Women in Tech: Three women leading Malaysia’s digital economy

women in tech
More professional women are working in technology

Despite the current onslaught of challenges both globally and domestically, Malaysia’s digital economy efforts remained on an upward trajectory at the turn of the year – culminating with a growth of 9% annually between 2010 to 2016, which is faster than overall GDP growth, according to the country’s statistics department.

At the same time, in terms of diversity, some studies show the number of women in management is increasing, albeit slowly, Malaysia has also been moving steadily ahead of the global trend with the percentage of women in senior management at 28% in 2018, against the global average of 24%, according to recent Grant Thornton International Ltd’s annual Women in Business reports.

Indeed, according to the latest report, ASEAN leads the way with 94%, followed by North America with 92%, APAC with 85% and the EU with 84%. All of these regions have seen a significant improvement in the proportion of businesses with at least one female senior leader, with APAC seeing the greatest change for the better, rising 14 percentage points from 71% in 2018 to 85% in 2019.

One of the key findings from the 2018 Hays Asia Salary Guide which in its 11th year, highlights salary and recruiting trends based on responses from more than 3,000 employers across Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. Last year’s Salary Guide showed women held 35% of management roles in Malaysia with the figure reported in the latest research at 38%.

A strong pipeline of women graduates is already beginning to reflect itself in the workforce. While overall gender ratio of the Malaysian labour force is at 60:40 in terms of men:women, at the executive level, it’s almost 50:50 between women and men in the workforce – at least in listed companies.

Encouraging signs of this intent is the country’s cybersecurity back in 2017. Even back in December 2017, LinkedIn’s report on cybersecurity talent in Malaysia found that women make up 21% of the country’s cybersecurity workforce. This was impressive compared to the US’s 11% at the time.

In 2019, Malaysia launched a career comeback program for women entitled ‘Empowering Women in Cyber Risk Management’ made up of a collaboration of government bodies led by Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) together with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM), Ministry of Communications and Multimedia (KKMM), Department of Women’s Development (JPW), National Cyber Security Agency (NASCA), and TalentCorp,

Three icons of Malaysia’s tech industry remain upbeat about women’s contributions to digital economy growth during in-depth interviews with me.

Between them, Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, tech entrepreneur, Chairperson of Pos Malaysia; Dr Sharlene Thiagarajah, Chief Executive Officer, TM R&D; and Catherine Lian, Managing Director, IBM Malaysia – encompass key industry sectors and are at the cutting edge of digitalisation trends.

Innovating Malaysia’s future

Balancing digital disruption to reap positive rewards is perhaps the common ground for all three leaders. Their belief in the importance of digital economy growth is echoed by research, which suggests that society – as well as the economy – are among the beneficiaries of “digital spillover.” One study for example shows that GDP will grow 20 dollars for every US dollar invested in digital, says a report published by Huawei and Oxford Economics.

In 2018, Datuk Yasmin Mahmood was recognised as one of the the world’s 100 most influential people in Digital Government by Apolitical, an independent UK-based global network for government which focuses on helping public servants find solutions to issues.

Datuk Yasmin Mahmood

Former chairman of the National ICT Association of Malaysia (PIKOM), Ganesh Kumar Bangah, commented that Yasmin enacted “the work ethics and spirit of the private sector and international multinational companies (MNCs) from 30 years of experience” into her role at the helm of the government agency charged with championing the nation’s digital economy growth, repositioning it as the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC).

Under her more-than-four-year-stewardship of the government agency Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), the digital economy contributed some 18.3% of GDP in 2017 and remains on track to surpass the 20% target in 2020. It has also been reported numerous times about how the digital economy was fulfilling its promise under her leadership.

Yasmin also helmed the local subsidiaries of multinational international brands such as Microsoft, Dell and HP prior to MDEC.

She detailed how women have gained leading positions of power in Malaysia today, noting: “I also became a chairperson ‘in a club’ where there are not many women chairman in public listed companies.”

Her career, which now includes chairperson of the Board of the country’s postal giant POS Malaysia, demands continual revaluation. “POS Malaysia brings a different level of challenges and opportunities from the corporate or c-level world.”

However, she delights in retaining her mentoring and support of frontier technology startups and talent as an entrepreneur and investor in Malaysia and Indonesia. “Moving from roles with a vendor perspective – for instance, at Microsoft – I have found it significant that I have moved across roles where I am continually redefining myself as a leader and an entrepreneur in the digital technology arena.”

Creating 5G momentum

Pushing the envelope of innovation is what drives Dr Sharlene Thiagarajah, Chief Executive Officer, TM R&D, the research arm of telco giant – the Telekom Malaysia (TM) group.

Dr Sharlene Thiagarajah (centre)

Nine (9) of her team’s papers have been adopted as global standards covering fibre connectivity and 5G.

“Since 2016, we have made significant contributions to global standardisation bodies,” she confirms. “We have been the sole representative in this region working together with other telcos and vendors globally to jointly contribute to 5G standardisation works. “

TM R&D’s contributions are to following global standardisation bodies, 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), Broadband Forum, ITU Telecommunication Standardisation Sector (ITU-T), Full Service Access Network (FSAN) and Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT) specially on around fibre connectivity and 5G matters.

“For the current 5G deployment in the country, our works centre around Self-Organising Networks in New Radio, RAN-centric Big Data Collection and Utilisation, UE Power Saving and Wakeup Mechanism in New Radio (NR), NR/non-3GPP integration, interworking and aggregation, just to name a few,” she says.

Malaysia’s 5G vision pivots around 100 use cases, identified under nine verticals – agriculture, education, entertainment/media, digital healthcare, manufacturing and processing, oil and gas, smart city, smart transportation and tourism.

She described 2019 as an excellent year, and singled out the following: “The launch of our Open Innovation platform (OIP) as the building block for TM’s digital core: This platform serves as a multi-layer digital infra, providing a complete eco-system for the creation of new revenue opportunities. “

The open platform comprises a data brokerage system, an Application Programming Interface (API) aggregation infrastructure, and an end to end Internet of Things (IoT) platform for rapid service creation.

“In addition, six of our smarter solutions including OIP, were selected for TM’s 5G Demonstration Project (5GDP) in Subang Jaya and Langkawi. The use cases were selected to demonstrate how TM with a 5G infrastructure can bring smarter solutions, in support of MCMC’s efforts in progressing humanity towards improving the Malaysians’ lives.”

Explaining that her secret sauce to innovation was to nurture her team, Dr Sharlene adds that her team garnered four awards at 2019’s MSC APICTA awards for Analytics of Customer Experience (ACE), Fixed-line Voice over Wireless (FiVoW) and OIP.

“We also walked away with two awards for our solutions Revolutionising IoT TM Access (RITA) and Intelligent Network Diagnostic & Expert Advisory System for Service Desk (IDEAS+) at the Malaysia Technology Excellence Awards.”

Malaysia needs to punch above its weight

Widely regarded for her dynamism, Catherine Lian, Managing Director of IBM Malaysia is also a great believer in the power of collaboration across different sectors.

During her interview on Malaysia as a digital nation, Catherine gave a quick reality check. “Malaysia is a trading nation. We rely on exports to help grow our markets. At the same time, the domestic market plays an important role in keeping companies in business. The competitiveness of Malaysia relies on business friendly policies that help promote free and fair trade, development of human capital that is relevant to the needs of the market and fiscal policies which promote investment.”

“This requires constant collaboration and open discussions, which aim to help address the gaps that exist in our ecosystem and target opportunities in new areas of business,” she said, emphasising that, “technology plays an important role as a force multiplier in creating value for Malaysian enterprises to help differentiate our offerings.”

Malaysia needs to punch above its weight in an increasingly challenging global environment.

“The size of our population and market makes it incumbent on our policy makers to enact policies, which help drive adoption and integration of these new technologies that can help open up new opportunities and create new jobs,” she further added.

“At IBM, we believe that it is vital to have regular engagements and dialogues between government and industry for an overview of trends and market developments,” Gathering continued. “These engagements have enabled open discussions on what it takes to make technology work and be useful to the administration. Part of that journey involves pilot projects and proof of concept to demonstrate capability.”

The XX factor

A study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of 171 German, Swiss and Austrian businesses suggests a clear relationship between diverse management teams and revenues from innovative products and services.

Interestingly, the study also shows that innovation performance only increased significantly when more than 20% of management positions were held by women.

Are there some factors specific to their gender that help them?

Yasmin’s reply offered something of a consensus of the three leaders on this matter: “I have always thought that the willingness to collaborate and adaptability are among the strengths of women – not that I am necessarily claiming these as purely female attributes! – but in today’s fast moving scenario – these two factors truly drive the agility that we need in the digital era.”

“We usually readily admit when we don’t have the answers, and we are adaptable enough to move rapidly and flexibly from there,” she added. “New technology is disruptive – and if we proactively address this with agility we can give disruption a positive, creative edge.”

“Adaptive leadership is vital in this age,” Yasmin said, addressing the conundrum between IQ (intelligence quotient) and EQ (emotional intelligence quotient).” While EQ has enjoyed enhanced focus in the business world as a key leadership trait, a blend between the two may point to a more fruitful determinant of leadership success.

Moving ahead: Surviving and Thriving

Just two decades ago, Malaysia was being called the ‘jewel in the ASEAN’s digital crown,’ noted some industry leaders to me at a conference a few months ago. The nation still has the potential but has so far yet to truly tap the considerable talent and energy of its communities.

Industry watchers warn that a greater sense of urgency is needed to cope with the speed of technological advances, and other current disruptions enacted by the coronavirus outbreak and other shifts.

During an interview with research house Omdia’s (formerly Ovum) senior analyst for enterprise services, SoHO and SME Research, Tan Hwee-Xian picked out a sliver of positivity from the massive negative impact of the current coronavirus outbreak. 

“On the positive side, Malaysian businesses can see the Covid-19 outbreak as a catalyst to sharpen their business continuity measures and drive fundamental change in the way they do business, especially in business digitalisation and innovation,” said Tan. “With the prevention measures against the outbreak of Covid-19 at work released by the Ministry of Human Resources early this month, many businesses in Malaysia have started to put responsible measures in place to minimise disruption to their operations and to ensure the safety of their workers.”

However, the overall impact of such challenges is cause for concern – and greater action –  to steer Malaysia’s digital trajectory with more purpose.

IBM’s Catherine reflects: “I have realised that Malaysia is making good progress in creating equal opportunities for women. It resonates well with IBM – as our diversity and inclusion is a key focus in our fundamentals today in the organisation.”

“Part of the transformation journey involves having the right skills set and we are equipping our staff with skills to manage hybrid and multi-cloud platform, design robotic process automation (RPA), and create AI templates,” she said. “We have taken it a step further in Malaysia with the launch of P-TECH to equip high school students with new collar skills through a five-year programme.”

“The key trends that I believe will set Malaysia apart are AI, IoT, blockchain and cloud technologies in the transformation journey,” Catherine further added. “Personally, I plan to continue to champion IBM’s diversity and inclusion agenda in Malaysia through empowering women in leadership.”

TM’s Dr Sharlene shared this view. “My vision for the next decade is to make life easier with smarter platforms and solutions, progressing humanity and enriching nations. At TM R&D, we embed security, analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in every product and solutions we develop. “”

“I believe in using machines (automation/digital and AI) to do much of our work, so that humans can focus on higher value tasks – the tasks that cannot be done by machines – to dream and create a better future,” she said. “I quote a famous futurist Gerd Leonhard: ‘In the future, human only traits like intuition, imagination, creativity, emotion and integrity will become very valuable.'”

“We have already started to roll out some of our smarter solutions commercially,” said Dr Sharlene. “Once all sectors see the benefits of digitalisation and automation, we are confident that widespread adoption of digital will become the natural next step.”

“5G is a next-generation network that will serve as a powerful enabling technology for the Internet of Things (IoT), leading to many transformative smart solutions such as the Smart City Solutions and beyond,” says Dr Sharlene, confirming that: “TM is innovating comprehensive products and solutions to lay the foundation for Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0) and enable IoT – to serve a more digital society and lifestyle, digital businesses and industry verticals, as well as digital Government.”

Speaking of getting the collaborative private-public sector balance right in this digital age, Datuk Yasmin, ponders: “Do we have the balance right yet? Not quite. I think there is too much reliance by industry on the government. I believe the government’s role is to enable through what only it can do by getting the (a) infrastructure right (b) by generating the right policies to spur entrepreneurship, and (d) to upscale the development of the right talent – we must make our talent AI ready. Malaysian industry must take the lead in order to be truly competitive!”

Looking ahead, she foresees the cybersecurity war will reach new levels of intensity involving AI vs AI combat scenarios. However she remains, “Excited about AI – and I have been for some time. AI is no longer on the fringes of experimentation. It is going mainstream and data (the ‘feeder’ of AI) is going to be embedded in so many systems.”

For these leaders, Digital Malaysia remains a rallying call to include all Malaysians to unite in the race for survival, and to garner some slice of prosperity from the global pie of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

By Avanti Kumar – former weekly consumer tech & devices review columnist for five years with CNet, The Sun and Sunday Mail in Malaysia. Now independent columnist for various media. Reformed consultant/executive coach.

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