Conversations with Julian Sng

By Adriale Pang and Pang Ler Yng

As Vice President, Regional Campaign and Product Operations at Lazada, Julian Sng manages operations in both aspects and communicates with stakeholders regarding product solutions and operations on the company’s platform. 

In this article, Julian explains further his role and work experience. He also advises how youth can prepare themselves for roles in this industry and shares how his youth and undergraduate years continue to aid him in his everyday life, bringing in a different perspective shaped by his experience studying overseas. 

That is a challenging question because it is ever-changing. My title states that I am in charge of Regional Campaign and Product Operations. That encompasses 2 different aspects. 

The first aspect is campaign operations. A useful analogy to explain what I do would be that I am an orchestra conductor and I get the different work streams, domains, and individuals to play from the same sheet of music. This involves things like understanding the business we are working with because we need to understand how to solve problems when things are not going well. I also need to know which departments to approach to solve these issues. There is a lot of back-and-forth collaboration because I need to actively work with the various stakeholders to come up with solutions. 

The second aspect involves product operations, which is the part where I can play a more active role in. I am effectively the bridge between the operations and product development departments. Businesses may not understand the technicalities of product development. It is my responsibility to communicate to people what their business needs and shortfalls are, and how we can make them more efficient. Once they understand these areas, it becomes easier for them to come up with solutions. I may also need to put them in touch with operations departments from different countries, all of whom come with their demands. We may also get other special projects, but this is on an ad-hoc basis. 

My day-to-day involves different meetings because operations require me to be involved in everything. So, I need to know what everyone is doing at any one point in time to prevent issues from occurring. It requires me to be encyclopaedic about the workings of the company.  

Additionally, it involves a lot of number crunching to make sure that the operations procedures are working well and to help us achieve better results if anything is going wrong. We do a lot of PowerPoint presentations as well because they are useful visual aids to help the local operations teams understand our ideas. It also helps our stakeholders when introducing new product solutions.

We also do a lot of communication with other stakeholders, especially our sellers. If we do not communicate, it would be as if a teacher decided on something but forgot to tell the students. In the same way, sellers have to know what the operations department has done to continue their business operations on our platform. Hence, we have to make sure our communication is very efficient and everyone is aware of the changes that have been made. 

In terms of campaign operations, I only really focus on the regional mega sales as I am in regional operations.  It would be impossible to deal with every sale on a minute level. An example of a regional mega campaign would be the 11.11 sales campaign, which is our biggest sale of the year. My main job scope is making sure that all the domains are doing what they should do. All the departments are experts in their fields so it is up to me to get everyone to work together and make the process more efficient. It is crucial to synchronise everyone’s workflow by effectively communicating and managing the corporate timeline. To go back to the orchestra conductor analogy, the percussion and strings can be played at different times, but they need to be in sync with each other and the orchestra as a whole.  

In terms of project operations, people have the misconception that the ‘product’ needs to be a tangible one, but it is more like a process. Let’s use the example of submitting your final essay for your university course through a submission process on an online portal. You may need to take up to 15 minutes to fill in all the different things the submission requires. What we try to do in project operations, is to shorten that 15 minutes into 5 minutes or even less. This involves doing a lot of things on the backend to ensure that processes work more efficiently for everyone.  

Our job overview involves trying to get the best deals and incentivising people to shop. When you are dealing with a lot of moving parts, sometimes you find that people do not upkeep their companies very well. The biggest issues usually emerge when we try to encourage people to proactively communicate with each other through difficulties. We need to step in as a middleman to help people share their objectives and perspectives with others to come up with a way to make things work for everybody.  

Communications are crucial in every single role, even in a specialist role like project management. You need to be able to work well with others to get things done. Even in something as supposedly individualistic as finance, you still need to communicate with other departments. No matter how lonesome your job may seem, being able to communicate is a skill that you should have because there is no escaping working with others in the workplace.  

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned would be to do what you love, not what people want you to love. I initially entered university with a double major in psychology and economics. Most people who knew me questioned why I did Economics because it just did not seem like something I would be into. I did it because it was what my relatives all excelled in. However, I dreaded the experience and dragged my feet to class. In the end, I changed to psychology and philosophy instead and I was much happier.  

This also applies to the type of job you choose: do not just go for the money. Sure, it can be an incentive, but a job is something you spend most of your life doing. You do not want to be dragging yourself to work every single day because you will get burnt out. Choosing a job you love will help you mentally as well, so try to find things that you can be passionate about. You can also think about how you can change your mindset to make even menial tasks enjoyable.  

Next thing, it is not what you study that will be the most valuable to your career, but your experience. For instance, project work teaches you how to work with others. Additionally, our time in higher education teaches us how to fend for ourselves when we are out on our own. It teaches us how to take care of ourselves and how to mix with the right crowd. You will have no balance if you constantly interact with people who party all the time. So, you should always try to surround yourself with people who are positive influences and can spur you on to finish your university successfully. You pick up self-discipline and learn to resist temptation along the way.

Last, the networking you do in school can come in very useful in your professional career, because knowing the right people can help you find a job you love and can also be handy when you need a certain service. You can more easily reach out to these people whom you interacted with before because there is already a shared sense of affinity.  

Yes! I have quite a different background from most because I grew up in China and attended an international school. Because of this, I was able to experience many different cultures and meet people from all walks of life from a young age. This helps me now because these experiences make it easier for me to foster a sense of familiarity and a sense of longing to find out more about them. These also make it easier to build rapport with a diverse group of people!

Initially, I stuck out like a sore thumb back in national service. After coming back from an international school in China to enlist, my accent was more western, among other differences, like the kinds of environments we were comfortable in, and our worldviews. There was one time when someone in the platoon was accused of losing some sheets and the commanders wanted to confine the entire company in camp. I was brought up in an environment where I was taught to speak up in the face of injustice, so I spoke up and asked what the point of threatening us with punishments was, rather than finding the missing items, or an alternative solution. Through this, I finally earned the trust of some platoon mates whom I was distant from previously, because now they finally saw that I was someone who would stand up for them.

I requested to be somewhere where things mattered, and so I got posted back to Guards. I questioned whether I really had to do things the old way, using brute force and ordering others around, and decided I did not have to. Over time I built trust with the guys. I constantly tried to encourage them. They were in the Support company; they may not be the ones to chiong sua, but they needed to believe that they were going to be the best, that they were Guardsmen all the same. I also made them write journals and promised to read them. Then I would engage them in one-on-one dialogues. I guess this process of gathering feedback is similar to work, just that at work they do not make you write journals.

In Singapore, sometimes office politics can get quite toxic, which I do not notice as much in the West. I wish people could spend more time on the larger purpose of driving their work, rather than on infighting.

Singaporeans may be more inflexible, perpetuating a “just do, don’t ask why” culture, which translates to leaders being inflexible as well. This may actually be linked to our education system ingraining habits of regurgitation. 

No doubt the situation is improving, and positive change may be accelerated by having greater exposure to foreign work cultures. Sometimes we need to learn from the West, and not be too concerned about non-essential stuff. For example, do you really have to send out this email by tonight? Yes, you may be chasing a deadline, but if your recipients are only going to read it tomorrow, and it makes no difference that you rush it out now, it is okay to shut down your laptop to take time for yourself and your family.

I would not say that Singaporeans are narrow-minded. It is too general a statement to make. Asian culture is generally hierarchical, people do not want to seem like they are challenging authority, or jumping the gun. But, with foreign companies and even tech start-ups with minimal hierarchy coming in, maintaining flexibility and keeping the overarching business objective in mind, it is no longer just about doing my job, but rather what I am trying to achieve.

I do not have a particular incident in mind, but the work culture in Singapore is trending towards more flexibility based on my overall sensing. The younger generation contributes to this as well, as we are more exposed to a global perspective.

As a fresh graduate, the struggle is generally about finding a job, and figuring out what you really want. However, you cannot really answer these questions until you experience more in life. Ultimately as a fresh graduate, you will not know specifically what you want, just a general idea. You will only start to know at a later stage. You can go in many directions, which can be a good thing.

Also, I wished I had the confidence to question more when I first started working. But of course, it is expected that because you feel you do not have the experience, you just follow what your bosses say, and you do not question as much. Having a good mentor when you first start working definitely helps!

It is easy to form misconceptions about others. Let’s say somebody sends you an email at 11 pm. You may not understand their situation, and why they needed to quickly get this email out. But, your dread and hatred for them grow, especially when you do not clarify this misunderstanding.

It is easier to work with people if you build rapport with them, such as by understanding their goals for a particular project, or checking in whether they had a good holiday. Little things matter, such as scheduling a meeting at a convenient time for everyone, and not bothering people when they are on leave.

During the pandemic, I was unfortunately retrenched, which made me reevaluate my life and career. I was drawn to this job because the e-commerce sector is up and coming. Everyone has to undergo a digital transformation, so for me, it was a case of why not do so via the booming e-commerce sector?

As for why I took up this role in particular, with campaigns and operations, I have to be a busybody. I have to know about many aspects of the company, so it really is the best role to learn about business. I also get great satisfaction from seeing the company meet its targets because I get to see the numbers and finances.

Dealing with people is definitely a constant. Whether it is a Chinese or American company, I see the same things: there are always people coming in with different responsibilities and ideas, adapting to different cultures, etc. The human aspect of this line of work is a constant.

What has changed is that pre-Covid, I did not think too much about the long term, my self-improvement and the like. The pandemic highlighted the importance of keeping myself relevant. Marketing is my first love, and as I still lecture on the side, I make sure to keep myself up-to-date on the latest developments in marketing. I also take courses and even started mentoring, which is eye-opening. After being a working adult for many years, listening to what my mentees have to say is a great opportunity to see things from new perspectives and keep myself from stagnating.

E-commerce is definitely going to grow. Previously, people did not shop online much, but nowadays all people have to do is press a button. Soon we may be shopping in the metaverse – who knows? It is going to be very exciting in this sector.

Firstly, being receptive to feedback. We can get quite defensive even when others are giving constructive criticism. It is helpful to recognise that sometimes the problem may not lie with us, yet we can still help to find ways to improve the situation. Taking feedback in your stride is important.

Secondly, being analytical. With companies being more and more data-driven, we can no longer just take things at face value. Rather, we have to analyse whether the business is doing well, and ideate ways to improve. Furthermore, we should think a bit more beyond our immediate tasks, and question why we do the things we do.

Lastly, good communication with other people. To truly communicate with others, you want a conversation, not a monologue. We need to think of how to get people to listen and not just hear.

A huge caveat is that in many jobs, you actually do not need to master any particular software program. Sure, in some business intelligence jobs, for example, it may be helpful to know a bit of what software like SQL and C++ are able to do. However, there are always specialists who can help with the more technical tasks.

To learn skills for your own interest, and skills which may help you in your career is good, but also remember to go back to basics, namely mastering Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and especially Google search! Knowing how to use search engines well to get the information you require is extremely important yet often overlooked!

I would say my uncles, for despite coming from humble backgrounds, they are now leaders in their own industries. It is perfectly alright to take billionaire tech CEOs as our role models, but for me, even the little things closer to home, such as the cleaner uncle in the office who cheerfully talks about his family every day, can be a source of inspiration. Little things like a close-knit family are worthy goals to aspire towards too.