Long weekend at Neoteny Labs


In all frankness I should have been asleep. So I have to bluff myself on bed that it’s a working day, and I have to crawl into a conference by 8am. Both today and yesterday. By the time I reach the main auditorium, fortunately, the weariness vanished, and it felt like attending some lecture in Stanford again. The crowd, for once, was of all colors again, some whites, sprinkle of blacks, but still more than 50% black hair yellow/brown skin, just like your typical Stanford engineering class. But the discussion was hardly technical. It was a “critical mass” coming together to ask how to make it happen, instead of whether it should happen.

And the “it” above is, making this tiny bare island become a new kind of silicon valley. In short, Joi Ito is in town. His new gig is Neoteny Labs, and they just concluded a camp at SMU. James ran the show, and was kind enough to think highly of my salaried job and agreed to some exchange and interaction with SingTel as well (will write more about this later). Meanwhile, hackers from various caves in Singapore and the region (I spoke to people from Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and India in addition to those from the west that Joi brought along – US, UK, Austria, Israel, Japan etc.) had a great time exchanging ideas and name cards, trying to figure each other out.

During the conference, there were understandably the “standard” grouses about the government, the confusing processes and people that contributed the frustrations of the startups. But the bigger complain which I was quite taken aback was this “lack of talent” thing, where firstly talent wasn’t well defined, but secondly, people aren’t just looking deep enough into the industry. Those “hidden” or “latent” talent. Suggestions were made to have career day for computer science trained bankers, or reducing grant amounts for start-ups and pay salaries to engineers to not take up a banking job, or fixing the education system / culture that locals should aspire to be project managers instead of hackers. Why didn’t someone suggest the creation of a HR agency for startups (charge by % of pay maybe?) who knows how to pitch working for a start-up instead of a bank / MNC to engineers in school?

There were also some evangelism on Agile, although I think this way of selling is a bit weird imho – you can’t appreciate Agile unless you’ve been through the process yourself, and once you’re convinced, then there’s like no other way to do it anyway. Agile programming, XP (extreme programming) etc as a common vocabulary has been around for a decade or so by now (my books are still on my shelf gathering dust) and I find it weird that Pivotal Labs and everybody is now promoting it around like a cult. Maybe that’s the right thing to do, only time will tell.

Terence from Muvee introduced something interesting called BASE, which is a mentoring and an exchange of ideas that’s hosted at Muvee, where startups can use Muvee premises, get some help from people working there on their own things. He mentioned 3 ground rules, (i) Ideas I give you are yours and ideas you give me are mine, (ii) you cannot poach my people I cannot poach your people, and (iii) I cannot invest in you (i.e. you’re literally just using my premise). Why wasn’t this well publicized?

Stock options was fun – 20% eh, that’s news to me too coz companies I know only gave 5% of total equity to employees, with various was to vesting, splitting etc. Maybe I should be joining some startups as well…

Being new to the telco business also means finding it very hard to bridge the two worlds. Everyone’s is in a race. And the race that everyone’s concern about here is hardly about the local market that people like to bash service providers about. This is a race to ride the next huge wave of technological disruption that has been building its momentum for a few years now, which has benefited even more from the recession as the government used it high handed gesture to resuscitate the economy by supporting what matters. The NRF funds didn’t just happen overnight, which subsequently attracted some of these major silicon valley investors. That’s one of the major reasons why corporate eyes are twitching. Just a few years back, start-ups almost lived in their own world, all government schemes that helped them were properly demarcated (even procurement too, if you’re familiar with S1 to S10 EPPU system on Gebiz). Now people are only starting to give notice to them, with a few interesting success and failures.

The biggest emphasis is perhaps about failing. #FAIL for the twitting cult. To #FAIL is highly respected in most hacker / startup community around the world, and it’s alleged that failing is not accepted in the local in fact Asian context. Even as most people can identify with this sentiment, most including myself still cannot figure out how to get out of it. When I talk to people, I insist that normal people DO trial and error. I tell them, even huge companies and the government try all sorts of things (although I must admit that the latter tend to wipe the trail clean when things fail – but hey, they try too!) but people didn’t really believe that. Drawing this back to Sim Wong Hoo’s No U-Turn Syndrome, I must say that things have certain changed a lot, not only because now I drive and I see myself along with some cars U-Turning together with me on places with no U-Turn signs, Singaporeans also stopped complaining when I lead them to jay walk, step on grass, and join me as we track into places that says that you’ll be shot if you trespass. :gasp: OK joking, what I meant was, and quoting Joi and other speakers a little, is that there’s this 1% to 2% of people around that just don’t conform, the “atypical behavior” kind of people, and they are starting to crop up, and we need to start looking at what they are doing instead of just brushing them aside. These people are bound to fail for taking the alternative path, but they are not stupid. They saw something we did not. And when these people get together as a community (in whatever form, such as hackerspaces) and start trying, and failing, and trying again, and failing again, that’s where we should be looking and helping and sieving. How to make this thing literal (from an organization perspective) will be something I’ll have to think about and share another time.

The rest of the story can be followed through twitter through the #nsc1 hashtag.

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2 Responses

  1. I like this post! Especially the last part about atypical behavior… haha… I’ve been walking on grass, leading the jaywalking in all pedestrian crossing, opening doors that’s supposed to be closed, etc etc…

    Although I don’t understand the technical terms, but I would supposed you computer guys are making the world a better place. Right… ?

  2. Haha I think you’re the last loyal reader for this blog 😀

    There are technical terms?? Seriously, which one – told myself to write more friendly to the general audience sometime back, seems not working.

    The computer guys are, mostly kids. Cutting across, it’s not about “making the world a better place”, although some will profess that that’s their biggest thing. But it’s about playing, and how to play many games quickly to learn the tricks to master the game, and then move on to the next game.

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