Real-life 'Dream Coders' of Singapore
When people think of coders, many have this image of a computer nerd who buttons their shirt all the way up or wears a mousy hoodie, staring at a screen and churning out codes all day -- as per Desmond Tan's character, ET, on Channel 8's Dream Coder. Or perhaps they imagine someone akin to Aloysius Pang's introverted "turtle", who has all the IQ but absolutely zero EQ.
A few episodes in, we found the show's characters a wee bit too attractive, despite their sometimes awkward personalities, to be believable. But lo and behold, an informal investigation into the local tech scene revealed that real-life coders are cooler than you think. Software development might not reign as the sexiest profession outside of TVLand, but software engineers, programmers and coders build things. They build a lot. Websites, apps, systems platforms, even the game you were just playing on your phone. Someone who works around the clock to ensure we have the luxury of getting what we want by pressing a button on our devices? That sounds like magic.
Meet five real-life admirable programmers in Singapore who are passionate about what they do.
Photos: Jenny Tai
Coding instructor at Early Coders
Janelle Zou picked up coding about ten years ago when she was still a teen. Like all her friends, she had a blog because it was the “in” thing at the time. After fiddling around with the interface and design, Janelle went on to create her own blog themes and made them available for others to download. For many of her peers, the blogosphere was merely a place to rant about their personal lives and drama, but for Janelle, it was the starting point that ignited her interest in programming.
After graduating from the School of Information Systems at Singapore Management University, the 24-year-old is a coding instructor who, like her teenage blogger self, still finds it rewarding to make good design and programming knowledge accessible to others.
How is coding an essential skill?
Coding trains problem-solving skills. When we are given a big task, it’s about breaking down the bigger problem into smaller problems, and it’s good for children to adopt that logic and technique from a young age.
I think it’s important for children to pick up a skill, any skill. The traditional extracurricular activities are performing arts or sports. Instead of only having the choice to join performing arts or a sports group, why not pick up coding?
What’s been the most gratifying part of teaching kids how to code?
There were some occasions when, near the end of the course, I realised that my students were independent enough to solve their own bugs. They were learning things that weren’t even covered in class, looking for information beyond what was taught. That gave me quite a sense of accomplishment, when they had developed to the point where they didn’t need you to spoon-feed them.
You teach teens, but do you think it’s important for older people to learn coding too?
Oh definitely, yes. It would be really impactful for the older middle-aged generation. We do have adult classes but they’re not as common as the teen classes. I’ve taught 20- to 50-year-olds too. They sign up for their own interest and maybe to learn a new skill to help with their careers. If you already specialize in some other fields though, then you are already used to how things are done, so when you hop into coping you need to have a really open mind to learn coding from scratch.
Moving onto personal life, tell us what you like to do for fun.
When I have free time I try to come up with ideas for apps I’d like to create, then I start drawing the interface and creating a mockup of it. I start by looking at my own life and trying to see what is lacking. It’s asking, “How do I create something that would help me, something to help me manage my time? Maybe let me try.”
I’m also interested in mixed martial arts, even though I was probably the least athletic person among my friends. I only picked up sports when I was in uni when I was part of the run team.
Are there any misconceptions about coders?
What people think about most coders is that they’re not so out there and outspoken. In contrast I’m actually quite outgoing and I like to socialise with people. I don’t think all coders are introverted. I know lots of coders who are like that, but it certainly depends.
Does that misconception bother you?
Sometimes. When people know that I have a developer’s background from the tech industry, they would be like, “Whoa, really? You look like you’re from marketing. You don’t look like a tech person at all.”
The stigma is that programmers are nerdy – that’s just how people generalise. It’s the fastest way to put someone in a bracket. But I don’t think that nerdy is negative. I think nerdy is pretty cool.
Coding Instructor at SG Code Campus and co-founder of the children’s online store, Little Llama
After leaving his cushy job as a trader to pursue his passion for start-ups and technology, David Liew took a web development course at General Assembly and grew from a hobby-level programmer to a to full-fledged web developer. The 31-year-old’s fierce love for technology has led him to his deeply fulfilling job as a coding instructor at SG Code Campus, and has allowed him to start up his own business, the children’s online toy store Little Llama.
Today, David empowers his students to build their personal dreams and projects with the programming skills they’re learning. “My hope is that [learning programming] will eventually transform them, with drive and hard work, into creators of technology, instead of merely consumers of it.”
Describe what coding is so that the average person can understand it.
Coding is the language of the computer: how you communicate with the machine and try to get it to do things that you’d like it to do. Anyone who is a coder is a translator. You’re translating human thoughts into outcome. Coding is a third or second language in today’s world.
Teaching kids how to code — girls especially — is a global hot topic right now. What’s the male-to-female ratio like?
I would say for the older kids it’s 70 percent boys. The primary level is pretty equal.
One thing I like to show my younger kids is a picture of Margaret Hamilton. Her code led the NASA team to the moon. It’s to show my students that it hasn’t always been guys. There have been great female coders who are exceptional and that could be you too.
What are some misconceptions that people have about coders?
I think there is a certain truth in the “nerdy” stereotype in the sense that it points to how a computer thinks. It thinks in a rigid and emotionless manner. And people who are more introverted get drawn to the beauty of that rigidity. As a whole, we may appear less social but it’s part of the nature of the job. You spend time fixing errors and there is a sort of solitude.
Let’s talk personal lives. What should people be prepared for if they’re dating someone in coding?
If you like geeks, then I guess it’s a great thing. In terms of work-life balance, there are perks because I don’t have to be bound in a physical place to do my work. I can travel and I can check my email on the beach – although I wouldn’t want to. You can be literally anywhere in the world and doing your job. There’s some attraction in that.
Many start-up founders take a pay cut initially. Since leaving your corporate job as a trader, have you ever looked back? Do you expect to make the same amount as you did when you were a trader?
Without a doubt, it was definitely comfortable to earn the salary I had as a trader, but I found myself lacking a deeper personal satisfaction as there was not much alignment with my personal mission, which is wanting to help others by building innovative products and services.
I do, of course, hope to earn as best as I can to lead a comfortable life, but I have also learnt to be thankful for what I have, rather than constantly looking at what I do not have, as there will never be a way to have enough of everything. I often ask myself, “Have I made the world around me better than what it was yesterday?” I find the answer to that question bringing me a lot of satisfaction if I can say yes to it.
Head of Engineering at Tech in Asia
Lester’s love for technology started back in primary school. As a young boy, he’d often sit at his uncle’s desk, wide-eyed at the way his uncle worked away at his computer.
“That was the first time I was exposed to computers.” Lester recalls. “I’d see my uncle do stuff on that very, very old computer and I thought, Wow.”
Later, in Secondary 2, Lester frequently played games at his friend’s house, but when he spotted his friend’s uncle tinkering away on his computer designing websites at the house, Lester felt that old curiosity tugging at him again, prompting him to create his own web page in Microsoft Publisher in 1998. Now there was no denying that he would pursue a career in computers. He was hooked.
After attending Singapore Polytechnic, obtaining a diploma in Multimedia Technology and representing the school in the WorldSkills Competition, Lester got his bachelor’s degree in Information Systems at National University of Singapore. Today, the 33-year-old is the Head of Engineering at Tech in Asia, where he’s proudly known as “The Tech Guy.”
What’s more important? Being able to code or being able to manage people who can code?
Being able to manage people who can code is more important. Managing people is always the hardest part of any organisation. As Head of Engineering at Tech in Asia, I am in charge of the engineering team that develops product features and manages server infrastructure. I might not be the smartest in my team, but my hiring policy is to always hire someone smarter than you. Coding you can still learn a lot of stuff through Googling and doing side projects, but being able to manage people takes people skills and that requires experience.
What’s the stereotypical coder?
Hair messy like mine. Wears shorts like me, wears slippers. I’m wearing shoes today for this interview otherwise I’d be in slippers. I guess maybe people think coders are bit geeky and nerdy looking. It doesn’t bother me; I just do my things. But another stereotype is that this is a low salary job, which is actually not true these days. As technology advances, more companies need to hire developers and that’s why salaries are increased.
How can people across different industries — outside of the tech industry — benefit from learning how to code?
Coding will train your thinking to be more logical. You will understand the whole process from idea, to coding, to ultimately the end product. It’s a way to learn another skill, and in case you are out of a job or in between jobs, you can create your own website and do freelance.
Let's talk personal lives. What does someone have to be prepared for if they want to date a coder?
In a way, you’re on stand by 24/7. If we are out on the weekend and suddenly my company server goes down or gets attacked by external sources, I would need to stop what we’re doing and investigate even if it’s outside my office hours. Yes, even if we’re on a date. Another thing is we might talk in programming terms, like sometimes I use tech lingo with my wife.
What are the perks of being in a relationship with a programmer?
I do everything for my wife, including setting up her iCloud, de-bugging codes for her work, and when she gets a new phone I set everything up for her so she doesn’t even need to lift a finger.
Have you ever tried to take a break from technology?
I don’t think I would survive.
Lead at Women Who Code specializing in artificial intelligence and Technical Analyst at a start-up
Angulia, 22, moved from her hometown in Yunnan, an agriculture-based province in China, because she wanted to pursue her passion for technology and she knew Singapore was the place for it.
Today, on top of being a graduate student at National University of Singapore’s School of Computing, Angulia juggles being a technical analyst at a start-up and a lead specializing in artificial intelligence at the international non-profit, Women Who Code.
What is the main takeaway that you want people to know about AI?
I want more people to know what we’re actually doing is not destroying the world and creating robots that will ruin us. We just want to improve our current life so people have time to do their favourite things instead of repeating labour work.
How do you get to be creative in your work?
I think this is the most creative job. In my past experience, I learned to code different applications like desktop and mobile apps, but based on our clients’ requirements. They proposed the idea and we had to accomplish it. That’s basically general coders’ work, but now I think the most interesting part is I can use coding as my virtual hand to build an algorithm, to build a method to make my machine learn and recognise.
What did your parents think of your decision to be a coder?
Initially my parents didn’t think it was a good career choice for girls. According to their generation, they thought maybe daughters could be teachers or doctors. They thought, “You don’t have to keep facing computers and keep coding and coding.” They wouldn’t say yes or no. They were at the middle point, but they have come to respect my choice.
Can you share a bit about being a woman in the programming industry, and if there are any struggles that come with that?
In my undergrad class, when we were participating in coding clubs and competitions, for guys it was really easy to build their teams because there were so many of them. All their roommates, upstairs and downstairs, were coders. For girls it was harder to join. There were maybe 4 girls in each class then. I think generally girls performed better than guys in examinations and other paper writing, but it was different when they needed to do coding in a practical sense or for hackathons. I noticed girls tended to focus on details and getting things perfect, and maybe that’s why sometimes they were scared of compiling errors and making mistakes for trying.
In general for guys because they have such confidence, if they fail once then they try again. Maybe because they are a much larger group, they can have better discussions. When you don’t have much support amongst yourselves, you are afraid to fail.
How do guys generally react when they learn that you’re a coder who specialises in artificial intelligence?
Of course they are a bit surprised. But generally my friends are also in technical engineering, so the guys treat me good and they aren’t intimidated. Some guys do feel curious though, a little bit like “You’re a girl but you choose this.”
What are the qualities you look for in a guy?
Most crucial is that he has to have a passion for technology too.
Kong Yu Jian
Three-time hackathon winner and co-founder of Early Coders
It started with Angry Birds. That’s what inspired Kong Yu Jian to learn programming in his second year of Junior College. “Angry Birds made millions by creating a simple game and I wanted to do the same,” he said. For two years, Yu Jian taught himself how to program well enough to build his own 3D game and launched it on Google Play, full of excitement for his big breakthrough. This is it, he thought. It’s going to make me rich.
Yu Jian only earned about $100. Granted, the game received over 100 thousand downloads but it didn’t live up to his expectation of making it big. “When I realised it wouldn’t make me rich, I got disheartened. That realisation helped me mature. It wasn’t going to be so easy after all. It’s not like you spend two years of effort and it’s all going to work out la,” he said. Fortunately, that was only the beginning of several achievements to come.
Today, at the age of 22, Yu Jian is a three-time hackathon winner, a full-time student at Singapore Management University, and co-founder of Early Coders, a programming school for youths.
How did you know coding was right for you?
My “a-ha” moment was when I picked up the programming book, Java for Dummies. Back then I had no interest in academics at all. Zero interest. I had to struggle so much just to study micro and macroeconomics. But when I picked up the book for programming, it was so logical to me and I could straight away understand the concept just by reading it once. It felt natural to me.
How did your parents react to your interest in coding?
Because back then I was rather rebellious and didn’t enjoy studying, my parents had mixed feelings about me learning programming. They thought it was a good thing that I wanted to learn something extra, but since it was not academic they were worried. The point when they really started encouraging me was when I won a hackathon. After I graduated from JC, they pushed me even more and thought it was good that I was interested in programming.
Kong Yu Jian
As a three-time hackathon winner, can you describe what the hackathon experience is like?
At a hackathon there are five elements: great food, coffee, coding, time, and gear. Hackathons provide great food, and you drink coffee and churn out codes. Great hackathons also provide great gear. You participate in a group of varying experiences and skill levels, and generally you get to choose who you work with. If you join a hackathon without a group, you can pitch yourself and other people will pull you into their groups, so you must sell yourself.
After each hackathon we always say, “Oh no we will never participate again!” But then you think, “Why not? Just try another one together.” It’s the people you participate with that makes it so memorable.
What is the one attribute that’s helped you succeed?
Hard work. It’s a lot of hard work, in the sense that when a lot of people were playing after A levels, finding part time jobs and earning money to go out and play, I was slogging out my gut just to learn programming properly. When I was in National Service I brought programming books to study. Not many people see the amount of work I have put in to know the stuff I know. Hard work is definitely one of my key attributes.
Does someone have to be tech-savvy to date a coder?
If the girl knows some tech stuff and the tech lingo, I guess it helps to understand us programmers better. Even if you do not have a technical background, if you make the effort to learn it then that makes it a little more touching.
And if you meet up with a programmer, come prepared with some programming jokes. There are a lot. “Is your name Google? Because you’re everything I’ve been searching for.” Geeks and programmers fall for these kinds of jokes. They’re quite fun and they break the ice.