Enabling digitalisation


By JOY LEE

"Our vision here is to enable clients to digitise business by themselves." --- Ellice Ng

WHEN Ellice Ng, 38, quit her studies in software engineering, she didn’t think that she’d come back to it in any way. The jargon was a challenge for her and she just wasn’t very into it.

Instead, Ng went on to chart a path in communications and founded her own public relations company. She found considerable success in the industry despite starting off broke.

“I didn’t have many friends and I only had RM500 in my account. But I wanted to give it a try. I got through the six months trial. It was tough, but it eventually got better.”

But as fate would have it, she was drawn back into the technology field about five years ago following an encounter with Tim Hendricks – her future business partner and now husband – who was in Malaysia to train people in Mendix Low-Code.

Mendix is a low-code application development platform.

Low-code is a software development approach that requires little to no coding to build applications and processes. Instead, it uses visual interfaces with basic logic and drag-and-drop capabilities.

This time, her interest piqued.

“I got interested in low-code and did my own research. I found out that it was quite big in the US and in Europe but not in Asia. But it was also because Mendix did not focus specifically on Asia. So I thought of the opportunities that were available here.

“It’s a growing industry worth about US$20bil (RM83.4bil) in the US and Europe. And China started using low-code in 2014,” she shares with a degree of enthusiasm.

She took some time researching the potential market for a low-code platform in Malaysia and the region and in 2017, with funds taken out from her wedding budget, they kickstarted Orangeleaf Consulting.

The company offers digital innovation services, specialising in Mendix Low-Code, to firms looking to digitalise their systems.

Ng recalls that there was hardly any conversation in the market around low-code at the time and it was a challenge educating local tech talents on its application. They were also frequently turned away as companies were generally unsure about the concept of automating their operations then.

However, Ng was convinced that low-code is the way to go to help companies with their digitalisation process.

And given that it requires little coding, it was possible to build a system 10 times faster and with seven times fewer resources. For example, Orangeleaf built 15 applications for a local client with only two people on the project last year.

“In a company, different departments will be using different software and they usually need to manually consolidate the data across. I believe Mendix can help them close that gap. And because we are a consulting firm, not a software house, we start off by helping clients build a digitalisation strategy before selling them the idea of using low-code.”

Orangeleaf’s early clients signed on with them when they were shown the potential returns on investment. For its first customer, it built an entire system in two months, with three weeks of testing, at half the cost.

Ng adds that the company does not offer off-the-shelf applications, preferring, instead, to help clients customise their systems.

“It’s the build versus buy approach. If you buy something off the shelf, it’s harder to integrate that into your system. If you are a smaller company, buying off the shelf might work because it’s not something you want to bother too much with.

“But if you have your own special features and you want to customise and build your own pipeline to enable the company to build systems internally, then we can help you (do that faster with low-code).

“Clients need to look at what systems they can’t roll out fast enough to meet the market. And if they want to expedite that, they can leverage low-code. Mendix is all about getting the product out as soon as possible,” she says.

While off-the-shelf applications may enable clients to immediately plug-and-play, she notes that building a system offers companies with more sustainable results.

She also emphasises that Orangeleaf does not do long-term contracts, which are a norm in the software industry. Their projects are completed in days or months.

“We come in to help them with complicated projects. However, in the long run, they can have their own internal people to build systems. Once the internal team familiarises themselves with the low-code environment, they can further build the systems later. This also helps them build their internal digital workforce.

“Our vision here is to enable clients to digitise business by themselves. I really hope that Malaysia will one day be able to digitise things in the ecosystem that works, whereby nobody needs to go through a manual process in between two digital processes.”

Given its flexibility in building various applications with low-code, the company does not focus on any one industry and serves clients in various sectors including manufacturing, construction and logistics.

Ng adds that there is no limit to the number of solutions they can build. Notably, the company has seen tremendous growth of some 200% since the start of the pandemic as businesses look into every avenue to digitise their operations at the fastest pace and with the lowest cost possible.

Enquiries from the local market have also picked up substantially with the growing acceptance of low-code.

Currently, the bulk of its business comes from overseas markets like the Philippines, Japan, Germany and Australia.

Correspondingly, the majority of their customer base are larger firms. SMEs, including startups, make up about 20% of Orangeleaf’s business.

While there is plenty more that the company can do in the digitalisation space with rising demand, Ng wants to also look at the wider needs of the ecosystem.

“After three years in the market, I noticed a high demand for low-code talent in Europe. People in Europe are looking to us for talent as we have the cost advantage. So our goal is to build a talent hub for low-code.

“To have a healthy ecosystem, we need to build the supply of talent. So once our business stabilises, we want to roll out an academy in Malaysia to offer short courses on low-code by 2022,” she says.

She adds that in the near term, more and more enterprises in the US and Europe will be using low-code given its accessibility.

This may also encourage more women to join the tech workforce.

“Low-code is very different from traditional programming. You need both the business and tech perspectives, and in this sense, I think women are better at seeing a balanced picture. But men and women have their own strengths and they actually balance out the development ecosystem quite well.

“In the long run, I do see an increase in interest and I do encourage more women to explore tech and to take their learning into their own hands.”

The return to tech has been unexpected, but Ng notes that it has also been a lot more interesting.

“It has been a learning curve. But I do find IT more fun these days and I want to know more. I see tech very differently now. It is so much more incorporated into so many aspects of our lives. Technology has transformed our lifestyle,” she says.

The road ahead is certainly promising for Orangeleaf as digitalisation trends continue to increase.

For Ng, who has had a rough past year following a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, it is also a time of coming back on track and taking the opportunities ahead with gusto.

“Nothing in life is easy. Everything you do is about the decisions you make and then going through the learning curve.

“And every obstacle is an opportunity to grow. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that every status is not permanent.

“I was an orphan. But now I see myself as a businesswoman and an entrepreneur. It takes a lot of perseverance, grit and patience.

“If you learn the basics, you will go somewhere. And another piece of advice I can give is to not compare your life with others.

“I overcame a hard life with gratitude and by picking my fights.”

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