Horace Chow, GM of Microsoft HK, uses corporate clout to help women get into IT
PolyU graduate believes sector will benefit from greater diversity
Horace Chow has discovered that one benefit of holding a senior role at one of the world’s best-known companies is that it gives you the profile to affect issues well beyond the workplace. Recently, for the general manager of Microsoft Hong Kong, that has meant putting his – and the company’s – weight behind efforts to encourage more young women to pursue a career in IT.
Run in collaboration with The Women’s Foundation and Ivey Business School, the GirlSpark programme helps female students at local universities learn more about opportunities and to see themselves as potential leaders in the sector. With the second three-day “camp” completed in January, Chow is delighted with the response and results so far.
“The basic principle is to create a more diversified culture and an environment where talented women can pursue their passion for technology,” he says. “But we also want to show that the IT sector is a place for graduates from different disciplines, and not just for computer science or software specialists.
The programme includes sharing sessions, a technology-based business case, and the chance to meet women in senior positions at IT companies and publicly listed firms. Chow has also been instrumental in arranging internships and notes that a third of last year’s 51 participants have since gone on to work for technology companies or in tech roles elsewhere.
In terms of building broader diversity, this year’s 60 attendees included exchange students from mainland China, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. The selected applicants were a deliberate mix of outspoken types and those who tend to listen and think a bit more.
“This initiative is all about seeing where change is needed and giving something back to the community,” Chow says. If we can interest more young women in the IT field – something they may have never previously considered – they will see it is not ‘just programming’, but also offers a diverse range of careers in everything from finance and legal to sales, marketing and consultancy.”
Chow admits his own start in the sector was somewhat less than auspicious. When applying to Polytechnic University in the mid-1980s, he was not sure what to study. He decided to follow an elder brother’s advice and opted for mechanical engineering. Realising this approach showed a certain lack of self-determination and independent thought, he changed the application to computer studies. This was a more or less random choice, based on no experience of the subject.
“At that point, I didn’t know the difference between RAM and a CD-ROM,” Chow says. “In fact, I didn’t even know how to switch on a computer. I don’t know why they selected me. In the first year, I hadn’t a clue.”
Invited subsequently to take an entrance exam, Chow did some research. He found out there were three parts to the test – English, maths and computer knowledge – and that points would be deducted for wrong answers. His strategy was clear: focus on the first two categories where he was confident of doing well and don’t even attempt any of the computer questions, so as not to lose marks. It worked. He was accepted, while a friend who was a true computer enthusiast was tripped up.
With hard work and application, things slowly began to improve to the point where Chow won a government grant to take a “sandwich” course in Britain, including work experience with pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly during the third year. “Those 12 months made all the difference,” he says. “I enjoyed the programming work, learned a lot about systems, and started to realise what IT was all about.”
Since landing his first job as a programmer at a Hong Kong software house, Chow has never looked back. He migrated to sales responsibilities and was then on a “pretty fast track”, leading teams, running projects, setting up offices around Asia and generally troubleshooting for the likes of KPMG and Sybase, but always on the enterprise side.
“The challenge in joining Microsoft around three years ago was that the company was going through a big transformation with a lot of new developments like the cloud and consumer devices,” he says. “Overall, I probably spend half of my time with customers – I get very grumpy if I’m in the office all the time – and, if necessary, may even exchange a few heated words with them. But in the end, customers appreciate openness. Also, I like to hear what is doable and what is not, and I always believe there is a way out if you step back, put on a different hat, and think.”
When off duty, Chow’s interests centre on sports, whether ferrying his two sons around town for age-group football matches, turning out for the company team, or training for regular long-distance races. “Apart from work, I am a very family-oriented person,” he says. “It is important to get the balance right.”
Horace Chow shares five factors for improving workplace diversity
Encourage different ideas “Recognise that every company needs people with new ideas and who see things in different ways. If everyone in the room looks and thinks the same way and does the same thing every day, you lose the essential spark of creativity.”
Spread the net “You must approach it from all angles, not just saying we need more diversity in the sales team or on the board. In an IT company, it might be difficult to get women programmers, but you still have to try.”
Be persistent “Don’t be afraid to step out of the comfort zone and don’t accept things for the sake of convenience.”
Be accepting “Create a culture which emphasises the acceptance of differences. There are a lot of stereotypes in the corporate environment, so try not to label people or define them by obvious characteristics.”
Build consensus “As a manager, you need to be clear about the areas in which you want to inject new people and get commitment from the team, not just one or two individuals.”