By SGN | 8 Sep 2022
During his teenage years in Bangkok – where his family had moved due to his father’s work – Isaac was a big fan of Apple products and religiously tuned in to Steve Jobs’s keynote presentations.
“After the first iPhone launched in 2007, I started to teach myself iOS development. That was my first foray into software engineering, and it became my dream to work in Silicon Valley,” he shares.
At Carnegie Mellon University, he studied Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction, and he would browse the biannual job fairs that featured the biggest tech companies in America.
“I was very much attracted to the concept of a fun workplace – with free meals, a ping pong table, a bright and beautiful open office. The goal of working at these companies really motivated me to do well in school, to try and ace interviews and score internships with them.”
Living the Silicon Valley dream
Isaac’s wishes soon came true. Post-graduation, he moved to the Bay Area with his now-wife, who is originally from Beijing and is currently a Staff Software Engineer.
He spent a year at Evernote as an iOS Engineer, followed by seven years at Airbnb, where his technical breadth expanded into areas like Machine Learning and backend development, and where he eventually grew into a managerial role.
Beyond the material perks of endless free food and vending machines dispensing headphones and Apple keyboards, Isaac says it was thrilling to work with the smartest people and build apps that impact millions of people around the world.
The biggest milestone came in December 2020, when Isaac witnessed Airbnb making its public debut. “Just watching the Nasdaq bell ring with the Airbnb ticker on it was very emotional for me,” he recalls. “It felt like a recognition of all our years of hard work.”
Looking for a change of environment
But Airbnb’s IPO wasn’t the only momentous event to occur that year for Isaac. Just a few months earlier, he and his wife welcomed their first child.
“When our son was born, our worldview – and the amount of sleep we got – changed drastically. We started thinking a lot more about the environment we wanted to raise him in,” he recalls.
By mid-2021, the couple decided to relocate to Singapore so their son could grow up close to family and in an Asian environment while experiencing a rigorous bilingual education. “We feel that the Singapore education system achieves a good balance between strong academics and character-building,” he explains.
Although the move was beset by several delays – a six-month wait for a quarantine spot for their Labrador Retriever; a four-month hold-up in shipping their belongings; a global surge in Omicron infections – Isaac and his wife were relieved to eventually make it on to a 17-hour flight in March 2022, together with their one-year-old and their dog, bound for Singapore.
To accommodate such unforeseen hurdles, Isaac’s advice to others who are relocating is to start planning early and to join an overseas community like Singapore Global Network, which he finds helpful for exchanging tips and ideas.
As they settled into a new life in Singapore, the family had to acclimatise to the heat, humidity and rain and get used to the big indoor crowds, but they love the vibrancy of the city and the abundance of family-friendly activities, from cycling at East Coast Park to children’s exhibits at the National Gallery.
“Being back in Singapore was quite surreal at first, since it had been quite a few years,” Isaac says, “but after hearing Singlish again and ordering food at the hawker centre, it felt like I had never left.”
Most of all, he says it’s been wonderful to see their son spending time with his grandparents and to be able to reconnect with old friends, including his buddies from National Service.
Making secondhand the first choice
Since his return, Isaac has joined Carousell Group, the leading recommerce (resale of pre-owned products) business in Greater Southeast Asia and one of Singapore’s newest unicorns. Similar to eBay, Carousell is an online marketplace that facilitates secondhand purchases, with increasing participation among young consumers in the region hoping to reduce waste and support sustainability.
“I lead the engineering team that works on recommerce initiatives to make buying pre-loved items as trusted and frictionless as buying brand-new items, so that secondhand can become the first choice. In turn, this can help us overcome the issue of overconsumption and create a more sustainable world.”
Interestingly, Isaac has always been familiar with the Carousell brand. He became a registered user in year one, back in 2012, after meeting the three co-founders at an NUS booth where they were promoting their new product.
Over the next 10 years, the Group entered seven other markets (Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong) under various brand names and attracted tens of millions of users. Today, the team of engineers Isaac manages is located across Singapore, Taiwan and India.
The cultural diversity of the region has had a huge impact on his work. “Overseeing a geographically distributed team takes a greater understanding of the values and intricacies of different cultures,” Isaac notes. “This is especially critical in a management role, where I hope to build genuine trust with my team members so I can help them grow in their careers.”
Another interesting challenge, Isaac says, has been building not a universal product, but one with localised features that cater to the customer needs and behaviours of each market, be it tweaking payment and shipping methods or customising the way meeting locations are set.
The emerging Silicon Valley of Asia
Despite these cultural differences, Isaac has observed best practices similar to what he experienced in Silicon Valley. “Carousell really invests in our teammates and their growth,” he says. “It’s not just about building products and driving business.
“Also, engineers are encouraged to contribute to the entire product development process, not just the implementation. To me, this leverages their wealth of knowledge and helps us build much better products for our customers.”
On the wider industry landscape, Isaac says Singapore’s tech scene has come a long way. “There’s a fascinating mix of local startups like Carousell, homegrown multinationals like Grab, and global firms that have established their APAC engineering hubs here. This gives tech talent here a really healthy buffet of choices.
“Singapore is already the Silicon Valley of Asia. It is bustling with innovation, and the large investor pool is very hungry for the next big thing. I believe that all this only stands to multiply in effect over the next few years.”
In closing, Isaac offers one final piece of advice to tech professionals navigating a relocation for global opportunities.
“It sounds a little bit cheesy, but follow your heart. Don’t feel pressured in either direction. Uprooting yourself is a huge life change that comes with pros and cons, so there’s no such thing as a perfect decision.”
After ten years of pursuing a tech career at Airbnb and Evernote in Silicon Valley, Isaac moved back to Singapore with his family in 2022, joining Carousell as a Senior Engineering Manager.
Connect with him here.