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‘Embrace uncertainties and navigate ambiguity,’ says Grab CTO Suthen Thomas

Written by Khamila Mulia Published on     8 mins read

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The Grab tech team started with three engineers nearly a decade ago. Now, it has spread across eight global offices as the company gets ready to go public.

Grab is bringing big changes to Southeast Asia’s digital economy with its services like ride-hailing, food delivery, and fintech. Launched in 2012 in Malaysia with only one offering—GrabTaxi—the soon-to-be-listed firm has grown into a self-described “super app,” with around 25 million monthly transacting users, 5 million registered drivers, and 2 million merchant partners.

Behind Grab’s growth is an army of engineers who write code to develop software solutions, operating systems, security tools, and other protocols. Nine years ago, it all started with three members of the tech team, according to Suthen Thomas, Grab’s CTO.

Suthen joined the company in 2011 as a technical consultant after a friend introduced him to Grab’s co-founders, Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling. The two were looking for someone with technical know-how to build an application to make taxis safer, and Suthen was the right fit.

“I found the project really interesting because Malaysia had a reputation for having some of the worst taxi drivers in the world,” Suthen told KrASIA. Before joining Grab, Suthen served as a software development manager at Logistics Consulting Asia in Selangor, Malaysia.

As a fresh startup, Grab’s early team worked in a small office in Kuala Lumpur. The company started with a taxi dispatch system for drivers, but there wasn’t a passenger application. 

“In the beginning, the system was developed by a third-party company. Anthony brought me to have a look at the work, and I suggested the team do in-house development,” Suthen said. “It was serendipitous as I knew a guy who was also quitting his job with a couple of friends to build their own thing. I introduced them to Anthony. One thing led to another: Grab got its first in-house tech team in December 2011. There were three people on the team.”

In the beginning, they spent a lot of time coding, while Suthen, as a consultant, was responsible for addressing the key pain points of the system. Nobody had a specific job description; everyone just did what was needed, Suthen said.

“In 2012, the Malaysian government held a carnival, so we set up a booth to recruit taxi drivers,” he said. From founders to engineers and designers, everyone in the company helped recruit drivers, explaining the app and why they needed to use it. “After a while, we realized that instead of asking passengers to call a taxi dispatch, we needed to put the bookings in the hands of passengers directly, and that’s when we introduced our passenger app in 2012,” Suthen explained.

As more and more people downloaded the new app, it forced the team to scale up their products quickly. They invested in tech components like back-end JavaScript runtime environment Node Js and open-source NoSQL database CouchDB, which were new to the market and had limited ecosystem support. In 2012, Suthen joined the company full time as the first tech lead, overseeing the work of the three developers. The team’s first members, Fadrizul Hasani, Michael Cheah, and Corey Scott, are still with the company, Suthen said.

The Grab office in its early days was mainly composed of a small tech team and few interns. Photo courtesy of Grab.

“We tried and tested different technologies. We moved from Node Js and CouchDB to [development frameworks] Rails and MySQL while still keeping some of the earlier components. This became a strong foundation for growth. First, the tech ecosystem was getting more mature, and we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Second, we had a lot of useful components we could draw from the community,” said Suthen.

“Beyond that, the product was built to support multiple markets, so it was internationalized and localized from the start. This allowed us to have one stack across two markets and then scale to other markets really quickly,” he added.

In 2013, Suthen took leave to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard Kennedy School and returned two years later. In January 2020, he was promoted to the CTO position at Grab.

Read more: All eyes on Grab | From a Harvard University project to a USD 40 billion business

Hyperlocal is key

Now headquartered in Singapore, Grab currently operates in 428 cities across eight countries in Southeast Asia. In addition to its main services like GrabCar, the firm has different offerings in other regional markets catering to locals’ needs. For instance, on-demand motorcycle ride taxi service GrabBike is available in countries where motorcycles are common, like Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. At the same time, in certain regions of Cambodia, customers can order Grab Remorque, the company’s version of a traditional Cambodian tuk-tuk, a two-wheeled carriage pulled by a motorbike, and in Myanmar, users can request rickshaw taxis.

Nonetheless, it’s never easy for a tech team to tailor services for a specific market. In pre-pandemic times, operations and tech teams, even from the company’s global offices in Beijing and Seattle, would come to the region to experience the products themselves. This way, team members unfamiliar with Southeast Asia could learn first-hand about the problems on the ground to better understand what locals need, Suthen explained.

“If you customize the product too much for every market, you end up with potentially nonscalable solutions, and the product will be difficult to maintain,” said Suthen. Therefore, the team strikes a balance by generalizing components and deploying capabilities in the market.

“One example was the work we did for GrabFood when COVID-19 hit. People had a difficult time going out to get the things they needed, and we wanted to create income opportunities for drivers and merchant partners. We were able to use the platform we had built for delivery, including the catalog and all those capabilities, to quickly launch a product where you could buy groceries through the platform,” Suthen added.

Grab has different offerings in regional markets. In Myanmar, users can request rickshaw taxis called Grab ThoneBane. Photo courtesy of Grab.

Emphasis on data security and protection

Southeast Asia’s digital economy has been progressing rapidly over the past decade. Over 400 million people use the internet in the region, often submitting their data to sign up for services with little—to no control—over the use of that data.

Companies have established security systems to protect data flows, but this hasn’t completely stopped hackers from stealing valuable personal information. There have been numerous data breach cases recently, affecting major companies like Tokopedia and Bukalapak in Indonesia, as well as Lazada and ShopBack in Singapore last year. Suthen said Grab looks at trust and security in a holistic manner.

“We regularly incorporate security practices into the product development cycle. Beyond basic practices like code reviews, we get the security team to review the design of features of any open application programming interface. We also engage external third-party services to validate that our practices are effective,” Suthen explained. If there is any vulnerability, it will be resolved within strict timelines, he added.

The platform also developed fraud detection and prevention technology called Grab Defence. On average, online platforms in Southeast Asia lose 1.6% revenue to fraud, while on Grab, the number is less than 0.2%, according to Suthen. “A common fraud method in ride-hailing is fake orders and people spoofing the GPS. We invested heavily in AI to translate our experience and data insights into a technology service that helps us detect and prevent fraud in real-time,” he said.

The team at Grab saw an opportunity to provide their security tools to other enterprises to fight potential fraud. “Our long-term vision for Grab Defence is to have a whole suite of protective technology for enterprise clients so they can run a business, safely transact, and deliver value to customers in Southeast Asia,” said Suthen.

Grab’s tech team today

Suthen witnessed how the tech and engineering team at Grab has evolved over nearly a decade. Today, the Grab tech team has expanded significantly (the firm declined to reveal precise numbers), with engineers working in eight tech centers across the world in cities such as Bangalore, Beijing, and Seattle. In addition to having fundamental technical skills like the ability to understand algorithms, data structures, and distributed systems, engineers also need to have a builder’s mentality, the CTO said.

Although Grab is “a lot more established today,” it is still a relatively young company that is continually growing, Suthen added. The firm is still looking for people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do whatever is necessary, even if that isn’t the traditional job scope of an engineer.

“We do that less now because the company is a lot larger, but you need to be able to embrace uncertainties and navigate ambiguity,” said Suthen.

Grab’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to the team’s resilience. It pivoted many of its tech roadmaps, focusing more on delivering features that would help communities and consumers adapt to the new normal with two goals—ensuring people’s safety amid the pandemic and helping micro, small, and medium enterprises get more online customers. Last year, the platform rolled out 120 new features, mostly on GrabFood, GrabMart, and GrabExpress.

For instance, in June 2020, the company introduced a set of hygiene kits and safety guidelines called GrabProtect for drivers and customers using ride-sharing services. As part of the program, drivers were asked to submit a photo wearing their mask during the health and hygiene declaration process, Suthen explained.

Also last year, the company launched a B2B marketplace called GrabMerchant to help more small businesses go digital. The firm also expanded its concierge service GrabAssistant in Indonesia last year, after its first introduction in the Philippines in 2018.

“On average, we provide ten new features a month. We scaled grocery delivery services from two markets to eight markets and over 50 cities in three months. This was possible because we had built a platform that allowed us to scale across multiple markets very quickly,” he said.

“We always start with the problems that our consumers, driver-partners, and merchants face. [Rolling out new features] is a collaborative process where different teams like tech, product, and business all sit together to discuss the most relevant capabilities in the markets that we can then use to offer solutions,” Suthen added.

Suthen said two things still keep him awake at night—how to ensure that teams are finding joy in their work with new challenges that arise and how to achieve excellence at the same time. This is becoming more important now as the company plans to go public, which means added pressure and requirements.

Grab is currently preparing to merge with Altimeter Growth Corporation in a move that would value the new entity at nearly USD 40 billion, opening a path for it to trade on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The deal is expected to be completed in Q4 2021.

“As we grow larger, it is important for us to maintain our cultural values, not forget where we came from, and remember how we had to learn and grow to get to this stage. We need to make sure we keep the culture and organization strong,” Suthen said.

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