19 years ago, Qi Zhi didn’t even know about Siemens. The organization was better known in its Beijing base than in her hometown of Chengdu – the Sichuan capital more famous for it’s cuddly Giant Panda breeding program than cutting-edge technology. Fast forward to today and the landscape is different: her career at Siemens has seen her promoted every three years over two decades. Now she’s back in her hometown where she worked on the creation of the first Siemens Digital Factory in China.
When we call Qi Zhi to talk about being bold for change – the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day – the Year of the Rooster celebrations have just ended. People are returning to work, decorations packed away and Chengdu’s 23 baby pandas, who delivered a cute New Year message to the world via YouTube, are back to bottle feeds and climbing trees.
When Qi Zhi graduated she went straight into a role as an accountant at a large state-owned bank. It was a job that made her parents happy but wasn’t particularly fulfilling. What she really wanted was to get stuck into work that put her Masters in International Finance to use. Plus hone her English at an international company.
Trading her ‘Iron Rice Bowl’ job – the name given to secure jobs in traditional, state-owned sectors – for a ‘not so famous’ German global organization felt like a bold move. “At first my whole family felt very nervous!” she says, laughing down the line from Chengdu.
But Siemens offered an accountancy role with a refreshing flexibility for someone at the start of their career, plus a heap of training and a competitive salary.
After a decade in Beijing, she’s back contributing to the transformation of her hometown from “slow city” to prosperous hub. She was, she says, surprised to hear Siemens had chosen her Chengdu as the spot for it’s second Digital Factory (the first is in Amberg, Germany). But it made sense; Chengdu is one of the world’s fastest growing cities with government encouraging start-ups and manufacturers to “Go West” and set up operations there. Qi Zhi knew she was the right person to help kickstart this game-changing project: “I’d been away for ten years; I wanted to give something back.”
Every time I change roles I feel proud to look back and see how much I’ve learnt.Zeng Qi Zhi, IT Manager
Before the building’s foundations were even laid, she was flying between Munich and Chengdu, leading the creation of the factory’s IT department; crucial, given that digitalization is the backbone of this factory. Qi Zhi oversaw everything from hiring the best minds to the setup of the factory’s data centre. Within 18 months, the factory was live and the first products had been manufactured. No mean feat for somebody whose original ambition was to be a violinist.
Collection of live data means the factory’s quality control is rigorous; ironing out unexpected hitches is quicker and less cumbersome than in less-advanced factories. The implications of integrated digital automation are vast: increased quality, less waste, time and money saved. It’s an indication of how manufacturing will look under Industrie 4.0. In other words, factories will be Smart.
“Every time I change roles I feel proud to look back and see how much I’ve learnt,” Qi Zhi tells us. It’s something that’s made her time at Siemens so fulfilling. “Some people are hesitant about change, but challenging yourself helps the scope to work on different projects grow wider and wider.”
When she’s not working, Qi Zhi enjoys playing the violin with her son, who plays piano, and travelling across the country to teach her children about its rich history: “We’ve been to The Great Wall in Beijing, and visited the Terracotta Army in Xi’an. There’s so much history to see and explore here in China…”
When it comes to the next generation, what advice would she give young women at the start of their careers on International Women’s Day? “Don’t overthink it,” she says without hesitation. “If you think something is good for you, just be brave and challenge yourself to make the change.”
Production at the Digital Factory kicked off in 2013. So judging from her record, it’s time to move on to something new. “To be honest,” she laughs, “I’m starting a new job. I’m now Commercial Manager for Industry Sales in the Western region, overseeing ten provinces.”
It’s a new frontier, full of opportunity for bold change. “Western China’s economics are not quite as advanced as in Shanghai or Beijing, so it’s a developing area.”
“This enterprising spirit is injecting our cities with endless possibilities,” she says. Young people are no longer satisfied with the status quo, shunning sleepy Iron Rice Bowl jobs for a brighter future, just as Qi Zhi did. And so we see the cycle repeating with the forward-facing ambitions of a new generation driving for a more vibrant and prosperous China.