Friday 02 Jun 2023
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on November 23, 2020 - November 29, 2020

On average, the tech industry takes eight months to a year to retrain fresh graduates with computer science or software engineering degrees so they are fit for service, observes Howie Chang, founder and CEO of Forward School.

That was the reality he faced when he worked in product management for tech start-ups in Singapore.

“A lot of what they study is textbook-based and not what the industry needs. It shouldn’t be this way. They spend four years studying for a degree, and when they graduate, the company still has to train them while paying their salaries,” says Chang.

His resolve to address this problem was strengthened when he returned to Penang four years ago and became a consultant to the state government, tasked with growing the start-up ecosystem.

“We don’t have a lack of good ideas in Malaysia but we are always lacking people who can actually execute them. They don’t have the necessary skill sets,” says Chang.

In 2019, Chang founded Forward School in Penang to address this talent gap. The school aims to build the next generation of tech talent and equip students with industry-ready skills. Currently, it offers a two-year full-time programme in applied software engineering, a two-month part-time course in applied deep learning and a three-month part-time course in digital skills.

He also managed to secure some high-­profile angel investors for Forward School. They include Exabytes founder and CEO Chan Kee Siak, ViTrox CEO Chu Jenn Weng, AIMS Group CEO Chiew Kok Hin, Zaid Ibrahim & Co partner Ang Siak Keng and Seacliff Partners managing director Brian Wong, who is also the vice-president of Alibaba Group Holding.

“They were fully on board with my idea because they know first-hand the challenges of hiring tech talent. They recognise it’s not an easy problem to solve but it’s one that is worth solving,” says Chang.

Screenshots of two of Forward School’s programmes

Collaborating with industry

A feature that sets Forward School apart is its focus on working with the industry. Its curriculum is created in collaboration with industry practitioners, says Chang, and students of its full-time programme are required to do internships while they take classes.

“From the second semester onwards, you will be attached to a company for an internship one day in a week. It’s part of the syllabus. Right now, we have more than 20 hiring partners who are part of this programme,” says Chang. These partners, whose names are listed on Forward School’s website, include TNG Digital, Supahands, Exabytes, EasyStore, ViTrox and CoinGecko.

In addition, students of the full-time programme can have payment options that bond them to a company. Under the student sponsorship programme, a company will sponsor a student, who is then required to work for the company after graduation.

“Not all students will be picked for this because they have to be interviewed beforehand. [If they are successful,] the corporation will sponsor the student’s two years of study with us and give them a job guarantee and minimum salary of RM3,000 after graduation,” says Chang.

Another payment option is the income-share agreement, where students pay an advance deposit of RM3,000 and only pay back the remainder of the tuition fees when they find a job.

“We do this because I think the education system has a lack of accountability as to whether schools are able to impart to students the skills that can help them find a job. Our income-share agreement means that we are investing in the student and if they can’t find a job, they don’t need to pay us yet. If they can’t find meaningful employment, then we are not doing our job well,” says Chang.

Other than the industry collaboration and unique payment options, Forward School’s full-time programme is longer than that of similar tech education providers, enabling it to cover more topics. It also involves a combination of online and in-person courses.

Who should join? 

SPM leavers and those who want a mid-career switch should consider the two-year full-time programme, Chang says. This is because the course is comprehensive and not only covers tech foundations but also management skills.

“We also teach them skills such as how to work in teams, how to work with designers, business stakeholders and bosses and how to present their ideas. We want to make sure they have all the skills they need to work for a global tech company,” says Chang.

The shorter part-time programmes, meanwhile, could be suitable for those who want to upskill.

“Our mission is to make quality tech education accessible to all. Of course, we do have an aptitude test that students have to take. But we found out that a lot of students who don’t do too well academically can do extremely well in our aptitude test. [Prior to this] these people might have found their options limited [due to weak academic results] but we provide them with a good alternative path to build their career in tech,” Chang says.

Should students consider Forward School as an alternative to getting a regular university degree? Chang notes that, in Malaysia, accreditation is still important, as employers prioritise paper qualifications in the hiring process.

However, this could change in the future as skills gain prominence in the workplace.

“You can have a programme that is not accredited but is industry-driven and cutting-edge, while at the other end, you have an accredited programme that is irrelevant,” says Chang.

“We believe you can have both in Forward School. That is why we are working on getting accredited with a Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia. When you graduate from our two-year programme, you will have a level 4 diploma as a software developer.”

The classes will be delivered on campus in Penang or via a live online class. There are three intakes a year for the full-time programme. Since Forward School’s launch in March, 17 students have enrolled in its programmes.

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