Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Brutal lessons from the Gen X experience in the Technology sector

Recently, there have been many articles in mainstream media that celebrate women in Tech. If you examine closely at the career profiles of Gen X women making it big in Tech today, you will find that most of these profiles are those belonging to successful saleswomen with degrees or diploma in business, hardly the knowledge workers that are facing a shortfall today. While we should celebrate inroads made by women in Tech, much less is said about Gen X men in Tech who are driving Grab, selling insurance or hawking real estate today- often doing so because they were retrenched by management decisions made by the top directors who used to have a sales role in those Tech firms. 

Contrast this against news on graduate surveys that show Technology degrees riding high with record starting salaries and almost perfect employment numbers within 6 months upon graduation.

I think the mistakes of Gen X tech graduates should be a cautionary note to millennials and Gen Z riding high today.

Successful career outcomes for a generation is not the result of meritocracy or talent. 

A prominent NUS Computing professor openly scorns the engineers of my generation for taking up project management roles and exhorts his students to level up their skills to take on more difficult technical problems. He ignores the fact that many engineers actually prefer solving technical problems and took on project management roles when the government signed agreements to open the floodgates to foreign engineers and diluted the earnings of professionals to stuck onto technical roles. This was years before companies realised that they may need a dual-track to manage technology roles to retain and nurture tech talent.  

Eventually, it took the fall of the ruling party in  Aljunied in 2011 and Seng Kang in 2020 to create such wonderful numbers for Computer Scientists today. My opinion is that the professor overvalued skills and talent when it was politics that saved the day for technologists of this generation.  

Gen Y and Millenials need to reflect upon the failures of Gen X. While you are having the time of your lives drawing $8,000+ starting salaries, maybe you should observe to see whether you can find 40-something colleagues in your offices. If not, you need to start having some plans before you hit your 40s, maybe you, too, would mysteriously disappear from the workplace. 

I have a strong conviction that levelling up your skills will not work and I don't care if the person who disagrees with me was a GEP alumnus. If the pendulum swings the other way one day, and Singapore opens the floodgates again, you can get top software engineers here at Fine Arts graduate prices. 

You might even rue the day that you did not read Philosophy instead!

The solution is to adopt the Stoic position - just believe that the party will end one day and subsequent flooding will take place again once the ruling government collects more political capital. 

If a sequel to CECA gets signed tomorrow, what will you do?

Here are some possible remedies for technology professionals in the future :

a) Join the sales or business development team

If you can't beat them, join them.

If there is anything these successful executives can teach us, it's that pivoting to sales or business development can help. Sales roles are not for everyone, but an engineer can pivot into sales engineering before getting an accounts management role. Of course, guys can't really pull a Cecilia Sue while doing sales, but a technical background can ease the main concerns of the customer and someone else can be *ahem* hired for the Cecilia Sue role.

b) Emigrate to a place where you will be more valued for your skills

When the well began to dry up in Singapore after 2005 when CECA was signed, a number of my friends in Tech emigrated and left Singapore for good. I know of one who was retrenched and found himself in Canada and about two who could not get an account management role locally left for Australia. 

This is a good solution because Singaporeans are generally welcomed in many places and that the country you go to may protect their local workers more putting you in a better position when you become a local there. 

c) Position yourself financially to benefit from the floodgate of talent entering our shores

This is obviously my favourite solution since it was what allowed me to thrive post-2005.

If you read CECA, the terms are not unanimously disadvantageous to us, our banks have ready access to emerging markets so investing in banks would be a good idea. It comes as no surprise that my backtests have shown outperformance from the STI for the past decade as DBS extends its reach in India.

When you read about the transformation of Silicon Valley, you might think that the engineers made a lot of money from stock options. But it was the landlords who ultimately got richer who rented their rooms to software developers coming in from other states.

Similarly, while CECA may not be great for local technology professionals, it was fantastic for investors who bought real estate property in Singapore.

It should come as no surprise that I like (c) the most. 

I'm not a people person so I may be too disagreeable to be in a sales role. As an only child, I can't just walk away from living with my parents. So in my view, positioning my investments to benefit from immigration is the best defence against a second CECA. If a foreign expert will be renting your premises and paying you a fee every month to be here, it becomes really impossible to be xenophobe. If anything, landlords may even want a new CECA signed immediately with China or some African states tomorrow. 

We can own shares in the Development Bank of Africa!




  1. In terms of residential rentals, gotta be careful in S'pore. Rather oversupplied for the past decade & the next 5 years, hence the suppressed rental growth rates. Coupled with high prices, they make lousy income investments. 99% of buyers buy for capital gains expectations. Their rental consideration is to cover the mortgage, not for income replacement.

    The golden years for S'pore residential rentals were 2006-2012, when people bought after the 40%-60% property correction post-AFC & post-dotcom (and a short time post-GFC), and then subsequently benefited from the open floodgates years.

    I benefited from those golden years, but managing entitled expats is also no walk in the park. Managing financial assets much easier than physical ones, as long you hone your psychology & temperament for the ups & downs. Took advantage of the recent price pop to sell off the condo.

    For STEM-oriented people, if you want to depend on careers, go for those that have high barriers of entry e.g. medicine, dentistry, law, PAP politics.

    Else it's important for STEM people to channel their arts-and-humanities brains & be able to see the big picture & make connections from what is happening around society/world to take advantage if possible. Don't get bogged down in technical silos & tunnel vision.

  2. I guess the modern equivalent is to buy stocks that provide services to these expats. For example, Bukit Sembawang as it holds a land bank and DBS for banking and wealth management services.

    You are spot on when it comes to the lack of arts-humanities brains. A lot of folks go into engineering because they are poor in English and are not really open to new experiences. Many of these guys drive Grab today because they never improved themselves once they joined the workforce.