Asia Pacific News

What happens when Asia’s best and brightest stay at home?

Scott Beaumont is president of Google Asia Pacific.

When I arrived in China nearly 10 years ago, there was a simple success metric for most of the engineers and entrepreneurs I met: find a job in Silicon Valley.

Even if your ultimate goal was to build a successful Chinese company in Beijing, the best path went through the Bay Area. Jack Ma himself started in Silicon Valley before founding Alibaba.

Five years later, the Chinese developers I met were no longer California Dreaming. When career goals in the tech industry could be met at home, they stayed there.

This is a positive development. That may sound odd coming from someone who works at a company with headquarters in California. But ever since Google established hubs in Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Singapore and India, we have seen firsthand the benefits of globally-distributed engineering teams.

This strategy has helped Google build better software, apps and services that serve the needs of more people. Keeping talent at home has a multiplier effect for the broader Internet ecosystem too: not only are many of the homegrown Asia first solutions to local problems applicable beyond the region, but these leaders also hire people, invest and give back to the local community, and contribute to long term, sustainable economic recovery.

COVID-19 is accelerating the trend to stay home. This may change post-pandemic, and we are seeing more companies moving toward more flexible work options, but there can be no doubt that this is an opportunity for governments and businesses to meet the needs of top talent wherever they are, train them, and ensure that the work they do contributes to society and the economy.

But first, where does talent want to be and why? In my view, top talent ends up gravitating to two places. First, where they can develop through training and a network of colleagues, mentors and contacts. Second, somewhere that offers them the highest returns for their skills and ideas.

These two factors play out differently across Asia. India and Vietnam have abundant talent and startup investment. As we have seen with app developers on our own platforms, companies in these countries support each other and thrive. Tech author Benedict Evans recently pointed out that India’s top 10 startups have a combined market cap fast approaching $100 billion. The returns on innovation in India have become very high and access to capital is no longer an inhibitor.

Google has seen the benefits of globally-distributed engineering teams.

  © Reuters

Japan is also in a favorable position. Its research prowess is beginning to translate into big machine learning advances, including, as just one example, our recent collaboration with Tokyo University to predict COVID trends. And South Korean researchers are starting to make breakthroughs using machine learning and AI, including better weather prediction.

But there is a lot more unrealized potential across the region. While there are more tech unicorns in Indonesia than the rest of Southeast Asia combined, the engineering presence there is still relatively small, with lots of room to grow to match the ballooning startup scene. Singapore has funding, incentives and ideas in place, but it will take time to build up a more dynamic pool of entrepreneurs hungry for success.

I see three ways ahead for countries to address these issues.

First, public-private partnerships need to be established to grow the talent pool. Businesses and governments need to come together to fix the talent pipeline: from 12-year-olds who need their first computer and be inspired about the potential of technology, to 20-year-olds who benefit from a computer science education at university with real-world skills application, to 30-year-old programmers who need to brush up on machine learning.

We have seen positive outcomes from some of Google’s early work with governments. For example, in Indonesia, our Bangkit, or “Rise up,” initiative offers six months’ training for developers run in partnership with Gojek, Tokopedia, Traveloka and leading Indonesian universities. So far, the program has produced more than 200 graduates, 41 of whom have found either a new job or an internship.

Second, companies must take on high global workplace standards, which once drew virtually every engineer and entrepreneur to Silicon Valley. Companies that foster a culture of innovation, reward calculated risks, and have outsized ambitions often outpace businesses that might be more slow-moving or parochial.

At Google, we know that top talent always demands the best rewards and working environments — and that includes a place where their ideas can thrive.

Finally, multinational companies operating in Asia can support this by spending time on products that truly solve local problems.

If you ask engineers to develop something that solves problems faced by their own families, or services that will delight their friends — their eyes light up. Solving local problems, in collaboration with local colleagues, also creates greater exposure to new ways of thinking for engineers who may not be from that city or country, but who want to keep learning. This can be a tremendously exciting prospect and a way of attracting talent on its own.

For the past thirty years, the West has relied on a constant inflow of the world’s most talented workers. The people and ideas came to them. But making the most of the new era will depend on meeting people where they are, not where you want them to be.

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