Out of Vietnam, and Back

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MY father, Quang Lam, was a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. He was a helicopter pilot who had been trained in Texas. On April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell, he was able to escape Vietnam and reached the United States. But he was not able to let us know what had happened to him until a year later.

After searching for him, my mother and my siblings -- I'm the oldest of two sisters and four brothers -- waited at our grandmother's home, in a fishing village called Nha Trang. To help us survive, my grandmother cooked candy on her stove in the mornings and I would sell it after school in a nearby open market.

We finally learned that my father had made his way to Chicago. He got a job waiting tables briefly and then became a mechanic at a Lemont, Ill., packing plant for Diamond Foods, which sells Emerald snack nuts. (He worked there for 30 years as a plant engineer until he retired.)

We had no way out, but on Christmas Eve, 1978, I fled with a friend of my father's. At age 11, I crammed into a fishing boat with 300 other people. While at sea, the boat was stopped by pirates, who robbed us and were about to kidnap some passengers. When another vessel came into view, the pirates rammed our boat. Our repairs were sufficient to reach Malaysia, but local authorities turned us away. We landed on a small island nearby, where we ate shellfish and edible plants, which I could identify because I had foraged for them in our village.

After 10 days, people started dying and I had to help bury them. Malaysian authorities then moved us to Pulau Bidong, an island off the coast, where I stayed for about six months until I could contact my father, who arranged for me to meet up with him in Illinois. My family was able to join us there, in 1982.

I graduated from high school in 1985 and earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Illinois. Bell Labs hired me in 1989 and sent me to Purdue University for a master's in electrical engineering.

I left Bell Labs in 1995, and with college friends began a software outsourcing services company called Paragon Solutions. Almost two decades after I had fled the country, I came back to start a company in Vietnam to develop software for the telecom industry. I lived in Ho Chi Minh City for two years, setting up the company and mentoring young engineers. My grandmother was still alive, and I was able to visit her in Nha Trang.

In 2003, First Consulting Group, an information technology services provider, bought Paragon. I worked there for four years, as the vice president for software services, and oversaw its development centers in India and Vietnam and its delivery teams in the United States, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

I left in 2007, and after a brief stint in another company, I decided to found KMS Technology, a software services company, in 2009. We provide outsourced software development services and have grown to an $11 million company with more than 300 employees. We now have operations in California, Georgia and Vietnam.

Since the company could be run from anywhere, I decided to move my family -- my wife, a pharmacist I met and married in Chicago in 1999, and our son -- to Dublin, Calif., a suburb in the Livermore area. Last year, I started another company, called QASymphony, also in Dublin, to develop and provide testing software.

Although I had some harrowing experiences both living in and leaving Vietnam, I was eager to go back, because I love the country's vibrant culture and energy and I want to develop the next generation of software engineers.

As told to Elizabeth Olson.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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