Before the age of Facebook and Twitter, the acronym “CIO” — which stands for “chief information officer” — once stood for “career is over”. Up till the 1990s, the role was a multi-faceted one: a technocrat, a businessperson, a cheerleader and the custodian of the IT department all at once. Far from being the “next big thing” in business, IT was seen as merely its handmaiden. Books with titles like “Does IT Matter?” were still in vogue.

Things could not be more different in today’s digital economy, where giants like Dell CIO Jennifer Felch and Facebook CIO Atish Banerjea enjoy a prominent public profile. This is especially so in the context of Covid19, which significantly accelerated the pace of digitalisation as firms scrambled to implement business continuity solutions. “Covid-19 was a very good teacher — without IT, some companies really sank,” reflects Professor Alex Siow, computing professor at the National University of Singapore.

And he should know — Siow was, after all, the man who started it all in Singapore when he was appointed CIO of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in 1990. Previously a structural engineer with a knack for computing, which he pursued on the side, Siow was roped in by then-CEO Chuang Kwong Yong to head the Computer Services Department to troubleshoot technical and administrative issues. The two men knew each other from their National Service days when Chuang was a trainee under Siow, a platoon sergeant who maintained tight discipline and high standards when leading his men.

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