Interview with Linh Ta Cam

‘People management is not something you can learn, it is a skill you are born with.’

Linh Ta Cam

Linh Ta Cam is Maintenance Supervisor Excellence at Shell, a company where the mechanical engineering graduate had not expected to find herself working: “I thought, Shell, they’re all about chemical processes - why would they need a mechanical engineer?”

In 2009, Linh Ta Cam graduated in what was then called Product Engineering and Logistics. “I had expected to end up at Unilever or Heineken, companies where logistics and production processes play a major role,” she explains. The same was true of TNT, where she had done her graduation assignment. They would have liked to keep Linh on, but someone in her network advised her to apply for a job with Shell. “I thought, Shell, they’re all about chemical processes - why would they need a mechanical engineer?” Still, she was curious to learn more, so she spoke with no fewer than eight people at Shell covering a wide range of backgrounds and functions. “These conversations went really well, so I took things further. I did an assessment, as a kind of exercise - after all, if you really want to work for a company, you don't want to do your first assessment there,” she confesses. 

Turnaround engineer

Perhaps it was because of this laid-back approach that Linh was accepted without any difficulty for Shell’s coveted graduate programme. In 2010, she started work as a turnaround engineer, with responsibility for the large-scale maintenance of factories during shutdowns. “The programme stipulates that you must have filled two position, each for an eighteen-month period, before being offered a permanent position,” says Linh. “A year and a  half is too short a time, however, to really come to grips with any job. I did not want to become a manager who had no idea what it was like on the shop floor.” Linh eventually remained involved with large-scale maintenance for 3.5 years, during which time she passed through every stage of the process, from planner to cost engineer. “At the end, as a turnaround leader with my own team, I supervised the large-scale maintenance at eight factories - all completed before the deadline and all under budget.” During this time, she was regularly asked why she didn’t simply stay in her office. Her answer is simple: Linh is not the type to sit still - she'd rather get her hands dirty.

In her years as a turnaround engineer, Linh also obtained Green and Black Belts in Lean Six Sigma, the recognised method for improving processes and organisations. “I managed to combine the Lean Six Sigma training with my day job. I was then able to apply what I had learned in two large improvement projects, which led to savings of at least half a million euros per year.” She makes a point of denying this was about letting people off: “A lot of people apply the method incorrectly. It is easy to have fewer people doing the same work, and you can save money in the short term that way,” Linh explains. “But if you want to improve something in the long term, you have to do it together with the shop floor - in other words, bottom-up. Spend time with the mechanics, see how many actions a particular process needs, see how you can improve this or that process. A project-based approach won't bring about behavioural changes - you need a people-based approach."

People person

‘Working together with the shop floor,’ ‘a people-based approach’ - those are things that fit Linh, who describes herself as a people person, like a glove. It was actually that very aspect that she missed during her first years in Delft. “I enjoyed the science subjects at school, but I thought mechanical engineering was a bit dry and technical: I saw no connection with how I could use it in business, and I also missed the social aspect.” That is why, after four years, she took a break from her studies to spend a year as a board member of the Unipartners student advice body and then another year at JADE, the European Confederation of Junior Enterprises. “JADE seeks to promote entrepreneurship among students. One of the things I did was to give workshops at European universities. This is how I met students who wanted to combine their studies with setting up a company, and it also put me in touch with large businesses like Microsoft and Shell. I gradually came to realise that my studies could take me a lot further than mere number-crunching.

After these two years, and with renewed enthusiasm, Linh focused once more on her studies. “I opted for the Master’s in Product Engineering and Logistics. Basically, it was about how people, machines, and organisations work together. That proved to be the right combination for me.” Meanwhile, she still found the time to set up a foundation for promoting the integration of the Vietnamese community in the Netherlands. “I noticed that I was always one of the few Asians on boards and so on. Traditionally, we have believed that studying is very important, and you are expected to do your absolute best,” says Linh, herself the child of Vietnamese refugees. “We are also very well integrated, although sometimes maybe a little passive. Our parents were welcomed with open arms when they arrived, though, so it is only right to do something in return for society without forgetting your own culture.”

Strategic and operational

Looking back, she certainly has no regrets about all her secondary activities: “I was actually an average student, but it is because of all those other things I have done that my career is going so well now.” Linh has worked as maintenance supervisor excellence at Pernis since 2015, and is responsible for ensuring that the routine maintenance of factories and plants is carried out as effectively and efficiently as possible. She is in charge of a team of 22 people who support the organisation that carries out the maintenance, which itself has 350 employees. “We arrange everything that can be arranged in advance of the maintenance work - scheduling, preventive maintenance, checking quotes, etc. and we set up improvement plans as well. For me, it’s an ideal combination of strategic and operational tasks. I work with people all day, and do so in an engineering setting.”

Linh is now thinking about her next challenge. This could be abroad - she has already worked for Shell in Singapore. “Every year, 25 candidates from all over the world are given the opportunity to spend two years abroad doing something entirely outside their comfort zone. In Singapore, I carried out internal audits. This meant spending time with a different team every five weeks, in a different country, and in a different business.” Pension management, marketing, sales, material sciences - Linh audited it all, but nonetheless wanted to pursue a career in engineering. So most likely this is where her next position will be. What exactly, only time can tell in this highly dynamic sector. But it will be at Shell, as they are an outstanding employer: “Large organisations are often regarded as very sluggish, but if you know what you want and perform well, there are lots of opportunities available at Shell.”

Nowadays, Linh herself hires employees, meeting many applicants from TU Delft in the process. “This may be a sweeping statement, but roughly speaking there are two types of people. The true scientists, specialists who have a highly analytical approach and who are eager to create wonderful simulations and carry out research. And then there are those who want to get their overalls on and lead a team.” It’s regrettable, she feels, that still so few mechanical engineers think of applying for a position with Shell. “We do have that image of being a chemicals company, but we actually need large numbers of mechanical engineers for our maintenance work. It’s also really enjoyable, hands-on work. Shell truly is an engineering company. People management is not something you can learn, it is a skill you are born with. And with an engineering background you can really move up the career ladder here.”

In that respect, Linh is definitely pulling her weight. For example, she used to be the campus ambassador for Shell, which involved maintaining contacts with the Leeghwater study association. She also works to promote engineering among primary and secondary school students, for example in Jet Net, the engineering network for young people, of which Shell is one of the initiators. “We also organise special girls days at Pernis,” says Linh. “I would love to see lots of girls entering the engineering profession, and hopefully we will attract many mechanical engineers to Shell.”