PMET Transitions: Passion, Pain and Plan

As the year kicked off, I had a chat with my colleague Kevin. Both of us are PMETs (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians) who have made transitions in our careers. Hopefully, what we share can help others walking similar journeys.

Below is a transcript of the conversation [*].

Basil : Hi, Kevin. Hope you’re off to a great start in the new year.

Kevin : Hello, Basil. How are you? I’m good, thank you.

Basil : Yeah, couldn’t be better. So we will not be talking about AI today. Well, at least that won’t be the central focus of our conversation. I think we can agree that 2020 was a year of transitions. So, we thought that it would be good to share with listeners our own experiences in transitioning to new roles as mature PMETs, which I think is an equally interesting topic. Now, Kevin you have appeared in the media before. Minister for Communications and Information Iswaran mentioned you as somebody who made a successful transition into a digital career. You also did an interview with Channel 8 pre-COVID. So, maybe listeners out there already know a little bit about you. Could you tell us more about the earlier part of your career?

Kevin : Yeah, sure, Basil. I spent over twenty five years in the high tech industry. I was trained as an electronic and computer engineer during my school days, but my career has been mostly non-technical in nature. My first job was with Motorola working as a product engineer in the factory. That was the only technical work I did, but very quickly I realised manufacturing didn’t suit me. So therefore, in less than a year, I decided to switch to sales and marketing. I started in product marketing and product management for the semiconductor and IT industry. Later I move into sales and general management. I was fortunate to be at the start of the high tech boom back in the early 1990s. I worked for Intel at that time. I witnessed how fast the industry grew as computing started to permeate every aspect of the society. I saw firsthand how the IT technologies came in to disrupt many other industries, how businesses were conducted and how we lived our lives back then fundamentally changed. In 2000s, I also witnessed the same phenomena in two other technology disruptions. The Internet commerce era and the mobile revolutions. These two disruptions again brought in big changes to our lives. But at the same time, I felt that they also created lots of opportunities that didn’t exist before. So now, I think I’m witnessing the fourth technological disruption in my career which is AI. And that’s why I’m so excited to be part of this industry now.

Basil : Very interesting journey. For me, my own journey is a little bit more mundane. I spent seventeen years just in one single industry which was semiconductor chip design. Although my role required me to constantly learn new things as an engineer, I still felt a sense of stagnation and even of being pigeonholed. After about fifteen years on my job, I just felt that the value add was incremental and it wasn’t really opening up new doors for me. So, I was ready to try something new. Then Google open sourced TensorFlow back in late 2015 and it piqued my interest. Now, anybody could do deep learning using neural networks. Those were stuff that I heard about but was a total mystery to me at that time. So, I read up more on it and sensing the direction the world was moving… I just felt that with ever greater computing power and storage, more and more data would be generated and then naturally algorithms would come into play to return value for those who know where to employ them. And just like you, I felt that we were on the cusp of something significant. And, of course, around that time (March 2016), AlphaGo captured the world’s imagination by beating the best human players [1] … at this point I would like to mention our colleague Azmi who recently also shared about his transition to become an AI engineer. Listeners please refer to the link which I will put up on the page [2]. He talks about the importance of being aware of trends beyond one’s immediate profession and AI is definitely a part of that trend.

Kevin : Yeah, that is interesting. I mean, for me, AI has always been an interesting technology since thirty, forty years ago. But it never occurred to me back then to enter this industry. I only realised just a few years ago, after a long career, I got bored with corporate life, so I ventured into doing trading and investment full time. It was at that time that I came across AI and I was curious about the possibility of using AI to help me out in my investment. So I decided to, kind of like, take a peek under the hood. At that time, I didn’t have any coding experience other than the programming courses that I took in university, about thirty years ago. So, I had to start by taking some free online courses in python programming from online sites like Coursera and even from YouTube. It was okay. It was not too difficult, I felt. It took me a couple of months to get to a level where I could do some useful codes. Then I realised to learn AI, math became a blocker. I remember I started with Andrew Ng’s machine learning course on Coursera, but by Lecture #3, I had to give up because all the math was just beyond me. And so I took a step back to learn math. I had a engineering degree so I thought I could start from university math. I did some online courses again, but soon I realised I couldn’t even do that anymore. I had totally forgotten things like calculus, linear algebra… stuff that I learned back in high school. So no choice, I had to go back all the way to high school math. I had to start from ground zero again and I did that on Khan Academy. After re-learning math, then I proceeded to take several machine learning nanodegree courses on Udacity. Just like you, I was mesmerised by AlphaGo at that time. I actually followed the competition ‘live’. I also took two courses specialising in deep reinforcement learning, just to try to understand how AlphaGo really worked.

The interesting thing is that some of my friends actually asked me why I was kind of like “torturing” myself. How could you learn AI at your age?… and my answer to them really is passion. When a person is passionate about something, doing that something is no longer a torture. It actually becomes an enjoyment. Yes, you will need hard work, lots of it, actually, because no success is possible without going through a long journey filled with difficulties and hard work. But hard work doesn’t really need to be hardship. It can be painful at times, but it need not be suffering. Just like top performing athletes, they have to endure long periods of hard work, but they manage to persevere, because they have the passion to get them out of their low periods. If not for passion, most people would just simply give up. So I think I experienced that first hand, when I had to go back to re-learn my high school math, that could have been something unthinkable. I could have easily given up if there wasn’t an end goal which I was totally passionate about. That’s why I think passion is really, really critical. Another example is that I also experienced that when I started my own company. A bit of history – besides my corporate career, I also founded two start-ups in China. I spent quite a few years running that operations up in China. So during those days, doing a start-up was really difficult. Without passion, that wouldn’t be possible. Therefore, through that experience I’m convinced that having strong passion for what you do is a critical success factor in life. Because with passion you will end up spending more time than others. You will be able to do that and endure the pain that comes along and, because of that, increase your chances of success, because you are able to stay on it longer. So I think that’s one of the biggest learnings in life for me. I have also had periods of my career when I was stuck in doing things I wasn’t passionate about. I guess many people also have the same experience as well doing jobs that are neither good nor bad. They are just so-so, just another job. I mean, with hindsight I would definitely have moved on to other things sooner. Life, I think, is too short to get stuck in things that we’re not passionate about.

Basil : Yes, definitely agree. Yeah, I really think we cannot over-emphasized the importance of passion, even if it might come across as a sort of a motherhood statement, because… like going to work, if it’s just a push factor, it won’t be sustainable in the long term. And what you mentioned, I think there’s an equation, I don’t remembered the source, which describes what you just mentioned. It goes something like Despair = Hardship – Meaning [3]. So, if there is a big dose of meaning, then whatever hardship there is, and I think going out of one’s comfort zone certainly is one of them, that despair might even turn into joy. But I suppose for many people, actually knowing what they are really passionate about is surprisingly difficult.

Kevin : Yeah, definitely. I think you’re right. It’s not realistic to always expect to be able to start our career with a job that we are passionate about. In reality, it needs planning. Actually, very long term planning and transition. Most people are probably like me. We don’t really know what we like early in our career, it will take time to explore. But make sure that we keep an open mind and also keep an eye on the goal of finding our passion. We just have to keep exploring. Because in most cases, people easily settle into a job that they neither like nor dislike. Over time, we will then habituate into it, and that will become a comfort zone. And once it becomes a comfort zone, we’ll be reluctant to get out of it. That’s human nature. We all tend to just complain about it, but we don’t do anything about it either. Therefore, I think in order not to get stuck that way, it is important that we continuously find out about ourselves. Over time, I spent a lot of time learning about myself. What I like and dislike. That requires a lot of intellectual honesty and willingness to explore. We can explore, for example, by volunteering, by engaging in different communities, by experiencing things outside our work. It will take time, lots of time. Usually, it will take years and not months to find out what we are truly passionate about, and that’s why it is important that we start early. But, it’s not too late at any point in your career to start exploring, although the risks tend to be higher at a later stage of your career. Once we find out what we like, then we need to plan, because most of the time we find out something that we like, we are not in the exact path to do that. Therefore, we need to plan to acquire the skills, experience the network so that we can transition to the desired path. For example, in the software related fields, that would usually mean taking classes to learn new skills, or volunteering to work on some projects to build up the experience to have a good GitHub to show to people and stuff like that. There’s a concept called Plan A, Plan B. That means you need to have both. Plan A is the plan to continuously build up the competence in your current job, whatever path you’re working on. You shouldn’t just dropped that and do something else. So you still need a Plan A. But your Plan B is something on the side that you need to build up to get yourself ready to pivot into a different path in the future, that will bring you through your passion. So, yes, back to the question – smooth transitioning is needed, but it takes time and it takes a lot of planning as well.

Basil : Yeah, I certainly felt what you described very eloquently. It took me, like about two to three years, personally, to figure out what I should do. I joined various communities, did some little side projects before I actually took the necessary action.

Kevin : Yeah, I’ve experienced it myself, as well as seen friends and colleagues my age. I think, one of the biggest barriers in my opinion is really our inertia to change. We tend to want to hide inside our comfort zone. Things inside our comfort zone feel familiar. They are what brought us to who we are today. So, venturing outside our comfort zone is pretty scary and instinctively we are reluctant to do that. We tend to give ourselves excuses of why we shouldn’t get out of our comfort zone, and then we procrastinate. We always think, maybe one day I’ll do something, but I’ll not do it. So, I don’t know about you, Basil, but I used to set annual resolutions like now in the beginning of the year. I said I want to do something for this year, right? Often, you feel passionate about it, set some goals, big goals, with some detailed targets and action plans. It could be like learning something, or just simply doing exercise. Usually, I would start by following my plan with a lot of enthusiasm. But, by the second month or so, the momentum would start to fizzle, and by the third or fourth month, I would give myself a convenient excuse why I couldn’t do that anymore.

That happened to me a lot in a past, until I stumbled upon a concept which was very, very useful – the concept of mini-habits. That really made a huge difference for me. The concept is really very simple. Instead of planning to do something that requires a strong commitment of time and energy which we know we won’t be able to follow through consistently, we start by committing something so tiny that it is ridiculous not to follow. Let me give you an example. If you want to learn to play, say the piano. If you set a goal to practise an hour a day, you might be able to follow that religiously in the first two weeks. After that, it becomes a pain. And then things cropped up, you start to give yourself excuses why it’s okay to skip a day of practice. That one day will sometimes become two to three days of excuse soon, and then you’ll be practising once a week instead of once a day. And then that once a week becomes once every two weeks and, finally, not at all. So, that kinda like fizzles out. Now, a mini-habit means that we don’t commit ourselves to something that we cannot follow through, but instead, let’s say we commit to practising only ten minutes a day. Ten minutes is such a short period that there isn’t really any good reason not to follow through and it’s not painful to practise for ten minutes. If it is, then you cut it down to five minutes. Even when you are really very busy that day, it is still no reason why you can’t just sit down and practise for ten minutes. On days that you’re not as busy, then you would practise longer. Sometimes you are in the mood, you may even practice one or two hours. So, the key point is consistency. No matter how busy, rain or shine, you would do that ten minutes of practice. And that becomes a habit over a time, practising no longer become as painful, as long as you are able to put in that consistency day after day after day after day. After that, you can increase the commitment from ten minutes to half an hour a day, and that’s how habits get developed. I tried that on many things and it really worked. Like for now, I want to continuously acquire new AI knowledge because the field is changing so fast. So, I need to do that by reading research papers, articles, practise coding, or take some other courses to improve my AI skills. I started with ten minutes a day of doing one of those activities and now I’m already up to an hour a day. And most of the days, to be honest, I’m actually doing much more than an hour, so consistently every day, even on weekends. That is no longer a pain to me, but rather an enjoyment. As the saying goes, the key to success is really continuous and never-ending improvements.

Basil : I think what you’ve just described is what somebody calls the one percent improvement rule where small, seemingly insignificant improvement stack up over time. For me, I like to learn languages. But one does not simply acquire a new language overnight. It takes constant exposure and practice to achieve competency a little bit at a time. So it’s like every day I would think of a random sentence and ask myself, how would I say this in Japanese? In German? If I am not able to do that, I go and find out, whether by asking in a forum [example] or I just search the Internet. It just takes about five, ten minutes every day. This is an approach applicable to everybody, no matter what field you are in or going to get into. This constant, continuous and never-ending improvement is an attitude that everybody should adopt, I think. I find it interesting that even as we come to grips with a world where machines can learn stuff, we humans also need to up our game in learning, perhaps in ways that machines cannot achieve in the foreseeable future. Now is not the time to be a Luddite. What do you think about AI and learning?

Kevin : Yeah, I think there’s been a lot of discussion about AI taking over the human’s job in the media. In my opinion, it is not really about AI taking over a human’s job per se. Instead, it is about humans who know how to leverage on the power of AI, who will take over those who don’t. So, AI is just a tool. It depends on whether you know how to make use of the tool or not. It is very much like thirty years ago, people who learned how to use computers replaced those who didn’t. In more recent history, I think companies that learned how to leverage on the power of e-commerce decimated the businesses that didn’t. That’s a trend and likewise, what we will see in the future is people and companies who learn how to make use of AI productively will replace those who don’t. I’m coming to an important point. In the past, we learned a professional skill in our twenties and we could safely expect that professional skill to serve us well until our retirement. But, that is no longer true. Today, no matter how good our skills we start with, we can expect them to be obsolete very soon, not once, but multiple times in our lifetime. So, if we cannot get out of our comfort zones and we cannot learn new skills, then we will run a risk that we will be replaced, we will be wiped out by others who do learn those new skills during our mid-careers. Lifelong learning to me is no longer just a cliché. It has actually become a survival skill. It is no longer a nice-to-have. To succeed, I think we will have to reset our careers, learn new skills and pivot to totally new paths, at least once, if not multiple times. When we are in our twenties, we truly have no fear. We absorb new knowledge, like a sponge. But, as we grow older and we become more successful in our careers, we somehow tend to stop doing that. Slowly, we habituate into our own comfort zones. We become reluctant to change, and we become reluctant to take risks. But, as I realize, over the past few years, age actually is just an excuse for hiding in our comfort zone. A lot of people say that when you grow older, it is much harder to learn new skills. Actually, I think it is not a matter of ability, but rather a matter of mindsets. In today’s world, everything is learnable. Actually, they’re figure-out-able, as long as we put our hearts to it. There are plenty of resources out there to help us succeed. So the question to me really is, are we willing to do so or are we being held hostage by our own mindset?

Basil : Talking about the teaming up of humans and machines, I think not only should we not fear AI, we should actually embrace it, to increase our own capabilities. Now, I’m on Facebook and YouTube a lot, and that’s where I get a lot of my new ideas and become aware of new trends and opportunities, of being connected to a larger whole. But yet not every part of that whole is relevant to me and that’s where AI-powered recommendations come in. I do find such recommendations very useful, and they have helped me on my journey so here’s one way where we can actually harness the power of AI to improve your own self.

Alright, Kevin, you are leading the AI Advisory Team in AI Singapore. What’s the mission of the team, could you tell us?

Kevin : Yeah, sure. Many companies are interested in adopting AI, but they don’t know how. So, the AI Advisory Team in AI Singapore was set up to help these companies along their AI adoption journey. Companies have different readiness. Some of them are interested in AI, but totally have no idea at all of how to get started. Some others have specific ideas, but they are not sure whether those ideas are real or mature, do they have the data, do they have the right work processes, or do they have the talents to execute those projects? Therefore, we develop different programmes to help them. For example, for the total beginners, we run AI Clinics, which are workshops that are aimed to show companies some successful AI use cases in their specific industries to enable them to start thinking about what they might want to do for their companies [4]. And then for those who already have some ideas and want our help to explore their specific use cases, we have the AI Discovery Programme through which we will provide consultancy services to help them explore and scope specific AI projects. So you can see that we kind of hand-hold people, nudge people along the way so that they will end up at a stage where they are ready to do their first AI projects for their companies.

Basil : So, helping companies transform their businesses with AI. That’s a story for another day, and I think we have plans to talk about it very soon in another podcast. Right, Kevin?

Kevin : Yeah, sure, Basil. I would love to do that.

Basil : So, listeners, for today, I hope that you have some useful takeaway points from our conversation. Everyone walks a different path, but I’m sure that there will be things that we can learn from listening to others. So, join me and Kevin next time as we explore how companies can transform their businesses with AI. Until then, stay safe and, bye bye.


[1] If you haven’t, do watch this great piece of storytelling of a historic moment in 2016: AlphaGo – The Movie | Full Documentary
[2] Azmi’s transition story – The AI Engineer: An Unexpected Journey
[3] I traced the equation Despair = Hardship – Meaning to Chip Conley
[4] Read more about AI Clinics here

[*] This conversation was transcribed using Speech Lab. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.