Meet Suthen Thomas, our Head of Engineering for GrabFood. He’s been around in Grab for a looong time. Suffice to say, he’s seen the company transition through different phases throughout the years, and has been through a fair share of change himself. We had a coffee with him to find out more about his #GrabLife experience.
Suthen began his journey at Grab as a tech consultant while we were still known as MyTeksi. At that time, Grab was a fledgling start-up with a grand vision and many, many technological challenges which we were poised to solve. After spending a fair amount of time with the product’s technological stack, he decided that he would finally join the company as the first tech lead in 2012.
However, things changed in 2013, and Suthen decided to take a step back to pursue his Masters in Public Policy. He had a burning passion to serve Malaysia, and he knew that his Software Engineering degree, coupled with his Masters in Public Policy, would equip him with the necessary skills to understand, evaluate and make decisions around policies and policy-making while using technology to make a positive impact in his society.
“If I wasn’t working in Grab, I’d probably be working in the Malaysian government, or a government-linked company to drive further convergence of policy and technology,” he recalls.
At the time of his graduation, job roles in tech were limited, so Suthen took on a Business Operations role at Grab, as Chief of Staff. When the opportunity arose, he transitioned back to our technology arm as Head of Engineering. Now equipped with a well-rounded experience across business operations to tech, he’s the perfect person to take on the role of Head of Engineering for GrabFood, overseeing the development of our food delivery product.
Over the years, Suthen has also seen massive changes in the scope of work – Grab is no longer just a ride-hailing company, but one positioned to become the leading super app of Southeast Asia.
“I think the biggest challenge I face is balancing the scope of things that we want to achieve. How do I get everything done while preserving the quality and the experience of the product for our users, and do so in a sustainable fashion that doesn’t burn my team out,” he said, with reference to the changes in the product and its stakeholders, as well as the geographical distance between teams.
“Previously, I was heading engineering in Transport, which exists in a 2-sided market: passengers and driver-partners. But with food delivery, it’s a 3-sided market. There are the eaters – the people who consume the food, there are couriers or driver partners who deliver the food, and there are also the restaurants who have to prepare and market their food to the eaters,” he explains.
Apart from the product growth, his management scope has also increased. In today’s world, engineering teams are distributed across the globe, and it is commonplace for remote teams to collaborate online. As a manager he has to learn how to communicate with his teams remotely, or find new ways of working together.
Real and Visible Impact
In most jobs, and in most things in life, you can’t get everything you want. Suthen looks for three things in a job: being intellectually challenged, financially rewarded, and having social impact.
“Some roles may be financially rewarding and provide neutral or positive social impact but may not have much intellectual challenge . Other the other hand, I can imagine people in certain roles having a lot of financial rewards and some intellectual challenge, but the social impact is missing.”
Grab, to him, offers a substantial mix of all three. He believes that our (financial) compensation is a hygiene factor, while the sheer scope of our products in a region as diverse as Southeast Asia is intellectually challenging in and of itself. Most importantly, there is the opportunity to make tangible social impact, the kind which you can see.
“You can go downstairs and see a real person using your application and you realise that they are trying to get home or ordering food. They are able to use something that makes their lives easier, safer and better, because of the work you did. It’s the same for the restaurants. It’s the same for our drivers. You get to be part of their daily narrative.”
He sincerely believes that the impact of our work can be seen on a day-to-day basis, and our roles at Grab provide us the opportunity to do so — a privilege one does not have in many other organisations. “I think there are actually no other companies in the region that serves such a diverse group of customers. We don’t really have a regional player that covers such a broad scope of services.”
Advice to Future Grabbers
We are always on the lookout for great talent. We admire people with initiative. This initiative, as Suthen puts it, is the “initiative to serve our customers and initiative to solve problems.” We’re not an organisation that gives orders and expects you to fulfil those orders, and call it a day. It’s much more than that!
Finally, life at Grab is not always smooth; if you are the type of person who values stability and a steady pace, Grab might not be the best place for you. Suthen’s advice to potential applicants is to “be ready to relish challenges, and to relish the struggle”. Because at the end of the day, “you get to enjoy the fact that your job is never boring and it brings tons of tangible impact.”
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