Asian Americans in tech combine
the best of two cultures
“We need to learn and adapt to a new culture, and still take advantage of the strengths we bring.” – Krish Kumar, Thermo Fisher
“You may meet people who want to stereotype you, but that gives you an opportunity to show them you can help in areas they had not considered.”
– Lance Dang, BNSF
By Sue Marquette Poremba
First-generation Asian immigrants coming to work in the United States face many barriers. Because many come from a culture that values higher education, a good number of these new Americans choose to focus on degrees in technical fields that expand their opportunities to find good-paying jobs. By the second generation, most Asian Americans don’t have to worry about language or cultural barriers, but they still have to overcome some stereotypes and take cultural differences in stride.
That’s been the experience of Dr Jason Wen, Chinese Institute of Engineers USA national chair. Wen, who is a first-generation immigrant, has lived in the U.S. for thirty-one years. He says it isn’t uncommon for Asian Americans to deal with a glass ceiling. “I don’t think it is primarily due to discrimination,” he says, “but rather a language barrier and differences in culture.”
He believes that technical skills among Asian Americans who fill engineering or IT jobs are very strong. What’s lacking for many are social and management skills. Wen thinks the way to break that glass ceiling is to improve leadership and communication training.
Here, some Asian Americans who have achieved success in technical roles share their stories. These pros note that stereotypes, although often inaccurate, can present an opportunity to achieve increased understanding between cultures.
Bernard Ko brings products and processes to the U.S. for Samsung Austin Semiconductor
During his college years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Bernard Ko worked in a grocery store. “I had people who thought I could not speak English and would talk to me extremely slowly, emphasizing every word,” recalls Ko, the son of South Korean immigrants. But Ko, who was born in Illinois, had the last laugh. “I showed that I could speak English by replying back fluently.”
But if the situation had called for it, Ko could have answered in fluent Korean as well. His language facility has sometimes been an asset in his career at Samsung Austin Semiconductor (SAS, Austin, TX), since the parent company is based in Suwon, South Korea. “I feel like I get more insight into critical projects and better communication with headquarters.”
Ko is a dry etch process engineer and supervisor with SAS. He’s responsible for improving and controlling the processes and products manufactured at the facility. “Most projects I’ve worked on at Samsung Austin Semiconductor are related to product transfers from headquarters. This involves learning processes from the experts at headquarters, then successfully setting up the processes in Austin.”
Second-gen semiconductor pro
His interest in the semiconductor industry dates back to his childhood. Ko’s father was also in the semiconductor industry, and that led Ko to pursue his BSEE, which he received in 2008. Today, he actively encourages other young engineers to consider the semiconductor field. “I am usually involved in hiring new graduates for my department. Having the opportunity to meet and talk with new people has helped me with cross-departmental communication.”
Mobile apps manager Lance Dang leads exciting team projects at BNSF
When he was a child, Lance Dang’s parents bought him a used 386 PC that ran DOS and Windows 3.1. “I remember trying to figure out what it was capable of, which often meant breaking it and then trying to figure out how to fix it,” he says. “I even tried to program simple things, like calculating my fifth-grade GPA automatically through a BASIC program, by using a thick manual I found at a book store. It was fascinating to me that I could predict my report cards before my parents received them.”
This launched a lifetime interest in technology for Dang, who was born in Vietnam. He majored in computer science at Texas Christian University (Fort Worth, TX), where he received his BS in 2005. After graduation, he began his career with BNSF, one of the largest freight railroad companies in the country.
Bringing his fascination to BNSF
“I have supported a variety of technologies over the years at BNSF, including internal and external websites, portals, SAP, mobile and Java applications. This wide experience has allowed me to better understand how many systems and technologies work and how they all connect and are built on the same fundamentals,” he explains.
Dang is manager of mobile apps services and end-user experience. His team is responsible for helping BNSF Technology Services deliver intuitive mobile business apps to BNSF employees and customers so they can be more flexible and efficient. “One of my team’s jobs is to understand what makes an exceptional app experience and to create a repeatable process for BNSF to deliver exceptional apps to our customers and employees.”
Although he has several projects in the works, one that has Dang particularly excited is the rollout of the BNSF MobileDocs application. This app will allow the workforce to carry around the latest digital copies of their business documents, like complete maintenance manuals, to help them do their jobs more efficiently.
“Through the years, I have worked for great leaders who have allowed me to contribute my technical knowledge and also allowed me to serve as a leader to others,” Dang says. “The combination of the two has allowed me to do something I enjoy very much today, which is leading people and watching them grow by leveraging mobile technology to help them do their jobs better.
“By myself, there is only so much I can do in a day, so to have a great team help me achieve a larger goal is very exciting and rewarding.”
Guided by family and culture
Dang credits his family for raising him with a strong work ethic. “I am very fortunate to have grown up in an environment with encouraging family, friends and co-workers. I did not have to struggle through the challenges that my parents went through, like the Vietnam War. They have taught me to value the importance of an education and take my work seriously.”
His upbringing has had other cultural influences, as well. Dang was raised to be respectful of others’ thoughts and opinions, and says he tends to be quiet and reserved. He believes that has worked to his advantage in the workplace. “While I have to consciously work at sharing my ideas, I think this has helped me be a good active listener. BNSF respects people and our various cultures, and that makes it a great place to work,” he says.
“I never let stereotypes hold me back,” he adds. “In day-to-day life, you may meet people who want to stereotype you, but I see that as an opportunity to work with them more, and over time show them I am not only capable of working with technology, but I’m also able to help them in areas they did not consider.”
Mary Kumar: IT pioneer now leads business operations for Juniper Networks
Mary Kumar never shied away from new adventures or the chance to move out of her comfort zone. Kumar is a technical pioneer. She came into IT at a time when the general public didn’t pay a lot of attention to computers, and that’s what attracted her to the field. “I had the chance to go into this new career area that was in its infancy. When I learned mathematics, I wasn’t taught about computers. I was excited to try this new career and pursue my own interests.”
Born and raised in India, she attended Delhi University where she received a BA in mathematics in 1974. Shortly after college, she married and moved with her husband to Australia.
“I was looking for opportunities, something different,” she says. “My parents had studied overseas. My father was in foreign service and my mother was a doctor. It was about the adventure of learning new places and new cultures.”
A globe-hopping career
Kumar spent twenty-five years in Australia working for Hewlett Packard. She joined HP as an R&D; engineer in the company’s software business. “I always had a fascination for the product lifecycle,” she recalls. She wanted to see how the products she developed got sold, so she moved to marketing and later to sales. “I discovered I’m very good at driving organizational change along with delivering a product.”
The CEO at HP in Australia recognized Kumar’s talents and asked her to move into IT. Her role was to help transform the IT mindset to better align with the overall business goals.
Kumar held a variety of positions around the world, with HP and other companies. She arrived in the United States in 1996.
Today she is vice president of IT strategy and business operations with Juniper Networks (Sunnyvale, CA), a company that builds network systems for a range of industries.
Although she was a globe-hopper, Kumar’s adult children have settled in California. So, she says, “I joined Juniper to be home-based and to be near my two grandchildren. I needed to be a grandmother.”
Her job today involves making the organization’s processes and project management more mature. She’s chief of staff for her boss, who manages real estate IT, shared services and business transformation. “One of my jobs is to make sure the budget is in order. I’m also responsible for IT planning and strategy. I work through collaborative leadership. I give the group ideas and they give me ideas, and then we communicate our plans to the rest of the company.”
Overcoming “the wrong kind of Mary” and other stereotypes
Perhaps not surprisingly, Kumar has faced stereotypes during her long and well-traveled career, but at the same time, she also has seen attitudes change. For example, when she lived in Australia, there were few other Indians. She says having a common name like Mary helped to open some doors for her.
However, she recalls, “I went into one interview, and the first statement the guy made was, ‘You’re the wrong kind of Mary.’ He said with a name like Mary, he wasn’t expecting me, so I walked out. He stopped me to ask where I was going, and I told him, ‘With that attitude, I don’t want to work for you.’ That mindset was very prevalent when I went to Australia.”
Kumar says she also came across many men who thought women shouldn’t be in the workforce, but rather at home raising a family. She adds that she never took those attitudes personally, and it pushed her to show that she had skills to offer.
“I still see some evidence of those attitudes in the United States, where people insist their husbands have to make all the decisions, or a man is chosen before a woman,” she says. Kumar wants to see more young women take advantage of opportunities in technology fields. She volunteers at her local YMCA, mentoring women and providing career advice.
Krish Kumar leads IT for analytical instruments at Thermo Fisher Scientific
After getting his ME degree in India and working in his homeland for a year, Krish Kumar decided to move to the United States. His family encouraged the relocation.
His year of work before the move gave him an appetite for manufacturing, so once he got to the U.S., he decided to pursue another degree. He earned a BS in systems engineering from Wright State University (Dayton, OH) in 1985. After graduation, Kumar began working in the healthcare industry, his first job in a long and varied career. He’s worked in many areas, including healthcare, automotive and industrial machinery. He has attended executive education programs at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
“My education in dual engineering fields gave me an opportunity to work in multiple functional areas, including R&D;, engineering, supply chain, and get hands-on experience in all areas of IT,” Kumar says.
Kumar is currently vice president of IT for the analytical instruments group of Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA), which develops instruments and consumables used in life science research and other markets.
“I support all the activities related to information technology,” Kumar says. “My team coordinates all IT activities for the business and connects with external customers as well.”
Growing and helping others grow
Kumar believes his move to the U.S. gave him learning opportunities, both professional and personal. The first thing he learned was to adapt the mannerisms and approaches of his upbringing to those of his new country. “We need to learn and adapt to a new culture, but at the same time, it is important that we take advantage of the strengths we bring. We need to make it a learning opportunity not only for us, but also for the people we work with,” he says.
He found it easy to adjust to the U.S. culture. “There is a lot of help we can get, and we can always seek advice from mentors,” he says.
Kumar has returned the favor to help his colleagues grow professionally as well. “I take a lot of pride in helping the millennials within Thermo Fisher, and the whole global team.” Hard work and good values, he adds, are ingrained in his culture, which he believes is one of the strengths he brings to his job and his mentoring.
“It is important to take a humble approach,” he notes. “We don’t know what we don’t know, so you need to be willing to learn from anybody you meet within your career.”
Joyce Fai applies program management skills at General Dynamics and at home
Joyce Fai is the mother of four children, ranging from kindergarten to college age. This has taught her balance, she says. With children involved in a variety of activities and age differences that require different phases of parenting, Fai has had to develop a good work-life balance.
This balancing act, she says, has helped her develop the skills she needs as a deputy program manager in engineering with General Dynamics C4 Systems (Scottsdale, AZ). She is involved in a number of government contracts where she focuses on systems and security analysis.
Fai was born in Taipei, Taiwan and moved to Maryland when she was five years old. Her father is a telecommunications engineer, and Fai says math skills were stressed in her household. Luckily, she enjoyed using math and science to come up with solutions. “I wasn’t as interested in designing a chip or writing a piece of code, but I was interested in how all those things could be put together to meet a specific need.”
Fai admits that one of the stereotypes she faced was that, as an Asian American, she was expected to be very good at math. In her case, it was not a stereotype – she skipped grades in elementary school and began college at age sixteen.
She attended the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) and graduated in 1983 with a BS in systems science and engineering and a minor in business information systems from Penn’s Wharton School. “My advisor was in the systems engineering department,” she says. But she didn’t think a technical background alone was enough to succeed in the work world. “I think an understanding of technology in and of itself isn’t sufficient. You need to have an understanding of how you’ll use it within a business environment.”
Calculating a wise path
After she graduated, Fai had offers from banks and insurance companies, as well as an offer from communications company GTE Government Systems, which is now part of General Dynamics C4 Systems. “I thought if I didn’t use my engineering background now, I risked losing the skills,” she says, so she chose to work at GTE as a systems engineer. She later decided she needed a commercial background and spent time with a small startup applying security to the financial market.
Her training was all on the job. “Security at that time was a small niche. I was fortunate to have brilliant people to work under who had a good understanding of the area,” she notes. “Today, security training is more mainstream and growing. It’s not just within IT. Designing security into a solution requires an understanding of products and processes.”
Fai wants to continue on her management path, eventually moving into program management. “It’s a definite strength when you can manage people and also contribute technically.”
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