Can Malaysia produce the next Facebook or Google?
The short answer is NO.
The longer answer is HELL NO!
One of the things that pushes my buttons is when people talk about how Malaysia can produce the next Google or Facebook like as though creating a world renowned tech brand is like winning a lottery–submit enough entries and you’re bound to win it sooner or later. These people dream, and they dream a lot, from reaching 1% of the global cloud market, developing 5 companies with revenues of at least USD100 million or the most usual dream of them all–for Malaysia to produce the next Google or Facebook.
While all of the nice plushy dreams sound good to a lot of people, the reality is that Malaysia as a far away from realizing this dream as we are from winning the Football world cup–technically it is possible, but no one would be betting money on it (except possibly the Singaporean bookies).
In order to understand how a multi-billion dollar company is created, we can easily re-visit the creation stories of these companies and try to find some similarities that are common across them. So that’s what we’ll do…
The stories of Microsoft, Facebook and Google
Microsoft was founded by Bill Gates, a guy who was introduced to programming at the age of 13. Shortly after he was banned from using a computer at school because he and couple of friends figured out how to hack the operating system to gain more computer time. One of those friends was Paul Allen, a fellow co-founder of Microsoft. Bill Gates wikipedia page goes on to say that “Gates wrote the school’s computer program to schedule students in classes. He modified the code so that he was placed in classes with mostly female students” . As my wife said when I told her this story–that’s the only way nerds are going to meet girls. After school, Gates went onto Harvard where in one of his earlier classes he manage to write an algorithm to solve an ‘unsolvable problem’ in record time–a record that stood for more than 30 years. In 1974, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, but not before he met Steve Ballmer who would join him at Microsoft and eventually replace him as CEO.
Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the two of them worked on a research paper together at Stanford University (arguably the worlds most influential institution in tech). In fact the Pagerank algorithm that determines where you page appears in the search results is based on Larry’s surname rather than a short-form of webpage. During their early years Google was run solely out of Stanford University and at times threatened to consume the entire campus bandwidth.As Google begun to mature as a company, Larry and Sergey were advised to find a CEO for their growing company, in that time the only person they considered ‘worthy’ of leading Google was Steve Jobs, and while they didn’t make the offer to Jobs, they were mentored by him. All of this obviously contributed to Steve wanting to go to thermonuclear war with Google as he felt his young Padawans had gone to the dark side.
Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg, who started programming in middle school included being privately tutored by David Newman. He was labled a programming prodigy at an early age, going so far as to create a network called ‘ZuckNet’ that was primitive version of popular messaging application AOL online. The application allowed Mark to connect all the machines in his home, including those from his fathers dental practice. Zuckerberg went onto Harvard where he created a popular website called Facemash, Harvard soon had to shut the website down because it was overwhelming the university network. After tidying up ‘ZuckNet’ and Facemash he then launched Facebook from his dorm room in Harvard, and it was at Harvard that Zuckerberg met fellow partners on Facebook including Eduardo Saverin and Dustin Moskovitz. The rest as they say–is history.
Of course these aren’t the only big tech giants in the valley, but they’re the most prominent. Other giants of the game, include Amazon, Oracle, Cisco and the list goes on. If you start counting the social network like FourSquare, twitter and Pinterest, the list starts getting a bit out of control. Yet, they all share some common themes.
What they have in common
All of the Tech Giants are started by intelligent people–not just smart, but the very smart. Bill Gates scored a 1590 (out of 1600) on his SATs, Mark Zuckerberg was a programming prodigy and both Larry and Sergey were researching at one of the worlds most prestigious University. These guys weren’t just the best, they were the best OF the best. Most of the tech companies were started in dorm rooms or incubators of prestigious universities, Stanford (home to Google and Cisco), Harvard (Microsoft and Facebook), Princeton (alma mater of Jeff Bezos) and the list goes on. It’s not an elitist thing, it’s just reality, when the best and smartest of the world congregate on a small campus great things happen.
While most of the attention is focused on Bill and Mark, the success of the empire is every bit attributable to the people they met along the way as it is to themselves. Even the most visionary leader of tech–Steve Jobs, wouldn’t have got off the ground if it wasn’t for the technical genius of Steve Wozniak. These smart guys needed other smart guys to help them. So you can’t just hope for a prodigious genius to create a world beater for you, you need to hope that the prodigious genius soon meets other prodigious geniuses as well.
The commonalities across nearly all Tech giants was that they were started by Geniuses who were surrounded by Geniuses–no exceptions. The only possible exception are the geniuses who never went to University, or dropped out early–but either way they were still pretty damn talented and pretty damn smart.
What Malaysia Lacks
So if you want to create the next Facebook and Google, firstly you’ll need to have smart people. Malaysia has none.
Let’s be honest, the guys who end up in Harvard and Stanford are the top 1% of the top 1%, in comparison the guys that end up in Malaysian university are mostly Malaysian students. According to the latest TIMSS reports, Malaysian students rank in the bottom 3rd globally in terms of Maths and Science. You don’t create the next world-beater with the bottom 3rd of the world. In fact, it gets worst–the best and brightest of Malaysia don’t stay in Malaysia–why should they? The brightest students go on JPA scholarships overseas, the rich go onto private universities and soon end up abroad anyway. What’s left in Malaysian university aren’t the best of the best–they’re what’s leftover. Let’s be honest!
If you want to create a Tech Giant in Malaysia–you need to create an ecosystem of geniuses, but the geniuses have either already left Malaysia–or are planning to. There’s no turning back on that one.
Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates both started programming at an early age, somewhere in middle school, and there’s a huge push in America to teach kids to code early on in school. In Malaysia, we can’t even agree on what language to teach kids in.
The Silicon Valley provides not just the venture capitalist with the cash infusion for these companies to thrive financially, but also the mentorship that is every bit as important. Larry Page and Sergey Brin both receive mentoring from Steve Jobs on how to run their company, I wonder what kind of mentoring the next Malaysian genius is going to get locally.
So do you really think we have what it takes to produce the next Google and Facebook? We don’t, not until we start focusing on children in schools and start focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Not unless we revamp our universities to let people in based on merit rather than race, and not unless we can drastically improve the level of teaching in Malaysia–all those dreams of creating a world beater in Malaysia will remain just that–dreams!