Herman Widjaja: Transforming a nation through technology
Winner of the 2021 Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award
Herman Widjaja, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Tokopedia, draws inspiration from people who use technology to transform nations.
“For example, Bill Gates wanted to put a computer in every house,” says Herman, who oversees the overall technology and data office at Indonesia’s leading technology company.
“Our founder, William Tanuwijaya, had a big dream 12 years ago that the price of goods would be the same all over Indonesia.”
“People who dream with their eyes wide open can change the nation. People who have agility and grit, who dream 10 years ahead, are cool.”
This vision of creating change through technology encouraged Herman to return home to Indonesia after two decades abroad, where he studied and worked at some of the world’s top technology companies, including Gates’s Microsoft and Google.
Growing Indonesia’s most popular e-commerce platform
Founded in 2009, a technology company with the biggest marketplace in Indonesia to date, Tokopedia aims to bridge the gap between big and small cities in Indonesia, which faces the arduous task of developing infrastructure to move goods and services among its 17,500 islands.
By connecting merchants and customers online, Tokopedia knocked down the infrastructure and geographical barriers. Today, Tokopedia covers 99% of sub-districts in Indonesia, with 86.5% of merchants being new entrepreneurs.
As the CTO, Herman has been essential in putting technology at the core of Tokopedia’s innovations and financial growth. In 2019 and 2020, CIO50 listed Herman as one of Southeast Asia's top 50 senior technology executives who were driving innovation and influencing rapid change in the region. The company now has more than 100 million monthly active users and more than 11 million merchants selling over 550 million products through Tokopedia.
“The beauty of the technology industry is that it’s always developing. People in the 1990s were fascinated by the web and mobile technology that started in the 2000s. Now, technology is moving to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning,” said Herman, who graduated with a Bachelor of Computer Science and Engineering from Australia’s Monash University in 2002.
“AI and machine learning can change our mindset on how to answer or solve customers’ problems with new solutions.”
A stellar career at the world’s leading tech companies
When Herman was growing up in the 1990s, the internet and computers were not part of daily life in Indonesia. However, when his father raised the idea of studying abroad, Herman chose to study computer science and electrical engineering.
“I thought it would look cool to put the degrees on my wedding invitation,” Herman chuckled.
Soon, Herman fell in love with computer science, but he had to learn from scratch. He worked hard to get bonus marks on each assignment.
“It was not to please my professors, I was excited to learn,” he said.
After graduating from Monash and working for six years in Australia, Herman moved to the U.S. to work at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, for over 10 years before he moved to Amazon.
From Amazon, Herman moved to Google where he was tasked with developing Google’s augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR).
Working with some of the world’s leading technology companies allowed Herman to develop different platforms. To date, Herman has had 14 international patents in the field of technology.
Herman said the basics he learned while studying in Australia set a solid foundation for him to thrive.
“For three years, I learned about structure, algorithms, and how computers work. Those basics perhaps don’t look sexy and cool, but they are the foundations. Technology may change, but the basics stay the same,” he said.
Nurturing Indonesia’s up-and-coming digital talent
While working abroad, Herman met many talented Indonesian engineers. This experience opened Herman’s eyes to Indonesia’s great talent pool in information technology and the potential to grow its market.
“When I went back to Indonesia, the market here was hot. However the growth of the market should be balanced with the growth of talent,” Herman said.
This was the starting point for Herman to initiate the flagship Tokopedia Academy, which runs programs to develop local digital talent.
“We arrived at this point because of the support from the market. So why not use our programs to nurture the market? It is our contribution as one of the biggest technology companies,” he said.
Tokopedia Academy has become a learning ground with programs including 'Tech A Break' and a forum for sharing knowledge about technology, workshops, partnerships with IT communities and strategic collaborations with universities.
Tokopedia also partners with universities for its digital talent programs, including the University of Indonesia for the Tokopedia UI AI Center of Excellence and Herman’s alma mater, Monash University.
Tokopedia and Monash University are undertaking a 12-month collaborative study on ‘Data Science and Machine Learning for E-commerce Fraud and Anomalous Activity Classification’ and the Monash-Tokopedia Data Science Forum. The forum aims to be a venue for research dissemination, information sharing, and discussion on data science to better the two nations.
Participants at Tokopedia’s learning programs come from various companies and backgrounds. “I believe that if we want to raise the whole boat, we need to raise the ocean, too,” he said.