Kai Ling Lee: Building and Leading

Kai Ling Lee: Building and Leading

For Kai Ling Lee, director of firmware engineering at Western Digital, leadership comes, in part, from hard work. As a young woman growing up in Malaysia, she had a penchant for mathematics, breezing through concept after concept. When she reached calculus, however, she hit a wall. The math became harder, and Lee struggled.

“I was always a top student,” Lee recalled, “so failing was like a shock to my system.”

Lee and her father decided to enroll her in math tutoring to help her succeed. It was challenging, and Lee worked hard. Eventually, it all clicked.

“I discovered a love of mathematics. I got so engrossed and motivated to solve problems, and I think that that kind of started building my passion for problem-solving and logical thinking,” she said.

While she grew an affinity for problem-solving and technology, Lee still felt unsure about her career and future. When it came time to enroll in university, she decided to delay selecting a major until necessary, preferring to explore her options. Though Lee eventually decided to study software engineering, she continued to explore the STEM landscape, leading to her taking a hardware-focused internship.

Over her internship, Lee was tasked with developing the GUI for the company’s new hardware device. Lee wanted to do more, though and convinced her supervisors to let her build the firmware for the device as well, despite having no experience with hardware.

“At the time, higher education in Malaysia had very clear lines drawn between hardware and software,” she explained, “so I understood how to code at a high level from my classes, but I needed to teach myself how that was translated to low-level instruction.”

The company was impressed with the results, and upon graduation invited Lee back for a full-time position.

Lee found herself in a hardware world with a software mind. Her unique background helped her excel and forge a love of building architecture and firmware. She began searching for her next opportunity to nourish this new passion, leading her to Western Digital.

Despite her extensive qualifications, Lee was hesitant to apply to her dream job: firmware engineer. It was once again her father that supported her, convincing her to apply. Happily, her application was accepted, and Lee was ready for her next challenge.

As her career progressed at Western Digital, Lee took the time to work hard on herself. At work, she was busily learning the ins and outs of the storage industry, building a rapport with her colleagues, and blending hardware and software know-how to build great products. Outside of work, she was pursuing creative pursuits to find balance and joy.

“My work is so analytical, so logical, I like to balance it out with art,” Lee said. “It blends artistry with my love of building things. I love creating something brand new with a set of ingredients.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee tapped into her love of poetry, pottery, and travel to balance out the hard work of firmware engineering. Lee considered herself holistically, to ensure she was growing and ready for the next challenge, which came knocking.

“Being a leader is not easy because human psychology is not easy.”

Lee was tapped to become the manager of the growing firmware team in Malaysia. Huge amounts of trust were put into the team for their first project under Lee’s guidance, as they were tasked with building the firmware for the world’s first 14 terabyte hard drive.

“I’m really proud of my team,” Lee said, “we had to learn about technologies and architecture while collaborating globally with new teams and stakeholders. Not only was the work hard, but we also had to establish credibility.”

Lee and the team began ramping up to enterprise capacity architecture. The Malaysian team taught themselves, with substantial support from the US and Japanese groups, how to solve complex problems while developing the new drive. With support from global teams, the team was able to stay on schedule, meet their goals, and eventually deliver a cutting-edge hard drive for some of the world’s largest customers.

“We were the underdogs,” she admitted, “and I’m really happy we could deliver.”

Today, Lee still leads teams as a director of firmware at Western Digital. She supervises more than 60 engineers as they tackle technological challenges for the company. In early 2022, Lee completed a Certificate of Coaching & Mentoring Program to expand her leadership skillset. This new training was eye-opening and enhanced her ability to collaborate across the team and company. Simultaneously, she recognizes the new challenges that come with leadership.

“Being a leader is not easy because human psychology is not easy,” she said. Lee has learned to forge her own leadership style because of the lack of women leaders at the upper tiers of the organization. Simultaneously, she works to extend opportunities to more women in STEM fields, to build the next generation of tech talent.

“I’ve always noticed the discrepancy of men and women in my field, she said, “so when it comes to growing my team, one key objective is to ensure that diversity and inclusion are part of the hiring process.” Women account for just 37% of STEM students in Malaysia’s higher education system, so creating pathways to employment is vital for Lee.

“I want to ensure women can get access to good jobs, that they can integrate into the workplace, that they have mentors, are respected by their peers, and have a supportive environment to explore and grow their careers,” she said.

While taking on these new challenges and obligations, Lee has also been busy spending time with her teenager and new toddler. Navigating the new phases of life has left little time for creativity, but they are no less rewarding for Lee. Much like her mother and grandmother, Lee’s two central role models, she’s learning to balance family and career.

“My grandmother always treated me fairly, an equal to my male cousins, and encouraged me,” Lee recalled, “and I remember my mother continued her banking career while still being present for me and my two siblings.”

“I guess that’s why I’m always working hard,” Lee said, “because of them.”

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