Want an AI Team? Don’t Recruit. Grow your own!

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If you want to build your AI team, unless you have the deep pockets of Google or Facebook, you need to find more creative ways to build up that AI/ML engineering talent.

AI Singapore is a Singapore government funded programme hosted by the National University of Singapore which also means the salaries we can pay our AI engineering talent are constrained. But this has not stopped us from building one of the largest AI Engineering team in Singapore where more than 90% of our staff are Singaporeans. The other 10% are talented foreigners whom we have brought in to fill some of the talent gaps.

Lifelong Learners

We noticed a trend of professionals re-skilling and learning AI, ML, Python, R, Big Data, Cloud etc on their own. They are passionate, self-directed learners. And most of them do not have a computing science background! They come from Engineering, Business, Finance, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, Statistics and Economics. One thing they have in common is the love of learning, curiosity, enjoys being challenged by difficult business or engineering problems and love of data.

Human Resource departments total missed out on them. They continued to recruit for academic degrees and computer science disciplines, specifying the exact same criteria that the big AI companies are using – “2 – 5 or 10 years of experience in Computing or AI or Machine Learning”. And companies complained they cannot find the talents!

Skills, skills and skills.

In AI Singapore – we recruit based on skills. We focus on the skills we expect you to have, not what you studied 1, 5 or 10 years ago. It does not matter.

In the last 2 years, our full-time AI engineering staff strength grew from 0 to 21 with 19 Singaporeans! This team is complemented by an additional 36-50 Singaporean AI apprentices. That is a total of 60-70 Singaporean AI engineers developing AI/ML applications for companies and agencies in Singapore. We are currently working on more than 15 AI projects from healthcare, finance, engineering, IT and media.

AIAP

These AI Apprentices are from our AI Apprenticeship Programme (AIAP) which is a 9-months full-time apprenticeship programme where we bring on-board carefully selected candidates (based on skills alone) who are mostly self-taught AI/ML/Python enthusiasts. We provide them an environment to continue to deep skill and work on a real-world AI/ML problem statement. Each of these AI problem statements from our 100Experiments programme is worth $360,000 – $500,000 with AI Singapore co-funding 50%, and the company funding the other 50% of the costs. The outcome in 9-months is an AI minimum viable product which is deployed at the company site. The company is also encouraged to hire the apprentices at the end of 9-months.

You may say 9-months is very long to wait for an apprentice to be trained. Yes, but we do 3 batches of 25 apprentices per year with a gap of 4-months between batches. So, after the initial 9-months, we now have potential new hires every 4-months. Candidates whom we have worked with for 9-months and whom we know well, and if hired by AI Singapore, can start work immediately! No ramp-up time required as they would have already gotten into the rhythm of our AI engineering practices and work culture.

For the rest of the apprentices whom AI Singapore is not able to hire (even if we make them an offer), they are released to the industry. Nearly all (AIAP batch #1 and #2) are working in a AI/ML role in Singapore today.

We are now into interviewing for our fifth batch of 25 AI Apprentices who are expected to start in Feb 2020. We continue to refine our AIAP process, both internally and externally. To ensure a steady stream of quality AI Apprentice candidates, we also introduced an AI Certification initiative with a structured AI/ML 12-months learning journey in October 2019 to help guide and incentive self-directed learners. We hope some of them will join the AIAP once they complete the 12-months learning journey.

Grow your own timber

In the last two and half years in AI Singapore, I must have met more than 300 companies keen to do AI. Some still have the same complain after a year – they cannot find Singaporean AI talents. I say to them, “grow your own timber”.

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