Ken Soh holds concurrent appointments as Group CIO of BH Global since 3 March 2014 and as the founding CEO of the award-wining cyber security consulting company Athena Dynamics since 15 July 2014. He also serves as Chair for the Cyber Security Chapter in SGTech, a 40-year-old technology trade association in Singapore. Ken has more than 30 years of working experience in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) industry. He has been an avid industry thought leadership speaker and writer and has contributed hundreds of thought leadership speaking engagements and papers in industry conferences, press and media. He holds a Master of Science in Computer Studies (AI) with distinction award from the University of Essex (UK); and a Master of Business Administration (eMBA) from the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (NTU), a joint programme between Nanyang Business School of NTU and University of California, Berkeley.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Ken shared his professional trajectory, what sets Athena Dynamics apart from other market competitors, personal role model, significant career milestones, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
Ken, can you tell us about your professional background and areas of interest?
I have been active in the ICT sphere for more than 3 decades ago, starting out as a young software R&D engineer in the development of an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) platform well before MS Visual Studio existed. I have since moved on to various roles in consulting (IBM), operational leadership (CIO/CDO) and today, in technology business leadership role (CEO Athena Dynamics).
My area of interest has always been in disruptive paradigms and technologies. From my first stint in IDE development to today’s digital and business transformation initiatives, radically differentiated propositions and thoughts are always in our radar. For instance, in cyber protection technologies, the applications of detection-less technologies to protect against the undetectable. In business models, the blue ocean approach to structure new customer centric business model which helps to make competitions irrelevant, much influenced by the well written Blue Ocean strategy, which I thought is a great baseline for building new business concepts. This is especially so in technology businesses – whether it is about today’s Generative AI related innovations or mix of new concepts made possible by yet-to-be widely adopted disruptions such as quantum computing.
Tell us about the mission and vision of Athena Dynamics. What sets it apart from other market competitors?
As per our corporate website, we have the vision to bring about better and safer living through innovative technologies, fulfilled via mission to strive and thrive in our chosen field of expertise in game-changing technologies and paradigm shifting perspectives.
We set ourselves apart via disruptive mindset in both business and technology. We define disruptive paradigm as one which is not categorizable. This is the core element which drives our game-changing ways.
The above is underpinned by our core value of “investing in integrity as our way of life” – for the simple reason that business is all about credibility and trust.
You also serve as Group CIO at BH Global Corporation Ltd. Can you please brief us about this organization and your role in it?
Ironically, this was my original intent and position. I joined BH Global as Group CIO in 2014 with a simple and focused charter to assist them with group-wide digital transformation. BH Global is a SGX mainboard listed group that specializes in maritime supply chain management and operations. It has diversified businesses in offshore engineering with a focus on sustainability innovations, industry LED manufacturing, R&D and manufacturing of industry thermal and fever sensing cameras.
Athena Dynamics was born out of the digital turned business transformation journey, resulted in the spin-off of the Group IT department into a subsidiary cyber security consulting arm. Today, Athena Dynamics still serves the group ICT functions as an “internal vendor”, service the industry as a cyber security consulting outfit in CII protection with more than 250 governmental and enterprise customers. Not least, we are active in serving the community on pro bono basis on various fronts, e.g., myself chairing the Cyber Security Chapter of SGTech trade association, contribution to the industry in more than 250 thought leadership speaking and various judging panels on various awards and industry evaluation programs. Athena Dynamics also participated in BH Global Group’s ESG programs, including the annual “Go-To-School” charity event where BH Global Group donates new books and stationery to needy students prior to school opening.
As an avid industry thought leader, speaker, and writer, 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?
As shared earlier, we regard and define true innovation as one which can yet to be categorized. For example, the new feature invented under the category of “firewall” or “SIEM” would not be adequate to be one. A new concept of “detection-less” cyber protection paradigm would be well suited since mainstream protection paradigms today are detection-based. They are categorized commonly as Anti-virus, Sand-boxing, Machine Learning, Threat Intelligence etc. – all detection centric protection thinking.
One good analogy was the invention of umbrella centuries back. I recall reading that it was laughed at since the first “umbrella” was unseen before and is not conceptually categorizable as something widely recognizable. The inventor had the last laugh when such an invention was adopted widely eventually and termed as “umbrella”. That is a good and simple example of disruptive invention in our mindset.
The future workplace is beyond our imagination. What I could think of with our limited exposure to possibilities might be: culture-wise, it will become even less formal, more mobile, more light weight “beings” e.g., digital nomads with even more casual working outfits. Technology-wise, it will be more “invisible”, no more “clumsy” devices like notebook PC, mobile phones and rather, these will be replaced by bio based, wearable or embedded possibilities. CIOs need to embrace the impossible possibilities at much faster speed of progression than today’s. The notion of “innovate or evaporate” will intensify. Workplaces will call for not just techno-functional leadership. The critical success factors of business survival would very much be depending on leaders with rationally bold disruptive mindset to serve their customers better, faster and with killer value propositions. Workplace “bosses” and “managers” will become extinct, with the emergence of techno-sensitive innovator business leadership which need to be socially strong and able. Only people and knowledge-based leadership will prevail.
With disruption and transformation being everywhere, what are the challenges you see facing the cybersecurity sector right now? How can we overcome those challenges?
The unceasing race between the dark and lite sides remain and it will continue to battle on unceasingly in a much more complex landscape.
Cyber security is fundamentally about People, Process and Technology. All are large subject matters. The common saying being “People is the weakest link”. As technologies progress, this may no longer hold water. A careful person might fall prey to a socially engineered deep fake video-based scam. In such case, the technology if not managed well, will fast become the weakest point of entry for attackers, not people anymore.
To overcome that, disruptive mindset becomes inevitable in the development of strong and game-changing protection technologies. For example, in Infra Sec, detection-less technologies to protect against the undetectable as mentioned earlier. In App Sec, to perform Binary SAST not just Source SAST to sieve out the unscanned, and hence addressing the supply chain issue. In Cloud Sec, Remote Browser Isolation (RBI) to ring fence the threats to common users. In Digital Forensic and Incident Response (DFIR), to deploy specialized DFIR tools not just the XDR or MDR to shrink DFIR effort in each incident from months to minutes.
What is anything you wish you knew when you first went into this career?
I started out in ICT, and now with special interest and passion into Disruptive Protection Technologies for Critical Info-Infrastructures (CIIs). Entry into cyber focused pursuit is not planned. It was more of being thrust into it out of no other better choice. I believe many are going through such a similar journey as digitalization can never be decoupled from cyber protection essentials.
One thing that I wish I would have known when I first entered this career is the ingredients of transformation mindset. Knowing such ingredients would have saved us the hard knocks and “tuition fees” in such pursuits. Some of such ingredients include the approach to influent and cultivate effective transformative culture and the motivating factors that drive disruptive innovative mindset as a way of life.
Who is the one person you look up to and why?
Singapore’s founding father former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Athena Dynamics is built on many of his fundamentals and teachings. Our core value of investing in integrity is one. Our belief that small can be big is another one. Most importantly, to continue to make ourselves relevant to the world is key. This helps us aplenty in transforming the entity into a country agonistic outfit with projects not just in Singapore, in APAC and now in Europe – the world is our resource, and the world is our market.
“No one owes us a living”. We will continue to innovate and make ourselves relevant to the world. The last thing we want is to wake up one day and wonder, “who moved my cheese?”.
What has been your most career-defining moment that you are proud of?
I would consider receiving the first purchase order from a major governmental agency 10 years ago as the most career-defining moment. It is not about the purchase order per se, but a strong and encouraging message that our business and technological belief that we built from the ground up is making sense and is working. This also led to the subsequent transformation of a cost center Group IT Department into a profitable business subsidiary of the group.
From there on, I must share that the 10-year onset of further transformations is the most meaningful journey ever. Athena Dynamics has been transformed from a product distributor to a full fledge one-stop cyber security consulting outfit that helps organizations fill the gaps that common and mainstream protection technologies cannot fulfil.
What is your biggest stress reliever?
I used to have constant “overdose” of endorphin rushes via intense class fitness dance exercises for almost 2 decades. Today, it is less of which and I am more into cycling and brisk walking as the one and only fitness chain that truly understands the art of free style fitness dance is no longer in operation. It is in my own usual words, “disruptive and unique model of class exercises” which unfortunately, happened to diminish due to landscape changes in that industry.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?
As long as I am still healthy and able, I will continue to be active in any “jobby” which I could be involved. 5 to 10 years from now, we hope to nurture Athena Dynamics into a global branding. Today, we already have sporadic success stories in APAC and Europe. We hope to build on this and deliver quality projects into a global outfit.
What is the one piece of advice that you can share with aspiring professionals in your industry?
I do not profess to be an expert in coaching. A few simple self-discoveries to share here could be general and motherhood advice to many. While we do not have the power to control every aspect of our lives, what we could do is to continue to open doors to possibilities. Going beyond our comfort zone, being constantly hungry (even when we are not), learn like a sponge to water all the time, be respectful to all and most importantly, be mindful of all matters related to good health. Not least, continue to network and always remember that networking is not about who we know, it is about who knows us.
As CIO, it is all about operational excellence. As business leader, it taught me that operations are just less than half the story. Being able to spend millions and achieve a great project is certainly respectable. However, being able to go to the market and make our first fifty thousand calls for much more capabilities. The journey has taught me aplenty, and we will continue to strive and thrive on.