‘It’s lonely being a woman in tech’ – How This Startup Founder Hopes to Inspire More Female Leaders

Building upon the success of her startup UI-licious, Tai Shi Ling, 30, wants to normalise the idea of a woman in tech and empower more women to start businesses and pursue STEM careers.

8 Oct 2021 / By SGN

Shi Ling fell in love with technology at an early age. As a child who enjoyed reading, she was mesmerised by the Internet’s capacity to be an infinite library, and recognised its power to change people’s lives in a dramatic way. She was a fan of Inspector Gadget – the cyborg who fights crime with an arsenal of gizmos and a transforming car – and thought the coolest James Bond character was Q, the weapons and equipment specialist.

Years later, she chose to enter a junior college where she could study computing. She was instantly hooked.

She likens programming to playing with Lego. “Programs are like small Lego blocks that you use to build bigger things like applications,” she says, “except it feels more magical, because you can do so many things through programming, and the potential for problem-solving is really vast.”

Shi Ling with her mum when she graduated magna cum laude from the Singapore Management University with a BSc in Information Systems Management

Testing, Testing, Not Easy as 1-2-3

After graduating from the Singapore Management University (SMU) with a BSc in Information Systems Management, she joined the advertising technology startup Knorex, where she enjoyed building user interfaces (UI) and tackling varied projects and problems.

That was when she realised that processes in the software industry were not always structured well. “Software is usually built by hackers mashing things together and putting them out to the market,” she says.

“Companies often don’t have formal testing processes, and the tools that are available are inadequate.”

Manually testing an app UI across all browsers and devices is “a huge, huge pain” (a banking app with numerous functionalities can take months to test fully), yet companies are not willing to assign their software engineers to automate the task.

According to Shi Ling, “Anyone leading a technology department would say, ‘My software engineers are too expensive to be used for testing.’”

What testing typically involves, then, is the mobilisation of project managers, business analysts, or the new intern, to “go press some buttons and tell the developers when there’s something wrong”.

“UI-licious? Your Brand Name Is Too Cute”

Shi Ling knew there was a better way. She wanted to build a software that makes test automation accessible to everyone – even non-programmers. She developed the idea further when she joined the pioneer Asia cohort of tech incubator Entrepreneur First (EF) and met her co-founder (and now-husband) Eugene Cheah.

“Our skill sets are very complementary,” Shi Ling says. “My skill set is in building the test engine, since I have experience in building lots of user interfaces, whereas Eugene has the skill sets to build everything under the hood to support hundreds of thousands of tests running at the same time.” As CEO, Shi Ling is more at ease facing clients and speaking with customers, while Eugene the CTO is more of a meticulous, detail-oriented planner.

Shi Ling and Eugene hugging a unicorn for good luck at JSConf.Asia 2019

Together they built UI-licious, an intelligent low-code tool that is able to recognise UI elements, such as a username field or submit button, regardless of how they are programmed. Unlike no-code automation tools in the market, which record in-app actions but require a new recording for each device type or when the UI has been tweaked in any way, the UI-licious engine is capable of handling such differences across layouts and revisions.

When it came to christening their product, the founders chose ‘UI-licious’ because it makes apps look ‘deliciously’ good. (It didn’t hurt that the .com domain was available.) Many customers find the name endearing, but Shi Ling encountered doubters as well: “We had investors who said, ‘Are you sure about your brand name? It’s too cute. I don’t think enterprises will take you seriously.’”

As for their logo, they chose a cross between two checkmarks and a wedge of kueh salat (glutinous rice topped with a pandan custard), a nod to their Singaporean roots which also conveys the idea that “UI testing is a piece of cake”. The same delicacy, right down to the green-and-black colouration, is handed out at physical events and conferences that the company attends.

The UI-licious logo expresses the idea that testing is a piece of cake

Two Things That Are Hard to Find: Funding & Software Engineers

The initial years of the new venture were tough, Shi Ling admits. Funds were low and the founders had meagre salaries.

“There were months where we didn’t draw any salary so we could keep servers running and employees paid,” she says.

Raising funds in Singapore was challenging because investors viewed UI-licious as solving a niche problem they didn’t understand, and grants were more interested in areas like cybersecurity testing.

Pitching to Silicon Valley investors was easier, since they were already familiar with developer tools and the software as a service (SaaS) model, but the company eventually secured a considerable amount of Singapore-based funding, particularly from investors with a software engineering background.

Another area of difficulty Shi Ling faced was talent acquisition. Singapore has a small pool of software engineers, and locals tend to be wary of joining startups due to their lack of financial stability.

“They want their parents’ approval,” Shi Ling says. “If they tell their parents, ‘Ma, I’m joining a startup,’ the parents would go, ‘Are you sure or not? Startup can make it or not?’”

Shi Ling and team showing off their product and serving kueh salat at the FOSSASIA Summit Exhibition 2020

Taking On Their First Big Client

Even though seeking investors was a bumpy process, attracting clients was surprisingly smooth sailing. “One of the unique things about EF is that they forced us to find customers even before we built the product,” Shi Ling recalls.

“When I pitched the idea, they said, “That’s a great idea, Shi Ling. I know you guys are engineers and love building things, but go and get yourself paid contracts first.’” They did just that and quickly procured five contracts that each promised to pay $500 for a prototype.

All in all, it took three and a half years for UI-licious to attain profitability. The first year was spent refining the prototype and producing a minimum sellable product (MSP), while the next couple of years were about pricing the product correctly and marketing it to the right people.

A major milestone occurred when German automotive giant Daimler signed on as a client, after their software engineers chanced upon Shi Ling and Eugene while wandering around a Singapore convention. Gaining such a big-name client was a confidence-booster and a big help during subsequent conversations with investors.

Today, UI-licious has a global customer base: half in the US, a quarter in Europe, and a quarter in Asia-Pacific. Software testing is a dry and tedious activity, so Shi Ling is especially delighted by positive customer feedback. “When they say, ‘You make my job fun and enjoyable. I feel like a magician,’ or, ‘Your tool is really accessible and easy to learn,’ I feel like we are going in the right direction,” she says.

Learning and Growing Along the Way

Shi Ling is surprised by her personal growth over the past five years, as the leader of a successful business and a communicator who is able to market her product to investors and other CEOs.

“In the beginning, I didn’t want to be CEO,” she shares, “because I had the mental image that the CEO has to be some dude, preferably a tall dude, super confident, wearing a business suit.” Yet as Shi Ling came into contact with other female entrepreneurs and observed different types of leaders, she started to discover her own style of steering the company.

“My advice for people who are not confident about starting a business is to just start it because you will learn a lot of things along the way,” she says. “In Singapore, you can join networks and communities of entrepreneurs and learn from each other.”

Shi Ling in a panel discussion at CodingGirls Day 2018

Normalising the Idea of a Woman in Tech

Being a woman in tech has been a consistently lonely experience, Shi Ling reveals. “In my JC computing course, four out of 14 were female. In my first year of university, our cohort was half female; by the fourth year, only 10% was female. At UI-licious, I’m the only female on the technical team.”

She says women have insecurities about studying science and engineering because it’s perceived to be a male arena. This idea is ingrained in children when girls who play with cars are labelled ‘tomboy’, and adults say things like, “Shi Ling, why you so tomboy? Who’s gonna marry you in the future?”

Shi Ling’s collection of laptop stickers. Her favourites are of computing pioneers Dorothy Vaughan and Grace Hopper, from the Computing History Museum in Mountain View, California

The answer, she believes, is to encourage a virtuous cycle. “We need more women in the industry to inspire others to go down a STEM career path,” Shi Ling says. She is active in groups such as Women Who Code and JuniorDev Singapore, sharing her story, mentoring junior developers and encouraging younger women to start their own businesses.

Her dream is to normalise the idea of a woman in tech, such that women are praised and congratulated simply for their achievements, and not because they are rare exemplars of skilled female programmers or successful woman entrepreneurs.

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About Shi Ling

Shi Ling is the CEO and co-founder of UI-licious, an app that allows non-programmers to automate software testing quickly and painlessly. She is passionate about mentoring junior developers and female entrepreneurs through groups such as Women Who Code and JuniorDev Singapore.

Connect with her here.

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