The catering executive who taught himself how to code in 1998

SPONSORED POST: The article is sponsored by Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and draws attention to the TeSA Mid-Career Advance programme. The programme helps Singaporeans in their 40s change career to the tech sector and learn new tech skills while receiving a salary. 

When Dennis entered the workforce in the 1990s, the world was a very different place. Technology and computers were not mainstream, and internet access was limited to more privileged households. Amazon had yet to exist, and the venerable Windows 95 had yet to be developed. Of course, tech wasn’t that sexy as a career either. 

As such, Dennis started life in the hospitality industry, with a diploma from SHATEC. Much of his twenties were spent working in various hotels. It wasn’t until he turned 30 that he had his first experience with tech.

The company?  Singapore Food Industries.

Yes – the company that manages the food in your cookhouse during NS (later acquired by SATS in 2009).

Willing to learn

Although Dennis first joined the firm as a ‘Catering Executive’, his willingness to learn on the job eventually led him to pick up more and more tech languages – from VBA (Visual Basics for Applications), and then on to ASP, PHP, JavaScript, HTML, XML, CSS, Java, VB, VBA, Python, Bash, SQL (not exactly in that order).

If you’re wondering what all those acronyms are, all you need to know is that at 56, Dennis is far more future-proof than many of us. Yes – even those of you who graduated from university last year. 

Eventually, he learnt so much that when he left the company, he was able to freelance as a programmer for well over a decade, picking and choosing the jobs he cared about.

We spoke to Dennis for an hour about the way he has approached his career, and how others could do the same.

He summed it up into three ways of thinking:

“Don’t underestimate yourself because you lack formal qualifications”

Dennis: I’ll be first to say that I didn’t learn programming through university or polytechnic. Instead, I learnt languages after hours or during lull periods. Occasionally, the company also sent me on short 23 days short courses.   

Tech languages might seem hard to learn at first, but there are quite a lot of similarities between them. The stronger your basics, the more gentle the learning curve. 

If you’re thinking ‘huh like that also can learn meh’, don’t worry. I too had my insecurities about my self-taught programming skills in the beginning, often questioning how good I could really be if I didn’t pay for an expensive course.  

It was only after I worked with external programmers hired by my company that I realised I had come a long way. I took a look at their code and realised that my fears were unfounded – they too learnt their languages in the same way I did!

Turns out, when it comes to programming and tech, A LOT of people are self-taught.

His Job Experience

  1. Education: Graduated from Shatec in 1990
  2. SHATEC Training Officer (1990 – 1994)
  3. Singapore Marriott Hotel Restaurant Manager / Room Service Manager (1994-1998)
  4. Singapore Food Industries Senior Catering Executive (1998 – 2006)
  5. Independent/Freelance Technical Consultant/Programmer (2006 – 2018)
  6. Smecen Private Limited Technical Analyst (Dec 2018 – Current)


“If there are no opportunities at work, create them”

Dennis:  During the first month at Singapore Food Industries, I was tasked by my boss to learn how to automate a bunch of processes for efficiency.  Part of this involved migrating databases to the (then) cutting edge Oracle Database.

The truth is, I had only a very rough idea to do so. I literally hit the books for two months before coming up with a solution, and I remember feeling this immense sense of accomplishment when I did so.

Following that, I looked for other areas in the company to automate to help the company save costs. Turns out, there were many opportunities as no one else was capable of doing so – after all, we don’t know what we don’t know. 

From then onwards, I became the de facto tech person in the company, and that was the start of my second career. 

Here are some examples of when and why I learnt certain skills.

  • Since the late 90’s, there were many menial and repetitive tasks that could be automated and simplified by macro(instructions). Whilst there’s a built in Macro recorder in programs such as Microsoft Office Suites, many customisations require VBA to automate. Thus I started learning VBA.
  • When I was tasked to set up corporate, B2B and B2C websites, I started learning ASP, PHP, CSS, HTML, JavaScript and SQL.
  • I was involved in many open source implementations (Odoo, Unicenta, Keycloak, Nextcloud, OpenVPN etc.) that were written in languages that I was not familiar with; namely Java and Python. I was forced to learn them.
  • As the majority of my client applications ran on Linux servers, I started picking up Bash as it is the default language any Linux system administrator needs to be proficient in.

“The resources are really out there, if you want to search for them”

Dennis:  I have bittersweet memories of being put on the library waitlist every time a new programming language came out (fortunately, the last time I had to borrow a book to learn a programming language was in 2010).

For much of my professional life, I learnt from books. They were heavy, clunky, and often both unavailable and expensive, but they also taught me all I needed to know.

In contrast, these days there’s so many resources available to us. There are sites like Udemy and Coursera, there are YouTube tutorials, forums where you can ask people from around the world questions – really quite amazing if you think about it. 

For a 56-year-old like me who wants to learn more about say – BASH programming – I just need to google. The first few results usually show me the right answer.  

TWS: In Singapore, there are also SkillsFuture credits, and no lack of courses online. There are also study grants, programmes and scholarships by IMDA for students, mid-career switchers as well as seniors. 

Wah, but I’m so old already, why bother learning? 

I know what you’re thinking.  “If I’m 30, 40 or 50 now, then what’s the point of picking up tech skills?! There are already so many people better than me.”

Well, we have two things we want you to consider. 

The first is this: Tech skills are very much the new normal. 

As much as we love nostalgia, there’s no way mainstream society or businesses will go back to non-digital solutions. Very much like how you won’t be digging up your old Sony Discman to play music instead of using YouTube or Spotify, 

What that means is that tech is here to stay, and sooner or later, all jobs will require tech skills of some kind. It’s not going away.  

The more you delay learning, the further you fall behind. The sooner you take the first steps, the earlier you’ll be able to reinvent yourself and avoid obsolescence (40 years is a long time to spend in professional purgatory).  

The second is this: You don’t need to learn to code, just know enough 

Dennis might know how to code and build programs, but that’s because he’s a programmer. Realistically, the average Singaporean work just needs to know what tech can do.

For example, you don’t need to be a UX Designer to recognise bad user experience and tell your boss that it needs improvement. Knowing the principles of UI/UX will be sufficient.

You don’t need to know how to create complex data models, but perhaps you can learn how to present data effectively using a software like Tableau. 

You see, Singapore doesn’t need 6,000,000 data analysts or software engineers. What we do need is a workforce who is willing to learn and keep up with digital transformation. 

Soft skills such as creativity, adaptability, storytelling and persuasion, and being digital savvy, these are still valued – don’t write yourself off just because YoU Can’t CoDe.

The final point: The other side of the digital divide 

We often talk about how the internet has created a digital divide – those with the internet prosper, those without suffer.

This is true, but we’d like you to consider something else.

Within the segment of those that have access to the internet, there’s another divide.

There are those who use the internet to empower themselves – learn new skills, expand their network and find new jobs. 

…And there are those who use it to waste their time away.

Ask yourself: Which side of the divide do you want to be on?

A message from our sponsor

Under the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) initiative, TeSA Mid-Career Advance programme enables mid-career professionals aged 40 and above to hold a job while being reskilled or upgraded. 

In a digital economy, there is a strong demand for infocomm technology (ICT) jobs across sectors. With the programme, you can:

  • Receive a salary as you learn
  • Apply for one of the many available tech job roles
  • Gain experience through on-the-job training and mentorship
  • Advance your tech career with confidence 

Click here to find out more.

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4 replies to “The catering executive who taught himself how to code in 1998

  1. What should I pick up or get a general grasp on as a young poly grad. I hope to be a teacher… Will any tech skill be relevant?

    P’s. Currently serving NS 🙁

    1. Yes! Obviously you don’t need to be a full-on programmer or coder or data analyst, but what would be useful is you to have the skills to use tech to engage your students better and perhaps even track their performance. This can be as simple as communicating via TikTok/IG, or creating high quality teaching materials via video.

      PS: Don’t be sad about serving NS, it’s a great opportunity to learn and meet people you won’t otherwise meet.

      PPS: ORD loh! (Sorry, could not resist)

      Love and all the best,

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