Oct. 26, 2021

15. Freddie Quek


Hear from Freddie Quek, Chief Technology Officer of Times Higher Education. In this episode, we learn how the pandemic sparked Freddie to create the #joiningthedots initiative, and address digital inclusion. We also discover how the divergence of growing up in Singapore and building a life in the UK sparked Freddie’s sonder moments. Make sure to listen to the end of the episode for bonus content.

You can find out more about Freddie, and the Digital Poverty Alliance:

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/freddiequek
Website: https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/

A transcription of each episode, as well as guest profiles and much more, is available on our website www.sondership.com

Credits
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Transcript

Freddie:

And that's why I sort of start with that story of where I came from, because for a long time, even til now, Danny, we met at the Charity IT Leaders event. Right? I was so looking forward to see you and talk to you, but yet I was very afraid to approach you and talk to you. I'm not sure whether you're aware. I thought, oh, he's very busy. He's a very important person. Let me leave him alone. And then now I sort of regretted that we didn't really have that moment. Right. And everyday I had to remind myself that I can do something about it.

Danny:

Welcome to The Sondership podcast. I'm your host, Danny Attias. The Sondership podcast is all about hearing inspiring stories from people with purpose and today's person with purpose is Freddie Quek. Freddie is Chief Technology Officer at the Times Higher Education. He's worked in Singapore, the US and the UK across multiple sectors, including higher education, automotive, publishing, insurance and financial services. Freddie has received lots of awards, including most recently being recognized in the CIO 100, and one of the UK's top 50 data leaders. In 2021, Freddie started the Joining the Dots initiative to address digital inclusion and it's become a special advisor and community board member representing 13 tech leader communities for the Digital Poverty Alliance. We're going to hear a lot more about what joining the dots is, and the problems that Freddie is trying to help solve. Freddie is also a fellow of the British Computer Society, a judge for the UK Industry Awards. He has a master's of science degrees from the London School of Economics and Henley Business School. He is an alumnus of Oxford University and currently a research associate at Henley Business School undertaking doctoral research, Freddie, welcome to the Sondership podcast.

Freddie:

Thank you for having me, Danny.

Danny:

Freddie, as you hopefully know, as a, loyal listener of this podcast, the Sondership podcast starts by understanding people's Sonder moments. And Sonder is that moment when you realize that everyone has got a story as rich and as complex as your own, as varied and as diverse. And it's through those Sonder moments that we realize that the story, isn't all about us. It's about other people. And I speak to people who having realized those things go on and turn that empathy into purpose and really dedicate their time to making a difference into other people's lives. With you working on Joining the Dots initiative, which we're going to hear a little bit more about later on, what I'd like to start with, is to hear about your earliest or your most memorable Sonder moment.

Freddie:

Danny, I, I was blown away by that first podcast that you did with Avril. Um, I'm like, wow, this is not a typical podcast that I come across. It's not about work. It's just about life in general. And, and, you know, and then when you realize how much everyone has gone through in a personal life, I'm like, okay, so what does it mean for me? And this makes me reflect. And if you don't mind, I want to sort of, you know, this is my own reflection about how it has been for me, you know, I came to the UK a long time ago and I remember coming from a world whereby it's about conformity, right? It's about doing what everybody does. And that is the best thing, and that's the right thing. And you don't sort of speak out, you know, you do, but you don't think. So I came from a culture where I'm used to that and that moment, became something of a realization when I came to this country. You know, probably more than 30 years ago now and I was at uni, I came here for uni, taking that step to leave your country, leave your family behind for another where you know nobody and you're on your own was a scary moment. Right, and I thought it was just me, but I realized that there's a lot of people that does the same thing here and my realization about, about what makes it being human, right? The fact that, you know, I came from different cultures, but yet here, you know, thinking that maybe this is a better place, you know, this place has got, you know, more superior and whatnot. Yet at the same time, I realized that the human condition animal instincts, it's all the same. We all have that. And the learning came from attending a lecture where I was expecting my lecturer to give me the answers. I still remember the question that I was trying to, or the lecturer was asking. And yet I asked the lecturer back the same question, which is what is the definition of information systems. I remember that. And she reminded me, I, I, you know, at the end of the lecture, I went to her and she said to me, Freddie, did you not listen to my lecture? And I said, I did, but what's the answer? And she said, do you know, I gave eight definitions. And the point is you have to choose one or the point is you have to decide what is the best definition. And I think for me, that was my moment of realization that actually I have the capacity to think I have the capacity to formulate what might be the answer rather than thinking that the answer is always there for me to just follow.

Danny:

That's really great Freddie. So I like that. So you're saying, which country, which country were you, were you born in? Were you raised in

Freddie:

Yeah. I came from Singapore?

Danny:

So, you came from society around you, which is, this is the answer, this is how you do things. This is how you think, this is how you succeed and be successful, to well, you decide, you shape your future, you shape your mind. And through that shape other people's minds through the work that you've been doing, that's really interesting, you go through thousands of things every single day, and it It's those tiny little moments that make a difference, and you don't know what that moment is going to be. And Freddie, you interact with lots of people all the time now, and you're having a direct impact on people's lives, the way people think. And you've no idea what's that thing that you're going to say. That's going to make people think completely different and could potentially take them on a different path in their own lives.

Freddie:

I think the key here is about, feeling comfortable for a long time. I don't feel comfortable a lot of things about food, about who I am, about what I do. And does it matter to be so worried about, so uncomfortable that you choose not to do anything. And I think that's the key, right. And I, you know, relating to what we want to talk about today is that the last nine months, since January, I have, you know, I I've said this to somebody recently. I have now spoken to more people than I've ever done in my entire life, complete strangers and the impact on I am doing, and the consequence of that is so amazing. And, and, and that is why thank you, for having me here that hopefully I can share people that might be in the same position.

Danny:

Thank you, Freddie, this is exactly why the Sondership podcast exists. It's for people to hear that the person on the stage, the person making the difference has as much, fear, anxiety, uncertainty as everyone else around them. So I was at this conference with you quite recently, and I'm looking up on the stage and what I'm seeing is at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of us were trying to find a laptop, spare laptops in our organizations to try and donate them to charities, and there was me thinking, this is great. I've found some laptops and I've helped get them to kids in schools or kids on benefits. What you did is you said, no, no, no hold on. There is a much bigger picture here. And you went out there to understand the end to end picture from digital poverty, to poverty, to literacy, to opportunities, to apprenticeships that are the whole picture end to end. How do we make a fundamental difference to these children's lives beyond simply giving them a laptop. And you undertook this incredible amount of effort of speaking to hundreds of people. So I'm looking at you on the stage thinking this guy's incredible. How on earth is he doing this? How, how's he finding the time? does he know how to approach such things. So it, it kind of works, it works both ways. And that's the whole point of this is that we're all capable of incredible things and making a difference in people's lives. And I'm just so impressed with what you've done and how you've gone on to embrace this. So, Freddie, let's backtrack a little bit. You came from Singapore, you came to the UK to study. What was your life growing up in Singapore, you talked about, conformity, tell me a bit about your childhood.

Freddie:

you know, I, I have, I would say very normal childhood in the sense that I've got, you know, my two sets of parents, my, my, grandparents as well, I've got lots of cousins. And so, so that was great. And I was very glad that, I was also growing up in a, in an environment where religion was important to one set of my, my, my parents out of the family, you know, Christianity. And then on the other side, we have, Buddhism. So there was also another interesting clash and there are things that you can do and other things that you can't do. But, I think what I will say is that I was growing up in a fairly oblivious manner in terms of just doing whatever everybody is doing. And therefore to me, that is like the right thing to do. And I came across, you know, even my brother and a few others where when they're beginning to question it, they're being perceived to be the difficult child or the difficult human being. Where as for me I think I'm a pretty good boy, a good person just doing what everybody's supposed to be doing. So that was pretty much how I think and how I believed the world should be

Danny:

Excellent, as you were saying this, I was reflecting on my own childhood and I don't think I, I mean, my parents might disagree, but I was never really difficult but I've always been challenging. Everything I'd ever done, I've always challenged, but not challenged for the sake of challenge, but challenge to try and make a difference and make things more efficient, better, and learnt a lot along that journey, but it's, it's interesting. Isn't it mixing those two different things about being the naughty boy, but being the curious boy, and there's a difference isn't there, but I suppose in a society you might mix up the two and perceive one similar to the other.

Freddie:

Yeah. And that perhaps explain, you know, when, when my wife and I sometimes reflect on why we are in the UK versus being in Singapore and maybe that reflects, why we have come to the UK to explore a different environment where we can be curious without feeling like we are the odd one out. You know what I mean? So I, this is why now I believe that we are in, we have the best of both worlds and, with our children growing up we want them to have that exposure that we have. We can't show them all the way, but at least we can give them some insights about, what might be good, just from our own personal, uh, learning.

Danny:

Yeah. So it was at university you had this Sonder moment where you realise there are lots of answers to the same question and that you're in control of your own destiny. What did that look like for the following few years? Did you start to rebel? Did you go a bit crazy and go, whoa, hold on. You mean I can do anything.

Freddie:

I will say, so if that was my beginning, then if I describe my middle bit where I was a workaholic, right. Again, part of my cultural upbringing was that, if you do your job well, you know, you will have a job for life and you will be looked afte. Again, that was my belief system. And of course how wrong was I? Because during this period, of my adult life, I've been made redundant a couple of times. That was very stressful. so again, my, my whole, you know, world changed and, uh, one of the things that I learned in my career was that, that was actually my opportunity to express myself in a very positive way. For example, in an industry, media was the first industry to be disrupted by digital technologies. I was in publishing for a long time where, you know, in the older days there were no computers or internet, and throughout this whole entire few decades look at how the industry could transform from print to online, you know, to, all kinds of wonderful things that we see today. And we take it for granted and it was in my lifetime. It's still in my lifetime and things keep evolving. So I have a first hand experience about how, from curiosity to, using my skills as a problem solver, that combination is fantastic because you're not expecting an answer to be there, you're not expecting that the problem has been solved for you already. But because you were thrown into that space where you have to do something about it. And, and for me it was fun, right? Because I'm a technologist, I'm using technology to solve a real world problem. And then my company benefits from that. So again, there was a tremendously fulfilling experience of being able to express myself in a very positive manner.

Danny:

Excellent. And you, clearly have a passion for academia. You work in the academic sector now you've done I think, what is it 37 degrees I counted on your...I'm joking more degrees than we can shake a stick at. And you're doing your PhD now. So tell us about your relationship with education and also what you're doing your doctorate in.

Freddie:

Yeah. So th there's a few dimensions to that. Right. And let's start with, myself the, the human, insecure side of me, right. When I, I actually started a PhD when I came to, to the IFC, I, I, after my master's, I started a PhD. I did not finish it because that was the beginning of the.com boom. And I had to decide whether I should continue to become an academic or I come out and do what I could. But at that time, if I had finished my PhD, it would not be for me. It would be for my parents. I love learning and now I realize that learning never stops and therefore, why should we be judged by how many degrees? So again, part of getting a degree in the past was more to do with making sure that I tick a box because how can I be accepted by society and how can I be known if I don't even, a culture where, you know, getting qualifications is like really important. But now, the reasons are completely different, I'm doing a doctorate now. Not because it's for me, it's because I don't want to be an opinion leader, just because I have an opinion. Everybody is an opinion leader. I want to be able to give back to my community my own profession, about the learnings that I've come across in a more impactful way in a more evidence led way, in a more data-driven way, rather than just, Hey, here is another opinion leader, so that is the reason why I do all those things.

Danny:

And what is your PhD focused on?

Freddie:

I had this curiosity about why for a long time, as a technology leader in organizations, why sometimes we're not at the top table to contribute. So coming from an industry where it's very conservative, the decisions are made by publishers for a long time and even though the work that I've done as a technologist is helping to really transform the company and the industry. I don't feel like I'm well-placed to engage in those conversations. So that makes me curious. And that's why after such a long time, I left the industry and this is why I've come to into so many other industries is to try and understand what is going on here. And I of learned and appreciate so much of the opportunities that I have that now I'm thinking surely again, there's a better way of getting that message back and helping others about this. That's why, my research into how IT leaders can help their organizations either current or future ones to be maybe more successful in running the business and also changing the business at the same time. There's a huge and rich body of research for more than four decades that says that for organizations to be successful it's not about today, it's about today and tomorrow. And yet, if you look at most organizations, most of us, who's got a day job, well, we're being pigeonholed into either you are this, or you are that, right? If you are doing transactional stuff, you are not being asked or given the authority to do transformational stuff and vice versa. And if you look at these days, everybody needs to be an ambidextrous leader. Every organization needs to be an ambidextrous organization. And yet people didn't even understand the term because it's so academic. So my interest is to try and bridge the world between academic and the practitioner world. And my doctorate is not a PhD. My doctorate is a doctorate of business administration. So it's a practical application

Danny:

Okay.

Freddie:

of the, the work that I'm doing.

Danny:

I'm very new to the, uh, business school world. So I have a lot to learn about these things, but that sounds really interesting. And if you need a subject for your research, then please do call me. I was thinking of about a little story from my childhood. When you talked about when you started your PhD, first time round, it would have been for your parents. And I remember at school, a guy who was not a overachiever, the overachiever. Okay. So the real deal, full As, head boy, sport, everything. And I remember the final year at school, he had played a concert for the school and I think it was, clarinet. And I remember him, packaging it away, having achieved, grade eight and being absolutely brilliant at it. And he said to me, he said, right, well, now I can sell this. And I said, well, what do you mean? He says, well, only did it for my parents. I took no joy out of it. I took no interest out of it. I just had to do it. Now I'm going to university I no longer have to do this anymore. I would hope, a few years down the line around now he's probably getting that clarinet back out and getting his own personal joy from the music that he was able to create. But when you said that it was, it was always really fascinating. So thank you for that, Freddie. So Freddie let's, let's hear a little bit more now about joining the dots. So, when the pandemic hit, all the schools were closed. Kids were sent home and not all of them had access to IT, and, uh, a lot of people, a lot of organizations were trying to scrabble together to get some old laptops to throw in their direction. What went through your mind and how did you get from there to what you're doing now?

Freddie:

Yeah. So, this is where I think our profession, is in a great place to do something because we are actually very knowledgeable. Many of us, we are, as IT leaders, we have equipment that in the past, I know I have, we just give it away, we just throw it away, we just recycle without thinking. Right. And yet you can see everybody is now scrambling for any devices to give out to people who's in need. And I remember our conversation, Danny, you were one of the first I spoke with at the time I was approached by an ITD. They're saying Freddie, three schools in an office, 150 laptops or devices we need ,uh, we already have some donation from Raspberry Pi foundation. But we need a few more just to give it to the school. And I said, okay, what can we do? And he says, let's, do a social media campaign, lets do all those things. And, and what was really striking for me was that despite all the efforts, there were a number of IT leaders doing the same thing. And if only, every person who said its a good idea had donated 10 pounds, I think we would have achieved our target, but yet, despite all the effort for a number of months, three or four or more months, the outcome was pittance, right. We raised only a handful of devices. And that makes me think about what is going on here. And I started talking to people like yourself, right? So Danny, you said to me, Freddie, you know, and at that time you were with Anthony Nolan, a charity, and you did this as part of your day job. And you said to me, it's very, very tough, right? Very, very tough. You know, you're going to have to get your administrator it to go and everybody has to chip in to do something. So unless it's something that is that your day job that is scalable, sustainable. There may be other ways to solve the problem. So you, you also contributed to my thinking about, hey, maybe Danny is right, because this is how you can't just rely on one person. So I took the opportunity to talk to many others. So over three weeks I had spoken to 60 leaders and that is where it dawned on me that, wow, I now have this rich set of data directly from all these leaders. What can I do to bottle it and play it back so it's not just about Freddie saying this it's about this community of 60 leaders, right representing nine communities with a membership of more than 90,000 members. What can we tell the rest of our community about what we know so that we can maybe solve this problem in a more holistic, in a more systemic, in a more sustainable, in a more further reaching way. And that's how we started. Right. And this is where, I decided to, put it in a deck of slides, which you've seen. The premise of what I'm trying to do is really simple. I'm not asking anybody to do something they do not want to do. What I'm saying is that if I share with you what I know, and I signpost to you about what you should know, you have a choice to decide for yourself as an individual, as a community that you're part of, or as an organization that you work for because of your CSR to decide what you want to do about it. And that was how it all started. And the first signpost that we did was, you know, back to this whole thing about, digital inclusion, everybody seems to start from the same place, which is to do the device donation. So the first hypothesis was, if you are today thinking about doing something. Such as donating or not, and you have no idea, then let us help you to say let's be aware of this so that we can all contribute in a more holistic manner that allows us to then solve a bigger pool that we can recycle in a better way. So you would not have scale, right? So we're not taking our real world experience into this, world to see what we can do to make things more strategic in terms of what we do.

Danny:

so you're looking here at making a fundamental difference, a sustainable method of having, parts of society that are excluded from fully being able to be fully functioning members because of the lack of technology, technology skills, uh, connectivity. Is that right?

Freddie:

Yeah. again, we started from a very sort of, maybe simplistic way. Like, let's do something about device. Let's do something about school children. Right, but then the more you, you find out, the more you realize that actually we are all in this digital world, we're all in this digital economy globally. How can we afford to leave anybody behind? So it's not just about the school children on one end of the spectrum. What about the other spectrum? When you have pensioners who are at home, who have got no idea about technology, who's got no device. How do they participate? How do they during COVID now still, if they have to order something or get some services, like booking a NHS appointment, how do they do that? So this is why, part of our responsibility as IT leaders, because actually just that with the pandemic, when it hits us and everybody now realizes how wonderful technology is, those technologies have been there for a while. They have been enablers. It's only because of COVID created this moment of clarity right. And accepting that, hey, there must be another way of surviving.

Danny:

Freddie, tell me, how do you get the time and energy to do this? You're raising kids. You've got a full-time job. How are you making this happen in and amongst everything else that you need to get through every day? And you're doing your research as well.

Freddie:

Yeah. It's ironic that, I mentioned, my sort of phase of life where I was a workaholic. My sole focus was work, right. I put every energy and hours into my work, sometimes at the expense of my personal life, my family, and realization, right. That, hey, you know, that should not be the way to live. There must be, that balance, which is why, we moved to Oxford to have a better quality of life. So, that's part of it. But the it right, is that I used to spend probably up to four hours a day, commuting. Living in London, working in London. Four hours! I don't even think about it. I just take it as part of my job. And guess what I do during those four hours, I was also working. If I'm on the public transport, I will be working. If I'm driving, I'll be on my phone working. And now, you know, with the pandemic, you know, it makes you realize that actually, you know, life has got to be more than just about I feel very sort of privileged that I can look after my family well, and then when I hear, you know, again, this is the beginning of how we all got involved, or we all started. hear about reality for many families, back in, uh, you know, two Septembers ago who had no wifi, with no device, with no mobile, with therefore no connectivity and therefore no way of getting education. That makes you realize, wow, how can we afford to do something for people who are in their position? Because if I'm in that position and I saw that firsthand about my children, they are privileged, they have the right equipment And yet they struggle online education. Right. And I see your school struggle. if that can happen to them, what about others who which is worse off, surely we can do something about it. Joining the Dots is about helping others to socialize this message that the way to solve this problem is not by thinking that you can do it all alone. Each and every one of us as an individual, we can do something. And that something could be as simple as telling somebody did you know, that if you want to get a device, go here and ask for donation, or if you want to donate, go there and donate it's as simple as that.

Danny:

Your, your comment about, time and commuting and efficiency. I think, you know, I recently did a course, a short course called the alt MBA with Seth Godin and, I mean, it's huge, hugely impactful, on my life. It's where this podcast came from and, I wrote a blog about it and someone in my network, saw the blog and read it and said, I'm really interested in this. I think I'm going to sign up and he signed up. So he's doing it right now. And I checked in with him this week and I said, how are you getting on. and he said, I thought to myself, how on earth am I going to have the time, I'm halfway through now. And I'm thinking, what am I going to do with this time when I've finished it? Because I realized, oh my God, look what I'm able to achieve in this dead Netflix time, commuting time, Facebook scrolling time. That's where this podcast came from. It filled that gap that was created from the realization of how efficient we can be if we are purpose driven and we really apply ourselves in a very functional way. So Freddie, thank you. what would you ask our listeners to do or to think about, listening to this episode that can help push digital inclusion further.

Freddie:

I think the thing that everybody should be aware of is that this is a challenge that we all will face, not just for ourselves, but also for the people around us, whether it's our family members, our friends, our neighbors, our local communities. Right? So that is one. And there is a way of solving this problem, and a way of solving this problem is by Joining the Dots and that's why that hashtag comes along. And then also the fact that, we also need, some kind of a framework that allows us to be able to be joined up. Right. And, and I really am so delighted that, there is now the establishment of something called the Digital Poverty Alliance. And this is an organization that's been set up by the Institution for Engineering and Technology, that is IET and, by the learning foundation with the support of, Currys, to create this organization that allows government departments, corporations, professional bodies, grass root communities and including individuals like you and I, and anybody who wants to do something to be able to now be more joined up in terms of how they can. So I would encourage everybody to find out more about the Digital Poverty Alliance. All right. And this is how, this is the beginning of all of us coming together at all levels, with all kinds of skills, whatever shape and size, doesn't matter. If we all know what is happening and we all choose what we can do. That is how we can solve the problem.

Danny:

Brilliant, Thank you very much. And I assume people can also follow you on LinkedIn and connect with you through there. Thank you very much for taking your time out today and for being a guest on the Sondership podcast

Freddie:

Thank you, Danny. Although my wife and I, we think that we have done a pretty good job for our daughter who's just gone uni,

Danny:

Hmm.

Freddie:

but do you know what, she left it too late to decide which uni she wants to go and do you know why, it's because she had an obligation please her parents. And we try so hard to make sure that she doesn't feel that way. And we were so pleased that finally, when she decided, because that is what she wanted to do and it was for her, you could see that relief on her face. It's such a beautiful, cause it would have been so easy for her to go down the route that my Wife and I have through, which is do what your parents want you to do.

Danny:

For sure.

Freddie Quek

CTO, Founder of #joiningthedots #uktechleaders, Special Advisor and Community Board Member of Digital Poverty Alliance

Freddie Quek is Chief Technology Officer at Times Higher Education. He is a disruptive, networked and agile leader who has worked in Singapore, US and UK across higher education, automotive, publishing, loyalty, insurance, travel and financial services industries for RELX, Wiley, Solera and various startups. He helped transformed the publishing industry from print to digital pioneering the use of NoSQL technologies and achieving large scale agile implementations.

He has received a UK IT Industry Award, three Wiley President’s Award in 4 years, a Pacesetter Award for delivering a ground-breaking multi-million licensing deal and MarkLogic’s Customer Excellence award. He was also recognised as UK’s top 50 data leaders and in the 2021 IDG CIO100.

In 2021, he started the #joiningthedots initiative to address #digitalinclusion and has become special advisor and Community Board member representing 13 tech leaders communities for the Digital Poverty Alliance.

Freddie is a Fellow of BCS and judge for the UK IT Industry Awards. He has Master of Science degrees from the London School of Economics and Henley Business School. He is an alumnus of Oxford University and currently a Research Associate at Henley Business School undertaking doctoral research.