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Familiar faces help overseas EEs feel at home

Posted: 01 Jan 2001 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ee? foreign engineers? mentor programs? immigrant engineers?

Here's a recipe for confusion: Import several foreign EEs and drop them into fast-paced jobs in crowded American cities. Add language barriers and strange cultures, corporate and otherwise, and you've got a major case of continental drift. But don't worry, help is on the way. As more and more companies go overseas for new hires, engineers are stepping in, becoming mentors to minimize the newcomer's bewilderment.

Often done informally without much corporate sponsorship, mentoring ranges from shepherding new employees through the corporate maze to guiding them through the more personal adventures such as finding a place to live and buying a car. Another issue, as more foreign EEs go to the United States on temporary visas, is to make sure everything is in place so the engineers can stay there as long as they, and their companies, would like.

"We often help with immigration issues," said C.C. Chen, director of the display process technology department at Texas Instruments Inc. in Dallas. "In the last four to five years, probably no less than five people working with me have gone through the immigration process. Since I've gone through it [myself], I spend a lot of time with them."

While the link between advice and action are somewhat predictable in the confines of the workplace, there are far more variables in the wider world. Xiaochun Liu didn't have the following outcome in mind when he discussed New York area traffic with a fellow EE at Fujitsu Network Communications in Pearl River, New York.

"We had a guy who moved here from Ottawa, and he asked why people who drive in New York are so rude. He said that when he wanted to change lanes, he turned on his blinker on and people sped up so he couldn't get in," said Liu, a software development manager at Fujitsu. "Half a year later, I talked with him, and he said he had gotten used to it. First he changed lanes, then he turned on his blinker once he was in. He also said that when other people turned on their blinker, he would speed up so they couldn't switch lanes." Turnabout is fair play.

Liu, who has mentored about a dozen people in the past few years, lends a hand to newcomers as payback for the help he got when he came to the United States in 1994. The program at Fujitsu is informal, like many others. But some companies are beginning more official operations. TI, for example, made mentoring part of its expanding Diversity Network, which was firmed up last year with the hiring of a diversity director. Even so, it's still mainly a case of helpful engineers aiding their peers.

Having someone within the company can give new engineers a feeling of security, knowing that there will be someone around to help them adapt to their new homeland and job. For those who come from more relaxed cultures, the pace of the US electronics industry can provide a dramatic culture shock without any other changes.

"In China, when I was working there, most work environments were easy and slow-paced," Liu said. "In the United States, there's a faster pace, and your success is based more on personal ability. In China, much of it has to do with age. When you're adapting to these new work cultures, and you need someone to help you adapt quickly and in a more efficient way."

Documentation is another major difference. Liu noted that in the United States, every step must be documented, often with different documents for different steps. In China, there was often one document, typically no larger than the American paperwork for a single step.

This adaptation to the American industrial world often addresses the challenge of moving ahead. Chen said that career advancement is a hot topic when TI's mentoring initiatives are setting up speaker seminars. Often, the various initiative groups will post information on these sessions so that their members can also attend. While the speakers address ways for a given minority group to get ahead, others find that the advice is just as useful for them, he said. Liu added that in many foreign cultures, it isn't polite to call attention to one's successes, but in America self-promotion is important to move ahead.

But before an engineer can move ahead, he's got to get to the office. That's not always as simple as it sounds, especially if your car dies in the middle of the New York winter.

"I had the unfortunate situation of having my car break down on my first day working at Fujitsu," said Thomas Ji, a hardware designer who emigrated from Shanghai early this year. "For several days, I commuted with Xiaochun and another co-worker. They showed me an alternate route that shortens my driving time to work."

In that instance, Liu's biggest role was to line Ji up with a fellow engineer who lived fairly close to his home near the Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, New York, where Ji is a graduate engineering student. For anyone involved in mentoring, one of the biggest considerations is to find time. Chen noted that he often has lunch with newcomers, who also stop by his desk for quick chats during the day.

It's a bit more involved for Liu, who has extended his efforts beyond the walls of the workplace. But he said that helping people out doesn't necessarily take that much of the time he has to spend with his wife and year-old daughter.

"For something like a trip to the grocery store, when I need to go shopping, I will give a guy a call. A lot of times I go shopping with my wife and they will come along," Liu said. "Grocery shopping is not that much different [in the United States and China], so one trip to the store is all anyone usually needs."

A more involved issue is buying a car, hopefully one that proves a bit more reliable than Ji's. Liu doesn't usually go along for the bargaining session, but he often gives co-workers the low-down on this complex issue.

"Finding a car I think is the hardest thing," Liu said. "It's a little bit tricky, to know how to get a good deal, a reasonable price. They also have to learn new regulations and what the signs mean."

While the new immigrants think they're getting the greatest benefits from the mentoring, Liu says it's also a gratifying experience for the mentors.

"It's very rewarding, most of the time these people keep a close relationship, we keep the friendship," Liu said. "I feel that since I got something from society, I should provide some pay back, the American term. I think that's a pretty normal philosophy, it's very generic to all people to want to help someone."

Building trust amid diversity

C.C. Chen of Texas Instruments Inc. in Dallas described the company's Diversity Network as being still "a grassroots organization" composed of a network of minority engineers, technicians and other TI employees.

"I chair the Chinese Initiative," said Chen. "There are eight or nine others for blacks, women, Indians and some others. Each unit typically does its own thing."

"Its own thing" includes anything from bringing in outside speakers to holding celebrations such as the Chinese New Year party, which was attended by the CEO this year. The Diversity Network, of which the mentoring program is part, provides funds for each of these units, giving them anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 per year depending on size and the activities of the group. Some of these funds also go for classes.

"When a new employee comes in, they get a welcome letter that includes a contact point, a person they can talk to," Chen said. "If they have a language problem, as most immigrants do, within TI we have different training levels, like English as a second language. The Chinese Initiative started its own Toastmasters group last year."

Chen said that within the Chinese Initiative, there is not much mentoring in non-work issues, since the Chinese community in Dallas-Fort Worth is large and there are outside groups for that function. Though Chen and Xiaochun Liu of Fujitsu Network Communications in New York, another mentor interviewed for this article, were Chinese, they agreed that mentoring is just as common in other ethnic groups as with the Chinese. Not surprisingly, they also agreed that mentors and their charges usually share the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

"The reality is that it's easier to set up trust with someone who has a similar background," said Liu. "With other cultures, it's more difficult to get this trust."

Terry Costlow

EE Times

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