Dr Shawn Tan is a Chartered Engineer who has been programming since the late 1980s. A former academic and research fellow, he minds his own business at Aeste while designing open-source microprocessors for fun. He can be reached via Twitter as @sybreon.
Walk us through your typical workday.
My workday starts when I get up. I catch up on the overnight developments in the industry over breakfast and while I’m driving to work. When I get to the office, I usually start with a one-to-one status update, and solve any problems that need my attention which may involve putting out fires or pointing someone in the direction of the extinguisher. Then, I get to do my own work for the rest of the day, which can range from engineering tasks down to mundane administrative work. I also do the occasional house-keeping work.
What made you choose law initially and how did your career evolve to computer system engineering?
It’s the opposite, actually. By profession, I am a computer engineer. I was awarded my B.Eng (Hons) in Electrical & Electronics Engineering (Computer Systems) followed by a PhD in Integrated Circuit Design. I then became a Chartered Engineer and only obtained my law degree fairly recently. I am not a lawyer.
“Engineering is primarily about solving technical challenges using the laws of physics, while Law is about solving people-related problems using the laws of man.”
Given your unconventional background with a law degree, how did it aid in your current career or career paths?
The training that I received during my law degree has given me an alternative perspective on things, as compared to engineering. Engineering is primarily about solving technical challenges using the laws of physics, while Law is about solving people-related problems using the laws of man. So, armed with both a degree in Engineering as well as one in Law, I am able to see solutions to a problem from both a technical perspective and a people perspective. This has proven invaluable and has made me a better engineer as a whole. Where I would previously only see the technical challenges in a solution, I can now see various legal issues that a solution might present.
What inspired you to start Aeste and venture into entrepreneurship, rather than a comparatively stable job?
Nobody wants to hire me 🙂 – I must have failed every job interview that I have ever attended. I am actually an engineer, first and foremost. I have always liked to design and build stuff since I was a child. The only reason that I became self-employed is because I wanted to be an engineer who designs cool stuff. Unfortunately, the job of a typical engineer is to design whatever their boss wants, but I didn’t want to be limited by that. The only way that I could become my own engineer and design whatever my mind can imagine, was to become my own boss. I appreciate the flexibility that it gives me – in the sense that I am not chained to a desk from 9 to 5. I also like the challenge of tackling different problems all the time.
How does Aeste differ from other computer system consulting companies?
While there are many companies that provide software consulting services, there are not many companies that provide hardware consulting services, and even less that do both. Even if some companies can design and build all kinds of software, they are often limited by what hardware is available on the market. Electronics companies are usually focused on designing hardware, and typically provide only low-level software, not end-applications. At Aeste, we build web-applications just like other software houses do, but we also design bespoke microprocessors to accelerate parts of it, with a customised Operating System, if a customer should wish for it. I like to tell people that we are truly ‘full-stack’ – we can design everything from silicon to software (there are not many in the region who can say that).
What is your biggest achievement in the field so far?
It was very surprising to find out that a microprocessor that I had designed was being used in products found all over the world. For example, there was once a US product that was a market leader in Software Defined Radio (SDR) called the USRP2 (the company that made it was eventually bought out by National Instruments). The USRP2 originally had my microprocessor as its brains. It was a development kit that was sold to other engineers to allow them to build all sorts of RF products that involve radio waves. It was used as low-cost cell-phone base-stations which were deployed in rural regions that did not previously have communications coverage. I like to tell people that I might have inadvertently saved some lives. From a professional development standpoint, I am a member of the Preliminary Investigation Board, a part of the Disciplinary Board of The IET(Institution of Engineering and Technology) in the UK. My law degree has helped me immensely in this role as I have had to deal with various cases involving engineers from around the world, who have breached rules, both civil and criminal. It has been eye-opening, to say the least.
What can aspiring computer scientists do to prepare themselves for the field?
Be hungry to learn. The computing field is both vast and develops very fast. To survive in this field, one needs to constantly learn new things. It is impossible to learn a skill and hope to live off that skill forever in this field.
How relevant do you think your academic achievements have been in the progression of your career?
I feel that they have been really relevant. This is mainly because I trained as, and work as a computer engineer. While some people claim that they do not use what they learned in school, I actually use it on a regular basis.
What computer system problems do you aim to solve in the country? Or in the world?
I am not out to save the world, nor the country. I would be very happy to continue designing cool stuff.
How do you keep up with the changes of the IT industry?
As a consultant, I am lucky enough to get to work with several leading companies in the tech industry. In some areas, I am sometimes aware of changes in the industry even before they become public, as some of these companies are drivers of key global technologies. In other areas, I read a lot. As an engineer, I have to keep up with the technical developments in various areas, in addition to keeping up with general business and consumer technology developments. I also listen to pod-casts especially while driving and while at the office.
If you were able to turn back time, what would you tell your younger self?
You know nothing, Shawn.
Given you’re an avid reader, could you recommend a book that you think our youth should give a read?
I like reading science fiction. I would recommend the series – Chung Kuo – by David Wingroove.
“It is impossible to learn a skill and hope to live off that skill forever in this field.”