by James Henderson

Profile: Ivan Ng’s non-linear path to becoming a CTO

May 06, 2020
CareersCTOIT Leadership

Having held the roles of consultant, entrepreneur, business executive and technology leader, Ivan Ng recalls key career learnings as CTO of Singapore-based property giant CDL.

ivan ng cdl cio idg 1
Credit: IDG

Ask Ivan Ng to outline his path to becoming chief technology officer of Singapore-based property giant City Developments Limited (CDL), and chances are, he’ll recall some early mentorship advice. “You only begin your career in your forties; before that, you’re just learning”, said Ng, who leads group technology strategy and operations for a real estate conglomerate spanning 29 countries.

“I’m now better able to appreciate the wisdom that while it’s natural to focus on the destination, it’s important to keep our minds open and focus on learning opportunities.”

The non-linear path to CDL

“My career is certainly non-linear,” observed Ng, who now resides in the city-state. “I am often encouraged that learnings that I had through starting a company and being a business leader has greatly helped to provide additional perspectives. It has enabled me to better evaluate technology initiatives via the lens of a business leader and to understand how technology can relate to other stakeholders.”

Before joining CDL in 2016, Ng was a consultant, entrepreneur, business executive and technology leader, residing and working in China, Japan, the US and Indonesia.

After starting out advising large regional banks on optimising corporate and retail loan processes, the call came to help design highly scalable systems in the build-up to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, as part of a select IBM team.

In working with some of the best technical minds in the industry, Ng then started his first business during his late twenties in the form of LifeContacts, a software company specialising in personal and corporate relationship management systems.

Alongside IT services and vendor experience leading business units across Asia Pacific, Ng returned to frontline technology to drive wide-scale transformation initiatives at Pactera in Beijing, before switching to regional roles at Hewlett-Packard and ServiceNow ahead of joining CDL.

In his current role at CDL, Ng is tasked with driving the innovative use of digital technologies across an organisation housing more than 10,000 employees, with a group portfolio spanning residential, office, hotels, serviced apartments, integrated developments and shopping malls, in addition to a separate fund management business. “My role has not changed but the skills required to be successful are now very different,” said Ng, recently honoured during the inaugural CIO50 ASEAN Awards. “While IT strategy and operations remain core responsibilities, I see my key role as enabling our businesses to achieve better results using technology, transforming business models or expanding internationally. This means strategically working with the business to identify opportunities for change, jointly creating a digital roadmap and delivering on those initiatives. Not everything needs to be large scale digital transformation.”

To measure success, Ng established a charter for IT, which is co-developed with the businesses to help prioritise investments. “IT is meant to make an impact on four value pillars,” he outlined. “These include enabling businesses through the use of digital and data, product innovations, driving cost-effectiveness and improving productivity through better collaboration and automation. We then implement key measures specific to innovation, customer impact, productivity and cost savings.”

Why CTOs should ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’ — and ‘stay curious’

For Ng, the role of CTO represents a challenging undertaking, operating in a profession where the landscape changes fast and hard-earned experience can be quickly eroded.

Former Apple CEO “Steve Jobs advised us to ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’, to which I would add ‘stay curious’,” he added.

“We need to be curious about how new technologies are disrupting the industry and to see first-hand for ourselves how customers are using such technology. Being curious can also mean reflecting on ‘why’ certain things are done and often ‘why not’. I am often surprised how much insights can come from these two simple questions.”

As new technologies become more disruptive, Ng said business leaders are challenged to react to dynamic changes in expectations. “They may not know what they need or understand what is possible,” he acknowledged. “Technology leaders thus need to be involved at the frontline with the business to collaborate more proactively.”

As a result, Ng advised IT executives to view themselves as part of the business, rather than operating as a separate function. “Another key attribute is around communication,” he explained. “To be successful in any digital transformation, we need to bring our people along the journey. However, it is difficult as we now need to communicate beyond technical teams and across businesses. We are expected to provide direct answers to the ‘why’ and ‘so what’ questions behind the technology initiatives we are embarking on, with less technical jargon.”

A few years ago, CDL embarked on strategy to assess how to better engage with customers through developing specific digital products to augment current approaches.

For office and retail tenants, the business launched CityNexus for Republic Plaza in 2019, one of the tallest commercial buildings in Singapore, housing more than 4,000 occupants.

“CityNexus is a proprietary digital platform we built to redefine user experience, aiming to transform buildings into smart workplaces by leveraging the internet of things [IoT] and artificial intelligence [AI],” Ng said. “For CDL tenants, the platform provides seamless and secure building access, alongside an intelligent parking system, smart retail and community newsfeed, plus a building feedback and messaging system and digital form submission during this phase.”

To further streamline visitor registration while providing maximum privacy, CDL also engaged with Singapore GovTech to become the first commercial building to work with the nationwide SG-Verify platform. “This provides a digital alternative for easy visitor registration and access to our property without the collection of physical ID cards and storing ID information,” Ng added.

AI will be the defining technology of this IT generation

In looking ahead, Ng cited AI as the defining technology of the generation due to its profound impact on business, government, society and personal lives.

“Why is AI disruptive?” Ng asked. “First, the applicability of AI is very broad, ranging from chatbots, autonomous vehicles, computer vision, robotics, neural networks and so on, across many sectors and industries. Second and more importantly, AI is a strong catalytic technology and can be combined with existing technologies to be truly impactful. For example, AI with robotic process automation doesn’t just reduce repetitive work but can greatly help businesses provide better quality and experience for stakeholders. In real estate, the use of machine learning, IoT and computer vision allows for predictive maintenance and maintenance of complex equipment. Furthermore, AI combined with cyber security defence solutions provides a much better way of responding to threats.”

The challenge of IT hiring and education in an era of market uncertainty

Despite a wave of innovation emerging over the horizon, Ng accepted that hiring technologists comfortable enough to deal with market uncertainty, while understanding business processes, remains an ongoing challenge within the office of the CTO. The core reason is that the value of IT is always in the practical application of technology to business problems and often, this may mean business and IT are learning in real-time and collaborating rapidly to deliver what stakeholders want,” he outlined.

Traditionally however, Ng said computing is typically studied as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) discipline through a specialised curriculum.

Speaking as a board advisor to the National University of Singapore, Ng said one discussion that came up focused on how graduates can benefit from a broader breadth of skills, otherwise known as ’T-shaped skills’. “For IT, this may mean a combination of analytical skills, business knowledge and technical grounding,” he added. “These are usually seen only in more senior technologists but clearly, these are in short supply and are the hardest to fill. We can do better by equipping graduates with some of these broader skills at the university level.”