IT veteran with passion for education

newsmaker No stranger to implementing large-scale IT projects, BT Global Services' CEO for Southeast Asia Stephen Yeo is open to working, for free, on initiatives to drive learning using technology.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

newsmaker SINGAPORE--Local IT veteran Stephen Yeo has worn many hats in the tech industry--from buyer to seller and even consultant--but his first love is in education.

His passion for technology and learning runs so deep, the CEO of BT Global Services' Southeast Asian operations will consider working for free on initiatives that bring together the two disciplines.

Yeo began his career in the Ministry of Defense (Mindef) where he went on to become the director of Mindef's Systems and Computer Organisation, responsible for IT procurement decisions. He became CEO of the National Computer Board (NCB) in 1995, leading the country's various IT policies such as the IT2000 Masterplan and developing the Singapore ONE broadband network. In December 1999, NCB merged with the Telecommunication Authority of Singapore to become today's Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), the country's ICT regulator.

The executive also served in the Singapore Computer Systems (SCS) and outsourcing services provider EDS, where he led a consortium to secure one of Singapore's biggest outsourcing tenders, the SOE (Standard ICT Operating Environment) initiative by the public sector.

After Hewlett-Packard acquired EDS, he stayed on for six months to assist with the transition of the SOEasy project before setting up his own consultancy. Expressing pity over the loss of the EDS brand name of over 40 years, Yeo noted the "jury is still out" on HP's takeover of the IT services company.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia seven months into his new role at BT, Yeo touched on his public and private sector experiences, the company's strategy in the region and its approach to cloud services, and elaborated on how technology can improve the education experience.

Q: How have you been settling in at BT Global Services since your appointment last September?
Yeo: I've been good. It's always good to be part of a growing and investing entity as opposed to one that is slowing or cutting down.

Our entity in Singapore is the headquarters for BT Southeast Asia and we're well-positioned in terms of infrastructure, facilities and people notwithstanding the downturn two years ago.

Since joining BT, have you made any changes? Moving forward, what sort of changes are you looking at?
It's actually more about the execution because BT's investment plans in the Asia-Pacific were pretty much in place by the time I came in.

But if there's anything that I've tried to put in place, it is to try and change the balance of clients that we currently have. Most clients now are multinational companies (MNCs) which are entering the Asia-Pacific market. I want to spend a bit more time also focusing on clients which are based in Southeast Asia--the large local clients which in time will go or are already going regional--so that over time we will have a balanced portfolio.

With that change, we have also started to bring in more global and local people onboard. We have quite a good balance today: we have sales, architects, account managers who come from the United States or Europe as well as local people complementing our workforce.

I'm quite happy with that because if we swing one way or another, it will be very unbalanced.

Two years ago, business for BT Global Services wasn't terribly good. What has the company been doing to boost revenue?
To be fair, two years ago when the economy was in a downturn, it hurt everybody not just BT. It also hit BT harder in regions other than Asia-Pacific, meaning in Europe, the U.S. and in its home country the U.K. Asia-Pacific was not hit as badly because I believe it was still in growth mode.

But that was two years ago. Now, hearing from our global clients, we realized that we should invest more in Asia-Pacific because that is where our clients are investing. They are looking to come out here and address the growing markets such as China, India and the other emerging economies. If this is not a growth area, what is?

Because our clients are coming out in force, we as a corporation decided that Asia-Pacific would be an investment area for us and pumped in a certain amount of money to do several things.

First, we want to increase our headcount. We're six months into the execution of our investment and we've put in place about 300-plus folks in Asia-Pacific. And we are about halfway through.

We're also bringing in a richer portfolio. For telcos, we used to compete on connectivity; now, we have to compete on the value we bring over the network. We're rolling out a rich portfolio of contact center services, security services, acceleration services such as how to make your bandwidth appear bigger than it actually is by optimizing the bandwidth for the applications.

We are also putting a lot of emphasis on service excellence. Here in Asia-Pacific, we operate in quite a tough region because some sub-regions are still very regulated environments. It is not as open as Europe. In this case, we have to work with a lot of partners such as the incumbents which include China Telecom in China, Telstra in Australia, and SingTel or StarHub in Singapore. Unfortunately, working with many people usually brings on a bit of inefficiencies. Therefore we are looking to streamline processes so that we are more responsive to our clients.

We're pushing quite hard in these three areas and I think we'll see returns in the next work year, which starts this April.

Is BT Global Services planning to move into cloud services?
Yes, BT is already in cloud services. When people talk about cloud, they think of Google and Amazon which is about hosting applications somewhere else.

But the cloud is also about optimizing your data center and compute power. As a client, there are a few characteristics that you will enjoy if you subscribe to these cloud services: minimal Capex (capital expenditure) and scalability.

With cloud services, you don't have to invest in physical infrastructure, computing resources, hardware, software and more importantly the manpower to implement the systems. Clients are also able to enjoy scalability and can scale up and scale down. That's a pretty big plus because the size of the system doesn't have to be at the peak all the time. During trough periods, the resources do not have to be wasted either.

For cloud services, we have the next-generation contact center which is a hosted contact center. Beyond that, we are looking to offer scalable datacenter services which is the virtualization of data centers. Our sister entity Frontline is already offering scalable data centers. We want to virtualize data centers so when clients want datacenter resources, they can scale up and down without needing to wait for the lead time for the hardware.

Before you joined BT, you were in consulting--did you consider going into venture capital during the period?
Before BT, I ran my own consulting company for about one-and-a-half years. Before that, I was with EDS which involves large outsourcing deals. When I came out with my own consulting firm, I was trying to help other companies pursue large IT outsourcing deals by helping them position themselves to address clients of outsourcing. It was about helping them think about their value proposition, the local market and all kinds of services related to outsourcing.

As for your question: Why didn't I go into venture capital? I was actually involved to some extent. To be a venture capitalist, you have to have deep pockets; if you don't, you can only at best provide advice (laughs).

I was in a government panel--Spring Singapore--helping companies with good products or service to think about their go-to-market strategy. On my own, I hand-held two to three companies that are IT-related--in education and multimedia. I helped them think about how they were going to grow beyond the initial five years and how to open revenues in new markets. It was quite interesting work and it allowed me to pick and choose who I wanted to work with. I didn't quite go into venture capital because there are enough people doing that, the government for example.

Previously, you were involved in government entities such as Mindef and the NCB. Later you moved on to government-linked SCS. Would you say you spent more time in the public sector than in the private? And what are the differences working for these two sectors?
I would say my career in both sectors is quite balanced. If you want me to make a comparison, the commercial sector has its attractions in that the outcomes and results are shorter-term and tangible. In the private sector, things are measured in quarters, half a year or one year. The results are measurable whether it is KPI (key performance indicator) or financial numbers. The private sector is also very tangible: there is very little room for debate about what you are doing.

In the public sector, which is perennial, the KPI is usually quite hazy and open to a bit more subjectivity. It has its own challenges, not to say that it is unimportant.

My role in NCB, in the national IT context, was important because it enabled the different sectors: industrial, education and even the government itself through enabling IT.

With Singapore being very advanced in IT now, do you see any similarities or differences between the government initiatives then and now?
In the early days before the Internet, there was a lot of emphasis on content because it was not so easily available. With the Internet, content is everywhere and in fact you are inundated with content. Content was king then and it still is but it is a lot more easily available now.

Right now, I see our focus in Singapore is making sure that the infrastructure is in place to access content. This is good because with all the bandwidth in place we are able to reach global content. On the downside, the companies which are focused on producing content by mastering or indexing it will just die. These are mostly local niche companies which try to package content, for example for the education sector. The Internet has superseded all of them.

But I think there is still room for companies which package content into training packages. That's useful because content on its own is disorganized. If you can organize content systematically and train a person from one level of skill to another, there's still room for these companies.

If you were given a chance to lead Singapore's IT again, would you take on the role?
I certainly would, particularly if it is something I have passion for. I've always said, even to some of my colleagues, that education has always been my first love. If there is a way we can exploit technology it will be something I will be highly interested. I'll even be willing to work for free.

I mean education not just in school-based systems but also in continuous learning. I believe that competition now is beyond schools and is even now at the professional level. If the people in Singapore want to remain competitive, they will have to keep on learning.

And let's not forget the basic skills--the three Rs--Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. If we are able to use technologies to bring these skills in place, folks will be able to be competitive on their own. With reading and basic literacy, they can always go to the Internet to pick up things to learn. In the real world, there is still need for arithmetic. And of course writing, to be able to communicate and not just absorb information.

To give a short answer to your question: Sure, if there is such an opportunity where I can add value and which is something I am passionate about, I am willing to go even beyond Singapore.

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