By Donovan Sim and Wong Yi Hao
Randeep is the Chief Operating Officer of Blockshine SG. Randeep has been helping large, complex organizations reconcile with blockchain technology for over 5 years. He has spearheaded projects in several industries finance, real estate, govtech, smart cities, supply chain, and clean energy. He was the founding member of KPMG’s blockchain practice in 2014 where he worked on helping Wall Street reconcile with the impact of blockchain technology on their business models. In 2018, he relocated from New York to Singapore to help drive further blockchain innovation in Asia.
Randeep started his career as a structured products professional at BlackRock where he learned how Wall Street operates before turning to management consulting. Randeep holds degrees in Finance and International Business from NYU’s Stern School of business as well as a Masters in Global Finance specializing in FinTech from both NYU and HKUST.
Growing up in Singapore, I never had the chance to travel beyond Asia Pacific, so when it came to the decision on where to pursue my undergraduate studies, the United States (US) seemed very appealing. Having talked to many people and also being a city person, New York City resonated with me and I decided to undertake my undergraduate studies majoring in Finance and International Business in New York University. There, I met my wife in my second year, and we’re still together 14 years later.
I made the decision to graduate a semester early to start a job at BlackRock, an asset manager, in the beginning of 2008. My team specialised in building collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), the structured instruments that were partially responsible for the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. We issued these CDOs as we genuinely thought they were good investments for our investors, but we were wrong. In the same year, that market crashed and everyone on Wall Street had to value these CDOs. It was an amazing opportunity where I got a front row seat to the crisis and managed to learn a lot as a result. Ironically, my team became very sought after as we understood these products. Eventually in the later months, we became part of the structuring for the US and Canadian recovery programmes.
After staying at BlackRock for about five years, I set up a tech startup in New York with a friend who was building a productivity platform. After a year and a half, we were not able to hit our funding target and had to close the company. I moved back to Singapore after that and was unable to find a suitable job for nearly a year. Ultimately, I returned back to New York and had to rethink my career. A friend of mine working with KPMG, an accounting firm, suggested that I try management consulting and linked me up with the partners at the firm. Upon joining the firm, I continued to be passionate about technology and began reading more on blockchain technology. I found it fascinating because it was a whole new way of thinking about value, data and assets. After trying multiple times to convince the partners to consider blockchain consulting, we launched the Global Blockchain Practice at KPMG in 2014. We talked to many of the US and European banks on Wall Street about blockchain and did a number of pilot tests, such as using blockchain for trade settlements.
My wife and I later decided that we wanted to give Asia a try and me being Singaporean and she working in commodities, Singapore was a natural fit. Here, I received an offer from a Japanese publicly-traded company to be the Chief Operations Officer at its blockchain advisory arm in Singapore. We rolled out enterprise blockchain solutions for government agencies and at large enterprises from various industries (e.g. clean energy, supply chains, manufacturing, hospitality, retail, etc). More recently due to Covid-19, the Japanese parent company closed the Singapore arm and I am pursuing my passion of forming a startup as part of an accelerator programme.
I believe that working cultures are borne out of differences in values. Culturally, for instance in a Western work environment, the “power distance” is a lot less – you call your boss by their first name. However, I did not like that there were a lot of niceties, a lot of small talk or “wayang”. Whereas in Singapore, I enjoy people being more direct despite the bureaucracy.
I like being back home in Singapore because it is has become very cosmopolitan during my time away. That also means that us Singaporeans have to compete with global talent. The people that I now meet in the startup scene astound me every day in terms of their vast, diverse and interesting experiences.
Singapore has the best GovTech in the world. That is largely because our system is set up to attract many top minds coming out of the educational systems to join the government. In other countries, the top minds are often attracted to do other things, but in Singapore they join the government.
Blockchain is now being used for some of the Covid-19 research, such as a blockchain-based tracking system aimed at helping track the people who have been vaccinated, if and when we have found a vaccine. This is a good opportunity for blockchain or other digital services to develop and they have suddenly become a lot more valuable. Collaboration software alone has grown by a sheer 158%, from $8.9 billion in 2019 to $23 billion in 2020.
On the other hand, I think that the finance industry is likely to suffer a lot in the next few years without the right stimulus or governmental aid. Using the example of a mall where its customers are down and tenants default their rent, the landlord has to also default on his mortgage and the bank has to take the loss. The banks are the backstop in this respect. Unfortunately, right now, we are in a position where without government intervention, things will spiral on a macroeconomic perspective. Like any crisis, this also will present some once-in-a-generation opportunities for innovation.
Blockchain is the convergence of economics and technology, or at least in the field of crypto-currencies. When asked to “explain it to a 5-year-old”, I say, blochchain is a magic book that anyone can write in, but where no one can lie. It is a system that creates trust between parties that have no reason to trust each other. However, where recording systems are concerned, one must incentivise others to verify one’s data.
I am actually quite passionate about many of the blockchain use cases that have developmental implications. There are many people around the world whose governments do not work for them. However, there are talented professionals working on blockchain IDs for the billions of people in the world who do not have a good government ID or access to the basic governmental services that are offered. There are also places in the world where the government seizes the land from its people without justification. With a blockchain land registry, this can be prevented when combined with a working legal system. Another tech example would be Brave Browser, where its developers took Google Chrome’s model, but cut out the middleman by replacing Google’s ads with their own while paying users to view their ads, all of which creates a new level of transparency. This is the democratisation of information that we are experiencing right now.
Blockchain sometimes have a bad reputation as it has been used for other more malicious purposes, such as scammers engaged in Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), which is similar to a kick-starter for blockchain services. These scammers who despite knowing that they are unable to deliver, still engage in the service and provide their customers with a token in exchange for their money. Even amongst those that were not out to scam, half of them ended up being scams simply because the developers realised that they could not deliver.
Blockchain is a technology that requires and facilitates cooperation. Thus, the difficult part has been to convince people who have been so distrustful of the technology. You have to convince them that although it is your own blockchain protocol, they should get on board. The collaborative nature explains the slow pace of the blockchain technology movement. An example would be Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world, where it has taken them five years merely to get half of their industry onto their blockchain software because the network effect only adds value when you reach a certain critical mass.
I have tried my best in my career to change the reputation of blockchain. I hope to play a small part in helping bring this technology from the theoretical level to reality, working on all sorts of use cases to help drive it forward. As such, I have always stayed on the institutional side of things, helping people to use the underlying technology and not trying to sell coins to them.
An increasingly fractured world with greater distrust possibly creates the need for a technology that enables trust. China has its own internet and technology ecosystem, and so does the rest of the world. However, if everybody believed each other and everybody was honest, then then this technology would not be useful.
There are countries that want to roll out a ‘central bank-issued decentralised currency’ or CBDC. When this system is designed a certain way, governments can track various transactions – exactly who is spending their money, at what times, and for whatever reasons. This has chilling implications because people are averse to having their spending strategies exposed. This differs from big data where one is not forced into having every transaction recorded. For example, paying in cash can achieve some level of privacy. Of course, this also depends on who has the data, for example corporations are more easily liquidated than governments.
Blockchain is not really an industry, rather it is a technology. Somebody who once went to a blockchain conference put it in a very beautiful manner: “We are here because we want to end blockchain conferences. Just as there are no more ‘Internet conferences’ because it has become so ubiquitous that you do not need to gather a group of specialised people for it. That’s where we want blockchain to be headed”.
It is not important to be formally qualified. As the industry itself is quite new, people cannot be expected to have immense amounts of experience in the field. However, I believe art majors often have more to offer than someone who has been as narrowly trained, simply because they see things differently. For somebody who would like to work in this area, I would suggest that they should first think very carefully. I would not recommend joining the industry unless there is a very compelling opportunity being presented upon graduation. Instead, I would recommend students to develop skills in other industries first. Only after having done so, one would be able to view the blockchain industry through that lens. The industry is currently filled with two kinds of people – entrepreneurs and the people behind the technology. Therefore, I think we could benefit from having more people who have studied art majors.
While the industry has been saturated and shrank a lot as a whole in 2019, we should take this to mean that the industry is maturing. The industry is not likely to disappear, so there is no need to hurry.
Maintaining a work-life balance has always been an issue. As a Singaporean who had been working in New York for a long time, I would return home for weeks at a time and those big gaps were challenging. This was especially so at the initial stages.
At this point, I would like to quote Jack Ma who once said that for anybody new to the working world, do not choose a job, instead choose a boss and outside of your immediate colleagues, choose a mentor.
Naturally, there are some regrets. Most of my professional regrets are about opportunities I should have seized, because you never know where things might have led you. The others are about the times when I felt that I should have stood up for myself but did not. As a polite Asian boy, I had to learn to function with and stand up to the Wall Street Type A alphas. There will always be people who will try to take advantage of you or try to bully you, bad actors and people who politic to get ahead. Know where your lines are and stand by them with integrity. When somebody tries to take credit for your work or accuses you of something you did not do, call them out regardless of who they are as it is the right thing to do.
Be very flexible – expect not only to switch jobs, but also careers and capacities. Always make sure that the thing you are doing now either makes you happier than the last thing you did, or will lead you to do something that would make you happy. Sometimes, that may mean taking a step back in prestige and pay. I have seen people end up very happy and really excelling in what they do because they were willing to take a “step down” to end up doing what they were put on this planet to do. It is not a race, rather it is about finding your own path.
More generally, one piece of advice I would like to give is – do not be afraid. The most rewarding thing to do is to leave your comfort zone and try something new. Even if it does not work out, you end up learning something. It forces you to use parts of your brain that you do not normally use.
I think there is a fifty-fifty chance that the industry will either blow up and eventually get there, or it will just slowly grind to a halt due to the lack of adoption. Many people believe that it is here to stay as the technology is there. Of course, there are problems with it and it is not perfect, but the technology is getting better every day because it is being patched by a very passionate and smart group of people. But it requires that community of people to keep it going, and there is no guarantee that it will continue.
Due to the technology’s scalability, I think the majority of value-adding jobs will involve convincing people to come on board rather than developing the technology itself. You need people who can create alliances, who explain the technology to people. The economics of it are clear, just that the political will is not there. However, the good thing is that the technology is a one-way street – every time you get one more company to join your platform, it is one step ahead. Progress does not roll backward, it moves forward.
My most recent non-profit work was political in nature — volunteering and helping with house visits at the 2020 General Election. I found it particularly eye-opening having lived outside of Singapore for a long time as I had the opportunity to see how a lot of people lived and met many wonderful people. I was expecting a hostile reaction from some, but most were very warm and lovely. There was one person that I met who was very open and welcoming to us even though he was certain he would not vote for the party I was campaigning for. He had shared with us his reasons and we engaged in a civil conversation, which is how I think politics should be. That is an interaction I will remember for years. My wife and I have also reached out to some families in need via various online forums, helping them with basic needs – like groceries – during this very difficult time. This work is both fulfilling and perspective-altering.
Previously in New York, I was involved in an organisation called ‘City Harvest’ (not related to the church!). Many restaurants in midtown and downtown New York only opened for lunch and often had unsold food left in the evening. We would collect the food and bring them to the homeless shelters. It was not just about food collection as there were many huge logistical problems arising from organising the food, but I thoroughly enjoyed solving them and delivering the food in, even in sub-zero weather!