Soon Kuek joined Lam Research 16 years ago in Fremont. Today she is the general manager of our operations in Malaysia. It’s only a coincidence (truly!) that she was also born in Malaysia. Life can be funny that way.
On Sep. 21, Soon will appear at the Grace Hopper conference in Florida alongside Lubab Sheet-Davis, vice president of Strategy and Innovation, and Alyson Crafton, head of the Global Information Systems’ (GIS) Common Services Organization. The trio will host a workshop on career development and empowerment. Grace Hopper is the premier conference in the U.S. for women in technology.
We caught up with Soon in early September to talk about her career, Lam manufacturing in Malaysia, and to get her advice for young women just starting their careers. We also discovered which talents Soon wishes she had (there are many). The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you do, exactly?
I am the general manager of Lam’s operations in Malaysia. The factory is our biggest organization here, but there are related functions, such as supply chain, finance, order fulfillment, and others. As general manager I oversee it all.
When we opened in Malaysia on August 3, 2020, we had eight employees. Today we have around 1,400 employees on site. The growth has been explosive.
Describe your career path.
I was trained as a chemical engineer and materials scientist. Prior to joining Lam I worked in tech and product development in Xerox in New York, in a technical engineering role. After my husband and I had had our child, I decided that I should stay at home, so I quit. Within a year and half, though, I realized that was not the right decision for me, so I reentered the workforce. That was 2007 and that’s also when I discovered Lam Research.
At Lam I started as a supplier engineer and I became really good at it. My manager encouraged me to expand my horizons, so I started learning about business management for supply chains. I continued to grow in my role. After several years I was asked if I was interested in helping start factory operations somewhere in Asia. At the time I didn’t know which country and I was guessing it was Taiwan. Not too many knew that I was originally from Malaysia. Imagine everyone’s surprise when it was settled that we’d open this facility in Malaysia!
What originally attracted you to Lam?
To be honest, I thought that Lam would be my entry point back into the workforce. I didn’t think I would be here for very long. A few months in, however, I realized that I had made a great decision. Lam has very strong Core Values. Our leadership is committed to helping employees develop their careers. I am proof! And so are many of my colleagues.
Why do you stay at Lam?
I continue to get new challenges that make me feel rewarded and fulfilled. When I think I have mastered my job, something new comes up that requires me to stretch myself. Lam provides a safety net when they encourage someone to take a new path. I might stumble, but it does not mean I am not an asset to this company because people know my track record.
I know that I am making a positive impact for the company. I wake up and know that I am going to go out there and make a difference.
Describe your leadership style.
My leadership style evolves with the scope of my responsibilities. When I was younger managing a smaller group, I led by example, including showing people what to do. I acted like a teacher. As I continued in my career, I realized that I needed to lead differently. Today I am more of a coach helping people make transformational changes. It’s the right attitude to have in my current position because we are here starting something from nothing. I am empowering our people to make important and meaningful decisions for our operations.
Moreover, I need to incorporate the environment into my decision-making. I need to apply some of Lam’s best practices to local customs and culture and do so in a way that maintains Lam’s Core Values.
What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Curious, passionate (sometimes intensely so!), and adaptable. I was born and raised in Malaysia, moved to the United States, and now I’m back in Malaysia. I have succeeded in these moves because I am highly adaptable.
And what are three words colleagues would use to describe you?
Interrogative, because I ask a lot of questions. Fast, because I’m always moving from one thing to the next. And collaborative, especially because here I need to work with so many external parties.
What are you talking about at Grace Hopper?
Our workshop focuses on how women in technology can innovate to break barriers. One example is from my recent experience here in Malaysia. I had to ramp up the factory very, very quickly. On top of that, our Malaysian site had a stretch goal of ensuring gender diversity. Most of the employees here are factory workers in high-tech hardware manufacturing. It can be an intimidating role for women in Asia. My team has been working to change perceptions and to make reasonable accommodations.
For example, how can we change the ergonomics of the work so that lifting and moving heavy equipment can be done by local women who are generally small in stature? We have also set up training so that highly technical work can be made more accessible to a greater workforce. We have done this by partnering with local institutes that can help with the curriculum. Students who complete the classes have a chance to apply for a position at Lam.
What’s one takeaway you want participants to walk away with?
I want participants to feel emboldened to not settle. Young women should not settle because they think there are limitations and boundaries. I want them to be curious and to ask what can be done to remove those barriers.
I also want to emphasize that young women need to find the right company. Not all companies will provide the right opportunities for growth. Lam Research does. I really want to showcase Lam because I have benefited from leadership making way for career development.