Engineering connections to the global marketplace

19 December 2016

Most of our alumni would enthusiastically agree that an engineering degree can take you places, including unexpected ones. This is certainly the case with Bowen Pan, an advocate of, among other things, the diversity that an engineering qualification from the University of Auckland can bring.

Bowen graduated in 2008 with a BE(Hons) in Civil Engineering and a Bachelor of Property. Since then, he’s added familiar names such as Deloitte and Trade Me to his resume, eventually pursuing an MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business under a fellowship. He is now a Product Manager at Facebook, most significantly spearheading the recent launch of Facebook Marketplace.

He is quick to admit that there isn’t an obvious connection between his degree specialisations and current career path. However, his success is evidently attributed by his ability to take advantage of diverse opportunities and apply his eclectic academic background to his pursuits.

Facebook, for instance, may not fit the stereotypical end goal of a Civil Engineering graduate – “I see myself as an engineer in my way of thinking, even if I don’t explicitly practice engineering or write code”. His decision to pursue Civil Engineering was based on the specialisation’s open-ended nature; instead of a conventional construction-related project, Bowen opted to focus on its project management aspect. This gave him the freedom to work on his then-startup as his Part IV project, a social networking site called uniFriend.

While that connection seems more relevant to his career, an engineering degree offered Bowen “a formative background that has been really useful to my career and personal life”. He found systems thinking to be particularly noteworthy – “looking at different ways of improving a system, breaking it down into different components, and to not fear complexity has really stimulated my curiosity”.

He also expresses a fondness for our faculty’s teaching culture. “The thing I remember most vividly was my first semester here. On my first day of my first engineering class in engineering design, the lecturer walked into the room with a bag full of Kodak cameras. Our assignment was to take apart the Kodak camera and draw out how it works, and the catch is that you have to put it back together and if it fails to work, you’d get no marks at all. That kind of open-ended thinking that pushes us to openly explore while working through something systematically really stuck with me till this day.”

Bowen’s position at Facebook came by as an unanticipated opportunity. He was recruited in his second year at Stanford, “I was impressed by how mission-driven the company was; Facebook’s intent is to give everyone the power to share, and to make the world more open and connected”, he states, adding that it was refreshing to meet likeminded people striving in a young and then-small company. He developed an early interest in consumer technologies as a teenager, and appreciates that Facebook’s ethos is still strongly rooted in “hacker culture – a very positive term, actually. It basically refers to a ‘tinker with it’ culture”.

He recalls, “we have this story at Facebook: when it was growing rapidly, the buildings were sprawled across multiple parts of Palo Alto, making it a little annoying for employees to get from one building to another because the zebra crossings are so far apart. So, one night, over a Hackathon an employee spray-painted zebra crossings across a bunch of roads, which may not have conformed to city codes. Eventually, the city council just created more crossings, because it made sense. It’s a nice example of a culture story, and became one of our inside jokes; it reminds me of that problem-solving mentality”.

As the Product Manager for Facebook Marketplace – now launched and expanding – Bowen excitedly describes the experience of seeing his work appear on users’ smartphones as surreal, and like many engineers, he strives to create something positive for society, “there are very few things in the world that can replace the feeling of zero to one; of seeing an idea born into something real that can bring value for people”.

Beyond the University’s excellent reputation and global standing, Bowen expresses his fondness of its diversity – “there are a lot of unique things about New Zealand, and Auckland itself. Because we’re so small, we need to look outwards, understand that we’re a fairly young country, and accept our sense of co-dependence (with other nations). This exposes us to a lot of different cultures and influences”. He sees these traits as positive, considering, “I come from a Chinese immigrant family, where there is a pretty strong bias towards the hard sciences. Studying here, where there are many initiatives, gave me a much broader view of what’s possible in life”.

One of the pivotal initiatives for Bowen is Spark, now known as Velocity, the University’s entrepreneurship programme. He believes that engineering students in particular should get involved, affirming it as "one of the main reasons I got to where I am today”. To amplify the value of diversity, he adds, “innovation happens at the edge and intersection of disciplines, of which engineering and entrepreneurship form one of the most powerful combinations to create positive impact”.

Auckland’s location, and this University in particular, is advantageous in itself – “it’s small enough to provide a broad set of experience, yet big enough to expose you to global opportunities”. Bowen believes that there are more attainable opportunities available to students willing to push themselves and apply their knowledge. “I believe that every one of us has a superpower, and to live a content and fulfilled life is to apply this superpower to something that brings us meaning. I think that’s the greatest gift you can give to yourself and the world.”