How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) envisions a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific. As a development bank, we provide loans, technical assistance, grants and equity investments to promote social and economic development. With a complex portfolio of projects ranging from rural development to gender equality, regional cooperation to climate change, ADB needs to effectively assist developing countries in tackling these enormous development challenges.

As Director General of the IT Department and CIO, I use my role in the Bank to steward digital transformation and adoption as well as the use of secure, modern IT systems and digital processes to enhance effectiveness, efficiency and resilience. The digital solutions that we deliver are critical to ensuring ADB can operate around the globe in various dynamic and volatile conditions.

ADB’s digital transformation journey is well underway, unlocking digital anywhere, anytime, and from any device securely. We have put in place two IT strategies – the Real-Time ADB IT Reforms in 2016 and, with the enormous demand for more digital capabilities, the Digital Agenda 2030 in 2018. In 2020, we launched ten projects worth about $40M, progressively delivering a composable enterprise, ensuring that the Bank can adapt to the accelerating pace of change. In addition, we have established a digital innovation sandbox program that pilots the use of innovative digital technologies such as AI, robotic process automation, cognitive search and big data.

Together, we are building a future-facing ADB ready to adapt and help people who are most in need.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

When Covid-19 hit the globe, ADB never closed its doors. It committed a $20 billion Covid-19 assistance package to help implement effective programs for the poor and vulnerable. Our solid digital transformation strategy made the Bank resilient and effective in delivering this assistance. Behind the scenes, ADB adapted to the new normal practically overnight.

The rapid transition to remote work required an immediate and decisive orchestration of an entire universe of IT services in Metro Manila, Philippines – where ADB is headquartered – and the 45 field offices distributed globally. Our goal was twofold: make sure everyone can work effectively remotely, and make sure IT could operate its services. Across these priorities, people engagement and safety were critical to making everything work.

To provide ADB personnel with the skills to work smart remotely, IT tripled its virtual micro-training sessions as compared to the entirety of 2019. To accomplish this incredible feat, trainers repurposed existing training material into e-learning modules. Employees affected by the lockdown were redeployed to help produce training materials, which includes a self-service knowledge base and quick guides for troubleshooting.

In Metro Manila, the government severely restricted the movement of people, goods and services between cities to protect the health and safety of everyone. As such, there were challenges around the distribution of end-user IT equipment, repair, and maintenance as well as managing the supply chain to serve not just the ADB workforce in HQ, but also a globally dispersed workforce.

Our IT team responded by organizing four IT equipment distribution runs in the first month, where we distributed more than 1,500 IT tools and accessories that staff needed for their remote work. We then created 13 volunteer-run distribution hubs strategically located across Metro Manila to make sure provisioning and maintenance of IT equipment and devices were done in a timely and convenient manner for our IT users. When the Bank eventually allowed essential staff to come to the office, we established a standalone and safe service center hub in HQ to address their IT needs. We implemented a truly holistic approach to ensure that ADB never closed.

Meanwhile, there was an explosion of demand for collaborative tools (MS Teams, Yammer, SharePoint, Skype for Business, Zoom, and other virtual webinar and event support services). When we rolled out MS Teams and Zoom during this time, people adopted the change immediately. What a stark contrast to our usual change management efforts, which can take up to several months! Pre-Covid, we had 20,500 Skype calls per month. Post-Covid that number jumped to 35,000 — and that’s only for virtual meetings.

The ADB Annual Meeting 2020 switched to its first virtual event. The unprecedented sessions brought in thousands of participants from across the globe, requiring our team to connect and coordinate speakers, separated over thousands of miles, live and in real-time. Complex didn’t even begin to describe it: live feeds from countries as far apart as Nauru, Turkmenistan and the UK were swapped on the fly, while technicians juggled audio, Internet bandwidth and connectivity.

In addition, with the surge in digital collaboration and access to corporate tools, we strengthened our cybersecurity safeguards, including remote universal access service, passwordless technology, and cybersecurity online training and dashboards. We simulated attack exercises as well as established brand and web application protection. A people resiliency hub was set up in Europe.

Today, my team is also helping prepare ADB for the future — going beyond the new normal. We’re leveraging the digital sandbox to do open innovation challenges, exploring over 200 ideas and solutions and providing a platform for ADB operations to support the fight against Covid-19.

As such, despite the challenges brought by Covid-19, ADB staff recognized and appreciated the IT response. They have the necessary tools, are equipped with the essential skills, and receive the right level of support to effectively work remotely.

It was incredibly gratifying to see the hard work of our team pay off.

We continue to make ADB resilient and enable the Bank to operate effectively remotely with a globally distributed workforce. Research and advisory firm Gartner recognized all of these initiatives by publishing an article on ADB’s exemplary IT rapid response which it shared with its global clients as best practice.  In addition, ADB won three national awards at the 2020 IDC Digital Transformation (DX) Awards, which honors the achievements of organizations in Asia Pacific that have successfully planned and executed digital transformation initiatives.

What is one unexpected learning from 2020? 

Covid-19 dramatically accelerated ADB’s digital transformation journey as the Bank shifted to remote work almost overnight. To my surprise, we achieved the associated digital transformation corporate results target four years earlier than expected.

Crisis creates the perfect storm for us to be better.  We swiftly responded to numerous IT demands and systems requests to reflect the changing business policies in the wake of a pandemic.

That said — all these accomplishments pale to perhaps what is the most important of all: teamwork and collaboration. The crisis made the team even stronger and closer than ever, breaking traditional hierarchies and barriers. It didn’t matter who you were or where you worked: we all worked as one team. The IT workforce was connected, engaged, and strong even amid a challenging period. This was reflected by feedback from many ADB personnel, who shared their delight and appreciation for all of the hard work the team has done.

Within the team, we’ve conducted check-ins to learn how we can help each other in this challenging time. And what the responses highlighted was the strong need to feel connected and engaged.

Recently, our team had a bingo night, which followed an earlier karaoke session held weeks back. And while the team bonds over special get-together events, we also provide consistent communication through newsletters and town-halls, where accomplishments are shared and celebrated, and spotlights are shined on memorable stories from across the team. When Metro Manila was affected by Typhoon Ulysses (Typhoon Vamco) on top of the pandemic, our team members rose to the occasion and spearheaded fund-raising efforts to ensure people and animals were safe and had the supplies they needed.

As a leader, keeping your workforce engaged, safe, and connected is essential to not only driving productivity, but also care and commitment. I am proud of how we enabled ADB’s remote work, but also incredibly grateful for how we, as a team, delivered as one.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2021?

‘Composable enterprise’ is an interesting technique that advocates for reassembling capabilities, inside and outside of the enterprise, to deliver innovation quickly and make applications dynamically adaptable.  Gartner’s definition of ‘composable enterprise’ is an organisation that delivers business outcomes and adapts to the pace of business change. It does this through the assembly and combination of packaged business capabilities (PBCs). PBCs are application building blocks that have been purchased or developed.

With the Bank overhauling its existing legacy systems, we are looking at making contextualised and personalised application experiences. These would involve deeper collaborations between IT and our stakeholders, and an assembly and combination of PBCs that makes our digital products more modular, adaptable and extensible, rather than monolithic. A strong data strategy implementation will underpin these efforts, meshing with the use of smart technologies such as cognitive search, robotic process automation, chatbots and more.  This will help to further enable the Bank’s knowledge-driven agenda under its Strategy 2030.

What are your priorities for 2021?

Digital culture transformation, data governance maturity and modernising our core platforms are our priorities in 2021. We will build on the corporate culture transformation effort to shape a digital culture and drum up capacity for the Bank to adopt future-facing technologies.  We will mainstream data governance, big data, and establish modeling and reporting that works on a single source of truth. And we will continue to explore a composable enterprise ecosystem to remain agile and adaptable.

Apart from people centricity, we will need to continue to drive location independent and resilient infrastructure.  We are well underway to implement anywhere operations, using distributed cloud, cybersecurity mesh with password-less interactions, and the push for greater hyper-automation.

In addition, capacity building is key to ensuring the Bank is digitally fit.  Our experience in supporting the Bank during the Covid-19 pandemic provides the impetus to accelerate digital innovation and learning. We are all set to establish a “Digital Fitness” program in 2021 that will empower the workforce with the knowledge and abilities to be comfortable in using digital technologies.

What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in GovTech?

Aside from building technical and functional strength, it’s just as important to build your behavioral strength. This includes being results-oriented, strong collaborator, adaptable, having emotional self-control, and developing yourself. Reach out and widen your network. We live in an interconnected, collaborative world, and learning how to manage that landscape is a must.

Emotional intelligence will help you communicate effectively and build strong relationships, whether you’re working in tech or any other industry. Work through conflict without showing anger or impatience. Adjust your style and approach depending on your situation.

Be ready to adapt to the interpersonal and inter-relational, as well as organizational behaviors and cues. Observe the group dynamics and find the best approach.

Be your unique self. Let your creativity flow and care enough to make a difference in any endeavor.

Write a message for your future self.

I was deeply saddened when my mom passed away peacefully in her sleep this year. It was unexpected, as she was jovial and determined to learn, even at 80 years old. She wisely shared, in her recent art therapy class, ‘Today we honor ourselves and our past achievements by creating medals for ourselves. You must pass it to others, to anyone who wants to learn.  When you gain something, you must share your knowledge with others. Keep achieving, do your very best, and above all, must have patience.”

She was an inspiration, always giving to and helping the community. Her selfless efforts earned her the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat or Public Service Star; Pingat Bakti Masyarakat or Public Service Medal; and Pingat Bakti Setia or Long Service Medal for rendering valuable public service to the people of Singapore. My mom taught me to always give back to society. It’s a lesson that I cherish as I continue to share whatever I learn, to help others in my community grow as well.

To my future self, I say:  Nurture the things that make you happy outside of work—for me in recent times this is sourdough bread-making, crocheting and boxing. Give time to your family, never tire of giving back, and be ready to share lessons learned with others.