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Homecoming: a returnee’s journey back to Indonesia
The decision to move to a new country is never an easy one. Aside from having to start your life from scratch (an even greater challenge with a family in tow), you have to find ways to assimilate or, at the very least, get used to local customs and norms. The same challenge applies to returnees also, or those returning to their home countries to work after an extended period away.
In this article, we speak to Krishna Dermawan, the Data Analyst Senior Lead at Tokopedia, to find out why he decided to move back to Indonesia from Australia, the challenges of being a returnee, as well as the opportunities Data Analysts might expect in the Indonesian market.
An offer you cannot refuse
Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Krishna spent the better part of his life living abroad, either as a full-time student or as a working adult.
His family first migrated from Indonesia to Singapore in the late 1990s when Krishna was just 12 years old. After graduating high school in 2004, he began looking elsewhere for what he called a more ‘diversified and liberal’ education. “I just believed that the more diverse an experience I had during college, the more I would be able to handle life after college,” he explained. With that in mind, Krishna settled on Australia, specifically at the University of New South Wales where he eventually graduated with a business degree. “Aside from my major, I also studied international relations, film studies, creative writing and political science. I wasn’t thinking so much about becoming a business person. In fact, I wanted to be a writer.”
Australia was also where Krishna began his professional career. His first job post graduation was with Bendigo and Adelaide Bank as a Data Analyst for three years, followed by a further three years at Qantas, this time as a Senior Data Analyst. It was towards the end of his time with the Australian airline when the opportunity to move back to Indonesia first arose.
“It happened during Christmas one year, when I was back in Jakarta to visit my parents,” Krishna recalled. “I’ve always known about Tokopedia and what they do, and I see the Tokopedia Tower in Jakarta all the time. But during that trip, it occurred to me that, as a Data Analyst, joining a company like that would be a very exciting proposition.”
Krishna’s instincts about Tokopedia were not baseless. Indonesia is currently in the midst of an e-commerce boom. According to one report, the country’s e-commerce market was valued at US$13 billion in 2018, having grown at 50% annually over the last two years — and the numbers are showing no signs of slowing down. A separate report predicts that the market volume will top US$47 billion by 2023 — and Tokopedia, too, is one of the most popular Indonesian technology companies with a leading marketplace in the country. Founded in 2009, Tokopedia was valued at US$7 billion as of November 2018, making it one of the rare unicorns in the start-up world. The company is even expected to add US$12 billion, or around 1.5%, to Indonesia’s economy in 2019.
The decision to move back to Indonesia made sense on a professional level. For one, even though he was admittedly living a relatively comfortable life in Australia, Krishna said that he was at least six months to a year from a managerial role. Whereas at Tokopedia, he was offered a similar role immediately. “I’ve always been interested in countries that develop quickly in a short period of time,” Krishna said. “And Tokopedia is a company with a pulse on Indonesia’s consumer behaviour. Having been away for more than a decade, joining the company to understand Indonesian consumers just made a lot of sense.”
With that in mind, Krishna applied for a role at Tokopedia via LinkedIn and was offered a managerial position.
A view of downtown Jakarta, where Krishna now calls home for the foreseeable future.
More than a year on, Krishna’s journey as a returnee has gone quite well to say the least. For one, even though the dollar value of his salary is lower compared to when he was in Australia, the cost of living in Jakarta is also significantly lower. As such, when looked at as a whole, moving back home was by no means a compromise in terms of lifestyle — a common misconception among many returnees and expatriates.
Secondly, because he’s still an Indonesian citizen, the transition from Australia was smoother for him than, say, an expatriate. In terms of paperwork, all he needed was to procure a handful of documents, such as a background check (“To prove that you don’t have a criminal record,” he explained) and a driver’s licence. And since Krishna’s parents are still based in Jakarta, housing was not a problem, making the return less like a migration and more akin to a homecoming.
Finally, English is more or less a common tongue at Tokopedia. Even though his Bahasa Indonesia was somewhat rusty to say the least, it “came right out” the moment he started working with his colleagues. The language proficiency, in particular, is a real advantage. “Me being able to speak Indonesian helps me coordinate with my team and communicate with business partners and the higher management, at least much more seamlessly than someone who only speaks English,” Krishna elaborated. “Being bilingual does give you an edge.”
With that said, the journey has not been without hiccups. For one, like many other Asian countries, seniority is observed and emphasised at the Indonesian workplace. “In Australia, you and your boss, or even your boss’ boss, can be the best of friends. That sort of hierarchy is perceived more in Indonesia, and it seeps into the social choices that people make,” Krishna observed. “But it’s not new, because of the so-called ‘power distance’ in management. I don’t expect my teammates to be my basketball buddies, for example.” Furthermore, moving to Indonesia also meant that he had to leave Julia, his newly wedded wife, behind.
Fortunately, since Julia, too, is a Data Analyst, both of them have a very pragmatic approach to their career choices. “Julia’s not the kind of person for whom [a decision like this] is a dealbreaker,” Krishna said. “She went away to the US for exchange when she was studying for her MBA, and it was OK. It wasn’t even a conversation. We both agreed that, if it was good for one person, then it was good for the other. When the opportunity at Tokopedia came up, we figured that it’d be good for both of us.” And since Julia will be joining him in Jakarta come November 2019, the decision ultimately worked out for the better.
While Krishna is not going to start a basketball tournament with his teammates anytime soon, they have become a family of sorts over the past year. “I am lucky enough to be working with four super intelligent, super motivated and super talented teammates. At the end of last year, we had a team retreat to Bandung, which is a two-hour drive away from Jakarta. Everybody brought their kids and spouses, and we really felt like a family,” Krishna recalled. “Whatever cultural shock or differences, by the end of the year, I felt like we were working as a family, and we looked out for one another.”
Word of advice
The talent gap in Indonesia is real. While data analytics is a hot field with high hiring demands right now, Indonesia does not necessarily have enough homegrown talent to fulfil the necessary positions, at least for now. This is also part of the reason why returnees like Krishna have a real advantage when re-entering the market.
For those thinking of the same route, Krishna has some advice, “Every company is hiring Data Analysts these days. So it’s more about the kind of economy you want to be a part of: do you want something more established and mature like Australia, or do you want an economy that’s very dynamic and always changing; do you want to be in the airline industry, or do you want to join a technology company,” Krishna said.
Furthermore, hard skills alone are not quite enough. “I think the technology allows Data Analysts to make decisions, but it is just a tool. You need to use your thinking and communication to help people make those decisions. You need a person to drive those insights. Without these [soft skills], the technology doesn’t do much.
“Also, the traffic is bad in Jakarta and the weather is constantly above 30 degrees all year round,” Krishna warned. “At least my wife, coming from Brisbane, is looking forward to the warmth.”