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🐧 Overseas tech job search and salary negotiation | Jay Demetillo

Spotlight: From Silicon Valley Bamboo Ceiling to leading Product Design at Grab
May 14, 2023

In 2017, veteran American expat Jay Demetillo made a fateful leap from the US to APAC. Here’s an inside look into how he navigated his tech job search, salary negotiation, and getting promoted.

Today in 10 minutes or less, you’ll learn:

  • 🛣️ How Jay jumped from US to APAC
  • 🇸🇬 Salary negotiation in Singapore
  • 🤝 How he approaches promotions
  • 😨 Jay’s mistakes and advice 

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🤩 Expat Spotlight: Jay Demetillo, Design Leader and Consultant

Jay Demetillo is a design leader and consultant. He has 10+ years of experience working with tech companies like Grab, Twitter, Pinterest, and Yahoo across Singapore, China, and the US. He was an adjunct professor at CCA in San Francisco and has taught in China for ACG.

In this spotlight, we’re going to deep dive with Jay into the spicy topic of salary negotiation and promotions 🌶️ 

You can find out more about Jay on his Linkedin.

🛣️ Tell us about your tech career journey going from US to APAC.

I started working in tech around 2013, catching a wave of innovation in Silicon Valley.

It was the golden age of the Valley. Companies like Apple and Google were just starting to innovate (i.e. launching the first iPad, app stores for customers, developer tools for the community, 2nd generation phones).

It was a wonderful time especially for me as a designer. Everyone was just starting to get into product design. Product design had always existed. But around this time everyone started thinking about how to scale their websites on mobile devices, build for app stores, and add more interactive polish.

I worked at a few large tech companies in the Valley for 8+ years. But I always wanted to go back to my Southeast Asian roots.

On top of that, I personally experienced the bamboo ceiling effect. If you’re not aware of it, Jane Hyun, an executive coach, coined the phrase bamboo ceiling to describe Asian Americans' puzzling lack of leadership representation (more here).

I like using the analogy of a soccer player when working outside of the States. Most soccer players want to play in top-tier leagues like the English Premier League or La Liga aka Silicon Valley, but there are other leagues out there to test your skills and grow. So I decided to head to APAC to grow my career in product design overseas.

I think it’s paid off because of my international experience. I’ve had to deal with funky cases such as country regulations and communication with different stakeholders from different countries. It’s helped me stand out as a candidate.

🇸🇬 You’ve worked at Grab in Singapore for the past 5 years. How did you make the leap to Grab? How did you approach your comp package discussion during the hiring process?

A recruiter had reached out to me in 2015 but I turned the interview down because I had just gotten a new gig. However, afterward, I lived in a few ASEAN countries to experience using Grab myself. Along with trying to give back to Southeast Asia, I was sold on trying to help build some amazing experiences with a great team.

Navigating comp was hellacious for me. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into in terms of how much a designer makes in ASEAN: base salary, signing bonus, relocation, stock options.

Based on conversations with multiple ASEAN companies, they suggested to expect a 20-30% pay cut with stock options vs similar positions in the Valley. Some extended offers with 40-50% pay cuts without stock options, which initially surprised me.

Relocation varies and can be a sticking point. I have seen companies tie relocation to a signing bonus or sometimes they offer more stock to compensate for the low relocation.

Jay in a Grab UX research chat

Here were my key learnings from this period:

1/ Positions may target locals vs expats, which shows up in budget.

Back then it was super vague, but nowadays, who the position is for is usually listed.

This is important because there is often a budget used for foreigners versus locals due to relocation and incentives. I observed this in my discussion with companies based in Vietnam, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Always ask upfront because the comp budgets may vary.

2/ Build good relationships with internal AND external recruiters. 

Keep it courteous and clean as I’ve been occasionally surprised by how much information they will tell me on how to negotiate and budget.

Some recruiters have been super helpful by sharing cost of living, explaining tax laws to me like a child, encouraging me to ask for more, and thoroughly running through my offer. External recruiters are also helpful as they have knowledge of the base salary for your position and what the industry is paying in the current economic climate.

3/ Online resources were sparse on designer comp.

Tools like Coroflot, Levels.fyi, Glassdoor, Nodeflair (and even Reddit) can help, but the best data is from interviewing and talking to recruiters.

I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my offer or asking locals for their opinion either. This is because I’ve heard horror stories about locals in online forums attacking foreigners who post their offers, asking for help.

Salary is definitely sensitive but it’s also our livelihood so we need to make sure we’re making the right informed decision. I wish there were more communities (like this one) where we can talk about these issues without being looked down upon.

4/ Test the market to understand your worth. 

During that time, comp info was hard to find. I had to literally jump through lots of hoops.

What helped me get more clarity was getting offers from different companies over 2 years. I went through multiple interviews late at night every other month to understand how much companies valued me. I put these offers into a spreadsheet for each country I wanted to go into, notes from conversations, and compared comp & benefits to the very little online information I had.

Yes, this took time and energy, but the data helped me make decisions. When the right offer came around from the company I wanted to make an impact at, the decision was easy (hello Grab!).

“Salary is definitely sensitive but it’s also our livelihood so we need to make sure we’re making the right decision that’s informed.”

Jay Demetillo

🤝 How did you approach promotions and raises in your past tech roles?

I make a case during promotions, answering the following questions:

  • What’s the impact you’ve created not only for yourself but also for the team/company?
  • What’s the story you curated for yourself to show that you deserved a promotion and raise?
  • What are specific projects you’ve done and how do they relate to the team/company mission?
  • How does your work impact the business's bottom line at the end of the day?

If you talk about just impact for yourself, that’s not going to be helpful for promotion/raise conversations.

Do your research on the next level, whether it’s IC or manager track. You should have at least some knowledge of salary bands, increments, and what it takes to get promoted. If not, talk to your manager about it.

Create a plan with your manager; use 1:1s to talk about your growth. If you’re having project updates in your 1:1, stop that. Your 1:1 is space and time for you and your manager to talk about your professional growth and how to get to the next level.

If you’re not going where you want to go, then it’s time to be upfront with your manager. Although, I know in some cultures that these topics are looked down upon but you need to take control of your career, or who else will?

Join peer groups to see how others have done it. Joining groups that are open to talking about these topics also helps put things into perspective. Just be careful of public forums as I mentioned above.

⛈️ Given tech layoffs and the tough economy, some tech workers have shared they’re afraid of asking for a raise. How would you advise tech workers to adapt their techniques in this economic climate?

Tough question for sure. For me, I’d try to read the room and be strategic about timing.

If you’re asking for a raise or promotion and the company just went through layoffs or had a large loss during Q1, then it’s obviously not the best time to discuss these topics. But let’s say the company announces they’re profitable and everything is going well such as the team is hiring, and new projects/streams are showing up. I’d potentially see how your work is impacting the business bottom line and make a case.

😨 What mistakes did you make in the past related to promotions and salary negotiation? What would you have done differently?

My biggest mistakes were the following:

  • Asking for too much compensation
  • Asking for too little (haha), especially in terms of relocation
  • Not fully thinking about tax regulations in each country and how much is taken out of your paycheck
  • When I first moved, forgetting as a US citizen that you are taxed as well wherever you go

For example, one recruiter told me you can make X amount as a Head of Design internationally. Meanwhile, asking for said amount created some uneasy tension during the offer round. I think it’s OK to create said tension but only if you’re confident in yourself and your abilities. Your reputation follows you where ever you go (especially in the tech scene) so you best be prepared to deliver.

Looking back, I would probably would waited for the actual offer without jumping too high, then make a case with my market research.

Another thing I might have done differently is trying to having more coffee chats with people at an interesting companies. You can learn a lot from people already there and get the word on the street if it’s stable or not. Some companies even host meetups for learning about their culture. I know folks who met organizers from said meetups and helped refer them for a potential position. There’s always a way, you just got to think outside of the box.

🫶 What advice would you give to someone in tech learning how to negotiate salary for the first time?

Keep on learning from the market. I tell this to all the people I coach or mentor, keep interviewing after 3 or 6 months if you’re unsure about your position at your current company.

Why? It forces you to keep your portfolio updated, discover what questions people are asking during the current climate, gain insight into desired skill sets the industry, and learn how to present yourself better.

You’re not going to get promoted or a raise all of the time. I loved Giannis Antetokounmpo's comments about the failure of not winning a NBA championship this year. You’re not going to win all the time but every quarter, every year are steps to success.

I used to think if I didn’t get promoted or a raise that I wasn’t valued. The reality is there are other factors at play out of your control. I learned to adjust and see things as steps toward success without taking it personally.

If you’re not satisfied, then make a change. Find a company that values you. There are a lot of success stories of folks changing companies and got the promotion. You can also stay at your current company to see your value rise internally. It just depends on what adventure you want.

🏠️ Where can we go to learn more about you?

Follow me on Linkedin, Bluesky, my podcast, and personal site.

Want to get in touch about any design consultation? Reach out to me and will discuss.

📚 More resources

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🌐 Beyond your borders

🇸🇬 Singapore private property rents increased 30% last year, leading to some companies to partially cover costs (Yahoo)

🇹🇭 Thailand and Cambodia 10-year golden visa schemes haven’t gained traction (PM)

🇬🇷 Foreigners are racing to get golden visa before Portugal and Greece programs shut doors (BN)

🇵🇹 Monthly cost of living in Porto, Portugal as an expat is $700 USD without rent (EA)

🇺🇸 OpenAI CEO says remote work was a big mistake in tech. Agree? (SFGate)

🗳️ Overseas ballot

Here are the results from last week’s poll:

Brb while I furiously write more side hustle and salary negotiation content.

Here is this week’s poll. Excited to hear what you think!

That’s all for today!


Dexter Zhuang

Dexter is the founder of Money Abroad, a weekly newsletter and website that help professionals build wealth overseas. Over the last decade, he's been building and growing internet products across Silicon Valley and Asia at top companies like Dropbox and Xendit. His work has been featured in global publications like Business Insider, CBS, US News & World Report, and Tech in Asia. He graduated from Dartmouth College.

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