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Clouds clear for tech workers

Published on Friday, 03 Aug 2012
Photo: iStockphoto
Andrew Wildblood
Florence Chow
Brandon Lee

The term “the cloud” means many different things to many different people. To some, it’s where their Instagram pictures are stored. To businesses it can mean the Google servers where their documents are shared. To telecoms companies in Hong Kong, however, the cloud means huge data centres in Tseung Kwan O, an imminent end to unlimited data plans and a dire shortage of talent to drive the business forward.

“The telecoms industry is going through a transformation,” says Brandon Lee, chief strategy officer at NTT Com Asia. “Smartphones, mobility, everyone staying connected anywhere, any time – it’s making everything into a blur. The challenge at this moment is the sheer demand for talent.”

Companies are short of talent in many areas, from business leaders to system architects to the thermodynamic engineers required to model heat flows through data centres.

“They’re not easy to find here,” says Lee. “Hong Kong has a lot of really bright people in terms of management and business mindsets who have a lot of innovative ideas on how to make money, but at the end of the day they outsource it all to India.”

Lee says one problem is the industry has lost its appeal. “Years ago, when the internet became popular, everybody was very excited about the opportunities it would bring. A lot of people went into computer science and engineering. Once that bubble burst, everybody switched to finance. The question is, how do we attract people back?”

Lee’s experience – that internet and telecoms has lost its status in the job market – seems at odds with the world of potential opportunity in the industry right now. According to Elinor Leung, head of Asia telecom and internet research, CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, the cloud has breathed new life into the telecoms sector and it will only keep growing.

“Unlike voice, data growth uses a lot of capacity on the network,” she says, predicting that telecom companies will regain pricing power in data soon. “We’ll see telecoms moving away from ‘unlimited’ data and they will raise prices.” While customers may find this painful in the short term, for potential employees it paints a solid career path backed by growing revenues and innovative business models centred around mobile broadband and cloud content.

For Telstra’s head of North Asia, Andrew Wildblood, it’s a hugely exciting time, particularly at the enterprise level. “There’s a significant groundswell of change going on in the industry of what cloud offers to the enterprise and how it can change the way people communicate – and ultimately how IT is going to be structured over the next decade,” he says.

Although cloud computing is yet to seriously take off at banks and professional institutions, Wildblood sees widespread adoption within three to five years, just as integrated voice and data has become the norm in new office infrastructure.

For PCCW, cloud has “moved the battlefield from the ground to the sky”, according to Florence Chow, head of group human resources. This offers many exciting opportunities for graduates in particular.

Chow sees a gap between the senior level and incoming talent, caused by the ageing population and the generation gap. She also sees higher turnover than a decade ago, due to the number of smaller hi-tech competitors poaching staff. “As these companies grow they will hunt for people from more established organisations, where they had good training.”

She says that while technical skills can be taught relatively quickly, PCCW’s challenge is in finding good leaders and communicators. “The ability to communicate, to translate strategy into business results – to get people with these skills is increasingly difficult,” says Chow.

“Many graduates today, you ask them what their career plan is and they give you a blank look. The industry we are in, we cannot be complacent. If we are complacent today, we will be behind tomorrow, so we need people who can be forward-looking and drive the business forward.”

NTT’s Lee agrees entirely with the sentiment – his desktop wallpaper is a picture from beleaguered Research in Motion. “It’s a constant reminder – don’t be complacent, never forget your value proposition. The most important thing is to deliver something that people want,” he says.

Lee says the government should work harder to deepen the talent pool in Hong Kong. It can achieve this by promoting technology as a career, but also by rethinking immigration policy. “They could improve the application process and streamline visa applications so we can attract talent from around Hong Kong. When we accumulate talent, society can advance more quickly,” he says.

Lee says that some of the most attractive and exciting work for potential employees is being done in bridging the gap between the laboratory and the real world. “We don’t do core research, but we actually try to incubate and commercialise some of the [laboratory] technology,” he says.

It’s a similar structure at PCCW, according to Chow. The company has a function where the “hardcore R&D” takes place – this is the technology which may appear in 10 years’ time. Closer to reality, each business unit has incubators for medium-term technology and new developments.

“That would be the exciting place for a lot of graduates,” says Chow.

 

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