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Wanted: Jolly Good Engineers

I am an engineer. At Google, my job title was Jolly Good Fellow which, according to the press, was the "world's best job title".

Being the Jolly Good Fellow of Google is cool, but just being an engineer itself is also cool. The word "engineer" comes from the Latin words ingeniare and ingenium. Simply put, an engineer is someone who uses his or her ingenuity. Engineers use their ingenuity to change the world. Engineers solve some of the world's toughest problems. Engineering is one of the most fluid, dynamic professions out there (no pun intended).

In fact, how would you like to solve traffic issues with self-flying cars? Or be the next Elon Musk and develop hyperloop V2? Or design a machine that can diagnose just about any illness? Or how about you create the next insanely awesome thing? After all, you are an engineer, you are cool.

Engineers just have one shortcoming, especially Singaporean engineers: There just aren't enough of us.

When I was young, I chose to be an engineer because I loved building cool stuff, I enjoyed solving challenging problems and, more importantly, I aspired to do something big and make a difference in the world.

To this end, I taught myself how to write software code at the age of 12. At 15, I won my first national programming award. I studied computer engineering at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and attended graduate school at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

After graduation, I was offered a job by Google, where I was employee No. 107, and where I served for 15 years until my retirement at age 45.

I found my engineering training to be surprisingly useful even beyond writing code. In 2007, as part of my "20 per cent time project" at Google (Google allows its engineers to spend 20 per cent of their time working on their own projects), I led the creation of a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence training course called Search Inside Yourself. It quickly became the most wildly popular course in Google and spread well beyond Google's walls to become the "gold standard" of such training courses in the corporate world. It was featured in the New York Times, and the book I wrote on that topic (also called Search Inside Yourself) was an international bestseller praised even by former United States president Jimmy Carter.

The success of Search Inside Yourself was due in large part to my engineering training. I approached the creation of Search Inside Yourself as if I was solving an engineering problem, I made liberal use of brain science, and I made sure to be precise in the use of language. Some might find it surprising that the most popular mindfulness course in the corporate world was created by an engineer, but I think the course was so successful precisely because it was created by somebody with engineering training.

Many fellow Singaporeans dismiss the engineering talent in Singapore. Having worked with some of the best engineers in the world, I can tell you for sure that the best Singaporean engineers are as good as the best engineers from anywhere in the world.

Being born and bred in Singapore, I am glad that my home country is now fast realising the true value of engineers. When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made his trip earlier in the year to Silicon Valley, he said that Singapore needs to value engineers the way that Silicon Valley does. More recently, he highlighted that engineers will continue playing a key role as the country strives to be a smart nation and overcome its lack of resources.

I strongly agree, and I am glad that more recognition is given to engineers and the difference that they are making in everyone's lives.

I am also glad that Singapore is gaining traction as an engineering hub, with Google announcing that it wants to set up its first large team of software engineers in the country to support its goal of reaching the next billion Internet users.

Such developments give me hope that my long-time wish for Singapore to have its own home-grown software industry can materialise in the future. We already have the foundation in place in terms of infrastructure, government schemes and our Smart Nation blueprint. Now all we need is for software engineers to step up to the plate.

Like every other metropolis in the world, Singapore is facing many challenges: climate change, energy scarcity, land scarcity, just to name a few. Engineers will solve these problems.

It will be the engineers who are going to figure out how to incorporate artificial intelligence, robotics and wearable devices into our infrastructure and communities to propel us into a Smart Nation future. It will be the engineers who will be behind Singapore's efforts to curtail emissions and drive energy efficiency after ratification of the climate change agreement. It will be the engineers who will figure out how to comfortably fit a growing population into limited land space on our island, our Little Red Dot.

It will be the engineers, as problem solvers and innovative thinkers, who will bring viable solutions to the table and bring Singapore to greater heights in the next 50 years.

Are you an aspiring engineer in Singapore? If you are, I say go for it. Remember, engineers are awesome.

•The writer is a former Google Jolly Good Fellow and software engineer, and best-selling author of Search Inside Yourself.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'Wanted: Jolly Good Engineers'. Print Edition | Subscribe