Bright spots in local tech hiring buck global gloom

Mr Nasrudin Salim has been AI and machine learning lead at OCBC Bank since May 2022, five years after dropping out from NTU in 2017. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR

SINGAPORE – At 28, Mr Nasrudin Salim’s career is soaring as an artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning lead at OCBC Bank, five years after dropping out from Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

He is among OCBC’s latest hires, as the bank pushes on with a plan unveiled in March to hire 1,500 technology staff over the next three years – despite mounting global economic uncertainty and continuing high-profile layoffs in tech.

“My family had issues covering the school fees one year, and since I wasn’t studying something I was interested in, I took a semester-long leave of absence and never returned,” said Mr Nasrudin, who was a second-year materials engineering undergraduate and freelance coder in 2017.

After attending a data science course to sharpen his self-taught skills that same year, he worked in four other companies before he joined OCBC in May 2022 – designing computer systems capable of running the complex AI algorithms that crunch massive volumes of data to operate the bank’s key services.

“One example could be a machine learning model that dynamically calculates interest rates for consumers,” said Mr Nasrudin.

OCBC chief executive Helen Wong said at its third-quarter earnings call last Friday that the bank would continue to invest in technology to ensure its digital platforms work well, can meet the evolving needs of customers, enhance the banking experience and instil trust.

OCBC is not the only local bank holding steady to its tech hiring plans, in stark contrast to the latest retrenchment turmoil – from e-payments giant Stripe axing 14 per cent of its global workforce to social media platform Twitter cutting about half its jobs.

The DBS group remains intent on expanding its 10,000-strong tech workforce by about 1,000 employees a year.

UOB is still poised to groom tech talents for its 5,000-strong technology and operations workforce via a work-study programme with the Singapore Institute of Technology.

The outlook for cyber-security hiring remains positive as well, because it remains a key investment priority for many businesses to fend off larger and increasingly sophisticated attacks, said Ms Joanne Wong, vice-president of international markets at cyber-security company LogRhythm.

The company, which employs more than 500 people globally, is looking to hire three engineers and one sales manager “in the near term” to join its team of 26 – including 18 Singaporeans – here, added Ms Wong.

“Ultimately, cyber attacks remain a major business risk for firms across industries.”

She added: “LogRhythm has been in Singapore since 2014, when we made our first local hire, and we have been growing organically ever since – growing our business in a calculated and sustainable manner in response to market shifts.”

Meanwhile, Temasek-backed digital consultancy Temus, which currently employs more than 200 people, is expected to grow its workforce fivefold by 2025, said chief people officer Melissa Kee. Founded in 2021, the company is hiring for a broad range of roles, including in strategy, data, cloud computing and AI.

Temus is investing in talent strategically and for the long run, to keep pace with the growing digitalisation needs of its local and overseas customers, added Ms Kee.

It aims to hire, place and train 400 Singaporeans and permanent residents without prior tech experience by 2025, starting with 20 in a pilot come end-November.

“Temus will sponsor their four-month training, support them with a monthly stipend of $3,000, coach them for success and guarantee them a full-time job as a developer when they graduate,” said Ms Kee.

“Despite impending economic headwinds, we have strong faith in Singapore’s – and the region’s – potential to grow and transform.”

Some tech companies pursue aggressive hiring sprees – even at the risk of subsequent layoffs – to scale their business quickly, said Ms Alycia Brady, managing director for Singapore at recruiting company Aspire.

“When tech firms have secured the required investment to grow, they will do whatever they can to bring their products to market as soon as possible to live up to their stakeholders’ ambitions.”

She added that her company has seen numerous sales and human resources employees hired by tech companies during the pandemic made redundant amid the slowdown.

Assistant Professor Vivek Choudhary from NTU’s Nanyang Business School said companies usually hire aggressively off the back of deep pockets, stiff competition, a reliance on specialised talent and sustained growth in key markets.

Reasons for the recent job cuts include tech companies overestimating how long growth from pandemic-driven digitalisation would last, expensive AI projects failing to pay off and the need to free up funds to bring in expensive talent in nascent fields such as metaverse development, he added.

He also said companies could avoid retrenchments – even as they make ambitious moves into new technology with an uncertain payoff – by hiring from within their existing ranks or embarking on joint projects with academia.

“Some attributes that indicate rapid scaling up and down are myopic investments in new ideas, rapid changes in the competitive landscape and the drying out of funds,” he said.

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