Giri Kuncoro on Building the Tech System in Indonesia

By: Felicia Widjaya

With two patents under his name and a senior role at Gojek, Giri Kuncoro has a long list of achievements. After graduating from Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Giri worked in Japan for Toshiba corporation and New York for GE Digital. He continued his studies in Cornell University, graduating with honors and landing a spot at VMWare, a software company — right in the heart of the technology industry — in Silicon Valley. 

But beneath his accomplishments, Giri had his own series of struggles– an unsuccessful start-up, countless job interviews, and finding the right “fit” for a mentor. Yet, he looks at the past with no regrets. In 2018, Giri left Silicon Valley to return home to Indonesia for a position at Gojek. Throughout the interview, Giri was eager to offer his wisdom and remain optimistic for Indonesia’s tech future. His work may be behind-the-scenes as a senior software engineer at Go-Pay, but his code facilitates an online network that impacts millions of lives in Indonesia.

Opportunity comes in many shapes and forms. For Giri, he attributes his success to grit and preparation. Giri’s crucial behind-the-scenes role proves that hard work is often silent, gratification may be delayed. For him, the long-term impact of his work in Indonesia matters more than his personal resume. 

Where did you go for your undergraduate studies?

I went to Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB) for my undergraduate studies, where I majored in electrical engineering —  a track focused on building robotics. I’ve always been interested in picking things apart and playing with legos since I was little. After college, I worked in Tokyo, Japan, for a few years. 

Tell us more about how you landed your job in Tokyo!

So I started interning at the company [Toshiba Corporation] when I was still in college. I was recruited [by an Indonesian employee who had been working at the company for 20 years] to work towards the control system of the Shinkansen bullet train for 3 months  It was definitely a learning process. I really enjoyed my time there because I was given the opportunity to work outside Indonesia. That was my first time in Japan, and it was definitely an interesting experience as I couldn’t speak Japanese at all. 

I landed my full-time employment [in the same company] after college through Global Recruit, a program designated to look for talents in campuses across Southeast Asia. Before starting my full-time position, I needed to enroll in a language school first for 6 months [to learn Japanese] as I learned that Japanese people speak very little English. 

So after working for a few years in Tokyo, why did you choose to pursue your studies in the US?

Actually, I went back to Indonesia first before going to the US. My friend and I tried to introduce a tracking device [something similar to Tile, a tracking device] that you could attach to your wallet and keys.  We tried pitching our idea to several Japanese investors. Unfortunately, our start-up didn’t work out. But I learned two lessons from my past trial and error: first, what matters is execution because at least we tried. Second is to stay away from hardware start-up as manufacturing in big quantities and trying to monetize it will be very difficult [in Indonesia]. 

After that experience, I then applied to 10 colleges in the US  to pursue my master’s degree. I chose Cornell University to pursue information science because the field also involves human interaction.

How was your experience at Cornell? Did you enjoy your time there?

It’s really amazing, except for the 9-month worth of snow. Ithaca was very far from the city, so the students are always studying. The professors at Cornell are also well-known and highly respected in their fields. I also gained friends from all around the world, another privilege of studying in the US. Indonesia’s digital economy is growing really fast, so my friends and I still collaborate from all around the world by sharing tech and job information. It was truly a privilege to study in the States as I get to learn from different cultures and network with people from all around the world. After graduating from Cornell, I moved to the West Coast for work. 

How did you land the opportunity to work in Silicon Valley? 

In my last year at Cornell, my friends and I job-hunted together. We had study groups to practice coding interviews. We stayed motivated because we ultimately had the same goal. What I learned from the US is that opportunity comes from anywhere; it doesn’t always have to be in the form of online applications or career fairs. Students would publish our online portfolio on Github. Everyone can see our public portfolio, so many companies would often reach out. Hackathons are also a great way to look for opportunities. 

Personally, I interviewed with around 20 companies. Out of those 20, five companies asked me to come for a final round of interviews at their offices. I received three offers. Finally, I chose the company where I was interested in the most and a place where I believe I could learn a lot from my teammates. 

Why did you decide to return home to Indonesia after working in the States for two years?

So in 2017, I met William Tanuwijaya (founder of Tokopedia) and Kevin Aluwi (Gojek co-founder) at a KJRI event. At that time, I had no intention to go home. But I noticed that every time I went back home to Indonesia, the growth in the tech industry was really fast. As an engineer, I believe that being plunged in a fast-paced growth environment is necessary for my personal growth. The digital payment technology in 2017 was at its early stages in Indonesia, and I didn’t want to be left behind. I decided that I want to witness and build the rapid digital economy growth at home. 

It must be difficult leaving a comfortable position behind for another new job. What ultimately encouraged you to take the risk? 

Before taking the position at Go-jek, I consulted with a lot of people such as my boss in my previous job. I think what sets the job culture in the US apart from other countries is that if we received another opportunity to work outside of the company, our co-workers would be happy to discuss and help us make our decision. Of course, they would want me to stay, but they ultimately wanted the best for me. 

What challenges did you face when you first returned home? 

When I was working at Silicon Valley, finding a mentor was relatively easy. In Indonesia, I find that finding a more experienced, more mature mentor is more difficult. One way I try to overcome this challenge is by being active in global open source communities. Essentially, an open source community is a global community in the tech industry where anyone can see and contribute to codes published by companies such as Google, Facebook, and others. So being involved in this community helps me receive feedback and mentorship from other engineers all over the world. 

Among all other tech start-ups in Indonesia, why did you choose to work at Go-jek?

What attracted me to Go-jek is its initiative to solve talent shortage. In Indonesia, the demand for talent in the tech industry is really high, but the supply of engineers is lacking — both in quantity and quality. Go-jek’s vision is to solve this problem by initiating Go-academy. So one of the programs in Go-academy is engineering bootcamp, where new hires must take a three-month intensive course. Other programs include internship programs for college students and also educational visits to college campuses. In January 2019, we also initiated tech meet-ups so we can mentor people who want to learn more about engineering careers. We sometimes invited speakers from abroad to come speak at our events. Our meet-up now has more than 3000 members. 

What impact are you hoping to make in Go-jek? 

If you ask other Go-jek engineers, I think our answers would be pretty similar: our code helps millions of people in Indonesia. Most of these people come from low-income backgrounds. If our system is down, millions of people can’t generate any income. 

What advice can you give to fresh graduates? 

Have a learning mindset and learning agility. In the tech industry, degree doesn’t really matter. The right major can give you the right background, but even people without an engineering degree can be a good software engineer as long as you’re willing to learn. Tech is always evolving, so a learning mindset is very important. Learning comes from everywhere: peers, mentors, internet, blog. Even the most experienced engineer still has a lot to learn. 

How about tip for Indonesian students studying overseas?

Make more friends, don’t limit yourself to just making friends within the Indonesian community. This will help you and Indonesia when you decide to come back home. Befriend people from different countries and stay in touch with your professors. You’ll bring back a lot of network which is crucial to the growth of Indonesia. If you have the chance to start your career abroad, then take it. The transfer of knowledge is a way to bring Indonesia to the next level.

This story is part of our Coming Home series, where we interview Indonesians who studied abroad and started their careers in Indonesia. Click here for the first installment.

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