An Odyssey of the Mind: Where Learning Never Stops

Michael Tay's hunger for continuous learning made him a deserving recipient of HTX’s eXponential Learner Award, awarded to officers who have embodied the spirit of continuous learning and skills upgrading of self and others.

Michael Tay, Senior Deputy Director of Cybersecurity Resilience

michael tay and dce

When thinking about policing work, what comes to mind? Probably an image of a police officer involved in on-the-ground operations to keep Singapore safe from crime. How about cybersecurity work? You’d likely picture a cybersecurity expert in front of computers, protecting our nation’s cyberspace. These two careers seem worlds apart. Transiting between them would definitely be a challenge – most people might even term it inconceivable. But for Michael Tay, Senior Deputy Director of Cybersecurity Resilience, such a challenge only served as a new opportunity – to improve himself and learn continuously. This attitude was what made him a deserving recipient of HTX’s eXponential Learner Award, awarded to officers who have embodied the spirit of continuous learning and skills upgrading of self and others.

michael tay and dce

Michael (right) receiving the HTX eXponential Learner Award from Deputy Chief Executive Chen Yeang Tat (left) (Photo Credit: HTX)

Michael’s journey of continuous learning started way back, when he was a fresh graduate from NUS with a Bachelor’s Degree in Building and Construction Technology. “Joining the police force was a childhood dream of mine,” he revealed. “But learning how to be a police officer was not easy. I had to learn to think on my feet in responding to situations, and be receptive to change.” Michael’s drive to excel did not go unnoticed by his superiors, and he quickly rose through the ranks. Not one to rest on his laurels, Michael also enrolled in the University of Sydney’s Law School Master’s program in Criminology. “There were multiple law modules to complete, a lot of information to digest,” Michael recounted. “But I told myself I wasn’t here to relax. I had a purpose to accomplish.” Night after night, Michael pored over materials for the course. His efforts paid off – he was awarded the JH Mcclems Memorial Award for topping his cohort.

This voracious appetite for learning was what helped him to successfully enact a mid-career switch, from policing to cybersecurity. When first appointed as Deputy Director of Cybersecurity, Michael did not have an IT/Computer Science background. In fact, he had zero knowledge of cybersecurity. Most people would have shied away from taking on a role so out of their comfort zone. But Michael threw himself into the work, taking the initiative to attend numerous classes on various aspects of cybersecurity, on topics ranging from how to run Security Operations Centres, Computer Forensics, to Ethical Penetration Courses. At time of nomination, he was triple hatting – having portfolios in both Cybersecurity CoE and Ops Systems, as well as assuming the forward deployed role of MHQ Agency Chief Information Security Officer (ACISO). Despite the demands of his portfolio, he would still spend a substantial part of his weekends and weekday nights to self-study. In total, he has completed about 20 physical and online cybersecurity-related courses as of the time of writing, in about 2 years.

michael and cybersecurity

Michael (second from right) pictured participating in cybersecurity exercise with HTD colleagues in 2019 (Photo Credit: Michael Tay)

I had no background in cybersecurity. I knew I needed to plug my own knowledge gaps. Given the responsibility of leading the cybersecurity department, how can I not know anything about it?

Why the constant hunger for learning, though? “Well, firstly, it was a matter of making up for lost time. I had no background in cybersecurity. I knew I needed to plug my own knowledge gaps. Given the responsibility of leading the cybersecurity department, how can I not know anything about it?” he quipped. “Learning in cybersecurity is something you can’t go without. Here, enemies are invisible, hiding behind digital walls. And the kind of attacks they can launch are always getting more dangerous. If you don’t evolve, your adversaries will.” But more than that, Michael sees continuous learning as a basic necessity. “If you don’t learn, you’ll get left behind.” He cited the pace of change in the digital world as evidence. “Take the smartphone – just a few decades ago, phones were huge and clunky. Today you’re basically holding a mini-computer in your hand.” 

Given all the effort Michael puts into improving his skillsets, it’s a relief to know he does take time for himself. When he’s not reading up on cybersecurity, he can usually be found going for long walks with his dog, Emi, or spending time with family. “I’m grateful I have my wife’s blessing to do all these courses,” he joked.

michael and cybersecurity msoc

Michael (middle) pictured with Head of Cybersecurity SOC Ops Systems Lucas Kan and 3 NSFs he mentored during their time serving in Ministry of Home Affairs Security Operations Centre (MSOC) in 2019 (Photo Credit: Michael Tay)

Michael’s story of persistent learning is certainly inspiring. For young Xponents or those looking to join HTX, he has some advice. “Continuous learning is the cornerstone of any organisation, especially in a Science and Technology agency like ours. Technology is always evolving. There is a need to keep abreast of these changes so that we can continue to secure Singapore’s safety and security. Undergraduate or graduate degrees can only teach us so much…they can’t really prepare us fully for our jobs. We need to make efforts to learn so that we can continue to value-add.” Well said, Michael! 

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