#8 - Digital Transformation Journey in SP Digital - Chang Sau Sheong
“There is no permanent failure and there is no guarantee of success either. What you define as success, what you define as failure is just a definition."
Sau Sheong is the CEO of SP Digital, an energytech company, part of SP Group, the leading energy utility in Asia Pacific and one of Singapore’s largest corporations. In this episode, Sau Sheong shared with me about the digital transformation journey that he embarked in SP Digital, including some success and failure stories. His achievements during this transformation journey led him to winning the “Executive of the Year for Utilities” award at SBR Management Excellence Awards 2019. Sau Sheong also shared his interesting career journey from being a software engineer, to being a CTO, and to becoming a CEO in SP Digital. Sau Sheong has written multiple programming books, and he mentioned what drives him to write those books, and why he is also very active in the tech communities. Don’t miss his sharing on some unique experiences that he had with his readers!
Listen out for:
- Sau Sheong’s unconventional career journey from being a software engineer to becoming a CEO - [00:04:36]
- How SP Digital went through digital transformation - [00:09:49]
- Why Sau Sheong took up SP Digital CEO role - [00:25:05]
- Some failure stories during SP Digital digital transformation - [00:26:33]
- Sau Sheong’s personal awards and recognitions - [00:29:57]
- Why Sau Sheong dedicates his time for community contributions - [00:32:18]
- Sau Sheong’s writing passion and why he likes writing, including authoring books - [00:35:47]
- Sau Sheong’s Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:40:06]
Chang Sau Sheong’s Bio
Sau Sheong runs SP Digital, the digital business subsidiary of SP Group. In his 25 years of industry experience, he has lead engineering teams at PayPal, Yahoo, and HP to build software products. He was previously a co-founder in a software company and was involved in startups for more than 10 years. He is active and contributes to many technology communities in Singapore and Southeast Asia (especially Go and Ruby) and has written 4 programming books. Sau Sheong has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering and a Masters in Commercial Law.
Follow Sau Sheong:
- LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/sausheong
- Twitter – https://twitter.com/sausheong
- Website – http://sausheong.github.io/
Mentions & Links:
- Sau Sheong’s books
- 📚 Ruby on Rails Web Mashup Projects – https://amzn.to/3hpQoNf
- 📚 Cloning Internet Applications with Ruby – https://amzn.to/35rKw3f
- 📚 Explore Everyday Things with R and Ruby – https://amzn.to/2TXGE0S
- 📚 Go Web Programming – https://amzn.to/35c0Kh2
- SP Digital – https://www.spdigital.io/
- SP (Singapore Power) Group – https://www.spgroup.com.sg/
- Digital transformation – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_transformation
- Energy storage – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_storage
- Pumped-storage hydroelectricity – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumped-storage_hydroelectricity
- Lithium-ion battery – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium-ion_battery
- SP Utilities app – https://www.spgroup.com.sg/mobile-apps
- Greta Thunberg – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Thunberg
- Transmission & Distribution – https://learn.pjm.com/electricity-basics/transmission-distribution.aspx
- EV charging station – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charging_station
- IOT gateway – https://openautomationsoftware.com/open-automation-systems-blog/what-is-an-iot-gateway/
- Smart Nation Fellowship – https://www.tech.gov.sg/careers/smart-nation-fellowship-programme/
- Microsoft Regional Director – https://rd.microsoft.com/en-us/
- 2019 Executive of the Year - Utilities – https://sbr.com.sg/co-written-partner/more-news/chang-sau-sheong-sp-digital-wins-executive-year-utilities-sbr-managemen
- GovTech – https://www.tech.gov.sg/
- Singapore Polytechnic – https://www.sp.edu.sg/
- Institution of Engineers Singapore – https://www.ies.org.sg/Home
- GopherCon Singapore – https://gophercon.sg/
- Singapore Java User Group – https://www.meetup.com/singajug/
- Singapore Ruby Brigade – https://www.facebook.com/groups/singaporerubybrigade/
- RedDotRubyConf – https://www.reddotrubyconf.com/
- Go programming language – https://golang.org/
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On Utility Business Challenges
Utility business is pretty conservative. It’s always about reliability, it’s always about safety, it’s about operations. I think it’s antithetical to software development where it’s about being agile, being able to create and be able to launch products quickly, so that is a direct opposite of a startup. You’re talking about fail fast, so that’s a very different kind of mindset in utilities.
I came in, first of all, to learn what these new technologies are and how do we actually make use of it and how do we actually turn it around from being a threat to being something that is of advantage for the organization and for the industry.
On Digital Transformation in SP Digital
The way that I’ve done is really to attack it from a point where things don’t exist. Cause if things are in existence, and you tackle it, you change things for people, people will be very uncomfortable.
If you tackle on something that is not being done today, and people are not familiar with or maybe even people think that they are not that important, then you have a much higher chance of success. People will leave you alone to do the things, and you will be able to prove your capabilities.
Once we establish our capabilities and our credentials, and people are more comfortable in what we can achieve, then things become a lot easier.
To tell them that, “Hey, your way of doing this thing is wrong”, I think it’s not just insulting and disrespectful, but you’re also not respecting yourself. Cause obviously by thinking that you’re always right, that not only pushes away people, but I think it makes you lose out in the learning opportunities, going into a new domain, understanding how those people work there.
On Taking Up CEO Role
If I am somebody who will only stay on track with what I’m comfortable with, then I would not have gone very far.
Most software developers are in a way adventurous people who are builders, who are creators, because they want to try something different, they want to build something different. It’s about building things, about doing things where things didn’t exist before.
There is no permanent failure and there is no guarantee of success either. What you define as success, what you define as failure is really just a definition.
When I say “there are no permanent failures”, because it’s just one data point for you to know that there is something that you could do better, you could improve, and you could just try a different way of doing things. There are no permanent failures, they’re just learning data points where we can continue forging ahead.
Even though from a technical point of view it succeeded, but when the users do not use it, then it is not a success.
On Community Contributions
I’ve always been interested in this because I always believe that I’m part of the community. I’m not somebody looking from outside. I have extreme interest in promoting the industry, promoting the community, and basically getting more people involved. Because for me, software development is a team sport. Software developers in professional settings today will work in teams, and you can’t really just do things alone. So you do need to have people around you, you need a community, and you need people whom you can bounce ideas off, you can discuss things.
As an industry, community is one of the key parts of what we need and what we are.
Why am I doing this? Why am I spending effort? I believe I’m part of this. I’m trying to actually bring people together, so we can make this a much more vibrant and prosperous industry altogether.
Writing software is not very different from writing, because they are both acts of creation, and you’re creating something that did not exist before.
I think writing, in general, where you create texts and prose and so on, really triggers the mind and creates impact to people reading it, and that’s the reason why I want to write. Cause I do want to have a transmission of knowledge, transmission of thought, transmission of ideas from one person to many people.
It’s less of ego and pride thing, but it’s more of the impact that I had on people, that it actually brought them understanding, it brought them clarity of things, transmission of thoughts, transmission of ideas across, through this particular medium. That’s very gratifying to me.
I believe that over time a lot of things would fade away. But one of these things that would last much longer is probably the written words.
Sau Sheong’s Tech Lead Wisdom
- To try and do not be afraid to try.
- Most software developers should try be a little bit more brave and not just on the code, but in the careers and in real life as well.
- Having that courage to just go, and try, and do different things, I think that’s important. Obviously you’re not going to succeed every time. There are no permanent failures. You could always take those things that did not work so well, and work it into something that could benefit you in the future.
Episode Introduction [00:00:50]
Henry Suryawirawan: Welcome to another episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast with me your host, Henry Suryawirawan. If you have been enjoying the podcast and would like to follow any new updates coming out of the show, you can subscribe to our email list at techleadjournal.dev, or you can also follow our social media channels on LinkedIn or Twitter. I’ve been very encouraged by some of your likes, your posts, your sharing and your retweets on those channels. And I hope that more of them can keep coming in order to spread this podcast to more people out there. And if you would like to pledge your support and contribute back to the show, make sure to check out our patron page at techleadjournal.dev/patron. I will greatly appreciate your contribution and it would help me towards achieving a goal that I’m currently running on the page.
For today’s episode, I had the pleasure to chat with Chang Sau Sheong. Sau Sheong is the CEO of SP Digital, a leading energy utilities group in Singapore and Asia Pacific. Sau Sheong is well known in the Southeast Asia tech scene and is also widely known as Singapore Codefather.
Before he becomes the CEO of SP Digital, he’s already highly regarded as a prominent engineer, book author, and an active contributor in the community. He wrote a number of programming books covering Go and Ruby, and has a series of popular articles about Go. He ran GopherCon Singapore, the largest Go conference in Southeast Asia since 2017. And his illustrious career also includes leading engineering teams at PayPal, Yahoo, and HP labs.
And last year in 2019, he won the “Executive of the Year for Utilities” award at Singapore Business Review Management Excellence Awards, recognizing all his great achievements leading digital transformation journey at SP Digital. In this conversation, he shared with me about the digital transformation journey that he embarked in SP Digital, including some of the success and failure stories. He also shared why he decided to take on the CEO role at SP Digital, an unconventional career decision for someone who is highly technical and has always been leading multiple engineering teams previously.
It is really, really inspiring to hear what he has done. And I do hope you enjoy this conversation. But before we start the episode, I just like to mention that you will hear some background noises at some parts of the recording, be it the construction noise and mobile notification sounds, and I do apologize if it causes inconvenience for some of you. Sometimes life does get in a way, but I do believe that you will still learn a lot from this conversation. So without further ado, let’s get started.
Henry Suryawirawan: Hi, Sau Sheong. Welcome to the Tech Lead Journal episode. It’s very good to see you here.
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:04:06] Thanks Henry. Thanks for inviting me.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:04:08] Yeah, so Sau Sheong, before we start the conversation, I would like to introduce you to our audience here. So Sau Sheong is one of the tech leaders in Singapore, very well known in the industry and the community. Just to mention some of the roles that you have been before, you’ve been with Yahoo engineering team as the Director of Engineer, you’ve been with HP Labs Singapore as a Director. You’ve also spent your time at PayPal as a Director of Global Consumer Engineering and you currently work at SP Digital as the CEO.
Career Journey [00:04:36]
Henry Suryawirawan: So Sau Sheong, maybe to start with, can you share with us your career journey? What are your major turning points in your career that you can share with us here for all to learn?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:04:46] Sure, sure. I wouldn’t say really learn. I’m just sharing and maybe I’ll just talk about my career. I would say I have an interesting career path and I’m not quite sure whether it is something that most technical people go through, but I think I’m a person of my times. I’ve really been through this history of the tech industry in Singapore for the past 25 years. So I came out from the university, NTU, Nanyang Technological University in 95. And within this 25 years, I spent maybe roughly about 10 years in different startups, slightly less than 10 years in American MNCs and for the rest of the time, I spent most of it in my current role in Singapore Power, which is a utility company.
I actually did my own startup, which coincidentally was right smack into the dot-com days. It was a software startup. Basically what I did was I invented some software at that point in time and it was kind of new, revolutionary even. And so decided to come out, got some funding and did that startup, sold it off after going through the dot-com days and then promptly joined another startup. So went from one startup to another one and helped to bring it up to a certain stage when again, we sold it off to another organization and so on. So that is a pretty exciting period of my time.
But after a while, doing startups sort of lost its luster and wanted to get a little bit more into the corporate tech world. And so joined a couple of American MNCs, including Yahoo, which I think was a really exciting times, and then HP where I started off the HP Labs in Singapore, one of seven global labs, and we were doing cloud computing research. Very, very interesting experience managing engineers, software engineers and research scientists at the same time. And finally, I also joined PayPal, spent some time there and building up initially a regional team to develop solutions for the region, but eventually after a reorganization within PayPal, was part of a global team to develop consumer products. And finally, of course, for the past four plus years, I have been in Singapore Power doing digital transformation. I was asked to help lead the efforts in transforming the organization.
Utility business is pretty conservative, I would say. It’s always about reliability, it’s always about safety, it’s about operations. I think it’s antithetical to software development where it’s about being agile, being able to create and be able to launch products quickly, so that is a direct opposite of a startup. You’re talking about fail fast, so that’s a very, very different kind of mindset in utilities. And having that change to moving away from just being an operator, but also being a solution provider, being a running products, creating products and selling products. I think that was the massive change that I had the honor of being part of. And after a couple of years of leading the transformation within, I was given the opportunity to run the company, to take on a role where I run the P&L for actual company. To take our products that we developed and go run it in the market, sell it to actual customers who are paying real dollars to us, helping to create more efficient processes and driving efficiency and effectiveness internally. We did something very different that SP has never done in the past. I think we have done pretty successfully for the past year and a half - two years. We have sold to customers like Changi Airport, Sembcorp Marine and NTU, my alma mater, basically we went back and we sold them a software to manage the smart meters within the campus, and many more. I think we have pretty decent products that we are good attacking the market. And in the past couple of days, there has been a couple of announcements as well from SP Group, talking about our investment and our trend projects overseas, and SP Digital is right smack in the middle of it. So I think we are there, we are still going, there is still a bit of a journey, but, I think we are on a good path right now.
So that’s really a five, seven minute kind of description of my career so far. Hopefully that was useful for some people, but definitely it’s not something that’s very conventional, I think, in terms of being a software developer from beginning to end. I have taken a lot of different paths and a lot of different turns, from being an engineer, to being a CTO, to being now a CEO of a company, that’s actually a very, very drastic change.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:08:53] Thanks for sharing that. So before we go into your interesting journey with SP Digital, I notice here, especially from your career, right, you have been in multiple different types of company from like startups, enterprise, American MNC, tech, and now even going back to government-linked company. So, what are some of the things that stood out in terms of difference between all these types of company if you can share?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:09:16] Yeah, actually the truth is most of these companies, whether it’s my own startup or the American tech companies, or even, SP Digital, I think the main say is they are all tech focus. In most part, my role has been quite constant. And sometimes I joke with people I know I’ve been in many companies, but really I only held one job, basically, which is to run engineering teams for companies, other than, my current role being the CEO. The main task that I’ve been doing for most of my career for 20 over years has been in engineering management, how you run a software development team to develop and release software products.
Digital Transformation of SP Digital [00:09:49]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:09:49] So, let’s go to the SP Digital journey. I mean from Singapore point of view, I think it’s pretty remarkable transformation I would say, especially hearing what you said earlier about it’s a utility energy company, where it’s like antithetical to what agile software development should be and you have successfully run the digital transformation in the last two, three, four years. So can you share with the audience here how do you actually bring about digital transformation to the company? So how do you start initially?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:10:19] Well, I’ve never done this. Prior to this job. So I would not say that there is a particular rule book or process that I used to do this. Even when I first started about slightly more than four years ago, digital transformation is relatively a new term and phenomenon in most companies. And a lot of companies were trying their hand at it. They were trying to see how can I use this new digital technologies to try to develop something, how do I change from what we were to something else, because of the pressures of the industry, because of the pressures of technologies and so on. So a lot of companies were trying at it, and I think even at that point in time, Singapore Power really had no idea what it means and what it takes to do that. And jumping into it was a leap of faith of what could possibly be and also a leap of faith in entrusting this to somebody like me, who has also never done it before. So, I think that journey has been kind of interesting.
I explained early on that utilities have always been operators. So the main job of a utility has always been to take large machinery, transformers, switch gear, cables and run the network, operate the network. It’s always been operational job and there’s always been something that people do with large pieces of machines and each piece of equipment is tens of millions of dollars. So it’s not as if I built something or buy something today and then tomorrow I threw it away because it doesn’t work. They’re not going to throw away that piece of equipment for the next 30, 40 years. If anything goes, you’ve got to repair it. That’s a typical operations kind of organization.
Well obviously within the energy and utility industry, things have changed very, very drastically over the past 10 years due to renewables, but renewables is not the only thing. You will look at the technologies that have emerged, like energy storage, for example, you look at electricity, from a physical point of view, once electricity has been generated, it has to be consumed. We transmit it, transport it somewhere else to be consumed. The major ways of storing electricity, it’s things like, pump hydro where you will use electricity itself, to pump water up to a height, and then when you need the electricity again, you released the valves and it will turn a hydroelectric turbine and that in turn generates electricity. So that’s pump hydro and that’s the traditional means of storing energy. But things have changed, technologies have changed. And now the prevalence form of energy storage for many people are actually lithium-ion, where you can actually turn it on at the flick of a switch and you can charge and discharge power. And that changed a lot of things. You will look at the solar today, where you only works in the daytime by the sun, it has changed to a stage where you can store electricity that’s been generated by solar into a battery, could just really literally a flick of a switch and then use it again evening and night time where you can actually now discharged the power that’s been stored in the batteries.
So this is how you really have changed the industry. And of course, all the new advances in technology, things like the drives for energy efficiency and of course with climate change and all the things that are happening around the world, this has accelerated a lot of things. So the changes within the industry itself is a big driver to the need for the change. The utilities is a means to economy of scale because you would have large generation at one location and then you transmit it to smaller and smaller scale. With the existence of renewable and energy storage, you are now distributing power to many locations. And that again changes the paradigm of what the utility is supposed to do and it has become existential threat to utilities and to the whole industry.
So the need for digital transition is real and the need for doing something beyond the normal transmission and distribution of electricity is very, very real. And that’s where I came in and I came in first of all to learn what these new technologies are and how do we actually make use of it and how do we actually turn it around from being a threat to being something that is of advantage for the organization and for the industry. Having said that, we are not breaking completely unique ground here. Other utilities have looked into it and they have tackled it, whichever ways that they think is best. But in Singapore, obviously that has not been done in Singapore Power or wasn’t done four plus years ago. For example, electric vehicles, EVs were brand new and they’re still brand new today. But I think over the years we embarked on a number of things like now today we have one of the largest EV charging networks in Singapore. We definitely have the largest EV fast charging EV network in Singapore. And that mindset change where operating large equipment is still there, but at the same time we are tackling it in a very different way.
So I think that change is not a 360 degree or 180 degree change because no organization is going to be able to do that. So what we need to do is really to nudge it to a level where we are going to adjacent views from managing large transformers, now you are managing recharging station, so that is an adjacent move. If you are a power engineer running a transformer, you’re not going to be a software engineer tomorrow running SAS software. That’s not going to happen. So being able to understand this and being able to lead the company step to step from that operational approach. Not the entire company obviously because we still need electricity, we still need to have the transmission and distribution network. But really taking part of the organization and moving people away from that to doing things like EV charging, to things like renewables, doing things like energy storage, and face to face with things like online condition monitoring, for example. So, adjacent technologies, adjacent businesses and adjacent capabilities, that’s how I did it anyway. So the past four years have been ups and downs, we have been successful in some things, we have failed miserably in other things, it’s never been a straightforward journey.
But I think overall the journey, we have been relatively successful. One very quick example is when I joined the SP Utilities app, where at that point in time was called the SP Services app. So it basically just tells you stuff and it will present a bill to you and that’s your bill and your login require you to go to a website. It was built using a hybrid software, hybrid mobile native as well as a web software. It was clunky, it was not really meant to do stuff, it was just meant to tell you stuff. So it’s basically the mobile version of a website. We saw potential in it and the first thing I wanted to do with it was I wanted to make it transactional. Because what do people want to do with the utility? What do I want to do with it? I want to be able to pay my bills with it. So that was the first thing we did. We turn it from a content based app to a transactional app by enabling payment. But obviously that was not so straightforward. Being able to do payment through a mobile app was truly revolutionary within the organization. People were not used to it. People were not very sure whether this will be acceptable to customers. If I could just go back a little bit into my career, I was part of a organization called the Singapore Sports Council and we developed solutions for swimming pools and stadiums and so on. When we first deployed the solutions to those locations and then after that, we went back to the users and tried to get feedback, and we discovered that they wouldn’t use at all. They were afraid to touch the computer because they were afraid they would break something. So you can see that there is actually a vast difference. And coming back to the story of SP Utilities app, at that point in time, enabling payment on a mobile app was scary. What if the users don’t like it? What if our regulators don’t like it? What if this thing becomes a risk to us and there’s a lot of fraud on it? So there were a lot of issues and bringing that was a slow and painful process, but I think we have come a long way since then. Today we enable not only just the payment of your bill, but we have a lot of other things in it as well. We have this program called “GreenUP” where we encourage users on a sustainability journey. We have a carbon footprint tracker to help people to understand their carbon footprint a lot better. We have different capabilities in it. We have ability for you to control, to locate control and pay for your charging off your electric vehicle. So we have definitely come a long way from where we were.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:17:50] So I think the journey that you mentioned, especially giving us the background about the energy electrical companies, it’s a very unique use case in the industry. Not many companies probably can relate to that, but still I think the journey of digital transformation itself is probably something that every company is looking for. So, I appreciate that you have explained the external side of SP Digital and how the energy industry is changing. So when you go in into SP digital initially, how do you actually start with the company that is being traditional, maybe the people are not used to a lot of digital things? How do you actually bridge between the old and the new and where do you actually start your transformation journey?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:18:31] So there are multiple ways of doing it and the way that I’ve done is really to attack it from a point where things don’t exist, I think that’s the easiest way. Cause if things are in existence and you tackle it, you change things for people, people will be very, very uncomfortable. They are very used to doing things one way and suddenly you would tell people that look it’s no good, it’s outdated, there’s a better way of doing things. It was very natural to be offended or feel very resistant to change. And that is very human and that is always a hill to climb. So especially when somebody completely new to the industry like myself turns up at the door and say, Hey, you know what, your way of doing it is outdated, old fashioned, I’ll show you how to do things better. Nobody will look and listen to me. But if you tackle on something that is not being done today and think people are not familiar with or maybe even people think that they are not that important, then you have a much higher chance of success. People will leave you alone to do the things and you will be able to prove your capabilities. And so that’s the reason why I started with the SP Utilities app because the app was a vanity showcase when we first started and nobody really cared too much about it cause it’s all content only. But I realized the potential in it because the reach to consumers is something that’s rather unique within SP and the ability to touch every single household in Singapore is something rather unique within Singapore or within SP. In fact, it is something rather unique with most utilities around the world. And most utilities around the world are actually relatively weak in reaching out to their consumers because most utilities care only about the bigger things. Consumers, you are just consuming, you are at the other end of the line, you just take power from me and every month just pay me. So that’s generally how the utility would think about the consumers. But I see it at a very, very different way coming in because consumers and the users are really what determines the future and consumers in the past who are just happy to have electricity will be very different from consumers of our current age or the future, because they will demand a lot more from the utility. If you look at the past couple of years with climate change and the younger generation speaking out, like Greta Thunberg coming out to speak at United Nations. People are keen to know how this energy is being generated, how to power the electricity they’re using, how it’s being generated. They want to know is the energy I’m using green? Are we actually doing the right thing? Are we still burning fossil fuels and I would say, yeah, most probably we are still burning fossil fuels to a certain degree, but things are changing. And how can you help? How can I engage with you as a consumer to help make it better and more sustainable world in the future? And that’s why the vision for SP Digital overall is all about sustainability, is all about using technology to power sustainability for the future. And obviously in our domain, two things to focus on are renewables and on energy efficiency. But consumers need to change too and I thought that this is one quick way of making this change by engaging consumers directly.
So anyway, long story short is that going into this then realizing that if you start off in a place where within the company, the existing people are not too concerned about it, that’s one way of tackling the change, where it is not too confrontational and it doesn’t invite too much resistance. The second one is obviously going to things that are not people, whereas the organization don’t have it in the first place. Like, SP is a T&D utility, transmission and distribution utility, it is not the generation utility. We were not familiar with things like solar and renewables, we were not familiar with things like energy storage. So these are the things that are new for the organization and for us to get involved and do it and look into those things and build technologies around those things, those become something a lot easier to tackle with. Once we establish our capabilities and our credentials and people are more comfortable in what we can achieve then things become a lot easier. That’s how I actually built and ease an organization to do digital transformation.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:22:10] So it’s very interesting story that you started with this SP Digital app. I personally use the app very frequently these days, especially since the switching of the electric vendor where we can have a choice. And now I’m using the real time statistics of how the electricity is being used. I think it’s really, really transformational, at least for me coming from my personal experience.
So obviously the other part of digital transformation, like what you mentioned early in the beginning, people may be resistant to it, but I think you still got to change in terms of culture, in terms of capabilities to the people inside. And a lot of times these days, people associate digital transformation with Agile, Cloud, Continuous Delivery and things like that. So how do you actually start inculcating this kind of a culture, this kind of practices and workflow changes inside the company?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:22:55] So it’s interesting that you talk about this. As an operator, SP did not really have a development team. You did not do software development. As operator, it does not build things, operators operate things so that’s the premise of operator. Transformers and switch gear and substations, none of it is something that we built. We always buy equipment from others, we’ll manage it, we will run it effectively and efficiently, but you will never build your own transformers. As you do not build software, then there is no need for you to have all those practices. You will always depend on a vendor. You always depend on a third party to be able to go do software for you. And then you would manage the software from a perspective of managing vendors, so that’s always been a premise for SP as a utility.
How do I introduce this then? It’s kind of straightforward because things do not exist in the first place, introducing it wasn’t so much of an issue. I think the difficult part of it was how do we then as we moved towards building software for the utility itself and not just for the new things? How do we involve those guys in into the process? Because obviously these are going to be the users, these are going to be the people who run and operate and having these people who are very used to dealing with vendors and dealing with operations, how do they be part of the process if we build a software, I think that was the most difficult part.
But I think at the same time, there’s always this thinking that, Hey, you know what we are people doing the transformation. We are the software people, we do our Agile processes and this is the right way, this is the correct way of doing things and everybody should just follow us. I think that’s wrong because the way that the utility has run this business for decades, for some for hundreds of years, and to tell them that, hey, your way of doing this thing is wrong, I think it’s not just insulting and disrespectful, but you’re also not respecting yourself. Cause obviously by thinking that you’re always right, that not only pushes away people, but I think it makes you lose out in the learning opportunities, going into a new domain, understanding how those people work there. You will also learn something out of it and maybe that will bring new changes and new way of doing things within your domain. It’s really about the mindset of how you go in and engage with people, that would make things easier or more difficult when you do that.
Taking CEO Role [00:25:05]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:25:05] So you mentioned in the last one or two years , you’ve become the CEO of SP Digital. Obviously this is something new for you personally as well coming from engineering background, being an engineering manager, director, CTO, and things like that. So can you maybe share us the story, why do you take this CEO position and becoming more responsible about the company’s P&L, maybe crafting the vision and direction for the company and what makes you want to take this role?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:25:31] It’s interesting. This is the question a lot of people ask me and to be honest, I would say, I didn’t really think too much about it. It’s not something that I deliberate at all. Obviously I spent time thinking about it, but at the same time, it is something new for me. If I am somebody who will only stay on track with what I’m comfortable with, then I would not have gone very far. I think most software developers, in a way, adventurous people who are builders, who are creators, because they wanted to try something different, they want to build something different. It’s about building things about doing things where things didn’t exist before. I jumped into this in that same spirit where I’m trying to do something that I’ve not done before. I spent most of my time managing engineering teams, and managing a P&L is completely different from managing engineering teams. But it is a new adventure, it’s something that’s quite different, just like you jump into a new programming language, you jump to a new technology, I’ve done it many times, why not jump into a completely new role. So that is a one step further down, but I don’t think it is something that is outside of what I would normally do. And that’s the straight off of how I actually took on this role.
Some Failure Stories [00:26:33]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:26:33] So it’s very interesting story definitely. One thing that you mentioned about the SP journey, right? You mentioned about the failures. Would you be comfortable sharing some of these failures for the listeners as key learnings what you should be aware of if you’re doing digital transformation, what potential things that might be a top cause of failure, or what things that you should not do when doing this digital transformation?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:26:55] I can share some of these things. So obviously there is no permanent failure and there is no guarantee of success either. What you define as success, what you define as failure is really just a definition. So I would not say things are absolute successes or failures, but we are still on the journey. One of the examples I can talk about is how when we first try to introduce a certain capabilities to our grid and we thought we could do it and we actually technically could do it, but the acceptance level and the comfort level of the people who are operating were not there. They were not comfortable in using our technologies because it was too new and they have no assurance that it will work. And that was something that, I thought we could overcome, but reality is we could not overcome. At the end of the day, while we push very hard, the end users were not comfortable in using our product. Even though from a technical point of view it succeeded, but when the users do not use it, then it is not a success. So that is one failure but we are still trying, we’re not giving up, as we see this to be something that maybe they are just not ready for it, or maybe there’s something that we’re doing that does not match the things that were required and therefore we are trying again. That’s what I mean early on when I say there are no permanent failures because it’s just one data point for you to know that there is something that you could do better, you could improve and you could just try a different way of doing things.
So while there were ups and downs in the entire journey, I think so far we have not met anything so catastrophic that we cannot recover, but we definitely have a lot of projects that we say this is not going to work and we’re going to just leave it there for now and then we go try different things, maybe we’ll come back to it later.
Another one that is kind of funny and I could say this quite freely because I think it was a technical thing that we made a mistake on when we first started dealing with EV charging stations. So obviously we hardly know anything about it, so we tackled it in a very different way and I tried to do certain things in a way that I thought would be easy, and at the end of the day, we discovered that that wasn’t the case. Electric Vehicle charging station is actually a sophisticated piece of machinery. And my thoughts when we first encountered it, I thought it was a dumb piece of machinery so I want to install some intelligence to it. So we actually over time develop this IOT gateway and I wanted to stick that gateway into the EV charging station, thinking that we could bring more intelligence to it, we could actually make changes to how it’s being operated and so on, without realizing actually the EV charging station itself has something similar in it already and it has certain capabilities that it is already operating within that ecosystem. So in a sense it was arrogance I would say that we could make changes to something that’s in existence and over time we discovered that, Hey, you know what? This things already exist, the industry already exists. And obviously realizing the mistake, we change our course entirely and, we pulled up. I end up not putting the IOT gateway to the EV charging station and we are using the EV charging station as how it was originally built and we are getting a lot more successes in it. So I just gave two examples, one which is a management failure, we couldn’t manage our users effectively and one is a little bit more of a technical failure. Both cases we learned and we recovered from it. Like I said earlier on, there are no permanent failures, it’s just learning data points where we can continue forging ahead.
Personal Awards [00:29:57]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:29:57] Thank you for sharing the failure stories and your insightful thought. So let’s move on to other personal stuff. So I’ve seen your profile. You’ve won prestigious awards. If I can name some of them like Smart Nation Fellow, Microsoft Regional Director and Executive of the Year related to your current role. Can you share with us, what are these roles, and how do you actually win them?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:30:18] Some of these things are not really wins in a sense. Smart Nation Fellow was something the GovTech team wanted me to help out in some of the junior people in GovTech and they requested that I participate in this program and I did whichever capacity that I could to help out with that. Basically it’s just me trying to contribute to the Smart Nation efforts and I still do that today. I still am part of a number of committees within the GovTech, Singapore Poly, I’m one of the advisory committee members advising on their course work. I chair the (IES - Institute of Engineers Singapore) ICT technical committee, where we are collaborating with the likes of W3C and we are working on how do we improve the ICT capabilities of engineers in general in Singapore. Because that’s the charter for the IES, Institute of Engineers in Singapore.
The Microsoft Regional Director again is a little bit like a fellowship. It was an interesting insight because honestly speaking we do use Microsoft technologies quite a lot, and I think they have really good technologies, in particularly their Cloud capabilities. So I participated in this program because I was invited to, honestly, and then there is a group of similar peers globally, I am one of two or three Regional Directors in Singapore. The Regional Director is basically like a Smart Nation Fellow, that’s just the term that they use. Essentially, this is a group of people who Microsoft can tap on to bounce ideas off and just give feedback.
And Executive of the Year was probably one of the most interesting because, it’s not something that I thought I would actually win and that’s kind of strange thing for me as well. So obviously we’ve done quite a number of interesting things within SP Digital the first year and I think that’s probably got the notice of that organization who give out this award. And they thought that for a utility executive that came from the software world, that is something interesting enough and after deliberation, the panel of judges decided that maybe that’s something that they can award to me. So, very interesting experience in meeting other executives, running different companies. The Executive of the Year for utility, that’s one of the more interesting awards that I’ve gotten over the year.
Community Contribution [00:32:18]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:32:18] So you mentioned about contributing to the community, right? I see you are very active in the community as well. You have even run a tech conference, which is the GopherCon. You’re also active in doing public good for like the GovTech and the government in general. So what actually motivates you to do all these things?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:32:36] So I’ve always been in the community. Not a lot of people know this, but I used to run the Singapore Java Users Group in 97, 99, So that’s 20 over years ago. But Java has gone on to a level where it’s a very common language now, so the need to popularize it do not exist anymore. But the original intention at that point in time was really for people who are interested in that technology and interested in adopting those technologies, and I drove that for a while with a bunch of friends. And similarly was also part of the Singapore Ruby Brigade, driving the Singapore Ruby developer community and also part of the organizing team for the first RedDotRubyConf, many, many years ago. And of course the GopherCon, I’ve been running it as the chair since 2017, we ran it for three years in a row. Last year was the most successful. When I first started it, I did a survey and I asked would you be interested in attending, paying for a Go programming language conference in Singapore, got about hundred responses back from various people. I was quite disappointed because even though I got a hundred responses, maybe about 40 of them say they will pay. But then with urging of a couple of friends in the community say, Hey, let’s just give it a try. Let’s give it a run and see where we end. So it was quite surprising, the first year we ended up about 200 people who came and actually paid for tickets and, so it was a pretty successful conference the first year. And the second year we went up to about 350 participants. And last year we have 600 over people. Unfortunately, of course, all of these things stop on its tracks this year. But nonetheless, I think that’s been an amazing experience for me anyway, running three tech conferences in a row .
But I’ve always been interested in this because I’ve always believe that I’m part of the community, I’m not somebody looking from outside. I have extreme interest in promoting the industry, promoting the community and basically getting more people involved. Because for me software development is a team sport . Software developers in professional settings today will work in teams and you can’t really just do things alone. So you do need to have people around you, you need a community and you need people whom you can bounce ideas off, you can discuss things. And that’s why we have things like pair programming and so on, because you do need people to discuss ideas, to share ideas and to correct you if you’ve gone the wrong way. So community and being in a team is important. And that’s the reason why I always push for more communities, more meet ups and more conferences run by community and so on and so forth. Because I believe that as a industry, community is one of the key parts of what we need and what we are, so that’s really it. And I’m still keenly interested in pushing this even in other organizations, like I mentioned earlier on, I am the chair now for the ICT technical committee for IES. We are talking about other engineers, the electrical engineers, civil engineers, so on and so forth. So that’s another thrust that I’m having today, trying to push together, all of these things so as to build a bigger community for our tech industry.
So you asked me, why am I doing this? Why am I spending effort? I believe I’m part of this. I’m trying to actually bring people together so we can make this a much more vibrant and prosperous industry altogether. So, that’s really the reason.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:35:36] So I think as part of the community myself, I would like to thank you for your contribution, including bringing all these conferences for people to attend and learn something from it. It’s been a very great contributions.
Writing Books [00:35:47]
Henry Suryawirawan: So you also write few books, if I got it correctly, it’s like four books, things around Ruby, Rails, and also Go Web Programming. What makes you want to write those books? If you can also share, how do you actually write those books while running large organizations or being the director or the CTO and CEO of the companies? How do you actually do that?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:36:06] Yes, I have four books, those are published books. I was trying to create a blog, as well, for the past couple of years and I realized that probably I don’t have that kind of bandwidth so it ended up now I write mostly for other publications under Medium. Probably the publication I’ve contributed most to so far is toward data science. And probably that’s the case for the immediate future anyway.
So as to why I write, that’s really a labor of love. I’ve always liked writing and that stems from some interesting fact that not a lot of people know about me, which I was actually an English Literature student. So that’s my background. Growing up really my passion was in writing and I wanted to be a writer journalist. But I think, turn of fate, I ended up in a course where I did computer engineering. And of course, if you ask me why, what happened, you wanted to be a journalist. I would say one word or two words, Asian parents. So, I hope that explains a lot of things, but anyway that’s how I ended up doing computer engineering. I would say it’s not too far off the mark because writing software is not very different from writing because it’s both acts of creation, and you’re creating something that did not exist before.
I think writing, in general, where you create texts and prose and then so on, really triggers the mind and creates impact to people reading it, and really that’s the reason why I want to write. Cause I do want to have a transmission of knowledge, transmission of thought, transmission of ideas from one person to many people. And so obviously writing is one of the better ways to do it.
As to how I do it, I think it’s with great difficulty, writing books in particular is not easy. It’s actually very back-breaking. So imagine, as a software developer, you participate in projects and you have a project manager and you have people who are always on your back to deliver certain things. It’s much the same, as in books, you have your editor and you have multiple levels of editors pushing you to deliver on time. When I was writing a book, you need to deliver a chapter every two, three weeks, and an entire chapter could be 20-30 pages. And if you are purely writing, that’s maybe not too bad, obviously you need to do a lot of proofreading. While you’re writing code as well and you need to write small mini-projects, which is often what I do, that doubles or triples the work. So it is backbreaking work, but I always think that it’s worth it. Because the impact it has on the readers, is very, very satisfying.
The more recent things that I read on Amazon, review of my book, one reader was saying, if I could paraphrase it, the reader enjoyed my book so much that it’s starting to impact his marriage. And it’s like, what, what are you talking about? So it’s one of the funnier comments that I’ve read on reviews of my books. There was another time where I was actually in Russia. I was in Moscow and I was giving a talk, and then after the talk, one of the audience came up to me. So there was this lady who came out with me and say, my husband loves your books a lot. He was standing next to her but he doesn’t really speak English that well. So he wants me to tell you that he loves your book a lot, and he wants you to sign on his Kindle.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:38:55] Wow.
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:38:55] So he gave me a marker pen and his Kindle, and he asked me to sign on his Kindle. It’s permanent ink.
So it was a very gratifying thing that look, it affected these people so much. It’s less of ego and pride thing, but it’s more of the impact that I had on people, that it actually brought them understanding, it brought them clarity of things, transmission of thoughts, transmission of ideas across, through this particular medium. That’s very gratifying to me. So obviously, today, now a lot of people do things like YouTube and stuff like that. I still think the written word is one of the most powerful mediums and that’s the reason why I still continue writing today, because I do want to continue transmitting my thoughts and my ideas, and to be able to influence people in that way. Cause I believe that over time a lot of things would fade away. But, one of these things that would last much, much longer is probably the written word.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:39:44] So those are pretty interesting anecdotes and stories that you have there. It’s really, really interesting for me at least to hear because like, signing a Kindle using a permanent marker? That’s like the first I’ve heard.
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:39:55] Yeah. It was, you can imagine the shock that I have as well. He don’t have a physical copy of it, but he bought the E- book and was on the Kindle and he say that was the only chance because he would not be able to see me, cause he lives in Moscow.
Tech Lead Wisdom [00:40:06]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:40:06] So, I enjoyed our conversation, but I think, before we wrap up here, normally I would ask every guest that feature in the Tech Lead Journal to share some of the technical leadership wisdom. If you can share with us, what are some of the three technical wisdom that you would like to share with us here to learn and think about?
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:40:23] Probably not go with the number because I’m not like some guru to be honest. I’m just this guy who had a very different kind of journey in his technical career, trying out different things. But I would probably give this advice, or rather give some of these thoughts to the audience, is really to try and do not be afraid to try. And I don’t think this is something that most software developers will have an issue with, but most software developers should try be a little bit more brave and not just on the code, but in the careers and in real life as well. Obviously there are different degrees to this, but really there are things that are going to happen and jumping into it and doing things, and having that courage to just go and try and do different things. I think that’s important. Obviously you’re not going to succeed every time. There are no permanent failures. You could always take those things that did not work so well and work it into something that could benefit you in the future. I don’t really like the word when people say, okay, celebrate your failures. I don’t think people should celebrate failures, I think people should learn from them and using that learning to improve the next round. Cause as long as you are alive, you can always try again and again and again until you succeed. But obviously if you don’t try and you’re afraid to try, then you would never be able to experience all those successes either.
So I think for me that would be the advice I would have. Just try, be brave, jump into those things, like learning a new programming language, learning a new technology, just do it. Trying out a new career, just try it out. Who knows what’s going to happen? Who knows what you’re going to get out of it? The bigger the risks, then the bigger the gains. So anyway, I think that would be the point that I wanted to make here.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:41:58] So, yeah, I personally can relate to your story saying that as a software engineer, we are not afraid to try out new technologies, new programming language, but yeah, trying in life is something that some of us or at least me, probably could see it as a bigger of a hurdle than all these new technologies that are coming every day.
So thank you so much, Sau Sheong for spending your time. I enjoyed our conversation and looking forward to see you again, once we have all these lockdown ease off.
Chang Sau Sheong: [00:42:22] Yeah. Thanks Henry. Thanks for asking me once again. and also listening to all my ramblings. I know sometimes I tend to talk a lot, it’s a result of old age by the way. So I hope it has been interesting and thank you for the opportunity to speak to this audience.
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