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Albert Lie on Xendit's Founding Engineer, Unsexy Markets and Indonesia Startup Culture

· Show Notes,Indonesia

When you reach more than 50 people (in a startup), and you become a manager or tech lead, your product is not the system anymore. Your product is that human itself. So you need to do whatever it takes to make sure that your team, and the members understand the mission, and can run independently to thrive. - Albert Lie

Albert Lie is a deep lover of engineering with previous experiences in business development, civic technology, and product. He has experience working in non-profit, government, and start-ups (ideation, early-stage, series-A, and series-B)

Albert was the 1st engineering hire for Xendit, an impact-focused FinTech startup and the 7th person in the company with a mission on making customers be able to seamlessly accept payments and disburse funds at scale in Southeast Asia.

With side projects in various sectors but not limited to healthcare, legaltech, and deep tech, Albert loves building something that people want.

Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Hey, Albert. Good to have you on board.

Albert Lie: [00:00:33] Hey Jeremy, thanks for having me.

Jeremy Au: [00:00:36] I'm so excited to share your story as engineer number one, to being part of a engineering team of a hundred people and being one of Indonesia's leading, and known FinTech companies. So excited to share your personal journey in that aspect of it.

Albert Lie: [00:00:52] Before that, let me share first a bit more about myself. So I grew up in Indonesia with Hokkien as my first language, before learning Bahasa Indonesia. And I moved between different islands, and provinces as well. Went to local schools, and university, but not an international one. Looking back to my childhood, because my parents only graduated from junior high school, we didn't have basic knowledges to design our life, like what other people have. And as a result, I was always encouraged to think independently when making a certain decision. So I would ask fundamental questions, or weird questions to my friends like, why do we need to go to university? Or basically weird questions like that. For some people, I know it sounded counter-intuitive, and a lot of my friends considered those as probably "dumb", stupid questions.

But for me, I ended up learning by trial, and error. For me, it's blessing in disguise, and stuff. Because it forced me to think about my actual original goals instead of just blindly following the crowd, or the common standard in the society. Long short story, this kind of habit led me into an unconventional career that I have. So first, I started a social enterprise in civic technology. So basically we work with the government to promote open data, or smart city initiative. But I decided to stop after a year, because I couldn't figure out how to make it sustainable. And anyway, a lot of initiatives were merged into the government directly. So that's okay for me at the time. Learning from that mistake, I started to find resources on the internet. I started to watch Y Combinator videos in YouTube, on how to make something not just to be successful, but also sustainable.

Several months after, lucky enough, of the YC companies went to Indonesia. And it was Xendit. I met them at the first YC event in Indonesia by Justin Kan. It was around January 2016. At the time, even though they don't have job posting somewhere, I tried to be brave enough to approach the founder, asking for time to have a casual chat. And basically just to know more about Xendit. Luckily, I was invited into their apartment, and I ended up talking to the founders for around three hours until 2:00 AM in the morning, and the rest is history. But shortly I joined, even though at a time, a lot of my friends showed a lot of oppositions, and told me that I should go to either Big Tech companies, or I should go to consulting career, and then MBA, and then something that's a more obvious opportunity.

But at the end of the day, I still made up my mind to join because, I was really clear on my goals, and the three things that I was looking for at a time. So the first one is a small organization, which means I had a bunch of opportunity to start something from the ground up. The second one is, I would say unsexy market. Meaning that at a time FinTech was not sexy at all. A lot of operations are still manual. There were not a lot of companies in FinTech. And I think that's the reason why my friends saw that as an unknown thing.

But for me, it's the other way around. For me, it's an opportunity to create something impactful. And the last thing is I was just honestly inspired by the founders mission. And for your information, none of them were from Indonesia. But they dedicated themselves to fly here, and start something here. In an unknown country for them. And I think at the base of something hyperbolic. I would say that kind of inspiration is still one that influenced me to be ambitious, to move to the Philippines as well in 2019.

Jeremy Au: [00:05:15] Wow. That's an amazing journey. And I'm glad you shared the early days of it. I'm so curious. I mean, what was your first day at Xendit like? Take us back to, was it a nice office? What was it like?

Albert Lie: [00:05:32] It was a very humble beginning. We started by working from an apartment, and a rented house for years actually. We basically work, eat, play, and sleep there. And at a time, I think for me, the most important thing is mostly about ownership mentality. So I still remember, when we'd have our first batch of customers, because we focus on building something people want, we even did several things that probably considered as extreme. So for example is, when we released our first product. Instead of waiting for customers to integrate, we went to customers office directly. We invited customers to go to our office, and we basically helped the customers using their laptop to integrate.

And there is also an interesting story where we tried to give back, one of the payment system. And we went to Alfamart. So Alfamart when it's basically like 7-Eleven. At the time, we were testing the bank transfer capability. And we basically, went there, brought our laptop there, and did it up on the spot. And at a time, because we spent a long time there, I think the people on the cashier thought that we wanted to do a crime, or something. So that's quite interesting, but actually that worked for the customer. And the customer, went live in basically less than a day at the time.

Jeremy Au: [00:07:01] Wow. That's amazing. And I love not just the humble beginnings, and apartment like so many other founders, but also getting mistaken as criminals. I remember my last company as well, we were in my house working, and I was bursting to the seams, and I remember that we had to onboard an executive, and I was, Okay, your employee welcome session is in my bedroom. And so it had everybody else kind of laughing, because that was the only room that was at a private spot to have our meetings in. And those were the days. I'm just kind of curious. I mean, obviously you've seen not just the founding days of Xendit, but also the scaling days. How do you see leadership being important. And how is it different across the different stages of the company?

Albert Lie: [00:07:50] That's a very good question actually. I see that leadership is like an operating system of the company. Meaning that you can move as fast as you can, but going into probably a totally wrong direction. The role of leadership here is giving you a sense of purpose, or intention so that you could navigate yourself into a correct direction. Especially in high growth company, where the company almost evolves into a different animal every six months. The leadership needs to be evolving as well. So for example, the leadership, when we were only 50 people will be different from when we were 300 people.

So when it's 50 people, you can lead by example. You can do some of the jobs by yourself. But for 300 people, it's definitely not scalable. You need to also figure out the way to lead certain teams. Even though you're not managing them directly by things like, explicit expectation, written culture, and more importantly, try to understand the unique capabilities of the team. And support them to grow in their own way. So essentially when you reach more than 50 people, and you become a manager or tech lead, or something like that, you are still building a product, but your product is not the system anymore. And your product is that human itself. So you need to do whatever it takes to make sure that your team, and the members understand the mission, and can run independently to be thriving actually.

Jeremy Au: [00:09:36] Yeah. And what's interesting is that, obviously you're talking about this from an early engineer, and engineering perspective, but also talking about from a company building perspective. I'm so curious. Do you feel like there's a difference between, #SiliconValley, #AmericanCulture? In terms of leadership versus, Indonesian leadership, versus Southeast Asian leadership. Do you think there's a difference, or things to be mindful about?

Albert Lie: [00:10:03] That's a good question. Obviously there are a lot of differences. But I would focus on one thing right now, which is... I think it's called ownership mentality. So leadership in most of the companies in Indonesia, I think people still saw that as an authority. Leaders shouldn't make a mistake. Leaders, is a role. And if you are a CEO, you don't have to do the grunt work by yourself. But from the Silicon Valley perspective, that's the other way around. I still remember the first early days, our CEO, and CTO, even did the customer support, directly. They did customer support for almost 12 hours every day. And basically they tried to own the end to end process from requirements, development, customer support. And yeah, basically the end to end process. And they own it from the start to the end, regardless of the position.

Jeremy Au: [00:11:04] Do you feel American companies, or companies of American background, like YC focus more on ownership, versus local team cultures? Or do you like that's all fake news?

Albert Lie: [00:11:19] It really depends on the company itself. But I think the unique thing intended is, we have a bunch of people from Silicon Valley mindset. We have a bunch of people from Indonesian mindset. We have a bunch of people from different countries mindset. So the mindset is merged into a totally different animal. And that's why I think in our culture, we also focus on ownership mentality. We also focus on the... We are like a family, which is more Indonesian culture. So the culture is kind of merged into company's culture. That's why I think leadership is important here as well, because the leadership will determine whether the culture is evolving into something different. Into something that's probably similar, or into something that's maybe better than the current culture.

Jeremy Au: [00:12:13] One interesting thing of course, for Southeast Asia is that almost every Southeast Asian is thinking regionally from day one, right. They're thinking about not just our country, but also the next country in terms of either as a new market, or as a source of talent, right? In terms of moving people from country A, to this country, or setting up an engineering team over there. How do you think about the region? Do you think that's true, or how true is that for you?

Albert Lie: [00:12:41] In terms of regional thinking, I think you are right. That a lot of companies try to think like, Oh, how can we expand to Malaysia? How can we expand to the Philippines, et cetera. But our principle is, I would say a bit different. We would like to focus on what customers want. So I think the reason we moved to the Philippines as well is, there are a several customers in Indonesia, and they want to expand to the Philippines.

So it's basically a direct request from the customer. And that's how we justify the business case, and the use case as well. And yeah, I think that's our principle, and we focus on the customer requests. Instead of just blindly expand. And yeah, if you plan to expand, there is a higher risk that, oh, the customer demand here probably is not enough to grow the company. So we were very careful when we think about expansion. And we really focus on the actual use case for the customer.

Jeremy Au: [00:13:46] You have this unique experience of also having set up engineering teams across Southeast Asia. What are some challenges, and some opportunities that you'd see with that.

Albert Lie: [00:13:56] This is something that I didn't realize when I haven't been into the Philippines. So actually, it's really important for the engineering team in the Philippines, and engineering team in Indonesia, or basically in the future engineering team, in the countries that do have to move into one direction. So I think the risk of having engineering team in multiple countries is like, Oh, the Philippines team have probably roadmap A. The Indonesian team has a roadmap B. And if you structure your engineering team based on the country. there will be a clashing between Philippines roadmap, versus Indonesian roadmap.

Even if the product is the same, and it could slow down product development a lot, actually. So I think the insight is, you should structure your team based on anything that makes sense. And for us, we structured a team based on the product. So instead of having Indonesian, versus Philippines team, we are a one as a product A. We are one as a product B. So the prioritization to develop Indonesia, versus Philippines should be determined together.

Jeremy Au: [00:15:09] What was it like flying to Philippines to set up the engineering team?

Albert Lie: [00:15:13] It was fun! At the time I actually was flying alone. And then at that time, there was no office yet. So I basically just worked from like coffee shops, or something like that. It's like early startup days where you brainstorm an idea, you try to plan with the environment around you. To understand a problem. So it was fun. And I saw a lot of evolutions, from maybe working from my room, working from coffee shops. And we have three people, and working in a small office when we have eight people. And working at again, a rented house, when we have 20 people.

Jeremy Au: [00:15:55] Was there a culture shock for you, from Indonesia to Philippines?

Albert Lie: [00:15:59] It depends on how you see that. I think in terms of the language, obviously that was a culture shock. Because in Indonesia, like you know, we don't use English in daily basis. And in the Philippines, everybody speaks English. So you cannot use Bahasa Indonesia at all. And I think for the first two weeks, I faced challenges, like how to speak to them. They didn't really understand, and until I used Google translate to speak for me. And yeah, but anyway, I tried to learn by building my AI engine to practice myself. And long short story, I overcame it, and I was able to speak to my teammates as well in the Philippines. And also I learned some Tagalog as well, so I could blend with them like, Hey, this is the Tagalog joke. And yeah, that's interesting.

Jeremy Au: [00:16:57] Amazing that you learned Tagalog. If you ever have a chance, go check out some improv – Philippines is one of the best in Southeast Asia, because they have a long tradition of comedy, and exposure. And I guess one thing is how should Southeast Asian companies be thinking about engineering teams, and working remotely across the region, right? I mean, it's a big topic, obviously in the pandemic year, where everyone's going to regional working from home, but are there best practices for engineering teams to adopt. Especially in the Southeast Asia context.

Albert Lie: [00:17:28] I think in terms of working remotely. I don't think that there is something special in Southeast Asia, because since I lived with teams from Canada, from UK, from the US as well. So based on our experience, working remotely, is relatively similar across, the region across the world. But fundamentally the important thing is, first, documentation. So because you couldn't m eet physically at the office, you need to make sure that your documentation is proper. And the second one is more about team building. Because you couldn't have physical event, going to the party together. You need to be more intentional on setting up Google calendar event, a Zoom event just for having a casual chat outside work. So you could basically build the bonding through those kinds of events.

Jeremy Au: [00:18:23] That's so true. So many companies have already been effectively remote, right? Because if you're regionally separated, you already have to work remotely. So there's not too much of a gap between that. And stepping up to full-time work from home, or work from anywhere situation. I'm so curious. I mean, do you feel there's language, or cultural differences that you have to figure out. Because there are so many different nationalities working together. I remember my time at Bain, we had over 30 nationalities in the same office as well. And we always had to be very explicit, we prefer this. So make sure, we don't do that, right. And you'd be careful about how we organize meals as well. So I'm just kind of curious whether you see that in your team as well.

Albert Lie: [00:19:08] Yeah, definitely. And I think that's the reason why I also mentioned before, when you have 300 people, it's really important to have a written culture. So in the written culture, we also include the things like, for speaking, I think we prefer people to be direct because we are not the mastermind. We couldn't read your mind. So it's really important to be honest, and to be candid as soon as possible, so people can understand you. So that's just one of the example, but basically the cultures that we want to have in the company, we wrote it down, and we publish it to every member in the company.

Jeremy Au: [00:19:55] And for yourself, obviously as an engineer. How do you stay on top of everything? Right? I mean, there's the news of Indonesia, and Southeast Asia, there's a FinTech side, there's an engineering side. How do you stay on top of your learning, and professional development?

Albert Lie: [00:20:11] The answer is, you cannot. But there's a trick. So yeah, because you have multiple teams, multiple product managers as well in your team. So you should try to learn instead of by yourself, try to learn something together. Because your time is limited, and you should spend your time on managing people. So you should basically ask, or encourage people around you to learn as well. So, that maybe you can organize an event where they present. Hey, this is the trend in the FinTech market, in the Philippines, and Hey, is this the engineering trend in the Indonesia, or something like that. But basically you're trying to split your learning materials among your team. Because right now you are not just alone, but you are one team. So the learning process should be considered as the learning process of the team.

Jeremy Au: [00:21:10] Personally, have you faced any hurdles, personal challenges?

Albert Lie: [00:21:15] Yeah. There were a lot. However, there are two challenges that I always remember. The first one is when it comes to asking for help. So, because I used to think independently, because of my childhood, I often thought that asking for help is terrible. But actually it's not. I think the real problem is when you ask for help, but you haven't tried anything.

So, the way I overcome this challenge is, I try to do my own research. And try my best before asking for help. So basically being really clear about, Hey, this is the problem. This is what I've tried, and this is the help that I need. So by being really clear about that kind of help, I think it will help people to give you more accurate advice as well. So, that's number one.

And numbers two. I think it took me a while to realize that it's okay for a leader to make a mistake. I always thought that when you lead a certain movement, when you lead teams. You're not allowed to make mistake, because it will impact not only yourself, but your team as well. But I think the realization that I got is it's okay to make mistake, but it's not okay if you don't learn from it. So the way I overcome that challenge is, every time I make a mistake, try to note that and I think as a result, currently I have long list of mistakes that I've ever made, and the lessons i learnt as well. So I could use it as a field to propose, not only for myself, but for my team as well.

Jeremy Au: [00:22:57] Thanks for sharing that. I think it must have been quite a journey for you to come to that. And I resonate with you. I remember my first job I was told by my manager flat out to start asking questions because, I wasn't asking any questions, because I didn't want to sound... Similarly, I didn't want to seem like I didn't know something. And I had to think about it as, Oh, some part of it was my upbringing, and some of it was my military training. So it was quite interesting to come to some reflection on that as well. I'm kind of curious, what resources are available for people who are looking to become engineer number one, right? To be part of a fast-growth startup. What advice would you give them? Would you point them at certain directories, or books to read? How would you think about it?

Albert Lie: [00:23:45] It's not specifically for being engineer number one, but it's a good resource for thinking about your life in general. So I highly recommend people to read Outliers. So it's a book by Malcolm Gladwell. I found it super useful in my life, and career. Because, I think a lot of people say success is combination of luck, hardwork and intelligence. And luck is basically something that is very, very hard to control. And this book helps us to understand what success really means, and how to engineer your environment regardless of your race, privilege, so that you can be as close as possible to be lucky, and maximize your probability of success. And on top of that, it's also taught me to see that success is different for every individual because our privileges are uniquely different. So we need to create our own definition of success, and basically stop comparing ourselves to other people's metrics.

Jeremy Au: [00:24:54] I love the book Outliers. I love that book so much. I mean, I think it was also very instrumental for me as well. Thinking through my own career, and skills. I think one thing also came out of it, reading Outliers was not thinking, and saying. Oh my God, he's so much better than me. And I suck, and therefore I shouldn't get started. But be more like, okay, he's probably, can put in a 1000 hours, 10,000 hours, right. A 10000 hours of practice to this thing. And I'm at the 10 hour mark, right. Or 20 hour mark. And just being comfortable with that gap. Because once you define the gap as a number of hours, right. Dedicated to improvement of that craft, or whatever it is.

Then it feels a lot more achievable, right. Because now all you have to do is clock in more hours of practice. Thanks for reminding me about it. And I probably should reread that book again as well. I'm so curious as well for yourself. You've also been very much involved in FinTech, and you've seen huge wave of FinTech, of which Xendit was pretty much the pioneer in terms of, the chronology as well as the geography. And now there's so many more FinTech companies, right. So what do you think about all those FinTech companies that are coming in? What are the trends, and opportunities that you see?

Albert Lie: [00:26:12] At least, For me, it will be super duper interesting, because right now we have players like Xendit, the infrastructure is definitely more ready compared to probably five years ago. So if you want to build a FinTech company right now. You can use basically infrastructure in Xendit, in other companies as well, as your building blocks. So you could focus more on your FinTech business process. You basically don't need to care a lot about your financial infrastructure. So I think that's an interesting moment because it never happened before. And right now it's the perfect moment, where you could try to bring your innovation instead of focus on your infrastructure. So yeah, it's basically like now we have AWS for financial infrastructure, and you could basically just outsource your menial tasks, and focus on things that matters to you.

Jeremy Au: [00:27:17] What's advice that you would give to people who want to set up another FinTech company?

Albert Lie: [00:27:22] Well, there are a lot of advices that I have, because as I mentioned before, I have a list of mistakes that I collect. But I think the most important thing is, number one, culture. So I think it's really important to think about your culture in general, your leadership in general. You need to be very aware of your leadership, your cultural evolutions as your company grow. Because you cannot be like, Oh, it's just a culture for five people. And we wanted to use this culture when we are 300 people. I think it doesn't work. So you need to be aware that leadership is a full thing, and certainly important in FinTech. Especially when it comes to managing stakeholders outside of company.

Your leadership will be really important because you need to explain your reasoning of doing something to maybe partners in FinTechs like banks. it's like other financial institution, et cetera. And the second one, I think it's related to the thing that I just mentioned, which is partnership management. Because in FinTech, it's really hard to build something good in FinTech. So you need to work together. Not just with your team, but together with the partnership that you have, like government, financial institutions, banks, et cetera. Because it will be a very, very long journey, and you need to move together for that.

Jeremy Au: [00:28:52] Awesome. Kind of curious as well, Indonesia is such a hot topic, right? and so many companies are going to Indonesia these days. Everybody always says, if everybody in Indonesia bought a Coca-Cola at a movie, we'll have made it. So I'm kind of curious, are there any common myths, or misconceptions that you've heard about Indonesia?

Albert Lie: [00:29:18] That's a very good question. And I think this is what we learned in Xendit as well. So one misconception that people outside Indonesia did, is actually, they thought they could just go to Indonesia, and basically bring the best practices, bring whatever ideas that they have in the US, or maybe outside of Indonesia, and apply it here. But in reality, it will not work because the market in Indonesia is really different in terms of culture. It's, auditive pretty different, in terms of infrastructure, it's pretty different. So you need to even work harder because you need to build the first layer of infrastructure. The first layer of foundation first, before applying the lessons learned that you have outside Indonesia. So I think that's the misconception that people have. A lot of people thought you could just go, and build something. But you also need to build the foundation as well.

Jeremy Au: [00:30:18] That's so true. I think everybody knows that Indonesia is an order of magnitude in terms of, where they are, which is of course where the opportunity is. But I think they often don't think about how they themselves need to evolve, and not just the product, but also the approach, and the conversations they need to have. And I think the converse of it of course, is that a lot of people arrive in Singapore, and they're, wow, Southeast Asia is really easier, right. Indonesia is just a short flight away. So if Singapore is like this, we'll be able to go to Indonesia. No problem. And I'm just, Whoa, hold up. No where like that at all. Last question. If you could go back in time 10 years, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Albert Lie: [00:31:07] That's a deep question. So as I mentioned before, I understand that success is a combination of luck, hard work, and intelligence. And I'm happy that I work as hard as possible in the past. But I would ask myself to also consider one more element into the formula, which people often forget, and that is happiness. So at the end of the day, a lot of successful movements need a very long time. And the only way you can make sure that you can do something in a sustainable way is to care about your happiness.

Jeremy Au: [00:31:46] Awesome. Thank you so much, Albert.

Albert Lie: [00:31:48] You are welcome. It was fun.

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