NTU Career Tracks 2024

Career Pivot Journey: Zhang Jiehuang

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

I started my first job in Land Transport Authority as a Rail Engineer. The job was stable and it was what my parents wanted for me. However, it did not satisfy my desire for learning and growth opportunities in a career. Eventually, I took a leap of faith and entered a PhD programme under the Alibaba Talent Programme. This enabled me to transit into the tech industry. It was a difficult decision to leave my stable job to undertake a PhD programme. I was compelled by the rapid growth and exciting opportunities that the tech sector could offer.

How was your career pivot from start to end?

My career pivot journey was certainly not easy and definitely quite an experience. I recalled putting in long hours, reading paper after paper, and spending days on debugging code. As tech was a completely new field to me, it was necessary for me to put in extra effort and time commitment to learn as quickly as I could. I spent nearly five years to complete my PhD, a duration which many Singaporeans would deem to be too long. However, it was a rewarding experience and it gave me the time to fully immerse myself in acquiring the necessary skills for a successful tech career. It was not easy but after completing my PhD, I secured a job at DBS Bank, a significant achievement that validated all my hard work.

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

Some challenges included the rigorous selection interviews for the PhD programme. It was tough for me to stand out from the many more accomplished peers given my lack of experience in the AI/tech sector. Performing well in these selection interviews was particularly crucial because the Alibaba Talent Programme was a unique opportunity that offers some financial stability over four years as a student. I dedicated many hours on crafting my resume and preparing my interview script using frameworks such as the STAR method.

Many concepts were unfamiliar to me and required technical expertise. I had to spend many hours on online courses and sought guidance from peers and mentors to learn as quickly as I could. The greatest challenge was pinpointing the exact field and type of work where I could make a meaningful contribution. It took me nearly two years of exploration before I identified my niche in ethical AI. The pivot journey was undeniably challenging but it was achievable with perseverance and determination.

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

I have learnt that no matter how difficult things may seem, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. In my youth, I had financial difficulties due to my family background and this lack of financial ability denied me many opportunities that were open to my peers. It was a difficult decision to embark on a PhD programme as it appeared to be less financially rewarding compared to other career pathways. Monetary considerations were always part of my decision-making process and have sometimes stopped me from pursuing things that I wanted to do.

Fast forward to today, I now have a rewarding job at DBS bank, enjoy financial stability, and am blessed with a beautiful daughter and family.

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

Some timeless and general advice include taking up online courses to pick up relevant skills. Additionally, get your hands dirty and work on real-world projects to hone those skills. Observe what others are doing in the tech field to improve themselves and learn from them. What really helped me was also the support I received from the network of peers and mentors from the industry. Trust me, mentors will help you immensely when you first break into tech.

Finally, have an end goal in mind, then work hard towards it!