Product Management from Silicon Valley to South East Asia

Last Friday, 8 May (depending on your time zone), I participated in an online discussion session to talk product shop with a few other product folks based in the Bay area, Singapore and Malaysia.

With the event happening at 9.00am MYT, I must say I was impressed with the turnout and how prompt most were, especially the Malaysians. For those who aren’t familiar, Malaysians are notorious for being late, so much so we have a saying that if someone is late, they’re following “Malaysian time”, a euphemism which usually means they’ll be 30 minutes late from the appointed time. But I digress…

This session came about at a very opportune time as I’ve just started a South East Asia focused product platform called Product Un(censored) and there were many gold nuggets from the panelists (I’ve included links to their LinkedIn profiles at the end of the post). To be honest, it was quite the challenge to participate and take notes at the same time, so this is my best attempt. Instead of covering all the questions that were posed and make this just another review of an event, I’ve tried to write this post in a more reader friendly format, adding my post event observations in between.

Product Un(censored) is fully self funded — do consider supporting this passion project for the price of a coffee!

Differences between Product Management in Silicon Valley (SV) vs South East Asia (SEA)

First off, what made this panel very interesting is that quite a few of the panelists have experience with both regions i.e. US and South East Asia, having worked, studied, explored or both whether in a professional or personal capacity. This made the conversations more meaningful and insightful.

Generally, the aspects covered were fairly expected such as how much autonomy a product manager would have in the Bay Area vs SEA. This was fairly straightforward as autonomy is a given in the Silicon Valley whilst in SEA, it depends on the company you join and also the maturity of its management and practices. I tend to see a lot more autonomy with tech companies and startups within the SEA region. What I will say is that South East Asia lacks homegrown product leadership and I really do hope to see this remedied sooner rather than later.

An interesting point which was brought up was the willingness of companies in SV to hire for potential. A couple of panelists recounted stories of being in a different role or having a different career path before joining the product management ranks. In South East Asia, this does happen and I’ve personally helped a couple of colleagues make the jump, but generally, I don’t think it’s near as common as in SV.

This discussion segued to another interesting question which was…..

How to get into product management

In general, product management, at least the modern incarnation of it which is more closely tied to tech companies, startups and agile / lean practices is now in demand both in SV and SEA. In fact, it’s in demand worldwide. I know companies who have sent their recruiters from Europe / APAC to SEA events in order to recruit talent, and I also personally know peers in the industry who have moved from SEA to the northern half of the hemisphere. So the topic of how to get into product management was definitely high on the questions list.

One of the nuggets from the panelists was that regardless of your background, if you want to go into product management, start by delivering value and owning your area of work. This was true for Jeremy who started out as an engineer and became the domain expert and subsequently the product manager for his company. This was also true for Kris, who came from a non-technical background but also found her way into product management.

“…regardless of your background, if you want to go into product management, start by delivering value and owning your area of work”

I related the experience of helping two colleagues in two different companies make the jump. In the first instance, it was to help a QA person make the move, and in the second, help a software developer engineer make the transition. In both cases, they made their intentions known and along with their line managers, we made it happen once we identified that the candidate had shown sufficient aptitude and potential when opportunities were presented. Both transitions took time, required discussions with management, a transition period, and a lot of mentoring to help them adapt to not just a new role, but also a new way of thinking. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if you are product management material, you will surely make it to the other side eventually. Just don’t wait for the opportunity. Make it happen!

Product Management during Covid-19

Almost no conversation these days can avoid the topic of Covid-19 or its impact on a company, and it was no different for this event. I personally love this part the best because it was very honest and candid, and the opinions insightful.

What was agreed was that while it has impacted many companies and industries really hard, it was a great opportunity for others. Pieter, who is in the fintech industry relayed how he has been able to deploy to new products quickly due to Covid-19, but stressed how important to do it with empathy. It was not a time to celebrate despite being able to launch the products. It was heartening to listen to at least two of the panelists talk about how their organisations were trying to alleviate the burden of those impacted by the pandemic.

Steijn’s take was to look optimistically where he advocated looking at the opportunities that this pandemic presents, quoting Warren Buffet:

“Be Fearful When Others Are Greedy and Greedy When Others Are Fearful” — Warren Buffet

He further went on to push the envelope and stress that if anyone wanted to go into business, this would be the best time!

My take when discussing decision making during the pandemic was that business decisions are driven by how badly your business model is affected. In the case of a Malaysian startup which has just received funding recently, they are using covid-19 to accelerate feature development in order to be ahead of the curve when this period is over. In another case, government loans are being considered while in my personal case, it required the most severe of cost cutting which resulted in job loss.

This brought us to the last topic of conversation…

Opportunities post the Covid-19 pandemic

Some areas which were highlighted by the panelists:

  • Ed-Tech (Education Tech)
  • Med-Tech (Medical Tech)
  • Fin-Tech (Financial Tech)
  • Esports
  • Digital Transformation for traditional companies

Steijn provided a very timely reminder that we should all take the time to invest in ourselves.

I personally believe that Fintech, Med-Tech (which I lump together with Health Tech) and Ed-Tech will have the biggest opportunities not just post the pandemic, but even during this pandemic season. I was speaking to the founder of a company who mentioned that ed-tech portion of the startup has grown so quickly, and it was mainly driven by college students signing up. So yes, the paradox for all of us is that these are the worst of times, these are the best of times (paraphrased from “A Tale of Two Cities”).

“…these are the worst of times, these are the best of times” — A Tale of Two Cities (paraphrased)

It was a great session and I would really like to thank Janssen Choong (Horizon Connect) for the invite and the opportunity to be part of this panel and event. As mentioned earlier in the article, I’ve included the LinkedIn profiles of the panelists below:

If you attended the event and have any input, please do feel free to link your insights and provide your comments in the response section.

Follow Product Un(censored) for more content relating to product and product management focusing on the South East Asian region.

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Colin Pal

Colin Pal

Writes about Product & Agile | Product Leader | Founder Product Un(censored) | Co-founder PM Huddle |