by Michael Cheng, senior software engineer at mig33
I had an interesting conversation with a budding startup entrepreneur the other day. He asked me: “Why are computer programmers in Singapore perceived as a low prestige occupation?”
I imagine his statement stems from the fact that he had a hard time looking for a developer for his startup.
I paused for a minute as I had always felt comfortable and secure about my chosen profession. So that statement, at first, felt awkward.
I hypothesized that perhaps Singaporeans were still hurt from the dot-com bust of the late 90s/early-2000s. I was working part-time in a dot-com company in 2001 and I lived through the extravagant and wasteful excesses of that period.
Hot IPOs with high valuations were eventually whittled down to penny stocks in the Singapore Stock Exchange. Many people were burnt back then — including retirees who just cashed out their CPF (retirement fund). As a result, people of our parents’ generation didn’t have a good impression of technology startups in general.
The Era of Middle Managers
After the dot-com bubble burst, the government refocused on a less intimidating image of IT — Infocomm — more soft skills like project management than hard(working) skills like software programming and hardware.
This was on the coattails of the great outsourcing movement of the mid-2000s. The government figured that since countries like India, China and the Philippines are getting all the lower-value outsourcing jobs (like call centers, back-room services and software programming), that we should try to move up the value chain.
So that period saw a big push for a cohort of IT middle managers. Computer programming was perceived as beneath them as they were bred by our system to be managing coders — Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, or some Indochinese outsource partner. They themselves never ever needed to touch an integrated development environment (IDE).
However, the flood of infocomm jobs never really materialized. The new infocomm managers bred for the job were considered too inexperienced to take on million dollar projects or were not needed as much as the actual people doing the projects. The rest either move into networking jobs, web design jobs (if they can do some design) or they end up as insurance agents (ie. not in IT).
Another promise of lucrative IT jobs seemingly broken.
Where are the Programmers?
Sure, there are some well-paying jobs. The computer science graduates got snapped up by banks or government linked agencies and were shoved into enterprise IT oblivion (this blog post has a deeper exposition of the topic). They get slapped with titles like “Analyst” (not programmer, mind you) where they get bogged down by change requests and what-nots — more plumbers than builders.
Our parents’ generation never had much respect for technology jobs to begin with. A generation of IT professionals were lead to believe that management is a higher calling (and higher paying position). Bosses are led to believe that they are better off outsourcing the lower-value stuff overseas just because it’s more “price competitive” to do so.
So where are the computer programmers in Singapore? The truth is, we don’t have that many. The good ones are already employed or chasing their own entrepreneurial dreams.
But… there is a silver lining to this story.
The Rise of the Software Craftsmen
In recent years, there has been an emerging wave of computer programmers brewing in the periphery – a new breed of software craftsmen (and women). Increasingly, more are becoming “builders” by choice — and proud of it.
For these folks, coding is not just a 9-to-5 job that you can “switch off” after you leave the office, but a lifelong passion. They pursue excellence by continuously honing their skills. They are curious and fearlessly do instead of just theorizing and speculating in the labs.
One might attribute this to the Web 2.0 companies that had succeeded in Silicon Valley in recent years. Increasingly, small and agile teams of highly skilled individuals (eg. Instagram) have been rolling out disruptive and market dominating innovations — proof that it is possible to be passionate about your craft and be successful at the same time.
The new Apps-driven economy has also led to a proliferation of a new-age small cottage industry. Many boutique development houses have sprung up here, founded and/or headed by highly technical and multi-talented individuals.
The availability of state funding (eg. MDA’s i.JAM and NRF funding) has also reduced the risk for builders in joining startups — avenues where they find the highest level of technical challenges and most fulfilling expression of their software craftsmanship.
For evidence of this movement, one need not look further than the number of technical support ecosystems that have sprung up over the years. These are grassroots driven interest groups and conferences (not government-directed endeavours):
Grassroots interest groups
- Singapore PHP User Group
- iOS Dev Scout
- Singapore Python Platoon
- Front End Developers Singapore
- Singapore JS Meetup
- Team Ubuntu Singapore
- Startup Roots Singapore
- NUS Hackers
- HackAndTell Singapore
- WordPress Singapore
- Drupal Developer Network Singapore
- Singapore NodeJS User Group
- Singapore Ruby Brigade
- Arduino Community Singapore
- Raspberry Pi and Co.
- Little Hackers
- Singapore MongoDB User Group
- UX Singapore
- JSCamp Asia
- Red Dot Ruby Conference
- Mini Maker Faire Singapore
- DrupalCamp Singapore
- iOS Conference
- UX Singapore Conference
Notable Grassroots Driven Hackathons
One characteristic of these support ecosystems is that they are multi-racial and multi-national. Locals and expatriates (of all genders) mingle and learn from each other. In these communities, the currency is what you know and how much you share it. The reflected learning power from sharing knowledge cannot be underestimated. You can see a sampling of their recent work here:
I believe this movement has reached a tipping point.
In many ways, we who are in this community are beginning to experience an “echo chamber effect” – we only see the good stuff that we have in our collective communities. We need to move beyond our communities to influence those who have not heard the “good news”. We need to become more mainstream. We need our own version of Code.org.
In a way, it is for the sake of our peers in the industry, for the younger generation choosing their course of study and for our parents’ generation to show that computer programming is a higher calling. That it will pay reasonably well — never sell yourself short — because good software craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap. And it is a worthwhile and fulfilling pursuit of happiness and individual expression.
This is the era of the software craftsmen.
One more thing…
I have compiled a list of software craftsmen (and women) in my circle of friends whom I feel best epitomizes the spirit of this movement (of course, this list is not exhaustive and in no particular order of merit):
- Aen Tan (Design guy not shy of code)
- Arul Kumaran (runs Luracast, creator of Restler)
- Arul Prasad (works at i.am+, former Tech Guru at PlayMoolah, former Lead Engineer at FusionGarage)
- Arun Thampi (Co-founder of Action.IO)
- Ashish Awaghad (developer at Elephanti)
- Calvin Cheng (founded Odeon Consulting Group, started Little Hackers, LittleMakers.cc, GrowthHackers and Tripconomics, Python IO)
- Chang Sau Sheong (Director, HP Labs Singapore, published author)
- Chew Choon Keat (build SharedCopy, previously worked at SlideShare in SF)
- Chin Su Yuen (Chief Inventor at MokoMomo Interactive)
- Chow Loong Jin (Assoc Software Engineer at Red Hat, Package Maintainer for Canonical – one of the Masters of the Universe)
- Chu Yeow (CTO at Wego.com)
- Derrick Ko (employee #1 KickSend, former Pivot at Pivotal Labs Singapore (now Neo)
- Gibson Tang (consultant at Azukisoft Pte Ltd)
- Hazrul Azhar Jamari (Founder of Singapore WordPress User Group)
- Herryanto Siatono (build BookJetty, works at Yahoo! Singapore)
- Jason Ong (VP of Engineering at LoveWithFood, previously CTO at BoatBound. Ruby dude in SV)
- Laurence Putra Franslay (runs Geekcamp.SG & Singapore MongoDB User Group, Engineer at BillPin)
- Lester Chan (tech blogger, WordPress Plugins Developer, works at mig33)
- Lim Chee Aun (Creator of HackerWeb and works at Wego)
- Marvin Sum (works at Palantir, previously with FoodSpotting)
- Mugunth Kumar (Creator of MKNetworkKit, iCashSG, published author, iOS trainer)
- Muh Hon Cheng (build the SGNextBus app and works at buUuk)
- Peter Jihoon Kim (CTO & Co-founder of Action.IO)
- Ridzuan Ashim (Head of Development at INEO Solutions Singapore Pte Ltd)
- Ruiwen Chua (JFDI Bootcamp Alumnus, Square Crumbs, BillPin)
- Sam Hon (Founder of Singapore NodeJS User Group)
- Sam Mauris Yong (Co-founder, HeartCode.sg)
- Sayanee Basu (contributing author at Nettuts, creator of Build Podcast)
- Sidwyn Koh (founded The Pragmatic Lab, iOS dev, trainer)
- Subhransu Behera (Founder of iOS Dev Scout, mobile dev at SAP)
- U-zyn Chua (Founder of Zynesis Consulting, created Ping.sg, created Opauth)
- Venkatraman Dhamodaran (Co-founder of Flocations)
- Vinay M (the Artminister)
- Winnie Lim (works at SimpleHoney)
- Wu Wenxiang (Co-founder of ZopIM)
Notable expatriates who are contributing to the local community:
- Carl Coryell-Martin (Managing Director (Singapore) of Neo Innovation, Inc.)
- Erwan Mace (mobile entrepreneur, Founder of Bitsmedia Pte Ltd, Director at Magma Studio, ex-Google, ex-SoundBuzz CTO)
- Florian Cornu (Co-founder of Flocations)
- James Rivett Carnac (RedWire, Media Pop)
- Kai Hendry (Founder of Webconverger, Hack and Tell Singapore)
- Kristine Lauria (WalkAbout SG, FailConSG, TheList.SG)
- Lakshan Perera (creator of Punch, developer at Action.IO)
- Sebastiaan Deckers (Frontend Co-founder at Cofounders Pte Ltd, Co-founder at BeermatesJS, Founder, Project Maintainer, Lead Developer at Pandion)
- Stephan February (Founder of SetupManual.com, CryptoPeer.com)
- Sven Berg Ryen (Founder of Drupal Developer Network Singapore)
- Thomas Gorissen (organizer of JSCamp.Asia)
- Tim Oxley (open source evangelist, organizer of CampJS, started Singapore JS)
- Vinnie Lauria (Started SuperHappyDevHouse SG, Founding Partner of Golden Gate Ventures)
About the author
Michael Cheng has more than 10 years of experience using PHP to build dynamic websites. He founded the Singapore PHP User Group and currently works at mig33. He has a passion for teaching programming: http://bit.ly/codeiskungfu. And he tweets @coderkungfu.
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