Grab’s status as Singapore’s and Southeast Asia’s largest tech unicorn is helping to attract technologists into its ranks, including people from the banking sector. But what’s it like working for a start-up that’s recently become a big player in the Asian tech scene? We spoke with three Singapore-based ‘Grabbers’ (we’ve used pseudonyms to protect their identities) to find out.
“It wasn't a straightforward decision to leave a cushy corporate role for the pressure of a start-up,” says development manager Selina Lin, who joined Grab from a local bank in 2015. “What drove me to do so was the growth story of the company.”
Grab, which only set up shop in 2012, is now valued at north of $6bn and recently acquired Uber’s Southeast Asian operations.
Daren Ren, now a senior architect at Grab, moved from a small fintech firm and had different reasons for coming on board. “It’s risky working for an early-stage company – you have to hope it grows fast. But mine wasn’t expanding as expected, so I joined Grab because it’s a well-established, stable start-up,” he says. “It also has brand value in the job market, which should help me get a more challenging role in the future.”
Ren, who has been at Grab for about a year, singles out exposure to advance technology as the best aspect of his role. Grab is also expanding from its ride-hailing roots, launching new products in areas such as mobile payments and food delivery. “We’re using emerging technologies, solving challenging problems at scale, and the diversification of the business is helping to broaden my own domain knowledge,” says Ren.
Grab is not the place to work if you want a “defined job scope”, adds Lin. “The ethos is ‘your problem is my problem’, so we help out within other functions as much as we can,” she says. “Unlike in a traditional corporate, where marketing does the branding and finance does the numbers, we do much more than what we were brought in to do. A year here is equivalent to five years anywhere else, such is the scope and depth of the work. It’s a career shortcut.”
Lin admits, however, that working for Grab isn’t for everyone. “I think few people can actually take that amount of ambiguity in their job, or even tolerate the high levels of stress that a start-up environment can sometimes hurl at you.”
Grab also makes its developers work faster than those at many other companies in Singapore, says experienced engineer Aarif Chandra (not his real name), who previously worked for a large multinational. “The main difference is our ability to rapidly run tests on a small sample and let the outcome drive the decision to rollout or rollback the test,” he explains. “The emphasis here is on speed and experimentation, even at the calculated risk of errors and failure. This has pushed me to learn and execute quickly.”
The staff we interviewed didn’t exactly rave about Grab’s offices, despite the firm opening a new headquarters and research and development centre, in Singapore’s Marina Bay last December. “I’d rate it about 7.5 out of 10. Grab didn’t hop on the bandwagon of ping pong tables or in-house cafes. But it’s pleasant and sufficient,” says Chandra. “There are high ceilings, bright lights and comfortable discussion zones, but these are just frills of the job,” adds Lin. “It’s the common cause of looking for tech breakthroughs that gets us diving deep into work every day.”
Ren declares himself “happy” with his base pay and bonus, while both he and Chandra say they typically work from 10am to 7pm. Development manager Lin has more grueling hours, however. “I start early and finish late – the work never really ends as there’s always something else to do. But the expression ‘if you enjoy what you do, you never feel like you’re really working’ is starting to make sense.”
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