The reluctant CEO

The reluctant CEO

Trend Micro's CEO, Eva Chen, does not fit into the image of a hard-nosed, go-getting power businesswoman. Relaxed and chatty, she easily bursts into laughter during a conversation. She loves to paint and avidly follows the NBA (National Basketball Association) league in the US. And to make things complete, she's also got a mean counter-riposte when fencing. "In business, too many times we wear a mask and try to be someone we are not," Ms Chen says, adding that this is especially so for many women bosses.

"I've met a lot of women in the workspace who like to put out an image of being very tough and all-knowing because they feel they need to be competitive.

"However, I believe there is another management style, which also works. As CEO, I ask all the silly questions to my people and I don't mind if they tell me, 'Eva that's silly, things don't work that way'."

Silly questions or not, Ms Chen's track record speaks for itself.

In the eight years she's been at the helm of the world's third largest anti-virus software firm, revenue has doubled to US$1.2 billion last year. In 2012, she was named one of Forbes Asia's 50 Power Businesswomen.

Ms Chen grew up in a wealthy family in Taichung in Taiwan. Her father inherited the family bank, founded by her grandfather. She has an elder sister, Jenny. Jenny Chen, along with her husband Steve Chang, started Trend Micro in Los Angeles in late 1988. Eva Chen came on board soon after and in 1996 became the Chief Technology Officer - a position from which she spearheaded a lot of Trend Micro's innovation. She took over as CEO from Mr Chang in 2004.

In 1981, armed with a degree in philosophy from the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, Ms Chen went to the University of Texas at Dallas for further studies.

Why philosophy? "I decided to do philosophy because I believed that college was not the end of my education and philosophy would train me how to think. My dad told me this and even back then Steve Chang also said the same thing. They advised me to do a philosophy major so that I could learn how to think."

However, once in Dallas, "the reality of life started to touch me and I quickly understood that by majoring in philosophy I would not be able to survive", says Ms Chen with a laugh.

She enrolled in a masters degree in business administration. It was around this time that Ms Chen's knack in technology revealed itself. "We were using a lot statistics to do management, so I needed to do projects in the computer labs. This led to writing programmes to do business logic analysis and I found that I really liked that."

Her story takes an interesting turn at this point. Since this was still in the early 1980s, most people were not very familiar with computers. Ms Chen found herself increasingly helping out other computer users who were flummoxed about what to do. Her "lab assistant" role was noticed by the computer labs administrator who asked her if she wanted a job as a teaching assistant at the lab.

"However, he was surprised to find out that I was not majoring in computer science. So I got into a double major with management information systems. I also took up the computer lab teaching assistant position."

The beginning of the Internet

One day, while working at the lab, Ms Chen got a shock of her life. She was on the computer when suddenly a message popped up on the monitor which said: "How's the weather in Dallas?"

"I was startled and thought, 'Who are you?'.

"It was somebody from Florida University and he was using what was then the precursor of the Internet, the Arpanet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). This was around 1982 and only university researchers had access to Arpanet. I was fascinated at how you could communicate via a network and chat about any subject."

After completing her studies, Ms Chen moved back to Taiwan in 1987. In order to support herself, she started off as a technical writer at computer maker Acer. She had a short stint in that company but still managed to become a product manager of a line of Unix machines which the company used to make at that time.

In 1988, Mr Chang asked her to set up the Taiwan office for Trend Micro. "I quit Acer but Steve couldn't pay me a salary, so in the mornings I started to do sports writing. I wrote for a US-Chinese newspaper and covered events like NBA. My working hours were very strange. I worked from six in the morning till 11am covering sports. After that I went to work for Trend Micro."

According to media reports, Steve and Jenny Chang along with Eva Chen and her husband Daniel Chiang combined have a stake of around 30 per cent in Trend Micro. Ms Chen's parents helped fund the company during the early years. Masayoshi Son of Japanese company Softbank was also an early sponsor. Even though founded in Los Angeles, Trend Micro is now a Japan-based company and is listed at the Tokyo stock exchange.

A year after setting up the Taiwan office, Ms Chen quit her sports writing job as her work with the company became more full time. She set up the engineering team in Taiwan which did most of the company's R&D (research and development).

At that time, the company was selling a software copy protection system called T-Lock. It allowed software developers to scramble their code, and this could only be opened with a software key.

Using this system, the software developers could sell or pass on their software without worrying that it would be copied.

One day in 1989, Ms Chen got a frantic call from a customer in Taiwan who claimed that T-Lock had totally destroyed his software and he could not retrieve it. She, along with an engineer, rushed to the client's premises and started to investigate. Very soon, they realised that the code was scrambled due to what was the first known virus programme ever released. The virus, called Brain, was written by two Pakistani brothers, Basit Farooq Alvi and Amjad Farooq Alvi.

Ms Chen and Mr Chang discussed this outbreak and decided to add on something called "anti-virus" to their product to protect against such attacks. After about a year, they found out that "anti-virus" made for better business than copy protection software.

The Trend Micro boss feels the ability to multifunction is a big asset.

"Within the company I always encourage engineers to do various functions. I send them to become sales people and then bring them back and make them product managers and so on."

Her early years of developing the Asian and Japanese markets are full of interesting anecdotes.

"Twenty years ago it was quite tough as a woman business leader in Asia," she says. Ms Chen narrates a humorous incident which happened in Japan. "I went into the meeting room to do a presentation. Seeing a woman entering, everybody started to order their drinks. 'I want tea, I want coffee...'

"I took down all their requests and served them. After that I got up to do the presentation. The whole room stared at me and did a collective: 'Huh?' "

In another incident, Ms Chen was scheduled to go on some customer calls with an engineer in Japan. He was very hesitant to accompany her. "He told me, 'Eva, can you not give out your name card?' "I asked him why, and he told me that 'it's kind of strange that my boss is a woman'," Ms Chen recalls.

She actually printed new name cards which gave her designation as an "Engineer Assistant" even though she was the boss.

"During meetings, it would look like I was taking notes and showing them to him for approval. But actually I would be writing things like: 'Say No'; 'Yes that's the way we will do it.'

"Those were the early days. Now, 15 years on, some of my very early customers joke with me: 'Wow Eva, you've come a long way from being a secretary to CEO'."

She feels that today, things have changed a lot and people are generally more comfortable with the idea of women in positions of power and responsibility. "There are so many presidents (of companies) who are women."

Ms Chen says: "My only advice to young women is always be your own self. Find your own passion. A lot of times we model success by saying you need to be like this in order to be a successful person.

"But if you can be yourself and find your own passion then you can define you own success. It is not necessary that being a CEO is the only success. Being a very good mom is also a success. In today's world, there are a variety of ways to define your own success - that is my advice to the younger generation."

In 1995, Ms Chen moved back to the US and set up a Trend Micro office in Cupertino in Silicon Valley to look after the competitive US market. Steve Chang and his wife, meanwhile, had left for Japan in 1993 to oversee operations there.

The next year, she formally took over the role of Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Trend Micro's big break came in 1999 when the Melissa virus hit US corporate email systems and caused billions of dollars in damage. The company had been working on an antidote product for just such an eventuality for a couple of years. Thus, they were first off the block with a solution.

The fact that they had the solution ready so fast had the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) suspicious. "They (FBI) called us and said they wanted our help to find out who created the virus and they also asked how we could come out with a solution so fast?," recalls Ms Chen.

Fortunately, things worked out and the FBI caught the culprit, who happened to be a person from Florida who wanted to impress his girlfriend, whose name was Melissa.

Trend Micro won a patent for the core technology in 1997. Following this, it entered into a patent swap agreement with Symantec and IBM. However, Network Associates, the precursor to McAfee, refused to cut a deal and sued Trend Micro, who in turn counter sued. Network Associates eventually settled for US$12.5 million in 2000.

Stepping up

From the turn of the century, Steve Chang started to ask Ms Chen to take over as CEO. She, however, felt she was not ready for the role. Moreover, between 2000-2002 Ms Chen had some health problems and took more of a backseat and moved to Los Angeles.

However, by 2003, she was ready to get back into the thick of things, especially with a new threat looming up; this time they were called Worms and were self-replicating malware computer programs. She again led the team which came out with a product to protect computers from worms.

In 2004, Mr Chang again broached the subject to Ms Chen at her father's funeral. He said: "Well Eva, are you ready to grow up now?"

"I don't know, maybe that was a very emotional moment for me because there were many things happening together; I felt like I was the little girl in the family and now it was the time to step up to the challenge and also I felt, what if I don't take this challenge? I would spend a lifetime wondering what would have happened if I had taken up the job?"

So in 2004, she finally took over the CEO's job and Mr Chang became chairman.

Ms Chen feels that one of Trend Micro's big advantages is that it is a pure-play security company and so it can stay nimble and ready to meet evolving threats. And she thinks the next big target for hackers and malicious code writers will be Big Data and virtualised servers. She is confident that Trend Micro is prepared to face this threat. "For 25 years we have stayed very focused and we believe that's the way to win."

Her life outside of work is very important to her. She has a son and a daughter who live in the US and she keeps in touch with them via technology. She loves to fence and in November will take part in a tournament.

What perhaps best sums up her approach to life is a painting that she did on her tablet. During a shareholder meeting in Japan after the tsunami, she showed the painting and added a sentence to the slide: "Let the journey continue..."

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