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How a career obstacle unlocked this software engineer’s passion for programming


Fri, 11/17/2023 - 12:00


When Pang Xueyang, or simply 'Yang' to his peers, was retrenched at the start of the pandemic, it turned out to be the perfect opportunity to pivot his career. His desire for full autonomy over impactful, real-world projects led him to secure a spot with SGInnovate's Talent Programme. The decision proved a critical career move for the newly minted software engineer.  

Yang’s first foray into coding outside of school came when he was tasked to improve his team’s efficiency. The Aerospace Systems Engineering graduate was working at a major aircraft manufacturer then and was faced with a story all too familiar to many of us – having to sift through thousands of rows of data in spreadsheets. “I was trying to see how we could improve our processes, and I realised that knowing how to program would be very helpful in automating things.” 

The more he learnt about the value programming brought to automating banal tasks and its role in solving real-world issues, the more he was convinced it was a worthwhile career to pivot to. In early 2020, he signed up for a foundation course in computer programming offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS) School of Continuing and Lifelong Education (NUS SCALE). 

He never anticipated that a few months later, a global pandemic would cripple the aviation industry, leading to widespread layoffs that impacted Yang and many others.  

“I believe most people would have been quite upset about it,” says Yang, “But at the back of my mind, I thought that this could be the turning point for me to move forward with my plans for the future.”  

Taking the plunge

Trading his full-time job for a part-time upskilling course was daunting. “If I don't have a job for an extended period of time, how big of a dent is that going to be in my life?” says Yang. Nonetheless, it was a calculated risk he was willing to take. 

Watch: Yang’s journey as a software engineer

August 2020 marked the start of the computing course, and while he had inspiring teachers, Yang was eager to apply his knowledge beyond the walls of his virtual classroom. He secured a role at a bank through NUS’ FinTech programme as a junior software developer, but the job fell short of his expectations.  

His role only scratched the surface of programming, which included fixing minor bugs and styling front-end components on an existing application. The bureaucratic regulations also weighed on his mind. “There is understandably a lot of red tape in banks, which means making small changes, such as getting approval to access a database, can take a long time. This made it a bit tricky for me to [work freely and experiment with different approaches to tasks].” 

After eight months at the bank, Yang’s light-bulb moment came when he was surfing Instagram and stumbled upon one of SGInnovate’s Talent Programmes, PowerX. The programme offers on-the-job training for a year and access to courses to gain domain knowledge. Its biggest selling point? He would get to work with startups in very specific industries with the possibility of working on projects from scratch in sectors like robotics and drone aviation.  

While some of Yang’s friends often described working in a startup as 'bao ga liao,' – wearing multiple hats and doing a bit of everything – which might not appeal to some, ultimately, he saw it as an opportunity to “do more, learn more, and try new things”. 

Yang secured a traineeship with Heron AirBridge, a company specialising in software and platform development for drone missions and unmanned air traffic management. His personal interest in flying drones coupled with the company’s swift response to his application were signs that it would be an ideal fit.  

“During the interview, I could tell that he had a very strong drive and passion for the software development industry,” says Chris Chua, the company’s ex-CTO and Yang’s eventual assigned mentor, “I always believe that interest and passion will drive you further [in your career], and that made me want to hire him.”

Related: How one roboticist is using innovations from the lab to make life easier for others 

The right pieces to the puzzle

To kick his learning journey off, Chris tasked Yang with working on a small feature for an existing web application. But applying his newfound coding knowledge proved more complex. "I knew the framework used was React, but my knowledge was limited. We learnt it in the programme modules, but real competence requires more than structured training." 

Chris Chua mentored Yang during his traineeship.

Fortunately, Chris was patient and understanding, and he gave Yang the time and space to learn. "The task seemed intimidating initially,” Yang shared, “but there was no negative pressure from Chris. He gave me the freedom and space to learn, which was something I deeply appreciated. Even though it was a small task, it left a lasting impression.”  

Related: An empathetic mentoring approach helping others advance in Singapore’s robotics sector

Drawing from his aerospace background, Yang was able to bring structure and processes to operations, and his experience at the bank meant he considered critical safeguards like cybersecurity in software design. Transferable soft skills like effective communication also proved advantageous. “Working in a small team with daily stand-up meetings, clear and concise communication is crucial.” says Chris, “Yang’s soft skills helped him to adapt well.” 

Six months into his traineeship, Yang faced his biggest challenge yet – building a mobile application enabling drone operators to monitor their drones' flight paths and statuses from scratch. He had to undertake a transformation of the existing web application, reimagine its core concept; revamp data flows, and enhance user experience to ensure seamless operation in a mobile-friendly format. Additionally, he embarked on acquiring expertise in a completely new domain — Android app development. 

He relished the challenge.  

“It speaks volumes about how much Chris thinks I could do and how much potential he believes I have.” says Yang. “Being entrusted with something like that really said it all.” 

Interface of the mobile app that Yang developed. The app can tell users, in real-time, if their intended flight paths conflict with any other operation in that same area.

I think that technical skills are something that can be picked up. It’s the attitude that’s very important. The willingness to learn new things, to contribute to the company is something that startups are looking for.

Chris Chua

Soaring to new heights

Yang’s efforts paid off. At the end of 2022, as his traineeship was coming to an end, he was offered a full-time role at Heron AirBridge.   

“I think that technical skills are something that can be picked up,” says Chris, “It’s the attitude that’s very important. The willingness to learn new things, to contribute to the company is something that startups are looking for.”  

Six months into his role as a full-time software developer with Heron AirBridge, Yang is grateful for the chance to see his application make significant progress. His advice to those considering a switch in career to a Deep Tech startup?  

“The journey to move into a Deep Tech as a career is a complex one which requires self-reflection, planning, and guidance. It's essential to assess if you have the right personality and temperament for the work you're considering. Are you willing to take risks to achieve it?" 

Find out how you can be a part of SGInnovate’s Talent Programmes here.


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