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John Lombard, CEO of NTT APAC, reflects on the lessons he’s learned in business and tech

He believes we can do more for women in tech, and that blockchain and cryptocurrencies are just the start of something exciting.

“No matter how far technology goes, it will always be there underpinning and supporting our day-to-day lives. Nothing can change human interaction,” says John Lombard, CEO of NTT Asia Pacific, a global technology services company that emerged in July 2019 from the merger of 31 disparate businesses into a single entity.

Lombard, who also co-founded #HeForShe for LeanInAsia and has lived in Singapore since 2014, shares with us his thoughts on women in technology, the future of talent in work, and the direction that the world is heading towards.

How has the industry changed from when you first started until now?

So much has changed since I started as a graduate. Now, there is far more diversity in the IT industry, whether it’s gender, culture, or accepting people with unique skill sets. There was a time when you could only work in the IT industry if you had a computer science degree or some specific qualification.

There have clearly been massive changes in technology. When I started, we measured the average project length in years. Now we measure it in weeks, meaning that the time to value and implement these changes is significantly faster today.

John Lombard in the NTT office.

John Lombard in the NTT office.

I also think that technology has become more accessible for companies. Getting a job in the IT industry was limited to working for larger consulting firms and companies earlier, but today it doesn’t matter what size the organisation is. Everybody needs these skills. There used to be a massive barrier to entry, which was around cost complexity. That has reduced significantly, and the industry today is far more exciting.

On that note, how have you seen the progress for women in tech?

When I studied IT in university, it was such a male dominated industry. Thankfully, there is greater gender diversity now. But we can be better.

Women bring a different perspective to problem solving. Bringing that together with people coming from different backgrounds and cultures will get you a much better outcome than just having a monoculture or mono gender group. I still think that we have a lot of room for improvement, and that is why I am involved in #HeForShe.

A part of that is unconscious bias in the workplace. Take the time to educate yourself on this topic and to understand that there are different behaviours when a group of men and women come together. For example, men can make time to make sure that they have listened to all the voices in a room and not just the louder or stronger ones.

Be aware that when different genders apply for different roles, women are harder markers on themselves than men about whether they have the skills for a role. Understanding those differences is key.

What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned in your journey?

A career is a marathon, not a sprint. There will always be changes in our industry. Think about your career as a long-term journey. Pace yourself appropriately and think about your mental and physical health.

Make sure that when you are in a position of authority and are hiring people, you always hire people who are smarter than you. Bring in talented and diverse people into the organisation and not those who sound or look like you.

Finally, do not be afraid of making mistakes. You learn more lessons from making them. You don’t have to focus on making everything perfect. Accept that you will make mistakes, but use it as a great management tool to learn, adjust, and move forward.

Dror Poleg wrote in a note that with the porous boundaries today, organisations are no longer restricted by geography when hiring, since remote work is so popular now. What is your take on this? And how does a company continue to attract and keep top talent, especially for smaller organisations?

It’s a fact that talent is everywhere and there are opportunities to bring people in remotely, especially for roles that do not need to be in the country you operate in. Yet, for certain roles in our industry, especially client-facing ones, you need people based locally.

Companies need to be open to bringing in people with diverse backgrounds to attract and keep top talent. I have seen architects, doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers and others from different backgrounds come into our industry. Be prepared to look outside the normal resource pool for people to come into the organisation and invest in talent.

There are also many who leave the workforce to start a family. Look at ways of bringing them back into the industry, while being open to re-skilling and retraining people who may have been out of the workforce for some time.

Most start-ups will not reach the level of success that companies like Google and Facebook have, but they offer great learning. They can capitalise on that nimbleness and provide opportunities for their employees to contribute in an entrepreneurial role. This creates an attractive value proposition for potential employees.

John Lombard speaking at SGX.

John Lombard speaking at SGX.

Where do you think the future of tech is going? And how can we prepare for it?

Everybody would love to know the answer to that question. The only thing I know is that whatever advancements we think we are making today, we cannot imagine what it will be like in a decade or more from now.

However, I certainly think that in the near term, AI machine learning will play an important role. Robotic process automation will become mainstream in business decision making. There is so much data being collected around the world now. Companies need to tap into this reservoir to make good decisions. It will become a critical area of growth and focus.

The other one is cyber security. The threats in this space will only grow and we need to make sure that we keep one step ahead of these illegal organisations and individuals to protect our clients and ourselves.

Personally, the role of blockchain and digital ledgers as a way of streamlining and transforming digital transactions has really surprised me the most.