Thursday 10 March 2016

Learning to code: Cracking the code to groom tech talent

Under IDA scheme, 34,000 students - some as young as seven years old - are learning coding as Govt seeks to plug tech manpower gap
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2016

Once a week, Nurul Insyirah Jamaludin, nine, tinkers with an assemblage of Lego bricks, motors and sensors with her classmates to design a robotic toy.

After building, say, a race car, they would combine blocks of pre-written computer codes using a laptop to instruct the toy to react to specified stimuli. For instance, the car can be programmed to move at a certain speed or stop when it approaches an obstacle.

The Primary 3 pupil at North View Primary School enjoys the Code for Fun lessons, which have been incorporated into the school's curriculum time for Primary 3 and 4 pupils since January.

"We build a toy and it comes alive," said Nurul, beaming with excitement.

The Code for Fun programme was introduced in June last year by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) as an enrichment for Ministry of Education schools. Since then, 117 primary and secondary schools have rolled out the scheme, and 34,000 students - some as young as seven years old - have signed up.

Students spend 20 hours within a year to complete the programme, which has different tasks and challenges, depending on the level.

The programme is a result of a larger, multi-pronged strategy by the Government to plug the technology manpower gap here.

Data from IDA, which tracks and trains technology manpower in Singapore, shows that about 15,000 technology job vacancies could not be filled in 2014. About half of these were for software developers.

More tellingly, Singapore is expected to find itself short of a total of 30,000 technology specialists - including some 11,000 software developers - by next year.

Code for Fun aims to infuse computational and logical thinking in children. Another similar, recent move involved secondary schools. Last month, 19 schools, out of over 160 here, said they will offer computing as a new O-level subject to Secondary 3 students from next year.

"We aim to develop students into critical thinkers and innovators who can help drive the country's vision of becoming a smart nation," said IDA assistant chief executive Khoong Hock Yun.

"At the same time, this will ensure that we have a ready pool of tech talent, equipped with skills of the 21st century to take on jobs, such as in software development, cybersecurity and data analytics, that will be in demand," he said.


Demand for software engineers and developers will come from both the public and private sectors.

Many tech firms like Google and Facebook have based their Asian operations in Singapore. Some are hiring aggressively here. In January, Google said on its website that it plans to set up "a large engineering presence in Singapore".

Last month, the Government announced plans to hire 1,000 engineers, including programmers, by this year to expand the existing pool by more than 13 per cent.

Mr Khoong believes technology is no longer a back-office function but a strategic tool as companies and services go digital.

"The ability to embrace and apply disruptive technologies becomes critical for all companies to remain relevant in the future economy," he said.

Data analytics tools are an example of disruptive technology. They allow companies to mine customer information, such as spending behaviour, for targeted marketing.

Increasingly, non-tech firms find that they need to hire technology workers as more services go digital. For instance, over one-quarter of financial services giant Goldman Sachs' 33,000 full-time staff are engineers and programmers.

"In short, every company is now a tech company with its own stable of programmers, data analysts and other tech specialists," said Mr Khoong.


According to human resource experts, one reason many young Singaporeans are not keen to strive for a career in software development is the perception that such jobs are low-level grunt work that attracts little recognition and has a stunted career progression.

"People picture a software developer as someone hammering out lines of codes in a cold, quiet room at the back of the office," said Ms Linda Teo, country manager at ManpowerGroup Singapore.

"It is a sad stereotype," she said, adding that most takers for software development positions are from Malaysia and India.

Software development positions also do not pay as well as the more popular IT project management roles. According to the latest 2014 Manpower Ministry data, the median salary of IT project managers was $8,300, about twice that of a software developer.


However, the scenario is changing. Graduates from the Nanyang Technological University's business and computing double-degree programme reportedly had the highest pay jump of 33 per cent last year among their peers, putting their salaries almost on a par with those who studied law or medicine at other universities.

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced that the Government would review the salaries of public-sector engineers and start a leadership scheme to groom them for positions such as chief engineer, chief technologist and chief scientist.

The review will also apply to public-sector software developers. IDA said it is looking into raising the salaries of software engineers to make them on a par with those of their peers on the management track.

More details will be announced during the Committee of Supply debate next month.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay believes it is important that locals fill these software development roles. He said: "New software development openings will be in fields such as e-commerce, financial technology, big data, security, gaming and animation. They are strategic to Singapore's future economy."

Lecturer David Chin, 45, said programmes like Code for Fun should be included in the school curriculum at all levels for it to see results. "Programming will be the next engineering," he said.

Coding classes for kids in high demand
Parents see programming, computing skills as essential for future in a Smart Nation
By Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2016

Forget traditional enrichment classes to learn ballet or play the piano. More children are being sent for computational thinking and coding lessons as parents increasingly see the value in starting them early in a manpower-hungry industry.

Coding schools The Straits Times Digital spoke to said they have seen more parents signing their children up for such classes over the past three years, and that demand continues to grow steadily.

Miss Juliana Ung, who runs The Kid Coders, said: "Parents recognise that coding is useful and important, as the world and future will be driven by more and more computing technology. There is also the appreciation that technology helps children in school work. It's the latest education trend."

Mr David Lee, founder and principal trainer of Computhink, said more parents want their children to be better prepared for the future, especially one in which the Government has envisioned Singapore to be a Smart Nation, where technological skills will be highly sought after.

"There are many parents who understand the importance of programming and they want their children to be prepared for the future," he said.

IT project manager Ng Chee Wee is among those who subscribe to the view. The 43-year-old sent his two daughters, aged eight and 10, for holiday coding classes last year.

"Programming lessons train them in logic and clear thinking. It's a valuable skill that helps in everyday life and any industry that deals with computers; they don't necessarily have to become programmers to benefit from classes," he said.

Parents see programming and computing skills as essential for future.
Posted by The Straits Times on Tuesday, March 8, 2016

And parents are willing to pay a premium for the skills coding lessons can impart. Classes can range from $300 to $500 per month for weekly classes, while workshops start from $280 and go up to $1,400.

The rising demand for coding lessons has led these schools, which previously offered workshops during the holidays, to provide either regular weekly classes or workshops throughout the year.

"Registrations have increased sixfold," said Miss Ung. "This year, parents are also committing to holiday workshops much earlier than in previous years, an indication that we'll be seeing more full houses in mid-year and end of the year."

For instance, coding school Saturday Kids was launched in 2013 with only two workshops during the June holidays for about 20 students.

Last June, the number rose to 90 students over nine workshops, and the centre now holds workshops in Scratch programming every month.

Scratch is a programming language based on visuals and animation, making it more accessible to children, unlike traditional languages that are lines and lines of code.

Singapore's demand for coding lessons has also attracted the attention of overseas schools, such as Hong Kong-based First Code Academy.

The centre used to provide coding workshops only during the holidays when it opened here last year, but has started to offer regular lessons due to the increased demand here after its workshops were regularly oversubscribed.

"More young parents think of coding as an essential life skill that prepares their children for the future and have come to terms with the fact that technology is here to stay," said founder Michelle Sun.

Many of the schools that cater to young children teach Scratch. But demand for lessons in more conventional coding languages, such as Python, JavaScript and Ruby, has also increased among older teenagers.

Early Coders Academy, which started in December, runs lessons for teens aged 13 to 17 years, with emphasis on coding competitions and hackathons.

Software developers 'need passion to excel'
By Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2016

When he was in Primary 6, Mr Lee Sing Jie, 29, was a huge fan of Japanese monster anime Digimon, like many of his friends. He was also into computers, and so married his two passions when he created his first website dedicated to Digimon when he was 12.

While his Digimon site may have vanished from the Internet - "I tried looking for it over the weekend but it's gone," he said - the passion for coding has remained.

Mr Lee is now a programmer with gaming and media platform Garena. The computer engineering graduate from the National University of Singapore joined Garena four years ago as its first mobile developer. He now leads a team of nine other iOS coders to develop, maintain and update all things iOS-related for the company.

Singapore firm Garena has about 150 software developers across its mobile, Web and desktop platforms in its research and development hub, located at Fusionopolis.

But even though Mr Lee has managerial responsibilities, the bulk of his job is still coding-focused - which is how he wants it to be.

"I'm still pretty young, so I have a lot more to learn and would want to be involved in coding for a few more years before moving on," he said.

There has been a push here for coding to be taught at the primary and secondary school levels.

While such programmes are aimed at preparing children for a technological future, Mr Lee said that passion will be the vital ingredient for aspiring software developers to excel.

"Knowing how to code doesn't mean you will have guaranteed success or a bright future. The truth is, there are a lot of engineers out there. The good ones are those who have the passion, interest and drive to improve their skills and knowledge," he pointed out.

But coding does help people to think logically, which can be a useful mindset to teach children when they are young, he added.

"In programming, you have to break bigger problems into smaller problems, and solve them logically from there," he said.

"Coding courses can train them to think in this way, but whether it interests them and (leads them into software engineering) is another thing altogether."

Aspiring coders and software engineers should expect to do plenty of coding during their first few years on the job.

"There's a saying that you need to do something 10,000 times before you get good at it," said Mr Lee. "In software engineering terms, that means you have to write 10,000 lines of code before you become an expert."

He added: "For engineers who have just joined the industry, I'd suggest that they focus on writing code before moving on to other things. You have to code before you move into managerial roles because you need to be very good at it before you can lead somebody."

Thrilling future ahead as Singapore continues Smart Nation journey
By Irene Tham, Tech Editor, The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2016

Robotic toys have officially been introduced in Ministry of Education schools since June last year as a teaching tool to train kids in "computational thinking", the new catchphrase here.

Computational thinking is essentially logical thinking and is touted to be useful for problem solving. It can be infused by learning programming and building robots, and is said to be the fuel for Singapore's Smart Nation drive.

When the Government makes such a definitive push, you can expect vendors to pull out all the stops to cash in on the trend. Similarly, the response from parents will be nothing less than enthusiastic as they try to give their children a leg-up.

Many coding programmes run by private centres have mushroomed in the past year, touting computational thinking curriculum. While many centres cater to children aged seven to 17, one such curriculum - School of Fish - even targets pre-schoolers.

As expected, registrations for some of these lessons have grown by as much as sixfold in the past year.

Coding makes for good training, no doubt. But it is a hard skill and would plunge children into a career space early in life.

I'm sure many us love the convenience that technology offers and would not mind it a bit if our lives could be made better with more innovations.

Imagine having safer roads because every strip of road comes with sensors to warn drivers of approaching vehicles and pedestrians. Or safer homes for the elderly as monitoring systems are able to inform their caretakers immediately when they fall, or send an alert when they forget to take their medication.

These applications are part of Singapore's Smart Nation vision. An army of technologists would be needed to bring this vision to fruition.

Should parents plan that far ahead? It is one thing to send children for ballet, chess, swimming, speech and drama, piano or art enrichment classes. These lessons develop the "softer" speech and motor abilities, which most educators would agree are foundational.

But to have codes hardwired into the brains of little ones before they even have a chance to explore other career options? After all, every child has varying levels of readiness for hard skills.

To be sure, there will be tech prodigies in our midst. Remember Lim Ding Wen, who in 2009 became the world's youngest iPhone app developer at the age of nine? His shot to fame: a drawing app, Doodle Kids, that lets users draw on the touchscreen of the iPhone using their fingers.

There will be many more as more children are exposed to computational thinking.

Some parents may even argue that computing language is the language of the future and is as important as a language like English or Mandarin. Some parents, on the other hand, could simply be hoping that their children pick up some analytical skills.

Whatever the motivation, striking a balance is important.

As a tech reporter, I am thrilled by the opportunities the sector offers. As a mother of a Primary 1 child, I cannot help but feel that sometimes less may be more.

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