Developer Ruiwen Chua, co-founder of property company 99.co and Singapore tech startup veteran. Photo credit: Ruiwen Chua.
During Ruiwen Chua's university tenure, he was skipping a lot of class - to code. “It was very nerdy, yes," he remarks, grinning. The nerdiness would end up paying off - Ruiwen would find himself spending around a decade with startups in Singapore - including co-founding real estate startup 99.co - before settling in as software engineer and platform lead at video editing app Lomotif and moving on to a larger firm.
It was very nerdy, yes.
The 2008 graduate from the National University of Singapore took a degree in traditional computer science. But he definitely made time for his hobby - running the open source interest group NUS Hackers (then known as linuxNUS) and tinkering with tech. He focused his study abroad internship around developing side projects for a Swedish tech company - which eventually led him down the path of backend developing.
Here's the eventual 99.co co-founder he turned his hobby into a full-time job.
A 'crazy' start
For those of us who remember, the dot-com bust looked a little something like this. Photo credit: Pixabay.
“When I first graduated, tech wasn't really a hot thing," Ruiwen remembers. In the past decade, the 99.co veteran has seen more of a shift toward tech, especially as the topic became centered more around startups and changing the world - and away from the nasty memory of the dot-com bust that's now nearly two decades behind us.
“When I finished [at NUS], I was like, 'Dad, you know, I don't want to join a big company. I want to start a startup.' My dad was like, 'No, you're crazy! You have to join a company and find someone who can show you the ropes,'" Ruiwen says.
His father would come back to him a few years later, this time with his own startup idea. By then, Ruiwen's career had taken off.
Tech talent isn't your parents' idea of a nerd anymore. Photo credit: Pixabay.
“I think that to me encapsulates the whole change that's taken place," says Ruiwen. He's seen a growth in the meetup space as well - in diversity and size. Not everyone is, as he describes it, the “stereotypical nerdy guy" anymore.
My dad was like, “No, you're crazy!"
Despite his parents' caution, Ruiwen forged ahead and did his own thing, starting from scratch and founding startups with his friends. In 2010, that was co-founding and serving as CTO for edtech web app SquareCrumbs. In 2012, he served as co-founder and CTO for mobile app Gradeful, which went through the JFDI-Innov8 accelerator.
Springboard to 99.co and beyond
Later that year, Ruiwen got word that his friend Darius Cheung was starting a company, so he rose to the opportunity. The startup turned out to be bill-splitting app Billpin, where he spent three years as a software engineer. There, he worked on the startup's web, iOS, and Android apps, as well as on the backend architecture.
99.co was my first brush with a startup that had actually raised funding and actually had talked with investors.
When Billpin's co-founder Darius moved on to co-found 99.co, Ruiwen joined the initial founding team, along with Conor McLaughlin, Anuj Bheda, and Saurabh Mandar. “That was my first brush with a startup that had actually raised funding and actually had talked with investors," he says.
In 2015, he'd spent over a decade in startups in Singapore, and he decided to reevaluate. “I wanted to take a break," he explains. He headed to Lomotif.
Since Lomotif had a broader international audience, he says the challenges are different. More resources and users means different challenges and different work strategies - but that's exactly what he was looking for.
“It's an entirely different kind of scale. There are a lot of different reasons why I changed companies and a lot of different opportunities at each one," Ruiwen says. He continues to seek out work with larger scale and systems at his current position.
Nerds of a feather flock together
Sometimes, you just have to find your people, you know? Copyright: jackf / 123RF Stock Photo.
As the philosophers Beatles once said, “I get by with a little help from my friends." A lot of Ruiwen's job opportunities came through his network, which started back when he was in university when he founded linuxNUS, which became NUS Hackers. He has also served as an organizer for GeekcampSG and HackerspaceSG (which he also co-founded).
If you're just getting started in the Singapore meetup community, Ruiwen says to seek out people who are in the same situation as you. If you're a student, look for other student meetups. If you're a working professional looking to pivot into tech, find groups with other discerning working professionals. Once you get your feet under you, you can start to branch out into the areas that you really like.
More than a decade into his foray into developing in Singapore, Ruiwen finds it helpful to focus on one area of tech at a time, and developing mastery over it before jumping to the next trend. It can be tempting to chase after shiny trends or to keep wanting to be the next great success story, though.
“I think as a developer, what a lot of people face - you're always hearing about how good such-and-such a developer is," he explains. There are plenty of stories out there about young developers who have made groundbreaking world-stage accomplishments at a young age, and that can lead to unfocus and feelings of inadequacy. It's better to be great at what you do, than to be somewhat ok in half a dozen different areas, especially if you're just starting out.
Even if I was retrenched today, I guess I feel comfortable that I would be able to pick up freelance projects and still take on projects.
“At some point, I think you realize that it's not that feasible to try and be the best at every single thing," he says. Ruiwen's foci of choice are backend, server administration, and system architecture.
Developing is a field that offers a lot of freedom, and for Ruiwen, that means comfort. “I think, as a developer, you kind of feel that you always have a set of core skills you can fall back on, so even if I was retrenched today, I guess I feel comfortable that I would be able to pick up freelance projects and still take on projects."