As a veteran in Singapore’s IT industry, Kwong Yuk Wah has played a part in major IT initiatives over two decades, starting with the government’s computerisation programme that paved the way for Singapore’s standing as the world leader in e-government initiatives today.
According to the 2017 e-government rankings by Waseda University and the International Academy of CIOs, Singapore maintained its pole position followed by Denmark, the United States and Japan.
Following her success in the public sector, Kwong moved on to the private sector before landing her current role as CIO of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), Singapore’s labour movement that has been instrumental in improving the lot and competitiveness of Singapore workers since the 1960s.
Besides her day job, Kwong also serves as an adjunct professor at the department of information systems at the National University of Singapore’s school of computing.
In an exclusive interview, Kwong, a founding member of Computer Weekly’s Asia-Pacific CIO Advisory Panel, shared more insights on her career, including her challenges in juggling work and family commitments and how she keeps up with the fast-changing IT landscape.
Q: How did you get started in IT? Was it a conscious or serendipitous decision to enter the field?
Kwong: I studied computer science during my undergraduate days. Joining the IT industry after graduation was the obvious choice. My first job was a programmer of offshore oil-rig algorithms in the private sector. After less than three months into the job, the Singapore government offered me a new role and an IT career. I spent over 20 years in the public sector before I moved to private sector, and I’m now working in NTUC, a people sector.
Q: What were the key highlights in your IT career?
Kwong: Being part of the Singapore Civil Service Computerisation Programme (CSCP), and the eGovernment Action Plans I and II, as well as the NTUC transformation journey were the key highlights in my IT career.
Q: What is your approach towards IT at NTUC, especially in making sure that IT continues to be a source of competitive advantage for the organisation?
Kwong: My goal is to exploit ICT as a strategic enabler that will take the labour movement to new heights. I am also a strong believer of being an early adopter of new technologies to gain the first-mover advantage. However, I can’t exploit technologies alone. I have been getting very strong top management support which is very critical, but not enough. Our strong partnership with business units and the willingness of business users to exploit new technologies to gain a competitive advantage are very crucial.
Q: What were your biggest challenges throughout your career and how did you overcome them?
Kwong: My biggest challenge was to maintain a work-life balance when my children were young. It was extremely stressful to be a competent mother and yet build a successful career in a field where things evolve so quickly. I had to make a choice to slow down my career for a few years so I could focus on my children and family.
Q: How big is your IT team? How do you make sure everyone is aligned with the goals of the organisation?
Kwong: If the IT team refers to my own staff, I don’t really have a big team. That’s because our approach is IT outsourcing. So if the IT team includes service providers, our staff strength is at least 80 to 150 professionals, depending on project needs. Communication is key to keep everyone aligned.
Q: With technology evolving so quickly, how do you keep up with what’s going on in the industry and – perhaps more crucially – decide which technologies to implement for your organisation?
Kwong: I continue to learn by reading and attending seminars and conferences. Teaching part-time requires me to read widely and do my own research. I have been learning from my students at the Masters level too. Technology is always an enabler, and the decision to adopt any technology must always be business focused and customer centric.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
Kwong: I don’t have anything that keeps me up at night. I have a good team – both my own staff and service providers. I have very supportive bosses, very understanding business users, and very collaborative partners in both the government and private sector. They have been helping me to do my job well!