Stephan February, technical director at GoBear. Photo courtesy of GoBear.
Stephan February didn't always want to do what he does today. Today, he works as technical director at expanding financial services comparison website GoBear. His daily duties involve overall software development; managing teams in Singapore, an outsourced development team, and a new software development team that he's helping to put together in Vietnam; and developing GoBear's platform, which has plans to expand throughout Southeast Asia.
However, as a young child growing up in South Africa, he already knew exactly what he wanted to do: become MacGyver.
MacGyver is an American television show from the 80s that starred Richard Dean Anderson as a high school teacher who could invent his way out of any situation with whatever materials were lying around, which, in a lot of ways, is the spirit of software development. The show's titular character would put Stephan on the road to GoBear. Photo courtesy of TNS Sofres.
“I didn't know what physics was. I went and asked other people what physics was. They didn't know what physics was," he recalls. “Because MacGyver was a chemist. He knew chemistry. He knew physics. He knew engineering. He was sort of a multi-disciplined guy. He could build a bomb with matchsticks, right? And as unrealistic as the show was, for a kid, it was the spark that lit something in me."
Stephan grew up under apartheid, a racist system of segregation and and discrimination in South Africa, which meant that because of his background, his best option for employment was limited to one: teaching. The show MacGyver, though, gave him enough inspiration to try to at least study the same fields that made the titular character so cool.
“I literally crafted my high school tracks with this MacGyver idea in mind and ended up discovering that I really liked the stuff I was learning, that I had a love for mathematics, that I had a love for physics, that I had a love for chemistry," he says. When it came time for him to go to university in the early 90s, he decided to study chemistry and physics, and found that he was okay at physics and “total crap" at chemistry."
This is the point I knew that I was a geek.
“But computer science, I was actually really interested in computers," Stephan says. He recalls his love growing to a point in university where he sold his hiking gear to buy more RAM for his computer, as well as spending six months of wages working in the library to purchase his first C++ compiler.
“This is the point I knew that I was a geek," he says simply.
Free open source tools back then weren't as readily available as they are now - for example, one can get a compiler for free. But back then, Stephan explains that if one wanted it, he had to work for it - and harder if he lived in Africa. “Back then, you needed access to FTP [file transfer protocol] sites, to shareware sites. Those sites were all in Europe and North America." To get shareware in the US back then, some older readers will remember getting a free disc off the back of a magazine. Stephan had to go to someone's house and buy the software, because that was something that people had to do as a business.
“Everyone was hooked up with relatively high speed connections and was super interconnected, and Africa was just dark," he says.
A Mandelbrot fractal. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
That didn't stop him, though. Stephan wrote a program composing Mandelbrot Fractals - pictures, for which the basis is a type of mathematical formula - complete with a function that let you zoom in and redraw portions of the picture. After walking around showing that to certain companies, he got his first job as a C++ programmer.
Welcome to Singapore
The company Stephan found himself at was Strategic Dataworks, a British software company that had outsourced some of its labor force to South Africa. They eventually needed some of the developers to do business consulting with customers in Asia.
Stephan's boss posed the call.
No one responded.
“People were waiting for the hot postings. At that time, which was the last 90s, was the hot postings to Europe and North America," he says.
But Stephan was not just anyone.
I had zero interest in Europe and North America.
“I had zero interest in Europe and North America, but for Asia, it was like, 'Please pick me, please pick me'," he recalls. He left and spent months traveling around the Asia-Pacific region with Singapore as his base. Around the new millenium, he started thinking he wanted to make that move more permanent.
That was right after the dot-com bust, which meant that developers everywhere were having trouble finding work. Luckily, Singapore's government had pretty strong incentives in place to bring in people like Stephan. What resulted was a bit of a whirlwind, which Stephan describes to me now as “a little bit insane" and “exciting."
“I basically interviewed on the Saturday before I was supposed to go back. My flight was on Monday evening," he remembers. “I flew back home. By the end of that week, I had an in-principle approval for the EP from the government. I quit my job, sold all my stuff in my apartment, sold my car, packed up my house, gave away most of my stuff, and one month later, I was in Singapore working in a job that for basically I had that one small Saturday interview."
Nearly two decades later, Stephan now resides in Singapore with his children.
Man of many hats
So, what's it like being someone who's been involved in tech companies in Singapore from the early 2000s until now? If you're Stephan, the answer to that question involves a little bit of everything. Way before his current role at GoBear, is first Singapore job was software engineering with a startup company called eXtropia, which ultimately failed.
Back in the job market again, Stephan decided to take some initiative and take a calculated risk based on a need he saw in the Singapore market. He founded a Linux consultancy called Adeptiva Linux, which dealt with open source consulting and software development. That worked for around five years, but the business wasn't growing, and Stephan wanted to have children.
“I had to make a choice," he recounts. That choice involved taking a “normal job in quotes." He worked with Platform Computing (later acquired by IBM) for a year before raising some angel funding to start a social media events aggregator.
“The startup didn't take off, and Facebook actually implemented the feature which I had build my business around...and then Facebook came out with Facebook pages, which kind of blew that model up," he says.
After a few cycles of what he describes as “consultant, founder, bust, thought-I-founded-another-thing," he became one of PayPal's software engineers in 2013 before moving to Pivotal Labs. In October 2016, he ended up in his current position at GoBear.
Managing many hats
GoBear's team on their company trip to Phuket. Photo courtesy of GoBear.
GoBear has around 115 employees region-wide who work full-time, and it has a presence in seven countries. Stephan says that the company will launch in Indonesia this year, and other countries lie on the horizon for next year, as well as new products.
His role at GoBear puts his techie skills to work as well as the lessons he's learned during his tenure as a company founder as well as a tech hustler, as he manages relationships between several different team members in different locations, as well as the company's relationship with its vendors across borders.
“It's a completely different ballgame in that regard where it's purely management - it's more business than it's technical, but in my role - because I'm building a development team and because of my deep technical background, I'm also responsible for guiding the developers," he explains. In other words, he still needs to be very much hands-on in his duties.
Choose one thing to become really, really good at.
Because he's seen his story from so many angles, what's his advice to aspiring developers looking to get a foothold in the industry?
“If your focus is software engineering, my advice would be to choose one thing to specialize in - you can still augment your specialty with some general stuff around it - but choose one thing to become really, really good at," he advises. Developers, by nature, “can be easily distracted with all of the shiny new things" that emerge from the industry every day. Interests are fine, but developers need an anchor.
An anchor doesn't mean that he's inviting people to become stagnant, though. That's an opening to get stereotyped into a role, which is something that can make it hard to move jobs, if one needs. “Make sure that you're not entirely ignorant about what's happening in the wider world - people who become specialized to the exclusion of all else," he says.
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