A speech by the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set Rachel Ler, the vice-president and general manager (Asia Pacific and Japan) of data firm Commvault, on a career path in technology. She speaks to Options about the importance of the human element in a time when contact is discouraged, nay, dangerous even
It was at the 1994 May Day Rally when Rachel Ler first heard then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew speak about information technology (IT).
“My dad was sitting in front of the TV with me, then, and the late PM Lee was talking about trends and the economic situation of Singapore. He was talking about the next industry that would be booming, and I vividly remember he spoke about that being IT,” recalls Ler, who is now the vice-president and general manager (Asia Pacific and Japan) of data firm Commvault.
Then fresh out of high school and entering into pre-university, Ler was uncertain of her future and what she wanted to do with her life and career. “PM Lee’s message resonated really strongly with my dad, and that was the time when I had finished school, I was in pre-university — clueless, not knowing what my aspirations were — and I just told my dad I’d find a job later,” she adds.
However, her father felt she should study IT. “My dad, he turned around, and he said to me, “Look, you know, why don’t you go study IT?””.
Back then, there really were not many schools offering IT courses. Eventually, Ler went to take up a Diploma in Information Technology at Nanyang Polytechnic. “I still remember that it was uncomfortable for me, as in my batch there were a lot of guys, and barely a handful of girls.” That decision marked the beginning of Ler’s nearly 20 year career in technology, and it is something she has never regretted.
Perhaps it was not just coincidence that Ler had been sitting there with her father that day in 1994. She has always had a mind for the analytical and for step-by-step logic solutions. “I have to say that I went into programming because I have a very problem-solving and analytical mind. As such, I did quite well in school, and when I graduated the first thing I looked at was to find a job being a programmer, because that’s really what I like.”
After a short stint as a pre-sales consultant for a human resources software company, her real chance in tech came when she landed a job at global tech giant IBM. “It was prestigious to be in IBM, and looking back I can honestly credit the culture of mentoring within IBM for my current mentoring mindset as well. I had many mentors to whom I looked up to and depended on. Moreover, it was a big company and they really had a lot of female leaders even then,” she says.
“That really formed the culture in the company, and my own thought process today — I’ve felt the benefits of having mentors, diverse and strong leadership and even today, every time I am blindsided by a problem or I need advice, I look to my mentors and they will offer me a different perspective.”
In 2010, she decided to take on a part-time degree in Business Management with Swinburne University, with the intention to progress further into a career in management and leadership within the tech industry.
Since then, Rachel has earned a veteran status in the industry, having worked for some of the biggest names in technology — Dell Technologies, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Nimble Storage.
In her current role at Commvault, Ler oversees the growth of the enterprise software and data management company within the Asia Pacific and Japanese markets. She is also responsible for driving sustainable growth with a focus on solution innovation and customer experience, while strengthening Commvault’s broad and diverse partner ecosystem across all the distinct markets.
It is her experience in IBM that today drives Ler in how she approaches her industry, and her career. “I still have IBM colleagues and mentors who are my lifelong friends, and it’s from a very strong belief that if you have a role model, then you have a support system. And that creates success, right, that motivates each other, to lift each other to create success,” she says. “But that relationship has to go beyond business, it has to be with a mentor that shares a similar value and belief system as you do — someone with whom you have chemistry.”
In fact, it is this unwavering commitment to a human connection that drives Ler as a leader. “In a lot of upper management, there is always a wall that is built. The higher they reach, the more barriers they build, and I find that one thing that has always impressed me [in a leader] is a warm persona. The openness and walking the talk, as it were. To have candour in that you lift each other up, but even if you have tough feedback, to be objective and not tear someone down.”
This sort of honesty is something Ler strives to do, and in addition, now that she is leading the company’s growth in the Asia Pacific and Japan, she is focusing a lot more on building good employee relationships.
“You know, to have an open door concept, and in one-on-one calls. To be sensitive and mindful to local cultures, whether it is colleagues in India or in China, and to find what resonates with them. I go out there to say “Hey, let’s come together, and let’s have a chat”,” she says.
This focus on people, and on the fundamental human connection is perhaps what sets Ler apart. “I acknowledge that as technology evolves and as we become more advanced, we sometimes feel like we’re robots, right? It is natural for us to reply to an email with an email, or to text. WhatsApp is like the number one communication tool now,” she says. “And I believe we have to come back to the fundamentals — messages conveyed through an email are of a different tone than those delivered face-to-face."
As much as the world now advocates remote working or video calling (due to the Covid-19 pandemic), it is different to have a face-to-face interaction. “While we are evolving as an economy towards a different way of working, the people element will still be important. We are social beings. We love to be around people and have a drink or bond over food.”
Ler is deliberate in pushing for the people element — something even more important than before with being stuck working from home during this pandemic. “I am very deliberate about telling my managers that the people element cannot be avoided. Especially during this pandemic, what we’re seeing is some employees are finding it hard to cope.”
As a Covid-19 era employee herself — Ler joined Commvault when Singapore went into lockdown last year — being personable and warm and reaching out was even more important. “It was a struggle for me, personally, to come in without face-to-face contact and looking at how I can be more empathetic to my team as a leader.”
Authenticity is another key element to Ler’s leadership style. “I also feel that leadership is also candour. It is very important especially in this climate that people need to hear from a leader in a very open manner,” she says. “The good and the bad [news] need to be communicated in the right way. I am passionate about grooming people.”
“In fact, it’s funny, I was talking to a [sales] rep this morning and he told me that his greatest satisfaction is when he signs a PO (purchase order). I told him my greatest satisfaction was helping other people sign their PO instead,” she says.
A man’s world
Ler is keenly aware that the statistics of women in tech are not great, despite a global push to encourage more women to get into tech. For example, in the UK the industry is booming but the number of women in tech hovers around 17% — and has done so for the better part of the last decade.
However, while the gender gap continues to exist within the industry, it was not gender that was Ler’s biggest hurdle. In fact, it was the academic demands of the job at the time.
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“When I first joined IBM, my hiring manager, he came to me on my day one and said, “Do not tell people that you don’t have a degree. There was that segregation of a degree holder and a diploma holder — and I was taken aback. That was the first time I faced discrimination,” she says.
In the early days, too she felt that as a woman, there was a stereotype or expectation of who you will be. “People viewed female leaders as weak, perhaps. That you’re not someone who could handle tough conversations. Even when I was working my way towards being a manager, people asked: How will you handle tough conversations? How do you go out there? And my answer was always to be firm, and to be performance-oriented.”
“I spend a lot of time explaining and over-communicating. It has nothing to do with gender, or that I am a female leader and you’re a male sales rep. It is about the performance that we are driving,” she concludes.