Insights on Information and Communications Technology

By Donovan Sim

The Discovery+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, which give students the chance to speak directly with working professionals, and learn about careers they aspire to enter. Given the developments in the COVID-19 situation, Advisory is keen to provide support to the many students who are experiencing woes in this time of disruptions, by digitalising professional mentorship.

The Discover+ Panel on Information and Communications Technology, held on 1 September 2020, was graced by Genie Sugene Gan (Moderator), Head of Government Relations & Public Affairs (Asia Pacific) at Kaspersky; Adrian Ong, Director (TechSkills Accelerator Programme Office) at IMDA; Goh Eng Choon, President of Cybersecurity Systems Group at ST Engineering; and Richard Koh, Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft Singapore. Attendees included students at various levels of education with a desire to know the different career paths in information and communications technology, and how to best position themselves for such roles.

The ICT industry overlaps with other industries, from banking to logistics, as they all hire ICT personnel. As industries become increasingly digital over the years, the number of ICT professionals working in non-ICT industries has also increased. In the Annual Survey on Infocomm Media Manpower, there are 24 ICT vocations listed, from AI to IT services to product managers and product developers. The statistics and trends showcased may be helpful when making career decisions.

The wages in the ICT industry are always higher than the economy average due to the larger demand than supply, and are just behind those of finance but higher than for professional services. A career in the ICT industry comes with the exciting opportunity of using software to solve problems. The jobs most in demand currently within the sector are senior software developers, experienced product managers, and infrastructure engineers.

There are a variety of sectors within the industry, such as AI, blockchain, cloud, cybersecurity, and data analytics. For example, data analytics has a large number of mathematicians and psychologists and not just coders. While some are engaged in back-end coding, there are also others who handle non-coding-intensive tasks on the front-end, such as those designing interfaces for easy usage by consumers.

The ICT industry comprises many sectors and vocations. If you are excited by the prospect of solving some of the world’s toughest problems using technology, you will find the ICT industry suitable. The pace of work depends on the vocation, but the work of all of them can be systematised and managed. If one would like to get a feel of what working in the industry is like, one may like to participate in various activities organised by the Singapore Computer Society with three to four events happening per week. SGTech, which is another trade association, also hosts company visits. These activities are free and provide students with opportunities to speak to ICT professionals about their experiences.

So long as one is passionate, he or she would naturally keep up with these advancements. It is much like keeping up with the newest smartphone models and software updates, where one can always find out such developments on his or her own, and there is no need to go through a course to learn about them.

There has been an increase in the number of companies dealing in research and development, product development, start-ups, etc. There is no reason why a future Facebook or Google could not come from Singapore.

The Covid-19 period is certainly an opportunity of a lifetime for the ICT industry. For example, e-commerce is now much more mainstream, and share prices of e-commerce sites have increased very much. The pandemic had also increased the importance of ICT in facilitating human interaction and preserving lives, where once the industry was focused on making things faster and more effective. Opportunities were also created when people had to begin working remotely.

While companies around the world typically have 20-40% of employees that are female, the percentage in Singapore has increased over the years to more than 30%. There is no ‘artificial blockage’ preventing females from joining the ICT industry in Singapore, and the lower female representation is likely due to conventional family structures. This is possibly a problem that begins during youth where most students in ICT-related fields happen to be male. However in some sectors of the industry such as AI and data analytics, females have a stronger representation, leveraging on their ability to multitask.

This includes the handling of relations between the government and the company, communicating with government stakeholders, making agreements with the government, or any other communications that include a public element.

Universities provide environments where one can experiment and ask a lot of questions. It is also a fairly safe and nurturing environment, a place to learn critical thinking, analysis, ways of thinking, and not just technical skills. These skills will take you a long way regardless of what vocation you take up. Being in university is also an enjoyable time, and you may not wish to skip the university experience for the working world.

For fresh graduates, the prestige of one’s faculty (and not one’s university as a whole) can influence job prospects. Some large multinational tech companies do still fixate on hiring graduates from faculties of Ivy League universities, simply because such companies receive an extremely large number of applications each day. Hence, they do this to narrow down their search. Most other companies will also pay attention to the prestige of an undergraduate’s faculty. Graduates from NUS School of Computing, for example, should not have any issues finding jobs. Diversity is also important and companies will avoid hiring all of their employees from the same university.

Eventually, however, the career paths for those with and without degrees will converge. Whether or not you hold a degree or diploma, it is critical that one continues to develop professionally, because the industry is always changing rapidly. Hence, a degree or diploma will only be useful in entering the industry, but not staying and climbing in stature within the industry.

Interestingly, there is an increasing number of tech companies choosing to focus on a fresh graduate’s skills and not his or her degree. Given the evolution of technology, it is also less important to have specific technical skills. Hence, do not hesitate to pursue a degree in something you are intellectually curious about. It is more important to be able to see through patterns, understand markets, and empathise with developers. At the very least, maintain a healthy curiosity towards technology. There is always free training and education available online that do require you to be enrolled in a degree course to access. Employers also value pursuits outside of your course, such as working on open-source projects or participating in short-form courses organised by organisations such as Microsoft. Hence, applicants to such companies should ensure that they have a strong portfolio of projects. Additionally, it is more important for one’s projects to be known, as opposed to being self-initiated (it is less important that you start your own project).

Leaders at ICT companies must typically be able to do three things: creating clarity (Which direction is your team going? What is the team doing? What do results look like?), rallying colleagues, and delivering results. In fact, the above applies to all industries.

While it may look like companies are always targeting their search at experienced cyber-security personnel, they are actually willing to take in even fresh graduates and mid-careerists due to the large shortage of cyber-security personnel. Within the Singapore government agencies, there are also many schemes targeted at both fresh graduates and mid-careerists, with the aim of training people in the long term.

There is no ‘key’ certification that companies are looking for due to the diversity of professionals within the cyber-security professionals, such as those dealing with risk and vulnerability assessments, management of cyber-security systems, developers, etc. Most importantly, one needs to be passionate about the field.

Currently, the industry is in the process of developing ‘legal tech’. In fact, the Singapore courts were one of the earliest government agencies to adopt technology, such as the use of ‘electronic courts’. Compared with other countries, Singapore’s courts are rather technologically advanced. The use of AI to streamline work processes within the legal sector is also currently being developed.

There are also lawyers who are passionate about practicing law in the ICT industry, where the cases generally deal with issues such as intellectual property, personal data, etc.

Those with electrical engineering degrees will have an advantage in dealing with networks, servers, and other fields that deal with electronic devices. In the ICT industry, this means an inclination towards the communications, networking and cyber-security sectors.

Skills are easily transferable between both sectors. In the private sector, some vocations require one to deal with customers; whereas in the public sector, one may instead be the customer.