Why this Grab product leader returned to Singapore after 20 years in the States

A veteran of the tech world, Jesse Lim has worked for Microsoft and eBay and launched products to millions of users around the world. After living in the States for over two decades, he moved back to Singapore – with his wife and two cats – to join Grab as their Head of Product (Consumer Experience & Platforms).

16 Nov 2021 / By SGN

How did you end up working in the US?

As a child, I always dreamt of studying and working overseas. After National Service, I was off to the US to study broadcasting at Marquette University, with vague dreams of becoming a documentary filmmaker. The internet was starting to hit mainstream, so my minor in Computer Science turned out to be a great decision because I had a tech job offer even before I graduated.

At college, I also met my eventual wife, though she returned to Singapore upon graduation for a few years before rejoining me in Seattle.

Jesse and Wife
Attending the graduation of my then-girlfriend (now-wife) in 1997

What was it like living in the US for two decades?

Small sample size alert: The US is a big country and experiences vary greatly. For context, I lived in three cities – Milwaukee, Seattle and San Jose – and held tech jobs throughout. I’d say my experience evolved from initially liberating to durably enriching.

Starting my career in the nascent internet years was super exciting. I got to meet and work with some of the best and brightest folks from different parts of the world. Along the way, my wife and I made lifelong friends and got to travel to many parts of a beautiful country.

However, it wasn’t sunshine and roses all the time. Like most people, I had my struggles with adulthood, except I didn’t have the social safety nets of family or the convenience of Singapore society. My wife and I went through the ‘immigrant’ journey, which made us more aware of concerns about racial issues.

Wine tasting with wife
A typical wine tasting weekend with my wife in Paso Robles, California
Remodelling our home in Seattle
Remodelling our home in Seattle (DIY is still a big thing in US home ownership)

Why did you decide to return to Singapore?

We had always assumed we would retire in the US. But of course, life happens, and situations change.

The 2016 US election made us more conscious of our ethnic identity and minority immigrant status – we started to wonder about our sense of belonging for the first time. On a personal level, our parents in Singapore are getting older and health is becoming a challenge.

One fateful evening, we started re-examining the reasons that brought us to the US. We realised that many of those reasons no longer held true – and that we may be ready to come home.

I looked into Singapore tech opportunities and was pleasantly surprised by the size and growth prospects of the Southeast Asian internet economy. The idea of being part of that growth story, and doing what I do best for my region was very appealing.

We took our time to be mentally confident and emotionally ready. By the time we boarded the flight bound for Singapore, I had already worked out all our plans and included many contingencies (as any self-respecting product manager would – haha).

Last US home, townhouse in San Jose
We miss our last US home, a townhouse in San Jose, where we lived for seven years

How was the experience of moving back to Singapore?

We feel super fortunate about the timing of our move. I returned to Singapore in October 2019 and started work at Grab in November, while my wife moved in February 2020.

Because this was pre-Circuit Breaker and shortly before the COVID breakout in the US, we were able to get through the logistics of the move – most importantly, getting our two cats through a 17-hour flight followed by their animal quarantine.

Needless to say, it’s been super nice to be able to see our families frequently, instead of every one to two years. The pandemic has undoubtedly reinforced the importance of being close to family. We’re so glad we’re back here.

Jesse celebrating his mum's birthday
Celebrating my mum’s birthday on the second day of my return to Singapore
Jesse's cats - Toto and Momo
Meet the cats – Toto (an American Domestic Shorthair) and Momo (a British Shorthair)

What is your role at Grab like?

I head up product management for two teams. The Consumer Experience (CX) team looks after the Grab app and oversees the entire consumer lifecycle. The Platform team consists of products such as Grab Support, People Tech and Communications (we have our own home-brewed performance management and marketing tools).

My experience at Grab has been very positive. I had been slightly worried about Singapore work culture and a lack of diversity here, but those concerns turned out to be unwarranted. Work-life balance at Grab is a priority and, with employees of over 50 nationalities, Grab is just as diverse as my previous US companies.

Immersion trip to Hanoi during first month at Grab
On an immersion trip to Hanoi during my first month at Grab

What consumer trends should we be paying attention to?

We’re almost two years into the COVID outbreak. In general, the pandemic has caused most consumers to be reflective of their personal lives, their work purpose, and the world around them. As such, we’re seeing greater consumer desire for personal physical and mental wellness, a renewed focus towards environmental sustainability, and an evolution in the way we work.

How would you describe the difference between a product designer and a product manager?

Using a filmmaking analogy, a product designer (PD) is very much like a screenwriter. Just as screenwriters need to understand the motivation of characters before writing their scenes and stories, PDs need to understand the pain points, needs and wants of users in order to craft a meaningful user experience.

A product manager (PM) is like a producer and director rolled into one. Much like a producer, a PM needs to secure resources, sort out logistics, and manage stakeholders throughout the production process. Like a director, a PM is responsible for the overall vision of the product and guides the team towards fulfilling that vision.

Just as how screenwriters or editors often become directors, many PDs and engineers eventually become PMs. That’s been my career story as well: I started as an engineer, before becoming a PD, before becoming a PM.

Tell us about career opportunities at Grab.

Within my teams, I’m currently looking for PMs, PDs, engineers and data scientists for Consumer Experience, Grab Support and Communications. Besides screening for the skills and experience needed for the roles, I often look for design thinking in PMs and product sense in PDs.

Across Grab, we’re hiring for all kinds of roles in 11 countries. Readers: If you’re interested in learning more about these roles or Grab in general, do feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn!

Celebrating Jesse's birthday with one of his teams
Celebrating my birthday with one of my teams

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About Jesse

Jesse is Grab’s Head of Product (Consumer Experience & Platforms). Previously, he was based in the US, where he led consumer experience for online marketplaces eBay and Realtor.com and was the product owner of Bing and Windows Live at Microsoft.

Connect with him here.

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