Anything But Engineering

In perfect engineering-centric ecosystems like Silicon Valley, there’s a shortage of engineers.

In imperfect, growing ecosystems, there’s a shortage of engineers as well. But for different reasons. Let’s look at Singapore as an example.

“There are Singaporean job-seekers, but they all want to manage projects,” he told me. “I already have enough project managers. I need someone to actually do the work.”

-A recent post by a Singapore Member of Parliament

People – from startups to large corporations – always wistfully remark that Singapore needs more local engineers. On the “bright” side, the country’s relatively liberal immigration policy have given them band aid by allowing them to hire great talent from the region, such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

But the problem still remains: Singaporeans don’t want to become engineers.

Singapore’s focus on finance, R&D and healthcare in the last decade has paid off handsomely. The country has become a financial, research and medical hub. These are the sectors with “prestige” and money, and that’s what people chase.

As a result, computer science/engineering has been marginalized. Becoming an engineer often isn’t considered an attractive proposition in Singapore. Even graduates with engineering degrees seek out careers in a “prestigious” industry as their first choice. And if they do remain in the engineering world, they seek out non-engineering positions such as project managers or analysts. Basically, anything but engineering.

The reality is that the incredible paydays “prestigious” industries offer are only attainable by the top 5% of those who pursue them; those who end up as investment bankers, traders, and partners in law firms, to name a few. The other 95% still enter these industries, in hopes of reaching that upper echelon, regardless of their degree or the job they get.

However, that doesn’t mean the 95% have better paydays either. In fact, these salary surveys indicate that engineering salaries are actually very comparable. So if salary isn’t entirely the issue, what is driving away people from engineering?

Perception

“Programming is largely a tradeable job. It is almost impossible to protect the Singaporean programmers against competition from other programmers from lower cost countries. So we have to be realistic how much the company can offer.”

-as seen on Facebook

Engineers are perceived as commodities – one-trick-pony code monkeys. Engineering is about creatively building things, with the discipline to actually ship. Despite the pervasiveness and incredible demand for good engineering, there’s a lack of appreciation for it. Whenever a top independent consultant gives a quote for a project, the first question that’s asked is “why so expensive?”, followed by a reference that outsourcing is much cheaper.

Opportunities

Some of the most innovative companies truly value engineering. But there aren’t enough in Singapore to be a guiding light. You have the stalwarts – DSTA, NCS, Accenture, etc. None of them scream inspiration. They project the image of rote, job stability, and decent pay.

On the other hand, you have the new generation of engineering-centric companies such Pivotal Labs (now New Context) and Viki. Although they are very rewarding jobs, they don’t have the sufficient visibility to function as motivational factors just yet.


I believe that the way forward is to boost our cultural affinity towards engineering.

Build up the startup sector. Properly.

We have a lot of startup business plan competitions. That works well for traditional industries. However for tech companies, business plan competitions are meaningless. People are better off spending time learning to build a better product than a better business plan.

As a friend wisely said, “competitions should be about building things rather than talking about building things”.

Engineers are motivated by ownership and visible impact. Startups are the best place for that. For that to happen, we must grow the ecosystem the right way, with schools playing their part too.

Interestingly, some of the best and most driven engineers I know are government scholars who studied overseas. They have experience in an established ecosystem, they want to improve the local ecosystem and they love engineering. And yet, they had to fight. Some for a gap year in engineering, and some for their private sector secondments to be startups.

I don’t want to kick off another debate about scholarships, but I feel that scholarship boards should recognize that there are other ways one can contribute to the country. Especially if they have the skill set, passion and desire to do so.

Create a culture of building stuff

Building stuff is fun. You get to create value while learning. But there isn’t enough encouragement to keep on doing so. We should all have side projects - whether it’s an insane dorm room, a video game, or a website. Especially students.

In the perfect world, all computer science/engineering students should be actively involved in clubs like NUSHackers. They would be pursuing personal projects on the side and actively learning beyond the curriculum. As seen in an exchange I had with a NUS student computing society president, we are a long way off.

“So do you guys organize talks for students to expose them to other technologies such as Ruby and MongoDB?”

“No, we organize welfare events such as gaming parties and Valentines Day events. Why would the students want to spend more time coding out of class? ”

“Ok. So do you at least help or encourage students to seek out internships during the break?”

“We are a small faculty so that makes competing in Rag and Flag (a school float parade) tough. So we actually rather the students stay back and help out instead.”

I was pissed.

Most of us have a curious mind when we were young. Thanks to toys like Lego, we grew up loving to build things, but somewhere along the way, we lost that.

More evangelism from the community

There are amazing engineers doing awesome things. There amazing engineering events like RedDotRubyConf, GeekCamp and SuperHappyDevHouse. There amazing engineering communities like Hackerspace and developer user groups.

It’s time we step out of these communities to evangelize the joy of engineering. Each one of us has a unique and relevant perspective. Let’s share that, especially with students. Start speaking at primary schools, hold workshops at secondary schools, and inspire students at universities and polytechnics.


In the end, it is a numbers game. Singapore isn’t very different that other cities and countries of similar size. On a macro level, even the US suffers from the lack of engineers (hence the White House’s recent STEM initiative). But the large population papers the cracks, and allows ecosystems like Silicon Valley to exist.

It will be tough, but I have no doubt that Singapore, like its peers, can produce more great engineers. Everyone just has to play their part.

I would love to hear your takes on this, give me a shout out on Twitter.


A big thanks to Andy Croll, Laurence Putra Franslay, Jason Ong, Eli James, Arun Thampi, Peter Kim and Amerson Lin for reading the draft, and for their fantastic thoughts and suggestions.

 
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