By Joseph Khaw and Kuo Pei Yu
Shermin is a Pre-Sales Consultant at Automation Anywhere, where she leverages Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to help organisations increase cost efficiency, speed, accuracy and compliance. Prior to this, she worked as a technology consultant at Veeva Systems. In this article, Shermin shares how she landed in the technological field, why she made her job switch and valuable advice for those interested in pursuing a career in this field.
I started my career in technology consulting about six years ago because I love problem-solving, especially in the digital transformation space. I specialize in a few technology areas and recently switched over from Veeva Systems to Automation Anywhere. In Veeva Systems, a company that predominantly provides technology solutions for the pharmaceutical industry, I mainly serviced my pharmaceutical clients on their technology needs.
Recently I switched over to Automation Anywhere, a robotic process automation (RPA) company that provides RPA software to our clients to help them reduce costs and risks, while increasing speed, accuracy, and compliance.
As a Technology Consultant at Veeva Systems, my job was to work with clients to solve their problems using digital solutions. Every morning I would check my schedule for client meetings and internal catch-ups. As every day was very different, I planned my time around my day. Once I checked my schedule and made sure that time was set aside for these meetings, I used the remaining of my time to prepare for meetings and respond to emails from clients and my team. If there was any remaining time, I used it to create reusable assets, such as training materials, for the team or participate in internal team building activities. At Veeva Systems, I also organised monthly internal practice sharing sessions among the consultants to talk about our learnings.
At Automation Anywhere, I am a pre-sales consultant, or what we call a Sales Engineer. The general difference is that my current job assists our salespeople to sell our RPA software. My work includes a lot of sales strategy meetings internally or with clients externally to understand their needs before recommending solutions for them.
I started my career in technology consulting and enjoyed it because I was given the opportunity to work with clients to solve their problems. From there, I developed skill sets in three buckets. The first bucket was about interacting with clients to understand their needs, developing stakeholder engagement and working with them to solve their problems.
The second bucket of consulting skills was about developing the technical knowledge to bring technology to my customers, where I helped them understand the technical jargon, how technology solves their needs, and most importantly, how the solution fits into their business.
The third bucket of consulting skills was project management. As a technology consultant, I was running a lot of timelines, budgets and resources, which included people and assets. Over the years, I have garnered numerous experiences and project management certifications.
However, I don’t particularly enjoy the work, specifically chasing people for the deliverables, chasing timelines, and having that pegged to my performance. That is why I decided to focus on the first two buckets, which led to my switch to sales engineering, where the role allows me to focus more on meeting clients and recommending the right products for them.
The next bucket of skills that I still need to develop as a sales engineer will be working closely with sales and understanding their strategies. That is something new to me and I’m happy to develop this at the next step of my career.
I kind of stumbled into the technology field. I obtained a degree from SMU in Information Systems Management. I chose it because I didn’t do well for my A-Levels and did not have many choices. Back then, technology wasn’t such a big thing, especially compared to banking and finance. After a process of elimination, I decided that technology was a field within reach that I did not mind trying, so I went with it.
Within Information Systems Management, there were a lot of people who decided to switch out of technology because they discovered it was not what they wanted to do. However, I discovered that technology consultancy was an area that I could do well in. I really love problem-solving and thought consulting would allow me the opportunity to do that, so why not focus on consulting within technology? I tried to leverage my degree and make the best out of it. I stumbled into it, but I think it turned out well!
To me, attending university is not just about getting a paper certification, unlike perhaps our parents’ time, because anyone can do that easily online nowadays. University is about gaining exposure, trying different things and learning. Apart from being the reason why I got into and still am in technology, one way that SMU really influenced me was on how I can learn to learn.
Our professors ingrained in us this methodology of learning to unlearn, relearn, and learn new things. This is especially important in the technology field as it is always evolving and what we learn in school might be obsolete by the time we graduate. It’s important because I don’t think there was such a thing as RPA when I was in school. I think it only got more mainstream in the last few years, so it’s really about how I have learned to pick up new skills over time. It’s not about just learning things from school anymore, but it’s about learning to learn, and I continue that in my current work because we need to keep up with technology.
In my time, the real reason why I went for an exchange was because I was pretty burned out by my second year in university and wanted a break. I was juggling so many things — trying out different CCA, leading community service projects overseas, leading CCAs and keeping up with my grades — and was so stressed that I suffered a breakdown. I wanted to take a break from all these and was lucky to secure a slot in the exchange programmes.
Through the programme, I managed to interact with other exchange students who offered me interesting perspectives different from mine. That’s the beauty of travelling as it enriches experiences when meeting new people.
If you asked me that when I first graduated, I could tell you at length about what I wanted to do in 5-10 years. But right now I’m at a different stage of life where it isn’t just about me anymore — I need to think about my family and others around me and how I can put my life around them.
When I was graduating, I was determined to spend the next five years full gear into my career and was very focused on making the most of it, which I did. I’m quite happy with the results and with where I am now. I went into consulting and enjoyed it, but I also found areas that I didn’t enjoy and made a pivot. I am in sales engineering now and am enjoying it a lot more. I am glad that I made that choice early in my career and am not stopping now because I’m just five years into a career when we actually have 50 years to do something worthwhile. So I am in that second stage of exploration. I want to make sure that this is what I have chosen, what I want to invest my time in, and want to do well.
In my next five years I want to choose something to specialize and do well in. RPA might become my specialisation or I may want to move back into serving my pharmaceutical clients and looking at pharmaceutical technology. I think I have built up enough experience in my last few years to look at either area.
I’m not very sure what I will be doing in 10 years’ time, but I will definitely continue solving problems. I want to do good in the world and am very sure that technology is a good tool to do so. Whether it’s HealthTech, MedTech, or anything that brings human quality of life to a better level, technology is improving the world in its own way. I have confidence that technology will continue to play that role in society and I hope that I still continue to play a role in it too.
I planned to spend my 20s being a nomad or explorer, way-finding my career direction based on my ‘why’. I intend to spend my 30s being a farmer, settling on my chosen pasture by sharpening my skill-sets and cultivating my niche.
For those who are still exploring, I encourage you to take a look at:
- Design Your Life – a book on applying design thinking to life written by Stanford University professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
- TEDx video on Portfolio Careers: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=gYGkU9YztyA
I would advise them to not chase a paper certificate. It’s not a paper certificate that allows you to be what you’re good at. While it opens doors, especially for your first job, as people recognize that you don’t have much experience, that’s how far it will get you — the first job.
What you need beyond that is your life experiences. Whether it is your network, your projects or certain developments, those will be on your resume forever. Also, because what you learn may be obsolete by the time you graduate, it is really important to get the right attitude to learning. I don’t want to use the word lifelong learning because I think it’s overused, but I think that concept is really about having a growth mindset and always improving yourself.
I feel that university is the best time to explore and dive into your passion. For example, you might be super enthused by FinTech now because it’s the in thing and go head on into it, which is a good thing, but also use the time to explore and pick up side hustles. Join a CCA to find out about something else. It doesn’t have to be academic related because you can pick up useful skill sets from there, build your network and meet new friends. I think your network is what will get you far. Especially beyond your first job, I think your network is your net worth!
Go for experiences, go travelling, go for exchanges, and talk to different people, especially people who are different from you because I always feel that they will always offer a different perspective.
As your university years are your foundational and formative years, it is important to explore not only by looking outwards, but by also looking inwards then. Reflect internally to find out your personal ‘why’. Find out why you are doing this. If you like FinTech then go deeper and find out what about FinTech attracts and interests you. After researching and asking the right questions, you will find that no job is a bed of roses, for example in Tech, some pressure points will be: fast-paced, long hours, and high-stress. It’s not for everyone, and even if you can manage it for awhile, you may still suffer a burnout in the long run. So when the going gets tough, it is your ‘why’ that will keep you going.
In addition, your ‘why’ gives you direction so that you won’t blindly follow trends, because trends come and go. Many of my seniors went into Bioengineering as Singapore wanted to be the Bio-chem hub then. The next wave that came along was probably Finance, and now Tech. Who knows what it might be in the future? Yes, trends show you what roles are currently in demand and increases your employability, but if you are miserable in that role, it gets you nowhere (unless your main priority is survival and not job satisfaction — I don’t think we are talking about surviving in your job here, but thriving in your career).
Guided by your ‘why’, I would advise youths not to set career goals (e.g. I want to be a consultant), but set career directions (e.g. I want to solve problems). Because we live in the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world, where roles that exist 5 years later may not exist today, so why should you be modeling your career over something yet to be? And we live in a world where everyone is empowered to create. So if you find a problem that is unsolved or a role that is yet to exist, why not start a business to address it?
As a technology consultant, many would think that the key word is ‘consulting’. However, I feel that consulting doesn’t really explain what I do in my daily job. I would identify more with ‘digital’.
I think people have a preconceived notion that consultants wear business suits, travel all around the world and work with big clients. However, in reality, consulting is a broad term used to describe people like me who are providing a wide range of services to our clients and, for me, the focus is on digital transformation. What I do is to help my clients identify problems that they want to solve and design a technology solution for it. So my value-add here is technology. However, I feel that a lot of students don’t realise that consulting is such a broad umbrella term that encompasses so many things. Those who are really interested in consulting can talk to different consultants and understand their niche.
In fact, there are many ways to conduct due diligence beyond just talking to those already in the role. These include simple steps like researching a detailed job description on Linkedin, to reading books, buying an industry veteran coffee, taking an internship, reading Advisory interviews etc — whichever way is most suitable for the role and industry you want to find out about.
I guess my circumstance is a bit different. It’s more of a reverse engineering process as I was doing information systems in university and wanted to make the most out of my major. After numerous processes of elimination (e.g. realising that I wasn’t going to be a developer as I wasn’t the most efficient programmer), I concluded that technology consulting is my thing.
I also know a lot of students who know that they want to do consulting but are exploring the niches available in it. This is great but they just need to find out more about the fields available and perhaps understand what those consultants do on a daily basis to make a more informed decision.
There are different branches of technology and I think most people are more familiar with the consumer side of it, such as Grab. However, for digital transformation consultants, like me, we are mostly working with businesses, so it’s more about enterprise software, which also have different types. In Veeva, I worked on customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, content management systems and case management systems, which are all B2B software that students pay less attention to.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a brand of technology that is upcoming for enterprises. It is about making business processes faster and more accurate by replacing human labor with robots so that human workers can spend their time on more meaningful things, such as customer engagement, creativity and using their problem solving skills to think of high level solutions to their problems, hence increasing the company capacity.
It is interesting how RPA is gaining more recognition in recent years — even schools are offering elective modules on RPA now. There are also a lot of online resources on it too. I would recommend courses offered by the Big 3 in the industry — Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and UiPath. Nonetheless, don’t just stop at RPA because there are so many other enterprise software to explore too.
My main advice would be to not be too fixated on getting perfect grades. In my process of doing so, I gave up a lot of opportunities to learn and explore. For example, I chose modules that are easier for me to manage over modules that could possibly expose me to different things. Looking back, I think that is a waste because I realised that university is a time for you to explore, to trial and to fail without dire consequences. While it is important to keep up with your grades, there should be a balance between getting good scores and trying out different things in university.
Don’t be daunted by setbacks. As shared, I did not do well for A Levels. It was a huge blow because I came from the Integrated Programme and my friends were all going places — receiving scholarships and embarking on overseas education. But it was also a blessing in disguise because I told myself university was my ‘2nd chance’ and I was super motivated to prove myself — my determination led me to receiving a mid-term scholarship in my 2nd year. Furthermore, if I had stellar grades for A-Levels I might not have picked Information Systems Management as my course of study and will not be where I am now. Everything happens for a reason!
To find out more about Shermin’s professional background, you may find her Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/shermin/