What Ninja Van looks for in software engineers in Southeast Asia

Ninja Van team

Ninja Van's team. Photo courtesy of Ninja Van.

That Ninja Van is a startup is apparent from the moment I approach their Singapore office. A dozen or so casually-dressed employees sit outside coding in an area that I can easily mistake for a cafe. Inside, I speak to the company's tech recruiter Wesley Ng as well as Charmaine Seng, regional talent acquisition at Ninja Van.

We are talking about pizza ovens.

“Our CTO likes to try a lot of things," Charmaine explains. “He wanted to build a pizza oven from scratch, and got our operations head to help him as well."

We are talking about pizza ovens.

When the first pizza oven didn't succeed, they tried again, Charmaine explains. She and Wesley take me outside to the back of the Ninja Van warehouse, where a little mound of what looks like concrete with a hole in the side indeed exists. Thoroughly amused, I begin to take my phone out to photograph it, and my hosts burst into laughter, waving their hands at me. They insist that it's too ugly to be photographed, but all I can see is the little spark of creativity and energy that denotes the type of startup spirit present in everyone who works at Ninja Van.

How to become a ninja

Ninja Van scan

Photo courtesy of Ninja Van.

Launched in 2014 in Singapore, Ninja Van seeks to help out the logistics industry by providing a reliable tech delivery and tracking service that helped users access a number of convenient pickup points. It got its start in casual kopitiam conversation with a team of seven working in the custom clothing ecommerce business. When the team noticed that parcels would go missing, meaning that their customers would have to wait almost a month to get their clothing remade, they figured they'd might as well roll up their sleeves and solve the problems themselves.

The obvious roadblocks were that no one in the group had a background or experience in logistics and had yet to learn the lessons that only startup experience can provide. It was touch-and-go at the beginning, just trying to translate solutions into lines of code. Their MVP was ready in two months, and it grew from there - and fast.

Ninja Van has since expanded to Southeast Asia and also houses a second lab in Indonesia. The company's services extend to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Ninja Van worker

Photo courtesy of Ninja Van.

Today, the startup employs 150 people in Singapore and over 2,000 across the region - 6,000, if one includes its team of employed drivers. Ninja Van's tech team of 50 is spread between Singapore and Indonesia, but the company is hiring across the board - from senior developers to interns. Projects for wannabe Ninjas include shipping, sorting and routing of parcels, driver application, and Ninja Easy, a service meant to help people who want to sell things over social media. Ninja Easy can then help those people to ship the items they've sold.

Ninja Van encourages a strong culture of innovation. Engineers at the startup are strongly encouraged to experiment and pilot their own projects. For instance, the company recently piloted imaging software that will be able to determine the size and placing of a package from a photograph.

A guidebook for ninjas-in-training

Ninja Van training

Photo courtesy of Ninja Van.

Ninjas-to-be can expect an interview process that has a four-part interview. The first is with Wesley, which is a preliminary conversation that looks for culture fit, communication skills, and project experience.

“Why Ninja Van specifically?" Wesley lays out, mimicking with me possible questions he would ask a candidate. “There are a lot of startups in Singapore. We want to hear from people who are interested in a company." So, if you're looking to work with Ninja Van, be sure to read up on the company beforehand. Brush up on your interview skills, and be able to talk about why you're interested in Ninja Van's products and in your own coding craft. How do you want to grow, and how can Ninja Van help you get there?

The second interview is with the engineering team. The third is with the CTO, and the fourth is with the engineering VP. The middle two rounds are the most technical and skills-based, Wesley explains, while the fourth interview serves more to help the company figure out where to place the candidate team-wise.

Ninja Van's tech platform is written from scratch, so if you're a pioneer type of developer, who has a lot of initiative and wants to work with a modern tech stack, you might be happy at the company. Employees are encouraged to work on experiments outside of work and further develop their skills.

To help prove that you're that kind of aspiring Ninja Van employee, you might be asked about your open source contributions, as well as your personal projects on Github, Stack Overflow, and anything else you've been working on in your spare time.

Life in the ninja culture

Ninja Van team 2

Photo courtesy of Ninja Van.

Ninja Van's Singapore office has remained in the same building in 2014. Back then, some of the founders - Lai Chang Wen (CEO), Shaun Chong (CTO), Tan Boxian (COO) - would sleep in the warehouse, and the warehouse still stands today. Unfurnished and neat, it's a testament to its attitude: roll up your sleeves and do it. People are happy to lend a hand outside their assigned teams if needed. They also know what needs to get done.

Charmaine describes the November-December season, when plenty of holidays pop up that result in many deliveries: 11/11, 12/12, Christmas. During this crunch time, everyone from intern to CEO spends some time working in the warehouse and putting out deliveries. Some people take midnight shifts to help handle the volume of boxes arriving. Other people help drive out the boxes.

It's a testament to its attitude: roll up your sleeves and do it.

What comes out of what looks like extra work is a sense of ownership and of community - family, even. “Everyone is just very willing and excited to jump in and help out," says Wesley, adding that it's a good experience to get some hands-on time at Ninja Van.

Still, even extra work doesn't stop the team from having fun. Groups will gather together routinely for game nights (they are partial to Settlers of Catan, drinks (the startup has its own mini bar and beer tap), and to make coffee for the old-fashioned way - complete with the grinding of the coffee beans.

And, of course, every once in a while, ninjas may find their boss tapping them for help making a pizza oven.


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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.
Category: Company Stories
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