Interviewed by Lauren Edwards
Photography by Eric J.W. Li
After a year of operating between Hemlock and Spruce trees in Northern BC, Adam Nguyen came back to Vancouver. After graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Natural Resource Conservation, Nguyen worked in the field in Fort St. John, where he surveyed the water courses, vegetation, plants, and wildlife to make sure oil and energy companies followed BC’s environmental regulations.
He has shifted from his Wildlife Biologist career and is enrolled in BCIT’s Mechanical Engineering program.
His environmental responsibility values are reflected in his position as Vice President of Equity and Sustainability. “My job is to create a vision that enables us to have better lives here at BCIT,” explains Nguyen. “In terms of environmental sustainability, I do have experience and I am hoping to bring that experience, knowledge, and environmental values to our institution.” Somehow, Adam manages to incorporate time for his passions into his schedule.
Inspired by the lush forestry surrounding his school and learning about Canada’s lumber, Nguyen took up woodworking—using a CNC to create pieces out of Pine and Spruce. Alongside pursuing his woodworking hobby-turned-side-hustle, he teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in multiple gyms, including the Vancouver Mind-Body Centre. Passionately active in the sport for 14 years, he recently earned his black belt and says Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu “erodes all these unnecessary fears a lot of people have before they meet people.”
We spoke with Nguyen about his career change, woodworking, and advice.
What made you decide to go into engineering?
I loved being a wildlife biologist. I was still relatively new as a professional, but I felt myself [improving] quickly because the company was small and my boss was making me do intermediate to advanced level work. It was really great for me, but now I know what I’m going to do for the next 20, 30 years of my life if I remain in this role. How would that play out in my professional career?
Being in such a specialized niche area, there is not much room to move. I thought, would I be happy if I did this for the next 20, 30 years? I love doing it now and I probably would love doing it for the next five years, but I would also like to be a project manager at an engineering firm.
In general, when you work in a specialized area, you lose the opportunity to build skills for other positions. Engineers have a broad knowledge and their skills are transferable, and I love the work they do. I’ve met so many respectable and intelligent engineers during my time up north, and I want to be one of these guys when I grow up too. So, here I am back at school.
What are your plans after you’re done with school?
It’s been four years of self-exploration and self-growth. You come into school, the beginning stages of your academic studies thinking, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to be, I’m going to be a mechanical engineer manager for a big oil company and make buttloads of money.’
Then you remember how nice it is to live in Vancouver. How nice it is to have Korean food, Indian food, all the nice things about Vancouver that [are] not present in a place like Fort St. John. As lovely as that place is—maybe I don’t need to work in the energy sector anymore. Maybe, I can live here in Vancouver somehow. I realized that I really enjoy working with people. I enjoy talking to people and that is something I want in my career. I don’t want to sit in an office making engineering drawings all day, I want to be able to work with people, find solutions, and work together.
How are you going to incorporate your sustainability values into your engineering work?
Our cities are built on the ideas of engineers. I want to work in HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), because every single building that we have here in our cities and our homes has these systems.
[I would be] able to think of how we can make these systems more sustainable in terms of energy reduction. We don’t need to turn up the heat all the time, for example. Maybe if you have an automatic system in place instead of setting your heat all day, [it will] turn the heat on only when people are home. Things like that. That is something I want to be a part of.
What do you use to make your woodworking projects?
I have what is known as a CNC—which stands for Computer Numerical Control—routing machine. Basically, any machine that runs off of some kind of a program or a sequence of movements, this is essentially a CNC machine. 3-D printers and laser cutters are examples. CNC routing or milling machines look like a drill. In layman’s terms, it’s basically a computer-controlled drill bit. The computer guides the drill bits in a pattern to produce your end products.
That’s how you create your woodwork design, essentially. The manufacturing side of things is where I like to spend a lot of my time. Then there are the designs—how to make things pretty. That is something I’m still very amateur at. Something that looks beautiful to me, looks like a disaster to someone else. I need to make sure that when I choose designs, I do something everybody agrees with and not just me.
What kind of wood products do you make?
Currently, I am finding the most success in fabricating home decor products. Signs, little furniture, this and that. I’ve been busy getting about two to three orders per day, and that’s why making sure things can be done quickly is important. The home decor is one product line that I’m working on right now, but I want to move towards the wedding industry.
What’s your advice for someone who is thinking about doing a big career change in their life?
Whatever you’re bringing from your previous professional career can be extremely advantageous to you.
Take me for an example. Stereotypical engineers don’t like to talk to people. They like to be left alone. I’m of a different nature. I am not the engineering sort. I struggled–I struggled brutally in my engineering program because I realized I’m awful at mathematics, and you need mathematics to be successful in engineering. It is [also] because I have a different personality.
I’ve struggled through the program because I am not talented, but with every weakness, there is a strength that you have somewhere else in your life.
My strength is being able to communicate and articulate my ideas and compelling a person towards this point of view. This is something that I see as a skill set that I am constantly working on, something that I feel I have that is unique among engineers. I feel that these ‘soft skills’ about are actually extremely important, and they are often overlooked in these technical fields, especially in engineering.
What is the hardest part about changing careers?
The thing is, whatever I’m about to say here will probably be a really different experience to other people—my experiences may not apply to everybody. Personally speaking, you are about to go from whatever income that you had to zero income per year. It’s a struggle.
If you have a professional career that makes a salary and you want to make such a dramatic change where four years of schooling is required—[then you] require four years of financial strategic planning.
What is the biggest benefit of changing your career?
It is acquiring other skill sets. I was awful at mathematical thinking. When somebody said to me, all of this is seven and a half inches by whatever inches or somebody says, this has a PSI of whatever, I don’t know what that means.
Before I would say ‘I don’t know what that means, I have no understanding of this.’ These are the types of skills that you require to do anything, whether you want to go into woodworking or something else. I would not be able to be successful with woodworking without my experience and learning from mechanical engineering.
I feel that I’m not an expert or a genius, but now I do have some kind of understanding of how things work mechanically. That is going to be an addition to the other skill sets that [I] have acquired from my other professional career. It’s a powerful combination if you can bring more than one skill set to the table.