Season 2, Episode 5: Career Transitions of a Software Engineer with Vic Ong

January 10, 2024

Stacey Copeland: Welcome to FCAT After School, a podcast project from SFU's Faculty of Communication, art and technology. In each episode we join student hosts in conversation with alumni as they explore career journeys since graduation and gather advice for the next generation. On this episode of After School, Digital Media Master's student Marshall McCann sits down with alumni Vic Ong, pipeline technical director at Bron studios - a motion picture company based right here in Burnaby, BC. The duo unpack Vic's non-linear path towards a career in software development and the leaps it took along the way. If you don’t know what a technical director is, don’t worry! We'll dive into that and the rest of Vic’s globe spanning journey from making smart mattresses, to keeping rollercoasters safe, to constructing tools in game engines. Here are FCAT’s own Marshall McCann and Vic Ong.

Marshall McCann: Hi Vic, thanks for joining me today on the podcast. Thank you for having me. Before we begin, I was thinking just a bit of who are you? You know, what do you like to do? And where are you working right now?

Vic Ong: Yeah, for sure. Currently, I'm a software engineer building tools for the animation and VFX industry. I'm currently working as a pipeline technical director at Bron Studios. And what I do essentially, is I help build tools help build software tools to allow artists to make their movie magic. So that's something that I think is really interesting, and currently shifted to this. And we'll see how that's goes.

Marshall McCann:  Okay. And so just to like, give a hard example, for the people out there who have just never heard of a pipeline technical director, which I feel like anyone who's not in animation or in games doesn't know what that is. So a hard example is maybe what an artist has an issue of some sort with the software that you're using, and you do what?

Vic Ong: So for instance, let's say a an artist, as in a 3d modeler, who is trying to build, let's say, a character to be used in animation. So they will have to use some kind of 3d modeling software, like for example, Maya, so you will build the asset, or the character. And somehow this needs to communicate seamlessly with another tool that other artists are using, for instance, to actually build the shots or the sequences that you see in the animation. Bron Studios uses Unreal Engine to build their sequences. So somehow, the assets from Maya need to transfer seamlessly to Unreal Engine. And we have our own custom pipeline that allows us to do this smoothly to be able to transfer the data smoothly. And so, this in between processes is what tools that technical directors would be developing to help ease the whole process.

Marshall McCann: And so we know each other and and I know that you have a pretty significant and turbulent journey getting to this point, like you've kind of been all around the world, and you've tried some different stuff. You've been at different companies. And I think it's really valuable for people to hear that story. And so I think I kind of want to start way back before you left Malaysia, maybe at the end of high school. And I kind of I know that you know, there's a bit of cooking a bit of culinary arts that were potentially the plan. How does one go from like, "Oh, I'm gonna potentially do culinary arts school," to "I'm going to be a mechanical engineer in Minnesota," where does that sort of transition happen? And that big decision to go abroad as well?

Vic Ong: So initially, I was looking into chemical engineering, actually, because at the time in Malaysia, oil and gas was a really big field. And it's really popular among the engineering area. And so I went into thinking that I was going to major in chemical engineering, but after I took my first chemistry class, in college, I just thought, Nah, that's not happening. But out of that semester, though, I did find physics to be something that that I could catch on to a lot better. So I thought maybe mechanical engineering will be nice because I wanted to go into robotics. So that's kind of how it started. And when you mentioned about me, landing in Minnesota, that's because the program that I enrolled in is called American Degree Transfer Program in Sumner University. And so essentially what that program is it's a start your two years of your degree, of your Bachelor's in Malaysia, and then the next two years in Minnesota. That's kind of how I transferred to Minnesota.

Marshall McCann: Okay, I see, I didn't, I didn't know that you had that bridge from a university in Malaysia first. So that's, that's cool. I feel like that that makes a lot of sense now. Yeah, like that massive that's, that's cool. I feel like that that makes a lot of sense now. Yeah, like that massive transition. And so when you're at Minnesota, and you're sort of starting to see the possibilities of mechanical engineering, what were some of the the first ideas of where you might work? What came on your radar first?

Vic Ong: Definitely robotics, I was say, that's gonna be the, that was the first one when I was in my junior year. And then I started looking a lot more into product design, actually, or design engineering, so to speak. The reason why I got into that, because I took that it took a minor in product design. And that sort of allowed me to explore how to innovate creatively. And I was learning that in parallel with mechanical engineering. So with that, combine that kind of lead, lead me to think about design engineer. So that was actually my, the first track that I went into, because I got an internship at a bed company called Select Comfort. And I was an design engineering intern there develop, developing their next generation bed system for Smart Bed 360, or Sleep Number. Funny enough, like I think, three years later, when I left, that Smart Bed 360 actually ended up being showcased in the CS 360. The show was kind of wild.

Marshall McCann: So cool. I did I did not know this, this piece of history.

Vic Ong: That was some mechanical engineering.

Marshall McCann: It's like the best application for it. You do this intern, this small internship with the mattress-bed company. You're sort of coming into that fourth year. Where do you go from there?

Vic Ong: So on my fourth year, I start of, got a little concerned, I knew that I was going to be looking for jobs in the States. I didn't want to go back to Malaysia. So really, I was only looking in, in, in the US. And finding a job in the US as a foreigner isn't exactly the easiest thing out there. So I just started applying to a lot a lot of places. So I was thinking that I wanted to do product design still. And I thought hey, would it be cool if I abled, if I'm able to, I don't know, design rollercoasters and things like that. So obviously, the first thing that came to my mind was Disney. And so I, so one of the companies that I applied to was Disney as well. Funnily enough, I, out of like almost 50 companies that I applied to, I only got two offers. It's a robotics company, and Disney. And so, of course, I chose Disney.

Marshall McCann: You spoke with a little bit of, I kind of want to touch on that product design course because I feel like that's maybe your first entrance into like, "oh, I can use my engineering background to work with something like pretty substantial. And and help designers kind of create something tangible with with their ideas." And also, you know, if you have your own idea, you can create it, it feels like that, that course was pretty impactful for like, you know, not only Disney, but the rest of the stuff that you've done suits. Would you say that?

Vic Ong: Yeah, definitely. So I definitely have to give props to the professor who actually taught me a lot of things in there. And his name is Dr. Barry Kudrovitz. And so he's think today he is the director of the College of Design, and the University of Minnesota. And so he created this course called toy design. And in this toy design course, which is the final project of my minor in product design. We essentially learned to build toys. And so in this project, what was the biggest thing I learned is practical design thinking. So I mean, if you're in design, background and arts background, you might have heard you might have definitely taken a Design Thinking 101. So I learned that for the first time when I minored, in product design, and during the toy design classes when we learn to how to use that, use that design thinking framework to actually apply it in a more practical sense. And so we decided to do that. And that allows me to learn a lot of things, such as how do you actually brainstorm properly in a multidisciplinary team? How do you actually select properly? What kind of methods can you use to drill down or refine your ideas? And how can you verify them? How can you validate them? And how and how can you test and iterate it, properly? And so I learned a lot about that. And yes, so that actually carried on throughout my career actually, even till today. So in this need, particularly, I learned a lot of things that I tried to bring in to the team at Disney was what I learned when I did my, my course with with Dr. Barry Kudrovitz. He's amazing. And even to today, I still have all of the slides on design thinking and still use it every now and then to do brainstorming, or just figure out how to innovate properly in within the team.

Marshall McCann: Yeah, and I feel like that comes in into use, especially now where you're working with modelers who are kind of like, obviously, some of that designs already figured out for them. But being able to have that communication with them and having those conversations where you're, you're able to figure out what their issue is or what their what that solution is in the software when you need to build it.

Vic Ong: 100%.

Marshall McCann: Yeah, I feel like that kicks in in that moment. So you're in the cold winters of Minnesota. And then you make this transition down to the to the sunny weather of Orlando. And what is your role when you're at Disney?

Vic Ong: So when I was in Disney, I work as a sustaining engineering intern, I work in the design and engineering department, within the parks, all parks technology team. And so one of my main job that I have here is when I was in Disney is to create data models to predict failures for the attractions in order for theme parks, a lot, six theme parks, actually four dry parks and two wet parks. And so over there, I did a lot of data modeling and which is, by the way, not mechanical engineering. Funny enough. It was some, I guess, more of data analytics. So I actually didn't ended up doing design engineering, ended up doing data, data analytics, and lots of data modeling. And when I was doing that, there are some things that I learned over there. Throughout my degree that helps me like, for example, how sensors work in a roller coaster, like I knew that through to my Bachelor's degree. But having that knowledge while wanting to do having an interest in doing data analytics really, really helped me in this role. And then at the same time, that's when I learned about software's, I started coding in SQL and Python when I was doing data modeling over there. And that really triggered a lot of interest in software development. So that's actually where my my passion in software development starts. Because I get to do that, while doing data analytics. And that really sparked a lot of interest in me. And so what I did over there then is I just set to talk to my boss, and says, "Hey, I really interested in software development. And I feel like we can maybe figure out a way to automate all these things that I've been doing. Maybe I could try to build a prototype with something." She agreed to let me try it and give me an opportunity to learn coding and implement it. And so yeah, so that was how it all started. Because my manager at the time, gave me the green light. She basically opened the door for me into becoming a software engineer today.

Marshall McCann: I'm wondering, you know, that moment where you're, you're learning all this stuff, why didn't you stay at Disney after, you know, what is it kind of end there?

Vic Ong: Not, not only Disney's The time weren't able to do the sponsorship for juniors. They also weren't set up to allow international students to apply for the STEM extension. So international students who just graduated will always have a one year work permit. If you're in a STEM field, you can also extend another two years of work. But given that the company adheres to this certain set of rules, and so Disney was not one of them. And unfortunately. So a year was was the only time that I could spend on Disney. Yeah.

Marshall McCann: And so just out of the blue, you know, would you have stayed there had had you been able to?

Vic Ong: Definitely. I, I love my time when I wasn't working in Disney.

Marshall McCann: I knew that but the listeners don't know that. And so, you know, you're finished up there. And, and you're kind of looking around and you're saying, maybe I don't have, you know, I don't have the visa yet. And I don't have the sponsorship. So what do you do?

Vic Ong: What I had to do at a time was to make sure I can find a company who does, who allows me to apply for the STEM extension, started applying to a lot, a lot of jobs. And then I landed a job opportunity in Hawaii. Yeah, pretty, pretty wild that I have all of all the places that I got, I got a software engineering position in Hawaii. So I say sure, why not? I guess let's make another move now from Florida, to Hawaii. So I just packed my bags again, fly to Hawaii, and then ship my car across to the island.

Marshall McCann: So you're, you're doing software development in Hawaii. What companies or company are you working at?

Vic Ong: So it is a consulting company called Data house consulting. What they do essentially, is there are a they are sort of like a software consultancy firm. What they do is they provide software services, implementation services, or just consultancy services in Hawaii.

Marshall McCann: And would you say that this is like your first full time software development position? I mean, I know Disney was sort of like half and half in a way, this is your first full time software development role. Right? Yeah. Okay, so that's cool. And was there any kind of like speed bumps getting up to... I don't know, I guess, like the expectation of a full time software developer?

Vic Ong: They definitely is, to some degree, I definitely when I started joining the company, and I thought to myself, Man, what have I, what have I got myself into? This is like really hard. You know, because when you get to be a full, a full time software engineer, it sort of comes with some expectation that you do know how to know, certain, you know, you do know how to do certain things by yourself. Right. And so that was there were definitely a lot of things that I needed to brush up, you know, because what I was trying to do is what people studied for four years in their bachelor's, and I learned by myself while I was at Disney for like a year. So there's definitely a lot of things to catch up. Besides just knowing the, like Python and JavaScript, right? I needed to know, a lot more on like, what are some of the good software coding practices? What are some of the software design principles? What are some of the algorithms that will make things more efficient? So a lot things to catch up? But yeah, I powered through all that. And I guess, I guess it worked out.

Marshall McCann: And so how long were you in Hawaii? At that point?

Vic Ong: It's close to one and a half years, I would say, okay,

Marshall McCann: And why does that end after one and a half years?

Vic Ong: The growth just wasn't there. So I made the choice to leave a couple of months earlier before my visa ends. And I left the states and went to went back to Malaysia to take a job as a as a senior software engineer at an E commerce firm.

Marshall McCann: I mean, I feel like this moment would have been really tough for you, you made this huge transition overseas. Did you have any expectations that you would end up back in Malaysia? Did you want to go back to Malaysia at that point?

Vic Ong:  Yeah, no, I think going back to Malaysia was definitely the last thing that was on my mind. When I left from Malaysia to to the US, for for my studies. I really wanted to stay there.

Marshall McCann: And I guess, how long were you working in Malaysia? At that point?

Vic Ong: Not too long, I would say. I would say it's about it's about a year, I worked in Malaysia for about a year. And then my, I had this like, annual performance review call with my manager. And and so this ecommerce firm is based in Taiwan. And so when he gave me when when we had this, like performance review, meeting one on one meeting, he thought that I did well and gave me a choice. And asked, "hey, you know, it's, it's kind of crazy, but would you be down to relocate to Taiwan to be part of like the core team?" And I just said, "yes."

Marshall McCann: Yeah. And while you were working there, you know, at the software development company, were you kind of making that, you know, transition to like, working with designers to talk about how the product should be developed? Or is it more separated than that?

Vic Ong: I think just because it was just a much larger team that I work in. And so I didn't have, I don't have too much say over the whole design, or over the whole infrastructure, I don't have some ownership and some say, but only in the, in the areas that I was working on.

Marshall McCann: And we begin the next leap. To, to Vancouver, yes, and the Center for Digital Media. Okay. And so I'm really interested in what drew you about the Center for Digital Media program, as a software developer as a, an engineering background, with all this history behind you, you looked at the Center for Digital Media and said, what in your brain when you first looked at it?

Vic Ong: The coolest thing that I that I saw in in the CDM program, was the fact that it is project based. And it's not necessarily thesis based. So that's one thing that was really appealing to me, because I've spent so much time working in the industry that maybe I didn't want too much of writing. And so that seems to be a perfect one. The second thing was that it reminded me of my minor in product design, and which, which I love and appreciate dearly. And so a combination of that made me take that offer and move to Canada.

Marshall McCann: For those listening who don't know what the Center for Digital Media is, in the Center for Digital Media, you have projects for each semester. And that means that Vic did three projects. So instead of going through each one, I guess, which project do you think had the most relevant and applicable skills that you learned to your job now, like what was most helpful in becoming a pipeline TD?

Vic Ong: I would say, definitely my last project, which was in third term of the master's degree, what we ended up doing is that we partner with a client in Vancouver, a startup in Vancouver, actually. And so this startup is sort of like Netflix, who creates a streaming platform for independent creators. And so what they want to do with the Centre for Digital Media with our team is to, so we sort of act as like one of the studio, who is going to be creating a animated short as a pilot for the streaming platform. And so that's kind of basically what we do. The interesting part is that this animated short has to be interactive, and rendered in real time. Pretty crazy, pretty interesting. And I don't think it has really ever been done in a more practical manner before. There probably is, but I don't think it has come to a very optimized stage yet. So right now, it's still a very experimental industry, or I guess, area to go to, I would say, real time rendering, interactive, animated short. And so that was kind of a project. And over there, I learned a lot about Unreal Engine, how to use Unreal Engine to create real time animation, as well as just because I in that program, I work with artists, writers, a lot, and project managers a lot. And so I need to make sure that I can create the tools and the workflows that allows artists, writers and designers to work together really well. And so that was kind of my role. My role was basically similar to a technical director, which is what I currently do right now. Yes, that kind of definitely helped me get the job there.

Marshall McCann: You know, I think something of note here is that you hadn't worked in media prior to coming to the CDM. At any point, right? Not at Disney, you know, was there a light they clicked on? And you were like, Yeah, I love this side of things. I like working with creators, I think that you had the chance to work with so many at the Center for Digital Media. Do you think that light bulb did click on, especially even in that third semester?

Vic Ong: Yeah. So this is this is the strange part that has come for me in my life. After accepting that program, I looked into what's in Vancouver. And then I realized that film animation and games is, is a big industry in Vancouver. And I'm a movie buff. I love movies. I love animation. And so somehow it just clicks and comes together at that point, I think. Yeah.

Marshall McCann: Yeah. And I think for anybody looking at your story, I hope it just shows that the path to a new skill set isn't linear. And it might come in places that you don't expect it and you sort of just have to take that leap sometimes and find out and continue to grow. And I think that's where you get to find the real golden moments. And even if you get kicked out of a country once or twice.

Vic Ong: Definitely.

Marshall McCann: That's, that's all I have, Vic. And I really appreciate you coming in and speaking on the podcast, you have any final words for some undergrads or grads looking at software development as a potential future?

Vic Ong: I mean, obviously, everyone has like their, their dream company that they want to work for. That should be your number two priority, and not aiming, not having dream companies being the first priority, because what's most important is that, whether or not, you can find a company that allows you to grow in the direction that you want to that, you always dreamed dream of. Maybe you didn't get to work in your dream company today. But if you are growing in the right direction that you want to, you will eventually get there. Or maybe when when you go, when you grow in that direction that you want to, maybe at a time, you've learned that you're your dream company has changed, and that's simply okay. But most importantly, is when you look back, you know that you're learning all the right things, and you're going to the right learning path. And I think that's definitely should be number one priority.

Marshall McCann: Thank you so much.

Vic Ong: Thank you so much for having me.

Stacey Copeland: Interested in learning more about the FCAT community? Stay tuned for a brand new episode of FCAT After School hitting your feeds on every other Wednesday this season! A big thanks to Vic Ong for joining us here on the show. You'll find links to resources mentioned and more info on Vic and the Centre for Digital Media MA program in the show notes. Our host for this episode was Marshall McCann. Production by Marshall and me, Stacey Copeland. FCAT After School respectfully acknowledges the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Qayqayt (kakite), Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples, on whose unceded traditional territories our three campuses reside, and where many of the stories shared in our series take place. Make sure to rate us and subscribe to FCAT After School in your podcast app of choice, so you don't miss any of our upcoming episodes. And you can follow us on social media at FCAT at SFU. That's F C A T at SFU on Twitter and Instagram. See you next time.