2017 In Review: My First Full Year in the Silicon Valley
January 1, 2018
2017 marks the first full year I've lived in America since college. It has been one crazy year - writing this took almost a week. Here's my 2017 in review: 5 meaningful things areas of work, challenges + learnings, and hopes for 2018. I'd love to hear about your 2017 too!
1. Engaging on the global stage: Technology and public good
2017 started off with the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where I was part of a Supersession panel discussing how cities should capitalise on the sharing economy to improve public transportation.
Not many know that this website www.techandpublicgood.com has its roots in CES. Walking around the exhibitions, I understood first-hand the quantum leap in technological progress enabled by data, computing resources, ubiquitous connectivity and algorithmic progress.
I left CES feeling strangely disconnected. Over the December ’16 holidays, I had read Hillbilly Elegy, a story of middle class decay in America, and had been reflecting on my roots in social, educational and welfare policy. Questions, to which I had no easy answers, became fodder for articles on www.techandpublicgood.com.
What does emerging technology - social media platforms, to Artificial Intelligence, autonomous vehicles - etc, have to do with solving inequality, job displacement and social exclusion of the disabled, poor and elderly?
How can emerging technology open up new solutions to these age-old problems where traditional policy levers have reached their limits?
How do we mitigate the downsides of emerging technology, such as election tampering on social media platforms, accelerated job displacement and unethical uses of data?
How does the relationship between Governments and technology companies have to evolve?
In total, we have had over 40,000 readers in the past year, including republications on sites such as Smart and Connected Cities and GovInsider.
2017 also brought opportunities to engage with these issues on the global stage.
From January to December, I spoke at 15 events, including:
“Artificial Intelligence and Social Good” at the AI Expo in SF;
“The Future of Smart Cities” at the WorldsFair Nano,
“Self Driving Cars and Society” at AI By the Bay,
“Data and Networks in Smart Cities” at Smart Cities Connect in Austin Texas,
“The Future of Intelligent Mobility” at Innovfest Unbound in Singapore,
“Self Driving Everything: The Impact on Cities” at the Singularity University Global Summit.
End-2017, I was appointed Faculty member at Singularity University, an amazing global community which is excited about using technology for social good. I like to think that by the efforts of us all, emerging technology will be used to make society just a little more equal, more cohesive, more inclusive of minorities than before.
What topics on tech and public good do you want to hear more about in 2018?
2. Connecting with smart city leaders
2017 also brought opportunities to engage inspiring thought-leaders at the intersection of technology and government. Many have become friends, not just collaborators. These included:
Smart city leaders in the U.S. (e.g. Seattle, D.C., Austin, Orlando New York, SF, San Jose)
Universities and non-profits examining technology governance (e.g. the Stanford Policy and Innovation Initiative, the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Global Foundations Challenge in Sweden)
Tech companies seeking to disrupt public services in transportation, healthcare, energy, etc, resulting in many link-ups across borders
A wide range of Singaporean leaders who visit the Silicon Valley periodically, including both our Deputy Prime Ministers and delegations from transportation, healthcare, defense, Singapore’s NSF-equivalent and so on
While a popular perception is that Governments are backward and arcane when it comes to emerging technology, my experience couldn’t be more different.
City leaders understand the huge potential of emerging technologies and their specific applications (e.g. AI and IOT applied to smart lamp-posts, self-driving cars, digital health) to solve existential governance challenges: improving outcomes for city dwellers while reducing costs and manpower, reducing traffic congestion as population explodes, moving healthcare systems towards disease prevention, rather than costly treatments.
However, there is tremendous uncertainty when it comes to adopting emerging technology in public services.
With my fellow panellists at Smart Cities Connect in Austin, Texas: Rosa Akhtavari (CIO of Orlando) and Kip Harkness (CIO of San Jose)
Which use cases are game-changing enough to justify the upfront capital investments?
If we need to develop public-private partnerships or purchase solutions from the tech companies, how do we reconcile the trade-offs in data ownership, privacy and algorithmic accountability?
How far ahead can we race with experimentation before some of these issues catch up with us?
Singapore's Smart Nation team had a deep exchange with Washington DC's outgoing CTO, Archana Vemulapalli, in November. Smart cities need to find better ways of working together.
In the next 5 years, we will see many successes and failures in the smart cities space.
Failures will be hard for Governments to stomach because ‘losing’ public monies is always more galling than losing private investments.
Yet it is better than standing still. Like it or not, emerging technology is going to disrupt traditional public services such as healthcare, education, city management and transportation.
Governments need to get their foot in early and help make self driving cars, AI, IOT and digital health work for the widest range of city-dwellers possible: not just those who can afford it.
3. Building a community among Singaporeans-in-technology
A group of 16-year old girls visited the Silicon Valley in October. They met big names, inspiring founders, judges and venture capitalists. I hosted one of their final sessions, and a question left me ruminating for months. In gist: “many Singaporeans think that living in the Silicon Valley is so much better than living in Singapore. Why are you such a huge champion for Singapore?”
Hosting a group of 16-year olds visiting the Silicon Valley as part of their school trip
Over the course of 2017, I've met over two hundred Singaporeans living the Bay Area. Sure, many reflect on the better career opportunities, weather, outdoor activities and family time available in the Silicon Valley (compared to Singapore).
But I also frequently get asked (1) What’s happening in the tech scene back home? (2) Is there a way to contribute? In a short digital survey conducted at one of my Singaporean-in-tech events, data showed that over 70% wanted to contribute to Singapore even though they might not be ready to move back
In 2018, I want to reflect on what it means to be a country in this digital, globalized age. Perhaps countries will no longer define themselves by their borders but by their people. The Singaporean diaspora is spread all throughout the world, many in highly influential positions (we have CTOs all over the valley!). How can we involve them in our country’s future?
I am also interested to explore who is in this overseas Singaporean tech community and how to engage them in a way that is suitable to their needs and preferences. Case in point: in July this year, Jacqueline Poh, our Chief Executive of Govtech Singapore, spent six weeks in the Valley and wanted to host a dinner with Singaporeans in tech. By then I had met dozens of Singaporeans living in the Valley, but very few women. “How many Singaporean women-in-tech do you think there are in the Valley?” I asked some friends who had been around longer. “5? 10? At most 15 perhaps. Don’t get your hopes up”; most replied.
Our first Singaporean women-in-tech gathering in July, which sparked a community of volunteers!
Within an hour of posting my invitation on Linkedin, we had reached full capacity of 60 Singaporean women. Data scientists, product managers, investors, software engineers, product and growth marketers showed up in full force. In past events, women formed at most 5% of the attendees – why?
Singaporeans living in the Valley: how would you like to engage with Singapore's tech scene more? Singaporeans at home: how would you like to engage with fellow Singaporeans living in the Valley?
4. Exploring issues facing women and other workplace minorities
2017 was the year that gender-based harassment and discrimination exploded to the public eye in the Silicon Valley. Personally, I also came to identify with the experiences of minorities, upon entering the technology sector as a non-engineer and moving to America as a foreigner in the Trump era.
I'm curious about the experiences of women, and other minorities, in the workplace.
October: Women's Forum in Paris
An opportunity to explore these issues deeper came up when the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society sponsored my trip to Paris to share about how technology can keep people in work, and to participate in their Rising Talents program for women leaders under 40.
I had an amazing four days engaging with women who are doing ground-breaking work, in big tech and start-ups, legal advocacy for girls in war-torn countries, healthcare providers in underserved communities etc. My experience and reflections on womens’ and minority issues here.
November: Singaporeans-in-tech: Panel and Dinner
In November, I led a group of amazing volunteers to organize a panel and dinner with Singaporean women-in-tech, who shared their career journeys in the Bay Area. Our event was over-subscribed by both men and women, Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans. The panel was honest, thought-provoking and inspiring.
From L-R: me, Yen Low (Netflix), Aihui (Edgilife), Joo Lee Lim (GIC), Aakriti Agrawal (Blend)
A memorable moment was when I asked the panellists which Singaporean mindsets which helped and hindered us in the Valley. Aihui Ong, founder of Edgilife, shared how her Singaporean comfort with multiculturalism subconsciously shapes her hiring decisions – Edgilife is one of the most diverse start-ups in town (represent!)
Yen Low’s dogged Singaporean attitude enabled her to acquire data science skills and become a respected member in a male-dominated field at Netflix. Aakriti and Joo Lee shared the challenges of breaking into a market where they had no prior networks, plus tips for putting yourself out there and developing a ‘personal brand’ – something many of us did not have to do in Singapore (in fact it can be frowned upon in Singapore).
I could almost hear a sigh of relief from the audience (and certainly myself) when these accomplished women shared their experiences so candidly.
Hearing from fellow Singaporeans helped many attendees normalize, rather than personalize the uncomfortable experience of being a foreigner who needs to ‘break into’ the prevailing culture. Dozens sent me private messages afterwards to ask if we could have more of such conversations in the Singaporean community, and volunteered to help put more events together.
December: Asia Society Women's Leadership Breakfast
December rounded off with an Asia Society womens’ leadership breakfast, where I had the opportunity to discuss issues facing Asian women in the Silicon Valley with Shie Lundeberg (Google), Shirley Ma (McKinsey), Tina Lee (Mothercoders) and Katie Benner (New York Times). Another eye-opening conversation, another set of inspiring women.
The minority experience is one of constant reinvention, and defying - even overcompensating for - stereotypes. It is never quite feeling like an insider. I come out of 2017 much more aware of the responsibilities that majorities have in making workplaces and common spaces inclusive, and the responsibilities of minorities to support each other in a way that does not become exclusive or incendiary.
5. Pursuing my passion for coaching
Finally, I enrolled in an 8-month coaching certification program in 2017. Though I've done this informally for many years, a personal goal is to master the art of helping people become more effective in achieving their goals. A workplace relationship they want to improve? A difficult conversation with their boss? Managing a major transition healthily? Fixing communications breakdowns? Becoming the boss for the first time?
Coaching is about creating that safe space for someone else to explore different perspectives, widen their options, and stay accountable to committed actions. I don’t know about you, but I find that the busyness of adult life makes it difficult to break out of old patterns, even if they are inhibitive to our professional and personal goals. Developing a coaching relationship is one solution.
In 2018, I’ll be writing more on the topic of coaching and leadership, building on these three articles that I wrote in 2017.
Three harmful ideas about leadership (and how you can shift)
Three tips for middle managers in 'Day 2' organisations
What if my team members are unmotivated?
Five learnings from my first 6 months in the Silicon Valley
As part of my course I’ll also be taking on coaching clients starting in February, so do get in touch if you are interested!
With my coaching Learning Group: Mahesh (a Paypal engineer), Deborah (an Episcopalian priest), Oliver (an actor and facilitator), PK (a sales consultant) and David (a Chief Compliance Office).
Challenges in 2017
2017 has been one of the most exciting and challenging years of my career to date. I’ve learned that I enjoy the 'start-up' life: experimenting, iterating, pivoting, and finding that elusive ‘product market fit’.
However, like any start-up, work is fraught with high highs (the market is responding; this is what is needed!) and low lows (what am I even doing?). I’ve learned to follow my convictions, amidst the many confusing signals about what I ‘should be’ or ‘should not be’ doing.
Fortunately, I have amazing, progressive bosses (Kok Yam and Chee Khern) who have given me so much latitude and trust. This is definitely NOT a traditional Government posting. I also have many, many brilliant, supportive co-workers across the Singapore public service who are just a call away (shout-out to Daniel Lim, Feng Yuan, Mark Lim, Jacqui, Pui San, Rebecca, Shi-Hua, Chor Pharn, Titus, Kai Jit, Yang Boon, Simon Phua, Victor Tan, Stanley Leong, Lynn Khoo, Kenneth Teo, Melanie Tan, Heng Jie, Brandon, Sidra Ahmed... the list goes on). My husband, who is doing a PhD in statistics at Stanford, has also been an incredible support at work.
End-of-the-year sunset in Southeast Asia
Nevertheless, I’ve realized that the extrovert in me needs a team in the same geography to be collaborators, sounding boards, and ultimately to start scaling up. Thankfully, I'm expanding the team in 2018, and plan to work much closer with other teams in the Bay Area!
I also need to work on pacing myself better in 2018. In my impatience to adjust to a new job, new country, new baby, new home and new community, I ended off 2017 very tired.
Thankful for some much-needed down-time by the ocean, with family!
Bring it on, 2018.
I enter 2018 with a mood of curiosity.
How can I serve the world, and my local community, in 2018?
Which direction should www.techandpublicgood.com take?
How can we shift the relationship between tech companies and Governments from defensive regulatory battles to co-creators of a more inclusive equal, and cohesive societies, assisted by technology?
How should countries think about their economic strategy in a digital, globalized age, where physical borders matter less and less?
How can we build workplaces and common spaces that are inclusive of minorities?
There is so much more to learn and contribute to the world. There are so many more relationships to build and deepen. I’m excited.
I'd love to hear about your 2017 and your hopes for 2018!