When Soh Siew Choo, now an MD at DBS, was studying computer science back in the early 1990s there weren’t many female role models to look up to within banking technology, the sector she was keen to work in.
“Women were underrepresented in technology then and it’s not very different today. It’s still about one women for every 10 men at the executive level,” says Soh, who heads up core systems technology at DBS.
“In 1994 I was the first, and I’m probably still the only woman, to be awarded first place in the first-class honours computer science degree at National University of Singapore,” she adds. “This shows how far we have to go – technology is still considered a male-dominated industry.”
Employers in Singapore need to make more of an effort to help ensure there are more females on interview shortlists for technology jobs, she says.
About 20% of the participants in Hack2hire, a DBS hackathon recruitment drive that Soh organised earlier this year, were women. That figure beats the industry average, but Soh is now considering potentially holding a separate female-only event in the future – a “woman-can-code hackathon”.
But why should female computer science graduates work for a bank rather than a start-up or tech giant?
“In banking, you don’t often get a clean slate like you would at some of the new tech companies,” says Soh. “To transform banking, you not only need to be equipped with the latest technology skills, you also need to transform the culture and skillsets of existing teams, and deal with legacy infrastructure.”
“That’s much more difficult. Once you can accomplish this, no other challenge will be beyond your capabilities. So if you’re looking for a challenging tech job that will help establish your career, then banking is a rewarding one.”
Soh started her tech career at J.P. Morgan and rose up the ranks to MD-level during 19 years with the US bank.
“I went into banking technology because both banking and tech reflected my passion for numbers and logic,” she says. “I was lucky at J.P. Morgan as I was always given interesting roles where I could build new technology capabilities from scratch as part of business expansions to get into new products and markets.”
After working for six years in Singapore in fixed income, FX and treasury as a developer, Soh moved to Japan to head the local equities technology team for J.P. Morgan. “That was the most educational part of my career because the culture there was so different. It helped to shape my focus on client service and attention to detail.”
“The Japanese take errors very seriously, even small rounding errors in transactions. For them it’s not about the materiality of dollars and cents; it’s about being right or wrong. The admission of mistakes to demonstrate learning is key in Japanese culture,” explains Soh.
In 2005, Soh relocated to Hong Kong and became head equities technology for all of Asia. She took on another senior job at J.P. Morgan – head of Asia treasury services technology – five years later.
Soh joined DBS in Singapore in November 2014 and has been in hiring mode ever since.
The bank has “insourced” many of the development jobs previously performed by technology vendors. And as we reported last month, Soh now wants to add 200 people into her team over the next year, mainly developers and architects.
“I moved to DBS because I saw that CEO Piyush Gupta is tech-savvy and views technology as an enabler to the business, not a cost. Rather than driving innovation from the top, DBS is infusing it throughout the organisation from the bottom up,” says Soh.