Why you should join the tech industry in Southeast Asia

This article is originally published on Singapore Global Network.

With demand for talent far outstripping supply, tech companies in Southeast Asia are both widening their hiring pool and paying top dollar to attract talent. Recruitment veteran Tan Jin Han, APAC Vice President (Technology) at Selby Jennings, shares insights into how mid-careerists can navigate offers and even switch tracks to join the tech industry.

SGN Interview | Why you should join the tech industry in Southeast Asia

For decades, conventional wisdom dictates that Silicon Valley was the destination of choice for technology startups. It is where today’s most influential technology giants were born, and it continues to thrum with new startups in frontier areas such as alternative protein, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.   

Silicon Valley’s position as a top innovation hub remains strong today, but its status as the default startup destination of choice is no longer as clear. 

The rise of alternative innovation hubs

The 2021 KPMG Technology Industry Survey found that, outside of Silicon Valley, six of the top ten leading technology hubs were situated in the Asia Pacific region, including China, Japan, India and Israel. 

Lauded as a reputable global financial hub and gateway to the rest of Asia, Singapore topped the ranking for the second year running. In 2021 alone, Singapore saw 9 startups reach unicorn status, bringing the total count to 15. This is in addition to multinational companies – the likes of Lucasfilm, Dyson and Workato– setting up regional headquarters in the country. 

KPMG’s 2021 Technology Industry Survey ranked the top ten technology hubs

KPMG’s 2021 Technology Industry Survey ranked the top ten technology hubs (outside of Silicon Valley/San Francisco) leading innovation over the next four years.

A deepening talent supply crunch

But as tech businesses scale, so must their workforces. The explosive rise of startups has only deepened the supply crunch for tech talent in the region, intensifying a bidding war among companies.  

Southeast Asian startups raised over US$8.2 billion in the capital in 2021, and they are predicted to achieve a combined value of US$1 trillion by 2025. With such rapid growth, the shortage of tech talent has become a major hurdle for startups, with estimates indicating that Asia Pacific’s labour shortage will widen to 47 million by 2030

In Singapore, the sector is currently the most competitive in terms of hiring, with 85% of firms surveyed offering raises this year, and an estimated 1.2 million new positions to be filled by 2025. Industry experts reveal that tech talent in Singapore may be offered increments of around 20% when changing employers, while those with specialised skills in high-growth sectors such as e-commerce and fintech can expect increments of up to 30%

With demand for tech talent in the region at an all-time high, here are three tips for maximising your career growth in tech. 

For new entrants: Get up to speed on technology

The pool of locally educated IT graduates in Singapore has been expanding at a healthy rate, growing fourfold between 2010 and 2020to make up 17% of all undergraduates in Singapore. On the other hand, there is currently a shortage of quality applicants for mid to senior roles, especially as some depart from technical paths in favour of management tracks. This spells trouble for hirers but opportunity for mid-career professionals considering switching to tech. 

In the last two years, I’ve seen a significant number of candidates reorient their careers, many taking advantage of Singapore’s dedicated programmes that support mid-career transitions. Should you be making such a switch, however, be sure it is motivated by a fair amount of passion and not just opportunism – you’ll likely have to accept an initial cut in salary, and breaking into the industry takes a lot of initiative and hard work, even with the talent crunch.  

It’s challenging for seasoned tech professionals – let alone newcomers – to keep up with evolving technologies and industry developments. Experienced candidates that I work with are constantly consulting with mentors, running side projects to sharpen their skills, pursuing further education at their own expense, and gaining insights from contacts in overseas tech hubs like Shanghai and San Francisco. 

Similarly, those starting from scratch should seek to upgrade their knowledge and widen their networks however they can. Look up books and websites, take up courses (anything from a short programme in coding or digital marketing to a Master’s in IT or business analytics), attend conferences (Asia Tech x Singapore, Singapore FinTech Festival), join coding communities (GitHub, HackerRank), and seek the advice of friends in the industry.

get up to speed on technology

For junior professionals: Get ready to embrace hybrid roles

Beyond contributing to software startups and tech juggernauts, digital know-how is a critical component of building any strong business in our data-driven century. This ubiquity of tech means that it is largely sector-agnostic, giving candidates equipped with such skills the freedom to cross over from one industry to another. 

A cloud computing expert is just as valuable in banking as they are in pharmaceuticals; AI and robotics are adopted in sectors as disparate as retail, transport, healthcare, and manufacturing. Candidates with experience in data analysis, law and finance also possess experience that remains relevant in the tech industry. 

In recent years, however, we are seeing hybrid positions such as technical business analysts and financial data analysts displace traditional roles. Coding ability has become a standard requirement at firms looking to harness data for insights, and even software developers are increasingly broadening their skill sets, exploring relevant fields like data or cyber engineering. 

To get a leg up over your competitors and ease your transition to the tech industry, it might be worth your while to shore up on a second area of expertise by upskilling at coding bootcamps like Rocket Academy and schools like Hyper Island and General Assembly

For seasoned insiders: Leverage opportunities, but look beyond salary

As has been frequently reported, tech salaries are skyrocketing. For instance, the Selby Jennings 2022 Outlook reveals that software engineers in Southeast Asia with five to eight years’ experience command a salary of up to S$140,000. 

To sweeten the offer, many tech companies are offering additional benefits (flexible work, learning funds) and well-rounded compensation packages that include cryptocurrency or equity in the form of Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), but these may not pay off as much at early-stage startups. 

In such a candidate-driven job market, it’s not uncommon to be considering three to five offers at a time. If you’re in this position, here are key considerations you should bear in mind:

  • Look beyond salary.

    Sure, use your leverage to obtain the best offer, but when it comes to career fulfilment and development, money isn’t everything. 

  • Aim for growth.

    Ask about the projects you’ll be working on. Do you find them challenging and meaningful? What mentorship and learning opportunities are available? 

  • Examine culture.

    How strong is the team and leadership? Does the work culture present the level of collaboration or autonomy you prefer? Is the company genuinely committed to technology or simply jumping on the bandwagon? 

  • Think mid-term.

    Most importantly, can you see yourself thriving at this firm for at least the next two to three years? In this frenzied hiring climate, you may be tempted to job-hop after 12 to 18 months, but that sacrifices the learning and accomplishment achievable over a longer tenure, e.g. seeing projects through their full cycle, from planning to deployment. 

Tech hiring today can become a rather transactional exercise, but it’s important for candidates to choose an organisation that supports their growth – one that not only dangles an attractive salary, but also offers the prospects of a truly rewarding career.

Jin Han Tan | Selby Jennings
About Jin Han

Jin Han is APAC Vice President (Technology) at Selby Jennings, a banking and finance recruitment agency under Phaidon International. Prior to covering technology roles, she was a consultant in the legal and compliance domain. 

Connect with her here.