If there’ one thing from an NUS canteen stall that Jin Zhe could eat for the rest of his life, it’d be the dry ‘ban mian’ from the BiZ canteen. Most people may be surprised to learn that Jin’s command of Mandarin isn’t the greatest, even though he was born in China, grew up in Singapore, and went through the Singapore education system and National Service. If he were stranded on a deserted island for eternity, he’d like to have a compound bow for hunting, a journal, and Wilson the volleyball for companionship. He is averse to small talk and the word ‘entrepreneur’ (despite being the founder of a startup). He discovered his weakness for American food while away at NOC and is a self-professed pizza and junk food fiend. He thinks that we could really, really improve the printing system at SoC and hopes that someone will build an app for their FYP that will show users their print quota and queue, instead of us wasting paper, printing cover pages for every print job. Any takers?
Describe your SoC experience.
I was a Computer Science major with a focus area in Information Retrieval. I’ve just graduated and it took me a total of 5 years if we also count in the 1 year for NOC.
My journey at SoC wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. I had a really tough time picking up programming in the beginning as it was such a drastic switch from what I’m used to learning in 12 years of public education. I remember being completely gutted and utterly embarrassed when I received C+’s for both my CS1010 and CS1231 in my first semester. Till this day I still get a tinge of guilt when I think about it because I feel I’ve let down Mr. Aaron Tan and Prof. Bressan. After the disaster of a first semester, I took it upon myself to do whatever it takes to improve. It would take me 3 years and countless hours of practice to eventually love, embrace and appreciate the world of programming and Computer Science.
One of the most challenging aspects of being in the field of CS is keeping up with the times. The democratization of the internet, growth of smartphones and advancements in hardware within the last decade had really propelled technological progress at jaw-dropping speeds. Software engineering paradigms are shifting, new machine learning techniques are developed by the likes of Google and Facebook. Due to this phenomenon, many outsiders feel that a CS education is losing its relevance because it doesn’t cater for the shifting landscapes of technology. That misconception couldn’t be any farther from the truth. Applications and methods of application change, however fundamentals never change and the value of a CS education in SoC is that it imparts strong fundamentals. I actually wrote a Medium article in April to discuss this issue.
The craziest thing I did was willing ‘tanking’ most of my projects, except for rare a few which I happen to get star players on my side. In college and in the workplace, there will always be an unequal distribution of contributions from the people you work with. You can’t change them and neither can you change the system. However you are in control of how much you can gain from the projects. For the projects where I did most of the work, I was also the one in the team who learnt the most.
I’d definitely wished to have been more involved with the SoC community. I had been a geeky, hermit for the most part of my time here and so have only made a handful of friends from my classes.
In my third year, I went onboard the NUS College in Silicon Valley and became a full-time software engineering intern at a tech startup. It was there that I realized the importance of working on real world projects. To quote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.” That really applies to software engineering as taking part in real-world projects and shipping production-grade code is a great opportunity to apply our knowledge in the industry. Iteration cycles at startups can get pretty intense and there was at least one day a week where I had to put in about 15 hours of work. I dare say that the hours I clocked churning code can put investment bankers to shame. It was a lot of hard work but what my internship gave me was a ton of practice and immense confidence as a programmer.
Returning from NOC, I found a renewed sense of optimism and enthusiasm. I no longer looked at my assignments with reluctance and fear. In fact I looked forward to problem sets, assignments as I thoroughly enjoyed solving them. Accomplishing them gave me a sense of achievement I hadn’t experienced before. As I progressed in my CS curriculum, I also realized that it was a lot more than just coding, algorithms, data structures and software engineering. I was introduced to entire fields in computer graphics, artificial intelligence, information retrieval, computer security and many more which were all extremely interesting. Despite being more demanding, I found the last 2 years in SoC being much more enjoyable than the first 2. One could certainly say that college ended on a high note for me. I actually enjoyed my FYP the most because it was self-proposed and it also eventually turned into my startup! How cool is that!
I must say my experience in SoC is something most students can relate to. The most defining moment for me as an undergraduate actually happened while being on the NOC programme when I was at a dinner party and a Venture Capitalist whom I was with turned to me and asked “what is your goal in life? What gets you out of bed every morning?” My pursuit to the answer of that question would eventually bring me to realize my passion in utilizing technology to make this world a better place. So I’d say what set my student experience apart from most is actually NOC, which for me was pretty life-changing.
Which faculty members made impressions on you?
SoC truly has an exceptional group of professors and staff which makes me proud to be part of this family. It would be impossible to exhaustively name everyone here so I’ll just attempt to mention those who come to mind, not in any particular order whatsoever.
I’m truly grateful towards Dr. Steven Halim for believing in me and taking up the project as my supervisor. Hadn’t it been for his support, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. His algorithms classes are also world-class and comes with a top-notch algorithmic visualization website (VisuAlgo) to aid learning. Mr. Aaron Tan is someone almost every SoC freshman will have the opportunity to take classes under. His enthusiasm is simply infectious and he also goes above and beyond to make classes engaging and interesting for students. When lecturers are passionate about teaching, it really shows in their classes and Aaron is exemplary of that. Dr. Alan Cheng taught me Computer Graphics and his assignments were some of the most fun and engaging ones I’ve ever done in NUS. Prof. Ng Teck Khim is a wonderful lecturer at Computer Vision in CS and has a knack of breaking down complex ideas into really simple concepts. I took Information Retrieval under Prof. Kan Min-Yen and had thoroughly enjoyed his classes, assignments as well as his dry wit. Prof. Leong Hon Wai was the one who really pushed us to maturity in our algorithmic journey. Prof. Wong Weng Fai taught me Computer Organization and I will always remember his detailed PowerPoint animations on MIPS architecture. Dr. Bimlesh Wadhwa taught me for all my software engineering courses and she is the without a doubt one of the kindest and most caring lecturers around.
For those who didn’t make the list, please forgive me, it doesn’t mean that you didn’t make an impact on my SoC life, it just means that I wasn’t able to load everything into memory all at once.
What do you count as your most significant achievement to date?
My most significant achievement to date is being able to build a production-grade social network entirely by myself. It was an end-to-end implementation which covered UI design, frontend development, backend development, database, caching, server load balancing, web security and scalable architectures. I really learnt A LOT from the one year working on it. The project is called Mooder and it is the startup that I am working on right now. I’d like to cheekily think that I have outdone Zuckerberg because Mooder is definitely more advanced that the first version of Facebook, but to Zuck’s credit, web development in the early 2000s is vastly different from what is today; I had it much easier with the embarrassing array of tools and knowledge that web developers enjoy today. Do check out the platform at www.mooder.com!
As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt famously said, “Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality.” Human emotions is something very primal and it’s ironic that it has been almost swept under the rug during the digital revolution of our time.
I am a very heavy user of social media and I do believe it is the single most defining technology in this decade. It has become such an integral part of our lives! It redefined the way we connect to people, changed the way we consume information and brought new ways to how we project ourselves to others. However as social networks continue to evolve, there is a void being left behind and that is emotions and empathy. To paint a bleak picture, Facebook has evolved into a platform for content sharing and self-assertions, Instagram and Snapchat are starting to become the center stage for the vainglorious, twitter became a one-way channel for celebrities and politicians to project their views and opinions onto others and the list goes on. In 2010, a Stanford research paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that Facebook makes people sadder because users mostly post about overly positive emotions and it harbors the illusion that everyone around us are leading way better lives than us such that when we experience negative emotions, we think that we are alone in our sorrows. The conclusion of that study proposed that if we could share our negative emotions as much as our positive ones, we could be way happier people. That is what Mooder sets out to accomplish: to create an environment where users would feel welcome to share any emotion they experience and connect with other users who feel the same. Empathy has always been the cornerstone for authentic human relationships but we have yet to see mechanisms online which facilitate that.
I first proposed the FYP idea to Dr. Steven Halim and was very fortunate that he agreed to be my project supervisor. I then acquired SoC’s Validating Startup Concept (VaSCo) grant last July followed by getting into SoC’s incubator The Furnace in December. In February I was accepted onto AliCloud Startup program 2016 and then in April I went onboard Mediacorp’s Mediapreneur programme which also provided additional funding for the startup. It all started out from a FYP project! This journey so far was made possible by a lot of people, my friends, family and professors. The SoC Entrepreneurship committee has also provided tremendous support, encouragement and mentorship, for which I am extremely grateful!
It is A LOT of hard work. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to run a company and I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to prepare oneself for something quite like this. I have an office under The Furnace at I-Cube which has been my home for the past 8 months because I literally stay there on weekdays. Every single day is spent working and ironically one of the few things that keep me sane throughout this time is actually Mooder. For anyone reading this, feel free to drop by I-Cube #03-31 to say hi!
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I wanted to be an artist and I have been really wieldy with a pencil for as long as I could remember. My strength was in drawing portraits and in secondary school my art teacher told me I was pretty talented (humble brag) and suggested that I go to an art school. Well I decided against that because pursuing art as a career was a pretty risky move and more so making that decision at the age of 16. So I pretty much gave that idea up and haven’t practiced drawing ever since. You know when you make a hard decision like that, you really can’t look back anymore. I might return to it someday, maybe when I retire.
What advice would you give a prospective SoC student?
1. Be patient with your learning. Coming from the public education system, a lot of us will have this conditioned expectation to grasp something within a couple of months and if we don’t, we think we’re not fit for it. That couldn’t be any further away from the truth. It took me 3 years to get comfortable with coding. What computing had taught me was that if you stayed on a challenge long and hard enough, you will almost certainly overcome it. Just don’t apply that during exams!
2. Go for internships, ideally one at a big company followed by one at a startup. Internships at big companies teach you industry best practices and production-grade standards, while internships at startups provide you with incredible control over your responsibilities and lots of room to experiment. Both will prove to be great learning experiences
3. Work on your own projects. Passion is not given, it is cultivated and grown. A software engineer without a pet project is like a novelist without a genre.
4. Do not rush to graduate. The more time you spend on learning, the more appreciation you get to develop, the more concepts you get to internalize and most importantly, the more opportunities you get. Staying in school longer could mean that you have more time to work on personal projects or going for more internships.
What are your future plans?
My focus now is entirely on my startup and I seek to grow it as much as I possibly can. Oh my mom is also urging me to get a girlfriend, maybe I’ll start to make some plans for that too!
What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
I am a huge fan of combat arts and have trained in various systems including Krav Maga, Muay Thai, Boxing, Brazilian Jujitsu and Olympic freestyle wrestling. These days I don’t have time commit to regular classes at a gym and so I pretty much train by myself in school.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
6 years ago I declined the offer to study CS in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s college of engineering. I chose to enroll in NUS instead. You know after all these years, the biggest lesson I learnt is that decisions are rarely right or wrong in and of themselves, it’s what you make of them and where you allow them to take you that ultimately define their worth. In my attempt to justify my decision, I made sure I’d be the best that I can be with the opportunities that I can get. My stint in NUS had brought me great friendships, blessed me with amazing professors and wonderful mentors, led me to Silicon Valley, to Stanford and eventually to founding my own tech company. I’m not so certain that I could be in the same position today had I gone to Illinois.
While I may not have been the valedictorian for my batch, I too would like to leave with a message to the graduation cohort of 2016: You are only as decisive as you are willing to fly with your decisions, so fly, and never look back!