When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I still remember it, because it was so different from where I am today. I had this clear image of, “I'm going to go to school, I'm going to get married and have a family, but I still want to be able to keep my career.” So with that in mind, I went through the list of majors that I could pick, and it was either engineering or med school. I didn't really like engineering much, because I'm not so good at physics. But I was pretty good at math, so I went down the list and saw computer science. I liked programming in high school. And in terms of a career, it would be possible to work from home as a programmer and care for my family. So that's how I picked computer programming.
How did you decide to attend Arizona State University?
My dad had a very strict condition that I could not live in cold weather; we are originally from Indonesia, and he was worried about my health. So that limited me to southern states. At the time, I had this one book on schools in the US, but it had hundreds of schools. I didn’t really know how to pick. I think I applied to Georgia Tech, UT Austin, San Jose State, and Arizona State. It was very random. And then another requirement that my family had is that I had to be in same city as my brother who is four years older than me. He was applying for his master's at the time, and the only place where we both got accepted was Arizona State.
I enrolled in fall 1997, and soon after that we had the Asian economic crisis. Luckily, I was able to get special scholarships for students who came from Asia who had been affected by the crisis. Then I only had to pay in-state tuition, which was really affordable. I was also allowed to work off-campus so that helped a bit. The first job I remember was working for this on-campus banquet service as a waiter. Then I did grading as well during the semester. And then I got an internship at a software company, which was really good.
How did you choose your major?
I came in as a computer science major, and I didn't really have any doubts or thoughts about changing my major because in 1997, 1998, IT was the industry to be in. Arizona State had a really good computer science program and we had good professors and I learned a lot. But I graduated in 2001 right when the bubble burst, so then it became a bit difficult to find a job. So I went to USC for my master's in computer science, and I picked machine learning as my specialization.
Nowadays people say to me, “Why you didn't do machine learning?" but it was a little bit early. At that time, there were very few companies that would hire someone with a master's degree. But one of my professors at USC offered me a research assistant opportunity. And my master’s does actually provide an interesting background now that machine learning and artificial intelligence is in.
When I discussed the research assistant position with my mom, she said, “Can you imagine yourself living as a poor student for an additional, 3, 4, 5 years?” It was actually quite a serious moment of decision, but I figured if I really wanted to go to school later on, I could go back. So I decided not to take the job, and I started doing IT consulting.
My first job was with a company that was bought by GE Aviation that specialized in systems to optimize the logistics for airplanes. I was hired to help them with one of their projects, but I found that after I was there for three months, I needed more interaction with people. So it just so happened that one of my high school classmates was looking for consultants to help her company. The only requirement was that you needed to know some programing and you were willing to travel 90% - 100% of the time.
So I joined this boutique consulting company that specialized in automated testing. My first assignment was in Seattle, and I was there for about 10 months. And then I was promoted to the pre-sales team where I worked very closely with the director of sales for the West Coast who became my first professional mentor. He really helped me mature and think about what is it that I want to do in life.
So I ended up working for that company for about three and a half years before I realized that there wasn’t much upward movement. That was also the eighth year that I had been in the U.S. and I started to feel like I wanted to go back to Asia so I could be closer to my family. At that time, IT was not a significant industry in Asia, and I didn't really see much growth in the near future so it would have been difficult for me to find a job in Asia in IT. So my mentor suggested that I look into some business schools.
A friend of mine suggested that I look at some international schools, so I read the profile for INSEAD and I went to their open house in San Francisco and met with alumni and other prospective students. INSEAD has a lot of focus on international and multicultural topics. In my year, we had students from 66 countries in a class of 480 students. Their first campus was in Fontainebleau, France and now they have a campus in Abu Dhabi and they just recently opened a smaller hub in San Francisco. They have a campus in Singapore as well, so I felt like it was something that would help me make my move to Asia.
It was only a 10-month program, so I did my first six months in France and then four months in Singapore. Unfortunately, I graduated in December 2009 after the global economic crisis had just happened. Asia was not impacted as badly as the US, but the job market was still quite tough. I spent a couple months looking at what kind of projects I could do in Indonesia. I had to rebuild a lot of my network because most of my network was in the US. But I finally got a full-time job in August, 2010.
When I was in business school, I realized that finance was actually very interesting. It's a bit more than just balancing the debits and credits, which was my impression before. I decided to do private equity after I graduated, and I knew that there were several firms in Indonesia. It just so happened that one of the private equity firms was looking for a new team member and my resume was right in front of them. It was very quick process and then I was hired.
Private equity, in short, is when a firm collects monies from pension funds, from some family office, from many sources. Then they have one big fund and their task is to invest in private companies. The firm works with the management of the private company and then they sell it again at a profit. It’s kind of a sexy business for people coming out of business schools because it does pay really well. And it provided some credibility for me making the jump into finance from tech.
I did that for two and half years, and then I finished the task that I was hired for and moved on to the next job which was in a family office. Then I left that job in January of this year, took a one-month holiday, and then could not yet decide what to do next. A friend of mine who has invested in some start-ups in Indonesia introduced me to some of his contacts. He asked me to help these startups with some of the financial problems that they were having. So I took on those projects, and I'm on my third project now.
I’m trying to figure out whether I prefer this freelancing, working on multiple projects at the same time, or being a full-time employee of a company. I’m trying to explore all of that at the moment.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
One thing that I’ve figured out is that I like to find solutions and then also see that problem really being solved. In the past, when I was doing consulting, sometimes we would propose a solution, but that solution might not necessarily be implemented. And that would always leave me with a sort of unfinished business kind of feeling. That’s also one of the reasons why I decided to leave private equity. With private equity, you basically become a shareholder and then you can provide guidance, but you don't really do the actual work. I need something a bit more hands-on. Being able to make a positive impact where I work is definitely one of the things that I look for.
I would say that the nature of jobs in the future will change. Engineers, doctors, and lawyers might not be in such high demand in the future. So in terms of choosing a college or a major or a school, it’s probably best to figure out what it is that you like to do. In the future, rather than being specialized in one particular subject, it might be worthwhile to study a breadth of subjects that could be useful for a number of situations, get a well-rounded education. That's what I feel, but we'll see.