Response to “The dark side of tech development in Singapore”

So I wrote an article a couple of years ago, to respond to a couple of essays on how there is a shortage of engineering talents in Singapore, and it seems to me that people have started revisiting the same issue again, with TiA’s “The dark side of tech development in Singapore“, and the view that engineers needs to be educated to join startups, or that engineers need to be educated to not want to be a manager seems to be picking up steam again, and as an engineer, I find that particularly gross.

Used with permission from the man himself
Used with permission from the man himself

Here is the quote that I want to dissect in particular.

While changing mindsets of entrepreneurs and offering better opportunities, we should also work on ensuring engineers are getting the right training and exposure, and breaking mindsets that becoming a manager is the best career pathway. – Christopher Quek [Link]

But before that, let’s talk first about why engineers don’t really join most Singapore startups. I’ve heard stories of many business founders complaining about how they fail to find a technical co-founder, and how engineers in Singapore simply do not like to take risks and therefore they can’t hire engineers. I’ve also received offers of ~5% equity plus no salary to be a technical co-founder at several startups in Singapore.

Risk Averse?

Now, if engineers are really so risk-averse, and do not want to join startups, why are we losing so many of our good engineers to startups overseas? Just to name a few, the community has lost Jason Ong, Derrick Ko and Zaizhuang in the past few years. They have all ended up in startups overseas. They are all in startups. Which means they are not as risk averse as what some people make them out to be. Now, as I have written 2 years ago, and it is probably still valid today, there are 2 main things that one can attract an engineer with. Money, or job satisfaction.

What are you putting on the table?

With money it’s really simple. Just pay market rates, or even higher, and engineers will probably join you. But when you are just offering 5% equity with no salary, you better have something else on the table to offer, because 5% of $0 is $0. And unfortunately (or rather fortunately), most engineers who have logical minds, are not going to value the 5% to be much, even though you as the business founder might think that the idea is everything and that it’s gonna be a billion dollar business. So you gotta sell a dream.

Now, selling the dream is the harder route to take, or at least from my observations of local tech entrepreneurs. When they sell a dream, they talk about how much the company could be worth, pretty much talking about all the material stuff. But when you are not providing money upfront, we expect you to talk about more than just the money. What about changing the world for the better?(and no, I hate to break it to you, but your task rabbit clone isn’t really gonna change the world, and probably not for the better even if it did) You gotta figure out what value add is it that you provide to the engineer if you can’t guarantee the money.

Are you giving the engineer a sense of purpose, a mission that he can relate to? Or are you giving him a chance to push the boundaries of science, to do something that has never been done before? (And no, building yet another crud app that does something different is not new from the technological standpoint. Building an affordable electric car is.) Because if you are not providing money, that’s what they will be looking out for. And stuff that will give people a sense of purpose looks like a wheelchair that can climb stairs.

And are you someone that people will look up to as a leader? Because it’s easy to be an asshole, and I see many people these days being assholes because they are inspired by Steve Jobs. They fail to realise that Steve Jobs had vision and leadership skills too.

The Blame Game

I find it rather ridiculous that every time the talent shortage issue comes up, everyone on the business side (ok, not really everyone, I know a few VC’s with decent people, and a few good non-tech founders) blame engineers for not being enlightened enough to join them, or that all engineers just want to become managers. Have you guys ever seriously taken a look at your idea and probably consider that as the reason that engineers are not interested? Have you ever looked at what you were doing wrong before blaming the engineers for not wanting to work for you?

The Quote

The quote actually shows something that is very wrong with the ecosystem today. The training mindset. The mindset that you need to go for training to do anything. What happened to the good old habit of RTFM? How did Tan Min Liang create his Razer empire? Did he go for trainings on how to start a startup? No. The problem with this training mindset is that it closes you into this little box that you dare not venture out of because you’re not trained to venture out of it. Like that how to start startup?

Still in 1990’s mode?

Here’s another article that brings up similar points.

What do founders actually do? Complain, complain, complain. Moan about how hard hiring is. There are no good engineers. “Why won’t engineers leave comfortable jobs at Google to join my startup where they can be over-worked and under-compensated? I know, let’s H1B people since they have no good alternatives.”

Ask most any founder — “What’s your biggest problem?” Nearly always: Hiring. “The person I want won’t leave Google to join my startup that hasn’t shipped anything. It’s only a 40% paycut and the options are worth a lot, I swear.” With logic like that, it’s astonishing that many startups are able to hire at all.

And I’d like to add on that as seen in TiA’s article, it’s not just the founders who are complaining, but people running the VC’s too. And that is a really bad sign.

What needs to change

Contrary to what many may think, I actually believe that the government should stop encouraging startups. We need the real hustlers to stand up and be counted. At this point there is way too much noise in the ecosystem, causing engineers to 1) give up on the local ecosystem and join some startup overseas, or 2) deciding that finding a good startup is too much of a hassle and goes ahead and joins an MNC (which I did). Singapore needs it’s startups to be like businesses, not loss making ventures that keeps singing “One day more” when asked about how they will monetize.

This town deserves a better class of entrepreneurs than what we are seeing today.

laurence

I am a Senior Engineer with Singapore Power, and have a passion for security and distributed systems. Prior to this, I have worked in companies including PayPal, 99.co, and Nugit. I also headed GeekcampSG from 2012 to 2014, and am currently focusing my free time on social empowerment initiatives including IAmTalentedSG, and CollaborateSG. When not doing work, or any of these stuff, I can be found cafe hopping/taking photos/trekking.

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