Previously, NEC followed the pattern adopted by many multinationals which specialise in products based on the latest technology. The company did most of its research and development (R&D) work at corporate headquarters. More recently, though, the situation has changed and new roles have been created. Riding on the development and its sales and marketing activities, technology and system enhancement are being localised to fit for the demand of the market.
"We have been transformed to become a system integrator, committed to providing business solutions for the government and enterprise customers," says Ray Cheung, deputy general manager of business solutions and services for NEC Hong Kong. "It requires a large team of software engineers for product development."
Essentially, this involves two types of software specialists. One has to turn concepts based on new technology into marketable products. "For example, we have used facial recognition technology developed in Tokyo to create an access control device for the security market," Mr Cheung says. He stresses that, in such cases, the main contribution of Hong Kong software engineers is to repackage technology to come up with a finished product that meets market demand.
The other kind of software specialist focuses on developing solutions. This usually involves taking off-the-shelf products and adapting them as necessary to comply with the requirements of individual customers. Whatever the role, it takes technical expertise, initiative, market knowledge and at least three years' relevant experience in order to succeed.
Mr Cheung began his own career as a telecom engineer and has now been with NEC Hong Kong for close to 20 years. Starting out as a member of the technical team, much of his first 10 years were spent handling duties which ranged from product installation and project planning to commissioning and technical support.
"We have been transformed to become a system integrator"
Later, as a result of corporate restructuring, he was asked to move on to a position in sales and business development. As someone who is naturally outgoing and enjoys dealing with people, he was more than happy with the change of direction.
"I was not a typical engineer and had been used to dealing with customers," he explains, while admitting that life as a salesman brought new challenges and was more stressful. His switch, though, was later to prove an example for other engineers who moved from development roles into project management or sales and marketing.
These days, Mr Cheung is responsible for the company's business in Hong Kong and Macau. His technical team also has to support product development in Taiwan and China. To cope with everything, he splits his time more or less evenly between dealing with internal management issues and meeting external customers. His management philosophy is to maintain a high degree of transparency and to promote teamwork.
"I have open discussions with every team member and establish common goals, so that everyone is involved and committed," he explains. In doing this, his personal motto is not to be self-centred and always to go one step further. That, he believes, is essential for closing the gap between people and achieving ongoing success.
As the demands within the industry become greater, Mr Cheung thinks the next generation of engineers will have to work even harder and be ready to face difficulties with a positive attitude. He notes that over 90 per cent of NEC employees are university graduates and 30 per cent of the company's software engineers have not only a first degree in computer science but also a master's degree. Each of them also has specialist technical expertise and, nowadays, must have good communication and presentation skills and be able to provide tailor-made solutions to meet a customer's requirements.
Mr Cheung has found that the greatest job satisfaction is that "we build something from zero" and can create business value by applying technology. He also still enjoys the technical and practical challenges that engineers continually face, meaning that they must have the most up-to-date technical expertise and market knowledge in order to meet tight deadlines for project delivery.
According to Mr Cheung, NEC's engineers may have to spend up to 10 per cent of their work hours on projects in the mainland or elsewhere in Asia. The opportunities for longer-term overseas assignments are also likely to increase in the years ahead. "They are mainly senior roles on the large projects," he says. "The remuneration packages are comparable to levels in Hong Kong and, even if there is some difference, people can enjoy a good standard of living in China because the costs are much lower." However, Mr Cheung points out that there are still tremendous opportunities for IT experts in Hong Kong. "All industries from logistics to banking and finance require the support of IT specialists," he says. "Therefore, we're confident about the prospects for the industry as the economy continues to grow."