Ask Me Anything feat. Kai

Ever wondered what led to the birth of Rocket Academy? Well, you have the questions, we've got the answers!

Ask Me Anything feat. Kai
Written by
Kai Yuan Neo
Last updated
Thursday, February 9, 2023

Q: Did you always want to become a software engineer? Why or why not?

Apple's iPod inspired me to build products that people love. I thought engineering could help me achieve that, and I initially planned to study Mechanical Engineering. 

Friends at Stanford encouraged me to try Computer Science and I loved it. I found software engineering (SWE) fun, in-demand, and nascent as a field and industry. I realised I could build software products that people love, and set my mind on that.

Now my focus is more on people because some of society’s toughest and most important problems are about people. Ultimately SWE is an application of general problem-solving skills, and I believe those skills have equipped me to help solve people problems too. I look forward to helping people achieve their potential and serving the communities around me.

Q: We also know you taught Computer Science at Stanford previously. What made you decide to go into teaching?

Stanford pays generous salaries to teaching assistants, and I was looking for a way to pay school fees. My academic advisor Jerry Cain is an incredible teacher and I wanted to work with him. I found teaching rewarding because of the impact one can have on students both academically and socially. Teaching Computer Science also helped me understand the material in greater depth, helping satisfy my curiosity toward the field.

Q: Why did you start Rocket Academy? For instance, were there any past experiences or personal observations that motivated you?

I have been trying to start a business since 2017 and have gone through several iterations. In 2019 I stumbled upon Lambda School, found it intriguing, and realised nobody was trying to build a longer, online coding bootcamp in Southeast Asia.

When working in Singapore and Jakarta from 2017-19, I found it challenging to hire good software engineers (SWEs), and that most companies faced the same problem. I found that universities were not producing enough SWEs, and existing bootcamps were not producing enough SWEs at the right quality. I found that people that want to learn SWE have 2 options:

  1. Join an expensive, multi-year university programme
  2. Join a 3-month bootcamp with minimal grounding in SWE foundations

I thought a 6-month bootcamp would be an ideal middle ground between university and 3-month bootcamp, and being online would allow the business to scale better. I thought building a SWE school would be a great fit for my background in teaching and SWE. Given the market opportunity and personal fit, I decided to pursue the idea full-time.

Q: If you could teach your students just one thing (it doesn't have to be related to software engineering), what would it be? Why?

“It’s easier to be clever than to be kind.” I resonated with this quote from Brad Stone’s biography of Jeff Bezos, where young Jeff is on an outing with his grandparents and tells his cigarette-smoking grandma bluntly about the harms of smoking, bringing her to tears. Jeff’s grandpa brings him aside to remind him of kindness.

I have no doubt that Rocket Academy graduates will be successful in their careers. But without kindness, those careers will lack their full potential.

Q: Could you share with us one of the most memorable experiences you've had in your career so far? This can be related to anything, be it teaching or when you were working as a software engineer. It could be achieving a goal, a lesson learnt, a difficult challenge you had to overcome, or an especially unforgettable student etc.

I got rejected from Facebook after my 2nd internship with the company in 2014.

During my 1st internship at Facebook in 2013, I was inexperienced and needed more support from my team than I would have liked. My manager Carlos joined a different, non-software-development team just before my internship, and I spent much of my internship bugging Carlos’ original teammates about problems they must have felt were basic. I also went through a bad breakup that summer that hurt my productivity. At the end of the internship, despite mixed reviews from teammates, Carlos fought for me and Facebook offered me a 2nd internship at the New York office the next summer.

During my 2nd internship at Facebook in 2014, I wanted to learn new technologies and requested to join an iOS team. I had never programmed for mobile before, and took longer than expected to pick up iOS and mobile development paradigms. On several occasions, my manager Ashoat helped me solve problems I should have been able to solve on my own. During my mid-internship review, Ashoat told me I was below expectations, and I was crushed. I worked furiously to prove my worth, staying nights and weekends to complete my project to impress Ashoat. Ultimately Ashoat recommended me for a return offer, but the intern review committee rejected me based on my performance across both internships.

I will never forget my determination to prove myself, and my subsequent disappointment when my recruiter told me I wasn’t good enough, and suggested I work a few years elsewhere and apply again. It was a harsh reality check, and since then I have always compared my standards to those of the best engineers I met at Facebook. 

On my last day Ashoat expressed sympathy that it didn’t work out, and gave me encouragement that I hold dear. He said I work hard and take feedback well, and those traits will take me far. I hope to make him proud.

Q: We heard you were once the tech guy on the team for Project We Forgot, a community for caregivers to persons with dementia (PWDs). What motivated you to lend your expertise to this initiative?

I had been exploring business ideas in senior care prior to meeting Melissa, the founder of Project We Forgot (PWF). The ideas I had been exploring were primarily software-based, for example an app that helps organise senior care among family members or professional caregivers. I struggled to find a business model, and decided to partner with Melissa because of her expertise with dementia. I thought Melissa’s dementia expertise and my tech expertise would help us create products with both social and business impact.

While PWF didn’t work out as a business, I am grateful for the time I got to spend with Melissa and our team serving primarily Singaporean caregivers caring for loved ones with dementia. Caring for older adults is an incredibly humbling experience that many of us have or will go through, and I have immense respect for everyone doing their part.

Q: We are very curious about the time when you were in the band Amplified! How did that happen? Do you have any plans to restart your music career?

Amplified was a dream come true for me and 2 of my best friends Chris and Terrence in secondary school, where we won an international talent competition by Sony Music Japan to sign a record contract with them. Chris, Terrence, and I had been playing and recording music for some years, and one day my sister stumbled upon Sony’s competition on a J-pop forum and encouraged us to apply. Sony executives flew to Hong Kong (where we grew up) to hear us play, and subsequently invited us to Tokyo to record a demo and sign the record contract.

Our parents helped negotiate our contract and were adamant that we stay in school, so we would create new music and rehearse at school in New Hampshire (we all went to the same boarding school) and record, perform, and promote over school holidays in Japan. Our contract with Sony lasted 2 years and we produced 2 albums, 3 music videos, and performed and promoted ourselves across Japan. Ultimately we decided not to renew the contract because we prioritised academics, each of us planned to attend different universities, and I had to attend National Service in Singapore.

No plans to restart the music career yet, but I look forward to playing music with Chris and Terrence when we can! Chris has been an industrial and UX designer and Terrence has been a music producer and songwriter for as long as I’ve been a software engineer. It would be gracious of Terrence to let us play with him! 

Q: Since we are on the topic of music, if you could pick one theme song for your life, what would it be and why?

Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars. This song expresses how I feel about people, and Bruno brings it to life with his honesty and reliability.

Q: Technology and its advancements have had a profound impact on our world. But its proliferation has also raised socioethical concerns, especially pertaining to its usage and effects, like with surveillance technology. How has this 'double-edged sword' aspect of technology shaped the values and beliefs you bring into your work as a person in the tech industry?

Tech is made by people for people, and it’s vital that people developing technology have an ethical grounding to make people’s lives better, not worse. We cannot stop the advancement of tech, thus the onus is on us as leaders and good people to harness tech for good.

Q: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring software engineers?

Enjoy learning, because you’re going to be doing a lot of it!

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