Keeping up with technology disruption by putting people first
If you thought the world of technology was complex, spare a thought for Hong Kong-based Monash University alumn Shen Tham. As chief technology officer (CTO) Asia for global digital jobs portal SEEK, he is paid to keep a cool head in a fast-moving world where the only constant is change.
On top of regularly surfing shockwaves from disruptive technology rollouts (think super apps, hyperautomation and cybersecurity challenges), he works with multiple teams across various time zones, striving to improve the working lives of millions of people.
“It’s a very rich and complex ecosystem,” says Tham of the diverse technology platforms and partners he works with in countries and regions including Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. “[But] the core business – ultimately, the purpose – is the same: to help people through their careers.”
Tham attributes a significant proportion of his ability to work effectively under pressure to his time at Monash, more than two decades ago. Born to a “modest” family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tham’s parents and older sister saved up the money to send him to university in Australia.
He remembers being “very excited” on the flight to Melbourne (it was his first time on a plane) and experiencing some mild culture shock when he arrived at the Clayton campus as an international student enrolled to study a Bachelor of Computer Science. Staying on campus at Richardson Hall, he quickly settled into student life, playing soccer, chess and badminton, and choosing an AFL team (go Hawks!).
Learning from teaching
At the end of his third year, CSIRO offered him a scholarship to drive a Sydney-based research and development project. When he returned to Monash to continue his honours year in computer science, he started tutoring to help pay the bills.
The best way to learn is to teach – I’m a firm believer of that,” he says. “[You learn] the subject in a very different manner because you get questions from all angles.
Tham soon realised that his teaching gig was about more than money. “The best way to learn is to teach – I’m a firm believer of that,” he says. “[You learn] the subject in a very different manner because you get questions from all angles. And that forces you to think differently.”
He also found himself becoming more interested in finding ways to engage students, something that would pay dividends later in his career as he evolved into a corporate leader.
“[Teaching] gave me more exposure to the people side of things. And at the end of my honours year, I found myself actually enjoying that and trying to solve different sets of problems all the time, as opposed to going really deep into one specific area of research.” Tham continued his relationship with teaching and learning by later taking part in the University’s Alumni to Alumni mentoring program.
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His career really took off when he joined the global technology consulting company ThoughtWorks after his studies. Tham was part of the initial team that helped to set up its new Melbourne office. For the next 10 years he lived out of a suitcase, travelling to Brisbane and Sydney, moving to the US for a stint and eventually landing in Hong Kong, providing advisory and consulting services to customers in the region.
Just when he thought he’d found some stability, the global financial crisis hit. Tham decided to move away from consulting life and joined an investment bank, Nomura, which had just bought the failed Lehman Brothers, the financial services firm at the centre of the 2008 global financial collapse.
After five years integrating and rebuilding the bank’s front office systems, he became CTO of real estate powerhouse REA Group Asia, a leading global digital property business. He led its technology division for seven years in Asia.
In 2021 he left the world of real estate and became CTO Asia for the Melbourne-founded global careers portal SEEK. With exposure to 2.9 billion people, the role includes integrating his company’s goal – improving lives through better careers – across a complex and diverse mix of technological platforms and cultural challenges.
Putting people first
Tham’s team must know where people in different jurisdictions are posting and searching for jobs, as well as being across a number of different channels and payment platforms.
For example, Indonesia is primarily a mobile-first market where people are connected by technology, but generally not through a computer. “In today’s digital space, especially in Asia, the market moves very fast. And the challenge for us is how to move in tandem with it,” he says.
Everyone should have a voice at the table.
These days, Tham has swapped his suitcase for family life, living in Hong Kong with his wife Joanna and their two young children. It’s given him more time to focus on leadership, which he says is about putting people first, providing the right tools to make good decisions, making sure your work culture is safe and empowering people to speak out and make decisions. “Everyone should have a voice at the table,” he says of his workplace.
In terms of technology in the future, he is excited about what’s to come – but he stops short of making predictions about how or what the next globally transforming technology will be. “I think Monash life taught me how to be resilient and a fast learner,” he says. “Technology will always change. But, at the end of the day, you need to look for people who are not just qualified but also are ready for each rapid wave of change – because the change will keep happening and keep coming.”