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Jobs That Make a Difference: This Engineer Programs Robotic Systems to Help Doctors Perform Surgery

Huajin Qu, a staff engineer at Stryker
Huajin Qu, a staff engineer at Stryker

You don’t have to go to medical school to make an important impact on healthcare—just ask Huajin Qu, whose work as an engineer helps surgeons do their jobs. As part of the R&D team in the orthopedics department at Stryker, the medical technology company, Qu spends her days problem-solving, providing technical support to fellow engineers, and programming robotic systems that will assist doctors in surgery.

Through it all, she remains incredibly meticulous in her work. “Since the Mako Robotic-Arm Assisted Surgery has a big impact on the life of every customer, being detail oriented is super important to succeed,” she says. “One small mistake can lead to irreversible consequences.”

Here, she talks about her latest robot project, how Stryker helps its employees develop their skills, and why learning to say “no” changed her career for the better.

Tell us about your career journey, and what led you to your job at Stryker.

To be honest, when I first graduated with a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering, I didn’t know about Stryker. My dissertation was “Feedforward control of Unmanned Surface Vehicles”—as you can see, nothing related to medical devices! Luckily, my advisor invited me to visit a startup that focused on dental robots, and the founder of the company was a former Stryker employee. We had a very good conversation, and I learned that the control of robot boats—which I had studied and worked on for four years during my PhD—was very similar to robotic arms that helped surgeons in knee and hip procedures. I applied for a software engineer position at Stryker and got my first job out of school.

What attracted you to work at Stryker?

Stryker has the reputation of being one of the best places to work for, and I could not agree more. I find the projects that I work on are very inspiring, interesting, and challenging. Almost everyone I’ve interacted with at Stryker is intelligent, kind, and nice to work with. There is a good life-work balance. Once a while I work late, but nobody forces me to do so—it’s just a lot of fun to program and control the robot arms!

What are you responsible for as a staff engineer?

As a staff engineer, I need to be able to work independently and efficiently. For example, our team adopted the Agile development method, and we have a sprint planning every two weeks. I normally pick up a task based on priority, evaluate the effectiveness and resources needed to finish the task, and break it down to smaller sub-tasks to tackle step by step. I also work closely with cross-functional team members and give technical support to other engineers as needed.

How does Stryker support the learning and development of its employees, specifically as it relates to engineers?

Stryker offers a lot of opportunities to learn and grow within the company. I’ve attended several trainings and conferences that are 100% funded by Stryker. For example, the advanced C++ training sharpened my professional skills and the medical robotics conference allowed me to learn the cutting-edge medical robots in the field. Besides external conferences and training, Stryker also encourages internal knowledge transfer and sharing. I really like the lunch-and-learn series from one of our chief engineers. I also hosted a lunch-and-learn within my team and got good feedback.

The yearly innovation contest is another perfect example of how Stryker encourages innovative thinking: Everyone can sign up as a team or individually, get a budget of $2,000 for materials, and work on any project 10% of the time as long as it’s related to medical robots. How cool is that!

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

I am working on our next generation of the Mako System. In the past few weeks, I’ve been busy preparing for a partial-knee arthroplasty demo. I work with another control engineer on the behavior of the robotic-arm during cut alignment, bone preparation, and cut transition. It’s exciting to see how changing one parameter of the tuning value can affect the outcome so much. It’s very nice to apply what I’ve learned from textbooks to a real-time system.

What do you like best about the company culture at Stryker?

The culture is one of my favorite things about Stryker. The diversity is amazing in the office, and I feel respected and get equal opportunities as others. I also like that there are flexible work hours. Finally, most of my friends are from Stryker. We often go to happy hours on Friday evening and celebrate birthdays together. There is a lounge with games and a ping-pong table if anyone needs a break. We also have soccer and kickball tournaments every year.

What advice do you have for other women who are pursuing careers as engineers?

For now, women engineers are still the minority. In my college classrooms and in the lab where I work every day, the male-to-female ratio is about 9:1. But who cares? I believe there are equal opportunities for both men and women. If we work hard, and we keep learning and growing and delivering results, we will be a valuable member of the team. Be confident and believe the barrier of being a minority will not stop you.

For any young female engineers, start looking for internships in college. Real-world experience is very helpful to determine what you want to pursue and what your real skill set is.

What does it take to succeed as an engineer at Stryker?

To succeed as a technical engineer, curiosity is extremely important. Truly love what you do and be curious about it and it will lead to excellence. In my eyes, engineers must be passionate about creating new solutions and solving problems. A mentor can also help a lot to grow your career. Learning from and being inspired by peers is a great way to improve.

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

The advice that helped my career development a lot is “learn to say ‘no’ to others.” Because of my personality and the culture I grew up with, it’s really hard for me to reject other people’s requests. As a software and control engineer, I worked with people on other teams on all of their projects. When they asked me to implement some concepts, even if I didn’t like the idea, I would still try my best to finish the prototype for testing. This gave me a reputation that I am good to work with, but deviated me from focusing on more important subjects. Learning to say ‘no’ helped me to allocate my time based on the priority and my passion for the task. It’s beneficial not only to my own career development, but also to the progress of the overall project.