TL;DR – We’re cheap, but are we good enough?
“Singapore overtakes Silicon Valley as No. 1 for global start-up talent”
This was the headline of a Straits Times article. That is according to a research report by Startup Genome project, a US-based organisation. The research is based on surveys of 10,000 start-ups and 300 partner companies.
That’s great news right? That should bode very well for our whole push towards being a smart nation, an advanced digital economy, and a innovative and enterprising country. We should all be extremely happy about it. Right?
How is talent measured?
To understand why, let’s first look at how the research measures “start-up talent”. The research analysed three aspects to determine the ranking of start-up talent. These aspects are:
- Access – this includes the proportion of engineers and growth employees with two or more years of experience at a prior start-up, the time required to hire an engineer, and the ability to obtain a visa for hires from abroad.
- Cost – measured by engineer salaries.
- Talent Quality – based on the country score at coding contests and online tests, the engineering community’s experience in scaling applications (based on the number of exits over $50 million), and the ability to attract top engineers from other countries.
It was based on the combination of all these factors that saw Singapore clinch the top ranking for start-up talent. But if we look closer, the story isn’t as rosy as we would like. Here is how the ranking looks when broken down into the three components:
As you can see, Silicon Valley ranks top for both access and quality. Singapore ranks 10th for quality. This could mean that Singaporean engineers aren’t as capable, or isn’t able to attract top engineers from other countries compared to nine other cities.
That’s not good news.
It doesn’t matter that our engineers are relatively cheaper compared to Silicon Valley. What matters is whether they are good enough to build great companies. If they are, then so what if they are expensive? The value that top quality engineers create would more than justify their high salaries. The salaries for these engineers aren’t expenditures. They are investments.
That’s why we shouldn’t be all that happy about the findings from this research. In fact, we should be worried. Beijing and Shanghai, which only joined the rankings this year, are both ranked above Singapore in the overall rankings and in terms of talent quality. As a result of them joining the rankings, Singapore has fallen two spots in the overall ranking.
The competition will only get more intense.
Chinese government been pumping in immense amount of resources to become a tech superpower. Faced with such stiff competition, what must Singapore do to keep pace, and, hopefully, move ahead of our competitors? There are many things, such as developing a greater risk appetite, removing stupid government policies and red tape that block innovation, and growing the support network for innovative start-ups.
But no attempts to become a great start-up ecosystem would be successful if we do not develop our talent quality.
Instead of celebrating, we should take this report as a signal that those in the start-up space need to make a massive push to upgrade their skills, and be masters of their craft. Also, we need to do more to make Singapore more attractive to top quality engineers.
Those are not easy challenges to meet. But they aren’t insurmountable either. We have a good foundation. But good is not enough. We need to be great. By hook or by crook, come hail or high water, we’d better do it. It’s our future at stake.