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Tech veteran sees 'Silicon Valley state of mind' for S'pore

Mr Lim's 2020 vision is that nearly 75 per cent of all business-critical software that power enterprises will be built internally and not acquired or outsourced.
Mr Lim's 2020 vision is that nearly 75 per cent of all business-critical software that power enterprises will be built internally and not acquired or outsourced.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

It is crucial for the Republic to rebuild its core software talent, says Pivotal's Lionel Lim

Tech industry veteran Lionel Lim regards Silicon Valley as more a state of mind than a geographical location, so he sees no reason why the same intense creativity and business skills can't be replicated here.

Mr Lim envisions bringing the same passion, pace and innovation found in the Valley - home now to such leading lights as Apple, Google and Facebook - to the Asia-Pacific region, especially to Singapore.

Now, in his new role as the Asia- Pacific and Japan vice-president and managing director of enterprise software firm Pivotal, he is all fired up to meet this goal.

"By 2020, nearly 75 per cent of all business-critical software that power enterprises will be built internally and not bought," Mr Lim predicts in an interview with The Straits Times.

In such an environment, it is crucial that Singapore rebuilds its core software talent, similar to the massive pool of Java developers it had in the late 1990s, that will power it to play a bigger role in the region.

In those early days of information technology, when Java was the language of writing applications, Singapore benefited by building talent in the sector. During that time "IT was cool, IT was it", Mr Lim recalls.

He should know. He was in the forefront as the president and chief operating office of Sun Microsystems in the Asia-Pacific region, collaborating with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore to put the Republic on the map as the nation with the largest number of Java developers per capita.

Mr Lim remembers those heady days as the most amazing time of his life. The graduate of electronic and electrical engineering from University of Melbourne had joined Sun in Singapore in 1988 - after a decade-long stint in Hewlett-Packard - and found himself in the right place at the right time when IT was just taking off.

Over the next 22 years, Mr Lim served various leadership roles in Sun - from start-up stage to its hyper growth, the financial crises and its transformation.

After Sun was acquired by Oracle in 2009, Mr Lim moved on to CA Technologies - the second-largest software company in the world at the time - as its regional head for Asia-Pacific and Japan.

Four years later, he retired and spent the next couple of years travelling, pursuing leisure activities such as diving and tennis and spending time with his four children. But when an offer to join Pivotal came last year, it got him excited. The 62-year-old decided to make a comeback to a field he loved.

However, the landscape had changed. He noted that, when it came to software, companies had chosen outsourcing over innovation to cut costs and save time. As a result, businesses were using the same software as their competitors.

They had also marginalised themselves to the speed of the software provider. In-house talent had depleted and software-savvy employees were reduced to backend roles.

"Once you outsource brains, there is very little choice," Mr Lim says, pointing out that many companies in telco, banking and other sectors were struggling to get an edge.

But the paradigm is now shifting, he says, with business leaders realising that if they do not have the ability to stand out, it is a matter of time before they become worthless. At Pivotal, Mr Lim found an exciting platform to be at the forefront of this shifting paradigm.

A spin-off from cloud-technology firm VMWare and data-storage company EMC, Pivotal started in 2013 as an enterprise software start-up with an initial US$105 million (S$150 million) injection of capital from American multinational General Electric. It now has 20 offices with more than 2,000 employees worldwide, and many more investors.

Its three divisions - services software, subscription software and data analysing - give clients the right skills sets and software that sits on cloud-native applications, which can be run on multiple platforms.

"We help clients develop the product they want, as well as transfer the skills on modern software development methodology to them so they can be independent," Mr Lim says.

A cloud-based system, he says, allows companies to be much more agile. For instance, setting up bank branches in a foreign country is no longer a long-drawn process. Setting up offices, acquiring infrastructure, buying hardware, hiring workers to write and test software used to take months. But, with a product that can be deployed on a server and fired up using Google or Microsoft, these branches can start operating online in an instant.

"In fact, the future of business is centred around being able to write good-quality software and releasing and changing it very quickly around the world," he says.

Pivotal ensures its clients can do just that and, at the same time, manage the end-product on their own.

"Although 90 per cent of the software is developed by us, we open- source it," Mr Lim says. This means the clients will never be locked in to Pivotal, keeping the company on its toes to be inventive and to make itself relevant in the market.

Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, The Home Depot, Comcast and other big names are on its customer list.

Nearer to home, DBS Bank is also on board, working with Pivotal to build a fintech start-up from within that will be able to develop and deploy software quickly.

Its approach is different from that of most companies which buy fintech start-ups and try to integrate them into the company culture, Mr Lim says. By refusing to be upstaged by smaller fintech companies, DBS is being a "lighthouse" that will show the way to other big firms.

He gave the example of Borders book store, once a big name in retail, which was toppled by a small start-up called Amazon.

During those early days of the Internet, start-ups were the proverbial Davids who disrupted big-name Goliaths of the field by completely changing the rules of the game.

Kickstarter, Airbnb, Uber and Spotify were other companies which proved to be formidable challengers to established players in their respective fields.

Now, no big firm wants to be a Goliath; they want to be lighthouses, Mr Lim says, and " it will be the lighthouses which will lead the way".

These lighthouses will adapt quickly to changes and new demands - not unlike what DBS is doing with fintechs - and let the effects trickle down in the industry.

More firms will jump on board in the near future when this happens, and Singapore has to be ready to provide them with talent when the demand grows. The new economy needs to be built around the new digital age, Mr Lim says.

The Asia-Pacific has a good chance to be at the forefront of this change, he adds. It has a large number of developers and a combined population of more than 4.5 billion, which will provide a bigger market than Europe and America.

Singaporehas the advantage of its location and infrastructure to capitalise on these strengths. But it also has to have a Silicon Valley state of mind, Mr Lim says.

"For Singapore to take advantage of the digital era, it needs to rebuild core software talents that will power Singapore Inc and also enables them to play a much bigger role in Asia-Pacific," says Mr Lim.

This is where Pivotal can play a role. The firm aims to impart not just the know-how, but also the state of mind in businesses of the region - which is to think fast, be agile, be ready to fail and start again.

Plans are being put in place to make this happen, Mr Lim says. Among them is working with government agencies to build centres of excellence that will groom youngsters to meet the demands of the sector.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Tech veteran sees 'Silicon Valley state of mind' for S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe