Leadership Blog #4: Today’s Technology, Tomorrow’s Transformation

Technology is not the answer to everything.

Richard Koh, the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Singapore, shocked me when he proclaimed that technology wasn’t the answer to everything at the Singapore Maritimes Dialogue. Instead, he emphasized how humans were the ones who empowered digital creativity. Beyond IQ and EQ, Moral intelligence is essential to the growth of AI and machine learning… how do you determine what is right or wrong in the context of different societies? Ultimately, it’s not what about what technology can do, it’s about what technology should do. Human morality is what sets us apart from the machines, but contexts can always change.

Note: If the product you’re signing up for is free, you’re the product (aka your data is being sold).

When it comes to driving digital transformation, Richard says it is a journey with a hundred steps and is not made up of one magical master move. Although resistance to technology is natural, digital transformation is ultimately meant to generate value for the business.

You write your vision and strategy in pencil… but you write your culture in pen.

Visions and strategies are meant to tap into human ambition and spark innovation among the people. Yet, no matter what the leadership teams at the top echo aloud, it really comes down to living by a culture that openly invites change by keeping teams connected and elastic. Furthermore, organizational capabilities enable effective transformation. For example, Microsoft used to be against open source but is now the largest ambassador in the world through its acquisition of GitHub. When it comes to cultural consistency, Satya Nadella (Microsoft CEO) makes it a monthly priority to discuss Microsoft’s vision and all of the things that they’re doing to achieve it.

Get into the thick of the action.

When I asked Richard how he came to be the CTO of Microsoft Singapore, he humbly attributed his success to luck. As a computer science and information systems graduate from the 90’s, a time when the internet was up and coming, Richard took on an IT applications development and support role at HP. After catching the buzz of what was going on in the Valley, he made a deal with his boss that if he could successfully implement SAP (a multimillion-dollar project) on time and under budget, he would be sent to work at HP in Silicon Valley… (let’s say the rest is history)

At the HP offices in Cupertino and Palo Alto, Richard dabbled in intrapreneurship and tested out service delivery platforms across the world… at the same time that Microsoft was doing something similar. As a competitive hire with extensive experience, he was eventually brought onto the Microsoft team!

Fun Fact: Richard was on the founding team of Office 365!

There’s always some sort of beauty among the chaos… Technology isn’t born out of technical knowledge, it’s born out of creativity.

When asked to describe his time in North America, Richard fondly recalls encountering high energy personalities who were some of the smartest and weirdest people he has met. Furthermore, he described the diversity as enriching because it exposed him to different perspectives.

Culturally, the ASEAN region is more structured and leans on “systematic innovation” which contrasts in many ways with how many organizations in Silicon Valley seemingly tackle innovations. Power Distance is more apparent, with strong tendencies to default to “HIPPO Syndrome” known as the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”. Whereas Silicon Valley’s open culture encourages a free flow of ideas, Singapore multinationals seem to self-impose constraints that sometimes hinder the endless possibilities that have yet to be explored within their organizations. However, I am sure that these cultural tendencies are not limited to Singapore or multinationals, but may very well apply to many other organizations.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to thank Richard for such a riveting conversation that I wish could’ve gone on for many more hours. I will leave you all with 5 additional pieces of advice for you to remember in your careers:

  1. Leaders must be the agents of change; senior management must retrain their brains to adapt to the millennial workforce and always be ready to adjust to new realities.
  2. 24 hours today is no longer the same as how it was before technology readily gave us information at our fingertips. Learn online and learn fast, but always beware the bad content that is out there.
  3. Don’t be shy when seeking opportunities. Go out there and respectfully say what you want to do and acknowledge that you may not have the experience, but you can always find people who are experienced to teach you.
  4. Millennials will undoubtedly be able to accomplish much more at much younger ages in today’s age. If your workplace is not conducive to your learning, find another one.
  5. Read Innovation & Its Enemies, Show Stopper, and Tools & Weapons and watch The Great Hack.

Thank you for reading my fourth Leadership Blog. Stay tuned for my next one featuring Cherian Varghese, Regional Managing Director and VP – ASEAN & South Asian Growing Economies (SAGE) of Oracle!