Seizing Opportunities: Ng Ain Kin tackles diverse challenges
Reproduced with permission from Women In Engineering Magazine, Volume II No1, June 2017
Jennifer Ng Ain Kin
If you had asked IEEE Senior Member and Women in Engineering (WIE) Committee member Jennifer Ng Ain Kin to predict the path her career would take back when she first graduated with an engineering degree, her answer would likely have turned out to be very wrong. An electrical engineer by trade, she began her career in software design and implementation for a firm in Canada but now manages regulatory affairs within advertising and promotions for a medical device manufacturer in California. Still, each decision that changed her path was a result of practical thinking and careful evaluation.
“I’m not a big risk taker,” she explains. “But, you can’t just be a passenger in your own career. You need to be able to take opportunities as they come along or to move on from jobs because they no longer work for you.” Spoken like a true engineer, she adds, “Be very logical in this way.”
The decision to pursue a course of study in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields was an easy one, however—dating back to her passions as a young girl. Ng Ain Kin was born in Mauritius, a small island off the coast of Africa, which left her feeling somewhat isolated. Her father worked in banking but shared her interest in technology, which resulted in his introducing his daughter to her first computer at the age of 11. “It was a ZX Spectrum Sinclair that was popular in England at the time,” Ng Ain Kin recalls. “It was just a little box that you connected to a television because there was no monitor. I had to figure out how to set it up because no one else in my family could. I read books to learn how to use it, then just continued to play around and absolutely loved it.” Her father even customized a foldable table that she could put in front of the televison to use as a computer desk.
Sowing the Seeds
Simultaneously, Ng Ain Kin was also honing her skills in math and science. In Mauritius, where it is highly competitive academically, students take an exam at the end of their sixth grade year, the results of which dictate a student’s class rank and ability to pick his or her secondary school. “I thought I was going to be in the top 25% of the grade,” says Ng Ain Kin. “Ironically, I made a mistake in math. At the time it was very devastating, but my parents taught me resilience and that I was just going to have to deal with it and work with what I have.”
Science was also a strong subject for Ng Ain Kin. When her parents immigrated to Canada in 1988 and she had to choose a college prep school program prior to university, she went with pure and applied sciences at Vanier College. “I really wanted to work with computers, and pure and applied sciences seemed like the best place to do so,” she explains. This was also where the seeds of her future engineering career may have taken hold. “There was one class (on numerical methods) where we used computers to crunch numbers in application to real-world problems, which none of us had ever done,” she recalls. “Out of the 15 or 16 of us in the class, we all became engineers. Different types but, still, that’s pretty amazing. Shout out to my mentor Mr. Steven Rosenfield!”
Having done extremely well in her classes, Ng Ain Kin was recognized by the government as a Canada Scholar, an honor that afforded her a full scholarship to the prestigious McGill University. She chose to major in electrical engineering, which offered the opportunity to take some computer engineering courses but, at its core, provided a well-rounded engineering background.
“It was really, really hard,” shares Ng Ain Kin. “I would not change anything, but I recognized that I’d had it easy in Mauritius and my prep school since I was always at the top of the class. Engineering was not an easy program, and a lot of the other students were brilliant. Over 160 countries are represented at McGill, and it’s where many of the best attend.”
By the end of her four-year degree, Ng Ain Kin was ready to go to work. Her advisor Francisco Galiana asked if she wanted to pursue a Ph.D. degree, but she declined, looking instead to get some hands-on experience in the workforce. “I figured that I have been in the school system since kindergarten, and it was time to start doing what all this training is for,” she says. The advisor perhaps never let go of that option, though. Ng Ain Kin recalls that when she called him to catch up 15 years later when she’d moved back to Canada, “He asked if I was calling because I wanted to do the Ph.D. now,” she shares, laughing.
Instead, she took her first job in software design for a company called Dy4 Systems, Inc. (now Curtiss-Wright Controls) in Ottawa, Canada. Soon after, an opportunity arose. “One of the great advantages to being a junior is that if there’s an opportunity, you can and should take it,” she says. “At the time I joined the company, there was an emergence of a new embedded software, and so they asked if I had a passport and wanted to go to training in Florida. I said, ‘sure!’” When she returned, she was the de facto subject matter expert in VxWorks, despite that fact that there were engineers at more senior levels. “That’s technology, it’s just being there and embracing the changes,” she explains.
Offered a chance to go to Japan, Ng Ain Kin leapt again—Japanese was a language she had studied, and she was curious about Asia, due to her ancestry. “This was the only time in my life I experienced what many talk about in terms of women being a minority in engineering,” she describes. “Growing up, I was shielded from this. I went to an all-girls secondary school and McGill was advocating for more women in STEM when I was there. My engineering-year class had about 20% women—unheard of for electrical engineering. But in Japan, there were no other women in my meetings, so that’s when I really understood the issue.”
Fascinated as she was by the Asia- Pacific region, when faced with two career options in 1998, Ng Ain Kin chose the one in the United States over the other in Australia, because it seemed to be the better job for her at the time. She moved with her husband to New Hampshire to work at Massachusetts- based Mercury Computer Systems, Inc. “I was brought in for software configuration management, taking care of all the software engineering activities,” she explains. During her tenure, Ng Ain Kin learned a lot and was eventually promoted to manage the team of expert release engineers.
“The reason why I think I was given opportunities at a very young age is that I worked for a vice president who was young himself, and we aligned well on the vision for the department,” shares Ng Ain Kin. “There are some things that I look back on and see that they wouldn’t have worked if the company wasn’t willing to take a chance on someone as young as me. Nowadays, it makes no difference because there are CEOs in their mid-20s, but back then it was not common, especially because I am a woman and of a different ethnicity.”
After many years at Mercury, Ng Ain Kin again needed a change. “I was in my second pregnancy at the time, putting in too many hours a week, and it just was not going to work anymore,” she says. In 2004, the technology “dot-com” bubble was crashing, so Ng Ain Kin’s previous software experience, mostly concentrated in defense, needed to be parlayed into a new industry. “I had already planted the seeds for other opportunities with people in my network so when the call came from the international medical division at Mercury for someone to lead their quality and regulatory activities in Europe, I jumped at the chance,” she recalls.
The role was primarily in Germany with the acquisition of two small firms, and it provided her with an opportunity to branch out into a totally new field of compliance while still retaining much of her software background. “The role was never meant to be a long one, as it was necessary to have local German staff,” explains Ng Ain Kin. “However, I learned and grew a lot during those few years with my first medical devices.”
In 2007, after close to a decade with Mercury, her husband wanted to go back home to Canada and she happily obliged, taking a job in Ottawa with Abbott Point of Care. Her husband was able to continue his work as a software designer from home, still working for a prominent U.S. company. “For us, it stabilized the family to have someone at home, especially with two children under the age of five at the time,” she says.
Her new role involved ensuring that the correct procedures and processes were followed in the creation of medical devices and products for patient use. In 2010, she was given an opportunity to focus on advertising and promotion. As someone who self-describes as “loving glossy and pretty stuff,” the job was a natural fit because it entailed reviewing apps, websites, and more traditional collaterals to confirm that stated claims are truthful and accurate according to different country regulations, especially in the United States, which is a highly regulated space. The risk is high: unsubstantiated claims on promotional materials can result in penalties ranging from a warning letter to fines to company representatives being sent to jail.
In mid-2016, Ng Ain Kin realized that she was ready for the next challenge, so she transferred to Abbott Vascular in California, a division of Abbott that focuses on implantable devices in the areas of interventional cardiology and peripheral intervention. She currently serves as the group’s project manager of regulatory affairs for advertising and promotion, continuing her role in the cross section of healthcare and technology that has since become personal.
“About three years ago, when my mother, who later passed away, was in cancer treatment, I could see that the medical professionals were taking too much blood from her,” shares Ng Ain Kin. “And I was thinking about how close I am to the blood-testing technology that could help her but was not available to her. I think that people will have a longer or better life due to two things: better devices or better medicine. That type of progress is the reason I love being a scientist.”
Though she says she would not go back to commodity software or the defense industry, she’s grateful for the learning opportunities that helped her find what she does not want to do or what circumstances are no longer manageable. “I am moving very far away from software engineering and, as you get older and there are life events, you have to be aware of what you’re doing and really know yourself,” she shares.
That same philosophy has been applied throughout her life to Ng Ain Kin’s extracurricular activities. She joined the IEEE as a college student, rising to become chair of the Student Branch at McGill, and stayed connected to local Chapters throughout her early career. “My first ten years, I stayed away from the technical groups because I was intimidated,” she admits. “Not being in academia, I didn’t see a way to fit in to the technical societies that offered opportunities to publish papers.”
After becoming more comfortable with her own career experience, she changed her mind. Upon moving to the United States, Ng Ain Kin participated in the founding and leadership of the New Hampshire WIE Affinity Group as well as the formation of the NH Teacher- In-Service-Program (TISP), which encourages mentorship and support for teachers directly.
“I really like roles in education, maybe because my late mother was a teacher,” she says. “IEEE has been a platform to help me bring people together, to build upon ideas, and support education.” Aside from the TISP program, which Ng Ain Kin continued with after moving back to Canada, she was appointed to the Education Activities Pre-Engineering Coordination Committee and, in 2010, received the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance WIE Mentor of the Year award for her work locally with Student Branches. “I love being a mentor,” she shares. “You are part teacher, part friend, and even part parent!” Throughout these efforts, she also served in several leadership capacities within the Ottawa Section, eventually accepting an appointment to the IEEE Women in Engineering Committee for the years 2015–2017.
Admittedly, it was difficult for Ng Ain Kin to attend as many IEEE and WIE events as she would have liked due to her work commitments but that looks to be changing as well, as she seeks the balance she prefers for herself. “My job now is headquartered in California and allows me to travel every other month, which means I can also connect with more people as I work through the planned changes I have for my final year as a WIE Committee member,” she explains.
Striving for balance is something Ng Ain Kin has always struggled with but prioritized. While the priorities have shifted over her impressive 25-year career, she says she would never have guessed when she graduated that this is the life she wanted. Still, it works well for her. “IEEE gives me the opportunities to do the charitable things I can’t necessarily do at work, where my role is supporting a for-profit global organization,” she says. At home, her husband and two sons share her passions. “It’s a high-technology house, but a great choice for my family,” she says.
Ng Ain Kin shares a common joke in her house: “We have more computers or devices than humans!” Which, she continues, is not always a bad thing. “The key is balance and also embracing the changes along the way. Think of bamboo: it is very pliable and yet very strong. Being willing to bend when needed or staying firm at other times, that is necessary in my field.”
Reproduced with permission from Women In Engineering Magazine, Volume II No1, June 2017
N. Ed: Jennifer Ng Ain Kin has written multiple articles for the IEEE Canadian Review. She has profiled the achievements of both new and seasoned WIE volunteers, and also shared her experience in recruiting teachers to participate in IEEE Canada’s Teacher In-Service Program (TISP) Committee. In keeping with her long history of mentoring, she has coached IEEE Canada Student Members and Young Professionsl in writing pieces for our publication about their own volunteer experiences.