Saying Goodbye to the Best Gig I Ever Had
Friday was my last day at Grab, and I wanted to give a quick retrospective, plus tell folks what I’m up to. I didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye to so many folks in Southeast Asia, due to Covid shutting down travel. Grabbers, please accept this as my chance to say farewell to you all.
Grab was an incredible adventure. I was there for almost two and a half years, and if it weren’t for the fact that there’s a global pandemic going on, I’d probably still be there. I think being at Grab made me a better person, and it certainly made me a better leader, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit.
But I have an unfortunate number of risk factors for Covid, and I’ve decided I’m going to just stay locked in my home for the foreseeable future. In my pajamas. Which meant Grab was going to be an increasingly difficult proposition for me, as things start to reopen.
I loved working at Grab… but recently it’s been harder and harder to stay effective working remotely with Asia. It has required a monumental sustained effort for Seattle folks. Normally I would travel there 6 to 8 times a year, but with travel no longer in the cards, I was turning into a vampire trying to keep up — increasingly often my days would be nonstop back-to-back meetings from 1pm to 2–3am, and sometimes later. It was taking a toll, mostly because I could no longer get face time with colleagues and be on the ground with customers in-region.
My boss Mark Porter (CTO, Mobility and Core Tech) has straight-up taken all the mirrors out of his workspace and wears a black cape and fangs and he visits Romania and sleeps in a luxurious padded coffin down in his basement by day, rising with the moon for all-night meetings with Grab. As their workday has lengthened during Covid-19, so has his evening, and he’s been up until 9am on calls as recently as last week.
GrabForward 2018: Mark is ALWAYS working, even when there are distractions
(Grab Thailand brand ambassadors BNK48 make an appearance at GrabForward)
Working From Home has I think surprised the tech industry. It turns out to be much more feasible than most of us expected. Engineering WFH productivity at Grab is generally considered roughly on par with when everyone’s in the office, in all eight-ish countries where we have R&D centers. For some people it’s less productive, and for some it’s more so, but on average, our surveys and schedules are pointing at it being at least a wash, and possibly even slightly more productive overall.
But it’s also “weird” and draining to do it all day long. And the meetings are also starting to pile up more than ever before, to compensate for not having real face time with people. I think this may be happening at a lot of companies, not just Grab. The industry is going to have to figure this out or there will be all sorts of new kinds of burnout. We’re in mostly uncharted waters.
A Grab team meeting in Bellevue, Washington, 2019
Having meetings all day is a plain fact of life for a lot of people in tech. But doing it with Asia from Seattle, where their morning begins in our evening, was shaping up to be just a bit too much for me. I have the utmost respect for my colleagues in the Grab US offices who continue to tough it out. Fortunately it doesn’t affect engineers as much, so the US is still a good place to join Grab if you’re an individual contributor.
So there you have it. In a nutshell, once the pandemic got into full swing, I started thinking it’s time to hang up the cape and fangs, and find myself a day job.
Ultimately I decided that this is the ideal time for me to do my startup, which I’ll talk about in a bit.
But first, let’s do a Grab retrospective, shall we? I want to share my impressions in the hope that you’ll find them useful or at least interesting.
Grabbers getting their heads shaved for a cancer charity.
From a mission perspective, Grab is world-class. They still have the social mission of creating a hundred million jobs and serving their customers in each country in SEA, with every market being special and somewhat different. Covid-19 hasn’t changed that. In fact if anything, Covid-19 has proven how important the social mission is to Grab. The executives took pay cuts, and Grabbers did tons of donations; they’ve rolled out over 100 Covid-19 initiatives to help drivers and merchants weather the storm.
Of course transport is clearly down worldwide, and the ride-hailing industry is no exception. But the world is also starting to shift more towards deliveries, and companies in that category can do well.
There is certainly risk for Grab, and they are going to have to continue fighting hard and pivoting hard to adapt to the pandemic. But they have strong Driver and Merchant networks; they can double down on Deliveries, while continuing to push on their other strategic advantages such as Geo and Finance. There is a clear path to success and profitability even during an extended pandemic — they just need to keep executing well.
A GrabFood bubble-tea vendor in Ho Chi Minh City, where we met a handsome VN pop star.
I just realized that’s probably his car out front.
I personally think Grab is going to do well. I was at Amazon from 1998–2005, and we watched in some awe as Jeff Bezos calmly weathered the storms of the dot-com bust and 9/11, doing exactly what Grab is doing now: Sitting on a pile of cash, controlling costs relentlessly, and focusing on execution. It’s how Amazon still operates today, in fact. I think Grab will wind up similarly successful, in time.
From an engineering perspective, Grab has matured significantly over the past two years, with a deep focus on operational excellence, a commitment to core platform work (including mobile platforms), and they’ve finally embraced decentralized “true” DevOps. Grab’s engineering bar is high, with many transplants from Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other big tech firms, as well as home-grown engineers and leaders who have survived brutal wars with ride-hailing competitors over the years and have come through hardened and battle-tested.
Grab also has a strong focus on data science and ML, and they apply it to essentially every facet of their products. And speaking of products, Grab’s Product team is also by and large deeply technical, similar to how it was at Google. Having eight R&D centers around the world (yes, including Romania, Mark’s new homeland) has its share of challenges, but I feel like Grab is executing exceptionally well these days.
Anthony Tan speaking in Seattle, WA at a Grab recruiting event
But the most interesting and memorable part of Grab for me is the work culture. Grab’s work culture is superficially westernized — in fact they are sometimes criticized for that by Asian people who don’t want to work for a westernized company!
Despite appearing westernized, soon after joining Grab you find that this superficial resemblance belies a vibrant and sometimes mystifying collaboration culture that was surprisingly difficult for us West-Coasters to understand and adapt to.
I could and probably should write a book about it someday. When Westerners are embedded in an Asian company, they need to figure out a set of unwritten rules that govern all interactions in that company. There are some similarities across all East Asian countries, and then Southeast Asia has their own spin, with Grab specifically having a Malaysian/Singaporean culture blended with a melting pot from India, China and other countries. And then you throw in the country-specific nuances (JKT, HCMC, BKK, etc.), and boy do outsiders have a lot to learn about interacting with them all.
The first thing to know is that Grabbers are nice. They are nice to each other, and they value being respectful to each other, to a degree that most US companies can only aspire to as they send out memos asking people please not to be assholes. I know you’ve seen that memo.
The next thing to know is that Singaporeans, by their own admission, are super entitled and whiny. Just Google “Singapore complaining” and get some popcorn, because their neighboring countries, expats, and even their own journalists all make fun of them for it. Singaporeans basically don’t know how good they’ve got it. Their quality of life is extraordinary.
I’m just kidding about the complaining. Singaporeans are awesome.
BUT — probably thanks to their 20th-century British influence — they absolutely adore bureaucracy. Of course they don’t think of it as “bureaucracy” per se, so much as just making sure that all the necessary processes are in place and forms are filled out and signatures are signed and approvals are gathered and you know, the usual paperwork lah. Grabbers in SG have created a process-generating machine that spits out a new process roughly once a week, usually involving spreadsheets, and let’s just say I’ve spent more time with Google Sheets than is probably healthy for a person.
Getting things done at Grab requires a set of skills that can really be thought of as life skills, since once you have them, they make you a better collaborator, a better leader, and even a better person. It took us a long time to figure it out; it’s an ongoing process, actually, and Grabbers have been super generous with us (few) Westerners in helping us understand the culture.
Me “racing” a buddy of mine in Jakarta during GrabForward 2018. Traffic moves like a snail.
Again, I could write a book about it; I just don’t have the space here to do it justice.
One of the key takeaways is that the entire company is built on, and runs on, trust relationships. If you don’t have a trust relationship with all your stakeholders — typically something that can only be built by having drinks with them and spending a lot of personal time — then you won’t get stuff done. I can’t stress this enough, and it hopefully explains why you have to spend at least ⅓ of your time there in-region to be an effective leader.
Another is that many core cultural tenets of Western companies, such as vocal self-criticism or relentlessly exposing reality, are anti-patterns in Asia. You really have to throw the book out and start over with an open mind and no expectations.
Cross-team meetings in particular have important social customs, and if you don’t follow them, then you are messing up and silently accumulating badwill. In a nutshell, you should never surprise anyone, never call anyone out (even politely), and never expect to get alignment in the meeting itself.
You should instead get everyone aligned beforehand on what you’re going to discuss, and preferably align on the resolution as well, before you get everyone together in a room. This is known as the “meeting before the meeting”. It’s your primary tool for getting things unblocked, and it can sometimes take many iterations before the actual meeting takes place to finalize things. The meeting itself should ideally be a rubber-stamp on the proceedings.
If you do it wrong, then there is often also the “meeting after the meeting”, wherein some of the stakeholders who nodded and smiled during your meeting go off afterwards and agree to do something different, and you might find out a month later if you’re lucky. This can happen when you fail to do the meeting before the meeting properly, and you don’t have a trust relationship with them. These two things go hand in hand — if you have a trust relationship, the meeting before the meeting is usually five minutes.
A typical meeting-after-the-meeting spot in Saigon, where trust is built with beer
If you don’t have a trust relationship with a stakeholder, then your best bet is to never ever bring them a solution. Don’t ever bring solutions to problems, since they tend to alarm people. Just bring your problems! If you share your problem with someone, it can help them see things your way, and then you can begin negotiating your way toward a solution that works for you both.
The art of leadership at Grab is really the art of achieving alignment. And it’s hard, because of the way the company is organized around inviolate business units with absolute veto power: Cross-functional initiatives are exceptionally difficult to roll out, even when they are clearly in the best interests of the company. But Grabbers are as tenacious as they are gentle, and they always eventually push through. Politely.
I hope my culture observations haven’t come across as negative, because it’s not at all — it’s only negative if you don’t understand and you’re trying to swim upstream. The culture is just how people do things there. If you understand and embrace it, you can thrive and be very effective (as long as you can also stay up until 3am every day).
And frankly, the “Grab Way” of collaboration teaches you life skills, such as psychological safety and inclusiveness, which work everywhere else as well. I wish I’d had these leadership tools when I was back at Google, because achieving alignment with hostile teams would have been oh so much easier.
We US Grabbers made many mistakes on the journey towards becoming better Grabbers. Mark Porter led the charge on figuring it out, and we’ve learned a ton from him as he has evolved as a person before our eyes (well, into a vampire, but he’s a nice vampire). I want to thank Mark especially for helping me grow as a leader and as a person.
It takes humility to become a better person, and Grab is a humbling place. The core company value of humility comes straight from the CEO and cofounder Anthony Tan, who is one of the most humble, down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet. It was an honor and a privilege to work with him and with Hooi-Ling and the rest of Grab.
I am humbled to have been a part of Grab. I will always look back at my experience there with fond memories.
Grab driver and passenger on a slick-looking bike in HCMC
When you add it all up, Grab was probably the best gig I’ve ever had. I learned a ton, I made friends with hundreds of amazing people, and the trips were all equally fun and mind-blowing. I’ll have years of stories to tell.
I made well over a dozen trips to Southeast Asia in my 2+ years, including multiple visits to Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City. I love SEA, and the food — everyone has such delicious food. If I had to pick, I’d maybe give the edge to Thailand. But every country has spectacular street cuisine and exceptional restaurants. It’s not entirely wrong to think of Southeast Asia as a food-oriented culture. It was some of the best food of my life.
Jewel, a shopping mall in Changi Airport, Singapore. This, this is a mall. In their airport. You can totally see why Singaporeans complain all the time.
Certainly one of the best perks of working for Grab was the travel to exotic places. And chatting with the Grab drivers in those places! (I talked about this a bit in my last Grab-related post.) It was always eye-opening and truly an adventure in every sense of the word.
I want to say a huge thank-you to all Grabbers for making me feel so welcome. Not all my projects were successful, but among other things, my teams did deliver a full Ads ecosystem from scratch, a world-class audience segmentation platform, and an ML experimentation/ops-automation platform that is quickly becoming a key competitive differentiator for Grab. I hope that my fellow Grabbers feel my contributions to Grab were positive on the whole. I gave my heart and soul to the company for 2 years and 5 months, before the pandemic and consequent vampirism finally did me in.
I feel like the friends I made there are friends forever.
My Next Adventure
My wife and I thought it over, and we want to give entrepreneurship a shot. Now seems like the best time for it, because gaming is way up. And we happen to have a game!
I’ve been working on a game called Wyvern for, well, since late 1995. Let’s call it 25 years. It’s a “massively-multiplayer online role playing game” (MMORPG) with 80s-inspired pixel-art 2D graphics, a sensibility that leans towards “cute”, and a heritage that blends a bit of Ultima, Diablo, Nethack, LPMuds, Gauntlet, and a bunch of other very old but fun games.
As an RPG, it’s pretty decent. We have 17 playable races with unique abilities, 20+ full cities, hundreds of dungeons, dozens of elaborate quests and missions, thousands of maps, many guilds and skill trees, a decent-ish endgame, a fair number of live events, and an extraordinarily friendly community that loves to help newcomers.
The community is really the game’s core strength, and I’m hopeful that I can keep it that way as it scales up. It requires a lot of attention and moderation, but it’s worth it because (much like at Grab) everyone is nice to each other. Which sadly is a bit unusual in online games.
Wyvern has a special focus on user-created content, and 99% of the content in the game — quests, dungeons, monsters, events, etc. — was contributed by volunteers with way too much free time on their hands. The game has a “builder mode” that lets you build your own maps in your personal home, and people have gone really crazy with it, despite the primitive UI. I want to take it more in the direction of Minecraft, with private servers, but first I need to add a Steam client to the existing Android and iOS clients. That will be my primary focus in 2020.
Wyvern Map Editor
The game has a long history, has won competitions, been featured in Game Informer, and has thousands of longtime loyal players, many of whom have been active for 15 or more years. I almost did the startup track 2 years ago, before I joined Grab, as the game was already running a small profit and is ready to scale up. But instead I put it in maintenance mode, and am just now starting to rev it up again. Games need constant attention to attract and retain players.
25 years is a decently long development cycle, and Wyvern, despite appearing to have been designed by a third grader, is actually rich, complex, deep, and powerfully addictive. My wife isn’t a gamer, but she absolutely adores Wyvern and has been playing it pretty much daily for years.
Wyvern iOS/iPad client, in the default player home for Naga players
We have players from all over the world. There are regulars from Japan, Singapore, several Middle East countries, most of Europe, the US, Canada, and South America. The game has a special pull on many players, who will leave Wyvern, go play other games, and then return to Wyvern seasonally, as it feels like home. As I often tell my wife, “they always come back”, and we regularly see players return and dive back in, even if they’ve been gone for months or years.
Amusingly, my boss Mark Porter was trying to hire a Chief Architect for Grab at one point, and his leading candidate at the time was a guy who has been playing my game for the past 15 years. I don’t think I told Mark that tidbit; I never liked to talk about the game while I was at Grab. But it’s a small world.
The world of Wyvern, with 20+ cities/towns and hundreds of large areas to explore
Before you run off to try it, I should warn you: The biggest problem with Wyvern is its incredibly steep learning curve. Games in 1995 had almost no instructions; you just had to figure stuff out as best you could. Games in 2020 tend to have tons of navigational guidance and a very gradual introduction to the game mechanics. Wyvern suffers terribly in the getting-started experience, and I lose well over 99% of new players in the funnel after the initial (bad) tutorial, because they just don’t know what to do next.
Once you get the hang of it, though, you’re hooked. And it’s a lot easier to polish a deep game than to add depth to a shallow game. Adding more navigation support and a gradual intro is achievable before the Steam launch I have planned for around the end of 2020.
So there you have it. This feels like a good opportunity to me. It’s a fun game with a proven profit formula that just needs some polish to make it more accessible, plus a PC client. I feel like it’s got a pretty good shot at turning into a sustainable business.
That’s my plan. It could change at some point. But right now, sitting here avoiding the virus and working on a video game seems like about the most fun thing I could possibly be doing. I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am, after 25 years, to have a chance of bringing it to a larger audience.
In-progress Steam client — needs a lot of work
I’ll post again when I get closer to a Steam launch, in roughly 6–8 months. By then the game should have a lot of, well, steam, and it should also be a lot easier for new players.
In the meantime, I should thank my lovely wife Linh, whom I adore, for letting us try the entrepreneur route.
Linh and I in Vegas in February, right before the pandemic hit(!)
In the meantime, I’ll also have more time for blogging, for my music recording (lots of videos on the way), and maybe I’ll even start a YouTube channel and just talk about stuff. Might be faster than trying to write it all down.
Playing my Robert Ruck guitar with our new family member Mozart in the background
I do check LinkedIn now and again, so please feel free to drop me a note any time. Or just come say hi in-game; everyone knows me there as Rhialto.
Grabbers: It has been a privilege and an honor to serve with you. Best of luck to you all! Wish me luck on my new adventure.
January 2020, GrabForward, just before dinner. My last trip to SEA.