Conversations with Ahmed Amer

By Jamie Lim and Jejhar Singh

Ahmed Amer is a Senior Product Manager at Rakuten AdTech division, where he leads the expansion of AdTech platforms for external text, display, and shopping Ads integrations that allow Marketers and Merchants to advertise with publishers like Google, Facebook, TikTok, Yahoo! JP, Criteo, SmartNews, and Adroll. Prior to this, he was bridging the gap between Employers and Jobseekers as a Product Manager for Tech In Asia Jobs.

My name is Ahmed and I’m originally from Egypt. I moved to Malaysia for university after I was offered a joint scholarship at University Technology Petronas by the Egyptian government & PETRONAS. Since it was my first time living abroad, I had the great opportunity for personal growth and to learn more about Malaysia’s culture up close as well as other countries within Southeast Asia. I majored in software engineering while at university. During my time there, I grew to realise I didn’t love coding, but rather preferred building tech products. When I joined Red Ape Solutions, I learnt a lot about building tech products, then at Minitheory, I learned more about user experience design.  Later, at Tech In Asia, I started to do product management, and now with Rakuten, I am building large-scale data products for the advertising technology division! We’re responsible for building the advertising and marketing suite of products for Rakuten group. We act as the internal technical arm for anything related to advertising and marketing – my team works on data integration to advertise any data that the marketing departments or clients have on external media such as Google search, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.

I’ll start off first by explaining what product managers do. Product managers are fundamentally problem solvers. They are uniquely located in the intersection between the business, tech, and the users. They collaborate, inspire, motivate, find problems to solve, find solutions, and work with others to create solutions in order to drive the whole product’s development, until it’s finally delivered and used. 

Just like how there are different types of designers, there are also different types of product managers. There are typically 4 types of product managers. The first type is involved in building the initial features of the product, finding out where their product fits in the market, identifying what would make them unique and give them success. They find out the business value of the product and help in developing the business plan and cost structures. The second type is involved in growth, by finding ways to enhance the product’s features and build new features that can grow their user base and the product. The third type is involved in scalability, helping to scale up both the product and company. The last type is involved in investing and diversifying. They help to find new ways to re-innovate the product and the company by perhaps branching into an adjacent market.

As for myself, my product management work typically involves building common, re-usable, and scalable features. When a seller on Rakuten’s e-commerce website wants to advertise on external media, I first figure out how to build features that can scale – how many publishers to integrate with? What if the seller starts to update their items more frequently to the point where data needs to be updated real-time? In such a situation how can we sync the data quickly? These are some problems I solve regularly on the job.

Rakuten now uses Singapore as a hub for attracting tech talent from Southeast Asia. I was attracted by the scale of the company since I had never worked in a company that size before. When building products, there is a different approach to what metrics are to be tracked. At Rakuten, every resource counts. So, if we want to use it, we will need to calculate the business returns for any given feature and weigh it against the cost – if it’s not working, we then either find a way to optimise the business returns or kill the feature. So that was something really interesting about going to a big company like Rakuten.

The most significant aspect would be that Rakuten operates in a Japanese work culture and mindset which can be very different from other companies. In Japanese culture, quality and service always come first

As such, while speed is a principle of success at Rakuten, it is equally as important for us to be agile and change directions when things do not go according to plan in order to maintain the highest standards of the product.” In Rakuten, the priority is to create products that can scale, yet maintain the quality. 

Additionally, Rakuten has 70+ companies in different industries – some are vertical, and some are horizontal. For example, our Japanese E-commerce website is a vertical example that works with some of the other group companies to attract customers to use one service, and then provide them with the option to use another service, e.g. recommendations to buy a travel plan or book a room, or use the banking service. Rakuten has a unique ecosystem, such as the ability to use Rakuten points from e-commerce in other functions such as getting discounts on hotels, etc. Our division is also in a unique position because we get to work with so many industries. Our advertising domain increases significantly with every new type of business sector. We’re always finding new ways to advertise our clients’ products and services.

When I first started, there were no courses taught at university for product management. In Asia it is a relatively new type of role, and even in the West, it is still being shaped and honed. It was an exciting but challenging time because I couldn’t find any materials to learn product management, nor could I find many institutions that were knowledgeable enough to help me. So, my biggest challenge was learning product management itself. How could I learn it when there weren’t any resources to help me? But it is heartening to see that the domain is growing, and universities have increasingly been catering to it. 

Additionally, I came from a very different background since I am an Egyptian who studied in Malaysia, who now works in Singapore. When working with different cultures, there are barriers that can make work fun but also hard and challenging. Overcoming that was a good struggle in its own way. In my current role, it can be a hard balance to dig deep into the root issues while trying to deliver a working solution that can scale.

It was very hard for me to achieve work-life balance because I am a workaholic at heart and because I do thoroughly enjoy what I do. Therefore, I do have to make a conscious effort to serve the other needs that will keep me healthy, whether that be working out, reading the news, watching TV, and hanging out with friends and family. Working in tech can be very life-consuming, especially in big companies like Rakuten, Google or Facebook, since there’s always a need to maintain a certain level of service. Consumers expect things to be ready all the time, but behind the curtains, there are people always working 24/7 to make sure that servers, data pipelines, applications, etc. are always working. Automation does not always mean there is no longer a need for maintenance to keep these functions running. So, it can be a bit hard to rest.

I wish I knew that product management was more about understanding the user problems & finding product-market fit rather than delivering a working solution. I previously set up a company with a few friends of mine and learnt that product design is essential in the early stages. I discovered that I do not have to spend a lot of time coding the product. We should have used easier methods such as creating a wire-frame design on Sketch or Figma or even just drawing on paper to test out the flows. I also learnt to always keep the user in mind.

Product Development depends on the domain – in my case, Advertising. We are facing radical changes. Currently, there are discussions ongoing about ending the use of cookies – the way that many companies track user data. They are the “ABCs” of advertising. Google & other advertising companies are creating new methods for online advertising, and cookies are likely to end. 

There will also soon be more privacy. Customer data will soon be protected by first parties, e.g., the browsers and websites. Customers will be more secure with encryption, and they will be identified through segments, e.g., he is a male, aged between 30-35, has these spending habits – so advertising will be based on user segments, instead of directly identifying a user. Such a massive change will likely cause a lot of disruption in the advertising domain. Since many companies rely on cookies at present, this shift could make or break companies.

To get a job in the technology industry, you don’t need certifications or an MBA. Some people enter tech without even attending university. I would recommend learning to negotiate, building on communication and presentation skills. As for skills on the technical side, learning to build a simple website, basic programming, and picking up the terminology that engineers use, will allow for discussions on a deeper level. It is helpful to learn basic concepts of design, e.g. how does a user interface get designed and how to build a simple wireframe.

When I first started my professional career, I always thought that I wanted to be a manager. But now I feel content with being an individual contributor and being very good at what I do. I also find it important to think about how I can help to develop the next generation of individual contributors, since if everyone wants to be a manager, that wouldn’t be good for an organisation either. Some prefer to focus on one thing and be great at it. On the other hand, there are others who would rather manage people and empower people to improve their skills. In my case, for the next few years at least, I would like to remain as an individual contributor and hone my skills, get better exposure, and learn more about the other kinds of product management as well.

I feel that younger generations need to put themselves out there more and experience more things, rather than just staying in their comfort zones – whether through internships, lower-paid roles, traineeships, or even changes in their career. I would recommend that all youths get as many hands on experience as possible, for these are experiences you might not get if you just take on a corporate job right away.