Engineering in Singapore

Solutions to Singapore’s engineering talent crunch, according to the TIA Community

In the article “The dark side of tech development in Singapore”, I highlighted the issues plaguing the Singapore ecosystem in getting engineering talent and how entrepreneurs are handling this situation. This macro problem is multi-faceted and not easily resolved overnight. However, initiatives are ongoing, which this article will try to highlight as many as possible.

(The previous article also sparked off a healthy flow of valuable comments from the TIA community. This article incorporates these views, along with previous articles, to give a more comprehensive overview.)

Founders: the ball is in your court

We saw how entrepreneurs highlighted their woes of hiring engineers, but here is the flip side that the TIA community has mentioned, “Have you looked in the mirror and asked why?”

Laurence Franslay, an engineer, decided to join an MNC after four years in startups because he could not find a startup that excited him. He says that “engineers are generally ready to join startups, which is why the best from our Singapore universities all went to the US to join startups there. We need better startups in Singapore. They can provide a good learning environment if they are doing groundbreaking work, and not another Groupon/TaskRabbit/”insert-whatever-the-new-fad” is.

Winston Teo concurs, “Are the folks, who are saying that engineers are hard to find, working on ideas that are interesting or worthwhile to solve? Are they doing enough hustling and networking to get good engineers? If they can’t hustle for engineers, can they hustle for customers?”

He further adds that “non-tech founders should […] value and ascertain good engineering, then they would have a better chance of finding and nurturing good talent.”

Gibson Tang feels “Singapore lacks good product guys and managers who are able to convince good engineers to join them. To an engineer, learning new cool stuff is like catnip to them and most startups do not have such an environment, though that could be due to lack of mentorship from experienced engineers which are already a rare breed in Singapore.”

Kevin Flanagan suggests “that perhaps the really great trick in building the sorts of tech businesses that make a real dent in the world [is] to take a bunch of ordinary talent and show them how to do extraordinary things. But it ain’t easy.”

Victor Liew likes “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.” Aaron Lim agrees that “a hammer is a necessity to building a house, as is concrete – no one wants to be a hammer. Engineers like creating cool things and solving interesting problems. They want to be architects, not tools.”

Points to take away: To attract great engineers, entrepreneurs have to think big, think of a cool product, appreciate good engineering, build a creative culture, and view engineers as solvers not tools.

Pay and career path, or lack thereof

Jaryl Sim speaks about “talent development, which means hiring the right people, and giving them a path to grow. The small amounts of funding that startups here take are holding the ecosystem back because they create teams based on who they can hire, to join teams that are struggling to get the product out. Most startups sadly don’t have the bandwidth to really develop talent because of the scale in which we operate. On the bright side, there are great startups to work with in Singapore which can help developers grow.”

Benjamin Chew wants to “change the view that programmers are [commodities, not investments]. 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 or 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.”

Read more: Hiring and retaining engineers: Lessons from US

Martin Nygate feels the need to incentivise engineers with share options to ensure that they have “skin in the game” and remain loyal, dedicated, and committed – as his company have done. Victor Liew agrees and believes “in compensating our engineers well, similar to that in Silicon Valley. And that means offering early employees a good equity option and salary. Employees should feel that their skills are developed adequately at Xfers when they join.”

Gibson Tang who runs his own development house, says: “I always try to make a conscious effort to goad my engineering team into learning more stuff and mentoring them so that even if they decide to leave one day, at least they will take some valuable knowledge with them.”

Points to take away: Remunerate well, give a great career path, and provide mentorship.

Skills upgrading and development: meetups, conferences, courses

Back to the engineers: Are engineers aware of training and learning opportunities to upgrade themselves? Or for noobs, is coding worth considering as a career? Apparently, there are meetup and conferences listed, as long as you know where to find them.

Most important tip! Credit to Thomas Gorissen, who provided an excellent resource of over 50 developer meetup communities which you can learn from experienced peers. On top of that, there is also a list of 12 annual programming conferences throughout the year for experienced engineers to attend.

Gorissen has also highlighted Devfest.Asia, which is happening between 12 to 22 Nov 2015. The festival offers many events, beginner and advanced levels, at cheaper-price points. Experienced programmers should visit the two conferences CSSConf.Asia and JSConf.Asia.

For meetups, it benefits all engineers. Jia Hen Tee, co-founder of AsiaVR Association – Singapore, says: “For beginners, they will get a glimpse of the current trend in the programming world and what gets the software engineer excited. When you hang out with people who are passionate about something and willing to share their knowledge, you will most definitely learn faster by osmosis rather than rote learning. For experienced programmers, they present their self-created software pieces and gather peer opinions to master this craftsmanship of programming.” The next meetup VR TL;DR with Razer OSVR is listed on Meetup.com. In meetups, participants are divided into groups and they decide what they want to do with all the VR hardware provided.

For beginners who want a more structured course, General Assembly (GA) will be launching two entry-level programming courses in November 2015, a ten-week User Experience Design Immersive and a 12-week Web Development Immersive. More courses will come.

Points to take away: Many meetups, conferences, and courses are available to help engineers upgrade.

Finding new talents with external resources and government help

Despite having great startup ideas, a great career path for engineers, and a list of many courses, conferences and meetups, the supply is still limited. Moreover, entrepreneurs at angel stage will highlight they have limited funds to hire. What alternatives are there?

For starters, startups can hire and interview students from Singapore Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic for internships on Startup Exhibition Day. Having a follow-on benefit, the SkillsFuture “Earn and Learn” program provides incentives for students to be mentored and trained by companies, which gives startups the ability to groom and retain talent. ALPHA Camp is also organizing Startup Career Day, a one-day forum for those considering a career in startups.

Read more: Getting polytechnic students to intern with your startup

Radical ideas have surfaced. Kevin Flanagan says: “There are 7,000 AStar mentors. The government should promote AStar free secondments to startups. In other words, AStar pays the wages while the AStar employee goes to work in a startup for two to three years and if they stay there is a nominal equity recompense.”

Rajesh Acharya goes further by suggesting to establish venture builder campuses owned by Singapore agencies in two to three foreign locations where talent pool is available and costs are still manageable and provide them as support for the startups that are funded by recognized government programs. “This approach I believe would help a Singaporean startup to focus on business and product innovation and get tech things done at a manageable burn rate.”

Thomas Wong highlighted the need for higher-skilled courses to deepen the skillsets of experience coders, as General Assembly only handles entry level programming. He offers, “Instead of spending resources to create another school of programming, we could provide scholarships to worthy engineers to attend the Hack Reactor course in the US, with bonds to ensure they will return back to Singapore. This saves the need for supporting another campus.”

Ending thoughts

Much have been discussed over the many articles about engineering talent in Singapore. Solutions have been provided and suggestions proposed. What is important now is how the tech startup community takes action and turn these proposals into something greater, raise the quality standards of startups, and making Singapore a better ecosystem.

This article is the sixth 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.