Surrounded by computer science majors and armed with zero knowledge of programming, Charmaine Ho’s first foray into tech was a departure from the familiar.
She was in her first year of accounting at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and despite being “a little behind” the computer science majors, remained unfazed. “Although it was initially challenging,” said Charmaine, “I really enjoyed learning the programming language as well as problem-solving in general.”
“For me, the main challenge then was figuring out where I wanted to be in three to five years' time,” said Charmaine, “And how computer science was going to be a part of it.”
Charmaine in Accredify’s office. She was attached to the software engineering team where backend development work often meant having to interact with others in the company.
That journey of discovery led her to apply to SGInnovate’s Talent Programme – a series of apprenticeship placement opportunities for students and researchers to explore technical roles with deep tech startups.
Through this, she secured a four-and-a-half-month internship at Accredify, where she gained something much more valuable than just a stint in the industry.
Tech-ing the leap
For someone with little prior work experience, assimilating into the new work environment was daunting at first. At Accredify, a leading tech company in Asia-Pacific that issues verifiable credentials for data and aims to build digital trust, the team used a different programming language than what she learnt in school. Stakes were also higher: she was no longer in a classroom but was handling complex, real-world back-end development work.
Charmaine fell back on the mantra that has always steered her through life: “When I’m uncomfortable, that’s when I’m learning the most.”
Watch how Charmaine came out of her shell with the help of her mentor and teammates at Accredify.
For one thing, Accredify’s culture of collaboration and mentorship allayed her anxieties. In her first week, her mentor Aurelia Lim, also a software engineer, sat down with her to understand how best to personalise her learning experience and ensure that it was aligned with her career goals. And while Charmaine had initially assumed that startup life would be fast-paced and stressful, she quickly stood corrected – working in a collaborative setting greatly facilitated her job.
“During peak periods, when you have others to help you along, to bounce your ideas off, that really helps,” she said.
Slowly, she started to realise that certain skills and knowledge she picked up in classes and at work were transferable. Her foundational understanding of how to design databases and Structured Query Language (SQL) queries came in handy during her internship, while learning about computer network terminologies like HTTP requests on the job gave her a leg-up at school.
More importantly, Charmaine now had a chance to translate her coding knowledge into real-world solutions, while gleaning nuggets of wisdom from her mentor and colleagues.
Aurelia would spend roughly an hour every day reviewing codes with Charmaine and answering any questions she had.
“A lot of software engineers think productivity is benchmarked solely against the speed at which you complete your tickets. This is not true – the quality of your code is more important,” Aurelia explained, adding that this meant constantly thinking about how to improve on a code and ensure it is scalable.
Tech for good
More than an opportunity to get hands-on experience in tech, it was the social impact of Accredify’s work which first piqued her interest.
During the pandemic, Accredify’s core product was the creation and issuance of verifiable COVID-19 test results to the general public to ensure they were COVID-negative before leaving the country. This allowed healthcare institutions and immigration authorities to instantly verify health records at scale, which was critical to safeguarding public health.
“Previously, it would’ve taken days to manually check by calling up clinics,” Charmaine explained.
“My work is not directly visible to end users, but you need it for the product to actually work.”
Being in back-end development also meant working with cross-functional teams on a regular basis, including colleagues in UX and UI, which opened her eyes to other roles in the field of computer science. With Accredify’s industry-agnostic products and a steady demand for verifiable data, Charmaine saw how the social impact extends beyond the healthcare industry, be it in finance or education.
Finding a mentor
Technical challenges aside, Charmaine had personal hurdles to cross. An introvert by nature, she initially found it intimidating to speak up and share her ideas freely during meetings, despite having valuable insights which could potentially change the course of team discussions.
“I wanted to be a role model and ensure that she is heard,” Aurelia said, having once been in Charmaine’s shoes. She, too, did not come from a traditional computer science background and had made the switch from marketing and hospitality only two years ago.
Aurelia and Charmaine (first row, third and fourth from the left) with the wider Accredify team.
Besides bi-weekly one-on-one sessions with Charmaine to check on her progress and general well-being, Aurelia set aside an hour every afternoon to go over more specific questions she had regarding work.
“In software engineering, the best way to learn is by doing,” Aurelia said. And the opportunity for Charmaine to step up came soon enough. Aurelia had tasked her to build a single API (Application Programming Interface) endpoint and lead one of the team’s weekly Monday technical discussions. Despite her apprehension, Charmaine nailed it, attributing this to her mentor’s constant encouragement.
“Don’t be afraid to speak up” was Aurelia’s advice in a nutshell. She continued, “What you have to say could be valuable, and if you don’t say it, it’ll just be in your head forever.”
In time, Charmaine came out of her shell, consistently volunteering to take on more technically challenging tasks, such as database migrations and managing Accredify’s technical debt.
“Her curiosity and hunger to learn made her an ideal candidate for the internship programme,” Aurelia said, beaming. “Working with Charmaine was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my career.”
The feeling is clearly mutual.
“For me, the most important aspect of an internship is not just the role that I'm undertaking or the work that I'm doing,” said Charmaine, “but the people that I interact with and learn from.”
Find out more about SGInnovate’s talent programmes here: https://www.sginnovate.com/career-development-jobs
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