Digerati50: Howie Chang - changemaker

  • Forward School in Penang offers hands-on classes, project-based teaching
  • Crisis offers an opportunity to play offense, ‘We want to play to win’

The largest lesson Howie Chang has learnt, is on determination. “Like a sports athlete, you have to go through gruelling training, and a big part of that will to suffer comes through self-leadership."

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its series that profiles 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2020-2021 (Vol 4), a special biennial print publication released in July 2020. The digital copy can be downloaded from the sidebar link.

The following article is an expanded version of the print edition.

At the moment, graduates are facing a skills mismatch. Often, they go from a four-year programme into a world in which technological development has left their certificates obsolete. In the era of Industry 4.0, demand for innovative digital and creative skills will only increase. Penang based Howie Chang wants graduates to be ready, but he also knows this requires some innovation in education first.

This is the impetus for Forward School, which Howie launched in Jan 2019 as founder and CEO. Throw out the rote learning and memorisation as his approach focuses on expertise and skills, not a piece of paper on graduation. Classes are hands-on and teaching is project-based. The programmes are developed in partnership with industry practitioners and partners from the region.

This includes the two-year NitroDegree in Applied Software Engineering, where qualified students get to study and work under the sponsorship of key local tech players. A job placement and a minimum starting salary of US$740 (RM3,000) is guaranteed.

Tracking his career up till Forward School wouldn’t quite indicate a straightforward path to educational entrepreneurship. Howie had spent 10 years working for various organisations, after all, though he is quick to tell us that it’s “pretty natural” for him to catch the startup bug. 

“Before I ventured in startup building I was with Viki and RedMart, as Head of UX and Director of Product Management respectively. These are pretty important areas for building any digital products. Because of formal training in software engineering, and my passion in design, this gives me tremendous advantage in building cross functional product teams,” he says.


To master a subject is to teach a subject

As for teaching, he has long been interested in the art and science of transferring knowledge. “My former boss at Singapore’s Creative Technology, founder and CEO, Sim Wong Hoo once told me, ‘If you want to master a subject, teach it! So I have taught programming, visual design, human factors interaction to name a few and have gotten real good at them in both theory and practical sense,” he adds.

Howie was also adjunct lecturer at Republic Polytechnic and Singapore Polytechnic as he was building his very first startup. While the web development studio didn’t work out as expected, it proved to be a learning experience – he figured that the best way to learn how to be an entrepreneur is to learn from another.

That’s when he joined Buuuk.com, one of Singapore’s top design and digital products consultancy, as their Head of Design. He would eventually join Viki.com and RedMart.com, and their respective CEOs taught him a lot from within the trenches.

Chang would eventually kickstart several startups, including Ayuh Bina and Gut Studio, on top of helping launch aCAT Penang. His experiences in building them formed the foundations of Forward School, which he says he’s now “110% focused on.”

“I believe what we do at Forward School is crucial. One thing I have learnt from Silicon Valley (he was part of 2016 cohort for NFX.com founder’s guild) is this: we tend to be too emotionally attached to ideas. Ideas can change, it's the team that counts. So I am very comfortable of pivoting. It's easy for us to see any successful startup, and think that's their first idea. More often than not, it’s not.”

The largest lesson he learned, though, is on determination. “Like a sports athlete, you have to go through gruelling training, and a big part of that will to suffer comes through self-leadership. It's tough to be determined and leading oneself all the time. The challenge here is on how we can be consistent in our pursuit,” he says.


Raising funds from five leading angels

In February 2020, the establishment raised US$500,000 from five angel investors to grow further.

Among the angel investors are leading tech leaders, including the likes of Chan Kee Siak (CEO, Exabytes Group), Chu Jenn Weng (CEO, ViTrox Corp), Brian A. Wong (VP, Alibaba Group) and Chiew Kok Hin (CEO, AIMS Group). On top of that, lawyer Ang Siak Keng (Partner, Zaid Ibrahim & Co) is another investor.

“I think when people put money in you, essentially, it's all about trust. I believe they trusted me, my commitment and the ability to endeavour in the venture. An alignment on vision is a given but more than that, I believe I have shown them I have signs of what we call Founder-Market Fit,” Howie says, when asked about the investors. 

Forward School may be aimed towards helping young graduates be prepared for the future, but Howie doesn’t see it as a social enterprise. “Although there are elements of it and it is only natural the public see it that way. At the same time, it's also not all profit driven. How I see it is this: we will do everything that’s needed to build an innovative business; and make this a great, sustainable company,” he elaborates.

The Covid-19 pandemic meant that Forward School has to adapt to virtual classroom and workshops and design better learning paths online.

The outbreak hasn’t affected their vision, however. “Our vision remains the same. We want to become Southeast Asia's leading tech and future skills school for the digital economy. Covid-19 has definitely impacted our intakes. The entire education sector is impacted. But we remain steadfast and we see the situation more of an accelerant to what we already plan to do.”

Times may be tough, but Howie believes in a mindset to win. “In times of crisis, it's easy for us to play defence. For me, and I believe for others as well, depending on where you are in business, this is an opportunity to play offense. We want to play to win, not playing not to lose,” he says.

“It is the state of mind. You need to know that you started your company not just to survive, you want to win. When you have that mindset, it changes everything.”

Digerati50 2020/2021 is proudly sponsored by Maxis - Powering Malaysia's 5G era.

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