Liang Xi Downey didn’t see the inside of a classroom until she was almost 10. Born in 1965 — just as China’s Cultural Revolution was starting — she was one of multitudes of children prohibited from starting their learning when the country’s schools and universities were forced to close.
After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, relatives took her to Beijing — where educational opportunities were better than in her native province of Sichuan. School administrators in Beijing placed Downey in sixth grade, although she didn’t even know basic math concepts. However, with the support of family and teachers, she persevered and excelled. Ultimately, despite her late start in a classroom, Downey graduated from the prestigious Tsinghua University with a degree in microelectronics.
Today, with a 30-year career that spans not only electrical engineering but also sales, marketing and business development, this IEEE Senior Member is a business strategist for DTE Energy, a Detroit-based energy company. Using AI and other advanced technologies, she leads cross-functional teams to investigate, analyze and recommend on current strategic and operational issues.
Her remarkable autobiography, From Semiconductor Physics to Sales & Marketing: My Perfect Career Path, is the subject of the latest volume (#23) in the award-winning IEEE-USA Women in Engineering (WIE) e-book series. IEEE-USA Publishing is introducing it this month in the IEEE-USA Shop — free for members and $9.99 for non-members.
Except for the first volume in the series — an overview of STEM occupations — each e-book is the personally written account of how a notable woman technologist became interested in technology, obtained her education, and developed a successful and satisfying career. Educators and women’s organizations have praised this landmark e-book series, now in its seventh year. Numerous publishing industry competitions have honored it with awards.
“Each author has a unique and inspiring story that can help to motivate the next generation of female technologists,” says Georgia Stelluto, IEEE-USA Publishing Manager, and Manager & Editor, IEEE-USA E-BOOKS. “Authors in the series are selected for the down-to-earth professional guidance they can share. They represent a diverse cross-section of backgrounds, and have all had distinctive, life-shaping experiences.”
In her e-book, Downey recalls her Beijing childhood, and how her aunt and uncle — who both had mathematics backgrounds — coached and encouraged her. In middle school, the author recalls her “thirst to learn,” and along with positive reinforcement from teachers, it propelled her through her studies.
After graduating in 1989 from Tsinghua, she joined Bailey Controls Beijing, as an application engineer for the manufacturer of distributed process controls for industrial automation. She also met her first husband, a U.S.-born colleague. Downey then accepted an offer from IBM China, as a “customer-facing” systems engineer for the company’s AIX workstation technology. This position strengthened her penchant for working directly with customers.
A move to the United States and one child later, Downey enrolled for a Master’s of Engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. “I felt I needed to recharge my skills,” she writes, “because what I did in China might not help me get a similar job in the United States.”
“I needed to be a mother,” she adds, “but going back to school allowed me to revitalize my professional skills, while also watching over my child.”
Majoring in Power Electronics, Downey formed two vital relationships that greatly shaped her life: Professor Thomas Ortmeyer and IEEE. She credits Ortmeyer as “a great mentor — and a champion for female students.” As for IEEE, since joining the Student Branch at Clarkson, Downey has held many leadership offices over the past 28 years – in both the IEEE Technology Engineering Management Society and IEEE Women in Engineering.
One of the most interesting aspects of the author’s career is her involvement with various industries and several advanced technologies: computer-aided automotive design, pervasive computing, and renewable energies. Moreover, she’s worked for major U.S. companies, including IBM (three times!) and General Motors, as well as a renewable energy start-up.
For example, as an application engineer in IBM’s Automotive Competency Center, Downey worked in the 3D electrical design area when the automotive industry transitioned from paper-and-pencil to computer-aided design. One of her proudest moments came when Chrysler, an IBM client, implemented the new design process, and she helped to enable the automotive giant to accomplish the transition.
In the chapter “Chasing My Silicon Valley Dream,” the author writes candidly about professional failure. Fired up by a new opportunity to lead a California company’s automotive telematics division, Downey negotiated an arrangement to work from home in Detroit. But the disadvantages of working remotely for her new employer soon became clear.
“Not being in the headquarters of this brand new (to me) company made it impossible to develop solid relationships with my Silicon Valley colleagues,” she writes. “In addition, I was missing out on those important, usually spontaneous, hallway conversations, and I also felt ignorant about company strategy, and both leadership and organizational changes.”
Downey notes that although her Silicon Valley bubble burst in less than a year, she doesn’t regret it. “Every organization has its challenges,” she writes, ”and it’s important to understand who you are working for, the type of leadership you’ll encounter, and the company culture.”
With her characteristic positive attitude, she emphasizes one of the lessons she learned: “Take risks, even when a risk doesn’t end with success. Take risks anyway!”
Previous volumes in the WIE series are also available free for members in the IEEE-USA Shop. Non-members pay $9.99.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.