Sunday, February 23, 2014

Alan Ramos, IDA and the problem with mid-career IT engineers.

I promised a more detailed treatment about the Alan Ramos incident. For further details and background, you may refer to the following article here :

Basically, many netizens were upset with my previous employer for hiring a Mexican Harvard psychology graduate when it was perceived that many Singaporean mid-career engineers are in a dire need of a job. When confronted on FB, IDA was silent on why it made the decision to hire Alan Ramos.

I did not meet Alan during my stay in IDA. In fact, I met him at Barcamp prior to becoming a public officer. My impression of him was quite good, he seemed dynamic and could think quickly on his feet although I felt he was overselling his Harvard credentials at that time. I did spend some time wondering what happened to this Boy Wonder throughout my stay in IDA. That was until I read the news that he was involved with an underaged prostitute.

My aim for this posting is to not to represent IDA, but to share what I think could have been a better alternative than keeping silent on the decision to hire Alan Ramos. I also would need to do this in a way that is fair to my previous employer, where I still have many friends.

Right now, I doubt that any officer could have provided an answer the way I did because any message would have been heavily censored before it was placed on FB. This is just the way the government bureaucracy works. Career risk is very high for many senior public servants, there is simply too much incentive not to make mistakes rather than to do something which the public perceives as being the "right" thing to do.

Now to the gist of why agencies needs the likes of Alan Ramos :

To address the question of hiring psychology graduates, you need to really understand that IDA is not IBM, HP or even NCS - IDA is a government agency. Dollars and cents are not the most precious currency in a government organization. IMHO, the most precious currency is accountability - a chain of documents and paperwork which can demonstrate integrity of any officer and his superiors if subject to the scrutiny of any auditor.

Unless you work in GCIO which is the IT department that runs the government servers, you are a bureaucrat who will spend a lot of time writing approval papers and making power point presentations. As such, I think that a project manager who has spent 20 years on SDLC would make a horrible government servant, unless he likes doing documentation, I would bet that he would be surprised at the amount of paperwork which needs to be done just to keep the project running.

In such a situation, having a public officer who is trained in the liberal arts like Alan Ramos would make much more sense. His papers would be riddled with fewer grammatical errors and psychology majors have a knack for reading other people, which in my opinion, more important in an agency because a lot of presentations require a large amount of mind-reading so that it can pushed to another layer of approval. Liberal arts majors also do a little bit of science subjects so it may be possible that Alan may have taken a Computer Science module or two before getting hired.

The next item which I would like to address is the problem of mid-career engineers. Like me, you might think that you do have the skills that makes you entitled to an iron rice bowl in a government agency.

The hard and bitter truth about an engineering career is that it needs to be maintained to stay relevant. Most of us in our 40s have worthless degrees with a resume full of project victories which employ outmoded technologies or IT management frameworks.

If you are an operations PM who knows ITIL at the back of your hand, DevOps is the new killer management paradigm which threatens your livelihood by having developers manage their change processes over the cloud without operations staff.

What is the use of having SDLC experience when a lot of organizations are looking at AGILE methodology which is cheaper and results in software that better serves the needs to the companies.

Can a DBA set-up a Hadoop cluster ?

Are you a software engineer stuck in the C# .NET framework when the hottest programming languages are Python and Ruby ?

Can an old school TCP/IP stack engineer re-tool himself for the Internet of Things ?

Can an algorithms expert understand Naive Bayes or the working of the K Nearest Neighbour algorithm ?

In the short term, engineers have the hottest skills to get the best tech jobs. After 10 years, there will be enough technology disruption to render your skills worthless, that's even if you  hold a tech job continuously because your company may not change as fast as the tech industry.

At least Alan Ramos still has his liberal arts background which is timeless and allows him to adapt to changes in any industry.

To many mid-career engineers,  it looks like an iron rice-bowl is a great way to escape the great obsolescence that awaits all engineering careers, but from my personal experience, many of us are really not suited to government careers.

Instead I recommend the following :

a) Can you earn your income from investments ?
b) Do you have the skills and capital to start a small business ?
c) Why not obtain a taxi license ?

Alan Ramos will be fully dealt with by the law, but don't begrudge his skills and training, they may really be more suited to a government agency than you think.


  1. Or the next best and most popular alternative is to retire in Iskandar while your HDB gives you the income. Though the medical portion is the problem, how long can you keep coming back to singapore when you are old and weak.

    Nice frank post you have there.

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