Having earned his Bachelor’s and Master's degrees in computer science from Stanford University, Neo Kai Yuan noticed that people who did not have access to similar opportunities "lack effective, efficient and affordable options to become software engineers". So, in 2020, he launched Rocket Academy, an online coding bootcamp.
"I started the company to give back to the community. Every country needs homegrown multinational companies to grow their economy and create opportunities for their people and I hope that we can be such a company," says the 32-year-old.
"Plus, it is not only a good fit for both my skills in software engineering and passion for education, but also caters to demand in the job market."
At present, Rocket Academy offers two types of courses: Coding Basics, a six-week part-time introduction course on fundamental coding concepts; and Coding Bootcamp, a four-month full-time or eight-month part-time vocational course in software engineering. All the courses are held online ("for efficiency and international reach") and the company has seven full-time employees and 10 part-time instructors.
The graduates are highly sought after
To design the curriculum, Kai Yuan drew upon his past professional experiences in Silicon Valley and Singapore—prior to running his own business, he completed software engineering internships at Facebook and Alibaba Cloud, and held engineering roles at Southeast-Asian student loan start-up ErudiFi and American healthcare data analytics start-up Nuna.
He also made sure to survey coding bootcamp graduates.
"This made me realise that many courses in the market lack the necessary foundation in algorithms and computer systems. As such, I wanted ours to be more comprehensive."
"So, we not only focus on these subjects, but also hold the course for a longer duration. I can confidently recommend any of our graduates as software engineers to any employer," he explains.
And it seems like employers are as confident in the academy's graduates—thus far, 100 percent of the Coding Bootcamp graduates have gotten jobs as software engineers in companies including Grab, Ninja Van, DBS and Decathlon. But Kai Yuan attributes this success to two other factors: a stringent selection process and a strong network.
"We screen Coding Bootcamp course applicants for coding and communication aptitude via a coding test and video application. This is so they can be competent graduates—our students are hungry, high-achieving professionals that aspire toward fulfilling tech careers," he says.
"On top of that, our network allows our students to speak with software engineers at any company, refer our Coding Bootcamp graduates to every company they apply to and actively build relationships with companies not yet in our network. Every two weeks, we invite software engineers from hiring partners for private ask-me-anything sessions with students, and every three months, we host virtual or in-person community events where alumni share insights."
Building the right team a big challenge
Given that Rocket Academy not only caters to growing demand for a skill set, but also creates proficient software engineers, it is probably little surprise that it last year raised US$1.1M in pre-seed funding.
"Our investors understand the pain of hiring software engineers and see our potential in attracting and training top software engineers globally. The world needs more software engineers and we aim to supply them," Kai Yuan asserts.
But while the company has seen rapid development over just two years, it has not been without its challenges.
"Building the right team has been hard because team requirements change quickly in startups. Team members not only need to be strong in their area of expertise, but also adaptable, as they need to be able to work in other areas where needed."
He adds that it is a "constant balancing act" to keep his team happy and high-performing.
"In addition, finding ways to grow the business has been difficult. I did not work closely on growth in my previous jobs as a software engineer."
Fortunately, the academy's services has spread through word of mouth, which is why Kai Yuan is now a firm advocate of driving customer-led growth.
"The most important lesson I’ve learnt about entrepreneurship is to always put customers first. If customers love our products, they will use them continuously and tell all their friends about them. If they do not love our products, they will not use them and our business will not survive," he lets on.
No need for a relevant degree or mathematical proficiency
The surge in demand to pick up coding is thanks to how closely intertwined our lives and technology have become.
"With our increasing reliance on apps, people want to know how to build them because we can see the potential for them to change our lives," Kai Yuan explains.
Of course, the money to be made helps.
"Apps have captured billions of dollars of value globally and the average software engineer's salary is higher than that of almost all other professions globally. The world values coding and we'd be remiss to ignore it."
"Plus, Google and Facebook have made coding cool and the media has amplified the hype. The impact and potential are global, very real and set to get even bigger for the foreseeable future."
Want to pick it up but not sure where to begin? He recommends starting with free online courses.
"If you like what you’re learning and want more structure, guidance and networking opportunities, you can then consider schools like Rocket Academy to maximise your chances of success," he says.
He also readily busts two myths about coding: you need a relevant degree to get a job in the industry ("none of our Coding Bootcamp graduates have one and all of them received software engineering job offers"); and you need to be good at maths ("coding is more like writing essays than solving problems—the logic is usually simple but we need to express it clearly").
That said, it does not mean that anyone can code.
"Coding is not for everyone but it is also not rocket science. The most important attributes for coding are logic and communication. If you can think logically and explain your logic clearly, chances are you'd make a strong programmer."
We miss all the shots we do not take
Rocket Academy may not be Kai Yuan's first venture into entrepreneurship, but it is his "most successful" and he has some advice for running a business.
"For those yet to start: we miss all the shots we don’t take. Which would you regret more—trying and failing or not trying at all? And for those that have started: it only stops when we give up. Every entrepreneur has had doubts, setbacks and failures but the successful ones have learnt from their mistakes and tried again," he says.
He also believes that "selling is as important as building".
"There is no use building products that nobody uses, and it is only through talking to customers that we will understand what to build. This is especially important for software engineers like me, who like to build and aren’t used to selling. We need to do both roughly equally," he adds.
"If I were to start Rocket Academy again knowing what I know now, I'd have been clearer about hiring requirements and invested more, and earlier, in growth. These would have enabled us to grow and improve our product faster. But hindsight is 20/20—I made the best decisions I could and I regret nothing."