Pretty much a one-company man, Tony Tai started as a trainee with global IT giant IBM back in 1980, after getting an engineering degree and an MBA from the University of Hong Kong. Tai worked as a salesman and then marketing manager in the city before moving in 1991 to IBM’s Asia-Pacific headquarters in Tokyo, where he served as administrative assistant to some of the company’s senior vice-presidents and gained insights into the company’s financial operations in the region. In 1994, he worked for IBM’s newly formed Greater China Group, which aimed to consolidate operations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. After a stint as general manager for IBM Hong Kong, Tai moved to Beijing in 2002 to run the Greater China Group’s marketing department. In 2006, he took charge of the company’s east China and central China operations. Early this year, he returned to Hong Kong to assume the responsibilities of general manager for IBM China and Hong Kong. He talks to John Brennan.
What are your day-to-day duties?
My primary responsibility is to oversee the operations of IBM Hong Kong which was established in 1957. I focus on the strategic side of the business, helping to create value for our customers. They are now more aware of what they want in a company like IBM. They want higher value offerings, comprising products, services and solutions.
What do you particularly enjoy about your new job?
Together with the whole company, I’m trying to give our customers good value and help them to be successful. I’m happiest when I see our customers succeed in their own industries and build up a competitive edge. I believe if all the enterprises in Hong Kong become more competitive and successful, this will help improve the life of the people.
What makes you stick with IBM?
This is a question I’m always asked. IBM is not only an innovative company but also one that focuses on employee development. In the early stages of my career, I focused a lot on my learning and self-development, and IBM provided me with a lot of opportunities. I’m now able to give something back using what I’ve learned, to help develop the next generation of leaders for IBM. And I’ve found, while it’s very hard to invent something, you can be innovative. These things really give me a lot of satisfaction.
How has IBM changed in your watch?
IBM has transformed itself into an innovative global company offering integrated technological solutions consisting of hardware, software and services. IBM has acquired a lot of software companies because we need more tools to build solutions. We do, though, still develop a lot [of software] in our own laboratories.
How do you keep up with the changes in the digital world?
The IT industry today is very different from 30 years ago when I first joined the company. In the old days, technology did not move so fast. Today, it is very difficult to keep up. You need to develop the habit of reading a lot of newspapers and magazines. The good thing about IBM is that we work much more closely with our research and development (R&D) organisation. Also, our colleagues in R&D now regularly come out of their laboratories and work more closely, not only with us, but also with our customers to help us all understand what is happening. On a yearly basis, we review how we look at technology and how it is going to impact the industry and society.
How do you see your industry’s future?
The focus is going to be on integrating the customer’s business operations with IT. IBM recently introduced a machine called Watson, a computer that can learn. In the past, you would give instructions to a computer and it would work fast and come up with results. In the future, a computer will be able to learn from experience, pick the right answer and make decisions. For example, if you go to see a very experienced doctor, he will be able to make good judgment calls. In the future, if a computer has the equivalent of a thousand doctors’ experiences, then the chances of coming up with the right analysis and the right solutions will be so much greater. This also applies to the business world.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to follow your career path?
You have to develop the ability to think independently. You need to know what you’re trying to achieve and be able to think of the bigger picture and not simply focus on what you’re doing today. This requires continuous learning so you can keep up with things like new technology that will impact not just your work but also your life.
You need a strong drive to succeed and take the initiative so you can grab opportunities. You must have dedication and perseverance and be accountable for what you do. You should have the ability and willingness to communicate. When I talk about communication, I don’t just mean the ability to tell other people what to do but also the willingness to listen. Communication has to be two way and you need to be able to understand other people’s thoughts and ideas. Then you can develop a better picture of what is happening around you, and this will help you a lot.
For all these things, you need a foundation and that foundation is integrity – in your thoughts and behaviour. This enables you to build trust with others.