Thomas Mak: From Excellent to Outstanding – Motivating the Development of Local IT Industry

The IT applications of Macau neither lag nor lead market trends, local experts believe; local players only want to be good rather than achieve glory as the industry develops


By Johnson Ian 

Photos by Cheung Kam Ka 


‘Swarming’ is a popular habit in society, with people talking and doing by following others. The hottest topics of the year are the Internet, Big Data and Smart City, while the core term is IT. 

“Everyone talks about IT; should everyone understand it?” asks Thomas Mak, Director of Web Design and Development of WorldSkills Competitions (WSC) and the Manager of the Information System & Technology of Macau Productivity and Technology Transfer Centre (CPTTM), 

Having witnessed the rapid development of IT over the past ten years, as well as experiencing ups and downs in his own life, Mak believes that the IT applications of Macau neither lag nor lead market trends, with local players satisfied only in achieving competency rather than glory. Macao, however, has an international perspective and enough information thus is not at a great disadvantage. Anticipating that the Greater Bay Area will be the main battlefield of the burgeoning IT industry, he is convinced that “local IT personnel should maintain progressive development so that they are not only good but great.” 

Fascinated by computers from a very young age, Mak has participated in web design competitions of different scale since high school and frequently won awards. In 2003, by winning an important competition, he grabbed the only ticket in the Macau area for a Web Design and Development project of WSC, which was added to the game for the first time. He also won third place for Macau, a first for a Macau participant. Thomas Mak has also been awarded the Certificate of Merit by the SAR Government. Following high school graduation, he studied Computer Science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) before working for the Faculty of Education at CUHK, all experiences that could be reasonably considered a linear career path. But surprisingly anti-climaxes came one after the other. 

The first involved writing games as an entrepreneurial adventure, a project he undertook not because of enthusiasm or love but because he was bored. 

“When I was young, I loved to write flash games,” he says. “My first job was to write educational interactive games for the Faculty of Education at CUHK. I got back home from work so early, and I was alone in Hong Kong; there was nothing to do at night. I therefore started to do some part-time jobs and wrote some simple games.” 

When Facebook allowed players to launch games Thomas engaged in the first boom of flash games. With the decline of flash and the first appearance of iPhone and iPad, he diverged again: “With my iPad in my hand, I wondered how to play games on it. I learned while designing and noticed that I was short of time. While someone invested in that time, I was happier with my job at night, so why not do it by myself?” 

Return to Macau 

The game is one of today’s hot topics. Stock giant Tencents gains 60% of its revenues from mobile games. Describing his three years of entrepreneurship, Mak jokes that he was “not dying but neither was I developing greatly”, while his reason for giving up was also an anti-climax. Explaining that he constantly pursues high efficiency – which is why he learned the computer – writing games, he opines, is destroying others’ productivity and violating both his philosophy and that of the industry. 

“I don’t want to write something that attracts people to play and become addicted to, and for money only. I like to write small games that you will keep for five years and only play for five minutes at a time to relax during work. However, these games don’t make money, while luck should also be taken into account. Today, it is popular but tomorrow it’s out.” 

At the moment his company became a ‘trap’, CPTTM offered him an opportunity, bringing Thomas Mak back to Macau. 

His primary responsibility in CPTTM is to use IT to facilitate the development of SMEs, acting as a bridge between them and the government. The Centre organises relevant courses in response to industry and social needs, including web security, web design and the writing of apps. CPTTM recently co-operated with Alibaba Cloud to hold courses on cloud computing, Big Data analysis and so on, and also co-operates with the Economic Bureau and other government departments on various projects such as the procurement platform and SME360, which seeks to focus on the centralisation of procurement information of large enterprises, enabling SMEs to better explore business opportunities. 

“In terms of business,” he maintains, “as long as IT helps, we can do it. For anything they don’t understand, let us make it.” 

Another key task is to select and train players to participate in international competitions such as the WSC. Assuming the role of Expert since 2009, Mak prepares students for participation in the competition as well as helping in the preparation of WSC, for which efforts he is highly acclaimed. In 2017, he was elected Deputy Chief Expert of Web Design and Development, officially joining the management team of the competition; and voted as Deputy General Expert of Web Design, he officially entered the ranks of event management. In 2018 he was appointed Technical Director, co-ordinating competitions of the WorldSkills Olympics, one that has a 60-year history. Taking place every two years, WSC attracts more than 1,000 players from all over the world. In the section of Web Design and Development, Macau has picked up one Gold, two Silver, three Bronze and two Outstanding Performance medals in past editions, with most of these Macau winners students of Mak, including Fong Hok Kin, overall champion of the 2017 event. 

Mak says with a smile that local students, who are part-time participants, only receive 200-hour target-oriented training, while players from other countries are trained full-time, with the total number of training sessions in a month exceeding that of Macau. 

It is, in fact, remarkable that Macau can achieve such outstanding results, which is related, Mak believes, to the characteristics of the city. First of all, he says, innate features of web design include all products that are on the network and visible to any person or equipment; there are no informative differences around the world, thus Macao is certainly not outdated. 

Thomas Mak talks to experts from abroad.(Photo courtesy of Worldskills)

 

Secondly, English is the main language of international web design and the leading experts. Macau residents learn English from primary school, and the city’s language environment is better than many other places. It is not a problem for residents to browse English pages. Even web pages designed by Mainland masters can be understood by local residents, no matter in traditional or simplified Chinese. Hence, Macau enjoys a more comprehensive information environment, of which it is possible to take advantage. 

“It’s so interesting that there is no standard answer in the sector of web design, and every solution has pros and cons, so a large amount of different materials have to be read,” says Mak. 

Finally, teacher-student rapport is crucial to WSC. Within the confines of ‘small Macau’, experts and students can often meet, while experts in other countries may have to fly to meet their students. The understanding between both parties, he concludes, is definitely not as good as it is in Macau. 

Macau IT not lagging 

In addition to the achievements of WSC, youths from Macau have participated in a variety of internationally renowned competitions, achieving good results. The possibility of applying knowledge to work, Macao IT applications, industry level and competitiveness are all interesting issues that must be focused on, he says, as many opinions indicate that IT applications in Macau are backward, with which Mak vehemently disagrees. 

He insists that even though local applications are not trendsetters, neither are they lagging behind. The feeling of backwardness, he opines, is due to being compared to very advanced cities: “People often look at the advanced cities on the Mainland that haven’t experienced the computer era. These cities jumped to the stage of smart phone or mobile network directly, so they are very high tech. Looking at the United States and Canada – except for Silicon Valley and other major cities – other regions [can be said to be] lagging behind. Of course, we can find huge room for improvement in Macau.” 

Over 90% of enterprises in Macau are of small or medium size, with insufficient resources a major obstacle for business transformation using IT knowledge. The chasm between SMEs and IT in Macao, according to Mak, depends upon owners, pointing out that many young ventures harnessed IT to grow their business. 

“Shops that belong to young owners are not so traditional, with tablets and a computer used to assist billing,” he says, adding that CPTTM has always encouraged SMEs by organising IT training for middle-aged personnel to promote the usage of e-applications in business, including document transfer and communication with large enterprises. 

There are many IT companies in Macau, but they are awkwardly positioned, Mak maintains. Large enterprises favour Hong Kong or famous foreign brands, while SMEs often choose Mainland companies to save money. How can local products survive, break through and improve? Mak lists several areas for improvement. According to him, local IT players provide web design services to some large companies but to a limited extent, while Macau companies prefer to engage in government projects because local products are the top priority for public projects. 

Meanwhile, these companies also write web pages, apps and FB pages for young entrepreneurs, which is a way out. Compared to Hong Kong, however, the number of SMEs that adopt IT technologies in Macau is smaller, he says: “There’s a long way to go. In Hong Kong, it’s easy to find companies that need IT services, but in Macau you have to convince SMEs to use the services.” 

It is not easy for Macau IT companies to attract the attention of major enterprises, with the overall level of the industry an overriding reason. Thomas Mak says that in addition to writing functions, large IT projects require tests to check whether these functions are feasible and complete, which are also written by IT companies. The problem that local IT personnel face is the lack of large scale projects as well as resources to write the necessary tests, besides those government projects. As time passes, local products are not standardised enough. 

“How do you convince your customers that your websites and software are qualified?” he asks. “It depends upon the coverage of your test, although it is impossible to be 100%; but if you are able to cover 80% and allow your customer to go through it, as well as with sound user experience, then it is qualified.” 

He stresses that WSC is based upon industrial standards. The organisation must send tests, scores and so on to industry players around the world for revision. In short, every step is tested and verified, which can be used as a good reference. 

“By participating in WSC, we learn to put sustained efforts into practice. You must use test data to let me believe that your products are qualified. It is this kind of thinking that the local industry is missing. It must be gradually strengthened.” 

Content vitally important 

The range of IT is so wide that most of it is out of reach and out of sight, with websites the bridge between IT and human. So, what is the general level of web pages in Macau? The insider knows the ropes, while the outsider just comes along for the ride. 

“Frankly speaking, it is not good,” the Expert confesses, maintaining that while most people judge a website by its appearance and images it is its content and structure that are more important. 

“In a word,” he argues, “people read websites for information only, which is the real demand,” citing as example a Hong Kong website that is dedicated to the Japanese football league: “It provides instant information on game scores, is not attractively designed, with ads to be found here and there, but is the only choice for Japanese football fans because similarly informative websites are hard to find.” 

With good content, the other must-feature is sound content structure, which serves visitors from different channels and directions. 

“Few visitors now access websites from homepages. Links are posted around Whatsapp, SMS, Facebook, etc. Therefore, good content structure is a must, so that any visitors can click onto the website and find information when necessary.” 

Once a website is equipped with good content and proper structure, it then goes to design, incorporating special colours for target visitors, choice of dynamic or static, font, paragraphing and content alignment. The design of a mobile version is important as well as how to co-operate with the brand image, etc. 

Holding the Bronze Medal of 2013 WSC, Thomas Mak recalls every detail of the event.

 

“Why is Macau incomplete?” asks Mak. “Developers may understand or may not. But the person in charge of an organisation should really have no idea. There is none who can educate and convince them. So the person in charge will often [consider] content last: you’d better draw the design first, then include the content [they think]. It will not work!” 

User-friendliness is important, too, so that it can be used by the visually impaired; the government, for example, vigorously promotes the use of websites for the visually impaired. One website launched a programme which recorded the names of different functions: when the visually impaired put the mouse in a certain position, a related sound recording was broadcast. 

“This function is a waste of effort,” says Mak, “because the browser itself can do it. What you have to do is to write codes that meet the requirements of the browser. Global industry pays little attention to this, not just Macau.” 

In addition to web pages, applications are a mainstream part of the industry, a phenomenon Mak senses many companies and organisations are susceptible to, thus demand is great. In addition, universities hold courses on them therefore the number of residents who know how to write or already work on them is significant. However, from writing to producing a good product, and from good to great, is quite a leap. Macao players tend to be less elaborate, regardless of the overall level of writing websites or apps, being satisfied with good. 

“All is with you: move one more step to make them neat and tidy, but this step is far away. You have to carefully craft, otherwise you will never achieve the level of greatness,” says the guru. Indeed, difficulties do exist. Most customers require cross-platform, means related products to be compatible with iOS and Android systems, at a low price and tough time requirement. Sometimes, it is hard to fulfill, adding that “cross-platform technology is actually a different level. You will never get perfect. In order to get the best product, you can only write separately for iOS or Android.” 

Thomas Mak won the first Bronze Medal for Macau 15 years ago.

 

In addition to the use of third-party cross-platform software, it is recommended that the industry use more specialised software to learn how to write in depth. 

“If you know how to do it, shortcuts are helpful,” he says. “But if you only know how to take shortcuts, what you receive are only some advantages; it is difficult to reach out.” 

In summary, Thomas Mak believes Macao IT talent should pay more attention to quality and basic skills, avoiding shortcuts, regardless of writing web pages or apps, with ‘great’ the goal. Also, the person in charge of the enterprise should understand the basic principles of IT. Only then can high quality, user-friendly convenient products be created. 

Blending knowledge 

IT has infiltrated every detail of modern life. It develops rapidly and creates myths. The status of the computer is threatened by smart phones and tablets. There is a trend that apps will probably replace web pages – while others believe that apps are already passe. 

So, what do IT people do? 

“A lot of people wonder why we still learn web” says Mak. “You must write apps now. On the contrary. People who write apps say apps should not be written but webs. To be more precise, you must know webs and apps, as well, then you can blend related knowledge.” 

The high intensity training and competition of the WSC is designed to train the ability of integration. 

He further explains that information technology is changing rapidly, and that every company has a life cycle, a rise and fall. Even Facebook, Twitter, Apple and WeChat, hot companies today, will be no exception. People write apps for Apple or Google. If the company goes downhill, the product falls as well; just as Adobe declined, flash will be out. But web pages are a different case – a valuable open platform and a comprehensive project or product that does not belong to any company. Companies may close, he says, but open platforms will not. Moreover, the webpage has only been popular for 30 years, during which many new technologies have been launched, with room still for enormous development. 

“In future, a webpage may not be called a webpage. Our living space is a picture; we don’t have to worry about technology inside. If there is a picture, we have something to write about, and there is creativity; that is, design for screen.” 

“As soon as Steve Jobs announced iPad,” recalls Mak. “At 3:00 a.m. in the morning, the first thing I did was pick up a piece of A4 paper and fold an ipad-sized screen. Looking at the white paper, I thought ‘What can I do?’ I think the iPhone is personal, while iPad is sharing, so I made the first iOS game; holding an iPad, there is no need to play online.” 

Training in the future will be intensified, he says. Apart from WSC, CPTT will run new courses and competitions like the first Macao Student Web Design Competition in order to provide more training for young people, as well as creating opportunities to achieve their potential. The Centre will also continue to help Macau and SMEs by using IT to target the Greater Bay Area. Although this Area embraces three jurisdictions with different economic systems, with varying languages and cultures the prospects are bright. 

“There are many IT experts in Shenzhen and financial talent in Hong Kong. Macau has achieved good results in WSC and other international competitions. Our students have a positive outlook on the world, even better than that of Shenzhen students. In the next 30 years, the Greater Bay Area will enjoy outstanding development, and IT players in Macau will also enjoy more opportunities. The Centre will try its best to provide training.” 

As for young people’s IT aspirations, Thomas Mak is more supportive, declaring: “It is absolutely good. There is no burden on young people, nothing to lose. The Internet world is flat, with the starting point in Macau not lower than other places. Entrepreneurship should be undertaken at a young age; the environment is much better than in my time. You don’t have to fly to the United States – but going to Shenzhen or Shanghai you can learn a lot.” 


Capability for competitiveness 

“Everyone talks about IT, but should everyone understand it?” asks Mak, who maintains that although there are a few experts in Macau the small number poses a problem. Another issue is that local society often disrespects professionalism. Moreover, it is commonly thought that it is ‘greener over the hill’. 

In fact, Macau does have its IT giants, with Thomas Mak, still in his early 30s, a top international expert in the field. 

The distance between the good and the great that he refers to can be significant. It can also be very close. The key is attitude. Do you want to improve? The first step is to recognise and courageously face shortcomings to find the right way while striving for excellence. 

Fifteen years ago, when he first attended the WSC, Thomas Mak felt inadequate and worked hard to overcome his shortcomings. Today, his student teams return from competitions laden with medals and honours. Now co-ordinating WSC in senior and respected roles, Thomas Mak is living proof that ‘walking the walk’ will forever trump ‘talking the talk’. 

 

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