Women in Tech: Elwin Chan

MathWorks’ Elwin Chan discusses her career as a woman in the tech industry

What does your job involve?

I lead a team of software engineers to develop new features and offerings for MathWorks.  This doesn’t just mean writing and reviewing code, but incorporates thinking about the ‘bigger picture’ and figuring out what our users actually want to do and how it fits in with their overall workflow.  This can be challenging because MATLAB is used for a wide range of applications in industries as diverse as retail, finance and aerospace.  It’s actually a great balance of identifying and defining a problem, figuring out what the possible solutions are and then putting one of those solutions into action.  

What is your favourite part of your role?

I’m lucky to work with a team of very bright people and we have a very collaborative environment – I love being able to solve problems as part of a team, and having stimulating discussions along the way.  As a manager, I also get a real kick out of seeing my team succeed – both individually and collectively. 

What is the most challenging part of your role?

I’m the type of person who likes to fix things, solve problems and change things for the better, be that something as simple as making sure the tea bags aren’t on the other side of the kitchen to the kettle or something as complex as changing organisational processes to make them more relevant or efficient.  It can be frustrating to see other people simply accepting the status quo and not realising that they have the power to change things for the better themselves. 

As it is such a collaborative environment here, there can also be a lot of discussion around what to do and sometimes this necessarily takes a bit of time which can be  a little frustrating.  Though (admittedly always with hindsight!) I have also seen how the extra time spent analysing problems and solutions has led to a better end product, so it’s not all bad!

What inspired you to do what you do?

My father is a structural engineer, and he was forever involving me in his many home projects, showing me how to solve problems in innovative ways given a limited set of resources.  These were mostly home improvement activities – not just the “standard” DIY tasks like painting and tiling, but also building a new garage, converting the loft, rewiring the house – I spent many summer holidays helping to dig foundations and mix concrete (by hand!).  As a frugal immigrant, my father had a very keen eye for what we’d now refer to as “upcycling”.  We’d often make special trips back to a skip where he had spotted something that would be useful, which we’d then take apart and reuse, or simply repair.  I always knew I wanted to be an engineer of some sort as I enjoy solving problems and fixing things, but I think I fell into software somewhat accidentally through my first job in an engineering firm. 

What education options did you choose to get your role?

I studied all three sciences at GCSE level; Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry at A level and then went on to study Engineering at university.

When you were considering your options who influenced you? Were there any barriers to STEM in education?

I went to an all-girls school that fortunately really pushed the STEM subjects.  Both my siblings had also studied STEM subjects at A level, so it seemed like a very normal thing for me to do.  I am the youngest of three children, and neither of my siblings chose a career in engineering, so I think my father may have put extra effort in to encourage me to follow him into engineering by the time I was choosing university courses! 

What would you say to girls considering their education options?

STEM subjects lead to a wealth of potential careers – it’s not just about working in a laboratory or working in a geeky environment.  Don’t let the stereotypes blinker you – with technology and the internet now firmly part of our everyday lives, there are STEM opportunities in even the most unlikely of places. 

What might put them off a STEM career?  And how can these barriers be overcome?

One of the things that frustrates me is the perception of what people working in STEM really do.  When I meet new people in a social setting and find myself tackling the ‘what do you do?’ conversation, the reaction to ‘I’m a software engineer’ is often ‘Oh, that must be hard’ followed by a swift change of subject.  Changing the misconceptions of society as a whole and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable talking about STEM related subjects would help – I think that the media, particularly TV and film could do a lot to help here.

What needs to change to retain more women in STEM careers?

I know that a lot of women in STEM have bad experiences in our gender-biased environments, though I am fortunate never to have felt this bias myself.  I think a lot of this bias is unconscious, even if the best of intentions are in place – not just amongst the men, but amongst the women as well.  The bias isn’t restricted to the behaviour towards women in the workplace and their career progression, but applies to other things such as job descriptions and working conditions.  I think that companies should acknowledge that this unconscious bias exists and learn how to adapt their practises and training such that it becomes something that everyone is aware of.

I think that more strong female role models in the workplace will help too.  Having attended an all-girls school and then an all-girls college at university, I spent my formative years surrounded by successful women, and I think this has helped me with my perception that anything is possible. 

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