A School for Forward Tech Thinkers

By Alexander Fernandez

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The exterior of Forward School.

THE ROW OF heritage shop houses along Lebuh Acheh fronts a revolutionary school for new technologies. Forward School is the brainchild of tech aficionado Howie Chang. It is aimed at equipping aspiring tech professionals with industry-ready skills required in the fast-moving tech sector.1 It also offers coworking and coliving facilities for start-ups, scale-ups and freelancers.

Prior to Chang’s return to Penang in 2017 as a consultant to the Penang state government in nurturing its start-up ecosystem, he spent almost two decades abroad. Chang furthered his studies at the Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore and worked as an application engineer in an MNC for two years. Later, he made the switch to start-ups like Viki and RedMart because he appreciated the small and nimble environment they offer.

“We are not short on talents with good ideas in Malaysia. What is lacking however is the skillset.” Chang attempts to narrow this talent gap through the School’s 24-month-long, full-time programme in Applied Software Engineering, or NitroDegree. Following graduation, students are matched with one of Forward School’s hiring partners, with a guaranteed minimum salary of RM3,000. Twenty-two hiring partners, including ViTrox, Exabytes and Cytron Technologies, have since pledged their support.

Howie Chang, CEO of Forward School.

Short-term part-time courses on subjects such as Data Science Essentials and Applied Data Science are also offered, in addition to the recently launched one-month introductory class for those who wish to upskill their digital capabilities. “The intent is to get you excited about technology. We realise that a lot of people become quite intimidated when confronted with it, especially if they do not have adequate knowledge of the field,” observes Chang.

“The course varies depending on how one chooses to participate in the digital economy or to be a creator and maker, which is why I think this digital upskilling programme is perfect for any age range. It introduces ‘no-code’ solutions and tools for you to build a website and even a mobile app from scratch, without the need for touch codes. This is very much part of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) progress now that automation is becoming more prevalent.” Forward School also provides customised training courses for corporates.

For B40 students with a keen interest, financial assistance is available through a number of channels. “Under Forward School’s Student Sponsorship Programme, of which some of our hiring partners are a part, students will be sponsored by them to go through two years with us. The selection process will be based on the results of an in-house programming aptitude test; and on graduating, they will be guaranteed job placement with their respective sponsors.” Qualified students are also eligible for interest-free loans through the School’s partnership with ECM Libra Foundation, while the Income-Share Agreement allows for delayed fee payments until after the students have managed to secure a job that earns them at least RM30,000 a year. Despite the risks, Chang is willing to bear them to provide an opportunity for eager students.

Building a Conducive Environment

By merging together a tech school, a coworking and a coliving space, Chang hopes to create an ecosystem geared towards achieving a common goal. “I wanted an environment where the students can give 110% and be focused on what they do, especially those who are from out of Penang. When you are immersed in an environment or culture that is training you to become a member of a group of engineers, you tend to want to talk more about technology and your work, and to mix with like-minded people. That’s the key.”

A hallway leading to the classrooms, meeting rooms and workspaces.
The coliving space at Forward School is furnished with a kitchenette and private bathroom, and in some cases, a balcony as well.

The set-up of Forward School also fosters a close working relationship between students and companies. Company leaders impart their knowledge unto the students, and the latter is able to observe the day-to-day activities of a working adult. “We want the companies to be closer to our talents, literally. In fact, many of our students are already interning with these companies or being offered part-time jobs. Everything that we do at Forward School needs to result in an employment since we are preparing students to be workforce-ready.”

In meeting future demands, Chang holds firm that having the right skillsets will prove more significant than a paper qualification. Though still important today, a paper qualification is not able to accurately gauge the skills of a person. “We should be moving towards skills and applied skills. But the hard truth is that plenty of companies still pair salaries to paper qualifications. You cannot be paying a diploma holder a lower salary when the skills he or she possesses are more relevant than a degree holder’s.”

The NitroDegree has three semesters a year and from the second semester onward, students of the programme are required to spend a day each week as an intern with the company.

When the Going Gets Tough… the Tough Gets Resourceful

The School opened its doors in early March 2020 – immediately before the MCO was imposed. But it was able to circumvent restrictions by leveraging on technology; classes went fully online and free virtual classes were offered daily for a month, covering topics such as machine learning, web development and digital marketing. “Besides helping our participants, the programme also accelerated our learning in terms of managing online classes, the tools that we have, as well as people’s expectations,” says Chang.

Someday soon, companies will have to transition online, and this reinforces the need for skills-based schools. Chang uses the analogy of taking a business trip abroad to make his case: “The process from purchasing a flight ticket to checking-in will require the use of mobile phones, the company’s application or website, or an airport kiosk – these are all powered by software or web applications. Now as you board your flight, it is the software that guides the plane to its destination, despite the pilots being responsible for the plane’s take-off and landing and during cases of emergency. Our lives have become very much integrated with technology, without us even realising its presence.”

Forward School was recently recognised as the first Malaysia Digital Hub in Penang by the federal government via MDEC.

Rather than resisting, businesses must overcome the fear of change and invest in technology. “For many companies, this pandemic is probably the first time they have found themselves in a situation where they must pivot. Sadly, many were unable to do so in time.” Businesses of today and tomorrow will need to think through their business models to ensure resilience as Covid-19 will certainly not be the final instance of unprecedented disruptions.

Faced with uncertainty, businesses must be resourceful in seeking out alternative means for sustenance, be they in the form of grants or upskilling programmes. “There are plenty of resources out there. We have been working very closely with Multimedia Development Corporation; they have a range of programmes to help SMEs and MNCs accelerate, grow and transform themselves digitally; and in Penang, we have agencies like Digital Penang.” Chang adds that less financially secure businesses can even jump onboard others, similar to how F&B businesses are signing up for Foodpanda, Grab and DeliverEat to reach a wider customer base.

Despite the major upheavals it has caused, Covid-19 has also accelerated the process of digitalisation and to Chang, this is a silver lining for Penangites’ embrace of technology.


1 https://www.forwardschool.co/

Alexander Fernandez

is a budding plant enthusiast, feline fanatic, Netflix junkie and gaming buff. He hopes to one day travel to Japan.