Conversations with Phyllinda Tan

Phyllinda Tan is today an engineer with Cyient. Her way into engineering, though, is something she describes as quite serendipitous, having occurred through much avoidance: “avoid business, avoid the arts, avoid economics”. This process of elimination led her to do mechanical engineering in university. However, she still never really expected that she would end up in the aerospace industry because she had never really known what she wanted to do. But having tried her hand at an internship in this field made her think that it was something she wanted to do. So, her advice: “It’s okay to just do something, and try.”

P: I work in this company called Cyient. Basically, my role is a repair design engineer. I’m the middle man between the Original Engine Manufacturer (OEM), which is Pratt and Whitney, and the customers. Pratt and Whitney is an American company that manufactures aircraft engines, so they are like the ‘main brain’. The customers can be other engine repair shops or airlines and I help them with issues regarding repair. They raise questions like “Can I do this? Can I do that?” and I will filter what is important then bring it to the OEM. On their end, there is more than one person who will be making the decisions as there many aspects that they have to be concerned about.

For example, the roles and responsibilities in my organisation are split by hardware. I am responsible for turbine blades. For every repair that we do to the part, we have to think of its structural integrity and aerodynamics. Methodologically, we have to consider if there should be any changes to the material. The inputs will come from different people in the OEM which I have to gather and ask questions like “Do you think this is okay?” or “I’m going to change this. Are you okay with it?” So, I have to liaise with a lot of people to gather consensus.

P: I come to work, I open my email and I get flooded! We’re sort of a tag team. The reason we are based in Singapore is because there are a lot of repair shops in the East of the world so we sort of do a tag team with the West. They work in our night and we work in their night. We send over what has to be done, read through emails and understand what they did on their end. Then I plan my day – what is the most important, who is asking for their things in the loudest voice. Plan your day and prioritise. Then I go about calling people and sending out emails. Sometimes to get more information, tell people what to do or just to find out if a particular solution can be used. It’s a lot of communication.

Gathering information about a particular problem can be a long process; depending on the problem, it could take up to a whole day. We have to look at the schedule of the repair shop as well. Sometimes they can only do certain things at certain times during the day. So, it will take a whole day to get information but in the meantime, I can do other work. In the aerospace industry, regardless of where you go, there is a lot of documentation involved. Everything requires documents. The paper work is technical in nature. So when you write, it’s your technical opinion. You have to rationalise and substantiate. Every repair is like writing a report. So, in the event that anything really happens, you can go back and check on your assumptions and considerations.

P: It has been very challenging. When I first started, you have to give this position to the customers and act like you know what you’re saying. Being new at that point of time, it was a bit intimidating. Because these guys have 10, 15, 30 years of experience in the field and they know exactly what they’re talking about. On the other hand, I may not know what they’re talking about. The start was very rough even when I was dealing with easier requests.

Time has progressed and I’m now three and half years in the job. I can stand on my own two feet. But what I’m seeing now is more difficult requests and again, it’s very challenging. Instead of just doing day-to-day tasks to support them, I also help to develop long-term repairs. I start to tread into the project management and business aspect, handling bigger projects and more stakeholders.

P: I think for me, I like interacting with people. It really depends on what you’re looking for in your work. I have colleagues who hated the job because they felt that it was a process of constant ‘firefighting’ where you don’t see an end – you finish this task then the next day, another task comes in. You don’t get to have a sense of accomplishment because there’s no reaching point to show that you have levelled up. You won’t really feel that in an operational support work like this. I guess I’m more of an extrovert so I thrive on human interaction. And it gives me a sense of accomplishment when customers trust me more. For example, before sending in the case through an official system, there is an internal arrangement where the customers will call me first to raise the problem and ask for advice. When they are new, they just want things their way but now they will call me first and negotiate. Everyone is happy at the end of the day.

P: Actually, to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was expecting. I guess thus far it has been up to my expectations and maybe that is because I set the right expectations initially. A lot of people come into aerospace thinking that they’ll be able to the see the plane. But in truth, I’m hardly near the hardware. The people who are actually working on the hardware are the technicians. That’s not really the engineers’ work. Engineers can go there, look, ask for measurements and give instructions. They tell them what to do but are not the one doing the hands-on work.

So, in a way, I haven’t had the chance to do technician-level work. If I had it my way, I would have chosen to go into Polytechnic back then. But I went for Junior College (JC) and then University. So, my first exposure to such hands-on work was during my internship at General Electric Aviation, also a repair shop. I was down on the shop floor with technicians and my role was the runner where I would pass the message from the engineers to the technicians. And I found that I enjoyed the human interaction. For me, I feel like my own strength is that I’m able to go into a group and be able to immediately relate to them. Usually, the people in shops are uncles and aunties. You go there to talk, relate to them and make requests.

P: Definitely, the internship experience helped me to get this job in the first place. They asked about my internship during the job interview and I was able to say what I learnt and I think it left a good impression back then.

P:  I would say that people need to go and find out what the job role is about before they commit to it. The thing about aerospace is that there is always a glitter around it. But it’s just packaging and there are a lot of roles within the industry. You can be doing quality control, environmental health and safety, lean manufacturing, process and methods and you have to look into the role before accepting it.

For example, I have colleagues who are called stress engineers and their work is to sit in front a computer and run computer simulations of stress on a hardware. You overload them with information and with that, they run the analysis. These people don’t talk to anyone in the office and you communicate to them through email, and this is also part of aerospace engineering. The whole realm is too broad and it can fit you in different ways. So, my advice would be: first, you must know what you want; second, know what the job is really about and what it can offer you.

Even for me, I actually didn’t really know what I wanted. I knew that I wanted to be in a more interactive role. But one thing that was very special in my case was that, in the first two years that I had in this company, I was in this rotation programme. I was able to switch job roles and not just rotating from one hardware to another. I went to do stress engineering, reverse engineering and tried out the different possibilities. From there, I found where I am most comfortable in – which is where I am now.

P: I think the current structure is very hierarchical. In many aerospace companies, the one who has been there the longest has the biggest say. I feel that it is not so bad in my company because we are relatively young. And I agree with our dear Prime Minister who says that nobody has a monopoly on what is the right thing to do. In a sense, the industry has to adapt to the new wave of millennials entering the workforce. There’s a lot of old thinking inside. I think when the millennials go in and they realise that their voices are drowned out, it’s very easy to get jaded. So, for me, I think that the system needs to change such that the younger folks may have an equal voice as well.

Because I’m quite loud, I think I was able to voice out whatever I wanted to say. But I think with time, I also learnt to be more assertive. As a female in an engineering firm, I am surrounded by guys. I learnt that for every action I take, I have to think about how it affects my credibility. I think it’s a process. Overtime, people will look at you differently. So, it’s about earning trust and respect. It helps that I was very lucky as well to be given several high-profile projects. Sometimes, you have to be thick-skinned.

P: I had this colleague who entered the company around the same time as me, but she’s a lot quieter. For people like her, they have to play the field differently. What she does to overcome that is to do a lot of homework and it is something useful that I have learnt from her. Before a meeting, I usually go in and debate on the spot. For her, she calls up the attendees to give them a heads-up so that a certain consensus is already reached before the meeting. She makes sure that everyone is on the same page and if there are any objections, she has already prepared for it. She can do it in a docile manner and everyone leaves the meeting happy. So, there are really different ways you can handle it but still come out with results.

P: I get to work with people all over the world. I have customers from Germany, Japan, US and sometimes New Zealand. You get to work with different people and you realise that different cultures work differently. Another highlight is working on urgent tasks, also called Aircraft on Ground (AOG) operations, which means that the airline is losing millions of money as the aircraft is grounded. What happens is that you will be squeezed on both sides to deliver the solution. It’s really a pressure-cooker situation. Ultimately, the people who thrive in these kind of environments are those who like challenges. It makes things more exciting. Every time there’s an AOG, your task gets fast-tracked and a lot of big bosses get involved because the airlines have a lot of power, so everyone is just trying to escalate it upwards.

P: It is when I hear my customer reply in a way that I expect; when things go smoothly and there are no hiccups. Because, when I email customers, I more or less expect a particular answer as I direct them, so basically if everything goes according to plan, that would be a good day. But I think it comes with experience. At the start, things won’t go your way most of the time. You will be overloaded with certain things but engineering is a field where, with time and experience, you can predict and manipulate things to go your way – just like my mentor in the US who recently retired: he has 30 years in the field and everyone regards him highly; it’s only been 3 years for me.

P: There have been some times when I thought about like what it would be like to quit, but, at the same time, the grass is always greener on the other side so this makes me very cautious as well. And I think this experience comes with every job. But even if I do quit, I will still want to stay in aviation. There has to be something that grounds you at the end of the day.

P: I’ll probably still be an engineer, though I do sometimes think about trying to do something different like going nearer to the plane. What I’m currently doing is very deskbound so I want to try something that will bring me a bit closer to the plane itself. But I don’t have any concrete plans; I just want to become better at what I’m doing in multiple aspect by perhaps taking up different projects and getting exposed to different areas.

P: Firstly, communication. Secondly, delegation in terms of knowing who the best man for your job is because when you’re working with a lot of people with different expertise, you need to know the right person to ask. This comes with you having experienced working with them and through referrals. Customer-focus is also important because you have to meet what they want. Technical knowledge is good to have but you can do without – it’s something that you pick up along the way. The four years of engineering school contributed to shaping the way I think which is important in my field of work. There’s a lot more to engineering than academics.

P: I think a lot of people come into engineering expecting to do a lot of calculations. Yes, I do calculations from time to time. It does come into use but I think that’s not a major aspect of the work. You’ll realise that there are so many things involved. Initially, I came into engineering through an elimination process: avoiding business, arts, and economics. Eventually though, everything still overlaps; right now, I’m looking at business plans and financial work and that is all part of your job. Engineering is a lot more than calculations. It encompasses a lot of other fields.

I did mechanical engineering when I was in University and didn’t really expect myself to do aerospace. All along, I never really knew what I wanted; but it’s okay if you don’t know what you want. Five years ago, I didn’t know what I wanted, but upon having tried it out just through the internship, it made me think that it was something that I wanted to do. So, it’s okay to just do something, and try.