James Thang is a Group CIO at UCSI Group Holdings, with 26 years of experience in software development, digital transformation, IT project management, and people management. He led the implementation of UCSIPAY, a cashless payment mobile app solution integrated with UCSI’s parking and retail systems. He also develops digital roadmaps for UCSI, focusing on hybrid workspaces and cloud solutions. He has held C-level positions in MNCs and public listed companies and presented to their boards and shareholders. He has received several awards, such as ETCIO Transformative CIO 2022, The World CIO 200 (Legend Category) for 2023, and IDG FOUNDRY ASEAN CIO100.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, James shared his professional trajectory, current roles and responsibilities as Group Chief Information Officer (CIO) at UCSI Group, insights on how the role of CIO has evolved and will continue to change in the future, significant career milestones, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
James, please explain your career journey. How have previous roles supported your current role as Group Chief Information Officer (CIO), UCSI Group?
As the Group Chief Information Officer (CIO) at UCSI Group, I orchestrate the meticulous design and execution of visionary IT strategies, ensuring a seamless fusion of technological innovation and operational excellence across diverse industries. My professional journey has been distinguished by hands-on expertise in technical development, strategic planning, and design, exemplified through transformative projects across varied domains.
Key highlights of my previous leadership include:
- Pioneering and implementing cutting-edge eBanking solutions, setting new benchmarks in the banking sector.
- Spearheading digital transformation initiatives and deploying self-service portal platforms to redefine user experiences in the telecommunications sector.
- Elevating digital transformation frameworks, AD security access control, and SkillDB systems to unprecedented levels in the automotive sector.
- Implementing RFID and IR4 automation technologies to revolutionize operational efficiency in garment manufacturing.
- Establishing a sophisticated document collaboration and review platform, fostering innovation in the life science sector.
- Innovating a cloud-based CCTV solution, enhancing surveillance capabilities in critical sectors.
- Contributing to digital health services, driving advancements in the healthcare sector.
- Architecting a cryptocurrency trading platform with blockchain technology, navigating the forefront of financial technology.
- Streamlining eProcurement, eCommerce, loyalty rewards, and eBidding processes with precision across diverse sectors.
- Designing and implementing a multifaceted genealogy system, elevating network structures in the multi-level marketing sector.
These endeavors underscore my ability to navigate complex challenges, delivering innovative solutions while fostering collaboration across diverse teams. Positioned as a strategic leader, I am poised to lead UCSI Group’s IT function to unparalleled heights, aligning seamlessly with the organization’s vision and mission.
What are your biggest challenges and opportunities, and how is the CIO function supporting the organisation’s priorities?
As the CIO of UCSI Group, I thrive on solving problems and creating value. I have successfully delivered the UCSIPAY eWallet & LPR Parking system project with limited resources and tight deadlines, making us the first educational institution to offer a digital wallet and an integrated parking system. I constantly scan the horizon for emerging technologies, anticipating how they will shape our industry and our future. The CIO role is not static, but dynamic and adaptive, reflecting the digital era’s rapid changes. I embrace this evolution, and I am ready to lead UCSI Group through this journey, ensuring we harness the power of disruptive technologies to our benefit. I anticipate further evolution, and I am keenly positioned to guide UCSI Group through this journey, ensuring we leverage disruptive technologies to our advantage.
Which disruptive, emerging technologies do you expect to have the biggest impact on your organisation and sector?
Some of the disruptive and emerging technologies that I expect to have a significant impact on my organisation and sector are:
- AI: Artificial intelligence is the technology that enables machines to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as reasoning, learning, decision making, and natural language processing. AI can help us to improve our efficiency, quality, innovation, and customer satisfaction. For example, we can use AI to automate our business processes, analyse our data, personalise our services, and enhance our learning outcomes.
- UCSI SuperApps: UCSI SuperApps is a platform that integrates various applications and services that cater to the needs and preferences of our students, staff, and partners. UCSI SuperApps allows us to offer a seamless and convenient user experience, as well as to leverage the power of data and analytics to optimise our operations and offerings. For example, we can use UCSI SuperApps to provide eWallet, eLearning, eTranscript, eScroll, eHealth, LPR Parking, eProcurement, eApproval and eLeave services.
- Digital Transformation: Digital transformation is the process of using digital technologies to create new or modify existing business models, processes, products, and services. Digital transformation can help us to increase our agility, competitiveness, and value proposition. For example, we can use digital transformation to create new revenue streams, improve our customer engagement, and foster a culture of innovation and collaboration.
How much have you seen the CIO role change, and to what extent do you expect it to continue to evolve?
The CIO role has changed significantly over the years, and I expect it to continue to evolve in the future. Some of the key changes and trends that I have observed are:
- From a managing to collaborating: The CIO role has changed a lot with the emergence of the CISO role, as the two roles have different but complementary responsibilities and objectives. The CIO role is more focused on the strategic and business aspects of IT, while the CISO role is more focused on the operational and security aspects of IT. The CIO role has become more collaborative and communicative, as the CIO needs to work closely with the CISO and other senior executives to align the IT strategy with the business goals and the security requirements. The CIO also needs to communicate effectively with the board of directors, the customers, and the employees about the IT vision and value proposition.
- From a technical expert to a strategic leader: The CIO role has shifted from being a technical expert who manages the IT infrastructure and operations, to being a strategic leader who drives the digital transformation and innovation of the organisation. The CIO role now requires more business acumen, communication skills, and stakeholder management skills, as well as the ability to align the IT strategy with the organisational vision and goals.
- From a cost centre to a value centre: The CIO role has moved from being a cost centre that focuses on reducing IT expenses and risks, to being a value centre that focuses on creating and delivering IT value and benefits to the organisation. The CIO role now requires more financial management skills, performance measurement skills, and value delivery skills, as well as the ability to demonstrate the return on investment and impact of IT initiatives.
- From a service provider to a business partner: The CIO role has transitioned from being a service provider who supports the business functions and processes, to being a business partner who collaborates with the business units and customers. The CIO role now requires more customer-centric skills, relationship-building skills, and co-creation skills, as well as the ability to understand the business needs and expectations, and to provide innovative and tailored IT solutions. Also CIO role has become more innovative and adaptive, as the CIO needs to leverage the latest technologies and trends to create new business opportunities and competitive advantages. The CIO also needs to be flexible and agile to respond to the changing business needs and demands, as well as the evolving security threats and risks.
These changes and trends indicate that the CIO role is becoming more complex, challenging, and influential in the organisation and the sector. I anticipate that the CIO role will continue to evolve as the digital era progresses, and that the CIO role will need to adapt to the changing demands and opportunities of the digital environment.
What do you think are the new technologies and cultures/methodologies which will define the future workplace, and what do you think is the role of the CIO in helping design and deliver these?
In my personal view, some of the new technologies and cultures/methodologies that I think will define the future workplace are:
- Hybrid work arrangements: As the pandemic has shown, remote work can be effective and beneficial for many workers and organizations. In physical office, many big organisation convert the permanent seating arrangement turn into hot seat. However, some workers may prefer or need to work in a physical office, or a combination of both. Hybrid work arrangements allow workers to choose where and when they work, based on their preferences, needs, and tasks. This can increase worker satisfaction, productivity, and flexibility, as well as reduce costs and environmental impact. However, hybrid work arrangements also pose challenges, such as ensuring a consistent and inclusive experience for all workers, maintaining communication and collaboration, and managing performance and security.
- Zero-trust strategies: As more workers and sensitive classified organisation data move to the cloud, the traditional perimeter-based security model becomes obsolete and inadequate. Zero-trust strategies are based on the principle of verifying the identity and access of every user, device, and request, regardless of where they are located or what network they are using. By implementing Zero-trust strategies can help organizations enhance their security posture, reduce cyber risks, and comply with new cyber law regulations, by using technologies such as multi-factor authentication, encryption, micro-segmentation, and continuous monitoring.
- Digital onboarding and training: As the workforce become more diverse, distributed, and dynamic, the need for effective and engaging onboarding and training becomes more critical. Digital onboarding and training can help organizations deliver personalized, interactive, and scalable learning experiences to their workers, using technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, gamification, and adaptive learning. Digital onboarding and training can help organizations improve their talent attraction, retention, and development, as well as their performance and innovation.
The CIO in helping design and deliver these new technologies and cultures/methodologies is crucial and multifaceted. The CIO needs to:
- Align the IT strategy with the organizational vision and goals and communicate the IT value proposition to the board of directors, the customers, and the employees.
- Collaborate with the business units and customers to understand their needs and expectations and provide innovative and tailored IT solutions that create value and competitive advantage.
- Lead the digital transformation and innovation of the organization and leverage the latest technologies and trends to create new business opportunities and enhance customer satisfaction.
- Manage the IT function and ensure its efficiency and effectiveness and deliver high-quality and reliable services to the business units and customers.
- Measure and demonstrate the return on investment and impact of the IT initiatives and projects, and ensure they are aligned with the security, ethical, and regulatory requirements.
In your academic or work career, were there any mentors who have helped you grow along the way? What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Throughout my academic and work career, I have been fortunate to have mentors who have helped me grow and learn along the way. Some of them are Dato’ Peter Ng, Prof Dr. Jimmy Mok, Daniel Quah & Datuk Dr Siti Hamisah from UCSI Group of Companies, Azfal Abdul Rahim, Julian Ding & Johnson Lam from Time doCom, Dieter Haban from DaimlerChrysler TSS GmbH, and personal friends such as Johnson Lam, Jezs Lee, Fion Chang, Tan Sze Mien, William Song and Looi Kien Leong. They have all inspired me with their wisdom, guidance, and support.
The best piece of advice I have ever received is to always be curious, humble, and passionate about what I do, and to never stop learning and improving myself. This advice has motivated me to pursue my goals, overcome challenges, and embrace opportunities. I am grateful to all my mentors for their invaluable contributions to my personal and professional development.
Which technology are you investing in now to prepare for the future?
To prepare for the future, I am investing in three cutting-edge technologies that have the potential to transform the world: Generating AI Technology, Blockchain, and Cybersecurity
What are your passions outside of work?
Outside of his professional pursuits, I am deeply passionate about Arowana fish. I actively participate in Arowana competitions in Malaysia and Indonesia, demonstrating my commitment to this hobby. Furthermore, my expertise in the field is evident as I serve as a Professional Judge in Arowana competitions for AquaFair Malaysia, showcasing my enthusiasm and knowledge that extend beyond the workplace.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement is successfully architecting, designing, and delivering the UCSIPAY eWallet and LPR parking system for UCSI Group of Companies. This project was a significant challenge for me because it required me to use my technical, strategic, and leadership skills, as well as to overcome the constraints of time, budget, and resources. The challenge was to create a digital wallet and an integrated parking system for our students, staff, and customers, to provide a seamless and convenient user experience, as well as to leverage the power of data and analytics to optimize our operations and offerings. The action was to lead the project team, collaborate with the stakeholders and customers, and manage the project scope, schedule, and resources. The result was that we successfully delivered the project within the given timeframe and budget and achieved high customer satisfaction and adoption rates. This project also won us several prestigious awards, such as the IDG Foundry ASEAN CIO100 2023, GEC World CIO200 2023, and ETCIO Transformative CIO 2022, which recognized our innovation and excellence in IT.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
In the next five years, I see myself as a successful entrepreneur in digitalization, cybersecurity and innovation software product development. This is my long-term goal, as I am passionate about creating and delivering solutions that can enhance the process flow, security, efficiency, and value of various industries and sectors. To achieve this goal, I have set some specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound objectives, such as:
- Completing a PhD degree in Industrial Engineering by 2026, to expand my knowledge and skills in this field, and to network with other experts and potential partners.
- Establishing and leading a team of talented and motivated professionals by 2025, to execute the product development and delivery, and to foster a culture of innovation and collaboration.
- Scaling and growing the UCSI SuperApps and the business digital transformation by 2026, to reach a wider and more diverse customer base, and to generate revenue and profit.
- Achieving a leading position in the cybersecurity and innovation software market by 2028, to establish a strong brand reputation and recognition, and to create a positive social and environmental impact.
These objectives are aligned with my current role as Group CIO, as they allow me to apply and enhance my technical, strategic, and leadership skills, as well as to leverage the opportunities and resources that UCSI Group of Companies provides. I believe that by pursuing this goal, I can contribute to the vision and mission of UCSI Group of Companies, as well as to my own personal and professional growth.
What is the one piece of advice that you can share with other professionals in your industry?
In a world that is constantly evolving, I believe that the most valuable skill for any professional is the ability to adapt, explore, and learn. That is why my advice to fellow professionals in my industry is to embrace change, stay curious, and foster a culture of continuous learning.
Change is inevitable, and sometimes it can be disruptive and challenging. But it can also be an opportunity to grow, innovate, and create value. Instead of resisting or fearing change, we should welcome it and see it as a chance to improve ourselves and our work.
Curiosity is the fuel that drives us to discover new things, ask questions, and seek answers. It is what motivates us to learn from others, experiment with new ideas, and challenge ourselves. Curiosity keeps us engaged, excited, and open-minded. It also helps us to avoid complacency and stagnation.
Learning is the process that transforms our curiosity into knowledge, skills, and insights. It is what enables us to adapt to change, solve problems, and create solutions. Learning is not something that we do once and then stop. It is something that we do continuously, throughout our careers and lives.
By embracing change, staying curious, and fostering a culture of continuous learning, we can not only survive, but thrive in our dynamic industry. It is this mindset that has propelled my journey, and I hope it will inspire yours too.