A self-taught IT forerunner 

Alan Au is an autodidact IT expert committed to cultivating local talents. 

By Johnson Ian

There is a saying, “You’re never too old to learn”. But this is always easier said than done, especially when it comes to self-learning. Alan Au Chi Vai, who has just been appointed as the Chief Expert of the “IT Network Systems Administration” Skill Competition by the 46th WorldSkills Competition (WSC), is a self-taught IT expert. As the Department Manager of the Information System & Technology Department of the Macau Productivity and Technology Transfer Centre (CPTTM), Alan Au is from the post-70s generation. He keeps taking challenges one by one. According to Mr Au, IT technicians can also be corporate managers, while IT network systems administration enjoys a bright future, but not the so-called “IT Dog”.

Athletes yearn for the Summer and Winter Olympics, while to the vocational world, there is also an Olympics called “WorldSkills Competition”. Obtaining “admission tickets” and earning prizes often begins at the starting line, and only those who are experts among experts get the opportunity to take charge of the preparatory work for the different Skill Competitions. Mr Au was saddled with the important task in November of last year to organize one of WSC’s competitions that will be hosted in Shanghai in October of this year. “Being trusted and supported by experts from all over the world and CPTTM, I am glad and grateful. Although the responsibility and pressure are great, it drives me to move forward at the same time.”

From conventional thinking, science and technology experts must be educated at schools, but Mr Au relies on self-learning, the courage to keep taking challenges and a broad vision. His journey may inspire you if you are watching YouTube or studying through online courses and looking for a better future. Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, when Macau was not a wealthy place, Alan Au was born in a poor family of six. Being the eldest brother at home, Alan was especially hardworking and motivated. “I have been interested in chemistry and physics since I was young, and I chose to study electronics. Until Form 4, a computer major was available at Instituto Salesiano. Although I didn’t get the chance to learn about computers formally, I asked the computer teacher to teach me. He was such a kind person that he not only organized workshops, but he also opened access to the computer centre after classes or during weekends. In this way, I started to learn computer science and how to write”.  

“The biggest difficulty in self-learning is that you must find the answer by yourself whenever there is a problem” – Alan Au

Anticipating the internet boom

Around Year 2000, the rise of the Internet led to the popularity of “dot.com“. Alan Au predicted that the growth of information technology, which is known as IT today, would be unstoppable, and he came up with new ideas. “The future development of IT and the related applications should be much broader. Then I began to think, should I change? I have been working for quite a while, so I should study for degrees that I didn’t have before, as well as strengthen my practical skills”. Actions speak louder than words. Mr Au applied for a part-time degree course at Jinan University and also applied for CPTTM’s course on the Windows Server in 2011. After that, he was invited by the instructor to serve as a part-time teaching assistant. “I took it as a challenge”, he said. “Since 2002, the instructor had been in charge of teaching theory, and I focused on fieldwork. One year later, I worked full-time for CPTTM, and then I moved forward in the direction of network systems. I studied the facilities and technology of Cisco by myself and then taught others”.

By the beginning of his 30s, Mr Au worked a full-time job from Monday to Friday, a part-time job at CPTTM, and studied on Saturdays and Sundays. It was much harder than today’s “9-6” working hours. After graduating from Jinan University in 2005, he finished and obtained his master’s degree in e-Commerce Engineering from Queen Mary University of London through online learning in 2009. 

Regardless of the time period, self-learning is never easy. In recent years, it has become popular to learn software, art, and foreign languages online. However, a large number of people give up halfway through the course. Au says, “The biggest difficulty in self-learning is that you must find the answer by yourself whenever there is a problem. Nowadays, you can find all kinds of resources from the Internet, no matter what you are learning, so asking someone else is unnecessary. There are many resources, so you don’t have to ask other people. Therefore, determination, perseverance and persistence are the key requirements in self-learning. The prerequisite for success is that you must be interested in what you want to learn and learn with objective purposes”. Believing that “he who teaches, learns”, he has never stopped pursuing knowledge. He has learned a lot since being appointed as one of the experts of the WorldSkills Competition. “Topics of the Competition go far beyond our usual requirements”, he said. “Only by constantly self-studying can we make up for the deficiencies. Then we can pass related knowledge and experiences to others”.

“The Government can send delegations to learn, observe and exchange, and there is no need to go far because Hangzhou, Shenzhen and other cities in the Mainland are already very advanced. Macau can learn from them” – Alan Au

Sound performance

Alan Au is proficient in IT, was brave enough to take challenges and is good at grasping opportunities. From joining CPTTM as a teaching assistant to becoming a full-time engineer and also working as a civil service agent from 2008 to 2012, finally, he found out that “teaching and training” are what he really wants to do. Hence, Alan joined CPTTM again in 2012. He now mainly looks after the “CyberLab” and focuses on talent cultivation. He also organizes various professional IT courses for industry professionals, as well as holds relevant courses and competitions for students in middle school and college. Since 2014, he has worked as the head of the training program for the WorldSkills Competition. In 2015, he was appointed as an expert and judge for the first time, representing Macau in training and leading players to participate in the “IT Network Systems Administration” Skill competition. Macau players were rewarded with the “Medallion for Excellence”. The city participated in the next two editions. In 2019, Man San Wong won 9th place and received the “Medallion for Excellence”, which was the best performance from 2015 to 2019. 

As a small city with a population of more than 600,000 residents, Macau has had good achievements in the past editions of WorldSkills Competition. It has been rewarded with gold, silver, bronze and other awards. The professionalism and coordination ability of Macau experts have also been well recognized and highly trusted. Director-General Kuan Chan Victoria Alexa and Manager Thomas Mak of CPTTM were respectively appointed as the Technical Directors of “Graphic Design Technology” and “Web Technologies” in 2019, while Alan Au was recently appointed as the Chief Expert. 

Bright prospects lying ahead  

The coverage of IT is wide, including software and hardware. Web (web page) and App (application) are two of the most common terms in daily life. Alan admits that people are interested in webs and apps because there is something about the designs that can be seen easily, while network systems are somehow difficult. “Firstly, it’s boring. There’s nothing to show. Secondly, the setting of network systems is very difficult. I don’t have any special selling points to attract youths to learn. I’m relying only on various computer and IT competitions to absorb them and then to convince and encourage them to study”. However, in terms of prospects in Macau, network systems may be better, even though the pool of local talent is insufficient and it’s in great demand. “The tasks of writing a web page or an application can be outsourced to the mainland or other places, while parts of management tasks of networks and systems can also be outsourced, but the hardware is the key. You must send someone to the site and set up the core, as well as follow up, and perform maintenance on site, which is difficult to outsource. Therefore, the labour cost for network system management is relatively high, but the disadvantage is that it is a tough job and requires working shifts and having on-calls for large hotels.”

“IT is indispensable in the world, and it is a promising industry. Some may think that IT people can’t be management executives but can work only as an ‘ITDog’ for their entire lives and that it would be better to study business administration. In fact, IT does enjoy promotion opportunities. We also have management executives, not ‘ITDogs’. Moreover, you may not be able to be part of the management team even if you have studied business management, and now everyone has graduated from universities!” The Hong Kong drama “IT Dog” has become a hot topic in recent months. As a teacher to most of the IT people in Macau, Alan suggests that students in middle school should get more exposure to IT and learn different fields, “including Web, App, 3D models, network systems and so on, to find out personal interests. They should also apply for relevant majors when entering university and learn more application skills to fully understand both theory and practice, to be prepared for university and to work directly after graduation. There is no need to waste time on supplementing applied skills”.

As for the long-term goals, Alan hopes to cultivate more IT talent for Macau and help with the construction of a “Smart City”. He analyzed that the concept of a Smart City covers many categories, mainly transportation, medical care, tourism, public administration, education and so on. The SAR government has been promoting it for several years and shall continue to work hard on it since it’s a process that requires time and resources. Macau should put more effort into talent cultivation and learn from the successful experiences of other places. “The Government can send delegations to learn, observe and exchange, and there is no need to go far because Hangzhou, Shenzhen and other cities in the Mainland are already very advanced. Macau can learn from them.”