Secret to a Successful Tech Career: Growing Never Gets Old

Date of Publish: 18 July 2019

In today's fast-moving world, change is the only constant - and we all know that to keep up, learning and upskilling are vital. But is self-development limited to individual growth, or can it also positively impact the community and industry at large? The IT Society speaks to Foong Sew Bun to find out how his quest for self-development has brought him to places over a fulfilling career that spans close to 30 years.

Q: What first sparked your interest in technology?

SB: I was studying Electrical & Electronic Engineering at Singapore Polytechnic, and built a home automation system for my third year project. The team had wanted to create a smart system to improve daily living, but with knowledge only in Electronics Engineering and assembly language programming, it was not easy to program a higher level of intelligence into the system. Therefore, when I subsequently came across computer science, I was curious to find out if I could combine the best parts of electronics engineering and computer science to achieve more intelligent outcomes.

Q: Since then, you have spent almost 30 years working in tech. What keeps you going?

SB:The field of technology is like Disneyland to me. I continually discover new and fun ways to use technology to bring smiles to many. Each day, there are exciting opportunities to create solutions that can bring value to our daily lives and even shape new business models. In such an environment, I am always looking forward to the next challenge - which keeps me young at heart and drives me to search for possibilities with fresh perspectives.

Q: Was this also why you have explored diverse tech roles in different industries?

SB: Yes. I am always looking for new breakthroughs and new learnings. Hence when opportunities come along, I will make the most out of them. Some of my adventures led me to find solutions for optimising port operations and clone phone detection, lead technical development of military aircraft simulators, explore delivery of patient-centric healthcare services, and transform banking experiences with digital services.

Along the way, I was fortunate to work with one of the tech giants of our time - IBM. During my time there, I was grateful to be part of the network of IBM Distinguished Engineers and Fellows which drives exciting new technology developments. It was also at IBM that I discovered the importance of having a culture of mentorship. I benefitted from the guidance of very good coaches and mentors; in turn, I returned my gratitude by helping my younger peers. That was when I truly saw the value of mentoring and growing by sharing knowledge and teaching. It also made me realise the importance of fostering capable people in my team - because you are only successful when your team is successful.

Q: Is your teaching at NUS another form of mentorship?

SB: Indeed. I think it is important that industry professionals like us share with students our experiences and the opportunities available in the real world. I have been teaching as an Adjunct since 2008, and to this day, it is still a lot of fun talking to the undergraduates. They are bright, articulate, ambitious, and have many ideas about the future. I see my role as one that encourages them to dream big while also giving them a realistic take on matters, so I always make it a point to share life stories - especially the ones about failure - with them. This is my way of helping to shape and grow the next generation of local tech professionals.

Q: What prompted you to join GovTech last year after such a long time in the private sector?

SB: I have enjoyed a long and varied career in the private sector - and after all these years with all the experience and knowledge I have accumulated, I felt it was time to give back to the tech community by serving in the public sector.

It also resonates with my belief that tech professionals today need to go beyond keeping up with tech developments to be more engaged with the tech community and have a better understanding of governing policies and laws. In the world today, boundaries are blurring with digitalisation and global inter-dependencies - physical borders no longer limit activities, and emerging tech trends impact traditional industries as much as the new ones. The implication of these developments is that there are now more opportunities for innovations to make bigger impact, but it also means that we need to have greater awareness of the governance surrounding different industries, technologies and countries.

Q: How has this transition from the private to public sector been for you thus far?

SB: Fundamentally, companies and corporations are profit driven so everything is purpose driven and time critical - because time is money.

Government agencies, on the other hand, confront great complexity because policy considerations often have to go beyond monetary factors to ensure relevance and inclusivity to many different stakeholders - such as citizens, partner agencies, private sector, partners, and staff. There is also the need to ensure that the designed policy is sufficiently resilient to meet both present and future needs. Thus, I find myself having to do a lot more groundwork to understand the issues various stakeholders face, and to get their buy-in on solutions and implementation.

In addition, my teams and I need to oversee culture and change management so as to facilitate a successful digitalisation journey for the Government.

Q: How has your previous experience helped you cope with these challenges?

SB: If there is one thing I learnt through the years, it is to never give up. One becomes stronger and discovers oneself after overcoming adversities.

Various skills that I have picked up over the years also come in handy. On one hand, I am able to pick up new technologies through building upon my current set of core skills. On the other hand, soft skills like leadership and nurturing team members have equipped me with the ability to rally together capable teams to work towards our collective vision.

Q: What is a good piece of advice for aspiring tech professionals?

SB: Put simply - keep learning and be humble. It used to be that tech changes take place one wave at a time. But the pace of open innovation is accelerating with the convergence of multiple waves of different tech developments, like intelligence augmentation, cybersecurity, and autonomous computing. In such an environment where job roles are in constant flux, you have to upskill fast to keep up.

Amidst all these changes, you also need to be prepared to fail and get your hands dirty. Because that's the only way you can accumulate battle scars to strengthen your foundation, and create fresh opportunities to learn from.