by Peter TSE Pui Tak, November 2009
On 25 October 2009, I interviewed Mr. Patrick Lau, a previous colleague of my father. Mr. Lau's first engineering job was at TVB. He is currently an engineer at PCCW. I choose him because my father recommended I contact him and because I thought he would have plenty of valuable experiences to share.
Mr. Lau chose engineering as his profession for two reasons. First, when he was a university student, he had a dream to apply what he had learned at school. Second, after graduation he also knew that his electrical engineering degree could help him find a job as a salesman or an engineer, but the prospects for promotion of a salesman were not as good as those of an engineer. Also, a financial or commercial business would probably not hire a person who only had an Engineering degree. So the logical career choice was to become an engineer.
Mr. Lau's first engineering job was with TVB, and he specialized in extra low voltage (ELV) systems, like CCTV, public address systems, security systems, etc. ELV is one of several means to protect against electrical shock. His regular tasks were attending pre-sales meetings, doing project planning and constructing plans for submission. During pre-sales meetings he provided technical expertise and support as his company's salesmen worked with other companies to discuss project plans and to coordinate every part of the project. It needed coordination because a single company couldn't produce all the components of the project. At the pre-sales meeting, the company representatives would negotiate how they would together provide a finished product to clients. Project planning was required to prepare and buy resources, plan and make a Gantt chart for the project. Constructing plans for submission included constructing drawings and preparing samples for client approval.
Mr. Lau had two kinds of job accountability. The first kind came from his company. The management assigned work to him and periodically checked to see if he was performing according to their expectations and industry standards. The second kind of accountability came from clients and the companies working with TVB. There were only a few people in Hong Kong doing his specific job, and it was quite important in the market, so if he made any mistakes, word about it would spread quickly, and this could negatively affect his future if he wished to move to another similar company.
In Hong Kong, engineers consider money to be a very important aspect. They always fight for a higher salary and often change jobs to work for another company if that company offers a higher salary. The culture is different in Mainland China and other countries, where engineers tend to place more emphasis on what they can learn from their jobs. They don't see salary as important as Hong Kong engineers do. As a result, Hong Kong engineers tend to work very fast and efficiently so as to maximize profit-making potential.
The most challenging aspect of Mr. Lau's first job was learning to deal with unexpected problems. When planning or other preparation work was not done really well, problems usually emerged in the middle of projects. It's easy to start a piece of work, but comparatively difficult to process the works when problems are discovered well into the project, because then you need to find out the exact error and then amend the work already done. All this affects the cost and time, as more time and manpower are needed. But time and money are limited, and no company will provide unlimited money and time for a project. Therefore, Mr. Lau had to learn to avoid and deal with unexpected problems so as to stay on schedule and stay within a given budget.
Mr. Lau said that his most experience in his first job was failure. When he looks back, he sees each failure as a chance to accumulate experience for future success. He said success only happens naturally when you have people guiding you, but the most valuable lessons come through personal trial and error. When he worked by himself, he needed to take risks. He could not always find suitable guidance, so bad decisions and failure were inevitable. Also, many decisions in his job were not absolutely right or absolutely wrong. There were grey areas. His decisions involved balancing the different needs of different parties. He couldn't see or satisfy the needs of every party. If he chose to favor one party, there might be serous negative side effects for other parties. These side effects could cause him huge trouble, so he learned the hard way – through failures. However, he tried to learn from his mistakes, so the experience he gained from his failures helped him to succeed later.
The most important adjustment Mr. Lau had to make in his first job was learning to work under pressure. There were mainly 2 kinds of pressure: internal and external. The internal pressure came from his colleagues or the management panel of his company. Different colleagues had different working styles, and the management panel issued specific job duties to each colleague for each project. This caused pressure if he was not familiar with the working styles of his colleagues or the expectations of the management panel.
The external pressure came from the projects he did. His duties would be different for each project. For example, in some projects he was the person in charge, but in others he had to submit to the leadership of a colleague. This could be difficult if that person was less experienced or younger. External pressure was greatest when project deadlines were approaching. Everyone wanted to get the job done, but sometimes coordinating the work was difficult. His ability to control the situation depended on his role. Sometimes he was the leading contractor. Sometimes he was one of several contractors under the leading contractor. Sometimes he was a subcontractor. Whatever position he had affected the way others treated him. He needed to fulfill different people's requirements, so he faced constant external pressure. Also, the external pressure came from budget constraints. Some projects were on very tight budgets.
From what Mr. Lau shared, I learned that being an engineer can be very complicated. What I study at university is only knowledge, and academic life is very different from the working world of engineers. An engineer needs to face not only his boss, but also his colleagues, the management panel, and the different people involved in different projects. The problems and pressures an engineer faces are probably much greater than what I've experienced while studying at university. Also, I have realized that hard work and good academic results do not necessarily guarantee that an engineering student will succeed in the engineering workplace. An engineer needs to take risks, and risk-taking is best learned through experience. University courses don't teach a student how to take risks. I think this will be a great challenge for me if I finally get an engineering job as well. I also think I will need to improve my communication skills and inter-personal skills, as engineers need to face lots of people in their work.