Interview With a Former Engineering Consultant at a Factory in Dongguan

by Felix LING Chun Lok, November 2009

Toni Chair is a freelance information technology (IT) consultant. When I was in Form 5, he counseled me several times regarding higher education. At that time, he also gave me good information and ideas on how to plan my career. Toni used to say the first job is really important, since it can affect one's career and one's whole life. "Ask more questions and learn as much as you can before it is too late to prepare for your first job and you regret it," he said. However, I did not follow his advice much, because a career seemed so far away at that time. I did not talk much to Toni about careers until interviewing him on 20 October 2009. That interview with him changed my whole way of thinking about planning my career.

Toni is currently working at Advanced Learning Systems as an IT consultant. He said this job is not easy, as he has to face new and unfamiliar challenging problems every day. Toni said, "My previous jobs gave me a lot of useful skills and experience to help me deal with the problems I face today. That is why if have you have target, you will know what you want to be eventually, so choose your first job carefully." Toni said he loves solving challenging problems, and that is why he wanted to work as a consultant. It is a way for him to gain job satisfaction. "An engineering consultant is someone who is educated and experienced enough to give advice to help solve most engineering problems," commented Toni.

After Toni obtained his bachelor's degree in Computer Science from a university in the U.K., he found an engineering and management job in a Hong Kong sports equipment company. He took this job because it paid well and because he had a strong interest to work in the Mainland. "My first job was as a research and development engineer. I had to either source or develop new technology to resolve production related problems," said Toni. He recalled that he had to do many different types of work in that job, including sourcing new materials for products, developing new products with other people and also developing a testing plan for quality control, based on customer specifications. After working for a while, Toni also did a lot of managerial work in the company's factory in Dongguan. He said, "I managed the R&D department and the reference sample production department, which had a total of 50 Chinese staff at that time. Sometimes, I had to arrange meetings and follow up engineering issues in the company's factory, like improving efficiency or handling complaints from customers."

Toni shocked me by saying, "I worked as both an industrial engineer and a manager in the two departments. It seemed to have nothing to do with my degree, but I did use my computer skills as an aid for that huge amount of work every day."

Although Toni was successful in his first job, he told me that he had a big challenge when he managed staff at the factory in Dongguan. "The cultures of the staff in Hong Kong and China are quite different. Speaking good mandarin is a must, but it's not enough. Just because you can communicate with Mainland staff doesn't mean that you can manage them," he said. "You have to study their cultural and social norms in order to ensure that they are doing what you told them to do."

Toni adapted well to the job in a short time. He said the key factors were working hard in the job and more importantly, trying hard to learn from workmates. As engineers usually need to work with people as a team in most projects, Toni noted that there are no good jobs that can be completed by a single person. Engineers must know how to work with others by understanding and being good to them, especially if they are not local people. He added, "After a while, I could manage and work with the Mainland staff at the factory. That was the most rewarding experience in my first job!"

Working as an engineer, Toni thinks that effective problem solving skills are important and unique aspects of his work. Also, being an engineer in Hong Kong is quite challenging, as Toni commented that there are many highly-educated and low-paid engineers from mainland China. "Since many Hong Kong companies and job opportunities have been moving from Hong Kong to mainland China, Hong Kong engineers have to compete with those engineers from the Mainland." So what can engineers do to have an advantage? "Possess good administrative and management abilities," Toni answered. He said companies in China are lacking engineering leaders who have both specific knowledge and administrative abilities to manage a huge workforce. "That's the unique aspect that Hong Kong engineers should pay attention to," he added.

I used to think that graduates should work in the field that they studied in their major. Otherwise, it seemed like it would be a waste of what they had learned in the three years at university. After the interview with Toni, however, my point of view totally changed. Toni studied computer science when he was an undergraduate, but he worked as an industrial engineer. It seemed to me that at the factory, he would never do anything related to his computer studies. However, this was not the case. Toni used computer skills, like writing software applications for his work, to make things easier. For example, he developed a simple script in MATLAB to help him deal with the management of production flow in the factory automatically.

Now, I think it is not a waste if I don't work in the IT field, as nowadays almost every job in the market requires computer skills. Toni's experience encourages me to consider jobs other than jobs in the IT field. My computer knowledge will give me a unique advantage if I decide to work in another field.

Also, Toni taught me a lesson on the importance of administrative abilities. After a person works as an engineer for a long time, he or she is supposed to be able to manage junior staff. The administrative and decision making abilities to manage part of an organization are essential skills that most engineers eventually need as they get promoted in an organization. They include communication skills and conceptual skills. Most engineers are good in their technical skills but weak in these, so I need to give more effort to developing these skills so as prepare myself for the fast changing environment.

Currently, I am planning to work as an IT engineer or programmer after graduation in order to gain experience in the IT field. My target is to become a project manager after 2-4 years. Ultimately, I would like to be in a management position and not necessarily in my original field.

Without talking to Toni, I probably would not have paid so much attention to the importance of conceptual skills and communication skills. I probably would have regarded technical skill as the only important knowledge for my future work. It was a good experience talking to Toni. I have really learned a lot from him through this interview.

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