SINGAPORE: It was all chemistry.
That’s how Ms Jamie Neo had her start in engineering with globally renown technology stalwart HP about 26 years ago.
The 51-year-old product engineer and section manager for HP’s smart manufacturing told Channel NewsAsia in a recent interview that she had graduated with a Masters in Chemistry from the National University of Singapore (NUS) when she applied to join the tech company well known for its PCs and printers.
It worked. She got a job at HP’s wafer fabrication plant in Singapore, which dealt a lot with chemical compounds, and involved more multidisciplinary aspects. “I was kind of surprised they took me in,” Ms Neo admitted, given that her background was in chemistry and not engineering.
This was in 1991, and she has been in her first and only job ever since. In the more than two decades there, she has worked in a variety of roles from failure analyst engineer and quality assurance to product engineering and now manufacturing.
But it was not without incident.
Ms Neo recounted that when she first joined, she was the only female engineer at the company; another female engineer had left before she started. What’s more, her colleagues mistook her for an administrative staff when she started work, as they had been waiting on the latter to get started.
Beyond the initial hiccup, though, Ms Neo was keen to stress that gender stereotypes was not an issue at HP. In fact, “talent and performance” were given priority over other considerations and, “if people have good ideas, there’ll be someone who listens”, regardless if they are men and women, she said - a refreshing counterpoint to the regular reports of sexism and gender inequality today.
Her achievements at work will not be possible without the support from her family, though.
Ms Neo said that she came from a “humble family”, and her father was a bus driver when she was growing up. But that didn’t stop him, or her mother, from encouraging her and her five other siblings to pursue their dreams.
“He would tell me: ‘The future lies in your hands’,” she shared.
The engineer was also given a helping hand by her father’s company, then known as SBS, as it awarded her scholarships to study at NUS, which helped pay for her school fees, she said.
Today, the mother-of-three continues to be inspired by her own family.
Ms Neo shared that one of her sons is a computer science undergraduate studying in London, and through their conversations, she gets “lots of ideas”.
One of these led to her introducing a Raspberry Pi challenge held across the Singapore office last year, which received “enthusiastic” response from her colleagues. Groups were formed to see how they can use the mini computer to improve workplace conditions, such as a real-time booking system for meeting rooms, she said.
BEING INQUISITIVE HAS ITS PERKS
The HP executive shared that her sense of inquisitiveness and keen observation, which put her in good stead during her undergraduate years, also served her well in the initial HP years.
“When I was at NUS, there were practical tests, and I was particularly drawn to Organic Chemistry. We were given an unidentified compound, and asked to identify it,” she recounted. “I was usually one of the first to do so.”
Ms Neo said these traits proved handy when she was a failure analyst engineer.
“It was like a crime scene investigation,” Ms Neo shared, her passion animating her features. She was able to observe the processes to see why the quality of a product has dropped, for example, and pinpoint the areas for improvement - “like forensic investigation”, she said.
“The key is in asking the right questions,” she said.
More recently, she put these skills to work when she was doing business insights for HP’s manufacturing business, and figuring out ways to use the large amounts of data collected but not analysed.
For example, through the telemetry data collected by individual printers, she was able to discern how consumers were using their printers and ink cartridges. With that insight, she is able to segment the customer base and predictively forecast the amount and type of ink cartridges to produce at any given time.
Armed with this ability to analyse previously unused data, Ms Neo turned her brainchild into reality with the creation of HP’s Smart Manufacturing Application and Research Center (SMARC), which was opened on Wednesday (Dec 13).
Done in collaboration with Singapore’s Economic Development Board, the HP engineer said she hopes the laboratory-like facility will help “drive at least 20 per cent in efficiency” across various areas of manufacturing in the organisation.
She also hopes that with the new technology used at SMARC, such as 3D printing, robotics, data analytics and eventually machine learning, this would entice young engineers - whether male or female - to join a “traditional” industry like manufacturing.
As for her, the longtime HP engineer remains as passionate about her work as when she joined 26 years ago.
"As long as I still feel valued and I can still contribute, I'm happy to stay," Ms Neo said.