20 Questions With Neo Kai Yuan, Founder & CEO of Coding Bootcamp Rocket Academy

Josiah Neo The Local Spotlight

Name: Neo Kai Yuan
Role: Founder & CEO, Rocket Academy
Age: 32

Rocket Academy’s boot camp has nothing to do with the army or physical training. In fact, they specialise in a coding boot camp to train the next generation of software engineers. Its founder, Neo Kai Yuan, tells us more about his motivation behind starting Singapore’s first coding boot camp and how they’ve gone on to place 100% of its graduates within companies like Grab, Ninja Van, and Foodpanda.

1. What are some of your hobbies?

Tennis, badminton, singing, guitar, reading (mostly autobiographies and non-fiction)

2. What is your favourite quote?

The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs

3. What is your favourite movie and why?

Space Jam (1996). Michael Jordan is a legend and inspired me with his “secret stuff”. I hope all of us find the self-confidence to be our best.

4. Who are some people (in the industry or outside) that inspire you?

Mark Zuckerberg inspires me because he not only built Facebook but has transformed himself multiple times to adapt to Facebook’s growth and market changes. 

Lee Hsien Loong inspires me because of his steadfast leadership and stewardship of Singapore.

My parents inspire me because of their commitment to teaching and providing opportunities for the next generation, despite the busy careers they had.

My wife Yi Jun inspires me because of her can-do attitude; she is always patient and leads by example. She runs an organic baby food business called Little Blossom.

5. Three words people use to describe you:

Winsome, principled, focused

6. Three words you’d use to describe yourself:

Caring, simple, curious

7. What kickstarted your passion for coding?

kai yuan and yi jun
Image credit: Neo Kai Yuan

I started coding my first year in uni after my freshman dorm mate encouraged me. I was fascinated by how he could control his computer from a black-background, text-based program, and I noticed most employers at career fairs were hiring software engineers.

I got lucky and fell in love with coding. Stanford taught coding well, and I loved that coding felt like solving puzzles, that I could make a living solving puzzles from the comfort of my desk. Several friends also took Stanford’s intro coding classes and I enjoyed working on assignments with them.

Interning at Facebook and Alibaba exposed me to software engineering, which taught me the power of coding in the industry. I met some of the smartest people I had met, and decided I wanted to further my skills with teams like these to continue solving meaningful problems. This led me to Nuna Health, a healthcare data analytics company based in San Francisco, which further exposed me to exciting realms of coding such as data engineering and DevOps. There is no end!

8. Why did you decide to start Rocket Academy?

I started Rocket Academy because the world lacks software engineering talent, and people that wish to become software engineers have few good ways to do so. I felt my background as a software engineer and someone that enjoys teaching would be well-suited to building a top international coding school. I also noticed similar online coding schools gaining traction in the US.

From a broader perspective, I am an entrepreneur to give back. Every country needs homegrown multinational companies to grow their economy and create opportunities for their people. I hope Rocket Academy can be one such company, and that we inspire others to build even more successful companies for the benefit of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world.

10. What can students expect from their bootcamp?

We are a student-first company, and we make all decisions first and foremost for the benefit of our students.

Aside from student care, students can expect a top-calibre community of peers and teachers, the most industry-relevant curriculum and the strongest employer network in Singapore. Rocket Academy curates our community through rigorous admissions tests for Bootcamp students and teachers.

rocket academy singapore
Image credit: Neo Kai Yuan

Our curriculum is continuously updated to teach the latest fundamentals in app development and algorithms. And our employer network is continuously growing, with more employers requesting to hire from Rocket every week. We refer our graduates to every company they apply to!

11. What are some myths/misconceptions that people have about coding and programming?

Myth #1: You need a relevant degree to get coding jobs

None of Rocket Academy’s Bootcamp graduates had Computer Science degrees, and 100% of them received software engineering job offers after graduation.

Myth #2: You need to be good at maths

Coding is more like writing essays than solving maths problems. The logic is usually simple, but we need to express it clearly. Most of Rocket Academy’s Bootcamp graduates did not study engineering, and some did not even go to university. But they all had logic and communication skills to code well, and employers recognised those skills.

Myth #3: Coding is low-value IT work

Apps like Google and Facebook have captured billions of dollars of value globally. Average software engineer salaries at all levels are higher than almost all other professions globally. The world values coding and it would be our loss to ignore it. 

Coding is not for everyone, but it is also not rocket science. The most important attributes for coding are logic and communication. If you can think logically and explain your logic clearly, chances are you would make a strong programmer.

If you have further questions, Rocket Academy hosts a free 1-hour webinar every month explaining coding for beginners, and attendees that wish to continue learning get a discount for Rocket’s part-time Coding Basics course.

12. What is the culture like at Rocket Academy?

rocket academy team
Image credit: Neo Kai Yuan

Rocket Academy’s culture is collaborative, supportive and kind. We do not have exams, and students graduate when they complete all projects. Students help each other learn and succeed, and teachers proactively support students who may be struggling. Students meet regularly for meals and other social activities.

Rocket Academy also tries to impart a humble self-confidence, that despite being new to coding, our students are valuable to employers and need not worry too much about rejections or mistakes during interviews. We work with students continuously from the day they enrol in our courses to the day they accept a job offer, and no student is left behind.

Even after graduates start work, Rocket continues to provide support through our alumni community, hosting regular gatherings and speaker events for alumni. 

13. How does Rocket Academy set itself apart from similar schools?

rocket academy community
Image credit: Neo Kai Yuan

I am proud to share that 100% of Rocket’s Bootcamp graduates have received software engineering job offers within 6 months of graduating. Most start software engineering jobs between 2-3 months after graduation. More employers request to hire from Rocket every week, and the trend looks to continue for the foreseeable future.

Rocket ensures our Bootcamp graduates are employable through a combination of screening, teaching and networking. No other coding bootcamps match Rocket’s level of selectivity, depth of teaching, and strength of network.

Rocket’s screening via a coding test and video application enables us to only accept high-potential software engineering students to Bootcamp. 

Most of Rocket’s instructors are full-time software engineers at top tech companies such as Meta, Foodpanda, Xendit and Thoughtworks, and Rocket’s full-time education team provides comprehensive support when students need help. Instructors even support graduates post-graduation with job opportunities and career advice.

We refer our Bootcamp graduates to every company they apply to, and actively build relationships with companies not yet in our network. Every 2 weeks we invite software engineers from hiring partners for private ask-me-anything (AMA) sessions with students. Every 3 months we host in-person or virtual community events where alumni and employers gather and share insights. 

14. Where have some of your students gone on to work?

Rocket Academy’s Bootcamp graduates have received software engineering offers from companies such as Grab, Ninja Van, Zendesk, Foodpanda, Circles.life, Decathlon, IBM, DBS, GovTech, Xfers, 99.co, Gotrade, Glints, Talenox, Kiteworks, Smartly.io, Shareable Asset, Cake DeFi, Spartan Labs, Accredify and Bandlab. 

15. Were there any students that surprised you (in a good way)?

Rocket Academy has accepted students to our Bootcamp course with N-Level and ITE credentials, and they have so far gotten software engineering jobs at companies such as Glints, GovTech and Circles.Life. This has shown me that strong coding and communication skills can lead to good software engineering jobs, regardless of past education credentials.

Students have surprised me in other ways. On New Year’s Day I received multiple messages from alumni expressing gratitude for Rocket Academy changing their lives. One of Rocket’s alumni that joined Rocket after NS dropped out of NUS Computer Science after Year 1 to pursue entrepreneurship. At Rocket’s most recent school fair for Bootcamp students, alumni and staff, alumni were more than happy to share experiences and insights with current students. 

Every day I am amazed at the gifts Rocket’s community has given, and that motivates me to keep going.

15. What was the most memorable moment of your career?

Pre-seed fundraising for Rocket Academy. I talked to 150 investors in 2 weeks, held calls day and night to raise the US$1M we targeted. I am grateful to each of Rocket’s investors for believing in Rocket before others. 

16. What do you think is the difference between a boss and a leader?

neo kai yuan in the army
Image credit: Neo Kai Yuan

A boss is a boss because of their title; A leader is a leader because of their actions.

A boss exists to command; A leader exists to serve. 

A boss tells people what to do; A leader shows people what to do.

17. What are 3 lessons you’ve learnt after setting up your own business?

The most important lesson I’ve learnt about entrepreneurship is to always put customers first. If customers love our products, they will use them repeatedly and tell their friends. If customers do not love our products, they will not use them and our business will not survive.

Another hard lesson I’ve learnt is that team is crucial and needs constant upkeep. Team members that were once a good fit may not always be a good fit – including ourselves – and working chemistry between team members cannot be undervalued. I see my primary job as CEO to ensure Rocket has the highest-performing team we can possibly have.

The last hard lesson I would like to share is that selling is just as important as building. There is no use building products that nobody uses, and it is only through talking to customers that we will understand what to build. This is especially important for software engineers like me who like to build and aren’t used to selling. We need to do both roughly equally.

18. What advice do you have for those pursuing a career in programming/computer science?

Focus on learning. The world of programming and computer science is so new – PCs have only existed for 40 years, smartphones for 15! – that how fast we learn quickly trumps how much knowledge someone might begin with. Keep networking and trying new technologies to stay relevant!

neo kai yuan rocket academy
Image credit: Neo Kai Yuan

Keep improving communication. The more senior we get in our careers, the more communication matters, even if we plan to stay individual contributors. Take every opportunity to refine written and oral communication through feedback from public writing and speaking.

Build what you want to see in the world. As software engineers, we have the option to work anywhere on anything. Don’t waste your talent. With great power comes great responsibility.

19. Any exciting developments (projects, new hires, expansion plans) you’d like to draw our attention to? 

Rocket Academy recently launched a free webinar “You Need to Code!” to explain coding for beginners. I host the webinar every 6 weeks, I recommend it for anyone interested in coding, and I promise to answer all your questions, even after the webinar if needed! Details for the upcoming webinar at https://rkt.ac/yntc

Rocket Academy also launched a major revamp of our Bootcamp course in May. The curriculum is more industry-relevant than ever, and student projects have never been more impressive. We are excited for more to experience Rocket’s Bootcamp, and our curriculum is available for free at https://bc.rocketacademy.co.

20. What do you hope to achieve at Rocket Academy in the next year?

Maintain Rocket Academy’s 100% job placement rate even as cohorts grow. Placement rate is a strong indicator of education quality, and a primary reason why students choose Rocket over other schools.

Expand to Hong Kong and Australia. The demand for coding is global and we aim to test our model in other English-speaking Asian markets before expanding elsewhere.

Launch a Web3 course. Web3 is poised to disrupt industries through innovations such as NFTs, metaverses and decentralised finance. Most schools have yet to catch this trend, and I want Rocket Academy to help others take advantage of this new technology. 

Related links:

Rocket Academy website
Kai Yuan’s LinkedIn

This post is part of The Local Spotlight series. If you’d like to be featured, or have a nominee in mind, please drop us a note at [email protected].


Cover image credit: Neo Kai Yuan

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