Cracking the code

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More than a handful of us have found ourselves in situations that define how we live and what we do with our lives. For this 28 year old, it was the time he fell extremely ill while pursuing his studies in the United States. The sudden decline in health saw a turnaround in his view towards life, and it’s from that realization that started him down the entrepreneurial road of technological endeavours.

Through his observations, he noticed a lack of tech coders around the world and concluded that he would have to teach himself how to code if he wanted to stay relevant in the field - and he did just that. Today, he’s the founder of NEXT Academy - the only school of its kind in Southeast Asia with a mission to equip individuals from every age and background with the skills to build their own tech startups. Dressed in casual jeans, t-shirt and a pair of boat shoes, we sat down with the code guru as he shared his story. Meet Josh Teng.

Why did you drop out of college and decide to return to Malaysia - did you have a plan of some sort?

I dropped out of college after I became really ill, so I decided to return to Malaysia to be closer to my family. It was only after my final surgery did I begin to ask myself what I want to do in life. I used to be more athletic when I was younger but no matter how healthy my lifestyle is I could still fall really sick, and that made me realise how fragile life is. I am fortunate to have lots of friends in the technology industry; they're constantly talking about the different problems they face in life and it sparked the discussion of how we can go about resolving these issues. That was what led me to the tech industry. I had this startup idea but I didn’t know how to code and so I went around looking for people who were keen to partner with me and complement my other existing skills. It was then that I realised the huge shortage of technical talents out there; not just in Malaysia or Southeast Asia, but throughout the world. I then decided that I needed to anchor myself in a core skill and I knew coding was it.

Contrary to popular opinions of simply hiring someone to help you with coding, you believe that everyone should learn how to code. Why is that?

It’s not wrong for people to think that if you want to build something from scratch, you can hire someone to do it. I’ve had so many people tell me they’ve paid a freelancer RM200,000 to build an app, but the app did not turn out the way they intended. As an entrepreneur, I think it’s a huge waste to invest that kind of money into something that doesn’t work. This is where learning how to code is important; you don’t have to be an expert in coding to build something amazing. If you just learn enough to build a minimal viable product (MVP) that’s functional and solves the basic premise of your business idea, then it’s a worthwhile investment because you can afford to try again and again until you succeed.

"When you start seeing the fruits of your labour, it becomes a natural stimulant to do better."
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There are a lot of people getting hired even before graduating from Next Academy.

Yes, the employment rates are high for two reasons; as I mentioned earlier, there is a major shortage of technical talents. Secondly, the way we design our curriculum is unlike any other educational institutions where we’re not about the lectures or teaching you things from A to Z. We’re all about teaching you how to solve a problem. There are people who come in and they’re not used to the program, but eventually they adapt and find that they’re not simply here to reproduce things they memorized in school. Our program prepares people to be ready for real life, and real life is hard. We’re currently expanding to Singapore and if we can get our graduates in Malaysia to connect with the ecosystem in Singapore, then we’ll be able to link the two countries together. I believe that a lot of exciting projects are going to come out of it.

You’re particular about the people you surround yourself with - would you say that plays a role in where you are today?

I don’t want to discriminate who my friends should or shouldn’t be. What’s important is that you discern the kind of people you want to be influenced by. Personally, I like to hang out with people who intimidate me so that it breaks my ego. These are the people who challenge me to think bigger and better. I have a lot of people whom I respect, and I go to them for advice so it’s important that you have good influencers around you.

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It is important to have friends who’ll keep you on your toes. What is it that motivates you?

There are some people who are natural go-getters, who always do well regardless of what people say. I’m not like that and so it was particularly hard at the beginning, but what really pushed me is knowing that I really wanted to get somewhere in life by doing something big and meaningful. When you start seeing the fruits of your labour, it becomes a natural stimulant to do better. Look to achieve small successes along the way and it will keep you motivated. Eventually it will become like second nature and you’ll feel more excited about what you do.

Failure is something that people are afraid of; what failures have you experienced?

Anything worthwhile will come with lots of failures and rejections. My bank account has gone as low as RM3 for an entire month! I faced a lot of rejections when I was starting up. An idea that makes a lot of sense to you, will sound like trash to someone else. It’s something that takes getting used to but you eventually become tougher because of it. 

For those out there who are looking to try something new - what advice would you give to them?

I know it’s cliche to say this but we only live once. Might as well make the most of your life and know that there is nothing wrong with failing. It’s our need for a certain lifestyle that prevents a lot of us to take a more ambitious step because we’re afraid that we might lose something. Four years ago, I tried to experience being homeless. I went to Singapore and instead of checking into a hotel, I decided to sleep on the street. I wanted to experience how it was like to be absolutely broke with no family to go back to and no shelter. It was pretty scary - each time I closed my eyes, I was afraid of what I might see when I wake up. When I finally woke up, I realised it wasn’t that bad and that gave me the confidence in knowing that should I fail, I’m alright to take up any job as long as I have food to eat and a simple house to live in.

"Anything worthwhile will come with lots of failures and rejections."
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Since its inception, Next Academy has given new work opportunities to its graduates while others have gone on to build their startups. It’s incredible to think that it all began with one person’s initiative to pick up a skill and his determination to increase the number of professional coders and advance the tech community in Malaysia. Through it all, he remains a simple person who is grateful for what he has while encouraging others not to be fearful of taking the next step.

"It’s our need for a certain lifestyle that prevents a lot of us to take a more ambitious step because we’re afraid that we might lose something."
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Adrian Yap