Joe Chang, PE, RCDD, CTS-D, an electrical engineer in Coffman’s Raleigh office, sat down with us to share his personal and professional career journey.
Why did you choose engineering?
Growing up in Taiwan, I was fortunate to have parents as great role models. I witnessed my dad become a successful dentist while working and studying hard throughout his career. The idea of becoming a dentist like my father came naturally.
To become a dentist, I needed to pass the threshold during the Taiwanese SAT exam. I failed this test not once, not twice, but three times. I could have taken the test a fourth time but I would have had to serve in the army prior. At the time, electrical engineering was the next best choice, so I went that route.
After four years in school, I was required to serve in the army. I passed the exam to become an officer. My recurring duties and lack of sleep caused physical and mental pressure, but I quickly learned to overcome it. This experience made me stronger both physically and mentally.
How was your learning experience in school?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in Taiwan. I stepped away from school for a year to serve in the army. Following that year, I continued on to school at UCLA where I received my master’s degree in electrical engineering. As strong advocates for the USA’s education system and access to new technology and resources, my parents had encouraged me to study in the USA since I was young. I was the only boy in the family, and with two older sisters, my parents wanted me to succeed even if that involved me studying abroad in the USA.
Was there a culture shock after coming to the USA?
When I arrived in the USA, I faced several challenges, one of which was an abrupt language barrier. As a master’s student, I was already trying to stay ahead, but due to the language barrier, I fell behind during my first year. In class, I could not understand what professors were teaching, as there were many technical words that were new to me. I saw myself quickly falling behind in my studies and I knew I needed to work to better myself and my academic career.
Whether talking on the phone with AT&T customer service or meeting weekly with English-speaking students who had a passion for teaching, I took every opportunity possible to speak and learn English. In order to familiarize myself with technical terms, I began auditing extra senior electrical classes. I even found myself taking accounting and chemical engineering classes which were not necessary for my program just to take every opportunity I could to lessen the language barrier.
During my second year, I started to catch up. My exams went well and I was able to overcome the language barrier.
How did you use this challenge to your advantage?
My experience coming to the USA, while challenging, allowed me to become a stronger person. By overcoming these challenges, I increased my mental capability. It made me want to learn and has since allowed me to demonstrate courage and purposefulness.
What was your life like after school?
After graduating from UCLA, I had 90 days to find a job before my visa expired or I had to return to Taiwan. Nearing the 80th day, after continuous efforts to find a position in the field, I was at peace with the idea of returning home. I decided it was time to sell my car and prepare to head back to Taiwan.
As I was at CarMax selling my car, I got a phone call asking for an over-the-phone interview. After expressing my interest, I was told I would receive a call the following Monday. Monday came and went and there was no phone call. I decided it was time to go back to CarMax with my paperwork to sell my car so I could head home to Taiwan.
Minutes before I submitted the paperwork, I got a phone call from the interviewer. He apologized for not calling on Monday, as it had been Labor Day. After the phone call, I was offered an on-site interview in Point Comfort, TX. This decisive moment in my career allowed me to remain in the USA.
What was your work life like prior to working at Coffman and how did you start your journey at Coffman?
Prior to working at Coffman, I worked at my first company in Texas for seven-plus years. I was the in-house consultant supporting a petrochemical factory. I acted as PM on the owner’s side and oversaw other subconsultants that were hired for specific jobs while also handling in-house design for smaller projects. Although I was able to pass my PE exam while working there, the lack of exciting and diverse projects didn’t allow me to gain sufficient technical knowledge to grow professionally.
I started applying for jobs but was constantly told I was underqualified until I met James Chen through a LinkedIn post regarding an opening at the new Coffman office in Raleigh. To my surprise, James was the first person to tell me I was overqualified for the position he had open at that time. I was willing to take a lower-level position if it meant I could use the opportunity to grow professionally, but James encouraged me to have faith in myself and my field experience and to not sell myself short.
While James didn’t initially hire me, I built a strong connection with him, and he later recommended me to a different consulting firm. When I was at the point of accepting an offer from the firm, James ended up offering me a position at Coffman after having reassessed the needs of the newly opened Raleigh office. I was very excited to begin my journey with Coffman as a part of the opening team for the Raleigh office.
How do you balance your work and personal life?
Balancing my work and personal life is challenging because in engineering consulting you are constantly wanting to learn more. James has always inspired me to treat my family as a priority. Family is truly valued here at Coffman, which has allowed me to maintain my work and personal life balance. I can put my family first and still continue to learn and grow within my role at Coffman. I remember switching to working mode after taking care of my family and studying after my newborn baby was down for the evening.
Now, after 11 years, what do you like about engineering?
Ever since joining Coffman and James’ team in the Raleigh office, my life has changed for the better. My father and James have been role models of proactive learning in my life, setting a great example for me and motivating me to improve myself.
I am a firm believer in continuous learning. I am still learning the technical aspects of the job, how to lead projects, and how to involve and train younger engineers. I am eager to push myself to keep learning in order to help others, as well as myself. I have built habits to become a proactive learner and to further my understanding of the engineering field. Now, I make a conscious effort to spend at least 15 minutes a day during the week and one hour a day during the weekend researching new topics or concepts I have yet to fully grasp. I also enjoy presenting various topics to peers or younger engineers to prove to myself that I fully understand the information I’m learning. It is important to put time and effort into your job. Everyone works eight hours a day. Without putting in extra time, how can you be different and better compared to everyone else?
Do you think engineering is an individual or group effort?
If asked when I first started working, I would have said engineering is an individual’s game. Now, I understand engineering is 100% a group effort. When I started working at Coffman, I was surprised that team members proactively reached out for coordination and I realized everyone cared for the overall results, not just their own parts. I learned to trust my team and that if needed, I could pass off work while I was away.
What is your biggest career accomplishment?
Studying and passing my RCDD, CTS, and later my CTS-D exams posed a mental challenge. I felt that not passing wasn’t an option since it wouldn’t be the best use of company resources. This was a great accomplishment for me since I started from scratch within the telecommunication and audio visual fields. I am grateful for my wife’s support in taking care of our family and our newborn baby at the time, as I could not have done it without her help. The Coffman family was also supportive and provided me with the resources to succeed.
What is your advice for future engineers?
I encourage younger engineers to never stop learning. It is important to not only rely on your foundations from college but to continue to read and learn as much as you can since technologies are changing every day. I also encourage future engineers to not waste time and to invest in school and continuous education.