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Technical Jobs in Singapore

Revisiting a popular (relative to this blog) earlier rant on technical jobs in Singapore - what are the problems with technical jobs in Singapore?

Respect, Not Fear

The culture in Singapore is rift with infusions from Confucianism, and one theme is that the young should respect the elder, all else being equal. This somehow translates to managers expecting that junior employees will execute orders almost unconditionally, despite the manager's lack of technical expertise (and even if the manager is an engineer, he or she should know when the topic is out of their own expertise). Managing engineers is like herding cats - organized chaos. You really cannot tell engineers exactly what to do and when to do it. Engineers will feel much more respected if you outline the problem, and allow them to explore and develop solutions by themselves, other than micromanaging them and inspecting their work at every minor milestone. A pet peeve of mine is when managers suggest that a solution should be trivial or easy when they have no technical understanding of the issue at hand, this raises a major major red flag for me - this is why engineers should be managed by other engineers, preferably superstars who have done it all (Maybe people like Vinton Cerf, Ken Thompson, Amit Singhal, and obviously, Larry Page, Segrey Brin and Eric Schmidt). In engineering though, good ideas are king and bad ideas should be vilified - it does not matter if the idea came from the janitor or the superstar engineer. Herein lies another problem with "respect your elders". It has evolved to "fear your managers" in the Singapore context (partially because managers are given so much more power in organizations, which I discuss next) - engineers simply feel uncomfortable pointing out and rejecting an idea that the manager presented because they feel obliged to accept the idea. This phenomena is present to some extent everywhere, but I feel this is particularly problematic in Singapore.

Look, in the sky, it's not a bird, not a plane, it's your new boss

As outlined in my previous article, one, if not the biggest, problem is that in Singapore IT companies, managers are more valued and better compensated than engineers. Everyone pays lip service to "oh, engineers are number one". Even if there is a career path for engineers that reaches to senior management, there will inevitably be a non-technical person with higher status (or more likely, a whole bunch of people) in the organization. This sends a signal that propagates throughout the organization that engineers are not number one - and as non-technical people gain more traction and start making organizational decisions that make no technical sense, engineers will feel segregated and meekly allow non-technical people to make decisions for them. Lather, rinse, repeat, and the original motto of "engineers are number one" is watered down to somewhere along the lines of "engineers. oh. they do stuff that we tell them".

Meritocracy, also from the tenets of Confucianism, is alive and well in Singapore - scholarships are given to individuals who perform exceptionally in examinations and are rewarded with a fast-track career in the civil service. I believe that this is actually an excellent system that has resulted in an efficient and frankly, world-class caliber civil service.

However, it is common to "parachute" management from other parts of the civil service to technical organizations in Singapore (which, unfortunately, constitutes the major players in IT R&D in Singapore). Not to pick on the army (because management movement happens in the entire civil service), but the current policy is for generals to retire when they reach about 45 years old (give or take a few years) - they are considered senior civil servants who are able to head an entire organization, even R&D and IT organizations, which brings me back to the point - are engineers number one?

Treat smart engineers right, and great things happen. Most engineers actually do not be look to be the CEO, or to earn outrageous salaries (which, ahem, people do in the civil service) - but we do hope to be respected. I would feel insulted if engineers are "respected", but are the minority in management. That's lip service, and we know it.

100% right the first time always means ...

The last point which I will not dwell on too much is that we Singaporeans on the whole need to be more advantageous in our thinking - fall a few times, it is ok. IT organizations too, have to accept that good ideas result from a gazillion bad ideas accumulating. If everything you did worked and you reached all your goals, you are not trying hard enough.

Organizations in Singapore expect results very quickly, which is good in the industry, as you want to move fast, but also expect that these results to be the "next best thing". No, separate the two - you want to develop prototypes quickly, but be just as quick to discard it if it turns out to be bad (and to reward that behavior). Otherwise, you just have a bunch of people trying out safe alternatives to get tangible results (but not the next best thing).

Reader Comments (3)

(Program) Manager's point of view...

The problem with (most) Singaporean engineers is a problem of discipline. When problems with the software appear the first action is to point fingers at other people first. If not, then try suggesting upgrading the ram or CPU to overcome memory leaks or inefficent coding. Almost no effort is made to sit down and pinpoint the actual cause of the problem.

If asked to figuratively jump off a cliff, the singaporean engineer will not raise a red flag. The singaporean engineer doesn't want to make decisions so that he will not be responsible for anything that goes wrong. Iron rice bowl mentality.

Engineering is a business, and if you get stuck in engineering without getting exposure to other aspects such as marketing, sales, finance etc you can't be trusted to make decisions that affect the company as a whole. A master of one is worth less than half of a jack of all trades. You must realise that the law of diminishing returns apply as you go up further in sophistication. Many real world problems can be solved with simple methods.

As for ex-civil servants being parachuted in your institution or GLC, remember that they are acting as the eyes and ears of the government to make sure the money is spent properly. If he starts suggesting off the cliff demands, then you haven't done a good job of writing your proposals or explanation.

January 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNonlinear

Agree with the first point - the worst an IT company can do is to hire a bad engineer.

To compensate for hiring one bad engineer, you need to hire two or more good engineers - one to replace the bad engineer, and at least one more to repair the damage the bad engineer did.

As for the other point(s), let's just agree to disagree - at Google the belief is that a good product does not need to have financial returns in the immediate future. Good things will come from products that users need and want.

Also, see" REL="nofollow">The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing (version 3.0) and" REL="nofollow">Recruiting the Top 1 Percent. If an IT company does not see engineers in this light, then there are companies elsewhere which do. Enough said.

January 14, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteryj

Seen at Sammyboy..." REL="nofollow">Link to original Article

Let me share with you a little story I heard from my friend, who has a friend in Google (in USA)

The story goes like this:

As you know, some of the most brilliant Sinkeeland's IT talents have been working for Google over in USA.

So one day, the higher level management called for a meeting with these engineers.

These engineers was asked whether Google should start a R&D dept over in Singapore.

The answer given was that there is no point creating a R&D dept in Singapore because most of the best IT people are already in US.

So Google dropped the idea of starting a R&D in Sg and instead, they created a dept in Sinkeeland to do sales.


You may choose to believe this or not. However, you can't deny that the brain drain is taking a lot, out of Singapore. If our govt still refuse to support our local talents, our country will really become a desert (not the culture desert but the talent desert).

January 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNonlinear

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