Money made simple with Technology: An interview with Chief Technology Officer of Singlife, Ned Lowe

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Accessibility, affordability, convenience, and transparency, these are the pillars that Singlife stands on in their mission to help you unlock the potential of your money.

This is all done by using technology and automation to make insurance digital, simple, and affordable to everyone.

In this Ask Me Anything (AMA) interview, we sat down with Singlife’s Chief Technology Officer, Ned Lowe, and received some awesome insights on what it’s like to be a CTO at Singlife, and also some useful tips that he has gotten from his career.

Money made simple with technology: An interview with Chief Technology Officer of Singlife, Ned Lowe

Tell us about a day in your life as the CTO of Singlife?

At the moment there isn’t really a typical day. The ongoing merger with Aviva Singapore has led to a very broad range of challenges and opportunities, as well as the coming together of many new people.

Most of my time is spent working with the rest of the management team in crafting what the combined organisation will look like - but that’s far from a linear process.

My background is technical, but most of my current work is more organisational in nature.  However, I view organisations as essentially just distributed systems, with the same issues around resource optimisation, throughput, single points of failure, error rates, etc. 

Of course the people inside the organisation are more than just parts though!

What is the working and engineering culture like at Singlife? 

I’m a big fan of decentralisation and pushing decision making into the hands of the people closest to the problem. This is reflected in the culture. 

As we continue to come together with Aviva Singapore, thinking “like a startup” is very important to me.

How do you ensure that your team is motivated daily to carry out their tasks at Singlife?

Most people are inherently motivated.  No-one joins a company because they don’t want to work hard on something important. 

People become demotivated due to not being able to see the results of their efforts, or thinking that the work they are doing is unimportant

So I reframe this question as “How do you ensure that your team does not become demotivated?

Simple: set people up for success on important goals, then get distractions out of their way so they can move quickly.

What do you look for more when hiring for talent?people skills, or technical skills? 

Technical skills are a given - or at least the capacity to learn them in the case of a junior. People skills are the differentiator

I guess that means that I am looking more for technical skills!  But technical people who can’t communicate and establish buy-in are going to have a hard time.

What makes a good resume stand out from the rest?

A candidate that has some kind of public presence - whether that is a blog, a GitHub account, articles, anything - will always catch my eye.

Firstly, it gives me insight into how the person thinks and communicates.  Secondly, it shows passion for the topic, and i’m looking for passionate people.

You’ve spent a large portion of your career with Merrill Lynch, what made you make the switch to explore more opportunities in start-ups?

Bank of America Merrill Lynch is a great company, and I enjoyed my time there. But being in any giant enterprise has particular characteristics which are right for some people, and not for others. 

Reid Hoffman talks about the stages of a company based on its size in “Blitzscaling”: a family (<10), a tribe (10s), a village (100s), a city (1000s), a nation (10,000s)

Each has its own pros and cons, and knowing which is the best fit for you is one of the most important factors to being happy in your career.

What’s the main difference in the engineering cultures between working in an organization such as Merrill Lynch vs working in a startup?

There were teams at BAML that had a strong engineering culture that felt a bit like the culture I have experienced in a startup, so sometimes it’s not that much different. 

However, the impact of the work is much higher in a startup: the highs are higher, and the lows are lower

It’s like taking the training wheels off your bike, or taking cotton wool out of your ears.  You feel more alive.

What was the toughest moment in your career?

There have been many tough moments.  I try not to dwell on them - every experience is part of the path that led me to where I am today.

When is one thing that you’ve learnt in the beginning of your career that still applies to your work today?

Clear communication cuts through the noise. I love to write, and when you effectively articulate your ideas, people will either rally to them or give a good reason why the idea is sub-optimal. 

Endless meetings or presentations with no depth give the impression of hard work, but don’t actually move you any closer to your goals

The only issue is that not everyone is willing to spend the effort to read and internalise, which is why being in the right company with the right culture is important.

What are some of the challenges you face when setting up, scaling and managing the engineering team in Singlife?

I think the same challenges that every technical manager faces: how to hire the best talent, how to structure the organisation, and how to engage the business.

I think the hardest challenge is how to create effective cross-functional product teams, especially with people who haven’t operated in that environment before. 

Insurance is a traditional business, and many people won’t have been exposed to the techniques and approaches used by tech-led organisations. 

So for a cross-functional product team to be successful, it requires a bit of mindset shift.

Singlife has merged with Aviva last year - what kind of impact has that had on engineering?

From a pure workload perspective, then a lot of the effort has been on integrating the technologies and platforms

But the real impact is one around culture and approach

I am very proud of the team and super excited to see how the combined entity will form a modern engineering approach to taking Singlife even further.

You are also an Adjunct lecturer at NUS. What was the motivation behind this decision?

I have always enjoyed teaching and technical communication in general. 

I think it’s a hugely under-appreciated skill.  It also helps me clarify my own thinking on the topic (“Digital Architecture”); as the saying goes, if you want to master something - teach it.

So I get as much out of those sessions as I hope the students do! 

How do you think school can better prepare students for engineering in the real world?

To some extent, school will never fully prepare students for the real world - there is no compression algorithm for experience

That said (and you’re probably noticing the recurring theme here!), I think they could do more around technical communication and negotiation skills. 

Being able to articulate and convince other people of your ideas is probably at least 30% of your job, but given less than 5% of the time at university.

Singlife has been really successful in transforming the traditional finance and insurance industry. What is the key behind this success?

There is no ‘key’ to success, if there was we’d all be successful. 

However, you can maximise your probability of success by trying out lots of ideas and seeing which ones work, and quickly killing those that don’t

This is the basis of evolution, and so we evolve into a successful organisation - or we die. 

That same principle can be applied to enterprises: stop trying to undergo a ‘digital transformation’ and start trying to undergo a ‘digital evolution’.

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