Home / Blog / Catching Up with Chinloo Lama – Part 1

Catching Up with Chinloo Lama – Part 1

Catching Up With Chinloo Lama

User Experience Design Director and STEAM Outreach at Dassault Systèmes

Recently, we had a chance to catch up with Chinloo Lama. Chinloo is the User Experience Design Director and STEAM Outreach at Dassault Systèmes. She shared a bit of her background and how she was able to incorporate her engineering education with her creative side to help navigate a career that thus far has been truly impactful without compromising who she is.

Chinloo shared what it’s been like to be a woman in engineering over the last 20 years.

Chinloo reminisced about her time at the various SOLIDWORKS/3DEXPERIENCE World events and recalled the year where she launched SOLIDWORKS ‘Apps for Kids’ on the main stage at SOLIDWORKS World 2015. Chinloo shared how she got involved in the Magic Wheelchair organisation and how it has clearly become a labour of love for her and many other employees at Dassault Systèmes as well as the entire SOLIDWORKS Community.

Chinloo, please share with us a bit about yourself…

“Sure! I am originally from Malaysia where I was born in a tiny town near the Malaysian peninsula (near Singapore). We came to the US when I was just 9 years old and stayed with family in upstate New York. After receiving my Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic institute (RPI), I recognised I needed my brain a bit ‘rewired’ so pursued my MFA in Computer Graphic Design at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Even then I didn’t find something that ‘really’ fit my left brain/right brain until I eventually met Jim Wilkinson at SOLIDWORKS.”

Chinloo presenting on SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids at SOLIDWORKS World 2016, Day 2 General Session

What was it that sparked your interest in mechanical engineering?

“It was an interesting path for me. In high school, I was an art student. Initially, I was on a trajectory to go to Cooper Union in New York City to pursue a degree in classical art. Being from a Chinese family, my parents had a sense that you need to make money and not be an artist – you can be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.”

“As I was really good at math and science, discovering engineering was really through hearsay. Having a great counsellor, I learned I could go into mechanical engineering and that allows you to create and design, something that was appealing to me. I wasn’t involved in Robotics or otherwise – and I wish I was! When I got into RPI, I was kind of feeling ‘out of place’ – even though I wasn’t. Our classroom ratio was about a 7:1 ratio of male to female engineering students.”

What year did you start at SOLIDWORKS?

“It was 2008.”

Was your first job at SOLIDWORKS?

“No. Interestingly enough, I didn’t come out of school thinking I would be a software designer. As a mechanical engineer, all of the jobs I interviewed for were for product design. I ended up working for Polaroid, where I was hired with another female student from MIT. We were responsible for rejuvenating their instant film line. They wanted something that youth would cling to that used the Polaroid instant film.”

We designed a digital printer – it was a tiny little printer that once you took a picture it would print out individual photos immediately. You could print multiple photos on the spot for anyone. It was a fun product to help design and I got a few patents out of that. It really was a blast until the company started to decline. When they started to downsize, it was time for me to leave.”

“It was after leaving Polaroid that I went to RIT to pursue my degree in Computer Graphic Design. After all, I was an art student and having a high-tech degree made me miss that. I went back and got my fill of multimedia and game design.”

“We learned a lot and we were doing great things; I was ahead of my time in this area. This was well before augmented reality (AR) and before many of the gaming companies were breaking ground. All I could find was a job creating digital training. This new role allowed me to design software, it’s where I learned a lot about user interface (UI) and software design.”

“It was my husband Sal who worked at SOLIDWORKS at the time that said, ‘you should meet with someone on the usability team’ (that’s when I met Jim Wilkinson). When I met with Jim, he thought we would be a good match with my CAD and Design education and my art background– we merged it all into my position with SOLIDWORKS.”

Chinloo, from your perspective, what is it like to be a woman in engineering?

“Well, I definitely think that it has changed in the last 20 years. I feel that during the time when I was a student and then going into the professional world that often, I was one or one of a handful of women in the room. It was intimidating.”

“One of the things that I had to overcome was my self-confidence. While I would work harder to understand the content, I probably spoke the least. I was afraid what I was saying would not be taken seriously or found to be viable or helpful.”

“That’s the one thing that I hope for others – no one should edit themselves. You took the time to be there, and you have a reason to be there; make sure you contribute when there is something you can add. Ask questions as well, that was a tough lesson for me. I was always afraid of asking questions or otherwise not sounding as intelligent. Once you challenge a thought and learn how to ask questions in a productive way it is very helpful. I learned to believe in myself and surround myself with advocates. I was fortunate to have multiple managers of both genders who were able to step up and vouch for my value.”

“After a while, you learn that when you meet new people – it’s a new day. As a woman, you have to prove yourself. When I walk into a room now I have no confidence issues and if I have to repeat myself now, I don’t have a problem. When someone underestimates me, I use it as fuel. The best feeling is to prove them wrong. Age, experience, being a mother and having good people around me, plus being a woman of colour, give me a perspective and I look at all of the consequences. I am able to raise questions that I feel other people in the room may be scared to share.”

Have you noticed that the woman to men ratio has shifted?

“Yes, I do see a shift in the numbers – it may still be higher in the larger universities, but I think in general there has been some balance. Gender equity is getting there – however, the idea of minority and majority is still there.”

“We are seeing people from different races, ethnicities as well as people with limited abilities, or people in need of support or assistance that there are still minority/majority rules still in place for the majority. While bias still exists, things are changing, and it makes me believe that these other areas may hit some equity.”

As a professional woman in engineering, is there any practical experience or advice that you can offer?

Technical skills are always a good thing; you need to be able to swim in the environment you are placed in. Be versed enough to be dangerous! The things I find most interesting and make an impact, are the soft skills and well-roundedness.”

“It’s not just about the technical skills or subject but how you interact with the teams and those around you. No matter the job, you will have to interact. The ability to communicate often, give feedback in a productive way and provide constructive criticism is important. Interactions and knowing when (and how) to share is something you can develop – there are skill-building courses out there.”

“I’ve always been struck by people that have the balance between left and right brain – the ability to be highly technical, follow the train of thought, understand why certain technical things are necessary, but the same time can have that creativity to be able to elaborate to pull everything together and to communicate it. In summary – be technical but able to be creative and be able to elaborate, bring together and share ideas.”

Chinloo, let’s talk about SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids. Please can you give us an overview for those that don’t know what it is?

“Yes, absolutely. SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids is a set of online games (I want to call it games), but online tools that are completely free for anyone ages 4 to 14.”

“It’s an area where you can explore 3D modelling, mechanical design, sketching and everything that has to do with getting ideas in your head to something that is in your hands. There were probably three key people that first kicked off the idea and then very quickly a fourth person came along to make it proof of concept. From that, it stayed as a little tiny skeleton crew that really just poured their heart into it and made it a reality. It was pitched to the right people and the right people listened, making it something that we could share to the world. Yeah, I’m the one that really sparked the whole thing. Sal and I came up with some ideas on our way home (we commute together to work and home).”

“We started poking at some ideas about what would be if we had to design CAD for our kids, and at the time our kids were in grade school. We came up with this concept and then at the same time someone else (Justin Burton) was also exploring some ideas on his end. He started giving us input and then Hareesh Manohar (a great developer) put his heart into designing it. It’s almost like we all wanted to pursue something for our children or for the next generation because we just had that forward-thinking vision.”

“We came together and combined all of our ideas into this one cohesive solution. It really was the idea of breaking these individual things out into a complementary set of things where a child wants to do something fun, but they may not know all of the tools and skills that they need to get it done.”

“They might love doing one thing, like some kids just love playing with clay and they love modelling and doing all sorts of stuff. Other kids love painting and drawing. Some other kids just like pulling things apart and building them up. Put those kids together, and you allow them to work together and come up with a solution for a particular problem that they’re all trying to solve. The idea is we break it all down and into fun things for the kids.”

“If you go to the SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids website, you’ll learn all about it. We’ve since also enhanced it with a classroom version that allows a teacher to now set up an environment where it’s safe for their students to just play, without any kind of potential outside distractions.”

Did your kids help by giving you any feedback?

“Yes, actually, we had lots of that. In fact, by the time we could get something in front of our kids, my oldest was already growing out of the age gap. He was already going into high school. We got our kids, our nieces, and nephews to test it out. We had employees’ children testing it out. There was a lot of ‘we wish you would do this and that’ so we did as much as we could to improve it based on their feedback. We also ran it with local schools. We got some great suggestions everywhere we asked. We can’t address everyone’s needs because if we do then it wouldn’t be a purposeful product.”

There’s More to Come

It was a pleasure speaking with Chinloo, learning about her role at SOLIDWORKS and hearing about the impressive achievements in her career. As a woman in engineering, Chinloo is inspiring others to have the confidence to stand out in this sector.

Look out for Part Two where we will be continuing our conversation with Chinloo, discussing her passion for technology and the SOLIDWORKS Community and also her involvement in the Magic Wheelchair program.

Celebrating Women in Engineering 

On International Women’s Day we took the opportunity to celebrate more amazing women in our community.

Check out their inspiring stories on our blog.