For Dr Mohamed Lebbai, the key to being a successful professional engineer is adaptability and an understanding of what society needs. "It is very different today from how it used to be," he noted. "Society does not wait for students anymore. It is the students who must rely on society."
Now working for Philips Lumileds in Malaysia, with two patents under his belt, Dr Lebbai often finds himself in the position of interviewing and selecting graduates to join the company. He says he looks for optimistic people, who seek to learn what the company expects of them rather than only being concerned with what they can get from the company.
However, he also respects and understands his young employees who are honest in telling him if the job is not what they expected a few months into work. If he sees value in them, he tries to fit them into positions where they can further develop their skills and talents.
"Every young engineer has dreams," he said. "The key is to understand that others will also have expectations of them."
Dr Lebbai, who originally comes from India, knows this from personal experience. As a young electronics engineering graduate, he initially found it hard to find a job in Hong Kong as he did not speak Cantonese and had no previous work experience, which were the first two questions asked by potential employers. He was also the first person from his hometown Kayalpattinam, a small village in South India, to come to Hong Kong with a professional qualification and had no other support network.
When Dr Lebbai finally got a job in an electronics company in Tsuen Wan, the work was not initially at the level he expected. However, he didn't quit due to advice from his father, advice that he now sees as among the best in his life. First, he should not expect to be at a senior, decision-making level as a fresh recruit, and even though the job was now unsatisfying, it was likely to improve. Second, he should use the opportunity to learn Cantonese to increase his value as an employee. Third, even if he quit, there was no guarantee that he would find a better job.
So he chose to stay – and ended up working at the company for 13 years in departments such as production, quality control, research and development. This fueled his interest in industrial engineering and engineering management, which brought him to study at HKUST.
Dr Lebbai was also keen to stress the importance of being on good terms with both bosses and professors, as their contacts and experience provide opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach for young students. "The relationship with a supervisor is more important than that with a boyfriend or girlfriend!" he said. "Professors are the bridge between academia and the professional world."
He believes optimism to be the greatest asset an engineer can have. He has often been in a situation where customer expectations are rising, but the required results are seemingly impossible to achieve. "In this scenario, remember two things," he said. "The first is that there is almost always an alternative way if you just think outside the box. The second is, even if you do fail, treat it as a learning experience and never repeat it." With these core beliefs – that no matter what the circumstances are, creativity and learning are always possible – he finds enthusiasm for his work to be continually recharged.
Recently, Dr Lebbai returned to HKUST, close to 20 years after he first arrived, to watch his son graduate from HKUST Business School. "This place is very different from how I remember it," Dr Lebbai said. "But it feels good to be back."