One Engineering graduate's long road to self-discovery

By Ciara McCann, June 16, 2017

First generation university graduate Ethan Do shares his more than 20-year journey toward discovering his passions, pursuing an education and becoming a successful entrepreneur. 

Ahead of his convocation on June 16, McMaster Engineering graduand Ethan Do held a more personal ceremony to celebrate the completion of his undergraduate degree.

He recently travelled with his wife and two-year-old daughter from their home in Burlington to Vancouver. The trip was an important one. Do wanted to visit the place where he said his last goodbye to his father.

Do’s father worked hard to support his family. He immigrated to Canada from Vietnam, taught himself how to speak English using a dictionary and started his own import export business. Education was important to him and he always wished his sons would pursue a university education.

Do gathered his family around the place where he spread his father’s ashes in Whytecliff Park, a tranquil, oceanside haven in West Vancouver. Inspired by the Asian tradition of burning joss paper to honour deceased loved ones, he burned his university transcript. Watching the smoke rise from the ashes he said, “Dad, I did it.”

As a husband, father, entrepreneur and now, university graduate, Do has found success, fulfilment and happiness in his life. But it was a long and challenging journey to get there.

From stapling documents to mining big data  

Unlike many high school graduates, Do did not pursue a post-secondary education right away. Following his graduation in 1994, his father suffered from a stroke and needed help.

At the age of 16, Do packed his bags and moved from his hometown of Montreal to Vancouver to support his father with his business.

In 2001, he decided to gain more work experience. He worked at Kinko’s (now FedEx), stapling documents for ten hours straight on the night shift and slowly moved his way up the ladder. Five years later, he became the senior manager of the most profitable centre in Vancouver.

“I liked the job but I hit the ceiling. I couldn’t move any further than manager because I didn’t have a degree,” Do says.

When he started working at eBay in 2006 he slowly developed a passion for computer science. He taught himself how to script and discovered a new way to respond to customer emails more quickly.

“I couldn’t keep up with a quota of responding to eight emails an hour. I saw patterns in the emails we were receiving and decided to make automatic responses based on those patterns,” Do explains. “I was able to send 108 emails per hour. It saved my job as well as 80 jobs for the company.”

This accomplishment earned Do a dream job with eBay mining big data in the Business Intelligence department.

“Everyone on my team had their Master’s degree or PhD. In the back of my head I always felt like the weakest link. But I loved the job so I just kept at it.”

Finding his compass 

With the economic downturn in 2008, eBay closed their centre in Vancouver and Do, along with 1500 of his colleagues, were laid off.

Tragedy struck in 2009 when Do’s brother died in an accident. Three months later, his father had another stroke and died. The sudden and difficult loss of his loved ones coupled with his struggle to find a dream career forced him to revaluate his goals. In 2009, he drove across Canada to “find his compass.”

His compass landed him in Hamilton, and in 2011 Do enrolled in the Faculty of Engineering’s Business Informatics program. This was a challenging and rewarding transition for Do.

“Within my first year I learned three or four programming languages. I loved the program and felt that this is what I wanted to do.”

During his third year in the program his entrepreneurial spirit was ignited when he discovered Near Field Communication (NFC) tags, a technology highlighted by Samsung.

“I didn’t know what NFC was but I thought it was interesting so I sourced out these NFC stickers, programmed them, touched my phone to them and my LinkedIn profile came up. I thought it was awesome and thought I could do something great with this technology. But I needed help.”

Do sought advice from his professors, who recommended that he pitch his idea at Innovation Factory’s Innovation Night, a pitch competition for entrepreneurs. Do jumped at the opportunity and entered the competition.

At this particular competition, over 200 people were in attendance, a full house according to the event organizer. Do had experience pitching to a panel of 20 people but never this many. He was nervous.

His idea was to create an NFC wristband for people at risk of a medical emergency. A caregiver could simply tap their phone once on the wristband of a person in need medical attention, and their phone would immediately display that person’s medical condition, first aid instructions and emergency contacts all at the same time.

“My father passed away due to a stroke. When he fell down unconscious, people didn’t know what happened and it took a good 15 minutes before the ambulance came and an hour before I heard about his illness. By the time we got to the hospital it was too late. A technology like this could have saved his life.”

Do’s idea won him the competition. He continued to enter and win several competitions that followed with even more innovative ideas. With the funds he collected at these competitions, he launched OverAir in 2012.

Growing a business through academic research

OverAir is a Hamilton-based tech company that uses a range of proximity technologies, such as NFC, to interact and engage retail shoppers as well as event participants through their mobile devices. To date, the company has 1500 clients in eight countries. Brands that use OverAir technologies include large corporations such as Best Buy, Honda and Rogers. The company also has a platform that gathers customer intelligence and analytics for sales and marketing purposes.

As OverAir steadily grew in 2012, it became difficult for Do to manage a business and a full-time education. He decided to focus on OverAir. Two courses short of graduating, he dropped out. But his relationship with the academia did not end. In order to rise above his competition, Do realized he needed help from innovative researchers at McMaster Engineering.

“A relationship with academia is very important if a company like mine wants to thrive and be resilient in the technology space. I needed to come up with something disruptive to differentiate myself,” he admits.

A major challenge for OverAir was that NFC did not work for iPhones. Do turned to Rong Zheng, associate professor, Department of Computing and Software at McMaster. Zheng helped him develop a new technology so that any mobile phone could access the same information at the same time.

Fei Chiang, assistant professor, Department of Computing and Software, helped Do manage the scalability of his server so that a large number of people could access the same information with their phones at the same time in an environment like a stadium where thousands of people could shake their phones to receive a scratch and win promotion.

OverAir’s partnership with McMaster engineering professors has been mutually beneficial.

“We’ve had a very productive collaboration with Ethan and the OverAir team,” Chiang says. “Together, we have worked on developing a user-centric data analytics and visualization platform. Several Masters students have gained valuable industry experience working with OverAir software engineers to design databases, and curate large datasets.”

Through these relationships, Do maintained close ties to McMaster and the prospect of finishing his undergraduate degree became more important.

Convocation and beyond 

In the fall of 2016, Do went back to McMaster to complete his two remaining courses.

“My degree bridges that confidence gap,” he says. “I finally know what I’m talking about. It gives credibility to your investors and opens so many doors. I took a route without an education and I hit so many ceilings. Now I don’t have them anymore.”

Do is taking his education one step further. He will pursue his Master’s degree in Computing Science at McMaster to be at the forefront of disruptive innovation.

For now, Do can take a moment to reflect on his accomplishments and his upcoming convocation ceremony will give him the opportunity to do just that. The day is particularly special to Do, as it lands on his daughter’s birthday. Just as his father wanted his sons to pursue a university education, Do wishes the same for his daughter.

“I can go to my daughter when she grows up and say, ‘you can go to university.’ Being a first generation university graduate was difficult for me but it will be easier for my daughter.”