Ex-engineer finds his true calling

CIO Ng Koh Wee says he has found his dream job, thanks to his employer and the decision to make a late-career change.
Written by Jeanne Lim, Contributor
CIO 1-on-1 Ng Koh Wee, 48, is a fine picture of discipline as he pounds the tarmac for a whopping 30 kilometers every weekend..

The head of IT at Singapore-based insurance company Great Eastern Life takes over two hours to cover his usual route, which lets him "think through issues".

Job title:
Head of Information Technology

Great Eastern Life

As the head of IT at one of Singapore's largest life insurance companies, Ng overseas a team of 180 staff. He is also in charge of the regional application development team across Singapore and Malaysia. Before joining Great Eastern in 1997, Ng was a production engineer at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). He joined SPH after serving his scholarship bond at Singapore's Ministry of Defence. Ng graduated from the University of Birmingham with a degree in production engineering.

Big career break:
In 1997, Great Eastern hired him to head its 40-staff core policy administration system team. In April 1998, the insurance company sent Ng on a study course to learn about the use of IT in the United States and Europe. Despite not having an academic background in insurance and IT, Great Eastern had faith in him to do a good job.

Ng comes across as congenial and humble, despite being in charge of more than 180 staff in Great Eastern Singapore's IT team. He wears another hat as the company's regional application development head, taking charge of applications development across Singapore and Malaysia.

As the head of Great Eastern's Singapore-based IT team, he reports to the insurance company's chief executive officer, and as the regional application development head, he reports to the regional CIO.

He told ZDNet Asia over coffee one afternoon that he does not take his job for granted, having come to an IT career relatively late in life.

Destiny calling
Armed with a production engineering degree from the University of Birmingham on a Singapore Ministry of Defense (Mindef) scholarship, and nursing a secret passion for IT, he found his true calling only after joining Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) in 1990, after serving his bond with Mindef.

In the mid-1990s, he was tasked to implement a newspaper production plant for SPH.

"That was the first time I was exposed to IT," Ng recounted. As the plant used automated guided vehicles for materials handling, it required "some amount of computerization", he explained.

He said: "That system was controlled by computers, so I had the chance to implement the system inside the plant. The waste-handling system was also computer-controlled, so over there, I had my first taste of implementing computer systems."

However, he credits his current employer with giving him what he considers his "big break" in life. In 1997, Great Eastern Life hired him to head its 40-staff core policy administration system team.

Meanwhile, his next career milestone came in 2000, when he was tasked to start a separate team to modernize the policy administration system. In Ng's words, it was a "classic" project of upgrading a mainframe system to a client-server one.

Together with consultants from IBM, he kept the project going until 2002. The project wrought Great Eastern's distribution channel management system (DCMS), which still functions today. The team had 150 staff at peak, he said.

It was very brave of [Great Eastern] to put me in charge. I don't think I disappointed them.

Then in 2003, Ng was asked to hand over the DCMS project to someone else, in order for him to run the entire IT shop at Great Eastern Singapore.

As the local CIO, he organizes his team like a "typical software house" where the service delivery heads deliver solutions to customers, and there are competency heads, such as project managers, business analysts, and application developers, who deliver lines of resources to the service delivery heads.

As the regional application development head, Ng has to make sure the skills and competencies of the resources are aligned across the Singapore and Malaysia offices.

This includes ensuring that work process and the IT architecture are standardized across the board. He said: "We don't want a situation where the point-of-sales in Malaysia uses .Net and the point-of-sales in Singapore uses Java!"

When asked about the challenges faced during his career, however, Ng became more subdued.

"Running any organization, managing people, is always tough. It's definitely more difficult than managing technology and such problems can be very long-standing," he said.

When probed further, however, he would only let on that gaining "acceptance by people is interesting" and that it took him three to four years to get over the problems he faced.

Lifelong learning
Ng is grateful that despite not having an academic background in both insurance and IT, Great Eastern had faith in him to do a good job. "I was very privileged. In April 1998, the company sent me on a Life Insurance Association study course to learn about the use of IT in various advanced economies in the United States and Europe."

It was during that trip that Ng gained domain knowledge. Besides gaining a broad understanding of different kinds of insurance products, he also learnt about the kind of systems that insurance companies implemented.

Recounting the time when Great Eastern first hired him, Ng said without a trace of irony: "It was very brave of them to put me in charge. I don't think I disappointed them."

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