Switching from working with people to working with machines might seem a misanthropic career move but, according to Jeannie Chiu, general manager of Systems Union Ltd., IT solutions management offers plenty of scope for interaction.
She started out by spending two years as a social worker, before returning to her studies to reconsider her options. "It was an emotionally tough time," says Ms Chiu of her previous career. "All the community work and the stresses that came with it were difficult to come to terms with in the beginning. After I left that field, I realised that if I could cope with that, I could certainly handle work in the private sector."
Ms Chiu opted for IT and secured employment with a PC software distributor for the venerable software package dBase before switching to a local IT company which developed and distributed software for trading companies. She then joined a systems marketer for IBM before coming to Systems Union, where she has spent the past 10 years.
"I did not know too much about IT management at the time," confesses Ms Chiu. "However, the fact that the job required good communications skills and someone able to propose solutions certainly sounded familiar to me."
Systems Union develops tailored software products for medium to large sized companies to streamline their accounting and inventory processes. Such products require a markedly different sales pitch to standard software packages.
"... pick up as much experience and knowledge as you can while you're young. It's always important to have a good attitude, especially in the current job market"
"Our role is to solve clients' business problems, rather than act simply as a vendor," says Ms Chiu, adding that, as a result, her office is not a specialist IT department. "We present our company's products as accounting, auditing, logistics or banking solutions. Understanding the client's IT requirements is essential, so some technical knowledge is required - though it is not necessary to be an expert."
Because of the type of client Systems Union deals with, Ms Chiu often hires former accounting or audit professionals - the same group to which the company is selling software solutions.
"Because they have a background in the business, they can empathise with clients and better understand what they need and what their reservations might be," explains Ms Chiu. "For our recruits, switching to IT marketing often represents a much-needed career change. Perhaps they enjoyed their accounting training and first few years' experience, but didn't want to be doing that for the next 30 years. This is a role that calls for more client interaction, more varied assignments and a wider range of projects to handle. It also means that that person's previous training and experience has not gone to waste. Many recruits also have an interest in computing, which naturally comes in handy in this line of work."
Given the likely background of IT management recruits, Ms Chiu says that a degree or other qualification in computer science is not a requirement and that employers tend to focus on candidates' soft skills set.
"We often look at a person's work experience and ask ourselves, 'Do they understand market realities and the workplace? Can they communicate effectively?'" comments Ms Chiu.
For new additions to the workforce who wish to chance their arm with other IT companies, Ms Chiu advises adopting an open-minded approach to their first job.
"Don't worry too much about how much you put into the company," she says. "Try not to think too much about what's in it for you and just pick up as much experience and knowledge as you can while you're young. It's always important to have a good attitude, especially in the current job market."
Systems Union has just opened a Shanghai office with about 20 to 30 staff, ranging from programmers and designers to sales and marketing personnel. However, for the Hong Kong-based IT professional, Ms Chiu is ambivalent about the benefits of a move north.
"Is it an opportunity? Yes and no," she says. "Communication is a major issue and not just the language barrier. To be a success in China, an executive has to very carefully manage his clients and accounts. Mainland clients have markedly different mindsets from their Hong Kong counterparts and this must be taken into account."
Ms Chiu says that the technical level of mainland staff is generally very good and that there is little difficulty in hiring skilled programmers or promising junior staff, although she adds that, at analyst or managerial level, it can be difficult to get good people.