Juliana Chua: Start Doing, Start Innovating

With work experiences across the world in the US, China, Japan, India, the UK and Singapore, Juliana Chua was recently awarded the Digital Leader of the Year at the Women in IT Awards Asia.

We caught up with the Head of Digital Transformation at NTUC Income to find out about women in the digital space and how her personal curiosity to connect the dots that don’t yet exist keeps her on the path of innovation.

What’s a typical day for you at work?

My day starts with a daily stand-up with the project team where each member provides a quick update via a kanban board about what they have completed the day before, what they will be doing today and if there is any blocker that is in their way.

I park checking of emails in between meetings, and post 7pm where I get more heads-down time and dedicate office hours towards huddles and problem solving with team members to discuss project approach and project velocity of our portfolio.

With multiple digital transformation projects running in parallel, everyday seems like a different day with new challenges.

How did you get into the digital space?

I started my career with IBM who held patent leadership globally, and I was part of the Intellectual Property (IP) Law department in the UK. IP is key to an innovation economy and at IBM, digital technologies were the core of my portfolio where I got to appreciate how inventions could be protected via patents.

Post IBM, I returned to Singapore, joined an Australian-based IP law firm (Spruson and Ferguson), and specialised in technology intelligence through patent analytics for digital media technologies. After Spruson, I joined A*STAR through an EDB programme and expanded my patent management portfolio to cover digital media, speech recognition, computer imaging, AI, data mining and network security.

From the protection of innovation at IBM, Spruson, and A*STAR, I wanted to move into a different space to create and deliver innovation into the hands of consumers.

I joined a Japanese MNC (Nitto Denko) and delved into the space of medical technology via optical sensing. Within 3 years, we spun off a start-up (Zensorium) and launched a consumer health monitor for smartphones. It got sold into over 30 countries worldwide and received various international awards for its innovation in the digital health/fitness.

I then joined my second start-up (RunSocial) for its innovation in mixed reality, gaming and digital fitness.

To sum it up, that was how I got into the digital space. What keeps me going is a personal curiosity to embrace ambiguity during the path of innovation and connect the dots that don’t yet exist. I think that keeps life interesting.

Tell us about NTUC Income’s transformation journey.

I joined Income’s Digital Transformation Office (DTO) in late 2017 and head the programme to digitise our core businesses. What intrigued me to join was the pairing of business-focused strategies with rapid development models and delivering via cross-departmental collaboration. Depending on the scale and number of projects I’m leading, the team size can vary between 3 to 50.

As part of digitising core business by DTO, Income has announced the following to date, with others to follow later in the year

In January 2018: Enable our health insurance to be available for purchase online and allow claims for pre- and post-hospitalisation bills to be done through the portal.

In February 2019: Initiated our FutureX Staycation Case Competition (Staycase) for tertiary students. Over 600 tertiary students from SMU, NUS, NTU, SUTD have signed up since, and the programme goes live in August 2019 with a select group of teams.

In April 2019: Announced our strategic collaboration with the tech-arm of China’s online-only insurer ZhongAn to develop innovative digital insurance.

In May 2019: Announced Singapore’s most comprehensive suite of life insurance online and digital advisory for a direct insurance to consumer’s experience.

What obstacles do workers face in adopting a digital mindset?

Companies are increasingly utilising technology to transform and manage efficiency, collaboration and overall operations. The barrier is to constantly challenge how things are done and perform in the present day, recognise possible ways to mitigate gaps from a user lens, and problem solve with a team to bring solutions with speed to market.

How do you see workers embracing technology at the changing workscape?

Today’s work has been reshaped by the technologies that have emerged. Embracing technology at a changing workscape can take place by: start doing, start innovating; form a dedicated innovation team to create value to lead the movement and build a culture; generate solutions at a faster pace; go agile, reduce product lifecycles, accelerate adoption and differentiate from competitors; improve communication; and bridge the chasm between business and tech.

The idea of being swept away in digital transformation can be daunting. How should workers tackle that?

Digital transformation is about technology and people, innovation and disruption, and integration of technology together with up-skilling of our workforce. I see digital transformation as a blended approach of business and organisation activities to accelerate impact and actively future proof itself for disruption.

Tackling digital transformation can include being involved/exposed to the ideation work, and take upon a digital mindset of how can things be done in our highly digitised lifestyles today. Everything starts from an idea. Start somewhere and be comfortable in not knowing an answer.

What are your interests outside of work?

Outside of work, I’m into basketball, cycling, swimming and indoor climbing for sports. I have also taken a liking to collecting vinyl records and resin/vinyl designer toys. Traveling is also something that I enjoy. Exploring new terrain provides an unknown and allows me to develop new ways of learning/reinforcing life skills. I’ve travelled to over 35 countries and continue to look forward to seeing life through new experiences.

How have roles at the workplace changed with the advent of digital transformation and technology disruption?

With the advent of digital transformation, new roles such as visualisers and designers, content strategists, design researchers, product owners, scrum masters have surfaced to prioritise customer experience and execute agile projects.

Can help us understand what is design thinking and agile methodology?

Design thinking has a human centred core, a process for problem solving, and comprise a structured plan to understand Innovation. The 5 stages associated with it are: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test – focus on the people we are creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes.

Agile methodology on the other hand, is an alternative to project management and possesses a flexibility to allow changes in development requirements even after the completion of the initial planning.

A key question when we create a solution for a business need should start with what the human need behind it is. The final product should thus be desirable for whom we are solving it for, coupled with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. A good blend of design thinking and agile will thus place customers at its core of development and enable minimum viable products with speed to market.

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