Project Y to Z: Boost Your Employability—An Interview with Gen Y-er Lionel Gao

This is the final of a seven-part ‘Project Y to Z’ series

Project Y to Z is a ground-up initiative spearheaded by three university students—Jessica Lee and Ray Leow from the Singapore Management University (SMU), together with Lim Xuan Zheng from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They may be a small team of three, but their ambitions for this initiative are far from small. Their hope is for Project Y to Z to be a community catalyst that brings Gen Yers and Zers closer together by sharing experiences, encouraging interactions and sparking conversations. In this project, they lay bare the realities of past job search experiences told by Gen Y 2008 graduates in Singapore who survived the Global Financial Crisis and lived to tell the tale. 



By Jessica Lee, Class of 2020 Graduand, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business

To conclude our Project Y to Z series, we are grateful to have Singapore Management University alumnus Lionel Gao!

Lionel is currently working as the Head of Account Development of Google Cloud – APAC. With a keen interest in disruptive technology, he has accumulated a wealth of technology sales experience. As a creative problem solver and a proactive team player, this go-getter is loved for his can-do attitude and high-quality work. Additionally, his colleagues describe him as a motivational and inspiring mentor!

Let’s see what this Lee Kong Chian School of Business graduate from the class of 2008 has to share with us about his job search journey!

Here are 3 key things you will learn:

  1. Plan ahead: Be strategic in your job search approach
  2. Digitalise: Update your Linkedin profile
  3. Adapt: Embrace uncertainty


Hi Lionel, thanks for joining us today! Tell us about your experience upon graduation.

When I was graduating from SMU in June 2008, I wasn’t particularly concerned about the subprime mortgage crisis. At that point, while there was a lot of talk around the subprime crisis, it didn’t seem too severe or overly concerning—this was a few months before major financial institutions started collapsing in the later part of 2008. I was fortunate to have spent time in Europe while on my international exchange programme in Norway in 2007, a semester before I graduated, so my job hunt started quite soon after graduation. Some of my peers took their well-deserved graduation trips and when they came back, it was in the thick of the financial crisis. So the timing made it tougher for them, but they did eventually find jobs anyway even if it did take them a little bit more time.


We see that you did an internship and landed your first full-time job with Hewlett Packard (HP). Could you share with us the details?

How I kickstarted my journey with HP was with a penultimate summer marketing internship in 2007. I had an awesome mentor during those few months and it was a great learning experience. It was around April or May 2008 that HP reached out and asked if I was interested in applying for a Sales Graduate Associate programme.

I had some initial reservations. For one, it was a sales programme, which I never considered as a career path before. I wasn’t even sure that I would like sales. But I thought, why not? If I got the job and I found out I didn’t like it, at least I could cross off that box in future and move on to try other things.

Also, my interest at that time was in consumer tech, but the programme was in enterprise tech which was close but not the same. My thinking then was that HP had a strong consumer presence and there could be options within HP for me to move from the enterprise to the consumer side of things eventually which would bring me closer to my interest.


Were you looking at other jobs as well? Did you receive other offers?

Yes, I was also looking at a couple of jobs for various roles in a mix of different industries as I did not want to narrow my scope too quickly at the start of the job search journey. When I graduated, one thing I acutely felt was that I did not have sufficient contacts with professionals in the workforce. Hence, I used various job portals that were popular then, such as The SMU Career Office (now called the Dato’ Kho Hui Meng Career Centre) was also very helpful in sharing different positions from hiring companies to students too.

Actually, I was offered a role at a large multinational F&B corporation. This was around the time I was considering whether to apply to HP. I thought long and hard about it, I decided that I would  rather pursue a career in an industry that was closer to my interests even though I was giving up on a ready job offer and taking the risk of applying for a role that I might not get. It was also an extra tough choice because I found out there were over 300 applicants to the programme at that point. I decided to take the plunge. I turned down the job offer that I had on hand and applied to HP.

I guess I dared to do that as I didn’t think the recession would have a direct and significant impact on me at that point and I didn’t spend too much time dwelling on news of the financial crisis. Had I applied a few months later when the effects were more pronounced and obvious, I don’t know if I would have made the same decision to turn down that initial job offer. Looking back 12 years on, I’m pretty happy with the decision I made at that point in time although there was no way of knowing then if it was the right decision or not.


What is one thing that you would have done differently if you could travel back to 2008?

Back then, I applied for jobs across multiple industries. I didn’t send that many tech applications, just a handful. On hindsight, I do wonder, “Oh, why didn’t I do that?” It was something that didn’t cross my mind back then.

If I could travel back in time, the one change I would make is to first identify one sector or industry that I had an interest in then focus more of my applications on it. That way, I would know that any prospective employer that responded would be from an industry that I wanted to join, instead of having to sort through them and list pros and cons for each.

This is especially important for fresh graduates who may be thinking: “I can do so many things, but where should I start?” Perhaps this is a no brainer, but I guess the first step should be to take the time to think about which industries you’re passionate about and are of interest to you, and then tailor your applications for these industries before sending them out.


For people who can afford to wait it out a bit more, if you take a little risk earlier in your career to put yourself on the path towards the industry or role you are interested in, it may pay off in the long run.

Any other lessons we can learn from your batch?

Some people in my cohort took the first job that came along and only somewhere around the fifth or sixth year mark did they start to feel that they were in a pickle. That was the point where they felt unsure if this was the right career or industry they wanted to be in, but they were also in a little too deep to change their career trajectory since the opportunity costs were now significantly higher. There’s no right or wrong answer to that, but it is a real dilemma and not one with a clear answer.

The point is, don’t just take up the first job that comes your way without having thought it through a little. First, ask yourself if it meets your own criteria of being in the right industry and/or the right type of role you would like to explore. If you do that before accepting that job offer, there’s a low chance you’ll find yourself having wasted these first few years. Obviously, there’s going to be a myriad of people with different backgrounds reading this. For people who need to have a job to support their family or have mounting loans, they may not have that luxury. For people who can afford to wait it out a bit more, if you take a little risk earlier in your career to put yourself on the path towards the industry or role you are interested in, it may pay off in the long run.

Also, don’t fixate on only one or two roles when you apply. If you give yourself the chance to explore more roles within your choice industry, you might even find something that you weren’t initially aware of that you really like, which is what happened with me. Early in your career, experimentation is important. You can afford it at this point in your life as the opportunity costs aren’t so high yet. The perfect role in your mind rarely comes at the exact the time that you want it to, and that’s ok. If you see job vacancies in your preferred industry, be open to exploring even the ones that you don’t know much about or aren’t sure if you like. Give it a shot. After you’ve done the role for awhile, you’ll at least know whether you like it, or do not want to do it ever again. Either way, that experience will help you in your career journey especially in today’s economy which increasingly values people with a  generalist experience and knowledge in multiple areas.


Being at the forefront of the tech industry, is there anything jobseekers should take note of?

The thing about tech now is that it’s very different compared to 2008 when the impression of tech companies were of those that made hardware like computers and hard disks or software companies selling specialised tools like antivirus software. These days, a tech company can be almost anything—it can be a service solution provider like Grab which provides ride-hailing and electronic payments; a platform provider like Fave which hosts various group buy deals; a startup trying to break into an existing traditional industry that it feels needs to be disrupted (think Airbnb going head-to-head with hotels).

I see tech as an enabler for companies of all shapes and sizes, across all industries these days. Various functions of a company are embracing technology more and more in the way they work. Every company is conducting meetings through online communication platforms like Google Meet or Zoom, etc. It’s no longer a nice to have, but a must have. If you’re interested in working in the tech space, this is great news for you. Your options have opened significantly compared to 2008.


Do you find it challenging for a fresh hire to compete with an experienced hire for an entry-level position?

Between someone with working experience in a totally different industry and a fresh graduate who has a “pseudo” work experience in an internship, the fresh graduate could actually have an upper hand. The reality is that you guys are going for entry-level roles. Hiring managers don’t expect years of work experience for an entry-level position, but they will look for what you can bring to the table that is different and value-adding.


What do you think are the key differences in terms of job searching for a graduate from 2008 versus a graduate from 2020?

The graduate in 2020 is definitely more tech-savvy. Many employers will have started and will continue going down the video interview and online meetings pathway. Fresh graduates who are comfortable with utilising online communication platforms for remote interviews and have the right equipment setup for it will have an edge.

Furthermore, there are a lot more avenues now to be able to look for a job compared to 2008. They can leverage Google search which has gotten more sophisticated or browse through LinkedIn, in addition to using traditional channels like their university career services or their own network.

However, keep in mind that these options are made available to everyone else; and, hence, it ends up becoming more competitive. Don’t procrastinate, the job is not gonna come on its own. Make the right applications, put yourself out there.


How else can graduates of 2020 make themselves more employable?

One advice that I would give is: ensure that your LinkedIn profile is updated. Your LinkedIn profile is your very own online walking billboard that works 24/7 to advertise you, so use that to your advantage. Sometimes putting the right content in can be daunting especially for fresh graduates who may not have deep domain knowledge or experience to highlight. However, there will be other things that they can bring to the table. Take, for example, this [Project Y to Z] that your team is working on right now to help your cohort of 2020!

You’ll be surprised to know that companies no longer just sit back and wait for applications to come in. They actually do go out and look at what’s out there in the market and scout for interesting profiles. Companies are actively assessing who they think would be a good fit for their organisation.


I’m sure you’ve done some hiring yourself. Do you use LinkedIn to get a sense of the candidate’s calibre?

Absolutely, I always look up a candidate on LinkedIn and see what he/she has written and I also look at what others have said about the individual as well. I also do a quick scan check on social media platforms to get a sense of what kind of personality this person might have and look for potential red flags. It is much easier to find somebody online now as compared to back in 2008—which could also be a double-edged sword.

Make sure that whatever you post publicly online is consumable for the public. Think about which posts you make private and which you make public. Your initial decisions of what you have made public might not matter when you’re younger, but be mindful of what that may mean for your personal and professional branding down the road. Remember, the internet never forgets!


This is year 0 of what could potentially be a 30- to 40-year career!


Let’s wrap things up! Any last words for our batch of 2020?

I would encourage your current cohort to not be overly concerned at this time and look at the big picture. This is year 0 of what could potentially be a 30- to 40-year career—really a drop in a bucket! It is only worrying because it is the first step into the unknown, and it is not really a great first step given the uncertainty of the current climate. But one thing I always find is that uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing, there are positives too.

If you find that the job market is not that great, do look at what other options are out there—it might be the best time to do that. For example, how about taking on an MBA; venturing into a startup of your own; or volunteering your time to a cause that matters to you. Make the best out of the time now and see where it leads you.


This article was originally published on LinkedIn and has been republished with permission.