Engineering in Singapore

How technology teams are formed – a case study

In the life of a tech start-up, it is inevitable that a non-tech founder needs to grasp an understanding of how technology works. But how does he start? How is a technology team formed? And who does he find?

I had the pleasure of interviewing Zhi Peng Lee (or ZP for short), tech founder and CEO of 40Tasks, whose flagship product is LOCO, a proximity based flash deals app. ZP has over 6 years of experience in programming and managing technology projects in various start-ups of Matchmove and Zumata before starting 40Tasks in 2014. I asked ZP on how technology teams are formed and how projects are executed.

ZP explains that executing a technology project is quite similar to that of constructing a shopping mall. For an easy reference, he will use Loco as a case study to explain the various roles which needs to be fulfilled.

Loco Image

Loco.sg – Building an app is similar to building a shopping mall

1. The Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

In mall construction, the main contractor is an experienced person who is familiar with the aspects of constructing a shopping mall, taking the requirements from the other departments and prepares the architectural blueprints, hiring the relevant expertise and coordinating all the work. His job is very critical as everyone looks to him for the execution of a building project.

In technology, the equivalent role would be the CTO. The CTO whom you need has to be an experienced person who understands what the business requirements of the project are and translate them into an architectural blueprint. He has to hire the relevant programmers / engineers to develop and plan out the project. An action plan will then be formulated and execution carried out by the different engineers.

2.  Database engineers

When constructing a mall, you would need mall traffic planners who decides the logic flow and movement of traffic, where the lifts go and stairwells or where to assign the retail spaces. They decide on how best to efficiently use the space. The mall planners’ responsibility is to maximise the usage of the space so that as many people as possible can move around freely in the mall without congestion. He has to make sure that there are shops set up around the mall and the visitors are able to leave the place as easily as possible when they want to.

Translate this to technology. Think of database engineers as your mall traffic planners, and data as the visitors to the mall. For data, he has to make sure that all application data is stored as efficiently as possible and can be queried effectively. He ensures that the entries to the database are done efficiently without congesting the system and that data can be retrieved from the database without stressing it.

Some of the popular databases are noSQL db such as Mongo, CouchBase and other traditional ones like mySQL and postgres.

3.  Backend development engineers

In mall construction, you would need the structural, mechanical and electrical engineers to lay the foundation, install the various mechanical and electrical fixtures like exhaust, sewer, water, electrical, air-conditioning and so on forth. They also create the various management control systems of the mall.

Take this concept to technology. The backend engineers are developers do the management systems of the mall as well as installing the various functions. Their roles are crucial, for if the foundation is not stable, the entire mall will start to fail in its systems when traffic starts to come in.

Loco Backend

The ‘exhaust pipes and electrical wirings’ of a technical system.

In LOCO, our backend system comprises of Golang for the APIs, CouchBase and Mongo as our databases, Python for script and other middlewares, and Redis at the caching level. These are our
exhaust vents and water pipings’ and we have different backend developers working on each aspect.

4.  Frontend development engineers

For mall construction, civil engineers build and cement the walls and the floor structure. They are the ones who construct the whole building, installing the lights, fixtures, doors and windows which give the building its shape.

As you can guess for technology, this would be your website or app engaging users. A good frontend engineer helps to design the mall’s walls on top of the foundation that your backend engineers have laid. They help to cement up the inner workings of the construction and ensure that entry points, such as doors and entrances are secured up. Windows and other construction items are placed in logical places and they help to realise the designers’ vision of the building.

Frontend engineers must be able to fulfil the business requirements of the company and fit it into the product design. They are the glue that binds business requirements with backend logic.

Relating all this back to LOCO, LOCO is an application that allows users to redeem deals, create push notifications, make reservations, preorder and ask for delivery. The fronted engineers use the APIs created by the backend engineers to build different mobile applications and web platforms to support the various needs and functions.

Our mobile engineers use the default swift and JAVA languages for iOS and Android to build the frontend of the devices. For our web platform, our fronted engineers use Ruby on Rails to treat the backend APIs and html, CSS and AngularJS to build the web application.

5.  User Interface / User Experience (UI / UX)

When the structure is in place, the interior designers, painters and landscapers are the next group of people who develop the consumer fronting aspect of the mall. They beautify the area and make it
pleasant for the shopper in the mall.

Loco UI UX

Flow of the UI / UX work frame of Loco

Similarly to technology, these would be your UI / UX engineers who will check that the user flow process works fine and that all functions check out fine. These engineers will also take a step further by enhancing the feel and experience for users. They will do user assessment testing (UAT) to see if the app / website is working fine. Cutting down unnecessary steps is part of their job too.

So there we have it, a simple analogy of how a technology project is carried out by a technology team.  We hope this gives a clearer insight as to how technology teams work, so that you as a non-tech founder will set the right expectations and know what team members are needed to build a project.

The writer is director of Angels Gate Advisory, which promotes Singapore entrepreneurship. Special thanks to ZP, founder of 40Tasks, for his contributions to this article and the permission to use LOCO’s materials. LOCO received the iJAM.Reload development grant administered by Angels Gate Advisory. Talk to ZP at zp@40tasks.com.

This article is the first of the ‘Engineering Singapore’ Series, where I delve into the state of engineering and its community in Singapore.


This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.