ETHOS Issue 21, July 2019
Singapore’s tech ecosystem has accelerated rapidly in the past
five years. Tech start-ups have blossomed, Venture Capital has
poured in, global and regional tech firms like Google, Stripe,
Grab and GoJek have set up significant engineering operations,
and even traditional organisations like Singapore Power, Singtel,
DBS and the Singapore Government have charged ahead with
ambitious digital transformation plans.
I currently work in Silicon Valley where one of my roles is to engage, cultivate
and recruit tech talent for opportunities in Singapore. Hardly a day goes by
without a Singaporean employer reaching out to me to discuss the tech talent
shortage. One gets the sense that the ambition and speed of tech development
in Singapore is being held back only by a talent shortage.
To be fair, the shortage of tech talent is a global phenomenon: even hiring
managers at Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook have complained
about talent scarcity! This is also why countries like Canada, Israel, Thailand,
Vietnam, New Zealand and many others have come up with strategies to enhance
their attractiveness to tech talent.
The rate of technological development and its relevance to all sectors of society
is accelerating faster than people can be trained: the talent shortage is here to
stay for a while yet.
If you are leading a large, traditional organisation and want to attract technical
talent, what can you do?
Answering the Million Dollar Question
In an attempt to answer this question,
my team has engaged over a thousand
Singaporean tech professionals living
in the Silicon Valley. We have software
engineers, product managers, data
scientists, cybersecurity specialists, cloud
architects and hardware engineers, just
to name a few common roles. They range
from junior engineers to Senior Vice
Presidents in top companies like Google,
to Chief Technology Officers and founders
of start-ups. I feel a sense of pride when I
see Singaporeans excelling—Silicon Valley
employers I’ve spoken to recognise the
What are these Singaporeans up to?
When and why did they move to Silicon
Valley? Would they be open to moving
back home at this critical juncture, to
take on leadership roles and help build
our own tech ecosystem?
My team seeks to understand these issues
as we run large events like the Singapore
Tech Forum (which drew 850 attendees
this year), host domain and expertise-specific
engagements, and conduct
one-on-one conversations. We have also
validated our findings with U.S., Southeast
Asian, Chinese, Indian and other global
Here, I want to focus on one critical
insight that has arisen from our many
interactions with tech talent: the
importance of engineering culture.
The importance of engineering culture.
When we speak to overseas Singaporeans
about tech in Singapore and Southeast
Asia, they are at once surprised at the
growth of the tech sector, and sceptical
about how hospitable the place will
truly be to tech talent in the long run.
“What’s the engineering culture like?
Has it truly changed?” is a question that
dwells beneath the surface of most of our
conversations. Tech talent in their 30s and
older remember vividly the Singapore
tech scene they left in the 2000s: one
where they felt unvalued because less
technically skilled managers were telling
them what to do (even if unfeasible or
sub-optimal), their salary scales would
always be lower than managers, and
they were at risk of having their work
“outsourced” to cheaper vendors.
They contrast this mindset with Silicon
Valley employers, who respect engineers
as the true engines of the company’s
growth. For example, Google is famous
for valuing engineers who directly solve
problems, eschewing the whole concept
of “managers”—until the company grew
to a size where appointing management
How to enable a healthy engineering culture
So, what is a proper engineering culture
and how have Silicon Valley companies
gone about creating it?
My conversations with hundreds of tech
talent and Silicon Valley companies
suggest that there are four elements
to a healthy engineering culture:
1. An ethos of user obsession
In your average Silicon Valley company,
software product development teams
are empowered to make decisions
based on users’ needs, pain-points, and
intuitive interactions with the product.
They carefully observe how their design
and engineering decisions impact the
user’s experience, engagement and
utility, and then iterate quickly to boost
This ethos of user obsession means that
regardless of rank and seniority, there
are no “super users” who can dictate
product decisions from outside the team.
Managers give product development
teams broad objectives and boundaries:
but when it comes to the specifics of
what is developed, how it is developed,
the features to include and metrics to
measure success, managers are regarded
as just some of many “users”, whose
inputs the team are not obliged to take.
If you are leading a large, traditional organisation and want to attract technical talent, what can you do?
This need not be taken to the extreme.
There are some great use cases for
centralised, top-down planning: for
example, when creating data sharing
platforms or common infrastructure
that many departments can share.
However, managers seeking to enable
a healthy engineering culture should be
very deliberate about: (a) balancing topdown
plans with space for ground-up
initiatives which respond to user needs,
(b) remembering that they are not “super
users” in the product development
process, and (c) empowering the team
to say “no” to them.
2. Technical expertise is respected and rewarded
A healthy engineering culture recognises
and respects technical expertise. Coding,
design, cryptography—these are disciplines
that demand mastery. Some talented
tech workers do not want to give up on
their path of mastery in order to become
In Silicon Valley companies, it is possible for
individual contributors to be compensated
as much as C-suite executives as long
as they drive big, complex, technical
projects with their skills. Some individual
contributors are highly esteemed for
designing the architecture of the company’s
systems or platforms, or developing
algorithms to optimise matching of supply
and demand in a marketplace. It is not
that they are lone wolves or have no social
skills—many of them are happy to provide
technical advice, mentorship, and even
coordinate technical projects. But they
do not want to be a “reporting officer”.
Good HR and compensation design
rewards technical expertise well relative
to managers . Most Silicon Valley
companies have parallel tracks in their
engineering organisations for engineering
managers and individual contributors.
Their pay bands are equivalent, level-for-level, with the same pinnacle points.
Most individual contributors I spoke
to acknowledged that they might not
rise up the compensation ladder as
fast as managers—it’s difficult for one
person’s impact to match the scope of
a ten-person team. However, they felt
it was important to have that possibility
Pay is only one way that deep technical
expertise is rewarded and recognised.
Softer elements can also convey respect
for technical expertise. Whose opinions
are sought and valued in key company
decisions? Whose profile, projects and
stories are mentioned in the company’s
newsletters and all-hands meetings?
These are subtle signals of what types
of expertise and experience are valued,
and traditional organisations would do
well to pay close attention to them. A
culture is built on thousands of such
micro-decisions every day.
3. Respected engineering
by new HR capabilities
When tech talent considers working in a
traditional organisation without a “tech”
brand, they often base their decisions on
the strength of the tech leadership team.
They cannot be sure that the organisation
has a good engineering culture, no
matter what senior management or tech
recruiters tell them. The best proxy is
whether the organisation has strong
engineering leaders whom they can trust
to champion a good (and constantly
improving) engineering culture.
Hence, a traditional organisation seeking
to attract good technical talent has to
first focus on recruiting its top tech
leadership. Ideally, some of these leaders
should be from companies recognised
for their brand and culture. They must
be given the mandate to optimise for
a vibrant engineering culture, which
includes (but is not limited to) deviating
from organisational rules about the
tools they use, their office spaces, dress
codes, work-from-home guidelines, and
even the procurement process.
Since talent begets talent, these tech
leaders must be the face of recruitment.
Senior tech leaders in Silicon Valley
unicorns have told me that they spend
more than 50% of their time recruiting:
reaching out to candidates; cultivating
them; negotiating attractive packages
and job scopes. In some cases, tech
leaders have been allowed to hire their
own talent partners separate from the
existing HR machinery, giving them
maximal flexibility in process, pay bands
and titling when building the founding
team. Of course, this is not to be done
lightly: companies that tried this have also
expressed some regrets. Proper metrics
are still needed to ensure accountability.
Finally, an oft-overlooked but critical factor
to attracting top talent: building new
capabilities in your corporate functions.
For example, tech talent has told us that
actions and attitudes of HR professionals
during the talent cultivation and recruitment
process implicitly communicate an
organisation’s engineering culture. Are
they committed to long-term cultivation
of talent, or are they transactional? Are
they empowered to be flexible and quick
in the recruitment process, or are they
bogged down by bureaucracy? Are
they transparent and willing to explain
the process and considerations, or are
they elusive? If you are a potential job
candidate, do they make you feel that
they are acting in your best interests?
Or—as one candidate interviewing with a
traditional organisation recounted—does
it feel like “they are trying to squeeze
every last drop of blood out of you”?
If you are serious about bringing in tech
talent, you need People Operations
and HR leaders who see this as a fierce
competition for scarce resources: people
who cultivate longer-term relationships
with talent, are willing to push the
boundaries on what the organisation
can offer talent, and have the ability
to drive new workflows between tech
leaders, HR, and senior management to
drive results and make risky calls. This
is a stark contrast to process-driven
recruitment which is more commonplace
in HR functions today.
Some talented tech workers do not want to give up on their path of mastery in order to become managers.
4. Flexibility to
and even stagnate
A healthy engineering culture is built on
a good understanding of tech talents’
aspirations. As a group, tech talent is
less interested in climbing career ladders
in a single organisation. A study we did
found that the average time overseas
Singaporean tech talent stayed in a job
was only three years. A combination of
their user obsession and their desire
for mastery and growth drives them
towards the next most impactful and
interesting problem to solve, or a role
where they can optimise for learning.
What does this mean for traditional
organisations seeking to attract tech
talent? Don’t assume that traditional
career progression incentives are
attractive. Instead, continually seek new
incentives and structures that appeal to
their needs and motivations.
One important perk is the flexibility
to experiment, pivot, or even stagnate
within the organisation.
One of the value propositions of smaller
Silicon Valley companies vis-à-vis tech
giants (where roles are much more
specialised) is the flexibility they can
give people to experiment and pivot
across different roles and fields. F or
example, some allow tech talent to
experiment with different proportions
of management versus individual work
(50-50? 80-20?). They also provide
opportunities to pick up new skills
within the organisation. An employee
may move from pre-sales engineering
to product management, while picking
up software engineering skills along the
way. As one interviewee from a Series
C start-up puts it: “I don’t want to be
pigeonholed right now, I want to learn.”
Don't assume that traditional career progression incentives are attractive. Instead, continually seek new incentives and structures that appeal to their needs and motivations.
Offering the flexibility to stagnate—
temporarily or permanently—can be a
surprising benefit. Googlers talk about
a “respectable Level 5”, the point in a
Googler’s career where they can choose
to tap out of further promotion and not
run the risk of being let go (Google’s scale
runs from about 3 to 11 for engineers).
For one employee, a mother of two in
her 30s, this was a relief as she could still
make a good base salary and potentially
a large bonus for good performance
at a scope she was comfortable with.
It’s a win-win for the organisation, as
she is still doing good work for them.
Traditional organisations should think
about how to change their “up or out”
culture, especially when it comes to
In light of global tech talent shortages,
it is clear that organisations must step
up their game to compete for the tech
talent they need to deliver impactful
digital products, services and platforms.
However, attracting tech talent is not
a simple recruitment game. The goal
cannot just be to bring top tech talent in,
only have them leave because of “organ
rejection”— a costly and ineffective path.
Attracting and retaining top tech talent
demands that organisations take a hard
look at their inherited cultures and
start to redesign them to better suit
the attitudes, needs and aspirations of
talented tech workers. Organisational
design, reward structures, the quality
of tech leadership and HR, and how
management sees their role vis-àvis
product development teams are
all factors that contribute to culture
redesign. The good news, I believe, is
that most talented people—not just
those in tech—find these principles and
guidelines attractive, and organisations
that can implement them become more
attractive cultures overall.
While building a healthy engineering
culture is an important start, the end
point of cultural transformation is not
yet clear. There is a messy in-between,
which is the phase most organisations
are in right now. Some split up or form
separate entities with different cultures;
others stay as a single organisation with
bi- or even tri-modal cultures. Change
takes time, and perhaps it is too early
in the journey to determine what is the
“right” end-point—we have to keep
experimenting, learning, and embracing
While challenges remain, I am optimistic
about Singapore’s ability to attract tech
talent and transform our nation with
technology. I have witnessed in so many
GovTech—the ability and willingness to
adapt and experiment, make difficult
decisions, and collaborate such that we
are more than the sum of our parts. I
believe this is the same spirit that brought
Singapore to where we are today. With
it, we can build the culture we need to
carry us into the future.
If you work in tech and are looking for your next challenge, consider one of the fastest growing tech
ecosystems in the world — Singapore and the broader Southeast Asia: get in touch with Karen.