Trần Đằng Vân is currently the Head of Grab Vietnam’s R&D Centre. Born in Vietnam during the war in 1970s, his family then escaped to the United States and raised him there. He later completed his Bachelors and Masters degree (AI) in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He went on to work as a Research Scientist at Mitsubishi Electric in Japan and had a hand in some startups before joining Samsung to build their first R&D Centre in the US.
After working for 10 years in Samsung, he wanted to step out of his comfort zone and explore new opportunities. Identifying that the Vietnamese people at the time did not have the same opportunities to pursue entrepreneurship as in the U.S, he figured he could give back to the community by providing them the mentorship and guidance they needed. This was how he saw Grab as the right place for him to grow, nurture and develop talents. He believes that Grab, as an organisation, has the infrastructure and ecosystem in place, granting them exposure to international best practices.
Captivated by Đằng’s journey, we interviewed him for insights into his life working at Grab, and any other advice he has for young talents.
1. What brought you back to Vietnam?
Since I’ve worked in first-world countries such as US, Japan, and Korea, I wanted to do something different. Many, including myself, saw Southeast Asia as the next frontier and so I decided to come back to Vietnam, where I was born and most familiar with.
Many of the young people in this country aim to join startups and grow their careers, but not all are afforded the opportunity and exposure to do so. I wish to change that by coaching and mentoring them.
2. What brought you to Grab?
I chanced upon an opportunity at Grab and felt that it was similar to what I did in Samsung – building an R&D organisation. Deep down, I wanted to do more for the local community. I wanted to create something unique in Vietnam to train and nurture young talents through the infrastructure and ecosystem that Grab already has. I wanted to capitalise on the potential of the company; that’s when I took the plunge and came on board.
3. What’s your role here at Grab?
Officially, my role is the Head of Engineering, but I prefer to think of it as the Head of R&D Centre Development. Before Grab, I mentored and helped people grow for two years. Similarly at Grab, I develop, nurture, mentor, and care for the welfare of our engineers, making sure they can become the best they can be, which coincidentally, helps in their productivity.
On the other hand, I want to transform the perspective and mindset of our people. Instead of just linear work, I want to challenge them to go beyond the status quo, to become more independent. This requires a lot of time and 1-to-1 meetings to have us all aligned.
4. What challenge(s) do you face and how do you overcome them?
Sometimes, an individual has an ideal expectation of what their boss should be like: a leader, manager and a mentor all rolled into one. This is a real challenge because there may be a mismatch of expectations versus reality. My approach is to separate the role of that leader, to distinguish between the persona of a manager and mentor. A manager has one-on-ones with you and discusses work with you. A mentor trains you, finds out what project you want to pursue, how you want your potential to be realised, and how Grab can help you grow in the areas you desire to.
5. What’s your favourite memory in Grab?
My favourite memories at Grab are those that inspire me. Inspiring moments tend to lead to great memories. Our CEO, Anthony, is one of these inspirations. He is a very unique person; a great storyteller. He helps us make sense of things in bleak and ambiguous situations. He is able to tell the story of where we are going and inspire people to move forward. He can catalyse the building of a community, with empathy and sense of purpose. Anthony has that.
Apart from that, it’s also when I hire the right candidates and when I see that they feel a sense of belonging. It’s like a perfect meeting of minds between that of a willing teacher to an eager student. It’s an amazing feeling to have, when you see the team bonding, working together, and building that sense of community.
6. So what do you look out for in hiring new Grabbers?
We want to find the right people who want to work here for the right reasons. I dig deep and ask questions that go beyond the surface of what they present themselves to be. They should have the empathy for people they are making the product for; in this case, the driver, passenger and the merchant. This is something that’s hard to motivate extrinsically, it should ideally come from within.
7. How do you find your team in Vietnam?
My team is pretty diverse. We have a broad range of dedicated members, from the managers to the individual contributors. However, the common thread is that they are relatively young and open-minded. They share a sense of community. They enjoy coming to work because they see Grab as not just a place where they come to work, but also a place where they can spend time with their friends and hang out together after work.
8. What do you do outside of work?
I network a lot, so I would describe myself as a people person. I enjoy mentoring outside of work as well. I am the Chair for Industry Advisory Board at RMIT University Vietnam, where I evaluate the suitability of their syllabus for the industry. I also participate in panel discussions and coach start-ups in Vietnam.
Truth be told, I enjoy being surrounded by people who believe they can change the world. It’s always exciting to see the energy they exude. It’s good to dream big and be fiercely passionate about it, even if they may not always succeed in doing so.
9. What were your aspirations when you were young?
30 years ago, technology was not like the way it is now. Things were really different so I couldn’t imagine doing what I am doing today. But I used to dream of working for NASA because that’s where the smartest minds go to build something impossible, like what SpaceX and Tesla are doing. I wanted to be a part of that, to work on impossible missions, like sending people to the moon for space exploration — that’s exciting to me.
10. Can you share one piece of advice to the people who are looking to join a fast-growing tech company such as Grab?
Be ready for change and be ready to be changed. For Grab, there are lots of great things to learn here as long as you put your mind and heart into it. It will be an amazing journey because not many companies have this kind of hyper growth. The only stability you will get here is the stability of evolution and change, which will forge a better you.
If you live in Vietnam and are passionate about the culture and workplace as described by Dang, we are hiring!