Thursday, 29 October 2015


Trust Colin Tan’s responses to break the eight-question mould. He says he’s extremely free spirited and can sometimes fire off wildly inappropriate things, but he doesn’t mean any harm. One of his pet peeves, however, might result in someone being harmed one day, because he finds it very hard not to punch people in the back of the head when they walk around with their heads down looking at their mobile phones – but he says that ‘as civilised individuals, we must try our best not to’. If there were only three things he could eat for the rest of his life, it would be cold fish ball noodles (explained later), durians and satay. He reckons that Singapore’s best kept secret is the satay shop across the road from his house.

Colin, as commander of the Achaemenid guards.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in a cow-shed (Kandang Kerbau) in a small sunny grungy seaport island called Singapore, which, according to legend, comes from the phrase “Singh Kapo!”, which means “Mr. Singh confiscated my stuff!”. True story. I spent a little bit of time in the Arabian deserts fulfilling my own dreams of being Lawrence of Arabia (minus the discomforts of riding camels all day long, and add in the creature comforts of the biggest most ornate malls you’ve ever seen). Think of it as Lawrence of Arabia with drinks by the beach.
But yeah most of my 25 years of existence was in Singh Kapo.

Describe your work and its significance.
I’m a typical boy, so I love anything that has flashing lights and beeps. Major brownie points if it flies, so naturally I found my love in drones. They’re big, loud, have flashing lights and they fly! How much cooler can you get than that?
Right…many drones! So I’m working on a cheap way to coordinate large clusters of big, loud, flashy, flying machines.

What effect do you think your field will have on the world in the next decade?
Lots. Surveillance, making money, transport, making money, making the world a better place, making money, world peace, making money. And making money.

Describe your SoC experience. 
As a student, [I enjoyed having] uber-cool profs like A/P Leong Hon Wai, who taught me (via his infamous Cattywampus lecture) that I should never trust anyone. Least of all professors. I carry on that tradition with my students, who have learnt that professors can “convince” you of anything.
As a staff member, in all seriousness, I love SoC! It’s the awesomest workplace in the world with colleagues who care about what they do and about giving their best to the students. It’s no wonder we’re #1. :D
Colleagues aside, management is extremely supportive, especially when it comes to coolest ways to teach our students. Watch out for a drone class coming in January 2017!

What do you find most challenging/interesting?
Definitely starting up a new class all on your own, with absolutely no idea where to begin. It’s fun but stressful because there’s no reference point, and students will hate you if you screw it up! Also teaching is like marriage; no one notices when you’re doing a great job, but mess up and there’s going to be tons of complaints in your feedback.
But I take all that in my stride. Ultimately if we care about our students, karma will take care of us. :)

Who made impressions on you?
Students: My awesome CS3216 teaching team! They’re brilliant, extremely dedicated people who endure no end of abuse from me but yet deliver all my marks accurately and on time! In particular Tay Yang Shun, who is helping me pro-bono this semester. Seriously how much awesome-r can you get than that?
Staff: Where do I begin? Damith, Gary, Yuen Jien, Steven, Ben, Lifeng, Sun Teck, Aaron and a ton of other colleagues who are extremely dedicated to ensuring that their students get the best in their education. And of course Prof. Leong Hon WaiCattywampus.

What was the craziest thing that you did during your time here? 
So many stories! Giving first aid to an unconscious girl in the toilet (there were other staff present around me), catching and detaining a mentally unstable individual until campus security and the police arrived, getting sliced by a drone propeller, having a drone crash while delivering a project to a customer, getting stalked by a student for a bit, having another student refuse to leave my office until I agreed to pass him for something (despite the fact he had absolutely no clue about the subject matter),  suicidal students, another student whose father was shouting at her so much that I was trying to calm him down..
Many other stories... being a prof is kinda exciting.
Is there anything you would have done differently during your time as a student?
Taken mathematics much more seriously. I am very math challenged. Also taking design concepts more seriously. I’m a pretty good back-end coder, but, while I have decent design and colour matching skills, I can’t code front-ends to save my life. 

What is the one thing you would change about NUS?
Have more schools be as awesome as SoC. No, seriously. Students tell me how they love the friendly, informal atmosphere here, where profs are often more like senior friends.

What do you think makes your experience here different than anyone else’s?
I’m blessed with the ability to convince people of just about anything. Especially about knowing something I really don’t know anything about. That makes life much easier.

What do you count as your most significant achievement to date?
I’m extremely proud of my CS3216 Software Development for Digital Markets class. :) Every year I get the best students in the school, put them through the wringer, and make them even better than when they started. 
Actually [before running CS3216] I was pursuing something else, and I asked Ben Leong for advice, and he said “Hey why don’t you take over CS3216?” And I was like “Oh ok”.
I never got that something else done, but I inherited what is probably the most legendary class in the whole of NUS. :)
Running this class takes very thick skin, which fortunately I have. The bulk of the lectures are delivered by guest speakers, covering topics from project management, to communication, to sales and marketing. It’s not your typical technical class.
This also means I constantly have to approach people I don’t know but who have interesting backgrounds, and convince them to give up 2-3 hours of their time on a Monday night (and sometimes other nights as well) to come give a talk to my students.
The thing I’ve learnt though is that people are amazingly helpful. I’ve never been rejected before. :)
[I am lucky I have an] awesome Teaching Assistant, Chin Su Yuen, who also runs her own company called Momocentral, specialising in outsourcing coding and designing jobs. 

What did you want to be when you were younger? 
I wanted to be a pilot! In fact after my PhD I applied to SIA to become a cadet pilot. After hearing nothing except for the sound of crickets, I applied for a teaching appointment here in SoC, and here I am!

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
Hmm that’s a tough one. I sometimes spend my free time coding up my own iOS apps, or writing software for my drones.. but the beauty of my job is that I can count that as work!
Aside from being a geek… I love a good single malt and a great Cuban or Nicaraguan cigar. Hakushu + Cohiba Corona Especial. You can’t get better than that.

Quick-Fire: What’s your signature dish?
I make a pretty good ayam buah keluak! Also pork rib curry, beer pork ribs, and quite a few other things. I can cook almost any cuisine except Chinese. Chinese food is _hard_ with its elaborate ingredients and seasonings.
I mean.. take the famous sweet-sour pork. The sauce is made up of tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, pineapples, onions and peppers.. and because Chinese flavours are relatively delicate, you have to balance everything well. With Indian or Peranakan/Malay cuisine, you can just spice everything to death. But not with Chinese cuisine.
Vietnamese cuisine is very simple, but so delicious!

Best movie you’ve seen this year?
Don’t remember any good movies this year, but the best movie I’ve _ever_ watched in my life is Cloud Atlas. It’s a huge story spanning 500 years showing how one’s actions today can affect the fates and destinies of thousands of people, hundreds of years down the road.
“Death, life, birth. Future, present, past. Everything is connected"

Worst fear?
Hair in the bathroom drain grating. >.<

Guilty pleasures?
I absolutely love cold noodles. No, not soba, but normal fish ball noodles or wanton noodles. I’d buy a packet early in the morning, leave it until it’s nice and cold (which, in my office, is about 23 degrees C), and guzzle it down! When I tell anyone that they’d go “Ewww that’s disgusting!”
But it’s seriously good.
I also have an unhealthy obsession with African cuisine, though I’ve never tried it. But ugali with peanut stew? How can that not be good?

Three ultimate dinner party guests?
i) Adolf Hitler (no seriously… what the hell was he thinking?)
ii) Jesus (He’s God. How much cooler can you get?)
iii)  Elon Musk (Charming brilliant man!)

What would be your ‘dream’ Halloween costume?
I'd go with happy clown in full clown getup and huge shoes wielding a honker in one hand and a huge axe in the other. The idea is to hack someone to a couple of pieces, honk a few times and run away gleefully laughing. That would be legen...wait for it...dary. Legendary!

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