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From chemistry researcher to IT luminary

Inspired by the potential of technology to change the world, Chong Yoke Sin went from calculating the strength of molecular bonds to driving one of Singapore’s biggest IT initiatives

When Chong Yoke Sin was pursuing her doctorate in chemistry at the National University of Singapore in the early 1980s, little did she know that her experience with using computers to calculate the strength of molecular bonds would lead her down an entirely different career path.

“There were no formal computing courses, so we had to pick up the skills on our own,” she says. “We were often at the computer centre running programs using punch cards and it took days for us to get the output.”

The growing role of computing – even in its nascent years – in transforming the world had appealed to Chong, who signed up with IBM as a systems engineer during a campus recruitment drive.

“Back then, IBM’s mantra was to change the world, and that inspired me to move away from research and a possible teaching career. Also, whatever you do in computing is immediately applicable to the real world, unlike the primary research that I was doing,” she says.

IT training was tough

Despite the glamour of a career with an IT giant, the initial years were rough. As with most in-house IT training programmes at that time, rookies like Chong went through a baptism of fire.

“We were trained on marketing, sales and engineering, and had to produce proposals for our clients very quickly, which meant we often had to work overnight. That was the beginning of life at an IT company,” she says.

The training Chong received mirrored the thinking of leading tech firms such as IBM then – that the best sales people were engineers who understood and solved a customer’s problems, she says.

“IBM’s mantra was to change the world, and that inspired me to move away from research and a possible teaching career”

Chong Yoke Sin, StarHub

“We were on site to optimise the systems and troubleshoot issues, so we would know when a system was running out of capacity and was in need of an upgrade – that was how sales was done in those days,” she says.

At IBM, Chong stuck to the mantra of helping her clients succeed, and not simply installing a system and be done with it. “That mantra has stayed with me, even when I was doing chemistry research where I made sure my discoveries would cause no harm,” she says.

Time to shine

Chong’s experience at Big Blue was a stepping stone to an illustrious career dotted with stints at Hitachi, Singtel-owned systems integrator NCS, as well as Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS), a Singapore government-linked healthcare IT supplier.

But it was at IHiS that Chong gained the most prominence, having spearheaded Singapore’s efforts to develop a national electronic health record system that has unified IT systems across the country’s public healthcare clusters.

“We elevated the state of public healthcare IT in Singapore from HIMSS [Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society] Stage 6 to 7,” she says. HIMSS Stage 7-certified healthcare providers are the most advanced in using IT to improve healthcare services and patient safety.

Today, Chong leads StarHub’s enterprise business, where she has been tasked to grow the telco’s slew of IT services beyond connectivity. She also serves as a co-opted councillor at the Singapore infocomm Technology Federation (SiTF).

Attention to detail

Chong attributes the growing number of women IT leaders to their innate attention to detail – an attribute required in application development, which “tends to have more women because you need to deal with logic and lots of details”.

“And as infrastructure, which men were generally good at, became more commoditised and applications became more prominent, women rose in their careers to become CIOs – the pinnacle of an IT career.”

“Fewer women choose IT today compared to men, but those who choose IT and stay in it do well”
Chong Yoke Sin, StarHub

Chong says women are also making good progress in networking with potential clients, which in the early days of her career was mostly facilitated through men-only clubs and activities such as golf.

“People buy from people, even to this day. You have to physically move around and network with people in the same circles,” she says, “but the internet and social media, along with Singapore’s meritocratic society, have levelled the playing field for women today.”

Like the successful women who have left their mark on Singapore’s IT industry, Chong says she has never felt discriminated against. In fact, she says the only thing that could hinder women from progressing faster are life choices such as raising children.

Read more about women in IT

“Women may put aside their careers until their children are older, but when they get back into a job they may have lost their connections. On the flipside, there are also men who choose to look after the kids while their wives pursue better career opportunities. This is generally accepted in Singapore,” she says.

Chong agrees that despite women being more suited to IT roles such as application development, there is a lack of young female IT graduates in Singapore – an issue that needs to be addressed for the next generation of women IT leaders to emerge.

“Fewer women choose IT today compared to men, maybe because there is a wider variety of jobs that they can excel in, such as finance and accountancy,” she says. “But those who choose IT and stay in it do well.”

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