How to Further Your Product Management Career in Asia

BY Kenneth Chin ON MARCH 5, 2019

Like everywhere else in the world, digital product managers are in high demand in Asia. It’s still a relatively new role in this part of the world and the supply of local talent is limited. Not many people have heard of product management let alone know what it takes to be good at it. Like me, most of them seem to have found their way into it by accident. But as the economies and tech ecosystems of Asia continue to develop, a small but growing community of product managers has started to emerge.

So where are the product manager jobs in Asia and what are they like?

Location, Location, Location

The first concern in managing your product management career in Asia is location. If you are willing to travel, the opportunities of working in regional or global markets can become appealing from both a financial and personal lifestyle perspective. Every city has its pros and cons, but in terms of product management, it’s generally best to follow the money – and in particular the VC money. Mainly because the maturity of product management roles is highly correlated to the maturity of the tech ecosystem.

Standing out in front is China. Beijing and Shanghai form the world’s second largest tech ecosystem of successful tech companies (Alibaba and Tencent), venture capital and startups behind Silicon Valley. China’s digital scene is massive and continues to grow, but it’s difficult for outsiders to navigate. As a work destination for product managers, it’s not a particularly attractive location unless you speak fluent Mandarin and enjoy the lifestyle.

I would group Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore together as all of them have vibrant tech ecosystems and high standards of living. Many global tech companies have product delivery teams in these countries but the majority tend to choose either Hong Kong or Singapore as their regional headquarters due to their westernised lifestyle, widespread use of English and proximity to South East Asian markets.

Emerging markets are growing strongly, with cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Seoul, and Taipei hosting a growing number of tech companies and startups. Smaller markets in Asia such as Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines have more limited work opportunities for product managers but there are pockets of amazing talent and interesting companies in these markets too.

Where Should you Park Your Bike?

In my opinion, digital organisations in Asia fall into four categories:

  1. Global tech companies that operate in Asia
  2. Large enterprises going through a digital transformation
  3. Tech startups, most of which copy successful business models in the US
  4. Consulting firms and digital agencies

Global tech companies will generally bring in leadership from their US or European businesses to establish operations in Asia. Google, Facebook, Linkedin, Amazon and Netflix all have regional offices in Asia but most are focused on sales and customer support. Only a few have product delivery teams based in Asia and most of these are relatively small. While the opportunities are limited, they are great places to work and you will learn how to be a great product manager from the best.

Large local or regional enterprises will have significant product development resources in Asia and offer the best opportunities to find product management roles. The challenge here is that the management teams can be a bit old school. You should look at the backgrounds of the leadership team, and the most senior product person in particular. Where did they learn how to be a product manager? Can you learn from them? Many will bring in experienced product leaders from across the globe in order to drive digital transformation and build capability in their local teams.

Depending on which country you look in, there may be many tech startups looking for product managers. Tech startups are great places to experiment and learn on the job, but you may not get a lot of guidance or coaching. Before you join such a business, ask a few people about the organisational culture set by the founders. In particular, I would advise you to be cautious of those startups founded by private equity firms or ex bankers that simply clone a successful business models from another part of the world. In most cases they are optimised for growth in order to exit rather than the creation of long-term customer or business value.

Because experienced digital teams are in short supply there are a number of consulting firms and digital agencies operating in Asia, such as BCG Digital Ventures, McKinsey Digital and Accenture. These are amazing places to learn and hone your skills but they are usually only engaged by a client for a limited period of time. As a product manager, at some stage you will actually want to grow a product over the longer term.

Good luck with pursuing a product management career in Asia, whatever the location and type of business you choose.  Local ProductTanks are a good way to find about the state of product in your chosen location and what the people in local businesses are like. I’ll be following up this article after speaking and meeting hundreds of peers at Mind the Product Singapore, and in the meantime I look forward to finding out more about your thoughts and impressions of the state of product management in Asia in the comments below.

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Kenneth Chin

About

Kenneth Chin

Ken leads the product team at SEEK Asia with the mission of improving people’s lives through better careers and helping organisations hire great talent. Headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the company operates the JobStreet and JobsDB brands helping hundreds of millions of job seekers in seven markets across Asia to find employment and pursue their passion. Prior to SEEK Asia, Ken was the Product Director and founding member of the London office of BCG Digital Ventures and consulted to large corporate clients in Europe on product strategy, startups, disruptive innovation and digital transformation. Ken developed his product management career over nine years at eBay in both Sydney and London, where he became Head of Product Management for the European Product Development Group.