Always game for a challenge, Saleena Ali shares that the IT world is all about people, and the willingness to learn and add value. Rozana Sani takes note
SEATED comfortably in her 15th floor office at MidValley City in Kuala Lumpur, a welcoming smile on her face, Saleena Ali fits the image of the cool, confident country manager of a multinational company — all fresh and composed to tackle the day’s work.
Her appearance hints nothing of the fact that earlier at 6.30am, she was already working out at a nearby gym, and on to a morning coffee session with one of her staff, almost a daily affair as she better acquaints herself with every member of her team and and charts their progress on the projects.
Saleena believes the people aspect is important, be it in running a company or carrying out a project successfully — especially so in her current task to develop the local market and grow services provider NorthgateArinso Malaysia’s business operations.
She’s one year into her role as country manager of global Human Resource systems in NGA, the first woman here.
“Implementing solutions is not so much a product-centric or platform-centric affair, it is more people-centric,” says the charming 46-year-old. “It is how the solutions can add value to the people using them.”
And Saleena surely knows what she is talking about for she has had vast experience in the area through her stint with a list of multinational companies; starting with a Japanese bank in Los Angeles in the United States right after she graduated with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Computer Information Systems, with a minor in business there.
“Malaysia was experiencing economic recession during those years and I heard news from friends who went home that the only jobs they could get were temporary government posts that paid RM500 per month. Hearing that, I decided to stay on and got a job in a banking role, not in IT,” says Saleena, whose father was in the air force and mother a retired schoolteacher.
Working for Japanese employers, Saleena saw how staff welfare was prioritised and how employees reciprocated by being efficient and hardworking.
“They took care of their staff and were particularly concerned with safety. And they taught me how to be efficient. There were stand-up meetings ... everything was process-oriented. There was no place for complacency and short-cuts, no distractions at the workplace, and no company information left on the desk,” she recalls.
After three years working at the bank in Los Angeles, Saleena decided to come home and found a job as a systems analyst at Malaysia Airlines, where there were close to 100 IT systems running: a perfect training ground in IT.
Saleena spent six years in MAS. Upon completing each project assigned, she would ask for more. One memorable project was being part of an IT awareness roadshow for MAS employers where she got to know the different people using MAS systems. It gave her an invaluable lesson in understanding the end-user environment and what was needed.
“My last project with MAS was being part of the team implementing the Kuala Lumpur International Airport IT systems,” she says with pride.
After the project, Saleena felt that there was nothing more she could contribute and was yearning for more challenges.
It came in the job offer from German IT vendor Siemens where she became a project manager, with 20 consultants reporting to her. She then moved on to Computer Associates as a project director and during her tenure, she won the Asia Project Manager Award.
Prior to her current position in NGA, Saleena was the director of customer strategy at SAS Malaysia where she was in charge of a few areas namely Technical Support, Renewal and Education/Training Centre.
Here, Saleena won many awards, such as the Outstanding Contributions for Global SAS Education, Managing Director’s Award for SAS Customer Strategy Contributions in 2006 and CEO Award at SAS Malaysia 2009.
“No matter what route it takes to implement a project, for me, at the end it is always about adding value to the user — whether they are able to work more efficiently, save costs, get more business, etc. It gives me a natural high, an incredible sense of achievement, to be able to deliver within time and budget allocated,” she says.
For Saleena, passion is the secret to success and that one must always learn from mistakes and never regret.
“Life is a never-ending learning process and we should grab opportunities that come our way,” she remarks.
Saleena is not only passionate about work. She is also involved in Persatuan Dyslexia Malaysia and Gorgeous Geeks, a social interest group formed by women currently, and previously, from the IT industry.
She is tremendously proud of her mother, retired teacher Sariah Amirin for founding Persatuan Dyslexia Malaysia and growing it to its current 10 centres located around the country.
She is a great believer that women can come into their own in the IT industry provided that they are focused and are able to take on challenges, given a good support structure.
Married with a a 22-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son who are both currently pursuing their tertiary education in the United States, Saleena says it was tough to give her all at work when they were small.
“But I keep my life compartmentalised. I am very disciplined in not bringing work home or vice versa,” says Saleena, adding that she may be the head of the company, but at home she is wife and mother.
And of course, it is not just work and no play for Saleena. During her free time, she loves to travel and her activities of interest are hiking and adventure bike riding.
“My husband is from Rompin, Pahang and so sometimes we will ride the motorcycle to balik kampung. There are also group trips to Singapore and Thailand. It is a great way to chill,” says Saleena.
Asked when she would retire, Saleena says she couldn’t envision herself staying put at home and not working. “Unless, my daughter asks me to look after her children one day,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes.