By SGN | 16 Oct 2023
Throughout his life, Steven has found himself inexplicably drawn to Asia. Twice he has leapt at the opportunity to start a new phase of his life and career in an utterly unfamiliar locale within the vast continent.
After completing his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University, he stayed on for six years as an assistant professor specialising in robotics and automation in manufacturing. To fully understand the potential of the technology, however, he knew he had to place himself in the thick of industry. At the time, the country at the forefront of this field was Japan.
“With some help from the President and Provost of Carnegie Mellon, I went on a scouting expedition to talk to four leading Japanese technology companies,” Steven shares. Joining Fujitsu’s telecommunications arm, he did a 30-month apprenticeship in Oyama, Tochigi, before returning to the States – wife Patricia and two small children in tow – to join their new manufacturing facility in Texas.
“Pat and I had a very positive experience living in Japan,” he says. “We didn’t know how or when, but we just had this feeling that one day we would go back to Asia.”
Circling back to academia
That opportunity arrived just a few years later, when Steven received a call from a professional acquaintance working in Singapore, who invited him to join a consulting team at IBM.
“I knew nothing about Singapore, but it was an opportunity to come back to Asia,” Steven says. “I didn’t even have to think about it, and I knew my wife would love it too.” The couple’s decision was bolstered by the fact that the country was English-speaking and had strong school options for their children.
To someone who grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, the environment in Singapore turned out to be strikingly similar. “It’s tropical, it’s very hot for much of the year, it’s surrounded by water, and it’s very multiethnic,” he observes.
The family moved in 2000, coincidentally the same year that Singapore Management University (SMU) was established as the city’s third university, developed in partnership with The Wharton School. Two years later, when SMU was preparing to launch their School of Information Systems (now known as the School of Computing and Information Systems), they hired Steven to be its first employee and founding dean.
Seizing this rare opportunity, Steven said yes, even though there was a reduction in salary. Together with his newly formed team, he set out to create a school that emphasises strong industry engagement and trains graduates to apply IT skills and knowledge in the realm of business. Under his leadership, the school eventually brought in over US$100 million in research funding in new tech areas such as data mining, mobile software, and cybersecurity.
“In those early years, we had many people asking: How can you do information technology in a management-focused university?,” he says. “We had to work doubly hard to convince potential students and their parents of our new type of educational approach.”
The school became a surprise success for SMU. Though the early cohorts didn’t always have the most stellar academic records when they entered the school, they graduated excelling in their industry placements and starting salaries. “Unquestionably, we were the highest value-add programme in Singapore,” Steven notes.
Since he stepped down as dean in 2016, course offerings have expanded, undergraduate enrolment has doubled to more than 600 students, and entry to the school has become extremely competitive. “I couldn’t be happier and prouder to have built the foundation upon which the school has grown to be bigger and better,” he says. “What more could you want as a founding dean?”
20 years on – Faculty and staff at the September 2003 launch ceremony in Bukit Timah, prior to the completion of SMU’s urban campus in the civic district; a July 2023 reunion of the school’s start–up team (front row) and alumni from early cohorts.
The real fabric of Singapore
Something that surprised Steven about his work at SMU was how dramatically it broadened his understanding of Singapore.
“I visited numerous local schools to do admissions outreach, and spoke with many young people and their parents,” he says. “Through education, research, and community service efforts, I was able to get deeply involved with multiple parts of government, a wide range of companies, trade associations and professional groups, as well as many community associations, civil society groups and nonprofits.”
Outside of work, Steven and Patricia became ardent followers of local theatre. “My wife and I attended and supported The Necessary Stage, Wild Rice, Checkpoint Theatre, and Pangdemonium,” he shares, praising these companies’ fresh and nuanced takes on social, cultural and political issues that may not be discussed in the local mass media.
For around a decade, Patricia also spent much of her time on volunteer work. With TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too), she helped support construction and shipyard migrant workers who encounter issues with salary payments or accident coverage.
“We formed such deep relationships and felt integrated into many aspects of society,” Steven says. “Singapore became home. We weren’t visiting. When people asked us, ‘Where do you live?’ the answer was, ‘We live here.’”
For newcomers to the city, he highly recommends getting involved in local causes and communities. “There are really fabulous things to do that will enrich one’s sense of the real fabric of Singapore,” he says.
An enduring connection
In August 2023, the time came for Steven to head back to the States for good.
“The reason was one word: family,” he explains. “Our whole immediate family is in the US: our one remaining parent (my wife’s mother), our siblings, our children, and our first grandchild, who has just been born.” Currently, he is visiting loved ones in various cities before deciding where to settle.
“My personal email username, I kid you not, is ‘stevensingapore’. And I’m not going to change it,” he proclaims. “Which is to say: I might have physically departed the geography of Singapore, but I will never lose that connection with Singapore. It’s just too deep in so many ways.”
In recent years, he has written extensively about AI applications in Singapore, including reports on digital government and public sector healthcare, as well as a book of regional industry case examples – co-authored by Thomas Davenport – called Working with AI. Likewise, his consulting and advisory work in AI and digital transformation has straddled the public (Synapxe, Urban Redevelopment Authority) and private (Changi Airport Group, Certis Centre for Applied Intelligence, ASEAN Financial Innovation Network) domains.
Although Steven now resides in the US, some of these advisory roles continue. “The teams I work with know I’m there as a reviewer, coach and mentor, and I’m not there to evaluate them,” he says. “It’s bringing learning into the everyday task of doing the work. I love that way of helping people, more so than classroom-based teaching.”
The growth of tech and AI
Singapore’s AI budget may be small compared with those of far larger nations, yet Steven points out that its focus on scaling experimentation and deployments is remarkable. “Many countries and global firms realise that this is the place to get accelerated experience cycles in AI,” he says.
As government AI initiatives sweep across the city-state, impacting everything from border security to job matching to personalised education, the entire ecosystem’s bar for best practices is constantly being raised. In the private sector, banks like DBS are becoming increasingly data-driven, and new functions in industries like building and manufacturing that weren’t economically viable or technically feasible before are getting enabled by AI.
“Not to mention, all four research-intensive universities in Singapore have strong programmes in AI education and research. They are producing the manpower and spurring deep R&D and IP creation,” he says. “In addition, the national umbrella effort called AI Singapore has created a world-leading example with their AI Apprenticeship Programme that has trained more than 300 apprentices in the past five years.”
As with the realm of AI, Steven says Singapore’s wider tech scene is flourishing and drawing global talent.
“Don’t even spend time worrying about the opportunities,” is his advice for those considering a career in Singapore. “The investment money is here. The startups are here. The public and private sectors are both moving aggressively in digitalisation and AI applications. Even if you don’t exactly know which part of that ecosystem you’re going to be in, if you have the opportunity to come here to work, don’t hesitate.”
While the quality of Singapore’s living and working environment is no cause for concern, he highlights two practical arrangements one should be mindful of: housing that aligns with your salary or benefits, and suitable international schools if you have children.
“And if you can tick off workable solutions to those two boxes, then come do it. You will not regret it. It will be a fabulous experience.”
Steven is Professor Emeritus of Information Systems at the Singapore Management University. He was the founding dean of the University’s School of Computing and Information Systems for more than 13 years. He now focuses on consulting and advisory work related to AI applications and deployments, digital transformation, and organisational learning.
Connect with him here.