It is easy to imagine Josephine Cheng, dressed in a smart Sunday dress with a simple strand of pearls, puttering around her half-acre rose garden at the weekends. It is more difficult to picture this soft-spoken woman inside IBM Software Group's Silicon Valley lab, leading a team of more than 30 engineers in the Database Technology Institute. She may defy the stereotype - she does not even wear the pocket protector - but Ms Cheng is definitely a geek, someone who revels in new technologies. It becomes obvious as she animatedly describes how DB2 Everywhere, one of her pet projects, will help people access huge amounts of data via the Internet using tiny computing devices. IBM, her employer of 23 years, confirmed her as a technology leader in June when she was named an IBM Fellow. It is no small honour. Thomas Watson Jr founded the fellows programme in 1962 as a way to promote creativity among the company's 'most exceptional' technical professionals. Since then, IBM has appointed only 158 fellows. Ms Cheng is the fifth woman - and the first Asian American woman - to garner this recognition. Requirements are stringent: IBM Fellow candidates must have a history of sustained technical achievements and business accomplishments and they must be recognised externally or have added to the body of knowledge in their area of expertise. They must also have strong potential to make continuing contributions to the industry. Less than a third are appointed. How did Ms Cheng react to her success? 'It was a surprise to me,' she said. 'I never imagined I would be an IBM Fellow, I never expected that. It was really a shock.' A shock, but certainly a pleasant one for a woman who admits hers is already a 'dream job'. Ms Cheng's is a life full of overachievements. Born in Vietnam in 1953, she fled with her family of four brothers and two sisters to Hong Kong in 1958 to escape the escalating conflict. She graduated from Hong Kong's Tak Nga Secondary School in 1970 - having been first in her class every year for five consecutive years. She left for California two years later, to follow her older brothers. She did not plan to be an engineer. 'When I was a child, my dream was to be a teacher. And then in secondary school, I wanted to be a doctor. And then when I went to college and took a computer science class, I fell in love with it, right away - because I can teach the computer to do anything that I wanted it to do and that really excited me.' Hooked on computers, Ms Cheng enrolled in UCLA's School of Engineering where she was the only woman out of several hundred classmates - and everyone looked at her as though she was 'really strange'. That did not stop her from becoming a departmental scholar. She graduated with her Master of Science in 1977 and had job interviews galore. 'That was the year that every company was hiring engineers so I had so many offers from all the big companies, all the computer manufacturers.' Ms Cheng speaks with awe of her eldest brother who had earned his PhD. 'I told him I got an offer from IBM and he was much more excited than I was,' she said. She quickly accepted. Her special focus is on database technologies that let computer users find, retrieve and store data quickly and easily. An early college project first piqued her interest in this field. She designed a debit-card system for petrol stations that let people insert the card to get petrol without having to pay cash. 'It was a very simple concept, but at that time [more than 20 years ago] it was very innovative.' Her role was to formulate the languages for all aspects of the database, 'you know - integrity, security, recoverability, transactions, query languages,' she said, making it sound so simple. Technology has advanced apace over the past two decades. Ms Cheng recalled meeting customers who were thrilled with IBM's early database technology - because they could run a query and get all the information back in 11 hours. 'These days, if you run a query and it takes seven minutes, people complain,' she said, noting that today's technology delivers answers in sub-seconds. Types of data have changed, too. Not only do organisations archive plain text, they are storing multimedia files with sound, animation and graphics. Ms Cheng's team works on the technology that allows a person to search precisely for words spoken by someone on a certain date, or to find a specific photo based on the colour of the tie the subject was wearing. 'It's really amazing, you can do almost anything,' she said. The IBM Fellow title carries privileges, including the ability to choose to work on those projects in which she has a keen interest. But Ms Cheng shrugs this off as no big deal. She has already been working on exciting projects - and her work has garnered more than 10 patents. 'The most exciting thing that I'm working on is really the freedom to go and explore new technology and emerging technology - to do things that no one has done before. To do it quickly and see it out in the market for customers to use, that really excites me.' DB2 Everywhere is a case in point. It is a means of delivering information from a corporate database through the Internet to a handheld device or mobile phone. 'The power is incredible because now, all that information that has been locked up in the data warehouse can be down into the fingertips of any end user.' She offers an example of how such technology could find a practical use in our homes. Forget about having to write lists of the groceries you need to buy. 'What if there's a device on the trash can so that you can throw away stuff and it will scan it - like you toss out a tomato soup can, then it knows that you need to replace it and buy another one.' The shopper could print out the list - or press a button to send the information to the store and arrange automatic payment and delivery. Asked why IBM had only five women 'fellows', Ms Cheng said engineering traditionally had been seen as a man's field. 'Not that many women or girls are encouraged to go into this field,' she suggested. 'Now, people - women - are more liberal. Anything can be done by women as well as men.' She is doing her part as a role model to change attitudes. 'I participate in a conference for children, mainly for girls from age 10 to 14 and there's a poster on myself written by a high school student. So I had an interview, they asked me questions, and then they did a poster and put on a conference to encourage girls to get into science and maths fields.' When she eventually retires, she may go into teaching. Her mother is proud of her. 'Every time she picks up the phone, she tells her friends and relatives about me and that makes me feel embarrassed. Certainly I'm very grateful to my parents because I do learn from them. My parents really didn't have all the opportunities like us to go to college and get an advanced degree, but they do really believe in education.' Likewise, Ms Cheng - who married her college sweetheart and fellow computer scientist, Michael Pong - is pushing her two teenagers to excel at school. Son Brian is studying biology and genetics in his first year of college; daughter Michelle has two more years of high school. 'I'm still working on her,' laughs Ms Cheng when asked if Michelle is likely to follow in her mother's footsteps. A shortage of skilled IT workers means there is no dearth of opportunities for Ms Cheng. 'Living in the bay area, you get calls all the time and you don't even have interviews and you can get offers,' she said. But she has no plans to leave Big Blue. 'No other company is as good as IBM.' When she is not focusing on algorithms or synchronisation, Ms Cheng likes to stop and smell the roses. She tends to the 40 rose bushes that grace her half-acre garden. 'I love roses. I love flowers. I love flower arrangement, I find it very inspirational,' she says. She cannot bear to cut her own roses, though. 'I go out and buy cut flowers.' No doubt she will soon develop the technology to have fresh blooms delivered automatically as the old ones start to wilt. To see this interview on video go to www.scmp.com BIOGRAPHY Josephine Cheng is the first Asian-American woman to be named an IBM Fellow. Born in Vietnam in 1953, she moved with her family to Hong Kong five years later. She studied mathematics and computer science at UCLA and graduated with a Master of Science degree in 1977. She promptly joined IBM Software Group and has been at the forefront of relational database technology. She has more than 10 patents to her name. Most recently, she has been responsible for porting IBM's database technology to the Web, allowing people to access huge amounts of data via the Internet that was previously accessible only through proprietary systems. Married with two teenagers, Ms Cheng says she has two years to convince her daughter to follow in her footsteps. When she is not concentrating on her work Ms Cheng tends to her 40 rose bushes.