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The Accidental Technocrat
by Kenny Chee

THE technology sector is often perceived as a guy's playground, where women are a rarity, more so those in top positions. But Ms Jessica Tan, managing director of Microsoft Singapore, passionately disputes that perception as a myth, at least in Singapore.

"If you look around, there are a lot of women. In Microsoft Singapore itself, about 34 per cent of our employees are women. Of the people in managerial positions, 23 per cent are women. I'm not the only one in Microsoft with a leadership role," said the 44-year-old information- technology veteran of more than 20 years.

Speaking to my paper in an interview at the software giant's One Marina Boulevard office earlier this month, Ms Tan is quick to point out that in Thailand and Australia, her counterparts are women, too.

"Is it enough, compared with the population of women talent in Singapore? I always say it can be more. But, at the same time, I'm not a rarity," she said.

Indeed, other well-known women business leaders in the tech industry in Singapore include the chiefs of two home-grown telcos: Ms Chua Sock Koong, group chief executive of SingTel, and Ms Karen Kooi, chief executive of M1.

For Ms Tan, the value she brings to a company is how she can create value for her customers, partners and the industry, she said. "And from that perspective, I don't think being male or female matters."

But being where she is today was not something that Ms Tan had consciously planned. She lets on that she always has difficulty determining what her next role should be.

However, what drives her is the kind of work she likes to do, which is using technology to help businesses to do more and be more effective, as well as helping people realise their potential.

She jokes that she is still a salesman today, a throwback to the days when she first started out in the industry in 1989 as a sales representative at IBM Singapore.

"I do enjoy meeting and working with customers and partners. And being able to work with them on business issues and helping them address them," said Ms Tan.

It might then surprise some that joining the tech sector was not in her initial career plans.

The economics and sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore had initially wanted to be a management trainee in other sectors. But during a campus hiring session, she decided to fill out forms for IBM on a whim.

And in the process of going through job interviews, Ms Tan realised she liked the job description and the industry. So she decided to give the tech sector a shot.

Since then, her role has evolved, and, as a business leader now, she wants to nurture people and talent, including helping them stretch their potential.

"The thing that frustrates me the most is when I see talent go to waste, or when I see opportunities (for talent) lost," she said.

However, Ms Tan is also keenly aware that nurturing talent is not just about building capability within a company, such as Microsoft, but also that of the firm's partners and the broader software industry in Singapore.

"We can be extremely successful as a business, build our own skills and make our partners strong. But if there isn't an ecosystem that exists in the countries we operate in, they cannot absorb the technology and solutions that we have," she said.

While work is a huge part of Ms Tan's life, her family and personal life matter a lot too. She makes it a point to eat out once a week with her husband and three teenage children - a daughter aged 18 and two sons aged 17 and 15.

And she has a weekly "date night" with her 48-year-old husband, Mr Alphonsus Pang, a civil servant - without the kids.

When she has the time, she enjoys cooking, which is a big stress reliever for her. "If you ask my family, they will tell you my best dish is chicken pie," said Ms Tan.

She also values a healthy lifestyle and jogs once a week. The former netball player of St Joseph's Convent continues her passion for the sport as an executive-committee member of Netball Singapore and by playing in Microsoft's netball team.

As a Member of Parliament for East Coast GRC since 2006, she sets aside Monday evenings for the meet-the-people sessions.

With so many responsibilities, it is a wonder how Ms Tan manages it all. Her secret? Having a good support structure, she said. "I don't try to be an expert in everything. My job is about bringing things together and knowing how to leverage on the best of the corporation," said Ms Tan, adding that she applies the same management style in her community work and as a parent.


Who: Ms Jessica Tan Soon Neo, 44, managing director of Microsoft Singapore, the software giant that delivers the Windows 7 operating system, Windows Phone 7 handsets and the Xbox 360 video-game console.

Education: Ms Tan studied at St Joseph's Convent and later at Catholic Junior College, before reading economics and sociology at the National University of Singapore.

Career: After completing her university studies in 1989, Ms Tan entered the workforce in the same year as a marketing representative for IBM Singapore.

She climbed the corporate ladder over the years within IBM, and became the company's director for networking services in 2002. After a career spanning 14 years with IBM, Ms Tan moved to Microsoft in 2003 to become a general manager for its enterprise and partner group. In 2008, she assumed the role of managing director at Microsoft Singapore.

Her political career began in 2006 when she became a Member of Parliament for East Coast GRC. Last year, Ms Tan took on the role of chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance as well as Trade and Industry.


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