Now and then: a Hong Kong tech guru's view

Computerworld Hong Kong celebrates its 30th year in 2014. To review the growth and achievement of the local IT industry in the past three decades, CWHK presents the "Hong Kong IT Heroes" series. In the first story of this series, CWHK talked with local IT veteran Stephen Lau.

Computerworld HK (CWHK): What was Hong Kong's IT environment like in the 1980s?

Stephen Lau (SL): Back then the hot topic was global finance. It was the beginning of worldwide markets and global systems--stock trading systems, flight ticketing systems. I worked for the government for about seven years, but then decided to join Citibank.

It was an unusual move, as I was the head of the Government Data Processing Agency (GDPA: a precursor of today's OGCIO) and most people in that position would stay with the government. But I was keen to return and work in the private sector, so I joined Citibank's Asia Pacific Op and Tech division. The role covered both technology and operations, which included managing backroom systems and dealing with risk management and processes.

The mid-80s saw negotiations between the UK and China over the handover, with many people moving overseas due to perceived uncertainty of Hong Kong's future. My role at Citibank was a regional one so I was traveling extensively across the region. There was also a time when I was stationed in London to steer a global project.

CWHK: In the 90s you became Hong Kong's first Privacy Commissioner. How did you get into that role?

SL: In 1995, the government introduced the Personal Data Privacy Ordinance (PDPO). Part of the initiative was to set up the Office of Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data--an independent body to promote privacy and enforce the ordinance. This law applies to both public and private sectors and since I had experience in both, I was appointed to the role.

I also understood the relationship between technology and data privacy. During the early 80s, when I was with the GDPA, I wrote an internal document to warn about the risk of personal data with the rising of digitalization.

Although different regulations required organizations to keep large volume of customer or transactional data, this information was almost impossible to search when they were stored in paper format. To conduct a legal background check of a company or person was very difficult and time-consuming.

We called it "practical obscurity": meaning the data was there, but unsearchable.

Digitization of data makes searching and co-relation of data so much easier. Now personal data searches can be done from a terminal or mobile device. Since the 80s, all personal data privacy invasion incidents have been related to IT.

CWHK: You were recently presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by APICTA--the second person to receive this award after APICTA's founder and former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Tell us about your history with APICTA.

SL: APICTA stands for Asia Pacific ICT Award or Alliance. This annual event aims to provide an opportunity for benchmarking ICT products, innovators and entrepreneurs across the region.

I heard about this at a speaking engagement in Malaysia and suggested that the Hong Kong Computer Society (HKCS) participate by nominating winners from the IT Excellence Award--the only local IT-related award program back then--to participate.

Hong Kong hosted APICTA for the first time in 2004 and I was the chief judge. In 2007 I was elected president of APICTA and held the position for two terms.

The role that I enjoy the most is helping local entries prepare for the APICTA presentation. HKCS assigns two mentors in each category to help entrants with their presentations. Every year I set up a presentation workshop and spend two days advising.

CWHK: Why do you think it's important for Hong Kong organizations to participate in APICTA?

SL: APICTA is considered "the Oscars" of the regional IT industry. Like Hong Kong's entries, all APICTA participants are winners of their respective local ICT-related Awards. It's a gathering place for elite regional products and innovators.

The judging criteria at APICTA are strict. In each category, there's only one winner--along with one or two Merits. Achieving Merits is not an easy task, as the entry needs to score at least 95% to be considered.

Besides showcasing products and innovations to the judges, APICTA also presents business opportunities--the Trade Development Council sponsors the Hong Kong Reception every year during APICTA. This allows our entrants to showcase their products to other participants and potential customers.

Hong Kong has done extremely well in the past three years by winning the largest number of awards. I hope we will continue to excel as our IT industry matures.

CWHK: What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the local IT industry?

SL: The major problem we are now facing is the lack of talent. Our pool of IT talent has shrunk in the past 15 years. The burst of the dotcom bubble discouraged many talented students from pursuing IT careers.

Many at the HKCS, including myself, meet with potential students at the universities to promote IT careers, hoping to revive interest. The popularity of various gadgets during the past few years has started to turn things around and now we see more talented students deciding to pursue a career in IT.

Hong Kong's strength has always been our service industry. Our achievements at APICTA also demonstrate our high standards for [business] applications. Though we are very small geographically, Hong Kong is a melting pot for entrepreneurs from all over the world. The only thing we are missing is a globally recognized tech venture. Some successful tech ventures, like Outblaze, were acquired before they had a chance to grow and build their own brands globally.

CWHK: What's your view about the Hong Kong government's plan to establish the Tech Bureau?

SL: Having a technology strategy is critical to Hong Kong's economic development. During the Chief Executive (CE) election, both candidates promised to establish a Tech Bureau. Unfortunately, the focus shifted to other areas, like welfare, after the CE took office.

On the mainland, both national and provincial governments have bureaus that focus on technology strategy. China's five-year plans have also included technology as the backbone to facilitate the country's development.

Hong Kong is known for its laissez faire environment--an open and free market with minimal government intervention and facilitation. But if technology is recognized as a major enabler to economic growth, the government should dedicate more resources to facilitate its development in order to take our economy to the next level.

Our technology development initiatives are currently fragmented. We need a bureau to develop a technology strategy with clear direction, as well as to fight for resources to bring this strategy into reality.

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