Friday 13 September 2013

Singapore is missing new software boat

By Bas Vodde, Published The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2013

WESTERN countries are losing in "old" industries like consumer electronics, but they aren't too bothered by this. That's because they are still front runners in new software-centric industries - despite years of outsourcing.

Singapore is missing this boat.

Netscape founder and HP board member Marc Andreessen recently wrote an important article - Why Software Is Eating The World - about how software is disrupting traditional businesses.

The role of software is changing from one of business support to being a core business. Companies need to re-learn their new core business, otherwise software companies will learn their old core business and disrupt them.

For example, brick-and-mortar bookseller Borders went bankrupt in 2011, while, a software company and online bookstore, is thriving. Closer to home, Singapore's biggest computer bookstore closed in the same year - who still buys technical books in a physical store?

Many companies in Singapore don't realise this shift. They don't consider software their core business and they don't see software development as an essential skill.

The result? Poor-quality, non-functioning, badly designed software that causes them to lose business.

For example, Singapore Airlines "upgraded" its website in 2011. The "improved" site was so bad that I was unable to buy tickets and eventually switched airlines. There were also media reports on customer complaints about its poor website.

SIA reported an unexpected loss last year due to "weak travel demand". Was the fall due to weak travel demand or customers' inability to buy tickets due to a poor website?

The airline's spokesman was quoted in this newspaper, saying: "As with any major IT project, we do expect teething problems."

But well-developed IT projects do not have teething problems.

Another example: Our company had an account at Bank A. Its e-banking lacked basic functionality, like recurring payments.

It provided a friendly relationship manager. But we don't need a relationship manager; we need a functioning e-banking system.

So we changed to Bank B, which had e-banking support for recurring payments. But its system couldn't report credit card information except for a summary statement.

Its summary statement showed incorrect information causing it to charge late fees. Its relationship manager proposed paper statements instead!

We decided to try Bank C. Its e-banking interface was the worst I've encountered. No recurring payments. Account closed.

Unfortunately, companies in Singapore will find it hard to re-learn this new core business due to a lack of interest in developing software.

Many Singaporeans do not want to be software developers but prefer to be analysts, marketers or managers - jobs that are traditionally well-respected and highly paid. But in 2013, striving for these careers is not the best idea.

Software developers are becoming increasingly important and the lack of Singaporean software developers might hurt the economy and increase unemployment as traditional jobs disappear.

When I raise this, I'm told Singaporeans view software development as construction work - dirty work done by cheap labour.

When I visit schools, computer science students tell me they view development as a painful phase and they aspire to become project managers. But the emergence of self-managing teams is likely to make project management a dead-end career.

According to The Wall Street Journal, software developer was rated the best job of 2012 based on stress, work environment and salary.

In Singapore, low salaries are frequently blamed for a lack of Singaporean developers. But a chief technology officer told me his company paid its developers a lot more than sales and marketing staff as it is so hard to find good developers.

Is this an exaggeration? I don't think so. I conduct training frequently in software development and it is rare to find even one Singaporean in a typical class of 10.

I have some examples from companies I work with who attest to the difficulty of finding Singaporean developers. A manager at an international software company laughed when I told him there is a government subsidy he could tap for Singaporean developers because, among his team of 10, there was no Singaporean.

A chief technology officer of a finance company had such a bad experience hiring Singapore software developers, finding that they quit after a year or two, that he decided to "never hire Singaporean developers". The company remains in Singapore, but moved its software development out.

All over the world, a fundamental shift is happening in business.

Software is part of the core business of most organisations and software development is an essential skill. Management styles are becoming more agile due to fast-changing markets.

Cross-functional, self-managing teams work directly with customers in short iterative cycles. Specialised management jobs such as project managers will gradually become obsolete.

In Singapore, this requires a cultural change on three levels.

First, organisations need to understand software rather than consider it a cost centre to outsource and offshore. Second, management needs to adopt empowering rather than controlling management styles and create inspiring places to work. Third, the nation needs to create a culture where people want to build things, not just manage them.

Singapore risks lagging further behind as Singaporean developers are scarce and the stiffer criteria for employment passes aggravate the shortage as companies find it harder to hire foreigner developers.

Mr Andreessen said the importance of software is growing so much that it will eat the world. A chief operating officer recently told me his company shifted its development to New Zealand as it couldn't find good developers in Singapore.

If Singapore doesn't wake up, the dearth of good software development talent here will take a big bite out of Singapore's old-fashioned economy.

The writer, originally from the Netherlands, has lived in Singapore for five years. He works at Odd-e, a Singapore software development training and coaching company.

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