How fun kickstarted this SP Group developer's career in Singapore

Laurence Putra Franslay, SP Group

Laurence Putra Franslay, head of the developer operations team at SP Group.

Ask SP Group's Laurence Putra Franslay what a typical day at work is like, and the answer comes back easily: “It's like building the plane while it's dropping through the sky."

Laurence runs the developer operations team at SP Group, which oversees energy utilities in Singapore and in locations across Asia Pacific. He follows that up with a chuckle. “It is fun."

As I listen to him tell his developer story to me in one of the meeting rooms in SP Group's Tanjong Pagar office, I quickly learn that “fun" has been one of the driving principles in Laurence's journey, which began when he was just 10 years of age. Back then, programming wasn't a career for him. It wasn't even a job. It was just something he found interesting.

“The microchip was more interesting than math homework," he tells me. “Making the LED light up was way more interesting than math homework." He taught himself a programming language and recalls going onto Yahoo and finding data sheets that he couldn't exactly understand. That didn't stop him.

“As a kid, you don't know you can't do stuff," he explains. He would copy and paste parts of the data sheets, bits of working code, which was enough for him at the time. “It worked, so that got me started."

As a kid, you don't know you can't do stuff

In junior college, he picked up robotics, and his passion didn't wane, so when it came time to pick a course of study for university, the decision was a no-brainer - for him, anyway.

“Back then, computer science was a CCC grade thing, so I thought that's what I want to do. I don't have to think; that's what I do best. So I applied for that, and my parents were freaking out because it was a super low-grade course," he remembers. “But it all worked out eventually."

Upon his graduation from the National University of Singapore in 2013, he got a full-time job offer from bill-sharing payments company Billpin, founded by Darius Cheung, who would later go on to co-found 99.co. Laurence remained there for 10 months, and then when focus shifted to 99.co, Laurence found himself weighing his options.

“BillPin started as a startup that tried to change bill payments [...] So when PayPal came knocking, I said, 'Hey, that's nice'," he recalls. Specfically, the person knocking was Chang Sau Sheong, Singapore's codefather, with whom Laurence has now worked for a handful of years.

“I said, 'Sure, why not?'" Laurence recalls.

Coding and outreach

Laurence spent over two years at Paypal, beginning in 2014. “It was a good experience. I had a lot of opportunities to learn various technologies and learn how to learn new stuff on the fly - that was important, because most developers excel in one thing, and they just stay there."

His duties at PayPal spanned the board - from writing test automation frameworks to developing mobile apps (something he previously had no experience doing).

Most developers excel in one thing, and they just stay there

PayPal also saw the furthering of Laurence's role within the community. The engineer ran GeekcampSG from 2011 to 2014, and his leadership skills found a new outlet as he ran the outreach program at PayPal. Laurence sold the idea of supporting meetups to boost hiring efforts to the development center, figuring that if they would fund his “pizza fees," then PayPal could bring together developers and other techies for learning and information sessions inside PayPal's office.

Laurence Putra Franslay, SP Group

Laurence Putra Franslay speaks at a JSConf Asia Singapore event.

“I didn't actually run the meetups [...] the way I ran things was that I didn't want to control anything. I wanted to empower people to run their own stuff," Laurence says. He would offer PayPal as a resource - a venue with food included. Then, it was up to the meetup organiser to figure out the program. As long as the talk dealt with heftier technical subject matter (“You cannot just always be talking about basics - you need to talk about something deeper than that," Laurence points out), they were good to go. Meanwhile, the events served to strengthen PayPal's brand name in the Singapore community.

Laurence eventually grew the outreach team from 3 to 20 people. “As we grew more and more, the teams at PayPal saw our value," he says. PayPal put a portion of the marketing for its global hackathon, BattleHack, on Laurence's squad. “In the month leading up to BattleHack, we did a meetup almost every night." That was, of course, in addition to doing their developer day jobs.

That ability to multitask would come in handy at Laurence's next position.

Jumping is a skill

“PayPal IPOed, and there was less engineering stuff to do," Laurence continues. “There was so little engineering stuff to do that I had time to do marketing? The outreach thing was going really successful, but that's not what I wanted to do with my life.

So, he moved once more - to Nugit, a “data storytelling" company. Nugit takes large amounts of data and breaks them down into slides with words and pictures to communicate major findings. As a senior engineer, Laurence led the infrastructure team.

Every job Laurence has held has helped to satisfy a curiosity of his.

“The most interesting part came whena large social network started using us, so when the data hit scale, all the things started breaking," Laurence explains. His experience in jumping around came in handy, and he and his team were able to turn a 20-minute run time into code that ran in under four seconds. He stayed there for seven months and then decided to move to SP Group when the team came looking for him.

Every job Laurence has held has helped to satisfy a curiosity of his: Nugit was because he was curious about the ad industry, and he had wanted to dive into payments before that. The power infrastructure of Singapore seemed like the start of another interesting adventure, so he moved offices again to SP Group, where he works today.

More than a code monkey

Laurence Putra Franslay, SP Group

While developer shortage is a worldwide issue, Laurence believes that the problem in Singapore isn't necessarily that there isn't enough talent but rather a shortage of good engineering jobs in the country.

“Many of the [developer] jobs in Singapore are mainly website building and stuff. After a while, it kind of feels like grunt work. You are doing the same thing over and over again," he reveals. “You are just building a web page and moving the pixels left and right. It's not exciting anymore, so that's the first reason why many of our engineers fly overseas." That's not to trash grunt work - Laurence adds that it's important and has a place. But the industry needs more thinkers who push the limits.

On the other side, Singapore has room for good talent because schools and boot camps can sometimes fall into training students to think about programming as something that lacks dimension. “I am seeing a problem now where we have many people who are only skilled in one thing. They go to bootcamp, they only learn Javascript, they can only do Javascript," he says. “Anything that's not clearly defined, they fall short."

Fixing the problem involves teaching tomorrow's developers how to think for themselves - how to break down a complex problem that they don't know how to solve into several smaller ones, until they are left with several minute problems to solve. Then, if they're lacking the tools to solve those problems, they need to know how to go out and learn those skills.

“When I hire people, I look at their ability to pick up new stuff," says Laurence. That's of greater importance to him than a good GitHub account.

Back to the classroom

Concurrent with his duties at SP Group, Laurence continues to use his outreach abilities today, this time with IAmTalented.SG, which is a social empowerment initiative that works with at-risk kids in Singapore. In a bit of a callback to Laurence's 10 year-old self, who played with microchips because that was more interesting than his homework, IAmTalented seeks to teach kids a skill like robotics or photography, and to explore non-academic interests.

That way, children get to explore their passions and get to see education as a means to an end instead of a necessary nuisance.

IAmTalented seeks to teach kids a skill like robotics or photography, and to explore non-academic interests.

“We find that kids are more excited to study after the program because they are not just studying to pass math or sciences; they are studying to reach this goal in life, so the motivation is a very key component," Laurence tells me.

It's fitting, perhaps, for someone who has had the motivation to learn drive him at every point in his journey.


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Kylee McIntyre
American tech, science, health, and environmental writer. Lover of scifi, fantasy, travel, and coffee. Find her on Twitter @ejkyleem.
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