Meet Charles Lee, the San Francisco-taught tech veteran shaking up Vietnam’s startup scene with his Saigon-based school for talented developers.
That Vietnam’s tech landscape is a shape-shifting phenomenon is a widely known fact. IBM projects that Vietnam could be in the global top three in terms of the number of engineers in the next five years, whilst new tech park Saigon Silicon City expects to attract over USD 1.5 billion in investment by 2020. Thanks to a growing pool of local talent, growing investment and increased interest in the country’s tech-savvy and skills – from both external and internal startups – its homegrown tech scene has never been more vibrant. Keen to be a part of what he saw as an exciting frontier, Charles Lee, a longtime veteran of Silicon Valley moved to Vietnam in 2015 to set up CoderSchool. Now a well-established programme for up and coming developers, he aims to train and place 1500 developers in the three major cities of Saigon, Hanoi, and Danang over the next three years. Here, he talks us through his journey from San Fran to Saigon.
Charles Lee made the leap to Saigon in the classic manner: googling where to go next when you want to shake up your life. “By then I had been in San Francisco for a long time. I was 29; I wanted to do something crazy,” he remembers. Born in the States to Korean-American parents, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a computer science degree before starting a decade-long career in Silicon Valley, giving him a ringside seat to the evolution of technology. From code-writing at Palm Computing to integrating Google Earth into the navigation system for Audi to helping Luvocracy, a social e-commerce company, raise USD 16 million and go from zero to 1+ million users in a year, he has more than surveyed the scene. “It was the most intense 1.5 years of my life,” he says of the latter, citing ownership and resourcefulness as central to being successful at a startup: “You must have an attitude like, ‘Ok, don’t know anything about that, but I’ll take care of it.”
“Teachers in Vietnam are often perceived as a different class. At CoderSchool, we’re all on the same level,” Lee explains. “But you always have to push the students. The school’s biggest competitor is the idea of learning by yourself. There are so many resources online, yet most people benefit from having a support network, and your teachers and friends pushing you.” As Lea Truc, one of his students and a former marketing lecturer at Fisher College in Boston puts it, “You come to class to bounce ideas off each other. The sense of going forward together makes every class exciting.” She’s also one of the school’s growing pool of female students. “There are so few women in tech, and I want to do something about it,” she states.
Lee himself has found his new life as an educational entrepreneur satisfying. “At the Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab, I’d had the chance to work on super cool car concepts, including one of the first successful self-driving cars. But sometimes it felt like building toys for rich people. Here, I can also feel really good about what I do. It’s hard not to feel fulfilled seeing people making progress” he explains. What excites him is, “being around other people who are excited, whether that’s about the street food or the strong coffee. Ideas are infectious. People of Saigon come and go, but the transience makes it so much more exciting.”
Lee’s ambitions are in line with a general uptake in the seriousness of Vietnam’s approach to its own pool of tech talent. Look to the presence of 500 Startups Vietnam – a USD 10 million microfund of 500 Startups, the most active seed stage investor in the world, and you’ll see where things are heading. “There will be a lot more Vietnamese companies exporting intellectual property. I see foreign companies serving the foreign markets, and companies here serving the local markets. I’d like to see more cross-pollination and the exchange of products or services,” he adds.
Using examples of VNG, an online gaming and e-commerce startup that’s also Vietnam’s first ever unicorn, and WisePass, a premium lifestyle subscription service that’s expanding to major cities in Southeast Asia, Lee shares his vision for the future: “What I want to see more of is Vietnamese startups hitting it big, with lasting values.” And, as for CoderSchool’s part in that? “We’re just a group of people who are curious about technology, and curious about the world. And the price of taking risks is much lower in Vietnam. If you want to explore yourself, this is the exact place to be.”