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Liston College Old Boy - Ming Cheuk

Dr. Ming Cheuk (class of 2008), Co-Founder & Chief Technical Officer, Spark 64 Ltd

It's been a while since the first time I stepped foot at Liston. Fresh-faced, sporting the distinct yellow polo and charcoal shorts at the time, not knowing what to expect; it was a completely fresh start to my schooling life. Little did I know that was going to be the start of the journey that got me where I am today.


Liston College had students ranging from years 7 to 13, which was a larger range than many other schools in 2003. As a 12-year-old, the senior students seemed like grown young men to me, who I really looked up to. In particular, I remember very clearly my first Head Boy Andrew McDaid (his story was just published in the June issue of the Listonian). The wheelbarrow of awards he received at Prize Giving from academic and sporting achievements was incredibly inspirational; to me, it was amazing how much you could achieve if you put your mind to it. 


7 years later I too was one of those seniors - a “grown young man” setting an example for the new. Mr Rooney, the principal at the time, allowed me the opportunity to become one of the prefects which I am incredibly grateful for. He gave me a chance even though I was a shy, less-than-outgoing person. Little did I know at the time, that would set me up to lead a company one day.


I had picked the path of science thanks to the incredible showcases put together by the science department during Open Day, particularly Mr Chandra and his classic physics experiments. I especially enjoyed the hands-on component of my science classes. To this day I'm not sure he was aware we blew up a capacitor connecting it the wrong way around whilst he was away! Anyhow, my interest in the practical applications of science led me to choose an Engineering Degree, even though I had no idea what Engineering was at the time. But it sounded like exactly what I wanted to do when I investigated it in my final year of school. 


After finishing school, I was dropped into the vast congregation of around 40,000 students from all over the country and the world - University of Auckland. Needless to say, it was a bit of a shift from a school of 700 that was within walking distance to the house I lived in for 17 years of my life. However, that was when I realised what Liston had really set me up for. My teachers at Liston - Mr Chandra, Mr Ndiweni, Mr Roberts, Ms Kelly, Mr Swanink, Mr Worth, Mrs Skelton, Mrs De Souza, Mr Fagg, and Mr Dodds - to name a few had been very supportive of me learning at my own pace, even though it meant setting up extra classes or letting me use non-standard-textbooks. This helped me incredibly at university, where you really do need to have ownership of your own learning journey. 


Moreover, Liston helped me figure out what I really wanted to do before picking my degree, which made my university experience so much more enjoyable. This meant I could sink my teeth into something I was passionate about for 4 years, rather than it being a burden. I’m not going to lie, I don't miss exams and assignments at all, but most of the courses, especially the practical projects were really interesting. 


In the end, I managed to finish my first degree, a Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering with First Class Honours, Senior Scholar (top in specialisation) and the James Gordon Goodfellow Memorial Prize 2011 - awarded for the most distinguished academic performance in the entire BE(Hons) cohort of the year. I was really proud to have represented Liston College in my academic achievement at the University of Auckalnd, even though most of my classmates hadn't even heard of the school before they met me. I was also happy to have made my family proud, being the first in my immediate family to have completed a bachelor's degree. 


After my bachelor's, I embarked on a PhD with the Auckland Bioengineering Institute. Aside from satisfying my craving to work on bleeding-edge research ever since my senior years at Liston, it also launched me into the world of entrepreneurship - a word I first encountered during my 2 weeks of economics class at Liston before I had to change subjects (due to other reasons). This was all thanks to a fellow Listonian, Evan Backhouse-Smith, who encouraged me to enter the Microsoft Imagine Cup. I had the opportunity to represent New Zealand in the world finals of the global software competition for students, which then led me to co-found the company Spark 64. 


Before you wonder, it has nothing to do with the telco Spark, who decided to change its name from Telecom 3 months after we incorporated. We came first! Spark 64 is a software consultancy that is helping organisations adopt artificial intelligence (AI) to work more efficiently, scale their operation, and deliver outcomes faster to their customers. The company just celebrated its 9th birthday last month and is about to launch a new name this month - which is really exciting for us. No, it is not One and the logo is not green. 


I really believe that the company is grounded on the values I absorbed during my time at Liston; one of which is valuing people over everything else. This has resulted in a fun, friendly workplace that cares for its people whilst still delivering excellence to our clients. Furthermore, we are a young company that is always learning - and will be forever humble in all the things we don't know yet, especially in this rapidly changing world. Finally, we work with a technology that has a tremendous potential to do good in the world, but also the ability to do harm if misused. We as a company need to act responsibly to ensure the organizations we work with do not misuse AI, whether deliberately or unintentionally. 


As the company embarks on a new journey as [name to be revealed in 1 week from this article], I will always reflect on my time at Liston College and how it has paved the path that led me to the present day. The values of the Liston Man have impacted the way I have done things over the past 14 years and will continue to do so in the future. I hope that I can share these values with others I cross paths with as well!

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