The CIO instruction manual that was published in just two months

Ng Qi Siang
Ng Qi Siang 5/7/2021 06:30 AM GMT+08  • 8 min read
The CIO instruction manual that was published in just two months
The author, NUS professor Alex Siow, was Singapore's first chief information officer (CIO).
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It is not every day that a publisher sits up and takes notice of a book, especially an international publishing house like Wiley. When National University of Singapore (NUS) don Alex Siow approached the US academic publisher about publishing his new book, Leading with IT: Lessons from Singapore’s First CIO, they cited a six-month publishing timeline for a regional release of the book. But so impressed was Wiley by the manuscript that they offered a two-month timeline for a worldwide release instead.

While there are several books on how to be a chief information officer (CIO), few provide an Asian perspective to the role, let alone one from a small country like Singapore. “Drawing on his lifetime of experiences and practices, [Siow] offers today’s IT leaders a practical roadmap to building an effective digital organisation to face new challenges arising from the unprecedented rate of change in the world,” says Leong Chin Yew, retired group director of Information Systems at HDB.

The book has been more than a decade in the making, with Siow taking inspiration from a column he wrote for The Computer Times in the 1990s, a pull-out supplement in The Straits Times. He wrote a column called The CIO Desktop for nearly two years, explaining to Singapore’s nascent computing community what his pioneering role entailed. As Siow and his collaborators had some spare time in 2020 due to Covid-19, the decision was made to compile and update these insights into a book.

“I think it was also timely — if I had written the book much earlier, it may not have been a bestseller,” Siow confesses, remarking that IT used to be a niche interest before superstar tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos came on the scene. “Although IT was quite pervasive, it was not that important,” he recalls, with computing still a bit of a niche interest. Aside from tech nerds, not many people may have been persuaded to read it.

But Covid-19 has provided new impetus for readers to examine the interface between technology and business. Siow says that rapid digitalisation makes it timely to remind the business world, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), of the importance of IT. More than eight in 10 SMEs in Singapore, notes ASME-Microsoft’s SME Digital Transformation Study, now have digital transformation strategies in place for the digital economy.

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“We wanted first a readable book for the laymen and a useful book for students that can also be used as a textbook,” the NUS don tells The Edge Singapore. He has set the book as a reading for his MBA course on IT governance. Book editor Raju Chellam says that he and Siow hope that all NUS graduates taking advanced courses in IT will soon add the book to their bookshelves too.

Manual for success

Ironically for a book about managing technology, Leading with IT begins with a reference to the “Twelve Labours of Hercules” — 12 seemingly impossible tasks performed by the eponymous Greek hero. A CIO’s day-to-day tasks such as vigilantly keeping all systems running smoothly and delegating tasks effectively are compared to mighty feats like slaying the Nemean Lion and stealing the Golden Apples of Hesperides. Besides conveying the broad and diverse range of duties the CIO undertakes, it also highlights how essential they are to a modern company.

The rest of the book reads like an instruction manual for the budding technology leader, with bite-sized advice for wouldbe CIOs to chew on and ample case studies to show how this advice applies to real-life situations. The text is clear and concise, yet reflective in its consideration of the role of a CIO. Particularly impressive in the latter regard is the ample list of corporate case studies he cites in the chapter on optimising outsourcing, citing not only successful examples from firms like Google and WhatsApp but also failures to serve as lessons on mistakes to avoid when looking to outsource certain functions.

And many of these cases come from Siow’s years of experience. For instance, in the chapter on knowledge management, the former HDB CIO cites his efforts in building an effective knowledge management system for the statutory board as highlighting the need for effective data management. From this, he extracts five critical processes for creating a sound knowledge management system that he used to complete this task (i.e., create, capture, organise, access and share) so that readers can easily apply them to their circumstances.

While the lion’s share of the text provides useful lessons about managing IT systems and structures, perhaps where the book stands out most is its advice on dealing with people. Three chapters in the text are devoted to motivating and training staff while defusing interpersonal conflicts. Complex as new-fangled technologies may be, it is still the capricious and unpredictable human nature that presents the biggest unknowns for a CIO.

“Some managers, faced with staff problems, prefer to look the other way or bury themselves in more technical work rather than tackle the issues head-on,” laments the pioneering tech leader. He believes that CIOs must aspire towards an office environment defined by trust, fairness, objectivity and teamwork to ensure harmonious working relationships and strong morale within a team. Within this is a recognition that a CIO is not just a leader of machines, but a leader of people too.

Tan Chin Nam, “the father of IT in Singapore”, agrees. “Leadership is about creating purpose and meaning in work and life, and aligning people to achieve greater things together for the organisation or the benefit of society,” he writes in the foreword, “this book is essential reading for anyone who aspires to lead, whether in the IT industry or elsewhere.” A private man, it is rare for Tan to offer a foreword to any book.

Still, what the book could have done better was perhaps to have created a stronger overarching definition or framework for the CIO role, and provide some background on its history. While the preface on the “Twelve Labours of the CIO” offers a useful snapshot of what is expected of one, it occasionally feels like a laundry list rather than a clear articulation of a concept. Then again, the varied and context-based nature of the role across firms perhaps defies a hard definition as each CIO has different responsibilities.

CIO of the future

But the world has changed greatly since Siow last left the CIO’s chair. The modern CIO now has to deal with technology that used to only exist in science fiction movies in the 1990s. Besides revolutionary emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), even the way that people work and conduct economic transactions have changed as technology plays an ever-greater role in the economy.

It is to that end that Siow requested three of his colleagues to comment on the future of money, work and AI ethics — NUS professor Keith Carter, who runs a FinTech lab at NUS; former National Health Group and Dubai Port CIO Teo Chin Seng; and NatSteel chief legal officer James Lau respectively. Jim Lim, Healthcare sector lead at ICT firm NCS, wrote the epilogue on “innovating in the trenches”, discussing the state of technological innovation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not that Siow would not have been able to write about these topics himself, however. He says that these contributors were roped in to add some colour to the book, providing an alternative “philosophical” perspective to IT leadership distinct from the practical bent of the rest of the book. Cheekily, he remarks that the contributors could also help him sell the book, given that they are all leaders and experts in their respective fields, bringing their long experience to bear in analysing the future IT landscape.

One thing that would have been interesting to see, however, would have been a younger industry perspective. Much of the tech world today is dominated by younger entrepreneurs making their mark in a disrupted reality that is very different from their predecessors. The experiences of younger CIOs like Petrus Phoa of GoJek and Daniel Xu of Tencent would have made for a very interesting conversation with the “old guard” members like Siow and Teo.

Still, Leading with IT represents a distinct contribution to the present literature defining the role of a CIO today, adding to the Western-dominated discourse an Asian voice from one of the individuals who helped shape the position. Budding IT leaders will not only find this book an easy-to-use guide to managing IT with many nuggets of wisdom, but also a guide to working with people. True to Siow’s philosophy, leadership and IT are examined in equal measure.

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