Saturday, August 29, 2015

What about Engineers ?

If you want a study for a degree which is likely to see you in a bank doing Operations, you should study engineering. However, if you want to study for a degree which would land you into a job managing a hipster cafe or baking cupcakes, a Law degree is your surest bet.

If I can start my life all over again, I would still take Engineering as my first degree, the only change is that I will aggressively study software engineering, ignore electronics/hardware and try to slant my electives towards Data Analytics.

However, I would still not become an engineer. At least not an engineer in a traditional sense who looks at blueprints and direct maintenance for MRT trains. I will instead use my mathematical and programming skills towards solving problems which would make me more money. I see successful engineers programming GPUs to arbitrage financial markets.

The lack of engineers in Singapore have been on the radar lately and some folks have commented on the lack attention paid to this issue in this coming elections. This is a problem in Singapore because we will lose our competitiveness in key industries if we cannot graduate professionals who can understand and solve technical problems. The MRT breakdowns is a symptom of of this issue. Create a society which does not respect technical proficiency and underpays engineers, and you will be rewarded be frequent breakdowns and failing infrastructure.

That being said, I still think that we can incentivise more people to take up engineering in spite of low income prospects for the engineering profession. The trick is to address the hard truth that the most hardcore engineers are pragmatic people and these are guys who will choose money over passion if they cannot have both in their working lives.

Passionate people study media and the arts, pragmatic people study engineering.

Pragmatic people want to get paid - paid in a way which can command the respect of others.

Our preference is to be significantly overpaid - like lawyers and medical specialists, not like the cogs of the economic machine.

Here are some possibilities to explore to get more folks into engineering :

a) Encourage engineers to work abroad.

While this sounds counter-productive, engineers who to the US generally can get high salaries relative to even local degrees like Law or even Medicine. This requires some tinkering with the syllabus to get software elites to be able to operate as full stack engineers ( which might already be happening with the NUS Orbital programs ).

The advantage of this approach is that the problem of money disappears immediately and some engineers do come back to create jobs and startups. Engineers might face a local industry with poor prospects but with the proper skills they can come back to raise a family but continue to remotely work for US start-ups or build a start-up of their own.

Losing a few years to Silicon Valley is a small price to pay if some of these guys do return with the idea of building up the startup ecosystem.

We need to expand NUS Overseas College or maybe have a parallel program in the Engineering faculty. VCs might sponsor this program using equity tied to the salary of graduands ( This is part of  a new proposal by Marco Rubio on study loans in the US. )

b) Promote engineering as a superior first degree.

When I was an undergrad in NUS, my HR professor did something which I felt was wrong.

She was about to invite an ex-HP director who retooled himself as a GIC investment manager to speak to us but changed her mind because she said that she felt that she was doing a wrong thing because fewer people would become engineers once they met this guy.

Today I am still shocked at how much the authorities want engineers to sacrifice our own personal interests for the Singapore economy. I have not seen accountants, doctors or lawyers being asked to do this.

Another counter intuitive approach which can  be backed by salary information is that Engineering makes a pretty nifty bridging degree. Because life outcomes and salaries are sub-par, engineers can take on alternative professional roles. Accounting is rapidly becoming a Masters level course when SMU launched the MPA qualification, engineers can get a good raise when retool and join a big 4 company over an engineering paycheck.

A lot of folks in the finance industry get stuck at level II in their CFA preparations where multiple rounds of failed attempts are the norm. My experience with cracking the CFA is that engineers don't find level II particularly hard even though it has a reputation as killer exam. This is because we are already very quantitative and we are pretty good at statistics in the first place.

If you look carefully at the NUS engineering syllabus, every engineer studies a bit of everything. My financial accounting and statistics module helped me in CFA I. My law module taken 15 years ago made swallowing some concepts like contra-proferentum much easier. I would say that my degree is almost half of an MBA.

[[ My JD program has 3 engineers and at least so far, we are holding on our own quite well in spite of not being in our home ground and fighting the Humanities folks. ]]

[[  MBAs will be bullshit qualification in a few years once engineers start doing the Coursera specialization in their own spare time while CFA prepping. Do an MBA if you wanna network and choose a school which adopt a case approach, otherwise you should save your money. ]]

The trick of promoting engineering as a base degree which leads to bigger things is that even though some engineers do become lawyers, doctors and accountants,  You will have lawyers, accountants and doctors who understand technology intimately. But more importantly, there is a likelihood that engineers will remain engineers ! ( I spent a week helping out in family courts and I don't like the negativity associated with seeing couples in conflict, I rather code ! )

[[ As a side-note, I have committed to picking up some Python maybe when General Assembly touches down in Singapore because I believe that the legal industry is ripe for disruption and many processes can be converted into software as a service solutions. I am currently struggling with issues like legal Formalities and thinking about how technologies like Bitcoin could play into the next generation of corporate transactions. Imagine a contracts registry like our Land registry, backed by an assurance fund to assist our SMEs ! Very few lawyers think like that ! ]]

Anyway, I was one of those  IT guys who decided to stay in IT.  After I completed my masters in Finance, I voluntarily stayed in IT because my salary has been increasing quite steadily and I already figured out how to generate another source of income, Sometimes staying put may be the wiser course of action ( preferably made with the assistance of spreadsheets ! ).

The fear of engineers leaving the industry after getting another degree is overrated.

c) Patents as source of passive income.

I learnt this only in Law School because I met a classmate who is a top-flight engineer who has an income stream from his patents.

This idea warrants deeper thought. Passive income from patents is a powerful arsenal in one's portfolio because it is not highly correlated with financial markets. If I could have found a way to unlock my intellectual property from my University days, even a simple monthly cash flow of $500 a month requires a base portfolio size of $75,000 in the markets. ( Top blogger BudgetBabe saves $20,000 a year and she's infamous because of that ! )

Local universities may want actual modules on new product development with a pragmatic focus on IP monetization. If you think about it, this will generate refreshed interest in engineering.

Monetisation should be a core module. Heck, it should have been called a Bachelor in Monetisation.

Imagine a cash flow even before you start work which stacks on top of your salary.

No way a law or medical degree can top that ?

In summary, I think the tide can be turned with the right policies and incentives in place.

Folks who do engineering want a good life. A good life requires money,power and respect. Treating engineers and software developers like digital coolies takes away both money and respect from their lives. These societies will be rewarded with infrastructure failures if this goes unchecked.

Allowing some of the top engineers to become the top earners of society will attract more people to study engineering. Many of these folks may not end up being top earners, but they would at least have the opportunity to do some engineering work and have a middle class lifestyle.


  1. I like to read your blog but it gets tough on my eyes. Maybe it's just me.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I am an IT engineer and my company has two career paths. In management, you are valued highly because for your people management skills, your project skills and you bring in the dollars. In technical, you are also valued highly because you will be the first one to be given the opportunity to tackle any complex technical problem. You will constantly be sent for courses so that you can learn cutting edge technologies to tackle ever-changing IT problems.

    No money for guessing which path is more popular.

  3. Derrick,

    Thanks for sharing. I must say that if your company has a specialist track, it would be way better than most companies that most unlucky engineers may unfortunately fall into.



    I will tweak the color scheme this weekend. Thanks !


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