About Vietnamese Engineering-Founders and Hard Truths about Vietnamese Software Developers

Vietnam has been long known as one of the world’s software outsourcing centers for large companies in the States, Europe, Japan. That’s the old Vietnam. In this post, I will cover the new Vietnam.

About myself

I am a Vietnamese, I got a bachelor degree in computer science from National University of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City in 2003 and a master degree in software engineering from National University of Singapore in 2010. After graduation in Vietnam, I worked for local companies in 3 years. In 2006, I made my way to Singapore and have been staying in the sunny island since then. In June 2012, I made my foray into Singapore startup scene by kicking off Startup Grind community after my exploration trip to Silicon Valley. Since then, I have made regular trips back home to Vietnam as well as interacted with various kinds of entrepreneurs in Singapore. In the past 3 years, I helped a couple of startups in Singapore get their products built by individual developers or digital agencies in Vietnam.

The new class of Vietnamese engineering-founders

“The Grokking team believes that Vietnam would become a tech-hub not only in South-East-Asia but also in Asia and the world in the future. And we would be eager to become a part of the big bright vision.”

This vision is quoted on Grokking website. I am so much buy-in to this vision. Here’s why.

In the past couple of years, I have experienced a new class of startups built by young Vietnamese founders with engineering background. Some of them have gained certain level of success.

Trung Hoang is the CEO and co-founder of Lozi — a discovery platform for Vietnamese food lovers. When I first met Trung in Singapore, I was impressed with his grit when he pitched his vision to some 30 developers in order to recruit a tech co-founder for joining his startup. In 2012, Trung dropped out after spending a year of study at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology to go back Vietnam and started his own startup. Late 2015, Lozi scored a 7-digit funding round from Golden Gate Ventures. Trung was nominated as one of the Forbes 30-under-30 2016 Vietnam list.

Trung Hoang, CEO and Co-founder of Lozi

Quan Truong is another example of engineering-entrepreneur. Quan is the CEO and co-founder of Beeketing, a platform of marketing apps that focuses on increasing sales and conversion rate. Before Beeketing, Quan had started an outsourcing company while he was still in university. Late 2014, he participated in the early-stage pre-accelerator Founder Institute Hanoi and started Beeketing. Beeketing is one of the very few rare cases of startup started in Vietnam by Vietnamese and got incubated by 500 Startups in the Valley.

Quan Truong (light blue T-shirt), CEO and Co-founder of Beeketing

Besides those two examples of Vietnamese founders with background in engineering . I also come across more and more Vietnamese engineers holding key roles at tech startups in Singapore for example Huy Nguyen, one of the early engineers at Viki. After leaving Viki, Huy co-founded Holistics.io company out of Vietnam. He also started Grokking which I will be mentioning below. Another example is Tien Nguyen who is currently holding the role VP Engineering and CTO at Wego. Lately, some of renown tech startups in Singapore such as Grab, Garena, HonestBee have been driving recruiting campaigns to bring engineers from Vietnam to work in Singapore. Therefore, Vietnamese engineers are becoming an important workforce in contributing to the success of Singapore-based companies.

Challenges Hindering Vietnamese Engineers Develop Further

However, the promising opportunity of tech talent pool in Vietnam also goes a long with some key challenges. I have done a number of conversations with employers both in Vietnam and Singapore who have hired Vietnamese engineers to nail down the problems.

The first problem lies with weak English communication skills among majority of Vietnamese engineers. The curriculum of software engineering among other disciplines at most of universities in Vietnam are still carried out in Vietnamese. That fact leaves the students have to invest in their own time and money for picking up English skills if they can afford. Somehow, most of Vietnamese who pursue engineering degree come from low-income family background and therefore they cannot afford to invest in improving English.

There was case with a talented engineering student who failed internship interview at Google because he could not understand what the interviewer was speaking about. In today modern world, English skill is considered as a passport for building a good career path at international standard. Weak English skill has taken away many opportunities from Vietnamese engineers and founders alike.

The next challenge is weak soft skill (including presentation skill, team-work spirit, interpersonal skill, etc ) among majority of Vietnamese developers. From what I recalled in my time with being trained in Vietnam before, there was neither subject nor extra-curriculum activity to train engineering students in those skills. Tech employers in Vietnam typically require engineering graduates to go through training period about 3- 6 months before they can really perform. Only those students who did a few internships during their studying can perform better in those aspects.

I have ever observed a Vietnamese engineering-founder unable to present well in English what his startup does when he pitched his startup to the judging panel at Tag.pass Watson accelerator programme in Singapore. His product is a platform to connect native language trainers (including English trainers) to students. It seems really counter-intuitive to me.

Another problem lies with the culture. Vietnamese engineers can work efficiently alone or in a small team but once it comes to work in a larger team, it’s really hard for them to get along well in order to produce better outputs.

The problem comes next is short-sighted planning for career path. I had a conversation lately with a Viet Kieu who is a Canadian expat but originally born in Vietnam. He has been building a small tech team out of Saigon for a year. He shared with me that one of his engineers was willing to change job just because the other company could offer a US$ 50 salary increase. He pointed out that Vietnamese engineers (at least those who are working for him) are not willing to take risk and not willing to think out of the box.

In another conversation with a Singaporean entrepreneur who built a tech team of 20 developers in Saigon, he shared with me that it’s very common to encounter CVs of developers who change job every single year. Somehow, he has built a good company culture to retain developers. Although some of his developers got better offers by other companies but they still want to continue working for him.

As someone used to live in that situation, I could say on behalf of majority of Vietnamese software developers that we don’t know how to get ourselves ready for a good starting salary right after graduation. A long the journey of working life, we tend to job hop frequently in order to negotiate a higher salary.

Perhaps foreign employers in Vietnam are not willing to pay higher even, they still want to consider Vietnam as a good place to produce cheap software developers. It’s very common to come across Vietnamese developers who have a couple of side projects to earn extra money, that factor has also distracted them from building up their career path by focusing on their main job.

Lastly, a lot of talented Vietnamese engineers have made their ways to leave the country and their destinations are usually developed countries such as US, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Europe. If foreign employers come to setup tech team in Vietnam, it’s really hard to find senior engineers with great experience in engineering and leadership skills. I have observed some employers able to overcome this problem by hiring a Vietnamese working in Singapore for some years and sending them back home to lead the local team.

We have good hopes

With the challenges highlighted, I have observed some of pay-it-forward culture from grass root communities for developers such as Grokking, TechSoup, GeekyWeekend. Grokking and GeekyWeekend are organized by engineers who ever worked in Singapore, therefore they have injected certain level of vibrancy to the local tech community in Saigon.

With Grokking, they organize high-quality tech talk events every month since 2014 with speakers who are senior engineers from companies both in Vietnam and overseas to share knowledge on important topics of software engineering and tech product development. Lately, they are venturing into skill acceleration for engineers by putting together an 8-week long big data bootcamp.

A tech talk at Grokking Engineering — photo courtesy of Grokking

With TechSoup, they are active in hosting monthly events with speakers to discuss different aspects of soft skills and interpersonal skills for engineers in order to grow and excel in their career path. On 23rd of October, I am bringing some friends who help recruit engineers for tech startups in Singapore to speak at at TechSoup event.

With GeekyWeekend, they host weekly meetup every Saturday since September 2016. They are a mix of Grokking and Techsoup in they way that they hold different mini talks covering tech and career development topics for engineers.

With the support at the grass root level, I humbly expect to see more and more Vietnamese engineers with a strong foundation in both tech and soft skills in the years to come.