NTU Career Tracks 2024

Career Pivot Journey: Clarence Lam

What made you pivot to another industry from the one you started out in?

Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and Digital Imaging, I stumbled upon Ian Goodfellow’s groundbreaking paper on Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). This paper opened my eyes to the limitless possibilities that AI could offer, in particular with synthetic photograph generation.

I realised that there were numerous possibilities in terms of my career path but it was also imperative for me to expand my skillsets in order to prepare myself for the industries of the future. I knew then that I had to pivot my career and made the decision to transit towards this burgeoning field.

How was your career pivot from start to end?

The pivot was like navigating uncharted waters. I did not have role models with similar backgrounds as myself who had successfully transitioned into AI, which was a field filled with PhDs with a strong background in STEM, especially in disciplines such as physics, mathematics, and computer science.

I began by identifying the core competencies needed in AI and sought roles that would allow me to develop these skills whether this was an adjacent functional role or industry. Each role served as a stepping stone to the next. Even though the path was nebulous at first, each win, however small, made the next step clearer.

I started off as a technical editor for a software QA startup, and began to be more involved in the digital marketing operations. I then started automating processes within it. This eventually led to more analytics-driven work as I transited into consulting and started spending a lot of time speaking to engineers in the field and learnt from them. As a result, I was building personal projects at the same time. Some of these were eventually integrated into the internal processes of my previous company.

What were some challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

One formidable challenge was the industry’s bias against my non-STEM background. I was often pigeonholed as “the photographer”, even being asked to handle photography tasks unrelated to my role. Setting firm boundaries and delivering results in new verticals helped me break that stereotype.

There were also concerns from well-meaning friends and colleagues who thought my desire to do a hard pivot despite my background was not feasible and that I should settle for a different career path instead. With time, that opinion gradually shifted as they had started seeing that I was able to overcome perceptions of what was thought to be impossible.

How have you developed through this experience? What are some learning points?

The journey instilled in me a sense of grit and resilience, qualities that are indispensable in today’s rapidly evolving landscape. I have learnt that no skill is ever wasted, and it is far more important to learn how to learn and to be able to synthesise your unique skill set to create new opportunities for yourself and others.

As we move into an era where change is going to happen even more quickly than ever, such skills will be indispensable. The possibilities are far greater than we can ever imagine if we are open to them.

Share your advice with non-STEM students who are keen to explore a career in the tech industry, particularly in AI.

Don’t be confined by your academic background. In tech, adaptability and continuous learning far outweigh traditional qualifications. Your unique perspective as a non-STEM student can in fact be an asset rather than a limitation and may actually serve you well in the long run.

Unlike more traditional engineering roles that are more process-oriented, my role involves understanding and engaging with different people with vastly different backgrounds and goals. This will range from stakeholders who may be interested in the strategic positioning of the product to end users who are more interested in their personal experiences with the product. Having the empathy to understand different stakeholder needs and the ability to engage with both technical and non-technical audiences will be advantageous.