With Sights Set on More Innovation

By Ong Wooi Leng, Lee Siu Ming

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KEYSIGHT TECHNOLOGIES, founded as Hewlett-Packard in 1939, established its presence in Bayan Lepas in 1972 with an initial total of 60 employees. Today, the 1.2 million sq ft facility is one of the core sites for the company globally; boasting more than 2,500 employees, the majority of them are professionals in business management, sales, support, marketing, manufacturing, research and development (R&D), supply chain and global infrastructure services.

Penang Monthly meets up with Datuk Gooi Soon Chai, senior vice president and president (Electronic Industrial Solutions Group) of Keysight Technologies, as he shares his views on Penang’s industrialisation journey, talent upgrading and the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.

The Industrialisation Journey

Penang was much sought after by investors as a low-cost manufacturing base in the 1970s, before the transition to a high-technology manufacturing hub took place. To move higher up the value chain, and by extension, to create higher value for the state, Gooi firmly believes that companies need to collaborate and enhance the industry’s ecosystem. He provides the analogy of planting a bonsai tree and letting it take root to cultivate strong partnerships: “While Keysight Penang has over 2,500 employees, the company’s relationship with its partners is estimated to be a wide-ranging network involving more than 10,000 collaborators. The different segments of involvement with our partners include precision machining, logistics and support, and consulting.”

Talent management is a crucial criterion for Keysight Penang’s journey in achieving breakthroughs in technology advancement. Photo: Keysight Technologies.

Keysight Penang also believes in overseas training of local leaders in their respective fields who, upon returning to Penang, will contribute to knowledge and development transfers. For example, the key person managing Keysight’s Automotive Solutions Centre in Detroit, Michigan – one of Keysight’s four automotive centres worldwide – is a Malaysian. Another R&D manager who is currently working on 5G software development in Spain also hails from Malaysia.

Foundations have been laid for the next wave of technological advancements such as 5G and artificial intelligence, but “when 5G rolls out, how brave will we be in taking up the challenge to partake in its development and application?” asks Gooi, adding that Penang would be an ideal ground for 5G deployment because of the strengthened connectivity between multinational corporations in Penang. “George Town makes for an excellent ground to test smart city elements. Similarly, Penang is an ideal state for incubating 5G applications, including for transportation and e-commerce; while the set-up of 5G infrastructure can also promote software and digital R&D here. If we want to see a car being developed by our customer in Germany, we need the same bandwidth to visualise the development for our R&D and software developments.”

Global Economic Climate and Innovative Developments

Gooi observes that the current challenges of the global economic climate are also expected to disrupt the global supply chain and create situations of technological polarisation. “The move will be towards a more nationalistic approach in developing technologies, which in itself is expected to disrupt the way innovation and technology develops. But assuredly, with devices so interconnected these days, there will still be a need for engagement, albeit to a certain extent.” The electrical and electronics industry has spurred the development of many local industry players in Penang and Malaysia. More companies are diversifying their supply chain to manage the risks of the current economic climate. “Building on this, there is opportunity for companies in Penang and Malaysia to benefit from production shifts and trade diversions given our industries’ capabilities,” he adds.

Assessing the Hiring Landscape

Talent management is a crucial criterion for Keysight Penang’s journey in achieving breakthroughs in technology advancement. More than ever, local companies are encouraged to equip their employees with a wider scope of skills, extending beyond the requirement of the companies themselves. “It is predicted that Keysight will continue to hire new employees despite the looming technological disruptions. However, the job profile of hiring will change dramatically,” says Gooi.

“Out of 2,500 employees, only 300 are currently production staff. The hiring in Keysight is now focused on knowledge workers, ranging from software developers and engineers to marketing personnel. Keysight is also working closely with several organisations to source for big data scientists, software designers, and professionals with knowledge on international trade laws.”

He also raised two inflection points in considering the challenges of introducing new technologies to employees. Firstly, as Penang is not a typical manufacturing hub, employees ought to be cognisant of the geo-political events happening within the ecosystem, and knowledge workers who are accountable to governance matters play a crucial role in this. The second focuses on the shake-up of the existing workforce precipitated by rapid technological shifts.

“The younger engineering workforce respond very well to this shift, but transformation of the managerial staff will be tougher. To me, there is a need for the local management to bring in value-add to drive the company; and to keep up with dynamic developments, the skills of the middle management staff will need to change as well. One such example is, we placed a manager of 15 years into new job functions by sending him out for training in other countries.”

Towards Greater STEM Interest

Anecdotal evidence suggests that secondary school students who opt for the science stream are not necessarily interested in pursuing a career in the sciences upon graduation. A common reason for this disinterest, Gooi says, is that although many students perceive science and technology as interesting subjects of study; as a career, however, it can be drab.

“We invite students to Keysight for field visits and mentorship programmes to expose them to the high technology working environment and to further stimulate their interest,” he explains, adding that more school-industry partnerships are vital. “Students who are good in mathematics and science form the main target group, in that we can encourage them to do more internships or short-term placements with the industry, e.g. a week-long crash course shadowing an engineer is a good start in learning the ropes.

“Our education system is centred on subject-based learning, with limited practical application. One university that I think we should take as a model for our local universities is the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). Unlike traditional universities, SUTD is the only one that emphasises cross-disciplinary learning, with only 30% of the courses being conducted in classrooms. The remaining 70% are based on application work and internship programmes. An architecture graduate, for instance, must be able to utilise technology in their drawings; or when designing an automated car, the student needs to also have knowledge about city planning. Penang can be a good incubator, and it is important that the talents we train have a strong multi-disciplinary background.”

Keysight Penang is also actively involved in the state’s public-private-professional-people (4P) partnership, lending strong backing to the Penang Digital Library and the Penang Science Café, a makerspace at the Penang Science Cluster; and is keen to have greater involvement in more of such initiatives.

Ong Wooi Leng

heads the Socioeconomics and Statistics Programme at Penang Institute. Her work lies in labour market analysis and socio-economic development.

Lee Siu Ming

is a senior analyst at Penang Institute, and believes in the Latin phrase Audi alteram partem, loosely translated as “Listen to the other side".