A Tale of Two Internships

 

Not too long after beginning my graduate studies at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), I received a call from Grab, letting me know that my application had been shortlisted for 3 internship openings (2 Product Design roles, and 1 Product Manager role). I was scheduled for a whole day of interviews, with a lunch break (thankfully). 

I read as much as I could find about Grab; studied the website of course, and also looked into articles by current and former employees to get as much of an idea of what the work environment and culture were like. It was one particular article that really caught my attention, where a current employee, Maverlyn, talked about how she became a full-time designer after a successful internship. I felt excited and inspired about all that could be if I could crack the interviews.

 

After nearly 5 hours of meetings, finally, it was time for my last set of interviews. These were with the Safety design team. Their interviews were planned such that I was able to meet the whole team (3 designers, and design manager, Phil). While the preceding interviews were scenario-based discussions that centered around typical challenges faced by Grab, the safety team asked me to redesign a remote control! Naturally, I was wondering how this bears any relation to Grab or its products, but I put those thoughts aside and gave it my best shot, and began defining the target group and user needs, fielding questions along the way.   

 

After the interviews concluded, I eagerly awaited an update from HR, constantly checking my phone and refreshing my inbox.  Finally, I heard back!  I was accepted by 2 of the 3 teams that I interviewed with. I had already decided that if given the choice, I would pick the design role with the safety team. I just really enjoyed the engagement with the team during the interview process, and I was sold on the potential of safety products across Grab’s portfolio. Thankfully, my pick of the lot came through! 

 

Many months later, in a 1:1 catch-up with my manager, Phil, he explained that a good designer is one that solves problems and addresses users’ needs, regardless of the product, be it physical or digital – it’s about the process.  Now I understood why Phil asked me to redesign a remote control during the interview, because regardless of the product, what matters is the mindset of a designer.

(Jan – Mar 2020)

Walk before you can run

Once I joined the safety design team, I was assigned a buddy (Michelle), who I was to work with closely. In the first month I was basically a sponge trying to soak up as much as I could about the work environment, the various teams that we interacted with (and there are so many) and how each of them had a unique and highly specialized role to play. 

I was grateful to have had so much support from all corners, and when Michelle announced that she would be transferring over to another team within Grab, I was both terrified and thrilled at the prospect of taking over the projects that I had been supporting. The training wheels were going to come off, and for the remainder of my 6-month internship, I needed to demonstrate to myself and to my team, that I was up to the task.

(April – June 2020)

I believe I can fly

What followed was a rollercoaster ride that instilled confidence and humility in equal measure. We conducted a usability test with Grab drivers, evaluating design variants and discovered certain pain points that could be resolved from simple, yet powerful design enhancements. The project went to a design review, where I was given the opportunity to present the revamped user experience designs to the head of design and other design leads. 

Needless to say, I was terrified and suffering from imposter syndrome the whole time. It was a wonderful experience and we received really encouraging feedback, which certainly helped to validate our efforts. As my time with the design team was drawing down, I was grateful to have been able to hand over designs for the revamped safety center and SOS features to the engineering team for development. This is also when I discovered the value of continued engagement and follow through to make sure that the product that is intended to be shipped off to production, matches what was designed!

Oh, what do we have here…

In the product development lifecycle, starting from problem sizing and prioritization to defining experiment and success metrics, the product manager (PM) plays a leading role. During my 6 months as a design intern, I often interacted with Jean, a no-nonsense PM, who was extremely analytical, very direct and sometimes blunt. So much so that initially, I was scared of sharing my designs with him, because he would stress test the proposal so thoroughly that once again, I would feel somewhat inadequate and not up to the task. 

Thankfully, as time passed, my fear gave way to determination and I began to look forward to the challenge. I would replicate his approach as part of my preparation for reviews – this allowed for the discussions to be less one-sided and what followed instead were healthy debates. 

The internship with the safety design team was extremely rewarding  – I learned in 6 months through applied experience what most academic programs try to instill over 3-4 years; all of this was possible because I had an extremely supportive team and manager, committed to setting me up for success.

Until we meet again

Like all good things, my time with the design team was nearing its end, and I still needed 6-8 months to wrap up my graduate degree, which I was pursuing in parallel. Therefore, I decided to indulge my curiosity in product management and discussed the feasibility of joining Safety’s Product Management team for a  6-month internship. They shared that while an internship had not been planned for at the time, that they would look into the possibility. 

I also shared my aspiration with my design manager, Phil, and almost immediately, he bridged the conversation between the teams, and ultimately, because of his support and referrals, I was offered the opportunity to move over to the safety PM team. I would get to pick up the projects that I served on as a designer, and had the opportunity to experience the subsequent development phases as a PM.

(July – Nov 2020)

Act 1, Scene 2

The PM who was assigned to me as my buddy (Jean), had shared lots of reading material and useful resources prior to my official transition to the PM team. This was really useful in order to hit the ground running – and I was able to take on additional responsibilities as I progressed. Mid-way through the internship, however, he announced that he would be leaving the firm. While I was sad to learn that I would no longer be working with Jean, I had learned so much from him. He shared very encouraging feedback with his manager about my progress, giving them the confidence to let me take over entirely for projects that I had been supporting. Call it destiny, or just a coincidence, but being tasked with increasing levels of ownership, that some might say are atypical for an intern, made me a much stronger professional, and my confidence in myself grew in leaps and bounds.  

Grabathon

Reflecting upon my experience, I found myself split between a career path in product management vs product design. I had nearly a year of applied experience at Grab from both functional perspectives, and there was no clear winner at the time. 

Destiny intervened once again – Bhavik, an engineer that I was working with at the time, told me about the annual Grabathon; Grab’s version of a hackathon, and that his team had neither a designer nor a PM, and without hesitation I jumped for this opportunity. Unfortunately, at the time the program was not set up for including intern participation or at least it was not clear; refusing to take no for an answer, I was able to sign up!

Out of 62 teams that entered the competition, my team made it all the way to the final round with 5 other finalists. All of us had an opportunity to present to Grab leadership (including CEO & CTO!). 

Most importantly for me, however, I had my answer –  returning to my design roots for the brief duration of the Grabathon felt like a breath of fresh air, and as compelling as product management continues to be, I was certain that I felt more passionately about the creative outlet that design allows for. It was like something I had always known but needed to be reminded of.

(Jan 2021 –  )

Reunited

I was so fortunate to have had a chance to experience both roles at Grab, and even more so to have received full-time conversion opportunities in design and product management. Ultimately, I believe that my stint as a product manager actually helps make me a better designer, because I can now extend myself outside the designer box and think through broader considerations.

Job offer in hand, I wrapped up my thesis at SUTD in record time and was able to graduate just in time for a Jan 2021 start as a full-timer, 12 months after I began as an intern! What’s more, I’m fortunate to be the buddy for a product design intern in our team this year. The opportunity to support and mentor someone in my boots has been really rewarding.

Oh, by the way, remember Maverlyn?! (the former intern who’s article had inspired me) – our paths crossed randomly one day during a design review (what are the chances?!). We met over coffee and I thanked her for sharing her experience in the article and that it had been a source of inspiration for me. 

I will always remember the exciting journey that unfolded through my internship, and I am ever grateful for the wonderful mentors and collaborators that I was fortunate enough to work with; it was their support and encouragement that got me through.