Wing K. Lee
February 24, 2010
Intercontinental Hotel Kuala Lumpur
CEO Series 21 – Wing K. Lee, CEO, YTL Communications
Writing credits: Chen Chow Yeoh
Live blogging from the venue.
Wing was born and raised in Hong Kong. Grew up alone with mother. Mother was small print shop owner, and she went to see clients and Wing would go together. In 1980s, the clients would have a computer, and it is more of showing off.
Back then, his mother bought an Apple for Wing, and what Wing did was playing games. And after approached by his mother, Wing then started to use computer for actual learning. That was in Form 4 in Hong Kong.
In Form 6 in Hong Kong, his mother asked what he wanted to study, and Wing said photography, and just like any Chinese mum, his mother said that he had to pay on his own. So, eventually he went on 2nd choice of Computer Science.
Wing chose the colleges in US, which offer computer science curriculum. University of Texas, Austin was one of the top programs. He applied for University of California, Berkeley, Brown, University of Minnesota and University of Washington, besides Texas, Austin. He got acceptance to all 5 of the universities. Brown, Minnesota and Washington are not his choice due to weather. Then, he was left with 2 options.
Choosing between Texas and Berkeley, and he heard that big earthquake would happen in San Francisco, so he dropped Berkeley and chose Texas, Austin. That was such his frank sharing on how he actually chose his universities.
Back then, his first job was janitor. And today, Wing really respected the janitors. He learned hard and always reminded himself to be humble and learn the value of money. Later on, he was promoted to lab assistant job, and then took up teaching assistant job.
He worked very hard, and carried 18 to 20 credit hours per semester. Nevertheless, the tough time was also the memorable time.
He graduated in 1989. When one goes for US visa interview and the question of whether you would stay in US is being asked, the answer is always no, or else you won’t get your visa. And Wing back then did truthfully answered no, when he was asked back in 1986.
In June 1989, when Wing was hiking in Canadian Rocky mountains, and on 4th June 1989, Tiananmen Square incident happened, and Wing’s mother asked him to find ways to stay in US.
Wing’s mother lost her father due to communist and Wing’s mother had to be refugee in Hong Kong. So, she advised Wing to stay in US, so that he could have better life and eventually, Wing decided to stay in US.
Wing then picked up his 2nd degree in Business Management, and when he is done, it was recession in US. Fortunately, Wing managed to get 20+ interviews and he was given 4 offers. He chose 1, JC Penney, which is the largest retailer in US.
One of the offers is Tandem Computers, another is Mobil Oil and Halliburton. Halliburton asked Wing to build a Computer-based training. Mobil Oil asked to help on building system. Tandem Computers was mainly used in financial institution and Wing was asked to help in operating system.
In 1989, US has this new “strip malls”, where it is row of shops along a mall, and it grabbed market share from bigger players. For retailers, having scale is one thing, but fast reaction is important. Thought that he can helped a company to restructure, so Wing joined JC Penney as management trainee.
Back then, he has to learn a new programming language – COBOL, and he realized that university education teaches him to be adaptive and able to learn something fast. He was able to help JC Penney to launch JCL within 20 months of joining. A lesson learned from here is that a company always needs to learn to reinvent itself.
If you deliver on business promise, people will reward you, but people may not continue to reward you all the time. So, you have to reinvent.
2 years later, Wing approached the HR of the company to apply for Green Card. But they can’t, as they have to advertise in 1,500 outlets, and to show that no American is qualified. So, Wing had to look elsewhere, although his supervisors there were very supportive of Wing. Wing has delivered a lot of value to his computer, so they valued his contribution.
Wing spent 15 years at Sprint. He chose to get into Sprint, as it was looking to reinvent itself. Sprint was the first to launch the fiber optic network. Wing was tapped for his skill in distributed network and messaging system. This time, he got them to put in offer letter to help him to get green card.
Back then, when Sprint got problem, they would called Accenture (management consulting company). So, when Wing joined Sprint, 80 people in the office were from Andersen Consulting. So, Wing was asked to report to Accenture guy too, and back then, there was an Andersen Consulting partner in the board of directors too.
A good architect is someone who knows the whole landscape. Back then, there was a lot of hierarchy too in Sprint. Wing lives the notion of life of always ask “What can I do”. Wing has a list of task list, and he gets it done quickly and at high quality, and then he offers help to others. People would reciprocate, and help him too. So, whenever Wing puts his name on anything, it has better be very good. So, he would always make sure that it is the best thing that he can deliver.
Started out as Software Engineer 2, and within 2 years, he became Manager of the team. Wing became Director of Sprint at age of 29, and was the youngest director there.
Wing has 9 patents, and they were filed in late 1990s and early 2000s, and he still had 20+ in the pipeline. The entire process of getting patents would take about 5 years in US. Patent system is also quite abused, where a lot of people file it, just to provide defensive or offensive mechanism. So, there is something wrong about it. Wing only filed a patent, when he managed to solve a real problem.
Wing used to spend a lot of money to call home, during his time at University of Texas, Austin. So, when he got the chance to move to Sprint’s headquarter, he took the opportunity, as he was charged to work on wireless network.
In 2001, high speed internet means 80 kilo bit per second, so back then, to stream the picture, is still very slow. And it cost USD2 billion worth of investment, and the picture is still look pixelized. Wireless network can never compete with wired line, purely on speed, so have to fight on other competitive landscape. That was a turning point.
Back then, he made pilgrimage trip to Japan, as it was still the technology hub. In Japan, people started take photo and made it into wallpaper. So, Wing found an area to look into using wireless network to move picture.
Wing they all went to the guy who wrote Turbo C++ and Turbo Pascal, Philippe Kahn. Philippe has sold off Borland, and became millionaire. And he had a baby. Philippe has built a prototype of transferring photo, and Sprint wanted to commercialize it. So, the value that wireless can provide is that one can take a photo and then send across the network within seconds. Picture Mail product charged USD5 per month and need data plan which cost USD10 per month. It was the biggest phenomenal success of the company.
So, the breakthrough paradigm is to cross-link two different fields and bring value. Software brings life to things. The company was growing very fast then, and the fastest growth in wireless history.
Sprint was the first one to launch J2ME game in mobile device. Mobile video was launched too.
Through these exercises, Wing was asked to head the innovation team. So, he went from infrastructure, and then architecture and then innovation. This was the first 3 of the 5 jobs in Sprint.
Wing led the innovation team of Sprint for 5 years, and it was very satisfactory.
Sprint looked at various technologies post 3G. And that’s how Sprint launched his career into Wimax. Next generation CDMA upgrade definitely makes sense, but Sprint made the bold decision of not upgrading to CDMA. The royalty of CDMA is quite high, and Sprint’s goal is to democratize internet. What got them excited about Wimax is the ecosystem, and it is the IEEE technology. When a technology is an IEEE technology, it can scale easily. That’s how people can do plug and play, and cost will go down and people will pick up.
Sprint then merged with Nextel, and a big mistake is that they didn’t take good care of the customers of the acquired entity. Sprint lost their mindshare, and they started to churn, and then people started to cut cost.
So, Wimax operation has to be scaled back due to operations issue. Wing was leading the product development team of Wimax. Sprint has to spinoff Wimax business and merged with Clearwire, and then go into clearwire company.
Andy Rubin started Android, and he loved robotics, so he created Android, using his name and his love of robotics for the company name. He went into Google to ask them to invest in his company, and Eric Schmidt heard the pitch and offered to buy at a cost of about USD80 Million.
Andy Rubin had the blank check from Google, and he invested hundreds of millions to buy the best applications. Wing was doing the due diligence on Android and brings Sprint on board.
On why WiMAX was chosen as the platform to deliver Malaysia’s mobile network, Wing highlighted that it is the only technology that can deliver it at the right cost. LTE is not yet a matured technology and yet the royalty is very high, and hence, it might be difficult to deliver in the right price.
Wing was instrumental in delivering the 1st 4G network on Android at Clearwire.
In Summer 2008, the government of China created Thousand Talents program, where it tried to attract top talents to ensure that China’s state-owned enterprise, universities, research laboratories and space programs can be world class and compete globally.
Wing was then headhunted to lead the Innovation Team at China Mobile, which has 500 Million subscribers (even more than total US population), and Wing has this opportunity to change the experience of 500 Million people.
Then, he got a call from YTL Director, and he came to visit Malaysia. He found it very interesting, where the country has very poor connectivity, and yet YTL is a company with strong resources and determination.
Wing had a hard time deciding on whether to go to China or Malaysia, and the book “Clock Speed” influenced him. In that book, it talked about how fast things are changing, and Wing believed that being at YTLe would enable him to bring fast transformation to large group of people and improve people lives faster.
In Malaysia, only 25% of people are connected to internet, yet the average age is 26. The people here know the power of internet, but can’t really enjoy the connection experience. So, Wing sees this opportunity to make impact at national scale immediately, and improving people’s lives.
For Clearwire, it won’t be able to launch nationwide in less than 2 years in US and to launch for whole of US would cost more than USD5 billion, but Wing can do that in Malaysia in shorter time and also at a cost of USD850 Million. Wing lamented on the very slow uploading speed of 60 kbps that many people experience here in Malaysia.
The WiMAX experience is not just to connect people with internet, but to enable people to have applications that satisfy their social needs.
For this WiMAX, YTLe is working with 3 world top player in it. For IP Backbone, it is working with Cisco. For wireless network, it is working with Samsung. For WiMAX chipset, it is with GCT, and YTLe just made a commitment order of 1 million devices and it is the largest acquisition in the world, and with this economy of scale, it would drive down the prices.
On expansion to other countries, Wing planned to do it very well at its homeground in Malaysia, before looking to expand it elsewhere. Talking about internet, it is really about getting developers to make it happen. With internet, it is equal opportunity for everyone, and to really make it possible, especially with mobile internet.
Wing also introduced mYprize, which offers USD1 Million as prizes for incentives of 4G applications, devices or ideas. It offers USD120,000 prize money for Malaysians anywhere in the world too. So, hopefully, this can tap on the talents of Malaysians globally, as well as other talents to get involved.
The soft launch of YTLe WiMAX would be in Q3 2010, and nationwide commercial launch would be in Q4 2010.
Wing promised that YTLe WiMAX would be a new experience and customers would reciprocate with the support. While Wing did not disclose the pricing or package of WiMAX, he promised that there would be surplus value for the users. He talked about the 20 Mbps network that he had in US, and hopefully soon, Malaysians can enjoy similar or even better network.
Wing shared on Clayton’s book of “Innovators’ Dilemma” and “Innovators’ Solution”, and he said that it is good that YTLe is brand new, so there won’t be legacy issue behind. With legacy, there might be inertia to move. And to make it work, it needs disruptive innovation. He cited Intel Centrino as a way for Intel to reinvent itself. It created a lower cost low-end product, that undercut itself, but it allows Intel to grow market share.
One of the issues of 3G was that the network was used to cater for voice and data, but for 4G, it would be packet based and used to carry data.
While AT&T enjoyed a great exclusive partnership with iPhone, the huge amount of data that iPhone used took a toll on AT&T network, which affected the call quality.
Wing shared a few tips with the audience, where he talked about working very hard and always producing the best. He talked about having mentors and also reading a lot. One good resources would be iTunes applications, where a lot of top universities resources are available. He talked about ability to have platform to bring idea to the world, and among the largest developers’ network are Microsoft, Java and Adobe Flash.
He ended with 4 key components to innovation, which is having original idea, building and applying idea, being financed by someone and have a platform to distribute.
It was a great 140 minutes of talk non-stop by Wing. Really engaging and it attracted the largest crowd of Young Corporate Malaysians CEO Series of Talk, with more than 150 people turned up, and it was reduced to standing room only.
After the talk, a large group of attendees surrounded Wing, and he attended the questions till well past 11pm, and at that time, he hasn’t even had dinner. That speaks volume of his dedication and passion to share with the youth!
On behalf of Young Corporate Malaysians, great thanks to Wing for sharing with us, and to all those who attended, hope that you manage to learn from Wing.
Wing K. Lee is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of YTL Communications Sdn Bhd, the communications arm of YTL Corporation Berhad. The company envisions a modern broadband nation enhanced by the Internet and supports technological innovation. In November 2009, it created the YTL 4G Innovation Network and opened a testing centre at Sentul Park. In January 2010, it launched USD1 million ‘mYprize’, a global competition aimed at challenging developers to create original applications and devices for its world’s first nationwide 4G Network set to be commercially launched later this year which will leapfrog Malaysia into an innovation-led economy as envisioned by the Prime Minister.