Trend Micro Chairman Steve Chang
Seeing through Power
For many years, Trend Micro founder Steve Chang was caught in the rat race running his very successful company. But he decided to get out soon after turning 50 to devote himself to more charitable pursuits and has not looked back.
Seeing through PowerBy Monique Hou
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 615 )
“I’m really happy that my hen was able to attract a rooster,” says Steve Chang.
Chang, the founder of content security software Trend Micro Inc., has disappeared from the public eye for quite a while. Visiting with him recently, he gives off the appearance of a “half-farmer” with his handmade straw hat, baggy pants and sandals leisurely meandering through the countryside.
He flashes the smile of a kid in a candy shop when he speaks of the reeds that finally bloomed after three years or his young hen successfully luring somebody else’s rooster. An outsider would never guess he is the founder of Taiwan’s only world-class anti-virus software provider and worth NT$10 billion.
Many people look forward to retirement and being able to sleep until they wake up naturally, but then don’t have any motivation to get out of bed when retirement actually rolls around. It’s hard to believe that Chang actually descended from his perch in the clouds overlooking the world 11 years ago in his early 50s to spend his time wading through muddy ground.
A great admirer of Bill Gates, Chang followed Gates in handing over the reins of his company at a relatively young age.
He once believed that one needs to fight to grow, but he now realizes that growth can even be stronger without a fight.
“Look at that withered tree. In two months, it will suddenly turn completely green. You have absolutely no way to control it,” Chang says.
In searching for a new path, Chang thought that what he wanted was a life without constant “fighting,” but he found himself unwittingly falling back into his old habits and battling everything from nature and land to people and politics, and ultimately losing all of those skirmishes.
The following are excerpts from Chang’s interview with CommonWealth Magazine in which he analyzes the new road he is traveling.
Commonwealth Magazine: We have interviewed many CEOs and entrepreneurs who say they want to leave everything behind only to come back into the fold later on. In your case, you really were able to give everything up when you were only in your early 50s. Could you share that experience with us?
Steve Chang: When I announced my plans, everybody thought something had suddenly happened. In fact, I had been thinking about it for a long time. When I was 45, I was already looking for a successor and brought in a group of people from Intel because Eva [Trend Micro’s current CEO Eva Chen] said she didn’t want to take over.
This position carries a heavy burden; you have to fly all over, and it’s really exhausting. You may really like Italy but when you have to go there two to three times a year it is no longer interesting; you don’t feel that excitement anymore. Personnel issues also became a bit of a pain, and I felt it was time to get out.
When I was young, I read a book on Indian philosophy, and I really wanted to be alone and find myself. I was very interested in this. I used to think I was an extrovert, and others felt the same way. But then one day, I suddenly felt that I was introverted.
You just talked about returning to the fold. People may do that because they have not found meaning in their lives so they head back to their companies to continue their search.
Others who pass the baton may not realize it but they do it subconsciously to wait for their successor to fail to prove how effective they were.
CW: Did you have any regrets after passing on the baton?
Chang: No. There were some emotions when we announced that Eva would succeed me. We were in Japan at the time, and after the announcement was made, about 500 to 600 suit-wearing distributors formed a line and one-by-one congratulated Eva and exchanged name cards. I was cast aside, and thought to myself, wow, that was fast, happening less than five minutes after the announcement was made after being the center of attention in the past.
At the time, I felt a sense of loss, but not hardship, and there was even a sigh of relief at no longer having to explain to a distributor why its commission was different from that of another distributor. That’s what I did every day for over 10 years.
But once power was transferred, the situation changed immediately; that’s how the market works. I had a kind of awakening at the sight of the true nature of power. Once your name card is taken away, then who are you? This situation forces you to ask yourself that question.
CW: Most people your age have experienced moments of glory, having worked as the general manager of a foreign company in Taiwan or as the general manager of a company’s Greater China operations. But after these people retire, they have trouble socializing with others without a name card. They feel that others suddenly have different attitudes toward them. How about you? When somebody else gives you a name card, what do you do?
Chang: I don’t have a name card and haven’t had one for a very long time. I used to need an alarm to wake up, but now I sleep until I wake up naturally.
That can be scary to many people. They suddenly have no name card, no outlook, no schedule, no e-mails or the ones they do receive are spam – the habits you’ve had for a long time don’t exist anymore and that has to be overcome.
In the situation you’re describing, the person has essentially become that name card, which represents a personal high. Once the name card is suddenly gone, that person has lost his identity and has no reference point to answer the question “who am I?” That’s really hard because that person’s ego was entirely embedded in that name card.
Unless that person can find another area that he feels is worth attaching himself to, for example, taking a course at a school or trying to learn something new, that feeling of emptiness and melancholy is really hard to expunge.
Also, there are many things that just because you’ve done them, it doesn’t mean they’re generating value. That’s what I learned in Vietnam. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can get or achieve anything you want.
The Lesson Learned in Vietnam
CW: Why did you go to Vietnam to plant trees?
Chang: In the past I spent all my time in the virtual world. The people I met were all involved in computer science or global sales, and the products I was involved with weren’t fixed assets like land. So when I retired, I wanted to do something completely different, and get involved with tangible assets, working with farmers at the grassroots level.
At the time, there was an opportunity in northern Vietnam to plant trees in areas sprayed heavily with Agent Orange by the American military during the Vietnam War. I wanted to take advantage of Taiwan’s core competitiveness in agriculture to plant eucalyptus trees there.
This tree is very straight and grows very quickly, and it can be cut down in nine years to make plywood. Once the trees are chopped down, they grow seedlings to the side. The original idea was to do something good for the company, local farmers and the region.
CW: But it eventually failed?
Chang: You can say that. It’s very hard to grow trees, and I had to learn a lot.
As a CEO, you can set a strategy and drive it through with your will, and if you’ve made the right bet, you’ll rise up.
But you can’t use this approach when it comes to planting trees; if you don’t fertilize the trees at the right time, you’re done. The planted area is so vast, it can’t be watered by hand. You’re dependent on rainfall to wash the fertilizer into the soil; if the trees are fertilized too early or there’s too little rain, the trees will die. Too late, and you’ve also got a problem.
There’s simply no way that you can be sure to achieve what you want to achieve. I had to make a clean break with many of my past assumptions.
CW: How many trees did you plant?
Chang: They gave us 260,000 hectares, about the same size as all of Pingtung County, but we ended up only planting 20,000 hectares of that.
CW: What happened?
Chang: At the time, [the project] was initiated by Nguyen Tan Dung when he was in his first year as prime minister. He thought it was great that there were people dumb enough to do this. He let me choose the site, and after considering transportation issues, I selected Lang Son, which is not far from Guangxi [in China].
But the authorities told us to stop planting after we had already planted many trees because of national security questions on the border, and had us reapply for approval. In effect, the premier’s signature didn’t count for anything. They later told us we were too close to the border with China, that we couldn’t plant anything within so many kilometers of that border.
So I discovered that putting up all the money on my own, being very well-intentioned, and getting the neighboring communities prosperous made no difference at all.
CW: That sounds quite different from the common good you were hoping for.
Chang: That’s right. When politics gets involved in something, it’s over. Locals started grabbing land, anonymous letters smearing us were sent, and some workers even sued us for underpaying them US$25. A member of the National Assembly proposed revoking our license. When politics started getting involved, we were not going to continue, we could not continue.
I really put a lot into this social enterprise, and I didn’t succeed, although it wasn’t a total failure because the trees are still growing. I later realized I was treating this like a business – focusing on strategy, core competitiveness, efficiency and KPI to go and compete. If I wasn’t up against nature, I was up against people; to make a long story short, I was still pursuing growth, and a part of that was having too big an ego.
It’s a good thing I stopped. I only realize now that I went about it the wrong way, because when you do good you have to be “like water,” to benefit all things without ruffling anything.
Doing the Ultimate Good
If you seek achievement or fame, you cannot think deeply and you cannot be calm.
[After taking the reporter to an inlet on the Pacific Ocean] Look at that water. Where it’s very shallow and runs into stones, waves are created. When you stir up water, there’s a reaction – it’s a natural reaction. When water is very calm and flat, that means it’s very deep.
When your thinking is not deep enough, your values are those of others, whether to please them or control them. If you seek achievement or fame, you cannot think deeply and you cannot be calm.
CW: So let me ask you the most basic of questions: Who is Steve Chang?
Chang: That’s a good question. I’m still searching for the answer. At least now I’m starting to get some idea. What I want is a relaxed body and calm mind. I want to be carefree.
CW: In terms of society, who is Steve Chang?
Chang: That’s a philosophical question. I’ll tell you what I’m still doing. I’m still involved with Flow Inc. [a group helping people with disabilities find work – its slogan: “Innovation for the Good”]. Second, I’ve joined with some people to promote using energy flows to treat allergies.
In 2017, I have these two simple plans.
In the past, I would be constantly making a judgment, making a decision, making a judgment, making a decision. This is what CEOs have to do every day. Some people may get a charge out of this, but to me, it’s kind of pointless.
Simply put, it’s about finding meaning. What is the true meaning of life?
Who am I? I am somebody who can accept things happening naturally, such as trees turning green, plum flowers blossoming, or Japanese designers painting a bench in a black pavilion red. I won’t criticize any of them, I’ll just accept them.
When I now look at competition in the private sector, I find it very shallow. It all depends on reaction patterns – somebody comes at you and you react to it. If you’re lucky and made the right bet, you can bluster your way through it. That has no meaning for me anymore.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
Education: B.Sc. in applied mathematics, Fu Jen Catholic University; Master’s in computer science from Lehigh University
Experience: Trend Micro founder, CEO
Current: Trend Micro Chairman
Chinese Version: 趨勢科技董事長張明正：看透權力的本質
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