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How a former policeman upskilled himself to pursue a career in IT

Becoming a Grab driver-partner was a short-term gig. Little did he know that it would lead to a skills upgrade opportunity for a shot at a new career

PHOTO: GRAB
PHOTO: GRAB

When he left the Singapore Police Force in 2019 to forge a new career, Mr Darrek Lau, 43, started driving for Grab. 

He saw it as a six-month gig while he figured out his next career move. After 22 years at his previous job, he needed a change. “I had two choices: either I stay on and do more of the same thing – or I find something else.”

So with the blessing of his wife, Ms Amy Kong, 42, he made a mid-career switch. Though initially apprehensive about his not having a stable income, she relented, saying: “As his family, we just want him to be happy.”

Mr Lau said: “My plan after resigning was to look for a job or seek training in an IT-related industry. I decided to drive Grab while looking for a course to upskill for other job opportunities.”


After spending Saturday morning with his family, Mr Lau headed out on the road to work. PHOTO: GRAB

Becoming a Grab driver-partner did not require a lengthy application process. The job would supplement household expenses, while offering flexibility planning time for work and family. “It was the quickest way to generate a source of income.” 

When he started in 2019, it was. Then Covid-19 turned Singapore’s commuters into work-from-homers, and his earnings fell sharply. 

It suddenly became urgent for him to make a decision.

It was then that he learned about the eight-month SGUnited Skills (SGUS) Up-Skill Software Development Programme via GrabAcademy on Grab’s Driver App. Developed in partnership with Microsoft, Grab, Temasek Polytechnic, and Generation Singapore, the programme includes a 19-week Software Developer Bootcamp, in addition to a UI/UX module and an industry attachment. 

The programme is a collaboration between Generation Singapore and Temasek Polytechnic Informatics & IT school. It equips students for a junior software developer role, covering technical and behavioural skills. It also addresses mindsets needed for the IT industry. The programme includes an Employer Networking Day, when students get to meet recruiters.


Mr Lau during class at Temasek Polytechnic on weekday mornings before starting work at 3pm. PHOTO: GRAB

Attendees of the SGUS Up-Skill Software Development Programme at Temasek Polytechnic are selected based on their motivation, behavioural fit, and passion for software development. Upon completion, they are awarded a certificate, and can choose to further their studies by pursuing a professional qualification such as an advanced diploma or a degree in a related field.

To Mr Lau, the programme sounded ideal compared to doing a two-year diploma. Having previously worked with IT vendors, he said: “I'd always been very interested to know how things worked at the backend, how you build them from scratch and how things are interrelated.” 

He made the cut, joining a cohort of 17 students, ranging from 20-somethings to over-50s, from diverse work and education backgrounds.

FAMILY MATTERS

Balancing driving for Grab with projects, assignments, and studying is no cakewalk. 

On weekdays, Mr Lau typically leaves his Jurong home by 7.30am for lectures at Temasek Polytechnic, in Tampines. He usually attends class from 9am to 3pm, with an hour’s break for lunch. After school, he drives for a while, stops for dinner, then returns to the road for a few more hours. He usually returns only after his sons have gone to bed.

Ms Kong, his wife of 21 years, took to texting him or speaking to him only during his breaks. She was often asleep by the time he got home. The elder of his two sons, 13-year-old Declan, sometimes stayed up to talk to his father.

Mr Lau only realised how much his family time had suffered when his seven-year-old son, Caden, made an unusual request. “He asked if he could pay me so that I could stay at home and play with him.”


With such a busy schedule, Mr Lau’s weekends were dedicated to spending meaningful family time with his wife, Ms Amy Kong, and their sons, Caden, seven, and Declan, 13. PHOTO: GRAB

To manage his coursework, he goes over notes between shifts. At times, finishing assignments can keep him up past midnight. Even so, he said, engaging in a pursuit he is passionate about is worth the effort.

His last diploma, also from Temasek Polytechnic in 2015, was in Applied Sciences, Forensics – where he learned about “blood patterns, toxicology, crime scenes and bomb blasts”.

He hopes his new skills will prepare him for a different type of problem solving. “I believe every innovation should be about helping things get better, and not always about putting commercialisation first,” he said. 

The soft-spoken man, whose deadpan humour emerges in one-liners, called his experience a balance between making money driving and forgoing it to study. “If you do both, then you sleep at 1am or 2am.”

What helped him was the support of teaching staff, who found various ways to engage students with diverse needs and learning levels. “The course was structured in a way that, even at my age, I was still able to learn." 

“Regardless of age, if you have the passion to pick up a new skill, you'll be able to learn one,” he added.


Mr Lau continued to work late into the night after dinner to catch up on his work before his early morning class the following day. PHOTO: GRAB

THE PITCH DAY

The Software Developer Bootcamp culminated in an Employer Networking Day on March 4. 

Group presentations to prospective employers took place in the morning. Lunch was followed by a frenetic three hours of job interviews. Students went table to table in 15-minute blocks – not unlike speed-dating – for one-on-one interviews with seven recruiters, including two from Grab.

Exhausted yet exhilarated afterwards, Mr Lau said he felt like “a machine — I just kept answering and answering”. 

He added: “I would like to start as a junior software developer, so I can learn along the way,” and eventually, work towards a supervisory role. He would like to bring his years of experience leading teams and dealing with people from all walks to a new industry. 

Mr Bryan Lim, Temasek SkillsFuture Academy’s adjunct lecturer, said Mr Lau showed a high level of maturity, with a positive mindset and realistic expectations.  

“The older and more mature learners are as good as the younger ones,” he added, encouraging them to leverage past work experiences and gun for developer jobs related to their expertise. “So if they're doing a mid-career pivot to become a software developer, software engineer, or even in a future product manager, consider a coordinator role.”

Among the recruiters was Mr Lau’s Grab mentor, Mr Kevin Littlejohn, the company’s Senior Manager, Infrastructure Automation. For software engineering, he looks out for key traits such as curiosity, and a constant hunger for improvement.


Mr Lau kicked off his afternoon of interviews by speaking with Mr Kevin Littlejohn, Grab’s Senior Manager of  Infrastructure Automation. PHOTO: GRAB

Mr Lau, he felt, would enrich a software development team. “It’s more the approach that he takes to problem-solving, the way he deals with organisational structure, and just the sheer body of experience in working with people and diverse environments.”

“When we turn out a particular feature, we might not be thinking of all of the possible use cases,” he added. “Someone like Darrek would tell us 'Hang on a second, if you roll that feature out, it's going to impact these people in this way.'” 

With the Bootcamp in his rearview mirror, Mr Lau is looking forward to sleeping till noon – at least for a day.

As he continues to drive and look to the future, he is grateful for all he has gained from the course, including soft skills – “mindset, teamwork, growth” – resume writing, and preparing for a job interview.

To anyone else thinking of a mid-career pivot, he has this piece of advice: “You must have the passion and to understand what the industry is about. Look for courses such as these.

“Go for it, because it's a learning opportunity. And it's a really fun journey.”