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The necessary evils of fixing Singapore’s engineering talent shortage

Derrick Ko
Derrick Ko
6:30 pm on Oct 3, 2013

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.

wrenches

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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Have Your Say
  • colgate

    Right on. Chicken and egg problem. Companies don’t pay good salary to software engineers. Why should engineer work for a startup that only have $100 thousand in the bank? Small equity is worthless unless it’s well funded startup. The founders have to be smart too. No one want to work for someone “weaker”.
    A few engineers complained after working for startups, they couldn’t get a better salary because companies always benchmark with the last drawn salary (peanut).

    The same problem reported here:
    http://www.digitalone.com.sg/features/article/26780/1
    Singapore is missing new software boat
    Many companies in Singapore don’t realise this shift – they don’t consider software their core business and they don’t see software development as an essential skill.

  • http://www.motochan.com James Chan

    Derrick, great post and good to hear from you in the local blogosphere again. Let’s keep fighting the good fight ;-).

  • Samly

    Any thoughts on outsourcing? too few good engineers, too expensive too. chicken and egg problem i know. but no money no talk. outsourcing think is the best if no resources…

  • Ted

    The biggest elephant in the room is the culture and attitude of Singaporeans and how they treat their employees.

    Long hours, minimum pay, abusive boss are the common traits.

    As other countries offer better pay, lower cost of living, and better chance to strike gold, there’s absolutely zero reason to work at Singapore startup.

  • Alon

    Good article and indeed good to get the conversation going. Let me preface my comment by saying that I have a startup here in Singapore and think its a great country to live in, but there are challenges building a technology company here.

    I think you’re missing the root of the problem which unfortunately is the education system. Kids at a young age are not taught to question things as seen at face value, they are not taught to question authority, they are not taught to break or bend rules, creativity is not pushed and failure is a no no. The lack of questioning, creativity, desire to bend the rules and fear of failure impacts the shortcomings you mention in your article. The immigration and visa issues will work themselves out but if Singapore is genuinely interested in creating a similar startup environment to what Tel Aviv and the Bay area have, it will require a radical new way of thinking about the education system. Low salaries are a part of startup life, as is taking a risk on a company that has limited funding. Engineers certainly take low paying jobs in Israel and silicon valley because of the equity given and the tremendous upside.

  • http://derrickko.com Derrick

    I actually have always maintained that any change has to start from within the education system. Here’s a post I’ve written that touches on that https://medium.com/across-the-pacific/2b5ea1b55c4e

  • http://life-in-boston.blogspot.com/ Robin Low

    I’m an engineer who has moved to Boston since 1999. I’ve a lot of friends who are electrical engineers, and the problem they faced is the ever changing government decision to “remove” manufacturing an other heavy industries out of Singapore.

    Many of them they hung on to their jobs are left stranded as the last people who survived at Chartered Semiconductor are not doing so well when it comes to the government selling it to Global foundry.

    The country is run by doctors and lawyers, and people running engineering firms are not engineers. Many engineers want to be managers as there is no future for engineering in Singapore because instead of research, many engineering positions is in “maintenance”

    When you do not follow the rules and complete the reports, no matter what innovative ways you contribute to the company, you will be an outcast and you are either a threat to middle management or simply a troublemaker if you challenge status quo.

    Singapore produces good workers, it is the strength of this education system. We have engineers who can maintain operations, but not create new things.

  • steven goh

    get over it. the act of entrepreneuralism is the creative organisation of capital wherever it may be in the pursuit of a value creating opportunity. every region’s different. half the reason why there’s as much opportunity in this one is entirely because the problem of organisation is different. there’s great talent everywhere and not all of it you have to have here …

  • Jeff

    I’m Chief Engineer in a startup that’s tied to Singapore for another few months. (And counting down the picoseconds impatiently.) I’ve over thirty years experience developing software professionally, including working in at least four startups, one of which you’ve almost certainly heard of.

    I looked for a year and a half to hire the four senior developers our startup needed to fulfil our initial business plan, make our investors a lot of money and (listening to the customers we’ve signed up on word-of-mouth and primitive proof-of-concept demos) be for collaborative consensus building and information sharing what Twitter is to micro-blogging.

    After nearly a year looking, we took a chance on one guy; the best we could find here after shaking some pretty impressive trees (which are the reason we’re still tied here now). He’d never been in a large or distributed team; had language skills not quite matching his apparent technical skills; had teamwork skills and professionalism substantially less than his language skills. He was the best we could find, and was clearly working as hard as he knew how to get things done… but, like every other Singaporean I’ve interviewed who didn’t have a dozen standing job offers, resisted learning new things; resisted thinking creatively or experimenting; had been taught his entire career up to that point that he could just “phone it in” as long as he met bare minimums. I’m quite certain that, had he spent a decade in a career outside Singapore, he’d be a much more effective developer and teammate.

    He was with us three months. It took three months to get the code quality back to where it had been when he started. I’ve been carrying on since then, doing five people’s work myself, until we launch our upcoming product and the shackles tying us here are broken.

    As a “dare” from a previous colleague, I contacted a couple of Philippine technical recruiters a year ago. Within half an hour of my email, my inbox had over a hundred résumés, each from someone with solid experience, Github repos and other evidence of technical and collaborative ability. Half an hour after that, I got a text from one of the recruiters saying that he could send me a couple hundred more if I didn’t see anybody I liked. That would have been unnecessary; there were at least sixty CVs of people I’d have wanted to talk to immediately if not sooner. I sent emails to a few of those a couple of months ago, reintroducing myself and saying that I expected to be opening a development centre there around the end of the year. Not a single one was available. Not one; but several said “you shouldn’t have much trouble finding good people up here; I could give you a few names once you know when you’re coming up here.”

    I’ll take having too many to choose from, over not having any. Twelve times out of ten. And that’s why we’re highly unlikely to expand our development staff in Singapore, even though our business operations and company headquarters will remain here.

    If we’d started there instead of here, you’d be using our product by now. It’s that simple. And that should give pause to anyone thinking of starting a software-based or even software-related startup here. Unless you know you can accomplish your goal with the people you’ve already identified and qualified (and preferably worked with), sal si puedes.

  • Ace Ong

    I agree with Mr.Alon, and the same point is reflected in Mr Jeff’s comment when he shares his experience with us. My opinion towards startups are somewhat similar; its through the why? how? what? …. and endless questions to what you do ‘best’ that creates evolution/changes to the market and industry demands.

    I personally believe that it doesn’t matter what you are, an entreprenuer, a logistics manager, or a sales representative, it all starts with day to day self assessments. Things like “why the customer don’t buy? how the competitors do it? what can be done within my scope?” If we can carry this values as motivation factors, every job, every profession, every channel commanding the supply chain creates value for the business.

    Mr. Alon quoted,”lack of questioning, creativity, desire to bend the rules and fear of failure ” in the earlier comments highlighted the fact that there are people that do not carry values, but does what they are paid to be done. In my most recent observation with the people i work with, they gave me an impression that If they question = they have more work, so why bother?

    Most organization in my opinion fail to manage the expectations of their employee. They communicate ‘their’ expectations and prefer employees to function by the ‘book’. Employees are not suppose to expect anything from the organization besides the monthly wage that they receive. If there are systems integrated to provide an advancement for employees towards a ‘company direction’ and ‘expectations’, this will then transform to innovation and ‘positive/constructive’ actions at employee’s point of engagement towards their day to day routine.

    Organization leaders and managers should have a clear direction for the company to stay ‘in line’, this is not observed in many startups as well as established SMEs. They have created a culture, “where we follow everything base on what was done before”. The question is what happens thereafter? Are the employees aware of where they are heading towards besides money? What will they become 10 years from now if they continue to serve the company with loyalty?

    Thus by setting a direction and ‘clearly’ communicating to individuals is a starting point. It doesn’t matter what ‘selections’ of people you get into the company, they have to abide by the direction set by the company rather than to ‘go by the book’.

    This will set people to think beyond, and its human nature to be greedy and to seek better advancement, why let these human asset run off to someone else (especially after years of ‘in house’ training) when you can create a better vision for them to fight on?

  • Rick

    Good article.
    Its really the pay and perception of software as ‘dirty’ hands on jobs.
    Mass imports depressing wages doesnt help. Someone from business side of a MNC once commented.”blablabla…cos u engineer mah”

    Financial hub and startup tech culture are mutually exclusive.
    This is why Silicon Valley is in the west, while New York is in East.

    In Singapore, its all about money and glam.
    In Silicon Valley, people are driven by passion for innovation, tech and bringing change to the world. In Asia, u often hear abt investors and startups in eccommerce stuffs, which are just regular business gone online, nothing special less a few.