Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Learn and Explore

I'd have to say, one of the more defining moments in my time here in NUS would have been being accepted into the NUS Overseas College (NOC) Programme back in 2006. I'd have to say, that at the very least, going on the NOC Programme allowed me to experience life outside of Singapore for an entire year and to open my eyes to the world. On the other end of the spectrum, I could say that the experience on the Programme was pretty much life changing.

In brief, the NOC Programme hopes to help students develop a sense of entrepreneurship by sending them off to work in various locations around the world, namely, Silicon Valley, Bio Valley (Philadelphia, USA), Shanghai and Stockholm. (A fifth location, Bangalore, is also available, but only for graduate students via the Graduate Research and Internship Programme (GRIP), also offered by the NUS Overseas Colleges) While overseas, these students work in various startup companies, take courses in the local partner universities, and at the same time organise and attend events that focus on entrepreneurship.

Just a short disclaimer though. I currently serve as Vice-President, Events, on the NOC Alumni Executive Committee. However, once again, the views expressed in this post are entirely mine.

Initially, I never quite gave the NOC Programme much thought. Sure, I'd heard of it, but honestly, it was never one of my priorities. To me, one year abroad was just time away from friends and family, and away from my life here in Singapore. And life was going pretty well for me at that point. linuxNUS was just founded, and I was scraping through coping with my modules. When the time came though, I sent in my application all the same. I didn't harbour too high hopes of being admitted into the programme at that time I guess. I wasn't a scholar, wasn't a Dean's Lister, and I simply wasn't anywhere close to being an 'A' student. And then, a few weeks later, I received an email telling me that I had been selected. Good grades or not, looks like I made it through.

As I soon found out, being an intern on the NOC Programme is far from the traditional concept people tend to have of "interns" in general. Far from being tasked with menial and mundane chores like filing paperwork and photocopying documents, NOC interns are often given projects to work on that involve the operations of the company. And far from being "just another worker", there are times when the companies would have just been founded, and the intern ends up being directly involved with helping the company establish itself.

Now that's all well and good, but some of you might be asking, "What does that have anything to do with being an SoC student? I study Computing, not how to start companies."

True, but the real value, I feel, lies in being made to overstep your own boundaries. Which, frankly, is a terrifying thought for quite a number of people. Here in Singapore, we're all conditioned very well to respect the boundaries. The boundaries are sacred lines that should never be crossed and the boundaries are law. Over time, however, certain boundaries if enforced too often, become our own limits. Similar to the dog so used to being chained up that even if it is removed, he never learns to move beyond the length of his chain. We should avoid becoming that dog and recognise that there is a whole world beyond what we sometimes limit ourselves to.

Take for example, the use of a certain programming language in development projects here in SoC. We start our basic courses like CS1101 with Java. Then CS1102, in Java. Then CS2103, also in Java. Or at least that's how it went for me. And the list goes on to higher level modules. However, sometimes, what this arrangement results in, are students in the third or fourth year, who are more or less only familiar with Java. Not that there's anything wrong with the language. It's just that after three to four years in the school that provides education in what is perhaps the fastest moving industry, some SoC students are familiar with only one single technology. These students have become so comfortable with what they are familiar with, that they have never learnt to explore outside their comfort zone and end up being trapped within their own limits. Programming languages is just an example of course, but the scenario described is pretty real.

So, even as a Computing students, we really shouldn't restrict ourselves just to the world of technology any more than we should restrict our own learning to the technologies taught in the lecture hall. Information technology pervades all aspects of the world today, and gaining an insight into as many fields as possible, business administration, marketing, publicity, may well put you in a position to see the proverbial "bigger picture". After all, aside from pure academic research, technical knowledge is best used when applied to a particular field. How would I use IT to improve a business process? How can my knowledge of web technologies be used in helping the company with its marketing efforts? Indeed, overstepping those boundaries, while initially uncomfortable perhaps, may well lead to greater insight in the "real world". Besides, if you never gave yourself the chance to try something new, you might never find out what possibilities lay beyond. As a personal example, I started off as the normal SoC student, having done projects mainly in Java. I hadn't much web programming experience, and I tended to stay away from web technologies at that point in time. However, one of the first projects given to me while at my internship company was to develop a web-based system. I sat down to pick up the technology, and have since come to realise I enjoy developing web applications instead.

So indeed, it doesn't really matter if you like it eventually or not. More importantly I guess, is the experience gained from going beyond familiar ground. Just like our poor chained dog. Without the chain, he is free to explore beyond his usual territory. If he likes it outside, well and good. And if he doesn't, there's always the familiar and comfortable ground to retreat to.

And the great part about the NOC programme is that is provides exactly these kinds of opportunities for students to explore new ground. I suppose, speaking from the perspective of a person who has lived in Singapore all his life, that spending a year abroad was almost the symbolic loss of the chain that bound me to what was familiar. If anything at all, it was an opportunity to start afresh, so to speak, free of the walls that I had so comfortable lived within my whole life. Furthermore, when you allow yourself to be immersed in so many new experiences, and speak to so many new people (loads of opportunities to network while on the NOC programme), you begin to realise that the world is a whole lot larger than just what we can see from our little island in the sun. As you speak to the people you meet (they might be startup founders and CEOs, or maybe venture capitalists, or maybe industry veterans), they might share their experience with you, and from there you gain. While in Stockholm, we were lucky enough to speak to people like Joe Armstrong, one of the creators of the Erlang programming language, Henrik Torstensson from Stardoll and Andy Smith from Jaiku (Jaiku was acquired by Google in Oct 2007), among many others, and to hear their stories.

Hej! 2007 about to start

Time in University is best spent learning, but then again, we cannot learn if we restrict our horizon to the confines of the tutorial room or lecture hall, or even the campus grounds. Similarly, we cannot learn about the world by staring at our feet. So yes, I would like to encourage you, dear reader, to learn by exploring and experiencing as much as possible. If there's something that you really find interesting, maybe you could always skip your next lecture to go explore that interest. And if you're game for it, why not apply for the NOC Programme?

- Ruiwen


Anonymous said...

Hi, I would love to go for the NOC programme but I am already in my 3rd year and this is the last opportunity for me to apply. How do you actually get the testimonials for application since I have no prior work experience and no one to really recommend me...

Also, how are the interviews like and any tips to get selected? Thanks!

Ruiwen said...


Well, NOC applications are open now, so do apply for it =)

As for testimonials, perhaps you could ask people who have been close to you?

It's really hard to give any surefire tips for interviews, really. So I'm just going to say, be yourself, and prove yourself a worthy candidate for the programme. =)