Developer Culture in Hong Kong

Fun fact about Hong Kong is that 40% of the land is country parks. That makes for outstanding hiking, which I definitely took advantage of. But you probably are not reading this blog for my travelogue.

Before I discuss Hong Kong though, Stack Overflow just released their 2018 Developer Survey, which I took some time to analyze, which captures the thoughts of over 100,000 developers around the globe. From a macro view it is amazing to unpack all of the insights and trends in the survey data.

But what about at the micro level? How do developers work and operate in a metropolitan area? What is it really like for developers in a city that is as dynamic as Hong Kong?

I had the opportunity to visit on three occasions during the past eight months. Over many conversations with developers, managers, and IT professionals, I started to get a clearer perspective of the tech culture in Hong Kong. So what did I find?

Talent pool is there…
The pool of computer science graduates is small but growing. In the 2015/2016 school year, there were 6,466 technology graduates from University Grants Committee (UGC) funded schools. That covers top-tier schools such as HKU, CUHK, and HKUST. So the talent is there, even if the passion is lacking, which stems from an educational culture focused on testing and grades, rather than on the desire to learn.

But pipeline is thin…
There are plenty of developers for mobile and front-end engineering needs. When you look at local tech startups, that is where much of the emphasis lies. But the core back-end or full-stack software engineers are in scarce supply. Most of that talent gets sucked up by the banks that employ the bulk of developers to work on mission-critical systems that require back-end skills.

And IT just ain’t a thing…
The biggest challenge in nudging talented students to become developers is that most people in Hong Kong would rather be doing something else. As one manager shared, most see IT people as “mechanics”, that includes developers. So most go into the workplace looking to quickly move up into management or out of IT altogether, rather than staying as an individual contributor. This also creates lots of job hopping, so loyalty becomes a challenge.

Companies are looking elsewhere…
While banks and insurers heavily invest in local technology talent, other industries heavily outsource. Their view is that IT is a commodity to be purchased from vendors. Even in telco, the belief is to plug-and-play software rather than build. This further reinforces the belief that IT is a cost center and with Hong Kong being high cost, firms are going to India, China, Vietnam, etc. to lower costs. The net effect is to further diminish the desirability to pursue software development as a viable, long-term, and stable career.

China is rising…
You know that already. What is not as well-known is that there are 5.8 million developers in China, nearly the entire population of Hong Kong. While it’s an alluring place to outsource, China is now about innovation. Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent and Huawei continue to grow, attract more engineers, and create more cutting edge products. That does not even include the banks and insurers that are also adding more engineers to their talent pool to mine their treasure troves of data, fueling more investment in AI and machine learning.

There is hope…
Startups are much more prominent in Hong Kong than they were even five years prior, muscling into the financial services giants’ turf for developer talent. Companies like Tink Labs, Lalamove, Klook, Prenetics, and many others are significant companies in their own right, giving credibility to the tech scene and attracting more people to flock to startups and pursue tech roles in Hong Kong.

In many ways, Hong Kong is where New York City was several years ago. All the banks took all the talent and the tech industry was just a blip on anyone’s radar. But just as it has shifted in NYC, Hong Kong is seeing a surge of tech activity and there is rising interest in software development as a viable and laudable career. Outsourcing will still be the prevailing attitude here, but as companies realize the source of competitive advantage lies in tech, this too will begin to shift in the next few years.

Do you feel the Hong Kong technology scene has grown in recent years? Are there things that I missed about the Hong Kong tech community?

I want to give a sincere thank you to everyone that spent time with me to chat about HK, you are all awesome and it’s an honor to have gotten to know you!

UPDATE: It has been nearly two years since this article was posted. Given the recent unrest in Hong Kong, it is hard to say what the future holds for the HK tech community. I hope and pray however for a peaceful resolution and will share more insights on the impact to the tech community at a later date.

Is there a lot of value in learning to write Chinese characters?

When I learned Mandarin, I personally found writing to be immensely helpful…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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