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  • #6 in R&D and manufacturing
  • > 100,000 employees

Lillian Zhou

Failure isn’t failure if you learn something from it – then it becomes a stepping stone. People don't like to talk about bad times so it's hard to know, but more ‘successful people’ than you may realise bombed at something else before they started succeeding.

What's your background?

I grew up in Perth and did all my standard schooling there – more or less going with the flow all the way up to a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and a first job as an Instrumentation Engineer. A few years into that first job though, I realised it wasn’t working for me – while it could be an awesome job for someone else, I didn’t actually enjoy it and couldn’t look forward to any description of what the future looked like in it. I left and took some time to think about what I really wanted; my original career choice was swayed by things like what my family wanted and what would look more impressive – compelling reasons when I was an uncertain and stressed teen, but silly reasons in retrospect. In the end I decided I still wanted to work in tech, but in something closer to my hobbies – i.e. software. I moved to Sydney to join family and reskill with a Master’s at UNSW. Oddly enough, the first thought I had about switching jobs was working with something Honeywell made and thinking “Gee, I would really rather build this than what I'm actually doing” - and now I'm at Honeywell making that thing.

What's your job about?

Honeywell as a whole does a lot of things, but from the perspective of Honeywell Software Centre, we make automation for industrial control systems. ‘Control systems’ can sound abstract but it boils down to the ‘robot nervous system’ that makes sure a site as large and complex as Sydney Airport is running smoothly, automatically. As a software engineer, my job has two parts. First, to support sites all over the world that are using our software and have run into a problem with it. It involves quickly investigating and fixing or finding a way around that problem. This part of the job can come hard and fast - after all, a site is running and often needs help Now. Second - and this is where most of my time goes - to develop new software that makes our technology more useful for more customers, where a customer might be a large processing plant. For me in particular, this involves full-stack development for new widgets and functions to take Honeywell towards the life sciences (e.g. manufacturing medicine). I've worked on databases, communication channels, displays and anywhere in between.

Did you always know you wanted to work in this field?

Yes and no. I wanted to work with tech as a typical ‘math and science kid’ but I wasn’t always certain on software specifically. In primary school I wanted to work in software because I had fun making awful webpages on Neopets. In high school I wanted to work in more classical engineering because it seemed more realistic and real (in that it would involve physical things). Switching to software was returning to my roots in a sense, after taking my hobbies back into consideration.

What is most rewarding about your job?

What I like most is making things (my hobbies are a mix of artsy and software-y) so the part of my job I enjoy most is being able to immerse myself in designing and building new applications. As you can imagine, I’m very visually motivated and love to see something I made come to life when put into place. The part that makes the job most rewarding, though, is that the software I make has a very real and physical impact, that goes beyond a screen into the plants, refineries, etc. that supply our everyday needs.

What were some of the challenges you faced in getting to where you are now?

Being on call for support is probably the most challenging part of the job. Problems never plan themselves so sometimes it’s quick and easy, and sometimes you get mind-benders that mean sudden long overtime, including on weekends or holidays. The heavy industry clientele also means that software upgrades are very costly, so what we write must work and work well for a very long time – into the decades. As a result, development is often limited by history and designing new things on top of the existing codebase can be complex.

3 pieces of advice for you would give women who want to work in your industry?

  • Get a feel for the job as early as possible. Go to career fairs, do internships and industry placements, talk to people working in the industry (including the cynics), look for advice online. University is very different from work so believe it when they lampshade it.
  • Failure isn’t failure if you learn something from it – then it becomes a stepping stone. People don't like to talk about bad times so it's hard to know, but more ‘successful people’ than you may realise bombed at something else before they started succeeding.
  • Value your own understanding of yourself. Pay attention to workplace culture and how happy you are in it, because your happiness can make a big difference to how well you reach your potential. Don’t lose sight of who you are and what brings out your best – and don’t be tricked into thinking that has to conform to anyone else’s ideas.