Grab’s Technology Powerhouse in China


Shaolin at Grab’s Annual Party 2019

Introducing Zheng Shaolin, the Head of Beijing Research & Development (R&D) Centre and also the Head of Engineering in Grab China. Let’s take a quick tour of his journey to Grab. Before he joined Grab, Shaolin had his own transportation startup which operated hitch (rides) in China. As Didi was rising then, he and his team decided to pack up and move to another transportation startup, Grab. That was how Grab’s China R&D Centre came about four years ago. The team in China has seen incredible growth from 12 to almost 250 people today.

As Didi is China’s transportation giant, and Grab isn’t available in the region, we were curious as to why he decided to join Grab. With a twinkle in his eye, he said that the main reason was the opportunities Grab had in Southeast Asia.

“In China, you have Alibaba and Tencent that started from a single business and then eventually they become a super app that has expanded into various aspects of the industry. I believe Grab can be that super player in Southeast Asia as well,” he quipped.

Shaolin presenting at a tech talk

Compelling Reasons to Join Grab

Shaolin shares the top two reasons why a local Chinese should consider working at Grab.

The first being that Southeast Asia is an enormous market, which mean lots of opportunities. “Look at Indonesia, for instance; it is similar to China 20 years ago. And look at how much China has developed these two decades – it’s amazing. I believe Southeast Asia can achieve that too. The market is huge.”

Secondly, culture. “If you join a local Chinese company, you are surrounded by the same people every day. But Grab is very diverse, we have employees from over 40 nationalities. You will get to meet people from all parts of the world and see how others look at this industry and technology very differently. This kind of learning is really great.”

Shaolin and his team mates from GEO team

GEO: Mapping Southeast Asia

The engineers in China are working on some very exciting, meaningful and impactful projects for Southeast Asia. As the Head of Engineering, Shaolin leads the GEO tech family, a team in charge of all mapping technology. He explains in brief some of the things they do.

“When you make a booking, we will predict the possible Point of Interests (POI) and then predict where you may want to go. After you actually make a booking, we will get you the estimated distance and time of arrival. We try to allocate a driver who is closer to you. However, even if a driver is 100 metres away from you – in a straight line – he might not be the best driver because he will need to take a route that may end up to be 2 kilometres on the road. Therefore, we try to allocate the driver with the shortest time of arrival so you can get picked up as early as possible,” he explained.

GrabFood: An Exciting Future

One of Shaolin’s favourite memories at Grab is the growth of GrabFood [team] in 2018. “At the beginning of 2018 we only had a small team of 4 to 5 people. By the end of the year, we had more than 100 Grabbers.”

“GrabFood ran on the ‘Concierge Model’ at the beginning. After a customer makes his or her order, the driver will head to the restaurant, wait in the queue, order the food and pay in cash. The driver will then collect back the cash when the customer receives the food. This business model has a lot of downsides. The first downside is that we cannot update the menu immediately. So if any dish runs out, the driver will only find out when he reaches the restaurant and then has to contact the customer. The second is due to the fact that the driver has to pay upfront, in cash, first. In the case where the customer cancels the booking halfway, the driver will have already paid for it but will be unable to collect the cash back.

“Therefore, we introduced the ‘Integrated Model’ in mid-2018. It connects the customer, merchant and driver. When the customer makes an order, it will first go to the merchant. The merchant will have to confirm that the order can be provided. After this confirmation, the restaurant will start preparing the dish. When the food is almost done, the merchant will inform the driver that it is ready for pickup. Meanwhile, the driver doesn’t need to pay in cash. All transactions are handled through the Grab app. This model is much more efficient,” he said.

The engineers also have to develop and provide the technology based on the business need. “The pick-up and drop-off for food delivery is different from transportation. For transport, we only need to provide the street name and building name to the driver. But for food delivery, we need a door number. So we are thinking of indoor navigation such that the delivery man can locate our customers within a building.”

Shaolin and Grabbers from China’s office celebrating Grab’s 6th Anniversary

Grab’s Culture

“It is interesting because the Chinese Grabbers think of Grab as a Western company while the American Grabbers think of Grab as an Asian company. We are both; Grab is a mix of East and West.

“I get to meet new people every week. Being able to talk to them and learn from them is really exciting. This diversity allows us to see all aspects of a problem and come up with different types of solutions.”

Grab also has a flat hierarchy. He explained, “we encourage everyone to talk to everyone. It is not the case where ‘I am the boss, you must listen to my instructions and don’t question me’. Here at Grab, if you have an idea you want to share or tell me there’s something I am not doing it right, you can talk to me and I will be open to that and value your opinion.”

From Self-help to Helping Others

Shaolin is always looking at ways to improve himself, both in terms of English and keeping a healthy lifestyle.

“Before I joined Grab, I was a very local person. I had never studied or worked abroad, or worked for an overseas company. So I have never used English much. It was challenging for me initially but I have worked really hard to improve myself.” Not only did he improve his command of English, he has also helped to develop an English training program for other Chinese Grabbers to pick up English within a year.

He also started an exercise group ‘Grab Willpower Challenger’ (Grab意志力挑) to encourage Grabbers to exercise every day, including walking 10,000 steps a day. What an inspiration!

What’s in store for the Future of Grab?

Shaolin definitely exudes enthusiasm in seeing Grab transform into a super app when he talks about his projects, achievements and plans. He shared one piece of advice for local Chinese who are looking to join Grab: “Be open-minded and get yourself ready for a challenging environment.”

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