I’m excited to feature Choy Yong Cong on the blog today. I’ve long admired how he is a reformer and innovator in every job he takes on. He is also well-loved by many of the men and women he has led as a commander in the Singapore Army.
Most recently, he created an app to solve a problem he saw around motivation in the army (Singapore has compulsory military service). It’s received strong reception by users and continues to grow.
Techandpublicgood.com is all about regular people using tech to solve problems they care about, so read on and be inspired by Choy’s journey.
Hey Choy, it’s great to have you here! Tell us a little about your life and career journey so far, and how it has shaped your goals
Hey Karen, thanks for having me here. I’ve been an avid reader of your blog, and it’s an honour, and a surprise really, to be featured.
In the past ten years, I have been in various roles in the Singapore Army, from leading ground combat units of up to 700 National Servicemen, to serving as a staff officer in the Ministry of Defence. That has given me both the strategic and the soldiers’ perspective.
The leadership motto I live by is our “Mission and Men” – how to take care of our mission and our men (and women) in better ways. Hence the starting point for me has never been technology, but how technology can serve this motto.
I’ve always been asked – which is more important, Mission or Men? But the genius of the motto lies in the word “and” – instead of the tyranny of “or” – as the best leaders have always strived to take care of both at the same time. It is this philosophy that has guided my approach and shaped my goals.
What vision were you trying to create when you thought about this app? Why was it important to you?
In Singapore, all men at around age 18 are obligated to serve Full-Time National Service (NS) for two years, and then maintain their operationally-ready (OR) status for ten years in ORNS.
Throughout my time on the ground, I’ve noticed many practices that have not changed, despite the changing demographic and technology. For instance, when I started out as a young Platoon Commander almost ten years ago, we used to paste sheets of results and training programmes on the windows and walls. As a Battalion Commander, we still did the same!
The practices were not only inefficient, they also held us back from tapping into the intrinsic motivation of our soldiers – without real-time information about their upcoming training programs and past results, they could not take ownership of their growth and hence tended to rely on commanders for instruction and direction.
This is something I really wanted to change. I wanted to create a better experience, foresight and ownership of their own journey in NS. Hence, I set out to prototype an app that could enhance a National Serviceman’s sense of growth and mastery. In the two years, they go through several defining milestones, complete achievements and earn badges, and are also put through fitness (IPPT), vocational, and competence training and tests to improve their soldiering skills.
Through the product development journey, we decided that the three most impactful modules to create in the app were Milestones, Badges and Results, allowing soldiers to track and trend their performance.
For the benefit of folks trying to innovate within large organizations, tell us about the challenges you faced and how you overcame them
Having identified the needs and problems on the ground, I created several versions of the wireframes and did our “user testing” with the soldiers. We tried to keep the soldiers – the users – at the centre of our decisions. We watched their behaviours, interviewed them, and asked them for suggestions. It was very rich process where I learnt as much about the soldiers as I did for the app.
For instance, I found out that one of the soldiers actually kept reflection entries about his Army life on his phone, which became a heartening conversation about his NS journey so far. They also gave blindingly obvious suggestions which we didn’t think about, such as a countdown timer to the end of their active service – which we eventually worked into the prototype!
Having said that, here are some of the challenges I faced, which might be common to innovators within large, bureaucratic organizations:
- Resources and expertise for app development were scarce within the organisation.We had to look outside the organization, and I dedicated personal resources to get the prototype off the ground. Also, while reaching out to like-minded people, who believed we can have tech for public good – we found an equally ambitious and noble agency to collaborate with – 2359 Media (a big shoutout to the guys) – who helped us with the coding and technical development.
- Integrating with legacy infrastructure, especially when it comes to classified data. The military has daily business to run – operations need to happen, training needs to continue, results and records need to be properly recorded. So there are already existing legacy systems on an intranet that we already work with. This creates duplication when we started to test the app – for instance, results now needed to be recorded on two back-end systems, as integration with the original back-end systems are costly and long-term. We mitigated these effects and costs as much as we could, such as the extensive use of wireframes and data that fall below the threshold of classified information. But it is a real tension nonetheless, and we only expect it to grow as we attempt to promulgate the app going forward.
- Discipline to focus on only the most impactful features. During our user research, soldiers recommended a full laundry list of modules they would like to see, from bulletin boards, feedback channels, chatbots, to administrative processes. Clearly, it would be costly and complex to code such a comprehensive app. We had to resist the temptation, to be really focused about the primary modules and what would contribute most to the goals.
- Innovating while maintaining accountability for public funds.Burning through hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars only to end up with a failed product is not responsible. But, failure is a part of experimentation, so what kind of “failures” are acceptable in a public institution with daily business to conduct? Perhaps this is why we are perceived to be slow in adopting tech innovations. My personal approach is – as an individual and leader, do what you think is necessary and right for the organisation, even at your own risk and expense. But the caveat is – we must be responsible in mitigating the risks and be ready to accept the consequences if things do go south. So why would one do it? Because we care about the fundamental mission, and we want to do right by our people.
You effectively served as a product manager and user experience designer for the app. How is this role similar and different to the other jobs you’ve done?
Having gone through the process, I’ve realised that “user testing” and the empathy in “design thinking”, these are just fancy tech equivalents of what good military leaders are supposed to do.
To be effective leaders, we need to know what the soldiers care about. The problems and needs were picked up as I did my rounds around the camp, watching implicit behaviours, and talking to the guys. As we sought feedback about the app, it was akin to seeking feedback about their army experience and what they would like to do better.
Another ground-up innovation I am proud of, is when I led the initiative to collaborate with GrabShuttle to provide services from far-flung army camps to neighbourhoods around Singapore. Again, this stemmed from observations and feedback from the soldiers, as they commute for hours and walk kilometres to get to their place of duty. The process again was similar – data survey to identify the highly populated catchment areas, several rounds of user-testing, rolling out a trial with a few neighbourhoods, and finally promulgating to more camps and more neighbourhoods.
The difference and added complexity with tech in public good is that it also has to serve a larger purpose. The challenge with “product managers” and “UX designers” in the public sector is to connect both the needs of the user and the needs of a greater good, within constraints of responsible and frugal use.
But there are certainly many good things we can learn too. The maxim “don’t re-invent the wheel” may be outdated – the status quo of doing things may not always be the best. This experience has also taught me about the importance of collaboration – to have a good product, you need a designer, a developer, and a domain expert.
Last, the ideas of user-centricity, rapid prototyping and MVP can be applied to not just tech products, but everything we do in the public service – from government policies, social services, to tactical military actions.
Now that you have a prototype, what is your vision for this app?
For the app, we already have a working prototype so we will promulgate it to a few units for use and continued user testing. The immediate next steps are to make it configurable for different units so it can be promulgated to any unit which is interested – making it sort of an open-source product.
In the medium-term, we do want to expand the functionality of the app, while keeping it manageable and focused. We want to introduce social and gamification elements to it, so that soldiers feel connected to each other as they go through their journey, through tools such as cooperative targets and mini-competitions.
Again, this enhances the best aspects of our army – it is built on social cohesion and competition, and so much of it are ripe for gamification – I find myself thinking about work as I play Battlefield and Call of Duty, a rather pleasant occupational hazard! The app can also help with recent efforts to improve operational and training safety – with safety information at their fingertips, we arm our young soldiers with the knowledge to report hazards and increase transparency. Geolocation tools can also map out a hazard/safety environment. When our soldiers are each armed with a smartphone and take ownership of their NS journey, training, and safety, it can be a powerful army indeed.
You are a person whose heart is set on serving public good. What have you learned about the different ways this can be achieved? What stays the same and what changes?
I think there are many ways to serve the public good. Diversity is crucial in any large organisation, to prevent groupthink and to create healthy and constructive tension to move it forward. Personally, I have never been the most obedient of a public servant, but with the blessing of understanding and often merciful bosses, I have been given the space to do what I think is needed.
I believe there are broadly two types of good people in large organisations. One, you have rule-abiding people – running systems, governance, and ensuring compliance. They are generally accepted to be necessary to ensure that the daily business gets done. But there is another type of good people – those who understand the deeper intent, purpose, and desired outcomes, and try to do things in a better way when it is possible and necessary. We may seem like rule-breakers sometimes, but while doing something different, we have thought through the impact, possible scenarios and consequences, and mitigated downsides as much as possible. We also accept personal responsibility when there is failure and fallout.
But some will ask, why risk it? First, the process in trying something new is fun and exciting in itself! But more importantly, I believe strongly that we can achieve better outcomes by embracing new ideas and trends while anchoring on our mission and values.
The alternative frankly, is to be left behind, and to become irrelevant. And in providing for the public good, that would be very tragic indeed.
Thanks Choy for taking the time to share. If you’d like to get in touch with him, let me know!