Tianbing Qian of Ports America gives tips for work-school-life balance

W. P. Carey computer information systems students are teaming up with the country’s largest port terminal operator to solve real-world issues in shipping and transportation. Tianbing Qian, the senior vice president and chief information officer at Ports America, shares what he learned from 30 years working on his education before he joined the workforce.

“We have bright minds to look at these problems,” said Tianbing Qian, the senior vice president and chief information officer at Ports America. “Ports America benefits as much as ASU in this collaboration.” 

Qian is a staunch supporter of collaboration between industry and universities. He holds three advanced degrees — two master’s degrees and a PhD —  and his parents are college professors.

“The university will always hold a special place in my heart,” he said.

Qian spent 30 years working on his education before he joined the workforce, and he learned plenty along the way. He has advice for students walking a similar CIS path.

What do you wish you knew as a college student?

Back in the day while I was in college or graduate school, I was an excellent student. I did a lot of studying and focused on grades. But I didn’t spend a lot of time learning more about the industry, the business, and the leadership development side. So I picked all those up after I was out of college and finished my PhD. I still had relatively little knowledge of the industry and leadership development; I picked all those up afterward. I wish I had spent more time learning the market, the industry, the reality, and personal leadership development side.

How can students work smarter?

I think we know students work hard. They can also take some time to do more reading and study the whole context of the subject they’re exploring. Learn about the history, read the news. What is the hardest area of research on the subject? Still, focus on the subject but find out more than the textbook context. And be more patient. Many students look at the professor or guys like me and think, “I want to be like that tomorrow.” It will take time. If you do the right thing, in the right way, keep going, and learn the whole context. Eventually, they will get what they want.

If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

When I look back, I think I’d still pick the same combination of degrees. I just wish I had kept up with what was going on in the industry. I have an unusual education combination. I finished my undergrad engineering degree; then a master’s in system engineering. When I came to the U.S., I received a master’s in computer science; then I got a PhD in operations management. At the time, that combination was rare, but intuitively I wanted to know the mathematics. Nowadays, people call it big data analytics. And I wanted to learn the business and technology side and combine them because intuitively I felt that was the combination I would need if I went into the industry. Just read The Wall Street Journal, read the newspaper, and also learn a lot more about the leadership development side. I picked all those up after I got out of school at the age of 30, which was scary. If I go back, that’s what I would do differently.

What are you trying to accomplish this quarter?

In this quarter and this year, there are a lot of changes in the transportation industry, many major mergers and acquisitions. Companies are getting bigger, which causes a lot of challenges to the ports as well as the local transportation ecosystem. The industry is very dynamic, and I would say there’s never been a better time to be a CIS professional. A lot of digital influence is coming to our industry, on the transportation, logistics side, and my team and I spend a lot of energy focusing on digitizing ports and terminals. The other big focus is on big data analytics, really trying to leverage mathematics modeling, to tackle real world problems. We’re working with CIS students to look at high-impact issues affecting the ports. There are some fascinating problems for ASU and Ports America to collaborate on. There’s tremendous synergy going on in this collaboration right now.

What should keep students up at night?

They’re already up all night. Don’t think about how you can become an overnight success; success takes time. Be patient, if you are doing the right thing, day in and day out, you will get there. Don’t stay up all night. Sleep well.

What is your biggest weakness?

When I was younger, I was a workaholic. I spent a lot of time studying, working, thinking about different problems. That’s a weakness because I didn’t consciously enjoy family enough. All of a sudden time flies. My older son already went to college. So my biggest weakness was not spending more time enjoying family. I’m still a workaholic today, but when I’m with my family, I consciously enjoy every single second, every single minute. It’s not about the time you spend working; it’s about the time you spend consciously enjoying family.

How do you balance your professional and home life?

I still work very hard, but when I’m with my kids, with my wife, I’m truly into it, I’m truly soaking in every single moment. That’s the main difference. I’m still working very hard, but am self-consciousness about home life. Every single moment in life, truly enjoy it, soak it in.

What business books are on your nightstand?

  • The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo

“This is a great book, I recommended it to my sons,” Qian said.

  • Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott

“This technology was supposed to be one of the greatest innovations after the internet; there was a lot of hype around it,” he said.

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey

“I’ve had the last book on my nightstand for 20 years. Many times I go back to read it and still find something new,” Qian said. “This is kind of the work Bible for me. I recommend everyone read it.”