talentClarification. I am friends with Derrick Ko, and this post is meant to clear some air about the supposed talent shortage in Singapore. For the original post, see here.

There are a couple of assumptions made in that post, which I believe is inaccurate.

Everyone wants to be a founder

There is no doubt that there are a group of engineers who dream of themselves being a founder one day. I myself am no exception. But given a lack of ideas, engineers actually do go and get employed first instead of starting up a company and figuring out what to do later. After all, we have bills to pay, and to the logical engineer, it doesn’t make sense to risk everything and pursue something you don’t care about.

Companies do want to hire top Singaporean engineers, but there just aren’t enough to go around.

This is assuming that the companies are good enough to hire these top Singaporean engineers. Now this is a very tricky assumption. When I talk to my fellow engineers, the one complaint that I often hear, is that there are no startups doing really cool stuff. When engineers look for a job, they generally have 2 main criteria, salary, and job satisfaction. Most companies (in this case, I would assume to be startups), will not be able to pay a competitive salary ($4k and above). Which is fine, if they are able to offer job satisfaction. But the problem is, they often do not. Many ‘founders’ treat starting up as a roll of the dice to getting riches, and not because they really believe in the idea. After all, the mentality is that there are lots of seed money lying around, doesn’t hurt to take and try. And because of a lack of conviction by the founders, the engineers don’t see a point of joining the startups.

The other problem is that many of these companies who are complaining that there aren’t any engineers to hire, treat hiring good engineers as replacing a wheel on a F1 car (which incidentally is replaced by engineers). Many startups hire engineers by simply posting a job onto a job board, like e27’s own job board, or spamming the tech user groups with various posts about how cool their startup is, without actually providing any information whatsoever about the company in question. These are actually 2 separate problems, which I will address separately.

So first problem, using job boards to hire engineers doesn’t always work. The top engineers are almost always having a job, and those who are looking would very much prefer to find it through their personal connections. After all, we would prefer to work for a place that our friends actually recommend, than somewhere where we have no idea what the culture is like. Hence, using job boards will almost certainly not reach the better engineers.

Second problem, we have many founders spamming the tech user groups with their post, on how cool their startup is, without any information whatsoever. Here is a sample of such a post on the tech user groups, and the guy goes on afterwards clarifying that he had in fact bought the company, instead of inheriting it, after questioning by some of the members.

As one of the organisers of GeekcampSG, I often get requests from startup founders to help them send out job postings. What these startup founders don’t understand, is that these events and user groups are actually communities that exists mainly for the sharing of knowledge, not hiring. And we as geeks, don’t like it when a new guy comes into our community and immediately start spamming job ads. In fact, on many of the tech user groups in Singapore, rules on posting have started to form as a result of this.

So, how do you start your tech startup then?

  1. Get into the community
    This doesn’t mean simply joining the facebook group. It involves getting to know the people in the group, and turning up for their meetups, and chatting with the developers after the meetup. It’s about getting to know them as individuals, and when they start to realise that you are taking to effort to know what it is that they do, they’ll be more comfortable with you posting a job posting in the group. After all, you have become a part of the group.
  2. Pick up programming yourself
    The thing with most startups in Singapore, is that they generally don’t need the best engineers to code. One can probably learn enough to code out a prototype of the application in a month that works, from sources like ‘Learn Python the Hard Way’ or the many Ruby tutorials out there. On top of that, developers would actually be willing answer questions that you may have about the language on the tech user groups, as long as you have shown that you have put in sufficient research.
    There are actually founders who have done this, including Elisha Tan from Learnemy, who has actually earned the respect of many engineers I know by simply picking up coding when she couldn’t find a tech cofounder. She spent around 2 months picking up basic CSS/HTML and Ruby skills, while hacking together various tools like Wufoo to make her site work. Back when she first started learning programming, there weren’t that many online resources, and she relied on making friends with developers, to ask them questions about programming. In addition, she hired a friend of hers who was a developer to be there for a weekly consultation. She is currently learning Ruby on Rails from another friend now, who will be conducting a Ruby Bootcamp next year. When asked what advice she had for her fellow business founders, she says

    “Just do. While you don’t need to become your CTO, you will need some programming skills. And there are a lot of free resources out there you shouldn’t have any excuses not to learn programming.”

  3. Give the unproven a try
    Many founders are known to require experience when they are hiring. Problem is, instead of looking at skills, one should be looking at attitude. Instead of requiring a developer to have 5 years of experience in Ruby on Rails, look at the stuff if he has done in other languages first. If he has done a decent amount of work there, and is confident that he can deliver, well, give him a try. It’s close to impossible to be proficient in all the languages at the same time, and if one has the attitude, one definitely pick up the new language really fast.
  4. Take it as a challenge

What is being done now to grow the talent pipeline in SG?
There are several initiatives from the grassroots level which are designed to get more of the younger generation involved in technology.

One of the largest tech user groups in Singapore, the iOS Dev Scout currently runs seminars and workshops in NUS and Singapore Poly, and is looking to expand soon. On top that, at the start of every hackathon that they organise, they actually have workshops to get the newcomers up to speed, and able to code a basic app.

GeekcampSG has also been reaching out to young budding hackers, providing them with a platform to understand that being geek is actually a viable career path. The youngest speaker at GeekcampSG earlier this year was 14 years old, and gave a talk on iOS development. GeekcampSG also links up young aspiring hackers to industry professionals, who have committed to spending time grooming the next generation of talent. GeekcampSG also fund the passions of these aspiring hackers if they need it.

NUSHackers have been doing a rather good job in NUS, encouraging them to be developers instead of project managers. NTU OSS is currently pushing for such efforts, and we are seeing some successes on that end too.

Of course, this is stuff that takes time to happen, and doesn’t just happen overnight. It will be months, if not years, before we see the fruits of these efforts. If you want to be a part of the solution, drop me an email at laurenceputra [@] geekcamp.sg, and we’ll see how we can solve this problem.

Lastly, if you are a good hacker, you need not leave Singapore, there are plenty of opportunities here which i would be more than happy to introduce you to.

Featured Image courtesy: S.John / Shutterstock