Young Malaysian dreams of promoting both the arts and sciences... with code (VIDEO)

Steven Tan aspires to share his passion for coding with others. — Picture courtesy of Apple
Steven Tan aspires to share his passion for coding with others. — Picture courtesy of Apple

KUALA LUMPUR, May 17 — Developers will soon be flocking to Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) and young Malaysian Steven Tan will be one of them after receiving an Apple scholarship to the event.

WWDC, which will run from June 3-7 at California’s San Jose Convention Centre, is so popular attendance spots are decided via lottery, or in Tan’s case, special scholarships.

This isn’t Tan’s first trip to the WWDC though. He had made his way to the conference last year, but this year he is Malaysia’s only Apple scholarship recipient.

For Tan, it’s the “little things” about attending the conference that makes it so much more than its opening keynote. One of them was the Apple engineers on hand to assist WWDC participants.

“I prepared a list of questions beforehand. Apple engineers were so helpful in referring me to the right person when the questions asked were no longer in their areas of expertise.”

Another highlight: “I was speaking with the exact engineers who had built the technologies for us.”

Tan’s experience at the conference helped draw him into learning more about augmented reality (AR).

One engineer in particular not only helped him learn more about its implementation, but even took time to talk about Tan’s life goals.

“He selflessly offered advice based on years of his invaluable experience as a computer vision engineer,” Tan said.

He was also touched that the engineer treated him not as a student but as seriously as he would a peer.

Finding wonder in AR

The technologies he witnessed in action at WWDC inspired Tan to see just how they could be applied to education.

Returning to Monash University, the software engineering student spoke to his professors about using AR in their undergraduate courses.

It was a tough sell at first as no other university in Malaysia had used AR but Tan was relentless, making various proposals until he convinced professors from the university’s pharmacy school.

“It is still a work-in-progress, he said, “but it is essentially about translating the textbook materials into real-world AR for better engagement and interaction with the students.”

Tan is specifically working on using AR to teach students about atrial fibrillation (known as AFib or AF) — an irregular heartbeat that could lead to various heart-related complications such as stroke or heart failure.

“AR technology works really well in this aspect of education because it is extremely hard for the students to grasp and visualise the abstract concepts,” Tan said.

Empowering everyone to code

When not tinkering with AR, Tan finds time to run technical workshops at his university.

“Coming from a developing country, an 'industrial revolution 4.0' is what would absolutely help to lift our economy up for a better schooling as well as living environment for our communities back here,” Tan said.

Inspired by Apple’s Everyone Can Code initiative, Tan and a group of other like-minded aspiring engineers opened up the workshops not just to programmers but even those without prior coding experience.

The workshops are run with the intention of letting workshop attendees put their creative power to work, all the way from conceptualising to actually building apps hands-on.

“We believe when they are able to see how much fun and creative it can be to be involved in app development, it is more likely that they would pursue a career, directly or indirectly, related to the tech sector,” said Tan.

The ambitious 23-year-old sees becoming a software engineer as more than a career option or passion.

“It is also my life goal and that is because I know it from my background how computer science can help to change the path of the lives around us. Everyone is equal in this field — the key difference is our effort and the sheer determination that we put forth,” Tan said.

iOS goals

Of all the technologies out there, Tan was drawn to iOS programming when he saw its potential in affecting how users perceived the world around them.

Tan said, “The tools that Apple provides in Swift development are simply different in terms of allowing the developers to truly engage and interact with the users. And this is a markedly different design philosophy compared to other competing frameworks in the market.”

He started off with a free course on iOS development on the iTunes U app and from there continued to hone his skills.

On why he would recommend WWDC to other aspiring coders, Tan said, ”As a scholar at WWDC, we received perks that few other attendees were afforded.”

Besides getting early looks at future technologies, Apple Scholars also met with Apple CEO Tim Cook as well as other senior engineers.

His advice to aspiring WWDC scholarship applicants?

“Be truly passionate about what you are developing because your passion in coding is what Apple is looking for.”

Tan said that he thinks Apple keeps the scholarship application requirements purposely vague, to give applicants space to come up with their own ideas.

Whatever they submitted, “It has to be something that you are proud of, willing to share with your friends, or even open sourcing it on the internet It is about the concept’s ingenuity coupled with the technologies behind it that matter.”

While this year’s WWDC scholarships are closed, aspiring coders can look forward to the next round that is likely to open in March 2020.

You can take a look at Tan's WWDC submission here:

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