[Interview] Jessica Tan, Managing Director of Microsoft Singapore

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We spoke with Ms. Jessica Tan, Managing Director of Microsoft Singapore to get more insights on the technological scene, her role in Microsoft, and some personal advice for students today. (Some answers have been taken from the general session.) Ms. Tan is also Member of Parliament for East Coast GRC.

Ms. Jessica Tan, Managing Director of Microsoft Singapore
Ms. Jessica Tan, Managing Director of Microsoft Singapore

TR: Tell us more about how you got into the industry.
JT: I’ve been in the technological industry for 24 years. I actually started out in a rival company, IBM as a Marketing Representative in Singapore. I did quite well there, taking on more leadership positions in the company through the years. It was definitely a good path for me at that point of time. In 2003 I left my position as Director of IBM’s Networking Services in the Asia Pacific region and moved to Microsoft as General Manager of its Enterprise & Partner Group, also in the Asia Pacific region.

My background was in fact not in technology. I graduated in 1989 from NUS with an honours degree in Social Science. So you could say I didn’t know very much about the technical aspect of the work. But in the end I realised much of what I needed to know I learnt on the job. Things like being familiar with the function of our products, the needs of our audience and keep abreast of the latest developments in the industry. These are things that keep changing and you couldn’t rely on a technical background from the 80s to keep you afloat. You must constantly learn, adapt and update yourself.

Having said that, I do regret not knowing more about the fundamentals of computer engineering and having a more hands-on experience with software development. These are practical knowledge that would give me an edge in understanding our products and services. Right now, I have to rely on a team of software engineers to deliver reports to me; they wrap up their projects in layman terms so to speak. I do appreciate that were I to understand the technical terms and concepts, we could reduce that layer of reporting and I could steer the projects in a more organic and perhaps more effective manner.

TR: But you did not have any trouble picking up the skills required in the industry?
JT: I certainly had to learn along the way. Of course I also relied on my business acumen and marketing savvy. I think that was how I distinguished myself: by being an efficient and hard worker, getting to know the product as well as I could, so as to be able to market it effectively. I think you never stop learning, and in order to be successful you must never be afraid to learn. That’s what is so great about this industry: it’s ever-changing. This constant movement and product development poses an exciting challenge for industry players. There are always new horizons to be explored.

TR: What else do you think is special about the technological industry?
JT: Another thing that I love about working in Microsoft is just the sheer amount of brainpower agglomerated in one place. I’m so impressed with the technical abilities of our engineers. When people love what they do, they are a joy to work with.

TR: Tell us more about your role in Microsoft.
JT: I think of what I do in a very high level sense: My job is to marry the options and solutions provided by technology to the business needs of our clients.

TR: So what is it like in the day of the Managing Director?
JT: Haha. Well I get to work around 8-9am in the morning, have meetings for most of the day. I try to get back home by evening time to see my husband and three kids. The only time I really do get to be by myself and get stuff done is late in the evening, or early in the morning.

It’s not easy finding a work-life balance. But it’s possible. Just keep in mind that not everyone works the same way and some fumbling in the dark is necessary to figure out what works for you.

TR: Any horror stories from the past?
JT: I have very little regets but one does come to mind. At one point in Microsoft, I had been leading a team in a project. There was some difference of opinion with other groups on the direction we were going to take. In the end, our group “won” and things proceeded according to our plan. While on hindsight I know that we made the right decision, and things turned out for the best, the situation could have been handled in a more persuasive manner. As I see it, “You can win the war, but remember to bring people along with you.” There didn’t have to be so much “collateral damage” in terms of hurt feelings.

TR: Any words of wisdom for students coming out to work?
JT: Stick to your principles, and think positive. Find a job where the environment allows you to do the things that are most important to you, and where the work aligns with what you believe in.