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News  18, Jul 2012

Singaporeans, wake up! Why software is eating your island

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The old-world economies, US and Europe, are losing their advantage in ‘old’ industries such as consumer electronics and manufacturing, yet many don’t seem to be bothered. Why? Even after years of outsourcing, US companies are still the frontrunners in the ‘new’ industries — the software-centric industries. But Singapore is missing this boat.

A year ago, Marc Andreessen — the founder of Netscape, a member of the board at HP and an important venture capitalist — posted an important and wonderful article in the New York Times “Why Software is Eating the World”.[1] He describes how software is overtaking traditional businesses. The most frequently-stated example of this is the bankruptcy of Borders Bookstore in 2011 while the online bookstore Amazon.com — a software company — is still thriving. Closer to home, the biggest computer bookstore in Funan Digital Mall closed its doors the same year. These days, who buys technical books in a physical store?

In traditional companies, the role of software is changing from supporting the business to becoming the core business. These companies need to re-learn their ‘new’ core business… or else a new start-up software company will learn their ‘old’ core business and take over their market and they will end up like Borders or the Bookstore in Funan Mall.

In Singapore, this re-learning will be more intense. Why? In general, Singaporeans do not have an interest in learning or understanding software development (yes, there are exceptions). They’d rather be an analyst, salesman, marketeer, or even better… a manager. These jobs have traditionally been important, well-respected and well-paying but… Singaporeans, wake up! The world is changing. A career in management or sales might not be such a great idea in 2012. Careers in software are of increasing importance and you are missing all of it! If this attitude doesn’t change then it will lead to mass unemployment and will seriously hit the Singaporean economy. Am I exaggerating? I don’t believe so, please let me clarify.

Poor state of software

Software in Singapore is horrible. I find it unbelievable that companies can get away with badly-designed software of poor quality that isn’t functional. Examples?

Singapore Air — I enjoy ranting about Singapore Air as they provide so much to complain about. In 2011 they ‘upgraded’ their website. Their new website was so bad that I wasn’t able to book a ticket online and I eventually changed airline. At that time, Nicholas Ionides, the spokesman for Singapore Air, reported: “As with any major IT project, we do expect teething problems but we expect to be able to iron out these issues in due course.”[2] No, Nicolas, projects like your website don’t have teething problems, it is just shamefully poorly developed. In May 2012, Singapore Air reported an unexpected loss because of “weak travel demand and soaring jet full prices.”[3] A month later their site is down because it is “currently experiencing technical difficulties.”[4] Wonder where the weak travel demand comes from?

But perhaps Singapore Air is an exception? Not really…

Singapore Bank [5] #1 — Our company used to have an account at Singapore Bank #1. We do all our banking via eBanking and, after a year, we changed bank as their eBanking doesn’t support recurring payments — a feature I had always assumed all eBanking systems had. The bank did always assign friendly relationship managers to us… but they seemed to miss the point: We don’t need relationship managers, we need a proper eBanking system.

Singapore Bank #2 — New bank, which does support recurring payments, yeah! We’re switching banks again. Why? Their corporate eBanking can not report detailed real-time credit card information. But that’s not all. Their credit card summary statements showed the wrong credit information. The bank even charged us late payment fees as we had paid the credit card based on the on-line information — the wrong information. Their friendly relationship manager told us to use the paper statements instead, which we had always ignored. We seemed to have been the first customer to notice this huge and obvious bug, but after six months they still had not fixed it. To make matters worse, after six months they had conveniently forgotten about it. We’re not sure what bank to choose next.

Singapore Stock Exchange — A couple of months ago, I was in Hong Kong coaching at an international investment bank. I mentioned the sorry state of software development in Singapore and they all nodded in agreement and sighed. “You won’t believe the Singapore stock exchange,” they told me, “it is an absolute disaster.”

There is hope as the government is promoting software development! Then again, how do most of the government web-sites look?

The case of the missing Singaporean developers

I mean no disrespect to construction workers, however it seems to me that Singaporeans view software development as construction work — the dirty work done by cheap labor, the dirty work they don’t want to do themselves. Every now and then I chat with computer science students and they often express the actual programming as a painful phase in their career which they have to go through in order to get promoted to something better. Promoted to project manager or business analyst — or other jobs which I personally consider to have no future… but more about that later.

There are companies in Singapore who care about the state of their software. These are usually not Singaporean companies. An investment bank in Singapore which we work with trained all their developers in modern agile engineering practices and hardly any of them is Singaporean. Or, a start-up in Singapore of about 40 people with zero Singaporean developers. Recently, I met with a manager of an international embedded systems company in Singapore. He is Singaporean and I mentioned IDA CITREP subsidy for Singaporeans. He laughed and said that he was the only Singaporean in their team. A friend of mine is a CTO of a finance firm and his policy: “Never hire Singaporean developers as they do not know how to develop.”

“Software development is unpopular because of the low salary,” I’m often told. Therefore companies hire developers from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, France, Holland… But UK, US, and France are not ‘low-wage’ countries, so what is going on here? I asked exactly this question to a CTO of a finance firm and he replied that the good software developers get paid a lot higher salary than sales, marketing or project management. Why? It is easy to find sales people or wannabe managers but finding good developers is really difficult. Perhaps the low developer salary is a myth?

Talking about myths. Now and then I’m told that all software development in Europe and US is outsourced to low-wage countries. This amuses me as I never forgot the discussion I had with a CTO of a Finnish games company where he explained that the only reason for off-shoring work was that he couldn’t find developers locally. Salary and the work environment for software development is good, so good in fact, that according to the Wall Street Journal, software engineer is the best job in the US in 2012.[6]

Yummy, an island

In January, I was in Shanghai and needed additional heating. A friend and I drove to the nearest electronics mall. I found the perfect heater and told the store assistant that I wanted to buy it. She said it was not for sale. Puzzled I looked for a less perfect one but that one was out of stock. I asked my friend what kind of mall this was — why don’t they sell things? He answered most people buy things online, not in malls!

This fundamental shift will also happen in Singapore. Software is becoming part of the core business of organizations and, with that transition, software development is a core skill to have. But in this fast-paced, software-intensive world, the software developers must deeply understand the business they are working in and work directly with users and customers to create the best solutions. The days of software developers who only understand technology and who wait for analysts to specify the work are over. Software developers need to broaden their skill, understand their domain and remove the wasteful handoff of information from analysts.

Related to this shift is the change in management style often called ‘Agile’[7] where cross-functional teams work directly with users and customers using short iterative feedback cycles. Some management responsibilities, especially project management, are delegated to these self-managing teams so they can respond quickly to the needs of customers. The team members balance between deep specialization and being enough of a generalist to always move the team forward. This delegation to self-managing teams who balance specialization and generalization makes specialized management jobs such as project manager gradually obsolete.

In Singapore, this shift will be tough as it requires cultural change on three different levels. On an organizational level, organizations need to understand software rather than looking at it as a cost centre which is best out-sourced and off-shored. On a management level, management need to empower people and create inspiring places to work rather than the hierarchy and micro-management control that is unfortunately common in Singaporean companies. And on the national level, we need to create a national culture wherein people chose a software development career rather than considering it beneath them.

Currently Singapore is going in the opposite direction. Universities do not promote engineering careers and the recent, stiffer criteria on employment passes[8] will make it even harder to find great software developers. I definitively hope this will not lead to companies pulling their development out of Singapore. If it does then that will definitively take a big bite out of Singapore’s old-fashioned economy.

Read the original post and comments here.

About the Author:

Bas Vodde, originally from Holland, has lived in China and Finland. Currently he lives and works in Singapore. In Holland he was working as a developer and always felt a mismatch between the style of development he experienced as working and the style of development that “the of?cial literature said you should do”. This mismatch was solved when Extreme Programming was introduced and with the introduction of the Agile Manifesto.

Bas work for a small consulting company based in Singapore called Odd-e specializing in training and coaching related to agile and lean development in Asia. Bas is interested in Scrum with a special focus on large companies and large product development. But he also enjoyed working on technical practices, especially test-driven development (especially in embedded environments) and continuous integration. He keeps working as a developer because he strongly believes you need a well-factored code base if you want to be fast and ?exible. His hobbies are studies in lean production and quality management and, of course, programming.

Bas is the author of the “Scaling Agile and Lean Development: Thinking and Organizational Tools for Large-Scale Scrum” and of “Practices for Large-Scale Agile and Lean Development”, both together with Craig Larman. He is also one of the authors of the CppUTest unit test framework for C/C++.

————
1. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903480904576512250915629460.html
2. Reported in Straits Times
3. Reported in Reuters news (9 May)
4. Reported on Singapore Air website
5. Original names are removed for now as that wasn’t the point.
6. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303772904577336230132805276.html
7. http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/04/09/the-best-kept-management-secret-on-the-planet-agile/
8. http://www.straitstimes.com/The-Big-Story/The-Big-Story-3/Story/STIStory_702077.html

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  • http://rank1cheng.livejournal.com/ rae

    that’s really truth! in Singaporeans companies there’s no one cares what code you wrote;
    3 years ago I moved to Singapore for a software engineer job; but 1 year working there I realized much such truth and less than 1% salary growth convinced me there is no future; later on got another job in USA in the Silicon Valley.

  • Michael Lam

    I work as a programmer for more than 10 years.  I used to work in IT startups, software house,
    consulting, in-house development team in a non-IT Company and finance company. In
    most projects, I hand coded it from ground to up.

    The problem in Singapore is not with the developers. The
    problem is that there is no market for good developers and the demand for super
    programmers are low. All projects are treated as 1-time off.  

    In general, the programmer pay is low and long
    hours compares to system analyst or project manager.  By the time you are above 35 years old, you
    are lucky if you can still work as a programmer with a decent pay. Many IT
    fellows look down on me because I’m above 30 and still a programmer. The usual
    questions is “how come you are a still programmer?” with that kind of look.

    But if you are project manager, the story will be different.
    You can get a good pay, position in mid management, fancy title (Vice President)
    and in some companies you can go back home on time.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok to be a project manager. If you
    can pay cheap programmers and get the things done, the company is happy.  

    It all boils down to:

    MONEY:  With $2,000 budget, would you hire a fresh graduate or a foreigner with 3 years of
    experience?
    Would you want to pay $10,000 for 1 super programmer compares to 4 good (not lousy) programmers?

    AGE:  If you have an iOS project, would you hire a 40 years programmer with 17 years programming
    experience or 26 years old programmer with 2 years’ experience in IOS?
    Programming is a skill with an expiry date.

    I left my job and I’m running my own startup now.

  • mike_prog

    I work as a programmer for more than 10 years.  I used to work in IT startups, software house, consulting, in-house development team in a non-IT Company and finance company. In most projects, I hand coded it from ground to up. 

    The problem in Singapore is not with the developers. The problem is that there is no market for good developers and the demand for super programmers are low. All projects are treated as 1-time off.  

    In general, the programmer pay is low and long hours compares to system analyst or project manager.  By the time you are above 35 years old, you are lucky if you can still work as a programmer with a decent pay. Many IT
    fellows look down on me because I’m above 30 and still a programmer. The usual questions is “how come you are a still programmer?” with that kind of look.

    But if you are project manager, the story will be different. You can get a good pay, position in mid management, fancy title (Vice President) and in some companies you can go back home on time.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok to be a project manager. If you can pay cheap programmers and get the things done, the company is happy.  

    It all boils down to:

    MONEY:  With $2,000 budget, would you hire a fresh graduate or a foreigner with 3 years of
    experience?
    Would you want to pay $10,000 for 1 super programmer compares to 4 good (not lousy) programmers?

    AGE:  If you have an iOS project, would you hire a 40 years programmer with 17 years programming
    experience or 26 years old programmer with 2 years’ experience in IOS?
    Programming is a skill with an expiry date. 

    I left my job and I’m running my own startup now. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/dare.chia Dare Chia

     The problem is that Singapore don’t view webware as software, and webware creation is looked upon as a brainless development job. Truly good software isn’t created on the backs of programmers alone – you need system architects, usability experts, and ample time and budget for testing, testing and testing. Unfortunately the way most companies approach the creation of a software driven solution is “squeeze budget, timeframe yesterday” and don’t believe in investing in proper planning and quality execution. I work in a company that strongly believes in creating GOOD webware, but we’re usually waylaid by shortsightedness on the client’s part.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503655889 Gurjeet Rajpal

    I don’t agree with the view that the role of project managers and business analysts will become obsolete with agile projects. In fact, they become more important due to the fast paced agile environment. Both programming and management are unique skills, albeit equally important, and I have met very few people who are good at both.

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