Engineering in Singapore

How we embraced coding mid-career, and flourished

As Singapore shifts towards computing as a subject for O Levels (high school equivalent), it shows how serious it is about speaking and writing code in the era of the Smart Nation.

But how about the working adults? Are we being left out? It is especially stressful for a late 30s, middle-aged, non-geek like me, who thinks coding is like a complicated chunk of jargon on the screen that looks like my five-year-child randomly pressed on the keyboard.

But to my pleasant surprise, age is not a factor when it comes to learning to code. To allay my fears and be inspired to pick up coding, I asked three people with no prior programming skills to share their journeys on how they did it mid-career, and who have not only adapted, but also flourished, in their newfound careers.

What led to the interest in coding

Coding-carrot

The desire to be a technopreneur

Elisha Tan graduated in Psychology from the National University of Singapore. In her last year, she was exposed to entrepreneurship in Singapore, Silicon Valley and Beijing. That got her thinking about starting a tech startup of her own one day.

She shares about what prompted her to learn coding.

 I decided to learn how to code to build a product myself.

“Almost immediately upon graduation, I was accepted into the Singapore chapter of the Founder Institute.

After graduating from that program, I was awarded a startup grant under the now-defunct Youth Entrepreneurship Scheme. With the grant and knowledge I gained from the Founder Institute, I sought for a tech co-founder, but I couldn’t find one. I felt I had what it takes to start up, except that I couldn’t code.

That’s when I decided to learn how to code to build a product myself.”

Exploring the techie calling 

Tracey Yuen graduated in mass communications before going on to teach and do a post-graduate diploma in Education at the National Institute of Education. While he did not receive formal training in computing, he describes himself a tinkerer and engineer at heart.

He elaborates, “I’ve always been a hands-on person, dabbling in photography and taking videos. I was in the United States when I was around 8-9 years old, and was doing some woodworking projects in school. I had taken a watch apart before, and played with electronic hobby kits.

I got into computers in secondary school, and generally remained a techie, primarily trying out programs, then apps when smartphones became all the rage.”

It was when he stumbled upon the IDA Labs at Jurong via the Singapore Maker movement, that he took his first step to start coding.

“IDA Labs allowed you to tinker with the kits there and learn about the Raspberry Pi and Arduino,” he said, “As I had heard that STEM learning was something the education ministry was placing increasing importance in, it dawned upon me that I could marry my interest in technology with the educational goals of Singapore.

I got a chance to learn about Scratch and Arduino through a facilitator training with Mendaki, where we would be assistant trainers for outreach programs.

I didn’t know how easy it would be to learn Scratch, and discovered how versatile and fun it was. I appreciated the visual aspect of using code blocks; so when it came to using Python for learning Raspberry Pi, I had a better understanding of coding structure.”

Curiosity that led to learning data analytics

Joelle Yeo, a Bachelor of Commerce graduate, attributes her curiosity in understanding data from her Economics and Finance major in helping her pick up data analytics along the way.

She explains, “In the final year of my undergrad studies, I did a short research on factors that would cause couples to cheat on each other.

During the process, I had to collect a large amount of information before modelling the data. The process was tedious, as I had to ensure that documents are in the right format before integrating it into a system called Eviews for modelling. It was then that I realised the importance of programming, and how it can be used to automate the process and make things more efficient.

I was also intrigued by the amount of information that can be collected from loyalty cards used in the supermarkets in Australia.

The information collected was used to benefit the consumers, as they would bundle complimentary goods based on customer purchases, and use it to determine their pricing strategy. I wanted to understand more about the process behind it. Thus, I decided to do a Masters in Business Analytics and started learning programming.”

The journey and challenges of learning coding

Tracey was hesitant to learn coding because of his prior negative experience with learning Visual Basic programming in college.

He elaborates, “Though it was an elective and I thought it sounded fun, I still found it confusing and stayed away from programming since then. I would probably still have a bias towards it if I had not tried Scratch.”

To him, using Scratch was a better experience.

“Since Scratch uses visual code blocks and plain English, I could get into the mechanics of programming right away,” he said, “and not have to first remember how to write the appropriate commands unique to the programming language.

I then began understanding the basic structure of key elements such as loops and variables, through making a scoring system for a simple game, for example.”

For Joelle, she picked Python, which is a language often used for data analytics.

“When I first started learning Python, I found it challenging, as it was very structured,” she said. “Every code had to be thought in a logical and structure manner.

I am not a meticulous person, and often make spelling mistakes and forget to close the brackets. Hence, I often spent most of my time debugging the code. During the process, I have learnt to think more logically in a step-by-step manner, and also be more meticulous when coding.”

 One thing I didn’t expect was how supportive and nice the Ruby community is.

Elisha took the very Singaporean way for learning new skills – tuition.

“I paid my friend an hourly fee for him to teach me how to code my product,” she said. “I figured that I don’t want to become my own CTO, so I don’t want and don’t need to learn everything there is to programming. So hiring my friend was great, because he taught me exactly what I needed to know.”

“Since he is a Rubyist, I learned Ruby on Rails from him. Learning a programming language can be quite a steep curve, but it’s manageable once you get the hang of it.

One thing I didn’t expect when I started learning how to code was how supportive and nice the Ruby community is. It’s so easy to get help when I needed, and this goes beyond just the local Ruby community – it’s global. We have a saying, ‘Matz (the creator of the Ruby programming language) is nice, so we are nice.’ ”

Embracing coding as part of their careers

Elisha did not just enjoy coding, she took it to another level. Combined with her entrepreneurial skills, she founded Techladies, a community for women in Asia to connect, learn and advance as programmers in the tech industry.

techladies-image

She proudly declares that women are no less coders than men, and is on a mission to get as many ladies to learn coding as she can.

“If you’re a woman who’s thinking of learning how to code, TechLadies has a community online for that. And if you’re thinking of becoming a programmer, TechLadies has a 10-week, part-time TechLadies Bootcamp, where you will learn how to code by creating an app for a non-profit organization, under the guidance of industry experts.”

She has instructors like Jaryl SimMichael Cheng and many others, who have come forward to provide their expertise and experience.

Joelle is an analytics consultant in Ernst and Young pursuing her passion for data analytics. She specialises in providing implementation of data analytics solutions, designing visualization dashboards and improving business processes through developing analytic models.

For Tracey, his love for teaching did not stop, except now he could teach something that he loves to do. He is currently an instructor at Thinkertanker, where they teach coding and electronics.

Advice to would-be coders

Tracey talks about exploring and discovering. “Be aware that there are many different things you can do with coding, and find a project to work towards that is of interest to you.”

“Never stop trying,” Joelle advises.

Software is eating the world, and it is more important now than ever to be code literate.

“There are free coding websites such as Codeacademy and DataCamp which provide step-by-step guides on how to code. I would also recommend downloading Notepad++ when writing code, as the codes are colour coded and formatted depending on the type of scripts that you are using.

It can be used to identify closing brackets and if there are an additional spaces in between codes. Programming may seem challenging at first, but it gives me a sense of accomplishment when the code works.”

Elisha believes that one should act instead of just thinking about it.

“Just get started! You don’t need to quit your job or be thinking of becoming a software engineer in order for you to start. Software is eating the world, and it is more important now than ever to be code literate. There are plenty of free resources available online for people to get started, and there are plenty of local and online communities for you to get help from.”

Closing thoughts

To try codespeak,

<start>
IF I listen to Elisha to act and not just think
THEN Start signing up for coding courses
ELSE Get left behind and lose opportunities
<end>

Or in basic MS SQL,

SELECT Name
FROM noncoders
WHERE currentattitude=comfortable OR lazy
AND motivation=discovery OR careerchange
AND age =>21
AND employmentstatus NOT a baby

Result = <insert your name here>

If you understood my code, I hope this will ignite your interest in coding. And from the stories shared by Joelle, Elisha and Tracey, may you be inspired to take a course in coding today!


This article is the eleventh 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.