SINGAPORE: For Lee Zhi Peng, deciding not to go to university was, contrary to what others may think, not a difficult decision to make.
After finishing national service in 2010 and waiting to start his studies at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), he took up an internship at technology start-up MatchMove. A non-techie then, the six-month stint opened up a whole new world to him.
“They just needed an extra pair of hands to test their website and make sure there’s no spelling errors but during all that, I got interested in the tech aspects. So I sat down with the developers and started learning,” said the former student of Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC).
When he was later offered a full-time position with the start-up, accepting it – which meant giving up his spot at NTU – was a no-brainer.
“Why not?” Mr Lee said with a grin. “There was no reason for me to say no.”
Eight years on, he is the founder of programming school Upcode Academy, which in October set up its second location at The Cathay shopping mall.
An investment of nearly half a million, the 6,000-sq-ft space marks Mr Lee’s ambition for Upcode Academy to be more than just a school. It also wants to be an incubator for budding entrepreneurs.
Given these plans, it is perhaps unsurprising that getting a degree is nowhere to be found on the 28-year-old’s to-do list.
“I went through phases of worrying about being seen as a failure and not having something to fall back on,” he said. “But I’m happy now and there are many things I want to do.”
FINDING A DIRECTION
The youngest of three sons, Mr Lee said he rarely veered off the beaten path while growing up.
After doing “relatively well” for the Primary School Leaving Examination, he enrolled in River Valley High School before moving on to ACJC. But his two years in junior college turned out to be “a blur”.
“I wasn’t interested in the subjects so I was skipping school or not paying attention in class. I don’t think I was the worst kid but my teacher certainly thought I (had) issues so my parents were called in several times.”
He managed to “scrape through” his A-level exams. Clueless about his next step, Mr Lee followed his peers to apply for electrical and electronic engineering at NTU.
“It was one of the courses that everyone around me wanted to get into so I thought I’d just follow,” he said simply. “I had no direction then.”
The direction he needed came during the internship at MatchMove where he fell in love with coding.
“They gave me a lot of freedom to do and learn whatever I was interested in. I started coding things here and there … I also started imagining myself running my own start-up.
“Then one day, the CEO asked if I wanted a full-time role and, of course, I said yes.”
While he decided quickly, his parents needed some convincing. Mr Lee recalled his mother asking repeatedly if he was very sure of taking an unconventional route.
“She was worried but at the end of the day, my mum knew I liked what I was doing. I even had a pay check of more than S$3,000 – a salary comparable to a fresh graduate. I also have two elder brothers who did not go to universities and they are doing well in their own ways. So in the end, she gave up.”
But given that he had no tech background, he soon found himself thrown in at the deep end.
“I’m not the first to arrive but I’m almost always the last to leave,” Mr Lee recalled. “Learning programming by myself was difficult.”
His age also worked against him. “When you do quality assurance, you are checking other people’s work and you’re like the enemy. It was a bit adversarial at the start – people were thinking who am I to check their work? It got better when I won their respect by becoming better coders than them.”
But that wasn’t his biggest challenge.
“Losing friendships was the bigger difficulty for me,” said Mr Lee. “I didn’t share the same journey as my friends so they couldn’t understand my stress and I couldn’t understand theirs. I lost many friends then.”
That made him doubt if he had chosen the right path.
“Loneliness brings doubts and sets you wondering what if I can’t do my job and I get fired? Can I find another job or go back to school? If I can’t, will I become a failure in the eyes of other people?”
“It was also difficult because time was never enough. I don’t know if I was spending time on the right thing – should I be learning this programming language or should I be practicing something else?”
But little achievements along the way helped get rid of a lot of these insecurities.
At MatchMove, Mr Lee would eventually move on to becoming a product manager and by the time he left in 2014 to join another start-up as a senior engineer, his pay had more than doubled.
Keen to give it a shot at becoming his own boss, he quit a year later and invested S$35,000 into his first venture. Riding on the wave of flash deals and discount sites, the start-up called 40Tasks had an app that alerted users to deals nearby.
But he soon felt that he “was in the wrong space”.
“I felt there was very little value add in what we were doing so I tried skewing the business to offer help in building websites or marketing. But in reality, merchants only cared about profit margin,” he said. “I was jaded.”
After leaving his first start-up, Upcode Academy came about last September when Mr Lee spotted a gap in the market.
“More people are thinking of becoming start-up founders but they do not have the relevant tech skills. I also realised that fresh graduates here, sadly, have skills that do not match industry needs.”
With his experience in mind, Mr Lee said he wanted to provide beginners with a place to pick up tech relevant skills in a structured manner.
Since starting slightly more than a year ago, the school, based at Ayer Rajah Crescent, offers courses in data science, artificial intelligence and different programming languages like Python.
Its instructors are professionals who continue to hold day jobs in tech firms and start-ups here.
Mr Lee also takes on the role of a trainer. Outside of Upcode Academy, he teaches entrepreneurship at Singapore Polytechnic.
While going through the stories of successful entrepreneurs during his classes, he said he has also tried looking back at his own journey. The key takeaway, he reckoned, was the realisation that the paper chase was not the only way to obtain an education or career success.
“I didn’t go on to get a degree but I found my passion,” he said. “If you are very clear of your passion, you can focus on the learning and not the certificate. Learning has nothing to do with certificates.”
While there is nothing wrong with using qualifications as a benchmark for one’s ability, he thinks there remains an “unhealthy” focus on academic certificates here in Singapore.
“One thing why I love start-ups so much is because the pathway to success is very open,” he said. “It is brutally honest and rewards when you work hard and deliver. Having qualifications doesn’t matter.”
In fact, he has hired an employee who, like him, decided to put aside plans for a degree.
Not that Mr Lee didn’t give university education another shot.
A few years back, he enrolled in a part-time undergraduate program but decided to quit after one semester when he realised that the curriculum lagged behind industry practices.
After learning of his story, some people have come up to him for advice, but Mr Lee said he does not think of himself as an inspiration or role model.
“Don’t copy anyone’s path is what I always say. Don’t look at me and think it’s cool. It’s not,” he said.
“At the end of the day, its knowing what you want that's most important."