From CIO to CMO: How one Singapore exec made the switch

Singapore Pools' Marilyn Ling opens up about the challenges she faced moving to a marketing role after over two decades in the IT backroom.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Having spent over 20 years in IT, taking on a role as chief marketing officer of Singapore Pools saw Marilyn Ling face much frustration as she learnt to deal with a less structured environment and the challenges brought about by her unique position as the company's former CIO.  

"Staff must have been asking if I had the qualifications and experience to lead in this role," said Ling in a candid interview with ZDNet where she shared her initial struggles after taking up the CMO hat in 2008. "I'm still a backroom IT person and I still hang out with IT folks. And since I started late, my network [of industry peers] isn't there...but I'm trying to attend more of these events and exchange ideas."

The IT veteran currently oversees the company's marketing and channel sales operations and is responsible for all product marketing, marketing communications, retail distribution, branch operations, and callcenter operations. 

Established in 1968 to provide a legal avenue for betting in the city-state, Singapore Pools is the country's only legal lottery and sports-betting operator and its surplus earnings are redirected to benefit the local community. The company is owned by Singapore Totalisator Board, a statutory board under the Ministry of Finance, and operates over 300 outlets across the island, offering lottery games such as Toto, 4D, as well as sports betting for football and motor racing events and horse races. 


Before taking on the CMO role, Ling was Singapore Pools' CIO for 17 years, during which she helped build the company's IT infrastructure including computerizing its operations and running its IT application development and governance. Her skills included systems integration, disaster recovery deployment, and IT security policy planning. 

She began her IT career at the company in 1986 when she was hired as a systems analyst, and after she turned down an offer from Apple. The U.S. company was going through "iffy" days and John Sculley had just been named as CEO after Steve Jobs was ousted. "I was getting married then and my then-boyfriend suggested Singapore Pools would be a more stable option," Ling recalled, but dismissed any regrets since she has carved herself a healthy career with the Singapore lottery operator.

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"They think no one can fault them if something goes wrong because they've chosen the best market players. But the question really should be whether they can get something that is better suited to their business needs."

- Marilyn Ling

Armed with a computer science degree from the University of Kent, she was entering unfamiliar territory when she was appointed CMO in April 2008, after serving as the company's CIO for 17 years.

"Lacking the domain experience is my Achilles heel since work experience in anything is crucial to totally understanding the domain that you're in," Ling confessed. "Fortunately for me, I already was familiar with the business having worked for the organization for 18 years before I came into the CMO role."

She thought she could tap her IT experience to resolve some of the company's business issues, but this did not quite work out well. She realized she had to be mindful about not stepping outside her CMO purview, even though she had intimate knowledge about the company's IT infrastructure.

Her unique position potentially resulted in strained relationships because she would ask for certain IT requirements to support her marketing efforts, knowing it was possible to carry these out, but would be received with skepticism that the IT system could indeed deliver on her requests.

"I had grown from a hands-on IT position to a CIO post and developed some parts of the system, so that's why I know the nuts and bolts of it. I thought perhaps I appeared to be a smart aleck so I learnt not to say too much, and offered my views only when asked," she said candidly.

"It wasn't nice either because the [current] CIO had to do his job. Sometimes, we need to know where the boundaries are, but it was a struggle initially."

From 'organized' IT backroom, to 'disorganized' creative marketing 

Ling also felt challenged by her lack of credentials and went back to school to obtain a graduate diploma in marketing from the Marketing Institute of Singapore. It was about gaining credibility among her peers, she said. 

Being IT-trained, she also believed there was a formula or framework and needed to find some structure in how things were done. She had to pull herself out of her "IT mold" into one focused on business creation. 

"CIOs need to take the right parts and put them together to ensure IT can deliver the business requirements. This is where IT needs to value-add."

"It's to educate myself and to learn the basics, you know, Marketing 101. I wanted to learn the fundamentals, get some ideas on customer behavior, and at least be able to adapt to the marketing speak," she added. "I used to get a bit lost when I conversed with other marketing peers because I didn't understand the terminologies. I got frustrated. At the end of the day, you want to be able to join the conversation."

Asked about differences between her roles as CMO and CIO, she pointed to the apparent lack of structure in marketing where there were no specific plans or target dates, or detailed methods of how work should be carried out and monitored.

The IT realm is typically defined by timelines, projects, and phased deployments, and operates on long-term vision rather than short-term goals. The technology would be implemented first before any real benefits to the business can be realized.

And because IT expenditures are typically large, she noted that organizations cannot afford to take risks as long-term business implications can be huge if the wrong or unstable infrastructure is implemented.

Marketing projects, by comparison, are short-term and have precise targets. For example, there are yearly budgets or sales targets that have to be met over one to two years. she said.

"It's a very reactive role, and bends to market [conditions] and competition," Ling explained. "Most of the time, changes made don't have an impact that could cause major problems for the business."

Outcomes and performance are also less specific since few can guarantee budgets or targets are met, since it is difficult to predict whether customers would eventually buy the products or when market conditions change, she noted.

And while IT projects will typically impact everyone across the company, marketing initiatives rarely interfere with other parts of the organization. "With marketing, I can take some calculated risks as campaigns planned can be short-term with a focused or target market segment on which to test," she added.

Some skills she picked up from her time as CIO did come in useful. She pointed to the intensive planning and project management required to keep IT projects on track, as well as the ability to see the overall picture of the organization's requirements since IT needed to support all aspects of the business. 

Is CIO role still relevant?

Her path from CIO to CMO may bode well for other IT professionals, especially with the much-talked about Gartner prediction that a CMO's operating budget would be larger than the CIO's by 2017.  


Ling believes CMOs can be tasked to make a company's IT decisions, especially since technology serves primarily as a business enabler. However, she stressed the need for CMOs to first want to take on the role and be responsible for making the "correct" IT decisions. 

She noted a tendency to lean toward a single vendor for all IT deployments because less training is required and maintenance work is minimized, since everything is standardized on the vendor's technology and platform. As a result, they sometimes end up forcing their users to use "half-baked solutions", she said.

Some IT departments also prefer to choose from big industry brands. "They think no one can fault them if something goes wrong because they've chosen the best market players. But the question really should be whether they can get something that is better suited to their business needs.

"These decisions require risks because your chances of failure are higher with something that hasn't been tried before. But how can you get better if you don't try anything that's outside your comfort zone," Ling said. "CIOs cannot depend on just a few big boys from which to get their technology. They must be open to up-and-coming vendors that may offer more innovative implementations.

CIO roles now are less technical and more focused on being a solution provider or business consultancy, she said. And with the multitude of cloud services available in the market, business users would rather sign up for such services than wait for IT to develop or acquire a system to deliver such capabilities, she added.

So are CIOs more like relationship officers? Ling likened IT heads to that of facility managers, where someone is required to look after the building such as the plumbing work and administration. However, there will always be areas where specialists are required, for instance, deploying the physical security system in the building. Likewise, in IT, specialists will be required in the areas of data security, for example, she noted.

"I've always believed CIOs must always be able to solution properly," Ling explained. "Today, you tend to buy bits and pieces and try to put them together because you can't buy one to fit exactly your business requirements. So CIOs need to take the right parts and put them together to ensure IT can deliver the business requirements. This is where IT needs to value-add. It's not about throwing technology at people, especially when IT is now a commodity." 

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