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Norman Sasono: A coder with vision who rose to lead the pack

February 14, 2017

Norman Sasono is chief innovation officer of Bizzy, Indonesia's leading B2B e-commerce platform for business supplies and services. A familiar face in the local start-up scene, Sasono joined Bizzy with more than 15 years of experience in software development. He spoke to Julian Lorkin at the BusinessThink Indonesia forum.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

BusinessThink: Yours is a great story – starting off on the shop floor, if you like, and then effectively running a company. How have you achieved it?

Norman Sasono: It's more than a decade-long story. After I graduated, I started my professional career as a software developer. So, yeah, I spent 9-6 every day writing code for the companies that I worked for. Then I stepped up to become the lead developer. And then I moved to other companies [where I was] not just the lead developer but I stepped up again as the architect – so I was not just writing the code but defining what to build and so forth. And then I became the principal engineer in that company, and eventually the CTO.

And then last year, a friend of mine, Peter Goldsworthy – half Indonesian, half Australian – approached me and said, 'Hey, Norman, I have this great business idea. I'd like to build a B2B e-commerce platform. But I'm a pure business guy; I have no idea on the tech side. I need someone I can trust, someone who is capable, so that we can work together and become co-founders and run this company.' So we gave it a go, and we're already about a year-plus [into it] now.

BusinessThink: And it sounds, in your career, as if it's important to always keep an eye on just a level or two above where you want to go, and also what talents you need to develop to achieve that.

Sasono: The basics are supposed to be there. Like, your real technical skill, your capability to code, your logic, mathematical, algorithmic thinking is also there. But it will not take you places if you just stick to your technical skill. There are other capabilities like the social skill, as well as the managerial skill, and leadership. That's what makes you different from the other developers.

Most developers are the stereotype: they are the geeks, the nerd and so forth. If you really want to stand out, you should break that stereotype and show that you're beyond that stereotype. So, yeah, show you have leadership, you have managerial skill, communication skill – that is very important. And bring up ideas, not be just taking orders.

But if you have your own thinking about how something should be done, you should be able to communicate that to your managers.

BusinessThink: Why is it important for managers, who should be effectively handing out work for the workers to do, to understand the code, how a product actually works?

Sasono: Software engineering is a highly technical job. It is a mix of left brain/right brain. You need some sort of creativity on top of your algorithmic skill. And you should really get hands-on into the technologies that are being used to develop the code. And if you are [just] a manager, you don't understand and you don't code. So you may not be effective in leading the developers. And you know these technical guys who manage? They respect the technical guys as well. So being a manager of a software developer is not just like any other manager; you need to be really hands-on and understand what's going on. 

‘Most developers are the stereotype: they are the geeks, the nerd and so forth. If you really want to stand out, you should break that stereotype and show that you’re beyond that’ 

– norman sasono

BusinessThink: How do you put Indonesia on the global digital map? If you've got companies with those skills, how can they break outside Indonesia?

Sasono: There are already some start-ups born in Indonesia that are opening their operations outside Indonesia, some in the region of Southeast Asia, some even already all the way to India.

And in terms of the talent itself, actually the technical people from Indonesia are very talented and skilful, but usually they tend to only know how to do the things right, but they're still not really able to figure out what is the right thing to build. So we need more of these guys [who know what to build] so that the capable technical people can collaborate with them and create new start-ups, new tech ventures that can really put Indonesia on the global map of digital technologies.

BusinessThink: But you seem to have achieved that with Bizzy. After all, it's a very successful B2B platform. What are you doing that's different? Why has it been so successful?

Sasono: I like to always start with the why – so, why we do all these things at Bizzy? The reason is that we want to underpin the economy with an efficient and transparent procurement. So we've seen the whole manual, offline, corrupted, maverick spending, and all this happens in the procurements in the corporate world. So we see that no, that is not right; the money doesn't really go to the right purpose. So we want to address that by building a platform where we can bring customers to corporate procurements and then the merchants into that platform and do the transactions there. So we create the B2B commerce platform, [to take the] offline, highly manual procurements to online and digital.

‘Being a manager of a software developer is not just like any other manager; you need to be really hands-on and understand what’s going on’ 

– norman sasono

BusinessThink: And while you're at Bizzy, of course, you're also involved in mentoring programs and incubators. Why is it important to develop new talent?

Sasono: I've been involved in several incubators and mentoring programs for tech skills and also start-ups. That is important because, let's say for Bizzy itself, we need more and more developers. I am still actively hiring today. And the only way we can fulfil that is if we also contribute to the ecosystem. So we help the talents accelerate their skills so they don't have to spend the whole time, the whole that I have to spend [with them] ... so we can reuse the experience that I [already] have so that it can be installed in them, so that they can really be accelerated and be ready to jump into the real world, to the tech start-up landscape.

BusinessThink: And for those incubators, how can they physically help somebody who's got a really bright idea and may be a great coder, but wants to get a product to market and has no idea how?

Sasono: Some venture capital [funds], big telco companies and some big conglomerates, they're in Indonesia and they have begun to start incubators for start-ups. So in these incubators, the guys that join this incubation will be nurtured for several weeks or a few months on how to start a start-up, come up with the ideas, build a minimum viable product and to be able to ship that to the market, validate it to the market, and once it is validated go to a bigger customer audience and start to drive more traction in the market. So this program is setting up these aspiring founders to go through all this education in a short period. And it's not just the technical contents being taught there, but also the business as well as the non-technical skills.

BusinessThink: And of course there's the mobile internet. That was being developed when universities were catching up trying to work out what this new technology was. And now, as we know, in Indonesia people browsing on their phones is by far the dominant way that people look at the internet. What future technology can you see?

Sasono: It's an evolution. So it started with the mainframe, then the PC, then the internet came, then the mobile. What's next is the IOT, the internet of things. So not just mobile that's connected to the internet. Even the lamp, the air-con is now connected to the internet. So the internet of things, [that's] the next wave, where all these things around us are connected to the internet, can post data into there, and people can do predictive maintenance and all these things with the internet.

The things that we use every day too, such as to monitor your health, that is like a watch – a digital watch that's capable of monitoring your heart rate, that counts your steps and all these things, these devices, are the next big things after mobile.

BusinessThink: And then the geeks who are developing that, they will be the ones inheriting the earth, as it were. Yes?

Sasono: The developers run the world. 

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