Skill Up to Step Up: Switching careers from teaching to IT engineering

Former teacher Kenneth Chua is now five months into a new job as a systems quality assurance engineer for e-commerce platform Shopee. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

SINGAPORE - During his years as a secondary school teacher, Mr Kenneth Chua frequently spoke to his students about the joys of learning, the importance of upskilling, and the value of resilience.

In 2019, after 10 years of teaching, he realised that "he had not been walking the talk", that he was not fulfilling his potential and that he could learn more and grow further.

The 38-year-old decided to leave his job at the end of that year and pick up new skills. Last March, he enrolled for an immersive software engineering course at coding school General Assembly.

This was under the Tech Immersion and Placement Programme (TIPP), an initiative by the Infocomm and Media Development Authority of Singapore to build tech talent.

The 12-week course taught Mr Chua skills such as website development and equipped him with fundamental programming and computer science knowledge. It cost him $5,550, after a $9,100 TIPP subsidy.

He is now five months into a new job as a systems quality assurance engineer for e-commerce platform Shopee.

In his teaching career, Mr Chua taught computer applications for Normal (Technical) students and mathematics. He was at Bartley Secondary School from 2009 to 2014 and subsequently moved to Sengkang Secondary.

He said: "Towards my final few years of teaching, there was a slight change in the computer applications syllabus that involved a bit of coding and Scratch programming, which were quite basic.

"I realised that I still remembered some skills that I learnt in university, although the skills needed today are a lot different."

Mr Chua graduated from Singapore Polytechnic in 2002 with a diploma in electronics, computer and communication engineering.

Then, he studied electrical and electronic engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where he picked up basic coding skills.

He decided on teaching as a career after joining a church tutoring programme for underprivileged children when he was still at university.

After graduating from NTU in 2009, he applied for a place in a year-long teaching programme at the National Institute of Education at NTU. His teaching career took off after that.

Said Mr Chua: "Many say that teaching is an iron rice bowl. I wondered if I should take the risk to give it up and try something new."

His father, who died in 2019, had encouraged him to go for the career switch. Mr Chua said: "His death inspired me to move on. I didn't want to be stagnant (in terms of personal growth)."

He also had the support of his wife, 34, who works as a demand planner at American shoe company Crocs, where she deals with sales forecasting and inventory levels.

The couple have a 2½-year-old son and are expecting a second son in March.

Said Mr Chua: "I discussed it with my wife. A mid-career change is complicated, but we have been quite thrifty and we did our financial planning. We had saved on expenses such as our wedding, and felt our savings were enough for us to live on a single income for a number of months."

He reached out to Workforce Singapore for help and career counselling. He also contacted General Assembly before leaving his job in December 2019.

But shortly after he had quit, the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

"I wondered if I had made the right choice and considered going back to teaching. In a pandemic, who is going to hire someone at my age with no related experience?" said Mr Chua.

"But in the end, I decided that since I had already put all my cards on the table, I would just move forward with my decision to take the course."

The 12-week course at General Assembly was challenging, said Mr Chua. During the few weeks where there were physical classes, he would study on the bus journey to and from home. He also stayed up late to revise.

"After 10 years in teaching, it was hard to go into something new as a student. My mind was all rusty."

There were full-day classes from Monday to Friday and assignments almost every day, he said.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most classes were conducted online. This was "a new ballgame altogether", said Mr Chua, as it took a lot more time and effort to communicate with his classmates and teachers.

But he is now thankful for the experience, as he has had to work remotely in his new role at Shopee. His job at present entails checking that the Shopee application is working, troubleshooting and fixing bugs.

He landed the job in August, after completing the General Assembly course in June.

Said Mr Chua: "What I appreciate about Shopee is that there is a new experience, something new to learn every day. My aim in this mid-career switch was to be able to learn new things. I am doing that and being a better version of myself."

Programmes for career switch

Software Engineering Immersive at General Assembly

This is a full-time, 12-week programme that has been designed to transform students from novices to full-stack software engineers.

Those graduating from the course are equipped with fundamental programming and computer science knowledge.

They will also have picked up the necessary skills to build full-stack Web applications. Such skills include computer science frameworks, collaboration tools and programming languages. For example, during the course, participants learn to code webpages using Hypertext Markup Language, Cascading Style Sheets and JavaScript. They also learn to develop full-stack applications with technologies such as Python with Django.

Infocomm Media Development Authority's Tech Immersion and Placement Programme (Tipp)

This programme is meant for fresh graduates and professionals who have no expertise in information and communications technology (ICT) but are interested in switching to ICT job roles.

ICT professionals interested in upskilling to prepare for new tech positions, or individuals with a passion to join or build a tech start-up, may also be suitable.

Participants will be required to find placements in tech job roles after undergoing a short but intensive and immersive training programme delivered by industry practitioners.

These training courses will allow participants to build up their portfolio, interact with experts in relevant fields and prepare for roles in the ICT industry, such as Web developers and data analysts.

Individuals who qualify for the courses supported under TIPP will have their course fees subsidised.

Related programmes:

SGUnited Mid-career Pathways Programme

This programme allows mid-career job seekers to upskill through company training or a company attachment, where they can gain industry-relevant work experience while waiting for permanent jobs.

Participants will receive monthly allowances ranging from about $1,400 to $3,000.

SGUnited Skills Programme

This is a full-time training programme conducted over six to 12 months. It comprises certifiable courses delivered by the Continuing Education and Training centres, including institutes of higher learning.

Trainees will get opportunities such as workplace immersions and industry projects.

They will receive a training allowance of $1,200 a month for the duration of the programme in which they are enrolled.

More information can be found on the SkillsFuture website.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.