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The necessary evils of fixing Singapore’s engineering talent shortage

Derrick is the first employee at Kicksend, a Y Combinator-backed startup based in Silicon Valley. This article is a combination of two of his original blog posts.

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I’m often asked what is lacking in Singapore’s startup scene. And I always give the same answer — there is no talent pipeline. Startups require a different breed of engineer — the kind that stems from a critical mass of builders, which we don’t yet have.

No doubt, Singapore produces great talent. I’ve met many amazing engineers from Singapore over the past couple of years. And recently, with a steady stream of engineering related events and a growing love of the craft, things are certainly moving forward. But even that isn’t quick enough to sustain the millions of dollars pumped into fueling the long-term aspirations of a flourishing startup ecosystem.

Before we can hope to be a startup hub, we must first be an engineering hub. Singapore must reach a stage where companies like Facebook and Google would decide to open up development centers here instead of just sales offices. You can’t produce a world class tech-centric company without having the right people or by outsourcing your tech team.

PayPal and Yahoo did open engineering offices in Singapore, but they are too small to have significant impact. Amazon Web Services and Palantir have recently been ramping up their engineering staff too. But I foresee them running into hiring issues down the road, as the number of qualified Singaporeans wouldn’t be enough to fill their hiring pipeline.

Hiring and getting advice is another reason why we had to be here [in Silicon Valley]. While there are some really intelligent engineers in Singapore, many of them lack experience in building a large-scale website, compared to those here. — Pete Kim, founder of Nitrous.IO, via TechCrunch

It has been over a year since I’ve written about the state of engineering in a growing ecosystem. Still, there is much work to be done before we can call ourselves an engineering hub.

Everyone wants to be a founder

The ease and ineffectiveness of early stage seed funding is encouraging young engineers to start a company. But there’s a fine balance between starting a company and joining a startup, especially if your talent pool is small. Starting a company isn’t glamorous, and while I’m not discouraging anyone from doing so, it sometimes pays to learn first.

On the flip side, I’ve heard of startups in Singapore making competitive offers to candidates, only to be rejected due to the “risk of a small company”.

Now that’s a fallacy. Engineers are fortunate to be in a position where job security is directly correlated with your attitude and ability, and not with your employer. As long as you stay sharp, you’ll always be hirable.

And yet, I’ve been repeatedly told that graduating Singapore engineers — should they decide to stay in the field — prefer to become project managers, while the ones who do become engineers are foreigners. When the demand for project managers exceed that of engineers, something isn’t quite right.

But it doesn’t help that these talented foreigners are encouraged to join large companies too. With the new regulations in place, getting a P2 Employment Pass requires a minimum salary of S$4,500 ($3,600). Unfortunately, that’s beyond what most local startups can afford. Should they decide to pay less than the minimum, that would count as a Q1 pass, which anecdotally is more heavily scrutinized and has an indeterminate processing time.

We wanted to hire a couple of top students graduating with computer science degrees. We made the offer, they accepted. However, since we’re a startup, the Employment Pass application wasn’t looking promising. Midway through the process, a large Silicon Valley company swooped in and hired them away, offering to pay off their bond to Singapore. — the founding team of a Singapore-based startup

These students went through four years of education in Singapore. They chose to work at a local startup, so that they could work on interesting problems while fulfilling their obligations to the country. Instead, circumstances led them to leave the country. Singapore has to be careful not to go down the path of blanket protectionist immigration policies.

Brain drain

brain drainCompanies do want to hire top Singaporean engineers, but there just aren’t enough to go around. It doesn’t help that the very people earmarked by the government as the “cream of the crop” aren’t allowed to enter the field either.

A couple of months ago, I was chatting with a government scholar who went overseas to do a masters in computer engineering. Upon returning to the government agency, he requested for an engineering position he saw on the agency’s job portal. He was denied that request, and was told that “scholars are to do high level, long term planning, instead of such development-focused roles”.

Top engineers need challenging technical problems. Deny them that, and they will seek challenges elsewhere.

Brain drain is, in fact, a growing cause of Singapore’s dearth of talent. Due to the lack of engineers in the US, startups and companies have recently been looking overseas to fill their hiring pipeline. Coupled with the H-1B1 visa that makes it easy for Singaporeans to work in the US, we see many great local engineers emigrating.

But that’s a necessary evil in order to nurture Singapore’s engineering talent. As it stands, I believe that there are two short-term remedies to the talent problem.

Import

Singapore’s Economic Development Board and Infocomm Development Authority should continue to make a concerted push to encourage top tech companies to start engineering centers in Singapore, but with a twist. They should heavily promote the fact that Singapore can draw from the wealth of talent in Southeast Asia.

The Singaporean talent pool can’t sustain engineering centers. I’ve had the privilege of working with very talented engineers from Vietnam and Indonesia. Bootstrapping these centers with talent from the region can be a great selling point.

Talent follows challenge and money. These engineers should be valued as they would in other hubs like Silicon Valley or New York City, and get paid similarly (after cost of living adjustments). This will make Singapore even more attractive as the place to be an engineer in the region.

As these centers gain momentum and release products we use in our daily lives, more Singaporeans will realize that engineering can be a meaningful career option. Technology companies can then evangelize and engage students on a deeper, technical level. Eventually, the talent pool will grow, and more Singaporeans will staff up the centers.

Singapore already has a history of importing “foreign talent”, and this would be no different. In fact, some of the more interesting engineering-heavy companies and startups are already mostly filled with non-Singaporeans.

Unfortunately, this remedy is rather unrealistic. Even though it’s for the ultimate benefit of Singaporeans, the very reliance of foreigners to kickstart engineering centers would be a hard sell, policy-wise.

Export

Are you an aspiring engineer? Then you should leave Singapore. Spend your time leveling up at other engineering hubs such as Silicon Valley, New York or Israel, before returning to Singapore to impart your knowledge and experience.

Engineers want to work on problems that are challenging and meaningful. There aren’t enough companies in Singapore provide such challenges, and even fewer that truly value engineers.

By heading abroad, you would immerse yourself in a culture driven by engineering. You could work with other engineers with incredible backgrounds and experience. You could solve problems at scales you’d be hard pressed to find in Singapore. And you could learn more in a year than you would in five had you stayed back home.

The same goes for startups. If you aren’t ready to start a company just yet, go cut your teeth at a startup abroad. Head to where there’s an established infrastructure of expertise, advice and experience. You would get to learn from people who have truly “been there and done that”. It’s no coincidence that the successful startups in Singapore all have experienced hands at the top.

As I mentioned earlier, it is easy for Singaporeans to obtain work visas abroad, such as the H-1B1 visa for the US. You can get the visa in as short as three weeks. And with a talent shortage in even Silicon Valley, you would be a very attractive candidate. Companies like Facebook and Google have started to realize this, and are hiring fresh local graduates abroad to their headquarters.

While encouraging brain drain is never a solution, this is the next best alternative and a necessary evil. I’d much rather see talented engineers challenge themselves overseas than to stay back in Singapore and leave the field of engineering for a lack of attractive opportunities.

I do admit that there’s a high chance that those who leave wouldn’t return. But in the end, it’s a numbers game. All you need is a couple of Singaporeans returning every year — perhaps to start companies — to slowly build up the scene.

The real solution

These are just temporary solutions. Singapore’s best bet is to tackle the talent problem from within. When you consider that the real solution has to be both scalable and sustainable — we’re talking five to ten year timeframes — it gets exceptionally tricky. As bleak as the long-term situation may be, I still hang on to a glimmer of hope that a solution is still possible.

Hence, I hope to kickstart a public conversation about possible grassroots solutions to Singapore’s lack of engineering talent.

And while we’re at it, I’d like to expand the conversation to include the lack of design talent as well. If you think the engineering problem is bad, try looking for interaction or visual designers. It’s way worse.

This is the first step. Let’s start brainstorming.

(Top image by Christine Cimala, second image by theps.net)

(Editing by Terence Lee and Steven Millward)

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