Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Soares, Stockholm & Start-Ups

If Soares Chen had to eat from one of the NUS stalls for the rest of his life, it would be the Western Food stall at the The Terrace. He grew up in Penang, Malaysia, and misses his favourite Penang street food while he’s here. He enjoys spending his free nights playing Team Fortress 2 with his mates. I keep hearing that we have the best, most-caring, and committed faculty members and Soares’ story is definitely a testament to that. 

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?
I am passionate in working on things that can bring the most impact to the world. Right now I am working on an open source Node.js project called Quiver.js. It is a server-side component system that introduces a new paradigm for writing web applications. 
I also work part-time for a music startup in Stockholm, on a music app called ScoreCloud. It has music and audio recognition technology that can turn songs into music notations. I developed the back-end system of ScoreCloud using Node.js.

I’ve been told that you have a ‘unique study path’. Tell me about it.
I study Computer Engineering and it’s my sixth year (!) of undergraduate study at NUS. Despite my current achievements, I was never regarded as a bright student and I always had problems performing in school. I like to learn things on my own and do not follow the conventional ways of learning, such as doing assignments and scoring good grades.  
During my third year study in 2008, I got lost in what I wanted to do in the future. I had big dreams and didn’t want to work for the rest of my life in big corporations. That was the time I first learned about entrepreneurship and I wanted to try things differently to find my own way to success. With that, I took a two-year leave of absence in 2009, went back to my hometown Penang and ran a computer retail and servicing business with a friend. 
The small business soon failed due to dispute in partnership, but from there I learned many valuable lessons about startups and entrepreneurship. I realized that to become truly successful I need to expand my network and meet with other successful entrepreneurs around the world. After returning to school in 2011, I applied for NOC and was lucky enough to get accepted into a one-year internship programme in Stockholm. 
The year 2012 in Stockholm was a life-changing experience to me. At that time I was desperately seeking acknowledgement on my technical abilities, and I worked incredibly hard as an intern in a music startup. I also took the chance to travel to conferences around Europe and meet with many talented people. In the end I overachieved in my company and eventually stayed for another half-year, working full time. 
I returned to Singapore in mid-2013 to resume my study. With my overseas exposure, I now have very different worldview than others. Although I am still struggling to fit back into the current education system in NUS, I am confident of my abilities and will continue to work hard in my own way.

Describe your experience as an SoC student. 
I am particularly grateful to my mentor Prof Khoo Siau Cheng for listening to me and helping me out when I was facing difficulties. Back in my second year Prof Khoo was my mentor in Special Programme in Computing. He recognized that I was different than other students - the way I came up with many wild ideas. He also noticed my weakness in communicating with people and gave me suggestions in improving my soft skills. Without an SoC member who is so caring to me like Prof Khoo, I’d probably no longer be in SoC by now. 
I was a student with low self-esteem and had difficulties communicating with my peers due to differences in our ways of thinking. I wish that, at that time, I could have known of the other possibilities and opportunities available to me outside of NUS. I also wish that I could have learned better ways to communicate with people.

What’s the craziest thing that you did here?
There was a time I got so annoyed with commuting within NUS that I bought an electric bicycle. I didn’t buy a normal bicycle because I thought the steep terrain in NUS was not friendly to cyclists or pedestrians at all. It turned out that not even the electric bicycle had enough power to cross the hills. At least my proudest achievement with it was that at midnight I was able to cycle from PGP to Fong Seng for supper with less than 10 minutes of traveling.

If there is one thing you would change about SoC, what would it be?
I hope that the SoC can be more adapted to the latest technology trends and expose students more to the tech startup scenes. I occasionally join NUS Hackers and can see that students’ involvement with the tech scene is gradually increasing. However, overall, a lot of students are still very detached from the tech scene happening outside of school. 
The NOC programme has been trying very hard to attract more SoC students to join the developer team in tech startups. However, the participation rate is very low and there has been almost no students with technical skills joining NOC Stockholm after my batch. 
Singapore has a very vibrant and growing startup ecosystem now. But the major complaint I heard from startups is the lack of technical talent available in Singapore. I think NUS and SoC plays an important role for Singapore to build a successful startup ecosystem. It is a difficult problem, but radical changes are needed to make sure that graduating students have the right skills that these startups looking for.

What advice would you give a prospective SoC undergraduate student?
Make full use of the free resources on the Internet to learn technical skills on your own. Do not expect the school to teach you much beyond basic programming skills. Instead, make full use of your privilege as SoC student to learn soft skills like leadership and entrepreneurship. Singapore has a very vibrant tech startup community. Go outside of the school to talk to these people and you’ll be surprised at how much help you’d get with anything.

Quick-fire: Most annoying word?

Worst public transport experience?
The NUS shuttle bus service has never been improved. It takes the same amount of time to take 10 stops of MRT to Buona Vista as the time to go from Buona Vista to SoC. I blame it on the lack of direct shuttle buses from Kent Ridge MRT to SoC via PGP. Quick tip – I find it faster to come to SoC by stopping at Haw Par Villa Station and taking the public bus to Heng Mui Keng Terrace. There is also a shortcut available at the basement of Mochtar Riady building where you can take the lift up to 4th floor and cross the overhead bridge to SoC with much less stair-climbing. 

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Email

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