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How Product in APAC Has Adapted During COVID: In Conversation With Colin Pal "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 15 October 2020 True Innovation, Leadership Premium Content, Premium Content, product job, Remote Working, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 4710 Colin Pal AMA on Mind the Product 2 Product Management 18.84
· 23 minute read

How Product in APAC Has Adapted During COVID: In Conversation With Colin Pal

In our latest membership AMA, Colin Pal, former CPO at Caterspot, shed light on the product scene in APAC and how product teams in the region have adapted during COVID. He discusses remote working, job hunting, internationalisation and localisation, exciting product innovations, and more. You can watch the entire session again, or read on for a transcript*.

About Colin Pal

Since stumbling into Product Management over 10 years ago, Colin has been in love with all things related to Product. Outside of work, his passion projects are PM Huddle, a meetup group for product managers of which he was part of the founding team and Agile Malaysia, a meetup group for agile development practitioners which he serves on the organising committee.


*Questions and answers have been edited for clarity

Tell us about the product scene in Southeast Asia

When I started product management it was really an unknown in this part of the world. And I still remember one of the things my father-in-law was telling my wife was, you know, “are you sure Colin wants to do this? I have never heard of product management”. So that was the state of play back then, ten years ago,

Now, after so many years, and globalisation, and how companies have really evolved so quickly within the region, we’re really seeing product management come to the fore. If you talk about any tech company, any startup that’s scaling up, and they don’t have a product manager, that’s quite a strange phenomenon.

A few years ago at #mtpcon Singapore, I was on a panel, and one of the things that we highlighted was the fact that we had a lot of expats and product leaders who were coming from outside the region. One of the things that has changed slightly about that is, we’re seeing more people who are from the region who left, who are coming back. Simply because they want to be part of this next wave of growth and maturity within the region so I think it’s really an interesting time to be in Southeast Asia.

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How did PM Huddle get started and how that’s changed the community

So, PM Huddle started out of desperation, to be honest. You know what they say, right, desperation is the mother of all invention. There wasn’t a product group when I started out in 2010 so a lot of what I learned was really being mentored by my manager. He taught me the ropes and sent me for training but at the same time. I was longing for a community of people that I could just sit down with and talk about how difficult life is, how terrible product management is, and why we still want this job even knowing that. And I couldn’t find it. And after about five years, I got fed up of looking and thought, I’m going to start this damn thing.

There was this group that existed, but nobody seemed very interested in meeting up. They seemed very happy to just share links and stuff. And then one day I happened to mention this frustration to someone I know and they put me in touch with this girl called Alia and I reached out to her. And then I found out that she and another product manager were already thinking along the same lines and so they asked me to come on board and go start something and that’s how PM Huddle got started in 2016.

I hope it has changed the scene for the better. One of the things that I would take away is that we’ve created this avenue for people to actually come together and talk about Product. One of the things that we did differently from many other meetups, is that we made PM Huddle an invite-only meetup. The whole idea behind it was we wanted to have deep conversations rather than broad conversation so that was something that was intentional. Over the last year, we’ve been a bit looser with that. But the intention is still the same. We want to keep those conversations deep so that it’s going to be helpful for people in this country and region.

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What do you think product people in Europe and in the US can learn from products in AsiaPac?

In the US, every idea right now seems to be funded very heavily by lots and lots of money and that’s not a bad thing, but it has sort of created its own problems. What we see over in Southeast Asia, is that there is a mixed bag of big unicorns who have really got a lot of funding and also companies that bootstrap their way to success, or to where they are today. And I think that’s something that’s always an interesting dichotomy.

The second one I think is just diversity. I truly believe that the diversity in Southeast Asia is something that is rarely seen in other parts of the world. Cultural differences, the language differences, the behavioural differences. It’s almost the same but it’s not. You really have to understand the nuances of culture or language before you can really get success over there.

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What do you think about internationalisation and localisation?

People think that localisation is just language, but they don’t understand the nuances. So, for example, in Malaysia Ecommerce has been growing because of COVID. But one of the things that a lot of ecommerce players have also realised is that for some reason people for some reason still want to use bank transfers to pay for things. And that forms a sizable group, and these are the older generation but these are the older generation that are now jumping onto the eCommerce bandwagon realising that they don’t have to go to the grocery store to buy groceries. I don’t have to go to a shopping mall to buy the things that I need.

It’s not just about, you know, making credit cards available to everyone. Another example I would give is also understanding the difference between those who have and those who have not got bank accounts. Again this is from the FinTech industry. I’m using it as an example because right now FinTech is blowing up in Southeast Asia, where it has been for the last couple of years. It’s great to see startups that are trying to serve the underserved people who traditionally don’t even have bank accounts, How would they pay for things? How would they get micro loans? So it’s heartening to know that these startups exist. These are the nuances that may not be as apparent. The difference between the unbanked in Indonesia versus the unbanked in Vietnam, for example, would be very different. You know, just based on your income levels their spending habits and things like that. So definitely goes a long way past just language as localisation.

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Remote working is about having remote customers and remote stakeholders. So, how do you go about understanding those cultural differences?

In this day and age, we have Zoom, we have all the tools. It’s almost unimaginable that we would not do, or rather we would use remote, as an excuse not to do something, whether it’s trying to manage stakeholders or whether it’s trying to get feedback from the customers, I think we have to do it. and it’s also being accepted within the wider market. And what I mean by that is, for example, if you are in the States, and somebody calls you up to ask you about your internet bill, and that person has an Indian accent. It used to be in the past, the first thing that comes to your head is that they probably have an outsource centre in India. But, you know, while that’s still happening, now a lot of people are realising that hey, technology companies and startups and even enterprises have offices all around the world. Not hearing the slang or the accent that you’re familiar with, doesn’t mean that that person is any less knowledgeable, or is any less than what you would imagine. So I think from that perspective, as product people, we shouldn’t be afraid to interact with our customers.

When we’re talking about interacting with stakeholders, I think the adage that over-communicating is the best form of communication continues to hold true. In fact, it’s even more true in a time of COVID, or in a time where everyone is working remotely

From a Southeast Asian perspective where we tend to have more products that are built up for other markets or outside of our own local market, I think we just have to get better at managing our communication as there’s probably going to be a little bit of overhead, that comes with, you know, having to have more calls and and inevitably the different time zones that are involved. You know, somebody has to suffer so spread the suffering around the team! There was at one point in time where I was trying to handle the timezones that included the US, US East Coast, Australia, UK, and Malaysia. I used to end up having 7pm, 4am, 6am calls. I think by the time that year was done, I was done, because even the days I didn’t have calls I went to work feeling like I hadn’t slept or hadn’t rested. So that’s probably what I would say, we’ve got to spread that suffering a little bit.

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The reaction to Covid in APAC has been more decisive than in the rest of the world. How have tech companies have reacted in APAC that’s different to the rest of the world?

It’s actually a two-way street. We ourselves in this part of the world have learned a lot from what we’ve seen being done in other countries and adopted it. And at the same time I think we’ve also done different things which I think the world, or other countries, can learn. The first thing that we’ve done well is accepting different time zones and different geographies. Not so long ago many companies would have told you that it’s almost unimaginable not to be co-located because innovation suffers, communication suffers and I think all of that is true. But I also think that the flip side of that is you can make it work if you want it to work. You will have to make some sacrifices, you will have to compromise. But it’s not impossible and I think that’s where we in APAC have learned.

One of the product leaders that I know is based out of Singapore, but she’s building up the market in Australia and New Zealand, and how she did it pre-COVID was they would fly her there every eight weeks and now in COVID you can’t do that. You just use tools. So technically, nothing really has changed if you think about it, but it’s really just the attitude of – okay now that I can’t be there in person, I’m going to use a tool as a substitute and try to make it work.

And what we have learned in terms of COVID is that we can actually be more distributed, and not just rely on the big companies to be distributed. What I mean by that is, so a lot of startups in this part of the world start off very small and they tend to want to be co-located. But again, now that COVID has hit it has really changed the complexion and you’re seeing more and more companies who are talking about hiring in places they wouldn’t have considered before. In the past, it’s always been the other way around. Big companies would say that ‘we’re willing to hire from anywhere else in the world as long as you have an overlapping timezone.’ So I think in APAC what we’re learning is that we can do that, even if we’re not a big enterprise company or you know we’re not we’re not a company that started in some other country to begin with.

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Do you think we’ll see more companies going fully remote?

I think it will be slower, but I definitely do think that a lot more companies are reevaluating their position in terms of how strict they want to be about geography and time limitations as well. Covid has forced us to reevaluate our long-held dogma about having to work synchronous times or synchronous communication. Asynchronous communication is the frontier now and one we’re going to have to solve. Because it solves a lot of other problems as well because if you’re not limited by having to be in the same timezone it means that you can then adopt the ‘follow the sun’ model for example,

Companies are also understanding that the conversation doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I mentioned this earlier in the year when I was on The Product Experience podcast with Lily and Randy, that a lot of companies seem to be thinking that everyone goes to the office or everyone goes fully remote and fully distributed with no middle ground. And I think what we’re beginning to see, as the pandemic continues to draw out, is that we may have to be flexible with solutions. There are some people who are literally dying because they cannot get work done at home, that they just need that solace of the office to do work. And then there are some people who are reinvigorated by working at home. So I think that conversation is the other frontier that really is beckoning us – maybe you don’t need that much floor space, but you may still need an office space where people can just go and find a place that suits them best to be productive.

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So Singapore went into lockdown, Hong Kong was already in lockdown and Malaysia went into lockdown as well and the company that I was working at was a food marketplace where we in-person food catering for tech companies. It was a fantastic infallible business model, except for Covid! So I was made redundant. I have to tell you that the feeling was absolute crap.

We need to understand that it’s okay to feel really bad, because this situation is unwarranted right. Nobody knew it was going to be this bad, and nobody knew that lockdown was going to be this severe – unprecedented is the word we seem to use a lot these days. So that’s the first thing that I had to come to terms with. I had to make this big decision of how I was going to manage this because it feels almost like a fall from grace. So, in the last six years I had people coming to me and offering me opportunities at their companies. And then suddenly I’m in this place where I have to look for a job. So understanding how to tackle this was very important.

I am very fortunate that I’m in a position where I don’t have to rush to look for a job. And I think the other thing that people should take into consideration if you’re in the midst of redundancy or furlough is your financial situation because I think that determines how you will attack this piece. If you are not in a good state and you really have to get back into the workforce as soon as you can, then I would just take the best of what’s around, and then when this is over, you can reevaluate.

But if you’re like me and you’re a bit more fortunate and can afford to choose, take the time to think and take the time to relax. In the first two months of redundancy, I still drove myself into the ground trying to look for any jobs that were out there. Then I realised, I can spend this time with my wife and my two sons. They’re at home right now so if we could make it more fun for all of us without letting the pressure get to us then that’s for the best.

Also, I wanted to be able to find the right fit for the next job so, it hasn’t been all rosy and I there’s been some near misses. I thought I had found it and I didn’t, and that’s okay. It sucks. And then you feel that inevitable crash. But then you’ve gotta pick yourself up again and keep trying, because it’s not that. It’s not that you suck. Again, it’s really just the state of play that we have now.

The last thing I would say is, find somebody that you can talk to, maybe some therapy. I think this needs to be said because people like us in Product are very used to being the hardy ones, the ones who get things done. You put a barrier there, we’re going to climb over. But I think at a time like this, it’s okay to be vulnerable and it’s okay to say that I really have no idea what I’m doing or why this is happening.

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How are you thinking differently about what opportunities you’re looking for next? Is it affected by the new world around us?

In the past I’ve had very strong preferences to particular industries where I feel I bring the most value. And that’s where I’ve been challenging myself. Do you really want to stay confined and only play in this part of the pond? Or do you really want to expand? Secondly, I think there are different opportunities. I never thought in my entire life I would be freelance consulting right now. And yet here I am today doing freelance consulting and it’s probably not as bad as I made it out to be. I would still love to be able to grow with a product but this is also a good learning curve.

I’ve also been challenging myself to do different things. So, I started the podcast. I literally had zero knowledge on how to do podcasts. I was never really that interested but I knew that I wanted to create this avenue where people could learn. I was thinking, what about something that is targeted regionally? How do we bring the spotlight to leaders within the region? And lo and behold we now have 17 episodes.

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Are you still seeing a shift in focus in Southeast Asia from VC funded growth to sustainable business?

In terms of the unicorns I think they have to be a bit more careful. That’s not to say that funding is not happening – we’re always getting news that startups are getting funded. It’s still happening. But what I think is also happening is we’re being a bit more intentional with our decisions. I think we’re having to dog food our own frameworks and advice. In that sense, and you’re seeing that happen even within the unicorns they’re really scrutinising what has worked and what has not worked right in the past. They’re having to prioritise!

Companies are getting leaner as well. They’re getting better at being lean, not just in terms of the framework, but in terms of knowing who gets to do what and being really cross functional.

In terms of hiring I think it’s a bit slower for the bigger companies. A lot of them have actually had to either downsize or rightsize if you want to be politically correct. Some of them have had to take pay cuts, like at some of these unicorns, their executive levels are not taking salary for the rest of the year.

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Have you seen anything particularly exciting or interesting coming out of COVID in terms of new products or services?

Well, I think what’s interesting now is Healthtech and MedTech – they’re pretty sexy!

They weren’t as popular but now people are realising their value, especially apps that help with your mental health as well. So those are just kind of the interesting innovations that have come up. The other one is also the FinTech industry catching up, even the banks are having to really think on their feet because nobody’s going to walk to your branch anymore and try to set up an account so what are you going to do to serve them virtually.

Ideas about super apps have been bouncing around too. In Southeast Asia ever since WeChat became the super app everybody’s been trying to do it. Or at least that was the buzzword of last year, and the year before. But then I think some of these really big players are realising that you can’t really replicate this super app idea just because you want to. So, they have this renewed focus on which verticals work and which don’t. At the same time, you also have some of these other players who realise that they want to innovate and now they suddenly have this idea of becoming a super app, so I’m very interested to see how this dichotomy works.

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Where do you think we’re going to land with super apps?

I think the super app phenomenon was only ever going to happen in China and I think we’re not going to be able to fully replicate that in any part of the world. And the reason why I say that is because the super app phenomenon again came out of a situation where they had to innovate. They didn’t have a choice. They were looking inward. At that point in time they wanted to serve only the Chinese market. So that’s how they came up with the super app. It wasn’t that somebody sat down and thought about how to be a super app. And that’s the problem with a lot of thinking today, with companies wanting to create a super app but not really understanding the connotation that comes with it, or the difficulties and influences. We’re never gonna get to a super app level, unless you’re in China. But I think we’re gonna land somewhere much lower, but something that surrounds the ecosystem.

So for example, I like what Gojek is is doing, because they’re playing within the space where they know they resonate with that particular group of people. Gojek started with motorcycle hailing services, so the group that they were targeting was of the lower income, and they became the friend of the people. And then they went into peer-to-peer lending and microlending. And I think that’s where a lot of tech companies in Southeast Asia are going to end up. You’re going to start with one thing, but they also realise that they want to build a moat, not just around one single deliverable, but around an ecosystem where you’re probably trying to bring value from an end to end perspective.

One of the things that will come up when you talk about super apps is WeChat. It was a lot of things to a lot of people, that was the amazing thing about the whole WeChat phenomenon. I listened to a talk by one of the product leadership team where she spelled out how it all evolved and it was very very organic. Whereas, in today’s age where we’re trying to replicate it, the danger is that we become a lot of things to a lot of people with no critical mass behind it. If you’re trying to build for everyone, you’re building for no one.

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What surprising themes have come out of your interviews on your new podcast?

How many people who decided to come to this part of the world for other reasons aside from seeing the product and tech booms. I had one guest who moved because he followed his wife. And he’s managed to really carve out a niche in product in this part of the world. I’ve had another guest who came to APAC simply because she wanted to see what it was all about. So, one of the surprising things was that I had this assumption, that people would come here intentionally. But for a lot of them, they just ended up here! Like there was this one guest that I had who’s been in Thailand. He’s loved Thailand for as long as he can remember and how he ended up there was just this whole string of coincidences.

I think the other theme is also how much these product leaders are really trying to broaden the horizons of product within the region. That’s part of the reason why I find these interviews really interesting. We have people coming back from the Bay Area, who obviously come from more mature markets, they’re trying to find ways to build leadership in this part of the world – local leaders –  and that’s been very heartening as well.

The third one is female leadership and female representation. I mentioned at #mtpcon Singapore that it was something that we could do better at. One of the missions that I’ve had with this show was to find as many female leaders as I could and it hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be. I was really happy to see that there are great female product leaders within the region who are doing great stuff.

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Where do you think Product needs to go next?

From a Southeast Asian perspective, we need to think about the things that we’ve very conveniently sidestepped for a long time. For example, disparity between the different groups of income levels. Som people always tend to try to build for the low income, some for the high income. And we’ve not thought about what we need to do to bring these two groups closer together.

Another one we need to face is racism. As product people, what do we do to stand against racism? We’re having to question our system in the way that we hire, in the way that we treat our peers, in the way that we even build stuff.

The last one is stronger conversations around ethics in product management. It’s coming to the fore but we’ve always found a very convenient way to sidestep it, but I think in the next few years, these conversations are gonna be very real and they’re going to have a very real impact on how we build products and how we actually do our role.

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