Marines helping his eighty-three-year-old grandmother onto a truck. "It was the Marines who airlifted us to Guam to prepare us to enter the U.S. It was the Marines who gave us what we needed to survive. And it continues to be the Marines who give me and my family what we have today," he says.
Luong is communications chief in the United States Marine Corps. He has served in the Marine Corps for twenty-four years, most recently as the operations chief for the 1st Marine Logistics Group (1st MLG). Luong equips and trains communications Marines for the group to help them provide commanders with effective communications for command and control during combat.
"My daily responsibilities include the sourcing and fielding of communications equipment to the major subordinate elements, or MSEs, of 1st MLG," says Luong. "As new equipment gets fielded, I coordinate new equipment training, assess training deficiencies within the communications communities and align training requirements to meet those deficiencies." Luong also works with other commands to support communications requirements. He advises the operations officer and the assistant chief of staff G-6 on MSEs' communication capabilities.
Born in Vietnam to a Chinese father and a Vietnamese mother, Luong immigrated with his family to the United States in 1974 and settled in the Orange County area of California. He grew up in a lower middle-class society where gangs were prevalent, and worked several jobs as a teenager to help make ends meet. But eventually, Luong says, "my father gave up all that he had worked for and moved our family to the Midwest where it was safer for his children."
Luong graduated from Union High School in Tulsa, OK and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1988. He has attended college classes at Tulsa Junior College and Strayer University. "Attending college while in the Marine Corps can be a challenge," he says.
On the job, Luong's engineering coworkers use acronyms and speak as though he is in the same technical field. "They assume that I know all about technology simply because I'm Asian," he says. "I often have to slow them down and explain that I do not specialize in their field," he says. "Additionally, when getting security briefings about the Chinese, I get the feeling that the briefers are not as open because I am in the room and they're afraid to offend me."
But he is proud to be a part of, and a leader in, the Marine Corps. "I'm glad that I can mentor and groom the future communicators of the Marine Corps. From time to time, Marines will come up to me and ask me if I remember them. They will say, remember that exercise that we did together or that deployment that we were on and I was a corporal then or a staff sergeant then," says Luong. "To see that those Marines were successful and have come up in the ranks is what I find most rewarding."
To stay competitive in today's market, diversity is key, Luong says. "Being single threaded can be detrimental to survival in today's technology world. Much like the stock market, to diversify creates a bigger safety net should something catastrophic occur."
Sharon X. Ling is a principal engineer at JHU APL
Sharon X. Ling is a principal engineer in the space department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL, Laurel, MD). APL is a nonprofit center for engineering, research, and development, and works with many federal agencies as well as private-sector clients.
Ling is the supervisor of the lab's electronic packaging section. She leads the packaging design effort for spacecraft subsystem electronics from conceptual packaging design to integration, as well as mission-critical trade studies and reliability assessments. "My daily work involves analysis, solving technical challenges, and coordinating efforts across the section," she says.
Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Ling was brought up in a family that valued intellect. Ling's parents were high school teachers who taught her to seek out science and knowledge. She came to the U.S. as a student, and in 1990, got her BSME from Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA). In 1997, she earned her PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland-College Park.
Ling loves the detailed technical aspect of her job, from concept, design and analysis to integration, testing and delivery of flight hardware. She says that APL recognizes its employees for outstanding contributions based on responsibilities taken and work accomplished, regardless of their personal attributes.
"I have co-workers of various ethnicities and backgrounds, and we all respect one another. I have not felt any disadvantages to being an Asian woman working at APL," she says. "There have been no barriers to overcome to get where I am; nor are there any special treatments because of who I am.
"At APL, we believe that every culture has its own unique attributes and views," says Ling. "Bringing together people from different backgrounds fosters problem-solving strategies incorporating many perspectives, enhances the flow of creativity and helps balance multi-dimensional and often conflicting demands."
Paul Vinh is a senior network administrator at CNA
As the senior network administrator at public-sector research and analysis company CNA (Alexandria, VA), Paul Vinh manages Cisco switches and routers, and works with other IT engineers to create a stable network environment. He monitors the network environment and data center, troubleshooting network-related issues and supporting users.
Vinh is particularly interested in the work he does designing, implementing and enhancing the CNA network infrastructures to meet existing and anticipated requirements. "I leverage new technologies like wireless, 10GB, and virtualization to make a secure and reliable environment," he says.
Vinh's family is from Vietnam. They moved to Pennsylvania when he was thirteen, "in search of freedom and opportunity." Vinh graduated from Pennsylvania State University-University Park in 1990 with a BSEE. He earned his MS in information systems from George Mason University (Fairfax, VA) in 1996.
CNA supports critical missions for the Navy and other armed services, along with other public-sector clients. Vinh is committed to the company. "I have remained at CNA because they make a difference and allow me the opportunity to grow with experience," he says. "Though it can be challenging supporting the overall IT environment while meeting individual users' expectations, I enjoy solving problems and making sure technology can help them to achieve their goals."
Fortunately, Vinh says, he has not experienced any major cultural career barriers. His only challenge has been language. "There are still times when communication can be a challenge," he admits.
Manager Divya Gopalan finds Intel an open place to learn and teach
Technical marketing manager Divya Gopalan always takes the time to consider the diverse viewpoints of her team. She believes that the decisions made with a variety of insights are of a higher quality than those made in an environment where there is no diverse input. "I love that I have a fantastic team who do not accept the status quo," Gopalan says. "They constantly challenge decisions and help shape the direction of our work."
Gopalan has worked at the Folsom, CA office of technology company Intel (Santa Clara, CA) for eleven years. She manages a team that provides engineering and technical support to Intel's global customers, its field sales team and its online sales group. "My team supports desktop, mobile and server segment customers," she says. "We work with field application engineers to win a customer design, we meet with the customers on a regular basis to understand their design requirements, and we help the customers launch their products successfully."
Gopalan is from the southern part of India. "My technical educational background, my passion for mentoring and my leadership qualities have paved the way to my current management role," she says.
In 1997, Gopalan earned her bachelors degree in civil engineering from Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences in Pilani, India. Two years later, she received her masters in computer science from the University of Oklahoma (Norman, OK). Gopalan went on to get her MBA from the University of California-Davis in 2006.
Coaching is her passion
Gopalan loves being a manager because it gives her an opportunity to mentor employees. "Mentoring and coaching are my passion. I feel fortunate to be able to coach people to achieve their goals," she says. "Their participation and passion help me learn. I also have the privilege of working with very smart and capable peers who have coached and encouraged me in my own career pursuits."
Gopalan says that Intel is a great place to work. "I have had fantastic managers throughout my career who have encouraged me to take on various roles across the company and supported me even when I made mistakes," she says. "The most important thing I try to remember is to reach out for guidance, and be willing to share my experiences with others too. This way, we all learn from each other."
While on a temporary assignment as part of the architecture group's career development leadership team, Gopalan worked in a group that brought ambassadors from various Intel organizations together with the intent of exchanging best career development practices and delivering useful career development tools to the employees. "I got a better understanding of our development programs around the globe, and was able to help share initiatives and methods from other cultures and countries with employees in the United States."
Intel has many programs to encourage diversity within the company. "A lot of planning goes into the International Women's Day and Diversity Day. That's just one of the ways Intel showcases and celebrates diversity," says Gopalan.
As an Asian professional in the technical workforce, Gopalan has overcome her share of cultural barriers. But in Intel's open environment, Gopalan feels empowered to share her views and to make sure others' views are also discussed. "Sometimes people are quick to make a decision on our ability to communicate, or they make decisions based on gender or on culture," she says. "Since Intel's culture is open and direct, I have taken the opportunity to talk directly to co-workers who have stereotyped people, and have been successful in changing their views."
Back to Top