Conversations with Chong You Zhen

By Jamie Lim and Daphne Yow

Chong You Zhen is a Lead Economist for Mobility & Deliveries at Grab. He graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering. In this interview, You Zhen shares about his experience working in Grab and how he made the career switch from a Senior Estate Manager at Housing Development Board (HDB) almost four years ago. He also offers valuable advice for youths looking to join the fast-paced and dynamic tech industry.

I will first explain what our team does, then delve more into my specific role in the team.

Generally, there are two main types of work that our team does. One is related to the field of data science — technology companies like Grab have access to a lot of data, and there are actionable insights that can come from it. The role of a data scientist is to make sense of things and enable data-driven decisions.

The other part of our work is about figuring out what to do in the absence of data, such as before an idea is proven, or before you are able to roll out anything that gets you enough data to base your decision on. This is more similar to business strategy — we put together research from external sources and form a coherent way of thinking about things.

In the Economics team, we combine these two functions to make recommendations and propose experiments with our internal stakeholders and collaborators.

In my role, I lead a small team of economists and we work on business problems relating to mobility and deliveries.

The range of work for an economist is quite wide-ranging, within and beyond the tech industry. Each company defines what kind of economist they need and the role is shaped that way. I’ve summarised my role above, but I don’t think I know enough about other Economists’ work to accurately highlight the differences.

As an undergraduate, I took a scholarship with HDB, so I spent a number of years there in various roles and learning different things.

I decided to make the switch because I think I should not limit myself to one company since the world is vast and opportunities are diverse. Even though I was changing roles and getting exposure to different people, functions, and subject matter, I was sure there would be so much more to explore beyond HDB. Also, I knew that the longer I waited, the harder the transition becomes — the barriers are higher, and the inertia that comes with taking risks are greater.

In choosing tech, part of my rationale was to take the path that can open up more paths for me down the road. Tech can broaden my options through acquiring skills that are in-demand.

The experience has been wild, in the sense that so much is happening, and so much is not tried and tested yet. Being able to see the proposal I put together get implemented and presented to real users is really satisfying for me.

Our work often combines the aspects of data science (model-building capability) and business strategy (making recommendations on how we should move forward). One such project I did was figuring out business projections at the start of the pandemic. In that state of uncertainty, we tried to look for the best data sources and built models of possible recovery scenarios, so we can plan according to that and move our business plan forward. As economists, we look at supply and demand, which are sharply affected by Covid-related government measures.

The first question was: can we guess how the government will progressively open up over time, and how fast the pace will be? Given the immense uncertainty, we needed to consider different scenarios. Second, how does that affect the supply and demand for different services (e.g. ride hailing)? Having witnessed the impact of the stringency of different government measures (e.g. social distancing, events cancellation, closing of shops), we were able to build time-series models predicting how supply and demand could look in the future (assuming certain scenario-based government interventions).

There’s so much hype about tech right now. In my experience, it is true that this is a fast-moving industry with exciting changes happening all the time. Tech is the space for people who are looking to learn quickly in a fast-paced environment.

For people who are interested in tech, it is important to go beyond the hype and consume the right information based on your interests and aspirations. For example, someone with more technical interests can look for tech blogs put out by companies, and read about the methods and techniques being used in data engineering and data science.

Within tech, Grab is unique in the sense that deep in our culture and purpose is the vision to “drive Southeast Asia forward”, and to do that in many different ways such as empowering small businesses to gain more visibility among their target audience. Also, people are able to work flexibly as Grab’s driver-partners or delivery-partners while holding other day jobs or starting their own businesses, thus helping them bootstrap and prevent them from bearing an all-in risk in their entrepreneurial pursuits. All these have been made possible through Grab being very cognizant that these are the end-users we are serving. This purpose-driven aspect of Grab is very important for me personally.

I had no clue. As an undergraduate, because I took a scholarship and did not need to source for internships or jobs, I did not think much about what I was looking for in my career. That meant that it took me a lot longer to be aware of the opportunities out there and what I wanted. I somewhat stumbled into this role in Grab — I had applied, interviewed and been rejected for several roles. It turned out that I possessed the business sense and critical thinking that they were looking for in the Econs position, and the nature of this work is also interesting to me. I was very lucky.

This is why I would tell anyone that you need to take charge of your own career rather than rely on your seniors’ or peers’ views. Instead of chasing the biggest brands or the highest-paying jobs out of FOMO, figure out what you want. And you can’t figure this out by thinking. Go out there and get internships, treat them as experiments. Ask yourself: “Is this what I want? Do I thrive in this kind of workplace?”

I enjoy the open and collaborative culture at Grab. People are generally open to ideas and happy to work with one another, and that energises me, knowing that hunches can be pursued (supported by a data-driven approach) and people are not doing things just because that is the way that it has been done all along.

Right now, I can’t think of any changes I would make. I’m glad that Grab has a strong culture of feedback and Grabbers continuously seek to improve ourselves and optimize the products we’re working on. If there were something I felt strongly about, I would provide that feedback and be assured that it will be carefully considered and acted upon.

Most of my transferable skills were soft skills. With more than four years of experience working in different teams and portfolios, this greatly helped me in my current role in terms of serving different stakeholders as the business changes and building working relationships and trust with collaborators.

Another skill is clarity in writing, which is important in public service. I was fortunate to be part of a project to make standard letters from HDB more succinct and reader-friendly. I picked up a lot from this project, in terms of how to write clearly and succinctly.

To prepare myself for interviews with Grab, I had to pick up certain technical skills on the side, so I went for various online courses over a few months. These courses are accessible and range from free courses to paid ones with certification. On hindsight, I think the best way to learn is to start a project and figure things out along the way. An analogy would be when you are trying to learn a language: you can get a teacher and learn the fundamentals, but it is only when you practically use it day-to-day that you will become functional in it.

“It’s okay for things to be tough.”

 For me coming in with barely passable technical skills, the first three months were tough, and I acutely remember having lunch with my teammate and telling him that I felt things were getting tougher for me every week. “When will this get better?” I asked, and he replied “At the three-month mark”. Somehow, his prediction worked precisely. I was doing whatever I can but also having thoughts of whether I had made the wrong career decision. If someone had just told me that it was normal to feel how I was feeling, that would have saved me some mental anguish.

My education did not directly prepare me for this. In fact, I have never studied economics, even in JC. As part of my engineering background, I did have basic programming knowledge. Back then, we focused mostly on the fundamentals in C and C++. I have not applied these programming skills at work, but that training in school gave me a crucial foundation to pick up the required data science skills.

As a systems engineer, something I resonate with is systems thinking. Systems thinking is about looking at relationships among components of a system to address the root cause behind a problem, rather than tackling the symptom in isolation. This turned out to be a useful skill in business. When I think about open-ended problems, it helps me to consider all the parts that are interrelated, and zoom into what I can change or intervene in.

I think being able to build trust with your teammates, collaborators and stakeholders is essential. For my role in particular, there is a fair bit of pitching ideas and convincing people to take a bet on your ideas before it becomes apparent. That means you need to show a coherent thought process through your materials and present them convincingly.

Broadly speaking, I would say that being data-fluent is necessary. This can come from a range of backgrounds, be it statistics, data science, computer science, or engineering.

Being willing to learn is also an important skill because the tech industry changes so quickly. You cannot simply rely on your existing skills. No one knows with certainty how the future will unfold, so experience is no longer a clear advantage. In fact, experience can be an impediment if you let it hold you back from trying new ideas or being curious of what is coming up next.

That said, the fundamentals remain crucial and don’t change that easily. The mediums and tools can change, but you can apply your ability to clearly convey information and convince people in any medium and context. This is similar for tech-related roles — the tools change and help you become more efficient, but the fundamentals mostly remain the same.

If you’re experiencing inertia in picking up a skill or making a career switch, I hope my sharing helps you overcome the inertia in some way. Take me as an example of someone who took a leap of faith and managed to see things work out.

Also, Grab is constantly looking for talented individuals with a collaborative attitude to join the organization, so check out our careers page!