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Growing the First Generation of Southeast Asian Product Managers

September 30, 2021

The cavalry isn't coming, so how can we bridge the talent gap in product management?

Startups in Southeast Asia raised over US$8.2 billion in 2020.1 Tech giants like Tencent, Alibaba, Google and Facebook are funding ventures in SEA. As investment pours into the region, more opportunities in the product management space emerge, and there with a noticeable lack of experienced practitioners to available to meet the rising demand. Product leaders are stepping up to groom professionals that will change the technology ecosystem in the years to come, but they still face the challenge of meeting the business requirements of today.

In this conversation, Jonathan Wong, Head of Product and Process at Kuaishou Technology, guides us through the burgeoning product management landscape in Southeast Asia.

We discuss how the lack of experienced product management practitioners in the region gives product leaders the unique opportunity to nurture homegrown talent in teams with cross-functional experience.

What does the product management landscape in Asia look like today?

In some ways, the state of product management as a discipline reflects where UX was five to seven years ago. Back then, people knew UX roles existed but there was no common understanding of what they entailed. Similarly, product management is fairly young is a discipline so the field has yet to breed a deep pool of talent across the globe.

In addition, product manager skill sets and responsibilities vary drastically across domains and industries. Surveys of product management professionals revealed that over a third found the lack of role clarity a significant challenge, and only 51%2 of organizations used a consistent product management process. This just goes to show how hazy the definition of the role and the work in this space remains.

There are pockets of product expertise in North America, Europe and Australia. Importing talent from Silicon Valley is a path some companies take. Product teams in Southeast Asia no doubt will benefit from the exercise, with junior team members learning from their peers but many organizations may not find this strategy viable.

Factors like funding and the organization’s stage of development can prevent some businesses, particularly startups, from taking this approach. Especially when the average salaries of product managers in the United States are 77% higher than the rates in Singapore. Globally, product managers are open to new jobs but the most sought after characteristic in these job opportunities is product management maturity. In other words, even if companies could afford to hire PM rockstars, they might not be interested in working in Southeast Asia. These considerations make the case for incubating talent in the region compelling. 

The prevalence of remote working arrangements gives product leaders greater access to offshore product professionals. Building virtual product teams can work, but will require serious thought when it comes to how they will operate in the future as organizations move towards hybrid work models.

How can product leaders approach hiring product managers when the local labor market lacks experience?

In the absence of experience, product leaders may need to take chances on people with the aptitude to become good product managers. Fresh graduates for instance can possess the intelligence, attitude and motivation needed to make them coachable new hires.   

More common though, we see career-shifters stepping into product management roles in SEA. Passion and enthusiasm abound in people making this change. These first-time project managers often carry over peripheral and relevant domain knowledge that brings immense value to the product team. Experience in areas of business like stakeholder management, customer engagement, operations, marketing and monetization can be assets. “As a product leader, one of your main jobs is to basically build up a product organization”, says Jonathan. 

Recruiting for a diversity of complementary strengths allows organizations to leverage the experience green product managers already have while working on new competencies to bring them to maturity.

Where and how is product management talent emerging in Asia?

Enterprises in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the rest of the region offer many opportunities in the field.

Companies, from startups to multinationals, are actively hiring for product management roles. New graduates and mid-career individuals alike are attracted to these jobs, with high motivation and interest being the common denominator. 

The present regional scarcity of product management experience can be a hindrance to finding mentors but motivated learners can skill up through various means including self-directed learning. There is an abundance of free resources that can adequately equip new entrants to the field. Alternatively, paid content like online courses and bootcamps can provide would-be product managers the structure to efficiently apply their passions in a more directed way.

Final thoughts 

The interdisciplinary nature of product management suitably engages various backgrounds cultivated in other fields, offering ample opportunity for new product managers to shine. Recruitment must shift away from conventional requirements that qualify for individual vacancies.

Southeast Asian leaders should focus on assembling functional product organizations with comprehensive expertise to take full of advantage of the rich variety present in budding regional talent. At the end of the day, we can’t wait for the cavalry to come.



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