Discover why this KI grad’s unconventional education landed her at a hot start-up

Joan Ang

It doesn’t take an engineering whiz to know that the shortest path between two points is a straight line. But for Knowledge Integration graduate and engineering whiz Joan Ang, it took a long and winding path to realize that straight lines aren't always best.

Fresh out of school, Ang is currently working for a local start-up called Togethr. The company offers a gift giving mobile app that, among other things, notifies users of important events in their friends’ lives and then suggests gifts based on their social media activity.

While labels such as job titles aren’t often used at Togethr, Ang describes herself as a designer. Basically she makes sure the app looks great and is easy to use.

In fact, moving as a child from Saskatoon, to Thornhill, to London, Ontario and finally to the University of Waterloo labels of any kind haven't been much use to Ang at all.

Her parents were eager for her to become a professional and to focus her attention on math and science. After considering studying architecture, languages, psychology and just about everything else, Ang eventually settled on Systems Design Engineering.

It wasn’t a great fit. “I just wasn’t happy in Systems,” Ang admits. “I found that I really missed doing artistic stuff.” Her grades gradually began slipping and she started looking for a way out.

Thankfully, Ed Jernigan, a former chair of the Department of Systems Design Engineering, was developing a new unit in the Faculty of Environment for students just like Ang.

The new unit didn’t have a name yet, though a working title was the Unlimited Bachelor’s Degree. Jernigan’s idea was to offer gifted students like Ang a chance to learn in an environment where they could choose their own challenges. In the end, the unit was named the Centre for Knowledge Integration or KI for short.

“One of the things I learned in KI is that, yes engineering has a reputation for being very difficult, but it’s only difficult for certain kinds of people,” Ang explains. "I love history, but I would have a hard time studying it because there is a lot of reading and a different kind of critical analysis that you don't usually see in engineering."

Eager for a new set of challenges, transfers were requested, paperwork was filed, and finally an agreement was reached. Ang would study simultaneously in Systems and KI as long as she met the course requirements for both. Ang was thrilled. And, although she had bitten off a lot, all she needed to do now was get chewing.

It took a while longer, but Ang eventually graduated from both programs. “I came out of it with two degrees, five official coop terms, one unofficial coop term, and four months in Europe. It was a pretty good deal,” she says. This April, Ang is capping off her time as a KI student by working as one of 14 students the INTEG 475 “Real World Problem Solving,” class charged with creating an citizen scientist video game exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre.

KI also helped Ang get involved at Togethr – through an indirect route of course.

Having been recommended for a job by KI lecturer Linda Carson (though she was passed over), Ang’s CV eventually found its way into the hands of Togethr co-founder Renjie Butalid. Like most start-up leaders, Butalid focused on finding talented people first, and applying job titles second (or never).

“He was looking for a designer, and I thought, I could pretend to be a designer,” Ang admits. The two sat down, and after what Ang describes as a, “harmonious vibe tuning session,” she was brought on as a designer.

While drawing straight lines between two points is certainly part of her design duties, Ang’s unconventional path has made her a more valuable addition to the Togethr team.

"There's some engineering stuff that I really love that I can't do right now, but I'm a really good fit for the design position. It's a great intersection for creativity, empathy, logic and analysis. Plus, I get to work with inspiring people to help make friends and family smile."