From Silicon Valley to Singapore: Silvanus Lee On Returning Home for Tech

Technology has seen explosive growth in the past decade, with Singapore and Southeast Asia’s (SEA) tech ecosystem expanding rapidly on a global scale to unlock many growth opportunities. SGN chats with Silvanus Lee, Director of Twitter’s APAC Engineering Centre and Co-Founder of BasisAI, who went from living every techie’s dream – building and leading critical teams at Dropbox and Uber in California – to returning home to Singapore at the height of his career. Why did he make the switch? Read on to find out and learn how Silvanus continues to pave the way forward for the future of tech in Singapore and the region.

By SGN | 12 Oct 2020

Silvanus Lee, Director & Asia Pacific (APAC) Engineering Site Lead at Twitter and Co-Founder of BasisAI

It’s not every day we hear about a Singaporean who chooses to leave an illustrious tech career in Silicon Valley behind, but that’s what Silvanus did.

“After 12 years, I was ready for a change,” Silvanus Lee recounts. The year was 2018, and he was moving from Silicon Valley back to Singapore with his wife, Heather, and their infant son Nate to start a new chapter. The then-31-year-old already had impressive credentials under his belt, having built and led data science and engineering teams at tech giants Dropbox and Uber.

His trajectory started at a time when there were multiple paradigm shifts, including the rise of cloud computing and iPhone launch, which fundamentally changed the way we consume technology.

Silvanus and his wife, Heather, with their older son, Nate, on a road-trip in Arizona, US.

From One Line of Code to Charting Illustrious Chapters

Now Director & APAC Engineering Site Lead at Twitter and the Co-Founder of BasisAI in Singapore, Silvanus recalls his introduction to the tech world. “When I moved to the US for college in 2007, I wrote my first line of code at an Introduction to Computer Science class at Stanford University, kicking off my passion in engineering,” he shares. 

He was immersed in an environment that valued builders and was surrounded by peers and professors who were involved in start-ups like Facebook, which was still in its infancy then. He knew early on that he wanted to have a career in tech, and specifically in the Bay Area, after graduation.

In 2012, he joined Dropbox after meeting with the founders and early team. During his time at Dropbox, Silvanus took on multiple roles – from growth and product, to leading Data Science. The company was at an early growth stage, and Silvanus recalls learning and growing tremendously with the scrappy and resourceful team.

In 2014, he joined Uber when its business was serving approximately hundreds of thousands of trips a day. During his time there, Uber scaled to multiple product lines – building technologies, systems, and processes – by leveraging data science in many areas to operate an efficient marketplace serving tens of millions of trips daily.

He rose to be Uber’s Director of Data Science and scaled teams across various cities in the US and Asia.

Of these pivotal moments in his career, Silvanus shares, “I optimized for being surrounded by very high calibre teammates who inspired me and picked companies that were rocket ships, which were themselves operating in extremely large and growing markets.”

Road to Success at Home in Singapore

BasisAI co-founders Silvanus (left) with Liu Fengyuan (middle) and Silvanus’ twin brother, Linus Lee (right) in their office in downtown Singapore.

Like many others, Silvanus saw that the SEA tech ecosystem was at an inflection point, with rising per capita income and a burgeoning digital economy, creating massive opportunities for tech to impact and disrupt at scale. After 12 years in the US, Silvanus decided that it was an opportune time to move home to Singapore for the next phase of his career, and to be closer to family.

Leveraging these tailwinds, Silvanus co-founded BasisAI in Singapore with his twin brother, Linus Lee, and co-founder Liu Fengyuan. BasisAI helps data-driven enterprises achieve a faster time to impact from machine learning, while providing the governance-by-design that is required for developing trustworthy and performant artificial intelligence (AI) systems. The platform is backed by top tier investors such as Temasek and Sequoia and supported by the Singapore government’s Smart Nation initiative.

“We saw a widening gap between the AI capabilities of technology giants versus other companies, and the opportunity to create tools and products to level the AI capabilities of more traditional enterprises,” Silvanus explains.

BasisAI hopes to continue driving deeper conversations on AI governance, and has recently published a whitepaper on the responsible and accountable adoption of AI.

The Bay Area Ethos and its Impact

One of Silvanus’ highlights from his time at Uber was marching in the 2014 Pride Parade in San Francisco.

His time in the Bay Area would have a profound impact on his work ethos. The rapid experimentation culture, which results from the venture and start-up ecosystem, makes it especially conducive for innovation. He saw first-hand how risk-taking is normalised, failure is embraced, and diversity is celebrated.

For Silvanus, he adapted by disrupting his way of working. “I had to quickly level up as a people manager, to leading multiple teams, to leading globally distributed engineering organisations. Not everything is going to go perfectly, but in this kind of environment, with a strong growth mindset, you’re able to try and fail fast, compound your learnings and scale quickly.”

The best companies, Silvanus says, also have access to unparalleled global talent which forces individuals to raise the bar and overcome personal thresholds. “These were essential factors that shaped my worldview and approach to scaling teams,” he opines.

Working with Global Tech Giants in the Heart of Asia

“Tweeps” at Twitter’s APAC headquarter in Singapore

In June 2020, Silvanus joined Twitter as Director & APAC Engineering Site Lead in Singapore. The tech giant announced in February it planned to build its first Engineering Center in APAC based in Singapore, as a strong demonstration of its commitment to this high-growth region and to further expand its global engineering workforce.

In his new role, Silvanus bridges his networks in both the Bay Area and Singapore and acts as an advocate for the APAC team as it scales and drives impact globally.

Silvanus says the decision to join Twitter came easily to him. “The mission of serving the public conversation is one that is deeply important and it’s energising to work in a place where everyone is so deeply connected to this purpose. Twitter has also built a culture of transparency and inclusivity that strongly reflects its company values, which makes it a truly great place to bring your full self to work,” he shares.

The engineering and data science teams in Singapore collaborate closely with Twitter’s other engineering sites from around the world on important product initiatives, ranging from app performance to building features that unlock growth for Twitter’s global audience.

“There are very big ambitions and it definitely feels like early days for both the Twitter APAC and the tech ecosystem more broadly,” Silvanus says.

Global Talent and the Draw of Singapore and Southeast Asia

Singapore has emerged as SEA’s technology hub, with 80 of the top 100 tech firms in the world having a presence in the city-state. Singapore’s excellent fundamentals and position in the heart of a high-growth region will hopefully also continue to draw tech pioneers and returnees like Silvanus to accelerate the local tech scene’s expansion.

Looking back on the experiences since his return from Silicon Valley, Silvanus remains optimistic and excited about the wealth of opportunities and growth potential in the region. He shares, “the SEA ecosystem is at an inflection point with many interesting problems as well as deep technical talent to solve these problems.”

“As the ecosystem continues to strengthen, we are likely to see some models take off and more companies coming out of SEA that have truly global impact.”

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