Strength and ingenuity in the workplace are driven by diversity and learning from shared experiences. Today as we venture Beyond the Mold, we speak with two engineers, Vivian Cheung and Melanie Henderson, about their careers, experiences, and what it’s like to be part of an exclusive group. Vivian and Melanie offer advice and emphasize the importance of overcoming self-doubt, why you should ask questions - especially when you’re a new employee, the value of building professional relationships at work, and why a career in engineering has been so rewarding for them.
Tracy: Welcome to Beyond the Mold, a podcast about the breakthrough innovations and the experts who are pushing the boundaries of traditional injection molding, packaging design and sustainability. I’m Tracy Broad of Husky Injection Molding Systems.
Tracy: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. Today's episode is about engineering change. At Husky, we believe our strength and ingenuity comes from diversity and learning from shared experiences. I'm pleased to welcome to our podcast two long-time women engineers at Husky, to talk about their careers and what it's like to be part of such an exclusive group. And why it's important for young women out there, our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, or even if you are mentoring a young woman, to not only pursue a career in the engineering industry, but persevere. So without further ado, I have Vivian Cheung, from our Bolton, Ontario campus, and Melanie Henderson, from our Milton, Vermont campus with me today. Welcome to the show ladies.
Vivian: Thank you.
Melanie: Thank you for having us.
Tracy: Let's get right into it. So please tell us a little bit about your role at Husky. Vivian, why don't you get us started.
Vivian: Okay. I'm a project engineer to start with. And recently I start with a slightly different role. So I have a few project engineer working for me, as a little team, to support the order functionality of the machines operations, and the regional service team and the regional managers.
Melanie: So I've had a lot of different roles at my time here at Husky. My current job title is Global Training Specialist. So I'm part of the Hot Runners organization, the third party Hot Runners. And my job is to, well I have a lot of jobs, but my main job is to create training material for new or existing design group. And then I create the training material, and then I teach local trainers on each one of our manufacturing campuses.
Tracy: So let's take a step back into history, and think a little bit about when did you know that you wanted to join an engineering field or take on a role in engineering?
Melanie: Okay, so my dad is an engineer, so he's a chemical engineer and he's also a very handy person, he's always very good with building and whatnot. So from my very smallest years, he was always involving me with the kinds of challenges that he was working with around the house. And he used to play games with me where, just making conversation he would hold something up and be like, "Mel how big do you think this is?" "About three inches, about four inches, that's about a foot." So he was sort of building it right into my childhood. And he would do science experiments with my brother and I as well at home just to be like, "Here this is a cool thing, lets make a potato battery," stuff like that. So even from the earliest years I was already sort of being trained to think in that direction. So I wasn't especially good at math and science, but again my dad really stepped in, in those years. So I remember distinctively being in sixth grade, so we had to move over to the middle school, plus you've got puberty onset, which is all just weirdness. And I remember in sixth grade and suddenly the math starts getting more abstract in sixth grade as well. It's less counting on your fingers and drawing pictures and more decimals and things like that. And I remember starting to pull away and being like, "I'm not smart enough, I can't do this." And my dad specifically, I remember his expression many times being like, "Yes you can, just take a deep breath and come on, let's keep going." So he was the one who sort of pushed me over that initial hesitations, and really gave me the confidence that I needed all through my high school years, to start even thinking about going to school for engineering.
Tracy: Great, wow. Sounds like you had lots of encouragement along the way.
Tracy: Good, thanks. Vivian, how did you get started?
Vivian: When I start in university I have to move to Manitoba, with my brother, and I have no friends, nobody over there. But my brother already has a bunch of friends and roommates and they are all in engineering. So basically I don't even need to think, it's almost like engineering is the only faculty that's open in that university, I had no other thoughts or never really think about anything else. It's just naturally just get into that and the next question is, which discipline do you want? Computer, mechanical and all that. I never think about whether that's going to be any issues or anything that I have to overcome for that field, just because it's less female students there. Until of course when I first started, day one and I find out the challenge already that they only have one female washrooms in the first floor and then one female washroom on the sixth floor.
Tracy: So even the washrooms were a challenge at school.
Vivian: For that specific building, because it's so old. So that's okay, it's just kind of train you have better bladder control in a way.
Tracy: That's one way to keep you in the classroom. In terms of school was there any particular subject that you excelled at?
Vivian: I know that what I am not doing very well is easier to pick in that way. Because I'm always into science, but the chemical or chemistry areas aren't good. Anything else seems to be okay with me so I'll just say very balanced in that way.
Melanie: I was okay with math and with science as well, I enjoyed the classes but I didn't particularly excel at them. But did well enough that obviously I could pass. So it was a little bit scary going into engineering, because I was a little bit afraid that I was just going to be pigeonholed into doing nothing but calculus, which is not who I am. I wanted a lot more color and a lot more interest. But what I started to focus on, the concept that kind of kept me going in the early days when I was deciding, especially when I was deciding which engineering discipline to go into. I kept thinking about the animatronics at Disney and that an engineer had to make all of that stuff. And so basically, just because you're doing engineering didn't mean that it had to be dull, and gray, and dreary, and just lists of numbers. There could be magic, there could be color, there could be whimsy as well baked into the engineering process. So that's where my initial thoughts were. And then I chose mechanical engineering as well, mainly because working with my hands made sense, whereas I don't have an intuitive feel for electricity for example. And chemistry was okay, but it wasn't amazing. But being able to make things, especially make art with my hands, that made sense to me, and so that's why I went into mechanical.
Vivian: Yeah, I totally agree with you.
Tracy: I liked the Disney inspiration. So if we look at your careers now, what are some interesting or rewarding projects that you've had the opportunity to work on during your time at Husky?
Vivian: So, interesting project, I think maybe launch the multi-layered product line for the Thinwall system. That's very interesting and challenging, it's the very first system that we tried to launch, from the time that we received go ahead from the customer, to the time that we actually make it become a productions worthy system. It takes less than a year from a development engineering project to a production system. So timeline wise it's challenge and it's always a lot of unknowns as a first system that - the customer understands that it's kind of okay, you need development, support and all that. But in their eyes it's, "I pay you money for this," I better make sure that it works. So that's some of the challenge.
Tracy: Lots of pressure there it sounds like.
Vivian: Yeah, actually it's people thrive with stress and all that, right? You don't want to be just sitting down there and doing the same thing again and again every day. I guess that's one of the foundation in the engineering field, because every day can be different, even though you maybe you doing the same job or same role for years but everyday you learn something new. There's not one day that I can walk out of the office without saying, "Oh, this is new to me."
Tracy: That's great. That's great inspiration for our listeners.
Melanie: So I've worked for Husky for 21 years, and I've had a lot of different roles. And each role has some sort of crowning achievement kind of thing. So when I first started at Husky I was a designer, I designed hot runners for a year and a half. And then I became the local trainer here in the Milton campus. And that was one of those moments where, they kind of realized that they had a problem and they weren't really sure how to deal with it. And that was when I raised my hand and was like, "Me, me, ooh, I want to be the trainer, let me take this on." And I started to create a cohesive training program that I was very proud of at the time. And then I became a mold base designer. And my last mold base that I designed was this enormous system, and it was just for one customer. It was actually to make the Yoo-hoo caps, you know they have that mushroom look to them, right? It was this really complicated mold, it was like 18 plates all stacked up, and with rotating parts and moving parts and cams and a lot of complexity to it. And, it was profitable, which was actually not all that common for most mold based systems. Usually they're lucky if they break even, but that one actually made a profit and I was super proud of it. And then I moved on and I was in the standards role, so that's standardizing internal components and keeping drawings up to date and things like that. And then I had babies, and then took a little time, and then came back and worked in product development a little bit. And then after product development, then I took on this role. So I've actually been in my global training role for 12 years, but what keeps me going in this role is just as Vivian said, it's different all the time. So a lot of the time I'm creating training material, I'm playing with new types of software, so that I can create cooler and cooler presentations and animations to explain to my users how the systems work. And then I have one more, so my most recent one. In hot runners we have three analysis tools, that help us size the melt channels inside of the manifold, help us ensure that the manifold will be strong enough to handle the pressures, and help us ensure that the manifold will seal, that it won't leak resin everywhere in hot conditions. So we had these three analysis tools that were ancient, they were so old and they were starting to really outgrow the capabilities of what we needed to do. In other words it had been designed when we had a very small product line, and over time product development added more and more and more products and the tools couldn't keep up. So they agreed to making a single streamlined analysis tool, and I got involved in the second stage. And at that point unfortunately the product development resources were starting to be pulled away, and the project was actually starting to be a little bit in jeopardy. But I was able to step in, and I took over the role of not only - I was originally supposed to just do the training. But I actually ended up stepping in to review the data, to start inserting the data into all the systems, to start building all of the logic to do all of the testing, to provide feedback to our external vendors, and then eventually to do the actual training and to roll it out to all the users worldwide. So those tools have now been in production for four years and it’s called Newton, and it's really the heart of the hot runner, it's what ensures that the hot runner meets our guarantees and it works and I'm super proud of it.
Tracy: It's really interesting to hear both of your journeys, and how different I think the engineering discipline can be, and different ways that you can apply what you know and what you learn every day. To bring that to, whether it's internal Husky processes, or ultimately to Vivian and our role to our customers. If we look at some of the statistics that we hear today, there's a statistic that tells us that 40% of women either quit or never even make it into the engineering field. Has that ever crossed your mind and if so tell me a little bit more about why did you stick it out and what's kept you in engineering all this time? You choose who goes first.
Vivian: For me I never really have any hard time or question or why I should leave this field, it's just never come across my mind that, what's the difference. Like, if you get into this field, any field, any job, any career path, you're going to have roadblocks anyways. So I just cannot see any reasons that I have to switch or quit, just keep going and then until the roadblocks are gone.
Tracy: It's a great answer and I appreciate your honesty. If you're the type of person that keeps going and doesn't quit, then certainly perseverance is one of the qualities that I think for women in engineering, it sounds like it's important and it sounds like it's a skill that you've worked on, probably to hone throughout your entire career so far with Husky.
Vivian: Sometimes you can see that maybe people will say, okay, being a female engineer in a field with all this male is a disadvantage, but I see it as an advantage, I kind of take advantage of that all the time actually.
Tracy: There you're laughing. Now you need to tell us more.
Vivian: I'm thinking about a situation even like sharing facilities in a building that's full of female. I have my own washroom. I used to have my own stall that I go in, this is my spot. Set up the way that I like it. That's not enough female to share the washroom in this case. So I'm very happy to have my quiet, own personal space, in that case. But putting all the jokes aside, basically, people always see eventually whether you can perform or deliver, through their eyes. It doesn't matter at the end, of course you have some stereotype, it still happens now, but is more so for like even 15, 20 years ago when I start. I have talked to customers in Asia, especially in Asia, they never know whether Vivian is a man or a women until they hear the voice and they are always surprised. I do have customers actually come to me and ask, "Oh, why are you working?" I say, "What do you mean why am I working?" "Shouldn't you be - I think you’re married, shouldn't you be staying home?" and you know. I don't get offended by all those questions, but I just kind of surprised, "Oh, where do you come from?" Why do you have this questions? It's just a different culture back in those days. And now you don't get that type of questions very often. I think peoples are kind of open up and accept the fact that it's just a job anyone can do it.
Tracy: That's very encouraging Vivian, I appreciate that point of view. I think that for young women looking to get into the field, I think that to your point, 15 or 20 years ago things have certainly changed and the perspectives are very different. But I like your can do attitude around your approach that anyone can really do it.
Melanie: Yeah. So, I have had times when I've considered getting out of engineering and doing something else. And actually my two best friends from college both were engineers, and one is now a marketing executive and the other is now a professor at the University of Vermont. Now their engineering backgrounds still serve them well in their current roles, and it helps them to grow and definitely still brings a level of science and logic to everything they do. But yeah, they sort of were like, "Okay, I did this thing, this isn't really who I am and I'm going to go and try something else." For me, definitely when I took time off to have children and then came back to work, that was challenging. That was difficult mixing everything in, and finding that balance and making sure that I was both a good employee, and also a good mom, because both are important. So what keeps me here, and the reasons why I chose to come back is - well first of all I care deeply about the people that I work with. The other part is that I like puzzles, so for me, when you're going through, first high school and then through engineering training, going through college and your engineering degree. Yeah, there's some hardcore math in there, I mentioned calculus, it's a thing. And it's daunting, but for me, you get through it, it's fine, as long as you pass it's okay. Because once you get out into the real world, it really comes down to puzzles that have a real grounding in reality. So when I'm looking at data and trying to find trends or trying to solve problems, I understand what the data means and I understand where it came from. And so it has a very real, very - it's not abstract anymore, it's very real and that makes sense, but it also means it's just kind of - I know that there's an answer and if I keep playing and puzzling, that I'm going to find it. And so it's that joy of - it's problem solving but it's not the kind of problem solving - well, all right, there is problem solving, where you're like, "I don't," there may or may not be an answer out there. But the ones that are the most fun are the ones where you know there is an answer, and you've just got to keep trying until you find it, so.
Tracy: I think if we look at the field of engineering since when you first joined to today. In your experience how has the attitude towards women in the field changed in the engineering discipline?
Vivian: People did change over time, so basically I think, just because we have more female engineer engaged in the field, it's more like - people see the result they see what being a female as an engineer can deliver. It's not just a pretty face showing up and do nothing. So, at the end of the day, everyone's looking for result, so if you prove that you can deliver, you're qualified for the job, then people will usually will let their stereotype gone a bit. But again they are still, I would say, a small, very small percentage of people in the field, still very skeptical, they kind of just say, "Okay, let's see when she's going to quit, when she's going to fail," something like that. So it's too bad that it's not 100% gone with that stereotyping, but actually I can see that it's improving, in terms of the acceptance. Just to be realistic now, what type of career or job that a woman cannot do?
Tracy: I like that attitude Vivian.
Vivian: Some physical constraint. And there are some jobs that guys cannot do either. So it goes both way. Why do we have stereotype over - yeah, actually we do, when you talk about a male nurse some people are, "Oh, yeah sure." But yeah, I guess it happens in both ways. Probably is better nowadays.
Melanie: I agree with Vivian. I mean, the vast majority of experiences that I've had are, if you can do the job, people really don't care about where you're coming from. If you're a woman, if you're a minority, what they're looking for is results. So I know - when I very, very, very first started there was definitely a certain amount of, like I was a novelty, if you will, walking around. But that didn't mean that people weren't friendly or even - I didn't get rude behavior per se of people assuming that I couldn't, it was more like, people watching, because you happen to be the one walking around, your results can stand out a little bit more. Which honestly is again a spur to do your very best because people are going to notice. But I never got the sense of people assuming that I couldn't or dismissing me out of hand, most people are really just happy to help and I've always had a feeling of welcome.
Tracy: So if we look at your perspective on why you think it's important for more women to join engineering as a field of study or as a job, career choice. What might that be?
Melanie: Sure. So, I mean it's always valuable to have different perspectives so men and women, having people from different ethnic backgrounds, different races, it's always good to have different voices. It makes for a more accessible product for our customers, and it makes for a more cultured experience here at work as well. So yes, it's always good to have more diversity. I think that it's generally, it is nice to have a certain amount of comradery if you will. So I get along very well with all of my male colleagues, I kind of have to, because most of them are male. We have a great time, it's okay. But when I do have those few female engineers, it's so nice to be able to just sit down and share experiences and compare notes. And sometimes just take a deep breath and just let your hair down and realize, acknowledge to each other that there is stress, there are pressures, that are unique for a woman, and just have that shared experience. But I wouldn't say that those pressures are insurmountable, it shouldn't frighten girls away from doing engineering. It's more just a matter of, we're still in let's say early stages I suppose of more women coming in to the engineering field. As more women come in, then any challenges that are unique to female engineers will become more normal.
Vivian: I guess, first of all you just need to look at the talent pool in general. If you have 50% of the population that you rule out as good resources to get your talent employees with the proper skill set. You're missing out a lot. And of course, I agree totally with Melanie that looking at things with different perspectives, just because of your background, gender difference and all that, actually helps in terms of solutioning. You need a balance of both sides to see things differently, to contribute to the same set of solutioning. So I just cannot see why, disadvantage, let's put it that way, without female in the field. You just need to make sure that all the girls are there and then don't be scared and just venture out. You may hit some roadblocks but as I said before, any career, any field, you have roadblocks. So just don't be too hard on yourself and don't even think about it, just like day to day work, just go. The more you think about it, say, "When am I going to be ready." Then you'll never be ready, just like having kids, the same thing.
Tracy: That's great perspective, thanks Vivian. Actually you almost answered my last question with our time together today. What advice might you give some of our listeners today as we close out our time together?
Melanie: So I would definitely say encourage your girls, your daughters and granddaughters and whatnot to consider engineering. And don't be afraid, I think sometimes we can defeat ourselves before we've even gotten started. So don't think that because it looks like the person next to you just instinctively knows what he's doing, that isn't necessarily the case. Take a deep breath, believe in yourself and go forth and try things. I would also say definitely be true to yourself, so again, I'm not interested in a gray world where it's all just calculations and boring. I am a colorful person, I like to have a lot of fun with what I do, and so definitely think about who you are as a person and what sorts of things you enjoy. There's lots and lots of different engineering disciplines that can tie-in to all kinds of interest in your background. So it doesn't just have to be - don't think of it as like, "Oh, I just have to build trusses for the rest of my life." It's really not that. I wanted to say one thing too, one piece of advice that I got, when I was first starting my engineering career here at Husky, which was really, really, really good advice was, go out and talk to the people who build it. So we kind of have this impression when we're in engineering school or university, that the people that you learn from are professor types. We sort of have this impression that they have to have many degrees, or many, many years or experience within engineering in order to have valuable information. But that really isn't true, a lot of the best learning that I did was when I went out and spoke to the people who actually built my systems. So I'll give you an example. I had a particular project that had a lot of really weird constraints around the top of the system. So they had to bolt through things, I had to go around things, I had all kinds of strange things that I had to work around, and still get my wires up to the box at the top. So I designed this huge, elaborate, remarkable aluminum adaptor plate. That accomplished all these features and all these funky cut outs and whatnot. And when it was finally time for it to be assembled I went down and I spoke to the assembler who is this older gentleman and I showed him this aluminum box and I was like, "Look at this, it does all this cool stuff, and I had to do this and this and this," and he said, "Can I tell you what you did wrong." And I was like, "Okay." So he explained to me that yes, technically you met all of the requirements. But you could have still met those requirements in much simpler ways, that would have been a lot less expensive. So he basically did a design review with me of like, if you'd done this, you would have accomplished the same things and wouldn't have been so hard to make. And that's not fun to hear when somebody says, "Yeah, your baby’s ugly." But I also learnt so much from that conversation, and I really took that lesson with me through all of my years and really looked at all of my designs to be like, "Is there a simpler way that I can do this, is there a less expensive, easier way to assemble," really looking at it from the perspective of simplicity. And that one lesson really served me well throughout my whole experience. The other thing too is that when you do go down and chat with the people that build your systems and get to know them, and get to know them as people and really listen to their feedback. They will also help you out when things don't go well. Instead of being a roadblock and being like, "Well all right, how are you going to fix it?" So go down and talk to the people that are actually building the systems, you can learn so much from them, and it really will just improve the work that you do.
Tracy: That's great. It sounds like building relationships is pretty key to your success as well Melanie. Melanie: Absolutely, yeah.
Vivian: You know what, I totally agree with whatever that Melanie has said before. It's actually very, very important to develop support and rapport from the team that you're working with. And that made me to think of one of the advantage of being a female in a way, because we ask questions all the time. And then look at the others, half have never asked for directions, I saw that all the time. If I go on to the shop floor with someone else that's next to me, and say "Okay, I don't think you understand," "I was thinking," "But aren't you going to ask?" Oh, no he can't just because he cannot ask a question, to show that you don't understand. At the end of the day, I got way more out of me asking what they think is stupid questions, and learn a lot. And then the people are willing to - actually you'd be surprised when you ask for something that you think is so trivial, but for them they say, "Totally understand why you ask that, let me explain to you." But most of the time that I saw its okay the others are most reserved or conserved and they don't want to ask questions. It's just like all my ego is gone, just because I asked that one question. But that's actually important, just go and ask if you don't know. If I know everything I will not be in the same position now. Every day you have something to learn so, no stupid questions. There are a lot of things that you just cannot just learn from the internet, from the book or. It's like a lot of experience, why do you want to reinvent the wheel, when someone already seen that, been there and done that. So by asking the people that are maybe a few desks next to you, that have been there for years, you really gain a lot, save a lot of time, and get a lot of fresh ideas as well. And he by answering your question actually may come up with some other ideas as well. So it's win-win for each, it goes in both ways. So, just venture out and then do what you think is right and don't second guess yourself.
Tracy: Well I want to thank you both for joining me today. I think you both shared some amazing insights into what it's like to be a woman in engineering, and working at Husky, for the length of time that you've both been at Husky. So I want to thank you for your valuable insights and advice. And I'm sure that our listeners have enjoyed hearing today the perspectives from both of you, and what it means to be a woman in engineering. So thanks for joining us today on Beyond the Mold. Melanie: Thank you Tracy. Vivian: Thank you.
Tracy: Thanks for joining us. Check out our show notes for resources discussed in today’s episode. And if you like what you heard, rate and review us on Spotify, Apple or wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll see you next time as we venture Beyond the Mold.