Answering the tough question: 'Why are Malaysian programmers so hard to find?'

October 20, 2019

Payscale, a company that uses big data and unique matching algorithms to help employers and their employees understand the right pay for various positions shared that an average Software Engineer or Developer or Programmer in Malaysia with 1 to 4 years experience takes home roughly RM 49,000 per year. However, with an additional 4 years of experience, this salary almost doubles to nearly RM 90,000 per year.Yet, with a job offering such a high salary package, there seems to be quite a bit of a demand for programmers with only a limited supply of them.So why is this happening?We spoke to Tan Yee Siang, acting vice president of the Tech & Innovation team at MaGIC to understand his thoughts on this scarcity paradigm that is happening in the programming world.Reshmi Haran: If I were to search for jobs on portals like Wobb or LinkedIn, one of the most highly sought-after jobs there are right now are for tech talent, especially programmers. Why do you think this is?Tan Yee Siang: We must first understand that tech talent is very much age-sensitive. Most programmers today are youth. As they grow older, they take on new roles like project management. To be honest, the field itself is one that can really be testing. I received my bachelor's degree in software engineering from Multimedia University. The intake at the time was fairly large. However, as I looked around the room during my graduation, only half of us made it through to graduation. Out of that, a handful of us managed to secure jobs as programmers while the rest pursued a different career path and the remaining left the country in pursuit of higher salary. The sadder note is that there is no gender balance in this industry. I would say a good 80% of coders around are males. Reshmi Haran: What is the life of a programmer like?Tan Yee Siang: Well, I am not going to sugarcoat anything here. A programmer's life is no walk in the park. We have endless requests every day for edits simply because clients have issues visualising what they really want from the get-go. It is very tedious which is why not everybody wants to take programming up as a profession. Programmers get their satisfaction through solving bugs or building new features that they can sort of show-off to their peers. The inner pride we get however when we complete projects, triumphs everything. The sheer thought of us building something from scratch is what drives us. Reshmi Haran: What are 3 characteristics you feel a programmer should possess?Tan Yee Siang: I believe they should be firstly, passionate. Second is that they have to be a self-learner. In the tech world, there is no such thing as spoon feeding. Technology is evolving day-by-day which may require for new programming languages. Hence, a programmer will really have to be able to learn, unlearn and relearn without fuss. Lastly, those beginning to code will need to make Google their best friend. Just like how you would ask your best friend for advice, Google can help you when you have hit a roadblock and most of the time, Google has the answer. Reshmi Haran: What do we need to do to boost the supply of programmers in Malaysia? Do you think programming is something that needs to be taught at a tender age?Tan Yee Siang: In my opinion, programming should be taught in schools but not the kind of programming you are thinking of. I am not referring to them having to remember the syntaxes and lines of codes but rather getting them to think logically first. For example, the Kemahiran Hidup subject that is taught in schools can be further extended to include Arduino in making and building stuff. That way, they build that problem-solving mindset first. Individuals need to have the passion for programming. If parents force children to take up programming or if teachers basically shove everything down the student's throat, there is a risk that the child will dread every minute of it as that is not where their true passion lies. Then, it becomes an unfulfilling and unsatisfactory task to them which will result in them not being receptive to learning programming. We should also be open to foreign talent. No matter how much talent we build, there is an undeniable fact that our people will eventually leave Malaysia to pursue a career in other countries. We need foreign talent to fill this gap as well as to encourage knowledge transfer.Reshmi Haran: There seems to be a rampant rise in MakerLabs and courses that teach computer languages to children. Do these courses and classes really work?Tan Yee Siang: MakerLabs definitely do help but more importantly, we need to understand how receptive the parents are towards it. I recall speaking to one of the parents at a MakerLab in Johor. The parent asked, "will this course help my child in securing a job in Singapore?" That whole mentality by itself is already wrong. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, we do not possess the D.I.Y thirst. There are a lot of western shows on TV that highlights individuals building their own houses and furniture. But we do not have this here. Why is that? If we can adopt at first a problem-solving mindset, the D.I.Y culture will follow through. We Malaysians tend to see a problem and complain about. We don't see a problem and think "hey, maybe I can come up with a way to fix this or maybe there is a better way of doing this easily." The right attitude, passion and mindset is really key here, all of which, can be taught to them so that they themselves are programmed to have the right attitude, the passion and the mindset to learn coding. These days, kids cry for laptops and iPads. Previously, it was all about using our imagination. We used to build our own castles out of pillows and blankets. We used to make some of our parents favourite food with nothing but our 'masak-masak' toy set and some make believe. I find that there is no imagination anymore. That is how kids learn to build stuff from raw materials. And that is how programming starts. Because it is all about creating things. Then they start becoming innovators, creators and entrepreneurs. That is the culture we NEED in Malaysia. Reshmi Haran: Why do you feel everyone should learn how to code?Tan Yee Siang: In an interview with Bloomberg in August 2019, the trading division of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. shared that they are planning their biggest hiring spree in years where they are looking to add some 100 engineers for tech-related roles on the trading floor soon. Whether or not we like it, we need to understand that technological advancements require us to learn to code. The faster we can accept this, the faster we can make decisions and do the needful to remain relevant and keep abreast instead of becoming obsolete in our jobs allowing for robots or automated software to take over our roles. Programming is not something that is exclusive. For instance, designers can use programming to start automating tasks. If we can learn languages to start talking to people from other countries, why can't we learn a language that enables us to talk to talk to computers?Tan Yee Siang is no stranger to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. He has vast experience in startups with his first social platform receiving funds from Cradle while he was pursuing his undergraduate degree. He later joined a software house to help in the development of patient data tracking for government hospitals. He is currently the acting vice president of the Tech & Innovation team at MaGIC who is striving to help startups through mentorship. Keen to pick Tan Yee Siang's mind? Book a FREE mentoring session with him via MaGIC's mentorship platform today!Piece by Reshmi HaranThe views and opinions expressed in this writeup are those of the interviewees and does not necessarily reflect or represent the organisation, groups or individuals.