March is National Engineering Month-Canada's biggest celebration of engineering-and an opportunity to show young Canadians the exciting career opportunities that engineering has to offer. We are proud to employ engineers in Calgary, Ottawa and Halifax. We will be sharing employee profiles throughout the month to show you the challenges that our engineers face every day. Meet Calgary engineer Siew-Jen Khoo.
Growing up in Brunei, a young Siew-Jen Khoo could often be found playing with her uncle’s tools and taking things apart. Her uncle was a chemical engineer and supported her curiosity for how things worked and penchant for problem-solving.
Although she did display an early interest in science and technology, Siew-Jen admits that her choice to pursue an education in engineering had more to do with following footsteps: “I just kind of wandered into it because so many people in my family were engineers”.
In first year of studies at the University of Alberta, Siew-Jen had her first foray into programming and decided almost immediately that this would be the field in which she would specialize. “I’m actually a late bloomer. Most engineers take some form of programming before their first-year of university. As soon as I tried my hand at programming, I knew that I really liked software and wanted to get into computer engineering.”
While finishing up her studies, she took on a co-op position at General Dynamics Mission Systems–Canada in Calgary doing system integration and test engineering. After graduation, Siew-Jen worked as an engineer on cell phone software for an electronics company and then for a security company developing identity management software.
It was around this time that the tech bubble burst and Siew-Jen began to question whether engineering was indeed the right career choice. “I was just so unsure of myself. It was quite different taking courses in university as opposed to actually practicing engineering,” she recalls. “I began looking up dentistry admission requirements.”
Nevertheless, she persisted and accepted a job in software development back at General Dynamics. At a certain point, her career choice finally started to feel right. “Something clicked and I realized I didn’t actually want to be a dentist; I still wanted to be an engineer.”
In the fifteen years she has been with the company, Siew-Jen has worked on a number of different projects and has built up her experience in many areas of engineering and software development. She recently took on a new role as System Architect on the Evolve to Open (EvO) project doing system design and system engineering. The EvO project involves the design and development of a next-generation tactical communication and information system as the initial phase of the UK Ministry of Defence’s MORPHEUS program.
“I’ve always really enjoyed looking at things from a systems perspective. When I was a software developer, I was very focused on getting the little details right and now I have more influence in making sure we get the big picture right,” she says.
Like many of her colleagues, Siew-Jen feels a distinct connection to the end-user: “We need to make sure that we are solving the right problems for our users, making sure that our product is of sufficient quality to ensure safety and usability. These soldiers are giving up a lot in their lives and it is our duty and obligation to ensure that the products that we deliver meet their exact needs.”
Outside of work, Siew-Jen enjoys spending time with her family. “My kids are the love of my life. One of the reasons I have stayed with General Dynamics for so long is that I have been so lucky to have managers that understand the importance of work-life balance.”
She adds that, as a mother of three, coming and going from maternity leave meant a lot of transitions between different roles and projects which presented both challenges and opportunities. Her advice for women trying to balance demanding careers and motherhood?
“I do see a lot of brilliant women who end up quitting because it can be overwhelming trying to balance work and home life. It truly is another job at home. It can be hard in the beginning to find that balance, but if you persist and find different ways to tackle it, you can have a good career and a good family life. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”In those rare moments where she isn’t focused on work or spending time with family, Siew-Jen can be found gardening or at the piano. “I hated it growing up, but now I am really starting to enjoy it again,” she says. Never one to back down from a challenge, she actually has “Fantaisie - Impromptu, Op. 66” by Chopin on her bucket list. Impressive.