Google to Grab: One year later

Steve Yegge
May 18 · 9 min read

Big Fat Disclaimer: I DO NOT SPEAK FOR GRAB. I work there, but these are my own opinions. Not Grab’s.

It’s now been 15 months since I joined Grab, the ride-hailing and financial services Super App giant of Southeast Asia. The time has gone by so fast. I’m on a plane headed back from our leadership offsite in beautiful Kuala Lumpur. And since it’s a bit of a long ride and I don’t have wifi, I thought, hey, I can finally tell you how it’s been going.

I had been hoping to do a 1-year follow-up. But I missed, in part because I work all the time — but also because there’s so much to talk about, that I don’t know how to fit it all into a post you can read in a single sitting. I’ll just hit some highlights and lowlights, and then if you have more questions, shoot me an email or something. I’m also on LinkedIn.

First off: Grab remains every bit as amazing as it felt when I joined back in Jan last year. The challenges are still ridiculously hard, and ride hailing is an unexpectedly complicated business from just about every angle. Even though it seems like nothing could be simpler, right?

Riding in a Grab car

Every time I get into a Grab car, I talk to the driver about what it’s like to drive for Grab, and they give me an earful. Riders gaming the system, drivers gaming the system, the system sometimes being straight-up broken (our fault), all sorts of complexity in their everyday work. The drivers always seem knowledgeable about the problems, the scams, the syndicates, the local difficulties, the fake apps, even upcoming regulation. When regulators bow to the legacy taxi industry (which is corrupt in Southeast Asia, dangerous and plagued with scammers), it affects millions of people negatively, and the drivers inevitably find out. And they’re mad. As they should be.

There are just a lot of bad people in the world.

But then there are so many amazing people, too. We met an incredible woman this week named Siti Fatimah, who is wheelchair-bound. Our CEO Anthony Tan had met her at random in an elevator, and she had thanked him over and over for founding Grab and giving her a chance to earn an income and help people. He was overwhelmed and he brought her to our offsite so she could tell us her story.

Anthony Tan, CEO, with Siti Fatimah

Siti married a man who subsequently contracted polio (hello, anti-vaxxers, may you all rot in hell), and it cost him his legs, and now they are both wheelchair-bound. They could not find employment. But they saw a billboard featuring a Grab driver with special abilities and needs, and they thought, hey, maybe we could do that. Probably not, but we can try.

But Malaysian law required them to pass a challenging driving test, and to do THAT, they needed an accessible car. So they scraped together all their money and bought a car, and Siti’s husband tinkered with it himself until it was accessible and passed the test requirements, and they both signed up to take the test. And they passed! Now both of them are Grab drivers.

Think about that for a second. Passing the driving test wasn’t a guarantee. And even with a driver’s license, becoming a Grab driver wasn’t guaranteed either, because Grab also has tests and requirements. But they gambled their savings to buy a car and jury-rig it, hoping that they would pass both tests. Can you imagine how scary this must have been for them?

This astonishing, sweet, shy woman came to our offsite, and Anthony was trying to thank her in front of everyone, but no, she kept thanking him over and over for giving her a chance at being helpful to others and earning an income, and she wouldn’t stop, so of course his tears started flowing, and shit, I’m crying, because it’s so backwards that she should want to thank us when in fact we owe her so much for putting up with all this just to drive on our platform. She got dealt just about the worst cards life can give you, and her spirit and sweetness were just overpowering, and it was too much.

Wow I need a quick break. Onions. I’ll be back.

OK.

So remember I told you last time that Grab’s mission is to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Southeast Asians? I hope that Siti’s story helps bring home just how real this mission is. Back when I was at Amazon, also focusing on delighting customers, we usually thought of our customers as people just like ourselves. And by and large that was accurate. The reality was, they could go to WalMart and get the same thing. We were just saving them some time. We weren’t changing society itself.

Whereas with Southeast Asians, Grab is life-changing. Grab creates millions of jobs for people who in so many cases have literally no other option. And those jobs are in turn making people safer. I told you a bit about the syndicates and the fraud last time, and that arms race will never end. But our real fight is to make the region safer. That might sound abstract to you, but I challenge you to get into a cab in Indonesia and tell me that you feel safe, particularly if you are a woman. I’m a pretty big guy and I don’t feel very safe in Jakarta — although Indonesian people are super nice, and surprisingly helpful to strangers even when they don’t speak English, so we’re talking about a small minority here. But still. It’s not really safe. Given that the guards at all the hotels have machine guns, I suspect they would agree.

Grab is rolling out a vast number of critical safety measures: Driver selfie matching, rider selfie matching, machine learning models for detecting collisions, drivers falling asleep, or even violence within the car, SOS buttons and emergency response teams, the list goes on and on. Grab is already 5x safer than taking a cab. And given that safety is (by far) the company’s highest priority, it’s only going to get better. That is a social mission.

AI and machine learning are first-class citizens at Grab. It’s not some small group of data scientists fighting for glory over a hundredth of a percent gain from an algorithm tweak while stabbing other data science teams in the face, as you’ll find at just about every other company, including Google. (Why the hell do data scientists all hate each other so much?) At Grab, data science is becoming ubiquitous and decentralized, and we apply it everywhere. Because damn these are hard problems.

Case in point: My wife tried to book a ride on Tuesday, and the driver accepted, and she watched the little car icon drive directly to the destination (without picking her up), complete the ride, and she got charged. Obviously a fraud driver, probably sitting at home with a fake GPS and unauthorized app. But we check for that, right? Right? Haha, no. Our ML models were looking for a bunch of other very similar cases, but not that particular one. Well, not yet — I happen to be on the same plane as my buddy Varun Kansal, our Head of Engineering for Trust and Safety, and he’ll probably have it fixed by the time we land. Still, though, it should give you the flavor of how many permutations of assholery we have to handle with AI.

Just to be clear, fraud in ride-hailing is a global problem. It’s not unique to Grab; everyone in ride hailing has to deal with it. Grab has done a ton of innovation in this space, and a quick search shows that third parties estimate Grab at 5% fraud and Go-Jek at 30%. So relatively speaking we’re doing pretty well. But it’s a perpetual arms race with the syndicates, so we have to stay on top of it. Varun’s team works wonders here.

Being able to get stuff fixed fast is actually one of the most unexpected things about Grab. Even though we’ve grown quite large, with thousands of engineers and operations people, hundreds of great leaders, and an org distributed from Bangalore to SEA to Beijing to Seattle, the entire leadership team somehow still manages to feel like about twenty people sitting in a room together, making decisions as a cohesive group, which we call OneGrab.

The actual mechanisms by which we accomplish this are nonintuitive, at least if you’re an old-school leader; i.e., you learned more than 5 years ago. I’m hoping to find time to do another post about it soon. Leadership itself is changing very quickly. Our CTOs Theo Vassilakis and Mark Porter have both been working with the founders to create brand-new mechanisms for classic leadership problems, bespoke for our challenges in the region. Definitely worth another post.

But for now, I want to finish painting the picture of what Grab has been like. There’s so much going on. Since my last post, we beat Uber and bought their Southeast Asian business. Whoo! And our other main competitor, Go-Jek, looks to be running out of steam. They appear to be in their last gasps; we’ve heard they are selling board seats and are generally struggling with their regional expansion. I don’t think anything they will do matters in the end. From where I sit, Grab is on track to become the most life-changing force for good in Southeast Asia.

Every couple months I travel to the region. We were in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City back in January. I got a chance to spend my birthday in HCMC with my wife Linh, on our first VN trip together. The city looked like this the whole week:

Backpacker Street at 11pm

VN was doing well in football, so the streets in District 1 were packed. So much fun. And there were Grab bikes and even cars going through the street here in the picture. Grab is ubiquitous in Vietnam; green helmets everywhere:

A Grab 2-wheel driver with his GrabFood delivery bag

Grab’s dominant position in Transport is pretty obvious if you just walk outside, like literally anywhere in Southeast Asia. But if you start digging in a bit, you can see how deep the Grab Super App is becoming.

We have food delivery, dark kitchens (go check out what Travis Kalanick is doing these days; it’ll blow your mind, or anyway it should), package delivery (which is morphing into a supply chain that lands all the manufacturing business moving south from China, which is now far too rich to care about that sort of work anymore), micro-entrepreneur programs (e.g. pay off your bike with Grab and get a loan for 2 more that you can rent to others), the only regional e-wallet, mobile payments, remittances, insurance, lending and credit scoring, e-commerce, hotels, media, I mean holy hell I can’t even keep up with it all. Grab is growing like bonkers, faster even I think than Amazon did back in 1998–2005 when I was there. All because Grab, unlike some other companies (ahem), understands platforms, so we can bring on new services quickly by onboarding partners onto the Grab Platform.

In short, it looks like this:

The Grab Super App

Funny how having a platform can help you serve customers better. But what do I know.

As for me, I am personally privileged to be Head of Engineering for Data Insights: Our Ads business, Personalization and Segmentation Platforms, User Data Platform, and all of Grab’s online databases and operational data stores… which sounds pretty impressive until you realize that the Ads engineering department consists of Scott. Heya, Scott. I kid, I kid; there are others but you get the idea; we’re still a startup, and everyone is doing so much with so little. It keeps us from getting complacent. I’ve got teams in Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Singapore and Seattle, and the company has placed so much faith in us that we move heaven and earth to get things done.

It’s not easy. Grab definitely isn’t for everyone in the US. In Seattle we’re 16 timezones removed from Singapore, so their mornings are our evenings and we have to sacrifice a lot in order to be effective. Many of us basically live in Singapore time, and we’re often in conference calls until midnight to 2am.

But it’s worth it. Being at Grab is a privilege. After meeting Siti I know that more than ever before. What is happening here is a phenomenal, generational, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am forever grateful and humbled to be a part of this incredible team, helping change the lives of 650 million wonderful people.

It’s on us to make it happen.

Give me a shout if you have questions. I still read email. :)

Steve Yegge is Head of Engineering for Data Insights at Grab, with nearly 30 years of tech industry experience.

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