by Zafar Anjum

IT leadership lessons from Singapore’s first CIO, Alex Siow

Apr 04, 2021
IT Leadership

The u2018accidental CIOu2019 shares his decades of career lessons to help todayu2019s CIOs succeed intentionally.

alex siow
Credit: Foto-U Studio

Alex Siow calls himself “an accidental CIO” in his recently released book, Leading with IT: Lessons from Singapore’s First CIO, and yet he is credited as the first CIO of Singapore. “I was the first person with the CIO title in Singapore. I can’t claim to be the first CIO in Singapore,” Siow said in an exclusive interview with CIO ASEAN. “I suppose the difference that I made in the community of IT was to bring IT to the foreground,” he says.

Widely respected in his field in Singapore and across Southeast Asia, Siow is currently a professor (practice) in the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore and concurrently director of the university’s Advanced Computing for Executives programme. Previously, he was the managing director for Health & Public Service at Accenture.

Siow started his career as a structural engineer in Singapore’s Housing & Development Board (HDB) in 1981 and rose through the ranks to become the CIO in 1989. In 2003, Siow joined the private sector and in due course became the senior vice president at StarHub, one of Singapore’s top telecom companies, from 2011 to 2012.

When he was made the head of IT for computer services at HDB, the statutory board of the Ministry of National Development responsible for public housing in Singapore, one of the conditions he put forth to the CEO was that he wanted to directly report to him. The CEO asked him what he wanted to be called? Siow replied that he wanted to be called the chief information officer, and that’s how Siow became the first IT head in Singapore to receive the CIO title.

Making IT business-oriented: 3 mindset shifts

Once he took the job as HDB’s CIO, Siow made three mindset shifts in his team.

One fundamental change he effected was interacting with business heads. IT managers typically did not interact with the business heads. However, Siow had a different outlook. He thought he was one of those business heads. “So, I used to go and mingle with them and talk about their business problems,” he says.

He instituted a system whereby he would have meetings with some of the key business departments on a regular basis. There were 17 departments in HDB at that time, a fairly large organisation with nearly 5,000 employees and a corporate history dating back to the 1960s. “Each key business department had a key account manager to discuss their problems whereas the CIO had executive-level meetings with the business heads,” he says. He wanted the top guys in the organisation to be involved in all the IT decisions. “That slowly changed the mindset, and eventually we had account managers for each of the departments.”

In this process, he also made it clear to his staff that they had only one customer: HDB’s customers. HDB’s internal users thus “became our business partners, and jointly we served the customer,” he says.

The second fundamental mindset shift he implemented was to constantly interact with other departments, giving them proposals. If departments liked the proposals, he had his team re-engineer them so that it might look like the idea came from them. This helped the IT department make friends in all other departments across the organisation.

The third mindset change was “The answer is yes”. Earlier, the IT department had the negative image that if someone approached the department with a problem, the immediate answer would be a no. Now, it changed to a yes. Of course, “once you say yes, you will have to find the answer to the questions,” he says.

All these changes made his team members take pride in their work and felt connected, as now they had friends and supporters in the organisation.

Developing a common vision

He also instituted town hall meetings for his staff. “If you don’t tell your staff what was happening, they will spend time finding out what was happening,” he says. To handle gossip, rumours, and fake news in his team, which ultimately affected people’s morale, he started a monthly town hall meeting to share with the team the state of affairs.

This led to the next big thing: developing a common vision. He constituted an IT strategic planning session in 1992 and came out with Vision 2000. It captured the IT plan for HDB based on HDB’s strategic business plan.

“The strategic plan gave my team a sense of purpose and direction, and it motivated them to stay with the organisation,” he says. Attrition was a big problem at HDB at that time, and he wanted to arrest it. All these steps helped him cut down the turnover rate from more than 20% to just 1.5%.

He took one more step to retain his staff. He dangled the carrot of new technology in front of his team members: If you stay with me, you will have the best of technology to play with. This excited his team. He formed research teams to study emerging technologies; each team had 6 people in them.

The balancing act of a CIO: management, tech, and talent

One of the big challenges Siow faced when he took over was the legacy systems. The mainframe-based technology was becoming a bottleneck, and he could not sit back and do nothing about it. So he took on two systems, the car-park management system and the work-order management system—both unproductive systems that needed revamping. Until then, CIOs never used to own projects, but he did with these two and revamped them as a proof of system. Both projects turned out to be successful, and this established his credibility in the organisation.

Once he established his credibility, he focussed on delivery. His project-management skills came in handy: “Project management is a very key skill of a CIO,” he says. “That’s the secret of my success.” Siow has a masters degree in engineering from University of Birmingham and had attended the senior management programme at INSEAD in 1992.

Another key ingredient of his success as a CIO was talent management. “I, very early on, understood that I needed to have experts around me,” he says.

Siow had the ability to spot talent, find the right person for the right job, and then trust the person with the job. “You have to empower the person,” he says. “So far, nobody has abused that trust.” Besides empowering his team members, he also used to shield them from the politics of the organisation.

Learning and nurturing a community of IT professionals

Siow is a big believer in learning from others. He says that his interaction with vendors gave him knowledge and information, and he also joined the community of professionals in Singapore to connect with others and learn from them.

Early in his career, he joined the IBM mainframe user group and the Singapore Computer Society (SCS). He became the president of SCS from 1997 to 2001. He was the first president of the Singapore Chapter of the Project Management Institute, serving from 2001 to 2012. He joined many such groups during his career.

“I learned from other people, and not necessarily they were all CIOs but they were important IT managers,” he says. “I became their leader and made my mark in the community. I encouraged my staff to join such organisations too to share knowledge and learn from others and bring back new knowledge to the organisation.”

Evolution of the CIO role

Siow says that the CIO role has evolved in four ways:

  • There’s now a proliferation of CIOs.
  • CIOs should not be boxed in to their IT departments; they need to participate in business decisions and business strategy.
  • CIOs cannot hog all the limelight to themselves, as organisations are getting complex; there is a need to divide the role to others such CSO for cybersecurity and CTO for infrastructure.
  • CIOs must suggest to their CEOs that it is the CIO’s job to manage technology; the CEO is there to make money, not to worry about security or running of the IT functions.

When asked for his advice to the new crop of CIOs, Siow says, “Achieve results through people, and don’t think that you are the smartest person in your team. … Don’t be afraid to ask if you do not know, and remember you serve the people as a leader.”

Siow believes in having the servant leadership attitude. “The job has not changed by large,” he says. “This ego problem, if you want to lord over the people, is a sure way to fail. No CIO is smarter than all his people. If you gain the respect of all people, together they will make you smart.”