Rise of the Software Craftsmen


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.

Dot-com Bust

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

Tech Conferences

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:

Webuild.sg and in www.connections.sg.

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):

Notable Personalities

Notable expatriates who are contributing to the local community:

About the author

michael chengMichael 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.

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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