SFU tech pioneer retires after nearly 4 decades with the university

June 24, 2020

By Ray Sharma

The man who brought SFU’s School of Engineering its first desktop computer has officially concluded his career after 38 years.

Chao Cheng began his career at SFU in 1982 as a technologist in SFU’s Computing Centre (now known as IT Services). In February, he completed his tenure with the university as the manager of facilities and technology in the Faculty of Applied Sciences.

Cheng in an Engineering Science office in the Applied Science Building in 1990.

Cheng’s impact on the university could be felt early in his career. Shortly after joining the university he created the first two local area networks (LANs) for the School of Engineering Science – OfficeNet and LabNet – for staff and students respectively. In 1989, he converted both networks to a faster, more reliable Ethernet connection.

Cheng making last minute adjustments as the SFU team prepares for an international robot soccer competition in Paris in 1998.

Cheng also got involved with students. Between 1996 and 2002, he led SFU’s student robotic Soccer team twice at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Seoul, South Korea and in Paris, France.

SFU was the only Canadian team to compete and received media coverage from CBC, CTV and the Vancouver Sun. In 1997, Cheng hosted the KAIST team’s visit to SFU.

Remaining at SFU for 38 years wasn’t in Cheng’s original career plan, but he stayed because there was always an interesting new project to undertake. Watching students and faculty achieve success was another motivator, as was the consistent support he received from colleagues.

“I’d go through any complication to ensure that a student graduates,” says Cheng. “And I’m very grateful for the teamwork that went into the projects I worked on.”

During his long SFU career, Cheng’s greatest contributions were helping to design the Applied Sciences Building and the Technology and Science Complex (TASC) at the Burnaby campus, and the expansion building at the Surrey campus.

He created a new PC-based network system for the engineering science offices in the Applied Sciences building and also assisted the Network Support Group (NSG) to develop the entire building’s Unix system.

For the TASC, he spent two years (from 2003 to 2005) working with contractors and architects to achieve his vision of a more spacious working environment for the computing science research labs. Then, he spent the next four years designing and supporting teaching labs for the new Mechatronics Systems Engineering Program in the expansion building at the Surrey campus.

Chao Cheng (third from left) receives the Faculty of Applied Sciences Award of Excellence for Superior Performance in Service (Staff) in 2010. The award was presented by John Driver, former SFU VP Academic (fourth from left), and Nimal Rajapakse, former Faculty of Applied Sciences Dean (fourth from right).

Cheng began planning his retirement in 2017 but was sidetracked by what he refers to as his capstone project: the new Sustainable Energy Engineering (SEE) School building at SFU’s Surrey campus. He remained an additional two years to work with the implementation and technical support teams, specifying the requirements for the SEE’s teaching labs.

Cheng took pride in his membership on an energetic and dependable work team.

“Due to the loyal support of my team, I was able to succeed in my daily work,” he says. “Each day brought its own challenges, but the last 38 years were certainly rewarding and I’ll always cherish the friendship of my coworkers.”

Cheng setting up one of the teaching labs for the School of Sustainable Energy Engineering at SFU’s Surrey campus in 2020.