Monday 22 Apr 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on January 23, 2023 - January 29, 2023

Greek polymath Archimedes was taking a bath when he was struck by an insight to calculate volume and density, hence the birth of the eureka moment. Likewise, 25-year-old Deric Yee was struck with a light-bulb moment to democratise computer programming, or coding, when he was desperately searching for a career that suited him.

Yee was on break after quitting his job as a financial analyst in 2019 when he experimented with his newfound passion — coding. He discovered that coding was hard to learn on his own given his inexperience and inadequate knowledge of software or computer programming.

“I gave up a lot of times but I kept learning for eight months; I learnt non-stop, [sometimes] up to 12 hours per day. During this period, I was unemployed. It was painful and tough,” says Yee, who is an accounting and finance graduate from Lancaster University, UK.

“After eight months [of learning to code], my friend, who is a computer science graduate, came and asked if I could help him code. He was willing to pay me RM150 per hour, and to me, that was a lot of money.”

This sparked the idea to set up Sigma School, which he did with co-founder Kee Ming Yu in February last year. They began by running physical coding groups as well as online coding.

The sole purpose of the school was to enable driven individuals, regardless of background, to learn how to code and, ultimately, land a job with the newly acquired skill.

“When I came back from the UK, I realised that this was what I wanted. I was working in an analyst role and punching numbers a lot. But it didn’t satisfy me; I wanted to make a real impact and change lives. I realised technology allowed me to do that,” he says.

Being self-taught, the young CEO relied primarily on Google to build software projects since he could not afford to attend boot camps or get another degree from a university.

“Instead of spending too much time on tutorials, I believe the best way to learn is to challenge myself to get down to building software on my own,” says Yee.

“My brain functions like this: I see a problem, I want to solve it. And I always ask myself if I can monetise it. And it so happened that I like technology, and Sigma School is built for that purpose because my goal is to build many ventures.”

To attract the younger generation to delve into the coding scene, Sigma School offers a myriad of benefits, including free access and membership for a trial period of seven days before students decide whether to take up the course.

“Our flagship course is called the Complete Software Development Programme. That’s our most popular programme. In this programme, we cover coding fundamentals, including three other modules. Each module will take about 300 hours,” says Yee.

The four modules consist of coding fundamentals, front-end, back-end and mobile app development. It takes about six months to complete the course, upon which Sigma School graduates will be awarded a certificate by the institution.

The certificates are not accredited by any governing body or the Ministry of Education, but Yee believes certificate accreditation will not matter; knowing how to get a job done matters more. This is further strengthened by Sigma School’s unique proposition of having its hiring partners hire its students or upskill their existing talent.

Addressing the local talent shortage

Coding skills make employees more attractive, says Yee. Local jobs are not enticing despite a lot of focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the country.

“For instance, if the national average wage is RM3,000 [for a degree graduate], they would be getting more if Americans hired them and paid them in US dollars. And, the best part of coding is that we can do it remotely, which is why there is a huge demand for developers. These developers, if they know their worth, can start applying for higher-paying jobs in foreign countries,” says Yee.

Another pain point is the lack of a diverse talent pool. According to Coursera’s Global Skills report last year, Malaysian learners are relatively more adept at digital skills such as cloud computing and data analysis, but there is still a significant skills gap across business, technology and data science.

The report also shows that Japan is the world leader because of its expertise in industrial automation and robotics. Its skill level score is more than 90% across areas such as cloud computing, computer networking and theoretical computer science.

Compared to Japan, Malaysia’s skills level is at 91% for cloud computing and up to 60% for other areas such as computer programming, mobile development and operating systems.

“To address these gaps, a budget has to be involved because we cannot expect grassroots-level efforts to be taken without having investments. Let’s be realistic; a lot of money is needed,” says Yee.

Web3 aspirations

Web1 and Web2 were used as search engines and eventually became commonplace as a means for internet users to publish content and interact with each other. Web3, however, represents the next iteration of the internet. It is built upon the core concepts of decentralisation, openness and user utility.

Web3 is the space that leverages blockchain, cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), enabling users to have ownership of digital assets. While the opportunities are endless, Malaysia has yet to fully venture into Web3.

Yee is confident that Web3 will be a boon for coding if local talents can harness the requisite skills and experience to rival foreign talents.

“Right now, we are not covering Web3, but I am a big fan of Web3. To get into it, you still need to have the fundamentals [and] we are preparing the fundamentals. It takes a lot of time to build and then you will be able to learn Web3 very easily. It is new territory and we have not taught our students about it yet, but we are planning to incorporate courses related to Web3,” he says.

Collaborative learning

Sigma School uses peer-to-peer learning to encourage students to comfortably learn difficult details.

“Imagine having a partner to support you on this journey; that’s how peer-to-peer learning works. At Sigma School, we believe that when students teach each other, they grasp concepts easily. They come from the same circle and they would understand each other’s challenges,” says Yee.

Although peer-to-peer learning is the main approach at Sigma School, it also has qualified instructors to teach students, especially for complicated tasks. Peer-to-peer learning also helps the company address brain drain and reduce excessive overhead costs.

“We don’t have to hire a developer, especially a senior one; it’s very expensive and not sustainable. Foreign employers are stealing our talent segments. I know of many coding schools that have shut down because they couldn’t sustain the developers’ salaries,” says Yee.

The way Sigma School navigates this obstacle is by employing developers on an ad hoc basis, where these developers or industry experts come in and coach students only when needed.

“Most people don’t get this; students can learn by themselves on their personal computers with their friends. For subjects that are extremely difficult and modules for our capstone projects, students can opt to call a mentor [a developer] as many times as they want,” he says.

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