Conversations with Josephine Tan

By Low Zi Lin and Caleb Thein

Josephine Tan is the Solution Services Director for Digital Platforms, Global Technology at McDonald’s. Having had experience in digital product, marketing and technology, she prides herself in her ability to adapt and lead her team with empathy. In this article, she sheds light on her journey in the digital and technology industry, after graduating with a Communications degree.

​​I have a structure for a typical week, and not so much for a typical day as it’s really fluid on a day-to-day basis. On Mondays, before I start diving into the week, I set aside a few hours in the morning to catch up on emails and plan my work for the week before getting into the first call. On Friday evenings, I am deliberate in putting a stop to work and respect my time to recharge. Typically, my work days are long, running from as early as 6 am to as late as midnight, because I have meetings with team members, stakeholders and vendors from different markets and geography, and consequently, time zones.

A lot of my calls involve driving the progress of various projects. These include planning and creating alignment with the various working teams and stakeholders, solving for challenges, and ensuring that deadlines are met.  On top of that, I have one-to-one calls with my team members weekly to either discuss work or to catch up personally. I believe this is extremely important in creating emotional connection and support. This is especially crucial for remote working since the pandemic began, and also because some of my team members are based overseas.

I manage the delivery of solution ready capabilities and services for two key digital platforms for our international markets: the McDonald’s app and McDelivery. 

The McDonald’s app is live in more than 60 markets, and some of its features are unique to specific markets. For example, we have a loyalty program in over 30 markets where customers accumulate points that can be exchanged for rewards. Customers can also order and pay for their food and drink on the app for pickup in the restaurants in parts of Europe, the U.A.E in the Middle East, and Malaysia in Asia.

As for McDelivery, my team manages the owned ordering channels such as websites and mobile apps. My team’s job is to ensure the development and delivery of features that are needed in the various markets to function and drive business growth.

I actually stumbled into technology post graduation during my first job with Pacific Internet Limited, where I conceptualised and produced the first women-focused online content and social site in Singapore during the first dotcom boom back in the 1990s. To accomplish this, I went for courses to learn how to code in HTML and JavaScript. 

Subsequently, I moved into digital marketing with the setup of new audience development functions and analytics at the (then) CNET Networks, and was further exposed to the business side when I moved to China. Since then, it has been a constant journey of learning as I went into the ecommerce startup and agency worlds. 

In essence, I love challenges and taking on new, different roles. And, across my roles, I remain grounded in digital through product, marketing and technology. I believe that my current role is a result of a melding of all my past experiences. 

Another important point is that I had extremely supportive managers who were willing to take a chance on me. For example, before my role at Pacific Internet Limited, I had no prior knowledge about programming, but my supervisors believed that I would be able to pick up the necessary skills along the way. Having supervisors who believed in my ability to learn along the way allowed me to constantly value-add myself and advance my career to be where I am today. 

Firstly, you will need to possess an aptitude for technology. And hard work and constant upskilling are crucial because there is a lot to learn as the industry evolves constantly. No one is ever fully skilled.

Secondly, you must be adaptable to changes. This is especially true in today’s volatile environment exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, safe management measures are updated frequently around the world, which impacts our front-end operations. Hence, our teams must be agile in pushing out relevant solutions to support unexpected changes.   

Having accountability to the people you work with is also important. You must be accountable to the businesses that rely on your technological capabilities, your team members, and the service crew working on the ground.

Lastly, you must be a good fit both technically for this role and culturally to the company’s environment. For technical expertise, experience in managing digital products and working in the e-commerce environment is required. 

To fit in culturally, you must be able to work well in a multi-cultural environment because that is who we are at McDonald’s. A collaborative spirit is also crucial. There is a saying in McDonald’s that “none of us is as good as all of us”. To work towards something, we need the team, partners, vendors, and other departments to work together as a community. As a multi-national corporation, it is understandable that our organisational structure is hierarchical, but I try to keep it as flat as possible so that it is easier for staff members from different parts of the hierarchy to work together. In a way, having experience working in a start-up environment helped me to create cross-functional teams that cut across the organisational hierarchy.

Throughout my academic days, I really did not like Science and leaned more towards the Arts and Math subjects; I loved the creativity of the Arts and logic of Math. And this shift towards technology started with my first role at Pacific Internet when I started to code and found it to be really satisfying – it was both logical and creative at the same time.

Additionally, the soft skills that I learned during my schooling days are still applicable today. One would be learning how to work with different people. For example, I was in the Junior Common Room Committee of my hall at Nanyang Technological University which gave me the opportunity to work with people of varying personalities, deal with situations and be accountable to my cultural groups. I had to ensure that I had organised sufficient activities for members to participate in and for them to accumulate enough points to register for a room the following year.

I have three main takeaways which I am still applying till today. 

The first is to always be open to learning and building a portfolio of skills. I strongly believe in the Chinese saying “活到老,学到老” — to never stop learning. There will always be new knowledge to be acquired and new, better ways of doing things, and we must be open to them.

The second takeaway is to have good organisational and communication skills to move towards a common goal. This means being able to rally various teams together to work in a systematic and efficient process such as from gathering requirements and planning to development and release when launching a new feature. And being able to communicate well to simplify technology and complex concepts to drive understanding and alignment with the various working teams and stakeholders.

The third takeaway is to have empathy. For me, this means being understanding, to withhold any pre-conceived initial judgement, and to recognise that there may be unique circumstances that people are facing. This also means facing any concerns my team has head-on and giving my team the assurance of the value of their contributions and points of view. This is important to me because a team is so much more connected when everyone feels understood and validated. This fosters a more trusting relationship amongst team members, which allows us to do so much more together.

I would advise them to showcase more of their soft skills and aptitude since they wouldn’t have as much work experience. And while some level of qualification is required, individuals who show the potential to learn and grow along the way tend to stand out more. As such, one way to prepare for interviews is to practice situational questions, such as how they have managed a difficult situation in the past. Their answers should be able to bring out their personality, character, and values for us to assess if they are a good fit for the company.

I feel very strongly about promoting equality for women and giving girls equal opportunities. Speaking from personal experience, as an Arts-oriented person, if science had been taught in a more interesting manner with real-world creative application, it may have piqued my interest sooner rather than later. 

And for this reason, no one should be typecast into a category. They should be allowed opportunities to explore because interests change over time, and you never know what you could eventually be good at. There are so many everyday inventions by women improving the lives of people that go unnoticed and unacknowledged. Likewise, there are so many technological fronts to discover, and no one should be afraid to venture out and explore.

There has been more awareness in how businesses are treating data, specifically the security of their data solutions and customer databases. Businesses are now taking greater responsibility to secure their clients’ data.

Going forward, more attention will be paid to cyber and data security. The first reason is the exponentially increasing amount of data people are creating due to digitalisation and a trend towards e-commerce. This increase in attention is compounded by enhanced consumer awareness about data privacy, be it by documentaries shedding light about the negative effects of technology giants, or whistleblowers exposing the workings of technology companies. 

Moreover, with more people going digital, big data has the potential to personalise customers’ digital content. Hence, companies will have to learn to strike a balance between the convenience that personalisation can bring, and the discomfort consumers feel being under scrutiny. 

I was fortunate that I had a good piece of advice from my first manager who advised me to go overseas if I could, which was something that I did with my move to China. And I would highly recommend this same advice: Seize the opportunity to broaden your horizon and accumulate invaluable experiences. 

On the flipside, I do wish that I had been advised to be more intentional in my approach to networking; most of my networks were made unintentionally through shared interests and values. A purposeful approach can extend your exposure and opportunities beyond the unintentional one to help with your personal and career development.

Maintain your interest in the latest technology. In your spare time, you can keep up with the latest developments by reading up on them and talking to people in the industry.