Vietnam’s tech industry is booming. Software and electronics exports soared in recent years, and a domestic market for tech products and services is steadily gaining strength. For growth to continue, however, Vietnam must cultivate an increasingly skilled tech workforce. Educators and private tech companies are working intensively to make this happen.
Companies across the Vietnamese tech ecosystem will benefit from a better talent pipeline. Electronics manufacturers, whose exports account for the biggest slice of industry revenues, need more skilled managers, engineers, and technicians. Outsourcing and product companies, who employ the lion’s share of skilled local tech workers, need better developers, product managers, marketers, and account managers.
Since companies here are striving to produce higher value products and services, new capabilities in research, problem solving, and client service must be developed. But building such capabilities requires a major mindset shift at educational institutions, which typically emphasize rote learning over problem solving. Such a change will also challenge companies that opt for rigid hierarchy over the flatter structures that encourage creativity and initiative.
To overcome these challenges, many Vietnamese tech companies are partnering with educators, NGOs, and government agencies. Although some companies still think of Vietnam as simply a place for cheap labor, the forward-thinking ones know the country has deeper potential.
This potential comes from a strong cultural affinity for science, technology, engineering, and math skills—the so-called STEM disciplines. Vietnamese students often gain exposure to computer science and training at a young age, and earn high scores in math and science on international exams.
Yet while students from the top schools often graduate with good technical skills, many employers complain that they lack practical experience, and that soft skills, such as teamwork and creative problem solving, tend to be particularly weak. English language abilities also need improvement.
The Higher Engineering Education Alliance Program (HEEAP)—an international consortium of educational activists founded by Intel, Arizona State University, and USAID in 2010—is leading one of the most substantial reform efforts. The program aims to update the country’s engineering and technical vocational schools to ensure they produce work-ready graduates. According to Jeffrey Goss, HEEAP’s director, it currently focuses on electrical, mechanical, and industrial engineering programs. But the organization aims to expand into other engineering disciplines including computer science.
HEEAP’s primary target is to increase the number of engineering schools in Vietnam that meet regional and international accreditation standards. It has trained thousands of Vietnamese professors in modern techniques that emphasize applied learning and group problem solving over theory-based instruction. It is also helping Vietnamese universities implement modern IT systems to improve administrative efficiency, track progress towards accreditation, and enable online learning.
As HEEAP works within existing educational institutions, the German and Vietnamese governments are partnering to create an entirely new one. In 2008, they founded Vietnamese-German University (VGU), a research-oriented institution with a strong focus on technical education. Accredited in Germany, VGU provides students with exposure to international curricula and research opportunities in engineering, computer science, and related disciplines. All courses are taught in English.
VGU has a little over 1,000 students currently enrolled, and is still relatively small. But with $180 million in funding from the World Bank, the university is planning a campus for 12,000 students, lecturers, and researchers in 2017. Its goal is to become a leading research university in Southeast Asia.
Other education activists are working to improve STEM training at primary and secondary levels. Tony Ngo and Don Le of Everest Education, a private tutoring company in Ho Chi Minh City, have been developing courses in applied math based on Singapore Math, as well as pre-college English based on Common Core. They also run Innovation & Technology Camps with local high schools like the International School of Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon South International School.
Another initiative was the Young Maker’s Challenge, a competition that trained and assessed high school students from Ho Chi Minh City on projects that required programming, logic, and circuitry skills. Co-sponsored by Everest Education and Intel, the event catalyzed interest from all corners of the community. “We were amazed at how many local and international high schools participated,” said Ngo. “We’re definitely going to do it again this winter, but bigger.”
Some are working to bring tech education to underprivileged children. Orphan Impact is an NGO that builds computer centers and runs after-school training programs for orphanages around Vietnam. Everest Education offers scholarship programs for students in need.
Programs like these will build the talent pipeline for the future, but many tech companies need skilled workers now, so a growing number are investing in on-the-job training, mentorship programs, and continuing education
Atlassian, an Australian maker of enterprise software, is one example. With over 150 people at an R&D center it founded in partnership with Pyramid Consulting, an IT services firm in Ho Chi Minh City, it invests heavily in training programs that include soft and hard skills, English language instruction, and work exchanges with its company headquarters in Sydney.
“Our ultimate goal is to cultivate a product mindset,” says Thanh Phan, who leads Vietnam operations. “Vietnam has plenty of coders who can build things to spec, but it takes extra effort to get people to think from the user’s perspective and feel a true sense of ownership for their work.”
Many other companies have similar priorities. KMS Technology, for instance, is an IT services provider that strives for deep long-term relationships with its clients. It has also incubated and spun off two products—a software testing management platform called QA Symphony and a Chinese chess game called WiTurn.
“Since we often work with clients for years at a time, it’s essential that we get our developers to think, work, and act like our client’s own staff,” says Viet Hung Nguyen, managing director of KMS. “It usually takes 1-2 months of training for a new hire to become productive in this way.”
Other industry supporters are taking further steps to build talent. The Finnish government launched an Innovation Partnership Program in 2009 that includes grants for early-stage tech companies, business groups, and community mentors. It is also developing a curriculum on entrepreneurship and innovation in Vietnam.
And then there’s Anh-Minh Do, Vietnam’s leading tech journalist and a central figure in its emerging tech ecosystem. A reporter for Tech in Asia, he’s highly active in arranging lectures, programs, and other events. Some of his upcoming initiatives include a conference for mobile developers, a startup mentorship network, and a hackathon for agricultural tech.
Vietnam still has a long way to go to become a global tech powerhouse. But expect more sophisticated tech to be “Made in Vietnam” in coming years.
Will Greene runs TigerMine Ventures, an advisory firm that helps companies and organizations grow in Southeast Asia.