Walk Before You Run

Derrick Ko
Apr 23, 2013 · 4 min read

I’m often asked what is lacking in Singapore’s startup scene. And I always give the same answer -- there is no talent pipeline. Startups require a different sort of engineer. Engineers that stem from a critical mass of builders, which we don’t yet have.

Singapore produces great talent. There’s no doubt about that. I’ve met many amazing engineers from Singapore over past couple of years. And recently, with a steady stream of engineering related events and a growing love of the craft, things certainly are moving forward. But even that isn't quick enough to sustain the millions of dollars in the local venture scene, and the long term aspiration of a flourishing startup ecosystem.

Before we can hope to be a startup hub, we have to first become an engineering hub. Singapore must reach a stage where companies like Facebook and Google decide to open up development centers, instead of just sales offices. You can’t produce a world class tech-centric company without having the right people, or by outsourcing your tech team.

Paypal and Yahoo did open engineering offices in Singapore, but were too small to have made a significant impact. Amazon Web Services and Palantir have recently been ramping up their engineering staff too. While that is certainly promising, I foresee them running into hiring issues down the road, as the number of qualified Singaporeans wouldn’t be enough to fill their hiring pipeline.

“Hiring and getting advice is another reason why we had to be here [in Silicon Valley]. While there are some really intelligent engineers in Singapore, many of them lack experience in building a large-scale website, compared to those here.”

- Pete Kim, founder of Nitrous.IO, via TechCrunch

It has been a year since I’ve written about the state of engineering in a growing ecosystem. And one year on, there is still much work to be done before we can call ourselves an engineering hub.

The ease and ineffectiveness of early stage seed funding definitely encourages young engineers to start a company. But there’s a fine balance between starting a company and joining a startup, especially if your talent pool is small. Starting a company isn't glamorous, and while I'm not discouraging anyone from doing so, it sometimes pays to learn first.

But yet, there’s the flip side to this perception. I’ve heard of startups in Singapore making competitive offers to candidates, only to be rejected due to the “risk of a small company”.

Now that’s a fallacy. Engineers are fortunate to be in a position where job security is directly correlated with your attitude and ability, and not with your employer. As long as you stay sharp, you’ll always be hirable.

And yet, I’ve been repeatedly told that graduating Singapore engineers -- should they decide to stay in the field -- prefer to become project managers, while the ones who do become engineers are foreigners. When the demand for project managers exceed that of engineers, something isn’t quite right with the industry.

But it doesn’t help that these talented foreigners are encouraged to join large companies too. With the new regulations in place, getting a P2 Employment Pass requires a minimum salary of S$4.5k. Unfortunately, that's beyond what most local startups can afford. Should they decide to pay less that the minimum, that would count as a Q1 pass, which anecdotally is more heavily scrutinized and has an indeterminate processing time.

“We wanted to hire a couple of top students graduating with computer science degrees. We made the offer, they accepted. However, since we're a startup, the EP application wasn't looking promising. Mid way through the process, a large Silicon Valley company swooped in and hired them way, offering to pay off their bond to Singapore.”

- The founding team of a Singapore-based startup

These are students who went through four years of education in Singapore. They chose to work at a local startup, so that they could work on interesting problems while fulfilling their obligation to the country. Instead, circumstances led them to leave the country. And just like that, we lost even more talent. Singapore has to be careful not to go down the path of blanket protectionist immigration policies.

Companies do want to hire top Singaporean engineers, there just aren't enough to go around. It doesn't help that the very people earmarked by the government as the “cream of the crop” aren’t allowed to enter the field either.

A couple of months ago, I was chatting a government scholar who went overseas to do a masters in computer engineering. Upon returning to the government agency, he requested for an engineering position he saw on the agency’s job portal. He was denied that request, and was told that “scholars are to do high level, long term planning, instead of such development-focused roles”.

Top engineers need challenging technical problems. Deny them that, and they will seek challenges elsewhere.

Brain drain is, in fact, a growing cause of Singapore’s dearth of talent. Due to the lack of engineers in the US, startups and companies have recently been looking overseas to fill their hiring pipeline. Coupled with the H-1B1 visa that makes it easy for Singaporeans to work in the US, we see many great local engineers emigrating.

But that’s a necessary evil, which I’ll discuss in my next piece, along with other remedies to Singapore's talent problem.

Stay tuned.

Tech in Asia

Bringing you stories on Asian tech and startups.

    Derrick Ko

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    Co-Founder and CEO of Spin •

    Tech in Asia

    Bringing you stories on Asian tech and startups.

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