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While we are all patiently waiting for Phase 2 of post-circuit breaker reopening, it’s a good moment to look at how government-designed technology has been supporting Singaporeans over the past few months. Apps like SafeEntry and TraceTogether, as well as platforms such as FluGoWhere.gov.sg helped us all feel safer and kept us informed, making a true impact on lives of millions. They were all created by an organization which applies best agile practices and prides itself in its open and collaborative culture. Why is it then that many graduates still don’t see work in the public sector as an attractive alternative to jobs at tech giants such as Google or Facebook?

TechLadies decided to answer this question and demystify work at a governmental agency. To help us with that, we invited Fala Sharil (Senior UX Designer) and Janice Tan (Software Engineer) from GovTech, who discussed work culture and public service design with our founder Elisha Tan.

Elisha, Fala, and Janice during our session about work at GovTech

Digital “new normal”

While most of us have already gotten used to working from home, attending Skype meetings, and Zoom happy hours, businesses and institutions around the world are still grappling with the sudden global shift into the virtual space. From infrastructure and office culture changes ushered in by the private sector to governments rethinking digital economy strategies and public services – everyone seems to agree that this will become the “new normal” and that many of the workplace and lifestyle changes introduced because of the pandemic are here to stay.

For some nations, however, digital transformation was well underway long before Covid-19. Singapore is unquestionably one of the leaders in Smart City technologies, having made incredible progress in the areas of transport, healthcare, public safety, and productivity since its Smart Nation initiative was announced in 2014. This transformation would have been impossible without GovTech, organization spearheading country’s e-efforts and delivering government’s digital services to the public.

GovTech – agile, bold, collaborative

“A lot of people think everything is very top-down at GovTech, very traditional. That’s not true,” says Janice. Contrary to a popular belief, developing governmental services requires agility, creativity, and skill. GovTech engineers can’t take 3-4 years to develop a product, because the needs of users can change drastically in such a long time. This is why the agency adopted a flexible, agile approach, and focused on delivering a Minimum Viable Product to the users as soon as possible. “What can happen in the next 6 months to a year? Is this the right problem to solve?” are the questions Digital Services teams are asking themselves. “It’s important,” says Fala, “to understand the current situation, define the pain points, frame the problem well.”

“We work in small, self-organising and cross-functional teams known as tribes and squads, making small changes, delivering quick releases, getting frequent feedback,” says Janice. “We all share a common mission, everyone is committed to building a good product and delivering value.” Being a team-player, great communication skills, and agile mindset are sought-after traits at GovTech. Having a broad general skill-set in addition to your core expertise – also known as T-shaped expertise – is also preferred. “Team members are expected to understand all aspects of product development to better support the team, make recommendations, and ensure the products are working end-to-end,” says Janice.

Culture of sharing

Does that mean it’s difficult for a less experienced, younger person to land a job at GovTech? Not necessarily. “There are many things you can learn along the way, senior colleagues are generous with their knowledge. Our sharing sessions are open to all who have the willingness to learn and ask questions,” says Fala. “Coding fundamentals and understanding systems design are definitely important. However, during interviews we test thought process and communication skills,” says Janice, who joined GovTech as a fresh graduate. “If a candidate is able to guide a pair programming session and work with the team to find a solution to a problem, that usually indicates a good fit.”

The culture of sharing, learning, and continuous improvement is present in all aspects of life at GovTech. “We have weekly studio sessions for designers to discuss problems solved over the week, mock programming and code kata sessions that help engineers hone their problem-solving skills, UX and Agile workshops, ” lists Janice. “And then there’s Hack Week,” adds Fala, “when everyone can take time off to focus on meaningful projects and social causes, work together with like-minded colleagues from other teams, prototype and solve problems.” Learning opportunities extend to people outside of GovTech through STACK-X meetup group, a community exploring innovative ways to improve lives of everyday Singaporeans. Fala and Janice both agree that GovTech culture and values is something that influenced their decision to join the agency. “After interacting with the team during the interviews I realised it might be a good fit, a new challenge,” admits Fala.

Empathy is key

For Fala, transitioning from a private sector after years in front-end development and project management was definitely a big change. “This work requires a lot of empathy,” admits Fala, “to really learn how users navigate the product.” Unlike in the private sector, where product development is profit-driven, GovTech team follows a user-first approach. “In public sector, earning money is not the driving force – our main goal is improving governmental services and bringing value to the users,” says Janice.

To ensure they meet the users’ needs, GovTech team follows a 5-step process, strongly resembling Design Thinking methodology standards. The UX team is present at all 5 stages of development, ensuring each iteration goes through a round of feedback, conducting usability testing sessions, and speaking to all stakeholders:

5-Step UX process at GovTech

1. Discovery. User research is at the core of all GovTech activities. In this phase, experts participate in field observations, often inviting other stakeholders to join them. This phase may involve looking into the entire service process to understand the needs of the users. The result is a blueprint used in later phases.

2. Envisioning. Co-creation session with stakeholders, based on the research done in the Discovery phase. Will usually include paper prototyping.

3. Alpha. Exploratory phase involving interactive prototyping, the features of the product are not yet locked down.

4. Beta. Early version of the complete product, available for testing and feedback. If the team finds new insights, the feedback is incorporated before the final release.

5. Live. Launch, release to the users. However, the UX work never really ends, iterating and improving is key.

GovTech employees are also often the first users of their own products and services. This helps them ensure quality and later successfully share the projects and some of the best practices with other governmental bodies and agencies. The latter, however, can be difficult. “Teaching that Agile is the way to go, advocating for UX and user research are the biggest challenges we face,” says Fala. GovTech’s response, however, is always guided by Agile principles and the team approaches culture change with the same mindset they approach any other project – by listening to feedback, empathising, sharing, and learning.

Does that mean GovTech is fully self-sufficient and can identify and solve all problems by themselves? Absolutely not, especially in times of crisis like the one we’re facing now. “We are looking for volunteers will all kinds of skills, software engineers, designers, business analysts, who will help us identify opportunities for improvement and develop new products. We also welcome feedback and suggestions,” says Janice. “Accept invitations to usability testing sessions, if you receive them,” adds Fala, “and use the smiley icon at the bottom of GovTech websites to share your feedback.”

Support GovTech team by leaving your feedback – just click the smiley icon on their website.

Lessons learned

What is one piece of advice our guests want to share with TechLadies? “Step out of your comfort zone,” says Janice. “It might sound like a cliché, but many software engineers want to focus on just one language and that’s good, but sometimes they just stick to that one identity forever. You should experiment – maybe you’ll learn a new tool that will be more useful when solving a particular problem.” “Challenge yourself,” adds Fala. “Look for design challenges, critique your favourite app, find ways to improve an existing product.”

And what’s Elisha’s biggest takeaway? “The values of openness, communicating, asking for help, challenging yourself, empathy – these are not tied to a certain company, they help us all grow, regardless of industry and company we’re in.”

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TechLadies Brunch will be back soon – follow us on Facebook to keep an eye on future event announcements. To watch the recording of our full interview, visit our Facebook group. And last but not least, big shoutout to our Event Team, Giselle and Vanessa – thanks for organising!