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Agent of change

Stanley Lam, MD of SAS Institute HK, has been a tech player since the ’80s

Perhaps more than most industries, the technology business is defined by change. When Stanley Lam began his career in technology at IBM in Hong Kong in 1983, the so-called “mini-computers” he sold at the iconic computer maker during its golden age were the size of modest apartments in Hong Kong, but ran on less computing power than a modern smartphone.

“There’s simply no way to predict which technologies will succeed or fail,” says Lam, now managing director at SAS Institute Hong Kong, a provider of business analytics software and services. “What we need to do is to look at the technology transformation from the perspective of the fundamental business value it brings.” For example, he says, the value of cloud computing can only be gauged against how easily organisations can migrate enterprise applications on legacy computer systems.

Looking back at the first 14 years of his career spent at IBM, he recalls with some pride how working in a range of sales and management roles allowed him to participate in one of the most talked-about turnarounds in corporate history. On the verge of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, IBM switched from a pure hardware play in favour of product offerings that blended software and services – an approach fronted by the rise of IBM Global Services and brought into being by the company’s legendary chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner. As a marketing manager in charge of a third of IBM’s financial services business in Hong Kong, Lam helped to build IBM Global Services in Hong Kong from the ground up.

He left IBM in 1997 for a similar role at NCR, a company better known for its ATM and point-of-sale systems, but which at the time also maintained a discrete computer business. When NCR sold its computing arm a few months later, Lam was offered a role in Shanghai to oversee the company’s booming ATM sales in greater China, as mainland banks sought to spruce up equipment following the country’s entry into the World Trade Organisation.

Although NCR was a lucrative business, Lam found that selling ATMs was not complex enough for his liking. In 2001, he returned to Hong Kong, where he was offered the opportunity to build the Hong Kong and South China office of a division of NCR that would eventually be spun off as data warehousing giant Teradata. Because the division’s products could be used for business analysis, it gave Lam a launch pad for his current career in information analytics – a sector in which he has worked ever since.

Before joining SAS in 2012, Lam spent a few months as the Hong Kong managing director for SAP, best known for its ERP (enterprise resources planning) software. His interest in the information analytics space grew as he helped SAP explore the potential of such business in Hong Kong.

So when the opportunity to helm the Hong Kong and Macau office of SAS arose, he naturally jumped at it. For the past 40 years, SAS has been a market leader in the arcane field of advanced analytics and predictive modelling. This allows businesses to use information generated in the course of daily operations to not only to paint a picture of the recent past, but to look into the future and forecast likely outcomes. This is a nut which many larger, publicly traded software companies have only tried to crack in more recent years.

Compared to its competitors, Lam says, SAS has a reputation for the speed with which it adapts new statistical techniques into software, and its vertical solutions that cater to niche industries. It has around 14,000 employees in 139 countries and despite its long history of profitability and wide geographical scope, it is not listed on any stock exchange. It is therefore not obliged to publish a breakdown of its regional profits, which means it can better focus on long-term strategy without being distracted by the pressures of quarterly profit reporting.

In line with its global employee-friendly culture, SAS’s 13,000 sq ft Hong Kong office in Tai Koo houses a mere 50 staff covering the city and Macau, and is decorated in cheerful bright colours with floor-to-ceiling windows and wide open spaces that Lam says makes for a pleasant work atmosphere. Its many employee benefits include a free breakfast on work days, paternity leave and in-office karaoke.

Lam explains that while many companies pay lip service to training and development, it helps if a company is truly devoted to the well-being of its staff. “If our company is doing it everywhere, I have a lot of references that I can use. Providing such a spacious area [is not the wrong thing to do] in Hong Kong,” he says.

He adds that while younger generations are adept at embracing new business methods, the key for them is to be able to engage with colleagues who are less comfortable with change. “A lot of people are still against the use of social media, but there are organisations out there that have been able to leverage its advantages for internal collaboration, training and improving morale,” he says. “It’s only when we’re able to showcase the positive influence of these new technologies that it becomes difficult for people not to embrace them.”


Stanley Lam gives some tips for success in the hi-tech industry

Be proactive “Because the market is changing, there is increased tension in the employer-employee relationship. People are always worried that they are being exploited by their employers. This is the kind of thinking that we need to try our best to eliminate [and it helps if people] volunteer to get involved in projects and proposals without being asked.”
Embrace the family “When you start a new job with a new company, it’s like a marriage. As a new member, it’s easy to find fault – whether it be in the culture or the way things are done. The important thing to remember is that you’re part of the family now, and their problems are yours as well. It’s only when you’ve become a part of that family in your heart that you can tell whether something’s good or bad – otherwise you’re just an outsider”
Find fulfilment “You have to enjoy your work and what you are doing. Whenever I encounter someone who isn’t performing to expectations, I always tell them that if they are really struggling or find it difficult to come to work in the morning, then maybe it’s time for them to find something else.”