Engineering in Singapore

Hiring and retaining engineers: Lessons from US

Singapore has seen an accelerated growth of new tech startups in recent times. However, as I meet founders and community partners, there is consensus that the quantity and quality of engineering talent pool has failed to keep up. This results in a less-than-optimal state of technical development for startups.

Hiring and retaining engineers in the tech ecosystem is a big issue, especially in talent-scarce Singapore. Tech founders are competing against the global landscape where engineers are happy to go where they are most valued.

So what best practices could we learn from the US that will help startups attract quality engineers? I asked Singaporean-born tech engineers who have worked in the US for their insights and experiences.

How it feels working in a US tech company

Yew Jin Lim, Tech Lead Manager of Google Now, started off as a Software Engineer at Google, Mountain View. In every position that he took at Google, he shows himself filled with job satisfaction. “Previously, I led the charge on updating spell checking in documents and presentations in Google Docs and Chrome that grows and adapts with the web — so now errors like “Lee Kuan You” → “Lee Kuan Yew” are picked up automatically. One user loved this feature so much that I now have a standing invitation to Thanksgiving at her home! My love for turkey aside, this really showed me how much impact developments like these can have in people’s lives,” he claims in excitement. “In my current role at Google Now, you can get traffic information about your morning commute or find popular places near you when visiting a new city, get your favorite team’s latest score and more. Building this service has been an exciting challenge for me which positively impact the lives of many users. I feel like I am helping to build the future!”

Benjamin Chew, a Web Applications Developer at SmartHealth, Inc. located in Phoenix, AZ, has worked in only one job for the last 10 years. “It’s a medium size private company, and although there are about 500 people in the company, it still has a family feel. Leadership is easy to talk to as I routinely run into the senior executives in the corridors and have personal conversations with them. There are lots of opportunities to grow in my company as I am on a small team. Thus I have to learn and grow in many different areas in order to meet the challenges at work.”

Best US practices to learn from

Victor Liew recently returned home after a 2 year stint as a UI Engineer at Quora to co-founder Xfers.io. He mentions, “I think it is about building a culture where everyone is passionate about what they do. It’s encouraging to be with people who are excited when a new technology is launched, or when someone happily discovers a new service and tells everyone about it. People in the US also believes that whatever they are building is going to significantly improve the life of others, and they work towards that belief.”

Lim likes the value of ‘ideas, not hierarchy’. He says, “The freedom to think big is exhilarating. It seemed crazy to me that I was allowed to pitch this idea to the larger Google Docs and Chrome teams, with some very senior engineers, but as it turns out, the idea and the data is what mattered — not age or tenure. So I built the prototype, measured its effectiveness, and was able to show that it was a useful product for users. The amazing aspect throughout this project was how everyone listened to a nobody like me.

I had the freedom to experiment and figure out the best way to achieve the goal. Google’s culture is not to micro-manage, but to strongly encourage employees to try new ideas, not stifle them. It is easier said than done, but it’s really refreshing and exciting that Googlers are invested in doing the right thing, and this really keeps me smiling everyday as I skip to work.”

For Chew, it was a series of positive practices that made him never consider another job. “Flexibility is a big plus for me as a parent of young kids. I can get to the office anytime from 8am – 10am, and I get to work from home twice a week. Dress is work casual, so jeans and T-shirt/Polo is fine. In the summertime here, when it’s 100F (or 40C) outside, we have a summer dress code that allows shorts too.

For side projects, I can also investigate new technologies and hack things together for fun if I feel like it. The company also invests in us. We’re given opportunities to go to annual programming or technology conferences to improve our skills and network with other programmers. Lastly, if we show that we are smart, committed and can get things done, we are rewarded with bonuses or raises.”

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Applying practices to Singapore’s unique strengths

Lim believes more Singapore unicorn heroes will attract aspiring local engineers. “Growing up in Singapore, the reason I wanted to be an engineer was because of Creative Technology and the Sound Blaster cards! This was an iconic piece of technology that every cool kid on the block needed to have, and it was Singaporean! So, being a tech hub is actually in Singapore’s DNA and I think Singapore is really well placed as a regional hub for various reasons — like its strong pool of technical talent and its central location in Southeast Asia and even more broadly Asia.”

At the same time, the need for taking risks must be accepted as a culture. “At Google, we’re reminded to have a healthy disregard for the impossible and to take risks, without fear of repercussions in case of failure. We set ourselves goals we know we can’t reach yet, because we know that by stretching to meet them we can get further than we expected. This might mean that we might make mistakes as part of the creative and innovation process. This is something that is part of our organizational DNA, our culture. We believe that it’s important to learn and to fail fast, and to have an open feedback loop with our users so we can continually learn and improve.”

In Chew’s mind, “Change the view that programmers are investments not commodities. If the technology is important to the company (and it should be nowadays), the longer an engineer stays in the company, the more valuable he/she becomes. It pays having a good engineer to see a project from start to finish, and even into the maintenance phase of a project. A good engineer is worth much, much more than a mediocre engineer in the long run.”

Liew says, “At Xfers, we believe in compensating our engineers well, similar to that in Silicon Valley. And that means offering early employees a good equity option and salary. We also believe that in creating value for employees that chose to join our startup. Employees should feel that their skills are developed adequately at Xfers when they join us. If we feel that we cannot adequately add value to an employee, we will refer them to other startups that might be more suitable for them.”

Incentivising talents to return home

Liew comments, “People will want to return to work in Singapore/Asia if there are adequate exciting opportunities within Singapore. Employers should also value engineers in general, and offer them a concrete technical career path. I’ve seen many cases where talented engineers are reporting to semi/non-technical business owners who doesn’t understand the challenges that an engineer will face.”

Chew is sitting on the fence. “A lot of things extend beyond the workplace in a decision to relocate, but if you’re just asking about workplace factors, then I would say pay is the biggest factor from what I’ve researched. A web developer like myself would only make about 60-70% of what I make here in the US. If pay is satisfied, good company and team culture, passionate & well-motivated colleagues, opportunities for growth and flexibility would be incentives for me.”

As for Lim, “I truly miss living and working in Singapore. That said, over the years I have also grown roots in US with a family and made close friends. Leaving now would also be leaving home, again.”

Lim intends to support Singaporeans in other ways.” I have not forgotten my roots though, and I am an active member of the Bay Area Tech Singaporeans group, a group of Singaporean professionals in the Bay Area, a group that helps welcome new Singaporeans into the Bay Area and also works to connect companies and VCs from Singapore connect with Bay area Singaporeans tech professionals.”

This article is the fourth 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.