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Nick Ang

Reflecting on my career in tech: 5 years in

a picture of Nick and Charlane in an empty new rental apartment Software engineering has enabled us to live in Berlin. Picture: us on the first day of moving into our new unfurnished rental apartment in Mitte, Berlin.

I graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and no knowledge of how to code. Now, in 2021, I’m leading a team of software engineers based in Singapore and Finland, building internal tools for one of the largest advertising tech companies in the world.

And now I feel like I have fallen out of love with the craft. This is my honest reflection about software engineering work from my perspective after 5 years of earning a wage from it.

In 2016 I started a company called Flowriter to build a physical machine that was meant to meet a market gap: a laptop built just for writers. No more bouncing from multi-purpose modern laptops to analogue and cumbersome metal typewriters. It was to be the modern-day writer’s tool.

It got nowhere, and no wonder. I had no tech skills! I knew nothing about technology apart from how to use it in neatly packaged end-products like the iPhone and Macbook and the App Store. How was I, an environmental studies major, supposed to build a new computer-based tool?

So I enrolled in a programming bootcamp. It was wonderful. Going to class to learn about HTML, CSS, and later on JavaScript and Ruby, I experienced many revelations and felt like a wizard. I could build anything that could run on a browser and the only thing that limited me was my imagination.

When I was done with the bootcamp, I got carried away and first became a teaching assistant (yes, fresh out of bootcamp myself), and then I got a full-time job as a junior software engineer at a little known software-consultancy-trying-to-become-a-product-company company. My original goal of building a writer’s laptop was shelved and in 2019 was accomplished by a US-based company called Astrohaus, whose Freewrite product I now own. This article and many others are written on it.

I learned a lot in a very short time about software engineering on that first job fresh out of bootcamp, and it was an interesting time. It was stressful but also rewarding.

I knew I wouldn’t stay in that company shortly after I joined because I could tell it wasn’t going to grow. I mean, I was a junior software engineer and I was the main person building their product (red flag!). About a year and a half later, I left and pursued a brief teaching stint at the bootcamp from which I graduated.

This was about the time Charlane and I wanted to relocate to somewhere outside of Singapore. We shared the same dream of living abroad if not permanently, at least temporarily, so that we could transform and broaden our worldview. Singapore is but a tiny dot on the map and we knew the world had more on offer.

I remember feeling thankful and lucky that I accidentally crossed paths with software engineering because it was our key to move abroad. Programming skills were in high demand as old companies were undergoing “digital transformation” and new tech startups were sprouting up in every major city. Even with less than two years of experience building applications, I knew I could get jobs in a different country and city.

So we set our sights on the city that left a deep impression on both of us: San Francisco. We were there for our first road trip together, and I was there touring Silicon Valley startups as part of my university entrepreneurship program before she had arrived for that road trip.

The job hunt was harder than I thought, but I still had a healthy pipeline of companies who were willing to consider me and were scheduling first calls.

At this time, I was still teaching at the bootcamp and one day, I bumped into a person whom I hadn’t seen for a while on campus. His name was Jun Kai, and he was, like me, a graduate from the programming bootcamp.

I asked him what he was doing on campus and he told me that he was recruiting fresh graduates to join the company he’s working for. Casually, I asked him if the company had an office in San Francisco and just as casually, he said “yes.” The company, he told me, is called Smartly.io. Three years have passed since I started working here.

During my interview process at Smartly.io, I asked point-blank if I could be moved to their San Francisco office and they said “maybe.” The person who interviewed me said that it would be possible, but it would depend on my performance. They wanted me to work for at least a year in the Singapore office before they would consider moving me. I took the risk and accepted the offer, respectfully halting my job applications to San Francisco based companies.

A year went by and I reopened the question with HR. This was when I knew that San Francisco was not going to happen any time soon for us because of the Trump administration’s protectionist policies. I was offered two alternatives (for which I am still extremely grateful): Helsinki, Finland, or Berlin, Germany. I chose the less cold city of Berlin and have lived here for the last one and a half years.

Alright, so far I’ve described how I started on the path of software engineering and how it enabled me to fulfil one of me and my wife’s dream of living abroad, and how thankful I am. But there is one crucial part of the story that I haven’t told you: my fizzling interest in software development, catalysed by the job I ended up doing at Smartly.io.

My title at Smartly.io when I started was something that took me over a year to understand — I was to be a Service Operations Engineer. The industry did not have a title like that and I had a hard time explaining to my mum what I do. But the title wasn’t the problem. The job scope was.

I spent 20 percent of my time coding, while the remaining 80 percent of my time was always spent providing technical support to customers or training Customer Success Managers on how to do technical product troubleshooting. I learned a lot about the hard things of providing high quality customer support, but I believe this increasing distance from day-to-day programming work was what eventually helped me see that the intrigue of programming had evaporated from me.

Put another way: I found myself no longer that interested in software development. Building something new or fixing a bug is something I still find fun doing, but only occasionally.

At this time, a number of my colleagues in the same team (Service Operations) who were based in Helsinki moved to join the Engineering team as product software developers. A lot of people from our team go on to join many different teams - we even wrote a blog post about that. I stayed on, even though I know I could make the same move. A few months later, I clinched the role of team lead - the role I’ve been playing in the last 6 months.

And so, here I am, leading a team of 8 internal tools software engineers, not being very excited about software development.

I see a few potential paths forward, some involving changing roles in the company, others requiring more drastic change. Of course, there’s the option of staying in the role too, in which I think I’m doing a decent job from the managerial perspective. After all, I am able to do the job. I’m just finding myself a little less interested in doing it with each passing week.

How does one ultimately decide what the next step in their career should be? I don’t know, but I know one needs to consider his unique circumstance and priorities.

Even though this essay may appear to be somewhat depressing, especially towards the end, I must say this: I am very grateful for the opportunities that have come up because of software engineering. I know that I am lucky to have a choice. That said, having a choice means having to do some thinking beforehand so that it may become a good decision.


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