Sunday, October 28, 2018

Why do engineers get so little credit for building massive wealth ?

Ok, so you guys probably know that I've spent the greater part of the week fending off trolls after my commentary appeared on Chanel News Asia. This is the third time I was exposed to mainstream media and each time I try to develop a new approach to engage critics who mobbed my articles. So this time, I think the strategy of engaging critics was a lot better since I started conversing with them directly on Facebook.

However, some things don't change.

Critics first attacked me for being single the first time I showed up in Me and my money in 2005. After I got married and made my second appearance, they attacked me for not having kids. This time round,  I have a family so they accused me of being an elite because of my educational qualifications ( When I don't even come from Raffles, ACS or Hwa Chong franchises ). On Seedly, some folks attacked me for coming from a privileged background. The only exception being the BigScribe FB group because I'm a regular troll there myself and many denizens count as friends there.

Here's something interesting : Never once did the critics ever accuse me of having an engineering background.

There is evidence to show that if you accuse someone of becoming a millionaire because of his engineering background, the accusation will be largely fair.

Here are the results of a survey done on millionaires by University of Georgia in 2006. You can find this survey in the book Stop Acting Rich by Thomas Stanley.

Primary Occupation
Business Owner / self-employed
Senior corporate executive
Middle manager
Marketing / Sales Professional

The concentration of engineers amongst the millionaire population in the US is higher than that of doctors or lawyers. It is, in fact, under-represented in statistics as many business owners and executives have an engineering background. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, majored in electrical engineering and computer science in Princeton.

In our local blogging scene, engineers and computer scientists dominate the FIRE movement. LP and Alvin Chow of Dr Wealth studied engineering. Kyith Ng of Investment Moats studied computer science so he largely belongs to the same habitus.

According to research, engineers are out-performers even within the millionaire's category. Engineers convert earned income into wealth at a rate 22% higher than other millionaires. Tactically, engineers are found to live in smaller homes and so they have tinier mortgages and, surprisingly,  tend to favour Toyota as a car brand instead of German engineering brand like Mercedes or Audi.

Armed with this insight, I started to read research papers by psychologists on engineers to see if there is a way to data mine the psychological traits of engineers which may lead to some insights on wealth accumulation and the stuff I find is a fairly honest assessment of my own people :

Engineers are emotionally stable, but often the point whereby they become too impersonal. They are straightforward, direct and to the point. They are goal oriented, conscientious and favour the direct approach to problem solving. I suspect they, very much like myself, hate consensus-driven decision making. On the downside, they have very little interest in people and are often unimaginative. Contrary to what people might think, engineers are energetic and balanced between extroverts and introverts.

While this hodge-podge of traits may not mean very much, it all points to one important fact - Engineers are socially indifferent. In all the surveys on the behaviour of millionaires, being socially indifferent is an important trait for wealth building. You need to ignore naysayers if you want to live a frugal lifestyle. 

Of course, this leads to the question many readers might ask :

I trained as an engineer. I'm hardly a millionaire. Why am I still struggling so hard in Singapore ?

The survey is not mean to  predict attainment of millionaire status. It is a survey of a sample of millionaires in the US.

Furthermore, Singapore does not really have a lot of respect for technology professionals. You don't need to have a degree or have a PE certificate to call yourself an engineer. Engineers certainly do not have a similar body like the Law Society to act as one voice for the profession and look after their interests.

When the government signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India in 2005, we engineers kept quiet without mentioning that the simplification of cross border movement of cheap indian software developers into the country will drive salaries down and trigger massive job losses to the outsourcing revolution. Hence forth, a generation of young people were turned off by this profession and the engineering programs in NUS and NTU became the garbage dump for students who barely got a B or C for Physics or Math.

( The corresponding problem is that you have a straight-A student in H2 Maths, Chemistry and Physics going to the Faculty of Law in NUS and SMU and claiming that they want to improve access to justice for all Singaporeans by doing pro bono work ! Amazing ! )

No wonder our trains are failing...

At the end of the day, we did ourselves in. We hated dealing with people and love being self-reliant so much that we stopped lobbying for our own interest with the authorities.

Maybe we should have learnt something from other professions like the Legal Profession and figured out how to protect each other more aggressively. You can observe the latest news : Some lawyers publicly now want government support ( and your tax-payer money )  to help cope with the AI revolution.


  1. Hi Chris

    Regarding Fintech and it outsourcing,

    Based on your understanding , will the fintech wave be a fad that will eventually be outsourced to India, or does Singapore actually stand a chance in this hyper competitive area?

    And for those whom are interested in fintech developments, will you know any good books / websites to read up about it?

  2. INTJ,

    I doubt India can steal a march on Fintech because Fintech requires a lot of domain knowledge to work. I can program in Solidity but I need the domain knowledge to understand smart contracts and what patterns these smart contracts will take. There are also difference deploying this into production. Government support in Singapore is also quite strong.

    Even I am confused about Fintech development. There are many useful books on use cases but they don't seem like game changers to me.

    My favourite book thus far is by Arvind Narayan and Joseph Bonneau. It's an introduction but it does not try to dumb itself down for the reader.