Asian Americans succeed through hard work
Despite arriving as refugees with no money and no knowledge of the English language or culture, many have become successful technical pros
“My upbringing taught me to be considerate and respectful of others, and that’s had a huge impact on my success.” – Vannarak DeMonteiro, Harris
By Dan Margherita
Of all racial groups in the United States, Asian Americans are the best educated and fastest growing, and have the highest incomes, according to the Pew Research Center (PRC) 2012 Asian American Survey. The study details what PRC calls “the rise of Asian Americans.” The group is roughly five percent of the U.S. population.
The credentials of these recent arrivals are striking. More than 60 percent of adults ages twenty-five to sixty-four have at least a bachelors degree, making them the most highly educated immigrants in U.S. history.
The study notes that Asian students, both foreign born and U.S. born, earned 45 percent of all U.S. engineering PhDs in 2010, as well as 38 percent of doctorates in math and computer sciences, and a third of doctorates in the physical sciences.
The Asian Americans in this article have clearly achieved their success through hard work and education.
EE Vannarak DeMonteiro works as RF technical team lead at Harris Corporation
“I didn’t grow up in the digital era when kids are introduced to tablets and smartphones at a young age,” explains Vannarak DeMonteiro, “but I was part of a generation where the next great thing was always coming down the pipe. Because of that, I have always been an early adopter of new technology.”
At Harris Corporation (Melbourne, FL), DeMonteiro is an electrical engineer with a specialization in radio frequency (RF) systems. Harris is an international communications and information technology company serving government and commercial markets.
“EE is my official title,” he says, “but my recent role-specific titles have been RF technical lead and RF integrated process team lead. As RF lead I am responsible for the technical integrity of my specific subsystem as well as maintaining schedule commitments and meeting cost constraints. I review design material, plan next steps, generate status reports for program leadership, address issues as they arise, and generate other documents and presentations as needed.
“I’ve also been lucky enough to keep doing some of the detailed design work myself rather than just overseeing it,” he adds. “I generate and analyze requirements, architect the RF subsystem, run simulations, do detailed analysis, design schematics and layouts, and test hardware. The outcome of my design work is usually circuit cards that are critical to wireless communications systems.
“Each project I work on has a different program team associated with it. They range from ten to a hundred people who fill many different roles and responsibilities. I interact with team members through group meetings, one-on-one meetings, email or instant messaging, depending on what needs to be accomplished that day.”
Technology: not his original dream
DeMonteiro was born in a refugee camp in Thailand while his Cambodian parents were in transition to the United States. He lived most of his life in Georgia before moving to Florida ten years ago. While he has always had a natural interest in technology, it wasn’t always what he wanted to do. “I am a very active person and really enjoy sports, martial arts and movies. At one point in my life, I wanted to be a basketball player – until my height peaked at 5’7”,” he says with a smile.
“My dad was an electrician so electrical engineering seemed like the proper path for me, although I really excelled in software engineering. I chose to specialize in radio frequency because I had a friend who was doing RF work as a co-op at Scientific Atlanta and he sold me on it.”
In 2003, DeMonteiro completed his BS in electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta) and joined Harris. Five years later, he earned his masters in engineering management at the Florida Institute of Technology (Melbourne). “I decided to go to Florida Tech to pursue a graduate degree because Harris Corporation had a good working relationship with the school,” he explains. “The engineering management degree is a mix of systems engineering and management, the two areas I was interested in pursuing.
“I was recruited to Harris at a Georgia Tech career fair. It was my first fulltime job. I was a part of the GRAD (Graduate Acclimation and Development) organization, a group designed to connect new grads fresh out of college for networking, social events and community service.”
DeMonteiro sees himself continuing down the path of technical leadership with the ultimate goal of becoming a chief systems engineer/architect (CSE). “The CSE interacts with customers and generates a plan to address their needs,” he says. “The CSE also generates requirements and is the owner of the final system. This is a very important role that can make or break a program and I see it as a role I can both enjoy and excel in.”
Inspired by parents’ example
He believes that he wouldn’t be where he is today but for the example set by his parents. “My parents came to the United States as refugees with no money and unable to speak a word of English, yet they were able to create a meaningful and comfortable life for themselves and their children. They have always put the family first and they value education, intelligence, hard work and integrity.
“They were traditional and strict, and they pushed me hard to be the best at everything I tried. My upbringing taught me to be considerate and respectful of others, and that’s had a huge impact on my success in the industry and in my personal life.”
VP Roshan Navagamuwa drives government services IT at CVS Caremark
Roshan Navagamuwa is vice president of government services IT at CVS Caremark (Woonsocket, RI), working in the prescription benefits management (PBM) division.
PBM manages the dispensing of pharmaceuticals to members of the benefit plans maintained by its clients, through CVS’s mail order pharmacies and national network of approximately 67,000 retail pharmacies. Its information systems automate safety checks, drug interaction screenings and brand-to-generic substitutions.
Navagamuwa leads the technology team that develops and implements these systems in support of CVS’s government customers: government employers that use CVS Caremark to manage their employee prescription benefits, people receiving low-income subsidies, and beneficiaries enrolled in CVS’s Medicare prescription drug plan options.
“I’m the leader of a large department and the number grows by a hundred when you factor in our contractors and consultant partners,” he explains. “We support the business processes relative to serving Medicare and Medicaid members. This includes developing and running the systems that handle everything from enrollment to billing, and the point-of-sale system that’s available when someone picks up their prescription.
“Part of my day is spent checking operational data to see how our current systems are running. But because we’re always delivering new things to our customers, I also spend a lot of time overseeing projects or talking about next year’s plans.”
Upbringing in a “blend of three lands”
Navagamuwa grew up in Sri Lanka but also spent a lot of time in India and Bangladesh. “My dad worked in the non-governmental organization world and we traveled a lot on the Indian subcontinent. My cultural reality was a blend of the places we lived. Sri Lanka is an island with a unique culture. India has an ancient heritage and massive diversity. Bangladesh was a new country just coming into its own.”
He was always interested in math and science. “What drove me was trying to understand how things work, and physics comes the closest to helping you do that.” He attended high school in India but came to the United States in 1996 for college, choosing Denison University (Granville, OH).
“I chose a liberal arts school because I wanted some diversity in what I would learn,” Navagamuwa explains. “I’d hoped for a major in computer systems design because I wanted to design the next generation of computers.”
Navagamuwa ultimately earned his 1998 BS in computer science. “My software-oriented degree was a compromise, but the Internet was taking off and it was a transformative time for computer science. I realized that the Internet would be the next-generation platform.”
Adapting enthusiastically to change
His first job was at Hewitt Associates (Chicago, IL), a software solutions company. “They wanted to revamp their voice platform from a traditional menu-driven voice interaction to a speech-recognition natural language platform. I was sold.”
Within a year, Hewitt’s focus moved to the web. “I was conscripted into working on the web platform and I loved it. It was an amazing experience. I expect nothing will ever come close to it.”
When Hewitt Associates was acquired by Aon Corporation (Chicago, IL) in 2010, the work changed and Navagamuwa was now split between HR outsourcing and risk insurance. “Health and welfare was a large part of our pie, and even though I had migrated to leading our data center operations in the intervening years, I stayed close to our business and clients. Following the acquisition, I moved further into IT infrastructure and technology commoditization.
“I wanted to work at the crossroads of technology and business, so I decided to get back into application development. CVS Caremark offered a tremendous opportunity to move deeper into healthcare technology.” He joined CVS in 2012.
“I want to stay in technology and help the company ride the government services wave. I see a huge opportunity for us to become a big player and I want to be part of that. I want to stay in technology but maybe expand into an operations leadership position.”
Diversity at CVS Caremark
“We strive to be inclusive of all cultures and backgrounds in our hiring practices, giving us access to the broadest pools of talent. Our emphasis is always on the skill sets we need to serve an increasingly diverse customer base,” says David Casey, chief diversity officer.
“We need project managers, software developers, business analysts and quality assurance professionals. We fill those jobs with professionals from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, including Asians. The broad array of perspectives that colleagues from diverse backgrounds bring to our business is one of our competitive strengths.”
Maihan Nguyen is a QA senior engineer at Samsung Austin Semiconductor
At Samsung Austin Semiconductor (SAS, Austin, TX), Maihan Nguyen is a quality assurance senior engineer, a position she assumed earlier this year. Owned by Samsung Electronics Corporation, SAS is the company’s only semiconductor manufacturing plant located outside Korea.
Nguyen is what Samsung calls a team representative. “In another company, it would be called a supervisor,” she clarifies. “I lead the mass production quality control team of eleven engineers and technicians in the quality and reliability department. We monitor and analyze functional activities and make recommendations for improvement.”
Her team members, she says, “come from a lot of technical backgrounds. We have electrical, mechanical and chemical engineers in the group. SAS is a very diverse company as far as engineering is concerned.”
Nguyen spends a lot of time meeting with her team, going over the status of projects. “We are a fast-paced manufacturing facility, and changes come all the time,” she explains. “We collaborate continuously with engineering, manufacturing, the services group and executives to meet quality goals.
“We also make sure that critical equipment and process standards are followed and that documentation is in place. SAS is ISO-certified so our customers have certain expectations of us.”
Migration to a new land
Nguyen was born in Vietnam but came to the United States when she was nine years old. “My dad had been an architect in the army of the previous regime,” she says. “When the communists took control, he was sent to what was called a re-education camp. He was there for a few years until my mom helped him escape.”
Her father brought the family to Phoenix, AZ and restarted his career in architecture. “In high school, my interests were whatever my friends were interested in,” she smiles. “Fortunately, I went to a very diverse high school and we were a good group of kids who enjoyed learning.”
Nguyen started college at the University of Texas-Austin in pre-med but wasn’t sure she wanted to go straight through to medical school. “I took engineering as a backup even though I hadn’t thought about engineering as a career.”
She interned at National Instrument (Austin, TX), a supplier of graphical system design. “My part of the internship had to do with reading a lot of camera specifications and recording measurements. I really didn’t know the big picture.”
At the end of her junior year, burned out in pre-med, Nguyen took a year off to travel around Europe. When she returned in 2001, she finished her senior year and graduated with a BSEE in management and production.
She met with Samsung representatives at a career fair, and in 2001, joined the company’s college orientation recruitment program (CORP). CORP gives new engineers an overview of the company’s processes and operations, as well as a base knowledge of semiconductor fabrication and manufacturing principles.
Nguyen’s first five years were spent as a photolithography engineer. In 2007 she became a senior photolithography engineer and supervisor leading a group of twenty engineers, technicians and contractors.
In 2010, she took a leave as she considered a career as a physician’s assistant. “I believe in growth, and in learning as a person,” she says. “Every ten years or so, I like to do something completely out of the box.” But after a year at an Austin hospital, Nguyen found the work “daunting.” She returned to Samsung as a quality assurance senior engineer then assumed her current QA role.
Nguyen says that she’s learning a lot in this position but concedes that it is a “different kind” of role. “With quality assurance, you can only exert influence, identify quality gaps and make suggestions.”
Long term, she wants to continue in a leadership role with a small team. “With a small team, you can be effective because you are close to them. You can help them grow as engineers.”
Neeraj Pujara is deputy division chief of spectrum warfare at AFRL
“I was born in New Delhi, India but came to the United States when I was a year old,” says Neeraj Pujara. “I joke with people that I have a Beavercreek, Ohio accent.”
Today, he is deputy division chief of the spectrum warfare division at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) sensors directorate, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“My dad got his PhD in mathematics and taught electrical engineering,” Pujara says, “and I share this interest. I’m pretty analytical by nature. I have an interest in math as well as space and astronomy. Engineering just seemed like the right area for me.”
He had entered the University of Akron (Akron, OH) in a pre-med program. “But I didn’t like it at all,” Pujara remembers, “so I switched to engineering, the best decision I ever made.”
When he switched majors, he moved to Wright State University (Dayton, OH). He received his BS in electrical engineering in 1987 and immediately joined AFRL. “I took my last final on Thursday and was working here at Wright-Patterson the following Tuesday,” he smiles.
He started working on his masters degree in electrical engineering, which was reimbursed by the Air Force. He earned that in 1991, also from Wright State. Pujara taught an electronic circuits lab at Wright State; in fact, some of his former students work in the same area that he’s in now.
“When I graduated, I had offers in private industry and also from AFRL. I liked what the Air Force had to offer and, honestly, I wanted to stay close to home. I’m close to my family and this is a great area to live in.”
A varied career at AFRL
In 1987, Pujara started in the navigation group. “That was even before GPS became operational. I was doing a lot of simulation to determine what happens when you integrate multiple systems together. I gravitated to the GPS technology tech base doing hands-on, in-house research. We know the benefits of GPS today but I was fortunate to be there on the ground floor.”
Later, Pujara moved into project management. “I started working in smaller programs where you come up with research ideas and get some of the funding from organizations like SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research). These programs are great for young engineers. They’re smaller dollar efforts where you do some of the work yourself and then have a contractor work with you.
“Then I got into programs that were closer to transitioning to the end user, the warfighter,” he says. “These are bigger programs, bigger dollars, and use much more mature technology. I’ve been fortunate in my career to see how GPS works in different aircraft across the Air Force and how it helps in targeting applications. I think I’ve been able to make a difference on multiple Air Force platforms.
“In 2005, I became branch chief managing the navigation branch where I started.” In 2012, he moved up to deputy division chief. The spectrum warfare division is a division of AFRL’s sensors directorate. It works mainly in the areas of navigation and communication, electronic warfare, avionics vulnerability and electro-optical countermeasures.
“It probably isn’t as technical as what I used to do,” admits Pujara. “I work with individual branches to make sure tasks are being met, the right people are doing them, and day-to-day operations move along smoothly.
“You have to have technical depth and expertise to grow in our organization,” he believes. “I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to grow and help defend our nation. And I’ve had fun along the way.”
Bei Huber is a lead information technology architect at State Farm Insurance
Had she stayed at Peking University, Bei Huber would have had to work for the Chinese government after graduation. Instead, she came to the United States and today is a lead information technology architect at State Farm (Bloomington, IL).
She grew up in Beijing, China. “After the Tiananmen Square student protests, it was government policy that college graduates had to work for the government for five years, but this is something I didn’t want to do,” she explains.
Finding opportunity abroad
Huber had been researching colleges in the United States and in 1991, at the end of her junior year at Peking, she came to the United States and enrolled at Dakota State University (Madison, SD). “I was searching for something affordable and Dakota State was one of the only schools I found that offered in-state tuition rates to international students.”
There was a lot of catch-up involved but three years later, in 1994, she graduated with a BS in computer science. “I always had an interest in programming, and computer science was a degree that I thought would make it easier to find a job,” Huber says.
During college, she interned for a summer at Citibank South Dakota. “The primary recruiting companies that came to our campus were financial services and insurance companies, including State Farm,” explains Huber. “State Farm had a great reputation and a very competitive benefits package,” she says, “but the thing that swayed me was the corporate culture, which offers excellent support for employee development.”
When she joined State Farm in 1994, Huber worked as a software developer but soon moved on to cutting-edge technology supporting the insurer’s infrastructure. She then worked in IT security before moving into her first managerial role in 2006. “Initially, I wasn’t interested in management,” she says, “but as a person matures, aspirations change.”
As lead information technology architect, Huber heads a team of about 100 people, primarily software designers and developers. “We oversee the design, development and quality of insurance banking software that we build in our department to enable State Farm businesses,” she explains. “We address complex technical issues and devise standards on how we want systems to integrate. I review the team’s recommendations and make the decision to obtain approval from my executive.”
Huber belongs to State Farm’s Asia-Net affinity group that helps identify and develop career opportunities for Asian Americans. “I really want to give back to both the company and the community,” she emphasizes. “I want to be a role model for employees with backgrounds like mine, to be able to mentor them, offer advice and help them network.”
State Farm on diversity
“State Farm strives to meet the unique needs of all its customers, who represent a rich fabric of backgrounds. One way State Farm is responding to customer needs is to continuously attract and retain a workforce of diverse talents, backgrounds and experience,” says Eddie Toro, director of enterprise recruiting. “In the technology area, we’re recruiting for IT professionals in software development, data engineering and database design and administration.”
Elizabeth Moon directs EIS upgrade services at McKesson
Elizabeth Moon is director of upgrade services for the enterprise information solutions (EIS) team at McKesson (San Francisco, CA). She’s based in Alpharetta, GA. McKesson is a pharmaceutical distributor and healthcare information technology company.
Moon explains, “EIS uses its proprietary software to work closely with our customers, which are hospitals and health systems. We upgrade their information systems, or their HIS (hospital information solutions) software. Our software does everything needed by the hospital to care for the patient and all of the processes surrounding that, from scheduling to admissions, through complete care to discharge and billing,” says Moon.
She deals mainly with directors of information systems and CIOs. “My team and I work with them to make sure the work is done on time and on budget for the hospitals.”
Moon has two managers reporting to her, overseeing six software teams including pharmacy, pathway contract management and claims. She also manages a team dedicated to McKesson’s proprietary software package.
Moon’s family came to Atlanta, GA from Seoul, South Korea when she was in the fifth grade. She has lived in Georgia for over thirty years but admits that her goal when growing up was to go to college and then leave the state. “After we arrived here, I went through the English as a second language courses early on. I wanted to be a nurse but even in high school I realized that, with the recession at the time, there were too many nurses and not enough jobs.”
What to do, what to do
“I considered what I could do that I was passionate about, and would also provide me with an income. I had taken a computer programming course in high school that really sparked my interest, so I decided to do something with programming or engineering. I enrolled at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech, Atlanta) majoring in nuclear engineering. I wanted to put some type of nursing in there with it and maybe become a health technician.”
Between physics and calculus, Moon found engineering difficult, so she decided to move into business. She also changed universities, moving across town to Georgia State University where she earned her BBA in management information systems (MIS) in 1990.
While in college, Moon did contract work ranging from secretarial to accounting. During her senior year, she attended job fairs, lunch-and-learn sessions, and “whatever they were offering” that would help her find a job.
A foot in the door, and a detour
In 1990, Moon got a job with Unisys (Blue Bell, PA) as a Cobol programmer. “It was a consultant position. I was to get my training in Atlanta but then transfer to Minnesota. I was very excited!”
Her plans changed when, Moon says, “I met a very nice gentleman.” Her future husband was in grad school at the time and she was having second thoughts about moving to Minnesota. She decided to stay in Georgia. A former colleague at Unisys had recently joined Gerber Alley (Norcross, GA), a start-up provider of healthcare information systems. Moon went there in 1991 as a programmer in the nursing system.
Just a year later, Gerber Alley started talking about moving to Charlotte, NC. “Here we go again, I thought. Do I move or look for another job?” Moon attended a job fair where she talked with representatives from HBO & Company (HBOC, Atlanta, GA), at the time the nation’s leading healthcare information provider. She joined HBOC in 1992 as a software programmer in the patient accounting system.
“At the time I joined Gerber Alley, I didn’t know anything about McKesson or HBOC,” Moon admits. McKesson merged with HBOC in 1998 and soon after acquired Gerber Alley.
In 2004, she took on her first management position supervising technical analysts. She assumed her current role in 2012, adding applications people and project managers to the programmers she was already supervising. She manages four billable and productive service teams that deliver combined revenue of more than $16 million.
She hopes to move into an executive role. “I want to have more face time with hospitals,” Moon says. “There are many issues that they face today. I want to guide them and become the executive who works alongside them to get safely through the regulatory storms.”
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