Singapore’s pioneering technology leader reflects on the twists and turns that shaped her career
She was the Founding CEO of Integrated Health Information Systems which delivers highly integrated and automated systems for the clinical and patient-administration systems for the entire public healthcare system in Singapore. CEO of NCS, a Singapore systems integrator spun off from the Singapore Government, that specialised in applications and infrastructural solutions for the government, healthcare and finance industries. She expanded NCS to the Middle East, Hong Kong, China, Australia and Korea. NCS grew its footprint to become the largest systems integrator in Singapore. She was involved with the development of the national e-government Masterplan and spearheaded SME technology adoption at the national level.
Before assuming her current role as the Managing Partner at iGlobe Partners, she was the Chief of Enterprise Business at StarHub, Singapore’s leading telco service provider. Besides this she is also the President of the Singapore Computer Society, a Board Member of the Singapore Land Authority and Chairman of the IT Board. She also sits on the Board of Governors of the Republic Polytechnic, SG Enable and the National Kidney Foundation. She holds a PhD in Chemistry and attended the Advanced Management Program of the Harvard Business School.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and more importantly your mind frame while transitioning from graduate school to the corporate world?
Although I have been in the IT industry for more than 35 years, I actually graduated with a PhD in Chemistry, and had intended on a teaching career with research. However, I chose to join IBM in the early 1980s when computer systems were beginning to redefine industries and businesses. I joined IBM with the mantra to change the world. I started in the area of systems engineering, in particular the online transaction processing software used in Mainframes called CICS.
My role was to install systems, perform the forensics when systems hung or crashed and find and implement the remedial actions. At the end of the day, I enjoyed being able to identify the root cause of systems problems and recommend solutions to overcome them. It was like being a computer doctor! I taught classes in CICS Dumps and traces used in forensics, and this helped to cement the bonds with my clients.
We had a little community of CICS specialists both on the IBM and the user organisations and we were a tight community who loved our jobs and saw every problem as a challenge to be solved! We had less of a finger pointing approach but enjoyed the process of uncovering the root cause of the problems. Almost like a Sherlock Holmes sort of role.
I think my Chemistry research background helped, as I used the same sort of logical thinking needed for my research for my role as a CICS specialist (Engineer). I had also done many projects that linked the central mainframes to branch servers with seamless applications, such as in POSB, DBS, SGX, Citibank, etc. That gave me a good grounding in both systems, networks and applications.
In a nutshell, my research background in the university gave me the analytical skills that were useful in any domain outside of it. I must admit though, that I did miss synthesizing those chemical compounds in the lab, and I would dream of them now and then! I guess, I was guided by my idol scientist, Marie Curie who said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, but only to be understood”.
Did you face any challenge that you were not prepared to face and how did you tackle it?
There were numerous challenges along the way and it is true that the technical problems that looked more difficult were indeed easier to solve than human problems. Well, humans are unpredictable, whereas technical problem require just the dimension of finding the root cause and applying the remedial action to address this. Addressing the human dimension is important, no matter where we are placed in the organisation.
At a point in my career, I was with a firm that had a sudden change of leadership at the top of the firm and the regional HQ shifted from Singapore to another country suddenly. I left the firm, since I did not believe in the new philosophy, but found myself at the door of a firm that I was going to be very happy serving for many years, for it was going from an government agency to corporatisation. The lesson I learnt was to not despair for when a door closes, another better door could be opening.
What choices have you faced, if any, that required you to step back and consider?
There were many choices in my career regarding policies, procurement decisions, hiring decisions, strategic directions, etc that made me step back and say, could I have done it better? But I have learnt that in many cases, one can’t tell if a decision is a good one or not until years later. Hence, it is important to make the everyday journey a meaningful experience for everyone. For a team is built during the journey, and the united team will pivot with you to adjust to any change, through any storm..
A lesson you learned on the job that you always remember
When dealing with data and information, be brutal and don’t assume anything. But with humans, give them the benefit of the doubt to start with. Humans can pivot, data can’t. People can be biased too. These biases could be gender bias, cohort bias, alma mater bias, etc, etc. When encountered with these, I try to find alternatives and address the problem from another angle, and to bring people along for support.
In your opinion how can the industry work collectively to improve the state of Gender Equality @ Workplaces?
I think there are three ingredients to this. Firstly, everyone should remove any form of bias in the judgment of people. This is for both men and women. Secondly, we should purposefully ensure same pay for the same work, regardless of background, including gender. Thirdly, grant equal opportunities, based entirely on merit and capability of the person. This goes for boards, organisations and any settings.