By Manivannan Charu Nivethitha and Aarushi Jain
In her role in the product management field, Jene Lim has been creating products and services that help solve a myriad of issues around the world, ranging from financial products for consumers to information services for businesses, for the past 17 years. Currently, she is the Head of Product Management at Experian Credit Services, SEA. As someone who is well versed in handling multiple duties simultaneously, she shares more about her unique career journey, the reasons behind her choice of path, and her contributions towards a better world.
As the head of the product management team, I will first describe the role of an average product manager and then the role of the head.
A product manager will need to work closely with the application development (technology) teams to make system enhancements when we create new products or when we enhance existing products.
The type of enhancements we choose to make can come via our account management teams who bring back clients’ requests, either to enhance existing products or to suggest new products for new use cases. It can also come from our scan of the market, regulatory changes, or direct feedback from our clients versus surveys or focus groups.
As a product manager needs to work with different departments, clients, partners and potential partners to come up with new products, there is a lot of collaboration involved. Hence, on a typical day, you may be in various calls with clients, partners, account managers, or the technology, legal, compliance and customer service teams to coordinate and get various projects done. Many stakeholders are involved in a product launch because we not only need to define the user requirements with clients or account managers and then implement system enhancements with technology team, but we also need to get legal and compliance clearance to ensure that products meet regulatory guidelines (if any). In addition, we will also need to educate the customer service staff and account managers on the product features and the frequently asked questions that customers may have. Hence, communication and coordination are key in product management.
To make a system enhancement, we will need to make a change request in which we come up with the user requirements or user stories. We will also need to define the user acceptance test (UAT) criteria and perform the UAT thereafter. UAT is done to ensure that whatever the application development team (i.e. technology team) has developed actually meets our user requirements across different test scenarios. Hence, before doing UAT, there are things that we will need to prepare beforehand, such as planning out the test scenarios and getting ready the test IDs. For example, if you want to test a scenario where a button works when you key in the valid ID, then you need to also test for the scenario where you enter an invalid ID format and then see whether the correct error message is shown. Once the UAT is passed, changes can then be deployed to production where product managers will also perform post-assurance testing to ensure they are consistent with what was tested earlier on.
We currently use the agile methodology in development, so there will be daily stand-up calls in which we coordinate with members of the scrum team, where we discuss the progress and identify the blockers on the tasks that we are covering in a particular sprint. We will progressively finish up all the tasks across various sprints to make the product changes that we have prioritised out of the product backlog.
The above sums up a typical day in the role of a product manager.
As the head of the team, I will catch up with all my product managers, either individually or as a team, to make certain decisions and to help clear blockers for them. I will also need to provide training, coaching and guidance to my team to help develop them as well. I will also need to set the relevant strategy, target and priorities for the team that are in line with the overall company mission and objectives. Apart from managing my team, I will also need to update senior management regularly on our product roadmap, our upcoming deployments, and any issues that we are facing in any major project.
When I was in school, I was unaware that the job of a product manager existed as I had never heard of this term before. At that point in time, things like law, medicine, accounting, architecture, and engineering were some of the more common careers people pursued. Product management was not a course in itself and was not commonly known. All I knew was that I wanted to do something related to running a business. However, I was still unsure about which career I wanted to pursue and thus, I decided to study something general which would allow me to explore my options in time to come. Hence, in university, I joined accountancy as I saw there is a lot related to business, law, organisational behaviour and so forth, which meant that I got to know how to run a business. Since I had studied auditing as well, I also tried interning at a Big 4 accounting firm, but I realised that it was not what I wanted to do.
After graduation, I joined the Monetary Authority of Singapore as I wanted to get an overview of the banking industry as banking seemed quite interesting then. Thereafter, I decided that I preferred to join a bank itself and be at the forefront of the action, so I applied to join Citibank’s management associate program where I got to rotate across different departments. In one of my departments in my first year, I was in the role of a product manager where I needed to launch a new product in record time, and that was the moment I knew the path of a product manager was for me as I really liked what I was doing. Since then, I have been at it for about 17 years. Finishing my first project was pivotal for me in deciding that I wanted to pursue this path, as it allowed me to understand what it takes to run a business and what being a product manager entails. Therefore, in all my future rotations or endeavours, I clearly communicated that I wanted to continue pursuing product management as it was similar to running a business, which was the original direction I wanted to go towards.
Sometimes, it seems like we are “Fixers” as we have to solve a lot of problems like the clients’ pain points or the day-to-day things that we may manage. I think I will call it a “swiss army knife” or an “iPhone” as a product manager needs to basically do a bit of everything and be well rounded in many areas. An iPhone describes the role of a product manager well as it has multiple applications which help the user do different things, from making phone calls to taking photographs to watching movies.
In my current company Experian, the culture is very friendly and everyone is helpful, nice, and punctual for all conference calls and meetings, which is good because we do not waste people’s time. It is also a people-focused culture, so there is a focus on staff welfare, training, and career development. The people we work with are very helpful and collaborative which makes it easy to do our work. Even when the going gets tough, at least we know that we have a group of people who are there to help us and to work alongside us to resolve issues. Hence, I think the work culture overall is really healthy.
To me, a perfect day at my job is when I go to a client meeting, pitch them something that we think is good for them, and they like our solution. It means that we have identified the correct pain points and that we are delivering something that is relevant to them, which to me is really satisfying. If we proceed with launching the product, then the day of launch will be a perfect day all over again because we are able to create something from nothing. Overall, the highlight of my job is to be able to create products and services that are relevant to our customers.
Working in Hong Kong was quite an eye-opener though it is one of those places that seems very similar to Singapore. However, when I was there over ten years ago, it was still primarily using Cantonese as a day-to-day language in the workplace. I was quite surprised that while slides and internal documents were in English, all the presentations were done in Cantonese. My main challenge then was how to navigate my way around this new environment though I was able to prepare the materials but for the first three months, I was ‘mute’ as I was unable to converse with others.
Hence, when going overseas to work, the immediate thing you may need to reckon with is whether you can navigate your workplace in the native language. Outside of work, you may also find that doing small day-to-day things such as ordering food or usingthe transport system may also be challenging if you are not fluent in the local language.
I overcame this challenge by trying to master the language through watching television shows. What mattered most was to be fearless about trying new things. For example, I would try to pronounce whatever I hear, even if it was wrong and I got laughed at initially. The more I tried, the more fluent I got. I was pleased that after three to six months of struggling, I was finally able to speak basic Cantonese in the workplace. Doing so made it easier to build rapport and be understood because of the common language, and I could be more effective in my work as well.
Apart from the language difference, another important thing that matters when moving abroad for work is getting used to the local working style and cultural practices. This is to ensure you do not accidentally do something that offends either the customer or your peers, even though you may not have the intention to or may not realise the consequences of your actions.
Thirdly, learning about the country outside of work is important. I made it a point to learn about the local culture and try local food. I intentionally do not only hang out with Singaporeans, although I know that there are some norms that group these people together. This is because to me, if you want to fully immerse yourself in a different culture or learn something about the place, you really need to try to forge friendships with local people as well. Taking the time to explore the local culture, food, and places will make your entire overseas experience more meaningful. This will ensure that aside from work, you will have a new set of experiences as well, and that is how you can maximise your learning when you are overseas. Nowadays, schools have many overseas exchange programmes, and one advice I have for the students is to learn as much as you can, not only for the main objective of working or for formal education, but also for a richer personal experience and new perspectives.
I would say I do not really have any career setbacks that were impossible to navigate though I think there were some experiences which I went through in the early part of my career that proved very useful later on.
During my second job, I joined the bank’s management associate programme and my first few rotations were across compliance, finance, mortgage, and SME banking, which were not the most glamorous departments then, especially when compared to others like investment products, wealth management and credit cards. If put under the same circumstances, others might not want to be in these departments and request to be put elsewhere as they want to do ‘cooler’ things. However, I accepted whatever role that was assigned to me and tried to learn as much as I could during those times. The skills that I acquired really helped me later in my career (even till now) though it was not obvious then. For instance, I have the knowledge required when it comes to things like looking at contracts, loans, insurance, banking regulations, anti-money laundering (AML), understanding and managing profit and loss (P&L), and how to use data to make various business decisions.
The learning point here is that sometimes what is useful to you in a career may not be obvious at the start. In my case, the skills I picked up so many years ago really helped me in my current job and this all-rounded experience allows me to be very effective when it comes to dealing with banks, fintechs and SMEs across their different use cases now. Hence, I think for a fresh graduate or a young working adult, it is important to try new things and be bold. It may not always look glamorous, but there may be a silver lining along the way.
Firstly, generic leadership skills are necessary for any leadership role that you want to pursue. However, I think you can be pretty effective as a leader in any industry if you can practise the four Es for a start:
Envision – You must be very clear about the vision you have for the team and communicate that so that everyone is running in the same direction. That is how you can then set the correct strategy and take the actions towards the common vision.
Enable – It is common that people working on the ground will meet with a lot of barriers and challenges. As a leader, you need to enable them by giving them the correct tools, or to help clear the blockers that are inhibiting them so they can be effective in what they do.
Empower – People, especially those with the correct skillsets and experience, should be empowered to make their own decisions. It will be more motivating that way as they can then do what they think is right instead of always needing to come back to the leader and get permission every single time.
Energise – To work towards a common vision and common goals, especially challenging ones, a leader will need to energise the entire team. There will be times during which you need to be a leader who is able to console and motivate the people when the going gets tough. And when they have done well, you need to recognise and encourage them so they can continue to thrive. When there are successes, small or big, a leader should celebrate them to energise the team as well.
For product management, this is a very effective strategy as we have to lead not only our own team but also teams who may not formally report to us as well.
Secondly, in our day-to-day work, stakeholder management is key as you have to be able to manage the teams that you work with internally and also know how to manage customers.
Thirdly, understanding the market and what customers want or potentially will want is very important too. Knowing these two things will allow you to maintain an edge over your competitors and be effective.
Lastly, since a lot of things are about judgement calls, it is also good to have strategic business acumen to know what to do even when it is not very obvious. You will need the foresight to know what action you want to take, especially since you will not have perfect information most of the time. Being able to deal with ambiguity and being decisive about the decisions you make will really help to move the team along and will make you a more effective leader.
Apart from work, I also have three children. To make sure that I have enough time for everything, I do a few things to manage my time.
Firstly, I timebox. For instance, I will start work at 8am and end by 7pm. I will eat and play with my kids from 7pm to 8pm and put them to bed by 9pm. Thereafter, this is followed by some me-time. The trick is to manage your time well so that you do not feel overwhelmed with any activity at one point in time and you are able to allocate a certain amount of time for the things you want to do.
Secondly, I prioritise fiercely. Not everything is equally important and urgent, and you need a methodology for prioritising so that you do not feel burnt out because things are stacking up. For example, in my line of work, there are new problems, new challenges and new opportunities every day — the list is never-ending. To avoid being overwhelmed or stressed, prioritise by knowing how to apply the 80-20 rule (Pareto Principle) and effectively focus your energy on the 20% of activities that generate 80% of the results. Prioritising will help you cope with workload and stress levels.
Thirdly, I make sure that I have time for myself. As a working mum, it is so easy to be consumed by everything and feel burnt out as we are always rushing around doing things for other people. Having my own time and space allows me to have different experiences which can trigger inspiration for building new products or simply move me along in a positive way. Work-life balance is not just about balancing; it is also about carving out important time for yourself so that you would not feel overwhelmed. It is about how you can have a holistic life fulfilling the multiple roles in your life and still have the energy to carry on every single day with passion and joy.
In my school days, I actively took part in CCAs and was always doing a lot of things outside of schoolwork as I realised at a tender age that good grades alone are not enough.
In secondary school, I was in the basketball school team competing at the national competition level and during junior college, I also joined the touch rugby school team. Sports can be very demanding, but it really helps to cultivate a competitive spirit and promotes a lot of discipline, grit, teamwork, and communication, which are skills that cannot be learnt from the books.
In junior college, I also joined the student council that allowed me to work with a team of people to organise activities and programmes for the entire school. I also campaigned to be the faculty head for my faculty as well. In university, I campaigned to be the vice president of the environmental club and organised a nationwide solar power competition for schools in Singapore. The multiple projects I had to handle in these roles helped to build up my leadership capabilities and project management skills. Additionally, it also helped build up my confidence in public speaking. That helped a lot in my career as I have to lead teams, make presentations, and communicate with many stakeholders.
All those experiences I had in school certainly prepared me for the workplace and if I did not take part in them, I would probably be just book smart, but not having all those soft skills. I believe these experiences have helped differentiate me from other job applicants with similar grades post-graduation.
The best thing I learned is the ability to make decisions when the information is not complete. I have learnt how to deal with ambiguity and to adapt when things do not go well. While I already learnt this to some extent in my past roles, I had to make a lot of decisions in my current role because of the velocity of innovations or product changes that we need to make.
From my experience, most people do not know what they want when they graduate. Some still do not know even after they have worked for a few years, and that is not uncommon as it may take some time to figure it out after they try a few jobs and industries to figure out their passion. Therefore, it is fine if you do not know what you want at the onset. Based on my own experience, even though I roughly knew that I wanted to venture into business, and yet, it took some time for me to realise which dimension was nearest to what I was looking for.
Even if you do not know clearly, what is important is that you are open to opportunities and possibilities no matter what job you are in. Do not let the lack of clarity about what career you want to pursue hold you back from performing. As long as you are employed and do well, doors will open, perhaps for the same job in a more senior role, or to a different job that allows you to try new things. The key is to work hard to make sure that you are the best in your field, and eventually more doors will open. Through this, you can then keep on exploring new things along the way and figure out what works best for you. Some of the most successful seniors I know do not stay in the same field but pivot to different industries and roles along the way, using the principle of “being the best in your field”.
However, if you are very clear about what you want early on, that is great as well. I think the upside is that you get to focus on what matters earlier on.
First, to be successful in your career, you need to have personal mastery. This refers to having the correct skill set and the ability to manage yourself well in all aspects, be it your ideas, your health, and your work.
The second thing is that your network and relationships are key. This is because no man is an island; you can be very good but if no one likes you, they will not want to collaborate or work with you and you will get fewer opportunities.
A product manager needs to be very tenacious amongst other things, so a question I will ask is: How have you exhibited tenacity in your past experiences so far? In addition, if I want to find someone who listens and is very proactive, I will want to see evidence of how that is the case. If I want to find out whether someone is resourceful and able to solve problems, I will ask questions based on their past experiences. This is exactly where CCA helps because otherwise, you would not be able to answer these questions. This is where you need real life experiences to answer the question well.
But recently, I have also come to realise that some people can excel in interviews, but they may still not perform well on the job itself. As a result, I now introduce scenario testing during the interview itself.