ADVICE FROM A GFC ERA STUDENT: AN INTERVIEW WITH ROB CHAN
By Emily Cong
It’s safe to say that COVID-19 has changed the game for university students. For first-year students embarking on their journey, it’s been a rocky year with more time online than on campus, and limited opportunities for face-to-face events. For the Class of 2020, things have changed as well. Not only are traditional graduation ceremonies and celebrations unable to go ahead this year, but students also face a tough labour market as we head into the first global recession since 2007. As we speculate what exactly the ‘future of work’ will look like, what’s for sure is that employment prospects are more competitive than ever.
In efforts to gain some insights from those who’ve “been there, done that”, our Publications team sat down with BSOC alumni Rob Chan to chat about his experiences as a university student amidst the 2007 GFC.
- About Rob
- His time at UNSW
- Advice for students
- Work Experience after Graduation
- Big 4 vs Tech
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi there, it’s been ten years since I’ve been involved with campus life at UNSW where I was the president of the then newly rebranded BSOC organisation. My participation in the student organization helped me gain a better understanding of how industry is structured and shaped. At university I studied a double degree in Commerce and Science, majoring in Marketing and Psychology and upon graduating I worked at PwC for five years before moving to Uber where I currently work as the Global Product Operations Manager. Going into university, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to tackle in my working career and didn’t know what the job market practically looked like and how I wanted my career to unfold. I was also entering higher education in the backdrop against the Global Financial Crisis, so I had a lot of questions in my mind about the intersection of economics and society.
Looking back at your time at UNSW, how did your studies set you up in your career?
My time at UNSW was very rewarding and university definitely set up strong foundations that I still carry with me today. For rapidly changing industries, however, there was a disconnect between theory learnt in classes and in practice. For example I was learning marketing theory during the boom of digital advertising where new customer trends were just being understood and marketers were just starting to understand the difference of search vs display advertising - and the mobile revolution was just starting. In class, we were learning time-tested foundations of 4Ps/8Ps of marketing but the industry was coming to grips with understanding new ways to buy digital media and practitioners were looking for new skills (for me it was understanding how digital atomised the media buying landscape: cost per click - CPC, cost per thousand impressions - CPM). I think it’s really important to understand how the industry is changing and there is never a right answer! I’d say that UNSW provided a very safe learning ground where I was able to progress from coursework to university societies and internships before I embarked on my career after graduation. The pre-graduation work experiences I had at GradConnection, NICTA and Arc @ UNSW all gave me tremendous practical exposure to the basic business functions that later informed my career choices.
You mentioned that you entered the job market in the backdrop of the GFC. How was the landscape for you and do you have any advice for students entering now?
The good news is that if you are entering university now, you still have a couple of years to see society pick back up. Likewise, I was lucky enough to graduate high school at the peak of the GFC so by the time I’d graduated my degree in 2012, the economic downturns had eased significantly.
It was definitely challenging trying to understand how we got to where we were and what it was that I was trying to orient my career towards. In a time like now where the world is standing still for the large part, there is plenty of time and opportunity to figure out what it is that you want to be doing, and why you want to be doing it.
For me, a big thing was understanding where the best and brightest of my generation were going and what was appealing about those fields. Back then, a lot of my cohort wanted to get into trading, investment banking and consulting. I was interested in that space, but I had leant a bit heavier towards technology throughout my university career. During my time in university, I had the opportunity to develop some skills in design and coding, and that’s something that I would definitely encourage you to do too. University is a great time to explore those skills and figure out what path is right for you!
Since graduating, what positions have you worked in and how have they shaped you?
Upon graduation, I spent 5 years at PwC Australia working across many different projects that involved the intersection of customer consulting and tech consulting. From this experience I learnt a lot about the intricacies of working in corporate, often working alongside government sponsors and building my foundations in the core grind of consulting. In my latter years at PwC, I worked more in the tech consulting sphere, where projects involved establishing an internal venture to drive ‘intrapreneurship’ at PwC.
In 2017, I had the chance to join Uber ANZ where I worked in the Community Operations team in Sydney. Coming out of Consulting and into Tech, I learnt a lot about applying data analysis to decision-making and was also able to further my technical skills (I learnt SQL deeply). Within the team, I managed our daily operations of our Earner Onboarding teams as well as strategic projects including state-wide regulatory changes and post-merger transition when we exited our South East Asia business to Grab.
Currently, I work in San Francisco as part of the Product Operations team at Uber. If CommOps meant we had to put ‘coverage’ on everything, then the ProdOps role involves ‘strategically’ investing in key things that’ll move the needle for the company through using a balance of business acumen and technical depth. In this role I got more into our technology, having the opportunity to work between our technical teams (Product Management, UXR, Engineers, Data Scientists, Designers) and business teams (Operations, Strategy, Finance, Sales and Support). Product Operations teams serve customers by contributing to the speeding up rollouts, identification of trends in opportunities and problem spaces, as well as recommending data to ensure decision-makers have all the necessary data to make the right decisions.
Looking back on the transition between PwC and Uber, how do you feel about it and how do your personal interests and values align with that of Uber?
Through my five years at PwC I definitely learnt a lot about the basics of consultancy and working professionally. The key takeaways I still carry with me today include the value of synthesis (as opposed to mere analysis) and being succinct. I came to understand that our clients are seeking to understand the problem through a specific lens and consultants need to be able to reach a well-synthesised conclusion and communicate that succinctly in a limited timeframe.
There are definitely big differences between working at a Big 4 firm like PwC and a maturing tech company like Uber, however, I really enjoyed my time at both companies. Moving to Uber was definitely the right decision for me, and mastery, autonomy and purpose are the three words that I would use to unpack this.
 Mastery: I just wanted to learn more. Joining Uber was more fast-paced and involving harder technical skills. Given my interest in technology, I wanted to better understand what you could do with data and how to apply analysis to decision-making. Uber was able to give that opportunity to me!
 Autonomy: Why Uber? A unique characteristic of Uber is that being a marketplace business, each city is very different and there is more autonomy as opposed to just selling products built somewhere else. That was really important for me. I wanted to join a company where the people on the ground had some of the decision making authority. I found this in Uber Operations where things are much more decentralised.
 Purpose: The reason why I stay in Uber now is because we have one of the most influential marketplaces to decarbonise the world. In December 2019, I was back in Sydney during the biggest bushfire in Australian history. I remember very vividly: if we don’t course-correct and rewire how we live on Earth, then the next generation won’t receive the same opportunities as my generation. I got invigorated and started retooling and figuring out my role in the climate action movement. I’m very proud of Uber’s work in Sustainability - we announced our Commitments and Action Plans recently and I look forward to continuing to fight this existential threat.