From Teaching to Policy Making to Tech: Wisdom, or Folly?

I’ve recently made a career transition, from public policy making to tech development. Many of my public service colleagues have remarked that they find it bizarre yet laudable that I’ve ventured into unknown territory. I thought it’d be useful to start a Medium account to document my journey for the next three years, and hopefully it inspires someone out there to take the first step in trying something new.

If you want to read more of my technical writings, I just started my personal website at http://rogueteacher.me. I picked up web dev (JS+HTML+CSS) in 2 weeks, and took another 2 weeks to get the site up. I’m a beginner, but this represents my commitment to learn about the tech sector for the next 3 years of my life.

I’ve spent 8 years in the Singapore Public Service. We’re typically known for being a conservative bunch — who wouldn’t be when dealing with scarce national resources — but generally, we also get quite a bit of flak for overly preserving the status quo in our lives. It’s a big thing for Public Servants to rotate ministries, or even transit between job roles. We like building up specialist skillsets, and seek comfort in developing sector-specific knowledge.

And there’s me, who recently decided to try something new. I was a high-school Physics educator for 3 years; I stumbled onto Government communications & engagement and that kept me happy for about two years. Engaging mainstream media and crafting social media wasn’t quite my thing, so I decided to re-skill myself into a data analyst with Python, R and Tableau. Strangely enough, that landed me a job as a healthcare finance analyst at the Ministry of Health, overseeing affordability issues in the Long Term Care sector.

And now… I’m an aspiring Scrum Master at GovTech? (By the way, we’re an aspiring group of developers and design thinkers in the Singapore government creating tech for public good — check us out here). With no certification at all, it seems hardly a wise choice. Or is it? In this first post of what I hope will be many more, I share my thoughts on why I chose such an abrupt career transition, and why I chose the tech sector.

Life is About Knowing Who You Can Be

I once attended a writing course by Ms Teo Hee Lian (a reputable instructor & coach in our circles, see her writing here), who told me:

Why are you so afraid to try policy making? Because you used to be a teacher, and you think you can only teach? It’s the 21st century my boy. You can do anything. Just go pick up some new skills and do your thing.

I was indeed fearful! Teaching was my dream, and a comfort. It was what I was good at, and no other job thus far has given me as much autonomy as teaching. But keep comfort as a pet too close to you, and it keeps you from experimenting with the devils of life. Ironic, that I told my students to think big and not limit themselves, and yet I had self-limiting beliefs about my own capacity for change.

But it’s also not just knowing whether you have a capacity for change. We all desire to do good, and seek to find out ways in which we can influence the world around us. It’s just us humans. As a father of two young children, I wonder to myself how best to teach my kids to dare, and to be entrepreneurial with their lives. What better way than to always seek out the good that one can do, and then to pursue it to the fullest?

In short, I felt that I was more than just teaching and policy making. If there was a chance that I could re-skill and try something new, would I do it? Would anyone celebrate my cause? Was this folly?

Many questions. And it is a career detour for sure. But the risk of not knowing what I can do was too much for me to bear.

I believe it’s too much for anyone to bear. You may not know it now, but you will look back on this many years later and wonder. And I do not wish to wonder.

So down the rabbit hole I go again.

Why Tech? Because It’s Cool?

No actually. I think many things are far cooler, like being a theoretical physicist. Or being a chef. Or maybe being that fireman whom my son adores right now.

I didn’t choose tech for being cool. I chose tech because of who I believe the tech community to be. Life is all about the people around you, and your job is a big determinant of who you get to meet.

So why tech?

Tech is Self-Managing

Have you taken a look at the open source world lately? It’s full of independent engineers, design thinkers and business folks working as a collective, contributing proactively to libraries, self-organising movements and teaching freely on the internet.

And I’m not even talking about the Web 3.0 community yet. You want to pick up Python? Just hit up PySlackers or Real Python. Interested in Plotly? Just go read the online documentation and all the free tutorials out there. Want to learn JavaScript? Learn from experts like Dev Ed or Code with Mosh on YouTube or Discord.

The community lacks a library for creating re-useable and modular web components? Well, someone from Facebook creates ReactJS, and then an entire community of enthusiasts maintains it for the next decade or so.

Pretty amazing collaboration and self-organisation, don’t you think? It empowers you to change, to share and freely teach.

Tech Celebrates Diversity

Again, I don’t just mean that tech teams are cross-functional. The tech community is known for embracing different personalities, crossing cultures to collaborate, and for being willing to bring different sectors together to solve hard technical issues.

That’s where I want to be. I want a community who’s willing to accept me for all the beliefs, skills and value that I’ve built over the past 8 years, and to transform that into a force for good. I’m willing to wager that the tech sector is my best bet of learning how to work with people drastically different from myself, and to negotiate important but difficult outcomes.

People are our future. We must learn to embrace diversity.

Tech Dares to Do

Perhaps it's because tech moves so fast, that the people have to move fast as well. Maybe it's because tech is where the money is, and it's just easier to do new things. For all you know, maybe it's because tech is the nexus of government, social change and finance.

Whatever it is, the people in tech dare to fail, and dare to fail fast. In my past 3 years working in the Healthcare sector, it has always been the technical experts who dare to bring a new product to market, who challenge the status quo, and dare to risk their efforts and name.

I think I want to be part of that culture.

A Journey, Yet Again

So that’s the why behind my decision to leave policy making behind, even if for a little while, and to explore who else I can be. Teacher, data analyst, policy maker — can I be more, yet again?

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Yeo Yong Kiat

Yeo Yong Kiat

Teacher l Data Analyst | Policy Maker: currently exploring the tech sector