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What MBAs Need to Know About Product Management and Tech Jobs in Asia

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AI (Artificial Intelligence), ML (Machine Learning) and PM (Product Management) – these are the hottest fields for jobseekers today and everyone is making a beeline for them, especially MBAs. But few truly understand what it takes to succeed in these emerging fields, and fewer still know what it means to take risks in their career to work on frontiers where few have gone before.

Dubai-based Swami Sekar is one of these rare individuals and technologists who does understand, having worked across Asia, the US, and Europe as an entrepreneur and angel investor. His career history that runs the gamut of established tech names from AMD to Amgen, Intel and VMWare, as well as start-ups in edtech and martech. Currently, he runs Winimy.ai, a Singapore start-up he co-founded in 2016 which provides omni-channel communication and voice-assistant technology services.

An MBA graduate from MIT Sloan (ASB’s partner school), Swami was kind enough to share his experiences with soon-to-graduate MBA candidates (including yours truly).

Here’s some of my key takeaways from an intimate fireside chat with Swami:

Don’t dismiss sales roles 💼

Swami had his first taste of entrepreneurship during his undergraduate years in Singapore, when he started a marketplace platform to connect local businesses with freelancers. The team growth-hacked the business without venture funding from zero to 10,000 freelancers. After graduating from Nanyang Technological University with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Swami spent a couple of years as a product engineer at AMD.

But it was his next stint – as part of the team setting up Meltwater’s operations in Singapore – that was pivotal. “It was amazing to work with all these hustlers in a new sales new office,” he says. “The managing director was about 27 years old, and it was a terrific experience.” Swami’s role at Meltwater involved selling to government, technology and finance clients across the Asia region.

Whilst MBAs have an easier pathway to marketing and business development functions, sales could actually turn out to be the better choice, according to Swami. Apart from the fact that technology multinationals in Asia are primarily sales offices, carrying sales quota can pay off in the long term, he says. “Don’t just think about the salary,” Swami says. “Instead, think about whether this will be a valuable experience five years down the line, as there will be opportunity costs to doing foot soldier-level work.”

Swami’s advice is to look for high-risk and high-growth learning opportunities in developing markets, more so if you have the backing of a large corporate or some kind of buffer. Ironically, Swami regrets declining such an opportunity when he was asked to start a new local office for one of the multinationals he worked at.

How to PM your PM career 👨🏼‍💻

Swami has the following tips for MBAs looking to launch careers in technology product management for AI and ML: be comfortable with using platform tools and get familiar with the technology stack and technical requirements (for e.g. Jira, agile and scrum), because PM is all about managing expectations between engineering and sales. Python, R and statistics and probability skills are pre-requisites.

Much of our conversation with Swami revolved around the opportunity set in product management roles, which was natural given the increasing importance of PMs. From my own vantage point (based on discussions such as this one on project versus product management from WWCKL), product-oriented thinking and agile development are set to become the dominant mode of management in most organizations if they haven’t already.

And the product management track is seen as the strongest pathway to business leadership roles. But the truth is dedicated product management roles in Asia are still few in number, according to Swami. In Singapore, where there’s a higher concentration of technology talent and product management vacancies, tightening immigration rules and a saturated MBA market could prove to be significant barriers to entry.

It may be helpful to look elsewhere in Southeast Asia instead, Swami points out. His advice is don’t be afraid to take the road less travelled, for instance by exploring Vietnam or a less developed market where competition isn’t as fierce, and where visa authorities are more welcoming.

On entrepreneurship, life, and living 🦸🏼‍♂️

As an entrepreneur, Swami knows how to launch companies and scale them from zero to $1 million in revenue. But because start-ups are so high-risk, nobody should start a new business if they just want to give it a try, he says. “Entrepreneurship is not a job due to the high probability of failure, and you have to be married to the vocation,” he says.

According to Swami, there are three types of businesses: lifestyle (revenue up to $10m), growth (revenue between $20m and $100m) and rocket ships, otherwise known as “unicorns”. Like Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly-Effective People, Swami adheres to the belief that everything happens twice in the world: first, through mental conceptualization and visualization and secondly, through the physical, actual creation.

He puts this into practice by outlining five-year growth plans and using a hypothesis-testing approach to find the strategies that work for him. His framework involves reflecting on where he wants to be in five years in terms of geography, industry and role. Even more fascinating is the fact that Swami has two mentors at any one time. On the post-MBA job search, Swami agrees that in light of Covid-19, the world has shrunk when it comes to available options.

The world is no longer our oyster – at least in the short-term. But rather than being distracted by the noise of what we can’t do, Covid-19 has eliminated the paradox of choice, and made it easier to be clear about what we really want and are willing to overcome challenges for, Swami says. “Staying optimistic is the most important thing,” he says. I couldn’t agree more.