Cover (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Asia)

Cally Chan reflects on her rise through the male-dominated tech world and how she’s empowering others as GM of Microsoft Hong Kong and Macau

Welcome to Upfront With, where we get real with groundbreaking women about their career paths and what it takes to do what they do

Hong Kong born and bred, Cally Chan comes from a traditional family with three brothers. “At that time, most people think that boys are more important,” says Chan. But she excelled academically and her mother saw her potential. “Even though we were not well off, my mum supported me.”

Math was Chan’s strong suit and she was intrigued by computer science. It was such a new area that there were no guarantees of a good job. Although Chan was deviating from the classic career goals—doctor, lawyer, accountant—her mother was again supportive. “I am so grateful to my mum,” says Chan, “she said, ‘okay, pursue what you are strong at.’”

That philosophy paid off for Chan who secured a job as an engineer at a multinational IT company after graduating from Hong Kong University. Initially, she just wanted to leverage her strengths and try new things, but over time she grew ambitious to become a leader who could influence the future through technology.  

Now, as the general manager of Microsoft for Hong Kong and Macau, Chan is working to drive digital transformation and empower others. She shares her story below. 

An early lesson in self-reliance and equality

After one year on the job, I needed to deliver a technical training class for my customer. Back then the computer is so big, we call it a workstation. It’s like an old-style television, extremely heavy. I needed to set up the classroom by myself and I’m not too big, so I was thinking, my male colleagues will help me. But in the end, no one did, and I still had to move that very heavy computer.

Looking back, I appreciate it because it means that when I started my career, there was no discrimination. if everything is equal, then it is equal opportunity; we shouldn’t expect special advantages or support.

On proving my value in the male IT circle

In 2008, I saw a chance to accelerate my career by becoming a managing director at Hewlett Packard. I knew it wouldn’t be easy because the majority of those leaders were men. While my boss wanted to give me a chance, he cautioned that if I couldn’t hold my own in this male inner circle, he wouldn’t be able to appoint me. So first he gave me a challenge: he nominated me as a council member of the Hong Kong Computer Society.

I thought: how can I contribute and make this group realise my value? I started organising activities and sharing my opinions—a perspective they never would think of. In the end, they accepted me and my learning was that you need to move out of your comfort zone and focus on your value. You can still be yourself; don’t think you need to change yourself to become a man.

I became MD in 2010 and about five years later I set up FACE Club (“Female Attract Connect and Engage”) within the Computer Society; it’s the first-ever female focused club in the IT community.

See also: How Women Can Thrive In Male-Dominated Spaces

My leadership style: E to the power of 3

In this mathematical formula, the first e is empathise, the second is engage, the third is empower. It’s important for us to have empathy so that we can better understand different people’s perspectives. Then if you really would like to understand and see how you can help, it’s important for you to engage. In the end, it’s important for you to empower.

My definition of success is not about individual success. It’s not that as a leader you need to be very strong and lead from the beginning to the end. For me as a leader, what’s more important is how we can create a platform to allow people to deliver their best because at the end it’s not about individual success, it’s about team success.

See also: Women’s Success: 7 Quotes From Michelle Yeoh, Catherine Renier, and Joanna Hotung


Supporting inclusion: “it’s not only women’s responsibility”

We encourage everyone to support diversity and inclusion; we need allyship from males as well. In the end, why will they support? Because they see the value. If they’re passionate about the tech, and how tech can shape the future, if they want to create a more healthy talent ecosystem, they need to support inclusivity.

Women only make up about 20 per cent of the tech industry, and how men and women think and what they like are different. So if you want to create something to fit the world population, then it’s important to have similar demographics so that we can create technology that fits everyone’s needs.

My strategy for reaching gender parity

I’m quite pleased that at Microsoft, 40 per cent of employees are female and close to 50 per cent of my leadership team is female. That’s intentional. Whenever we make a succession plan, we request a female as one of the candidates. And when we have new hires, we need a female in the final round interviews so that they have equal opportunity for consideration. Of course, in the end, we still select the right candidate by talent.

Now is a golden moment for women to go into the tech field because a lot of tech companies are looking to acquire capable women.  

See also: Tips For How To Reenter The Workforce With Confidence

What makes my work in tech so rewarding

Last February we had an extreme shortage of masks. Companies like HKTV Mall stepped up to manufacture masks locally but they faced a challenge in scaling their ecommerce platform. They came to Microsoft: can you help us to set up a mask registration site in one week’s time? I’m proud that we made it happen for them.  

We also helped small restaurants transform to be able to provide online ordering and delivery and enabled more than 50 per cent of primary and secondary schools to run a classroom on the cloud. It makes me excited and motivated when I can empower Hong Kong and future talent.

Microsoft has been in Hong Kong for 30 years, and more than 90 per cent of Hang Seng companies are already using the Microsoft Cloud. In 2020, for the first time in company history, CEO Satya Nadella joined our annual conference virtually. He affirmed that he supports our local mission to empower future talent and that Microsoft will continue to invest in Hong Kong, with a new data centre opening this year.

Why I encourage a “growth mindset in action” culture

What I mean by that is continuous learning because we believe that in the current dynamic environment, nobody can dare claim they know everything. It’s a philosophy that we need to always focus on learning and how we can be better and move out of our comfort zone.  

I also believe it is important to put myself in an ecosystem that can connect demand and supply, and luckily Microsoft provides me that environment. We are on the supply side; we have leadership in technology, cloud computing, and AI. On the other side, I connect with my customers and partners, who always have a lot of unfulfilled needs. Most innovation comes from unfulfilled needs.

The meaning of my ABC success factor

A for ambition, because I believe that everybody needs to have an ambition. If I start from my ambition, even if at the end I’m not 100 per cent fulfilled, 80 per cent is already better than average and shows progression.

B for balance because I believe that life is not only about career; we have our family, our wellness and our friends. Every day, if possible, unless I have very early meetings, I do yoga as a refreshing, beautiful start to the day.

C for change because change will always create some discomfort, but there’s always a bright side. Focus on how we can capture the opportunity and the upside to stay energised and positive.

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My advice for young women starting out

They need to understand that technology is shaping our future and it’s an industry for everyone. The second thing is women need to dial up their digital skillset to have some understanding of AI, big data, and cloud computing. I expect digital skills will be as important as language skills as time moves on.

And if people ask, what should be your focus? I think back to being a teenager and my mother’s approach: Be bold, be yourself, and focus on your interest. Everything can be successful if it is your passion.

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