Kai Yuan Neo

It might surprise you that Kai, CEO and Founder of Rocket Academy, had not planned to study software engineering. His initial choice was mechanical engineering — a dream shaped by the advent of the iPod, which inspired him to build products that people enjoy. Friends at Stanford, however, encouraged him to try computer science.
“I loved it,” Kai tells us. “I found software engineering fun, in-demand, and nascent as a field and industry. I also realised I could build software products that people love, so I set my mind on that.”

Years on, Kai has racked up an impressive professional portfolio at coveted companies like Facebook, Alibaba, Dana Cita, and other start-ups in Singapore and Silicon Valley. He’s also concentrating on more than developing products. “My focus now is more on people because some of society’s toughest and most important problems are about people,” says Kai. “Ultimately, software engineering is an application of general problem-solving skills, and I believe those skills have equipped me to help solve people problems too.”

This comes through in his determination to guide his students towards a rewarding future in software engineering. “I look forward to helping people achieve their potential and serving the communities around me,” He tells us. We find out more from Kai about his journey so far, including building Rocket Academy, an online coding school, his time as a software engineer, and a long-lost music career.

Kai, how did Rocket Academy come about?

I’ve 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. People who wanted to learn software engineering and become programmers or developers only had two options: join an expensive, multi-year university programme, or a 3-month bootcamp with minimal grounding in software engineering foundations. But these options were not producing enough software engineers or those at the right quality. While working in Singapore and Jakarta from 2017 to 2019, I found it challenging to hire good software engineers and realised most companies faced the same problem. I thought a 6-month bootcamp would be an ideal middle ground, while being online would allow the business to scale better. Building a software engineering school was also a great fit for my background in teaching and software engineering.

Your background in teaching must be referring to the time you taught computer science at Stanford. Why made you decide to teach?

Stanford pays generous salaries to teacher 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, which allowed me to satisfy my curiosity towards the field.

So, if you could teach your students just one thing — anything — what would it be and 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 bluntly tells his cigarette-smoking grandma 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.

You’ve also had an accomplished career as a software engineer. Was there an especially memorable moment?

I was rejected from Facebook after my second internship with the company in 2014.

During my first internship there in 2013, I was inexperienced and needed more support from my team than I would have liked. I also went through a bad breakup that summer that hurt my productivity. At the end of the internship, despite mixed reviews from teammates, my manager fought for me. Facebook eventually offered me a second internship at the New York office the next summer.

During my second internship, I wanted to learn new technologies and requested to join an iOS team. But 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 performing 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 before applying again. It was a harsh reality check and since then, I’ve always compared my standards to those of the best engineers I met at Facebook. On my last day, Ashoat also gave me encouragement that I still hold dear. He said I work hard and take feedback well, and those traits will take me far. I hope to make him proud.

We heard you were once the tech guy on the team for Project We Forgot (PWF), 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 PWF. They were primarily software-based, like 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 in dementia. I thought combining that with 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 caregivers. 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.

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

Amplified was a dream come true for me and two of my best friends in secondary school, Chris and Terrence. We had been playing and recording music for some years, when we participated in and won an international talent competition by Sony Music Japan to sign a record contract with them. Our contract lasted two years, where we produced two albums, three music videos, and performed and promoted ourselves across Japan. Ultimately, we decided not to renew the contract because we prioritised academics. I also 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!

While technology has been revolutionising, its proliferation has also raised socioethical concerns. How has this 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 technology, thus the onus is on us as leaders and good people to harness it for good.

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