The first 10 years of my professional career were more of a learning experience for me

In his professional career of nearly two and half decades, Neelesh Man Singh Pradhan has worked in different organizations in Nepal and abroad. Starting as a Lecturer at Kathmandu University School of Engineering in 1999, he went on to work in IT and became an expert in the field of fintech. Currently, Pradhan is the CEO of Nepal Clearing House Limited (NCHL) which he has led since 2011. In a conversation with the HRM, he talked about his career growth, the challenges he faced along the way and the scope of fintech in Nepal, among other topics. Excerpts: 

Tell us about your first job.
I started as a Lecturer at Kathmandu University, Dhulikhel in August 1999. The role was to take multiple classes for mechanical engineering students and guide projects at the University.

How did you get into the job? 
Immediately after completing my Bachelor of Engineering, there was a vacancy announcement at the School of Engineering, Kathmandu University. I applied through an open competition and was selected through a regular process.

How difficult or easy was it for you to get the job at that time?
It was an open vacancy, which I applied for and got selected through a regular selection process. There were quite a few applicants but three candidates were finally selected for the department of mechanical engineering. Since I graduated from the same University and the academics were good, securing the first job was not that hard.

What challenges did you face after joining the job? 
In my first job as a Lecturer, I had to take classes in engineering which was challenging in the sense that apart from being able to understand the subject, I had the responsibility to make the students comfortable and understand what I was teaching. The amount of preparation and background study that was required for each class was very hectic, at least for the initial semester. It required me to study even more than what I had done as a student. Teaching engineering in Nepal at that time was not very easy, with limited faculty and minimum infrastructure.

What lessons did you learn from the first job? How did the experiences help in shaping your career?
You may know the subject and be an expert, but it still requires lots of preparation and patience when it comes to making other people understand the same subject. So the background work that goes prior to each class and the way it needs to be delivered in front of students is something that I believe has helped me shape the initial part of my career. Also, my first job at the university helped me get a scholarship at the Master’s level.

What major achievements were there for you professionally and personally?
I believe my academics at my bachelor’s and master’s levels have given me a benefit for a perfect start in my professional career. It became easier to get shortlisted and crack the selection process due to my ranks and the projects that I did during graduation.

Similar to my first job at Kathmandu University as Lecturer, I was lucky to get my second job (and first after completing Master’s from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee) through campus placement almost a couple of months before completing the MBA. The first 10 years of my professional career were more of a learning experience for me while I worked in different organizations and countries. I was able to utilize the experience in the next ten years and beyond. It has helped me deliver effectively at my current assignment at Nepal Clearing House Ltd (NCHL), where we have been building multiple national payment infrastructures.

The opportunity to work at NCHL with some of the best brains in Nepal’s banking industry and Nepal Rastra Bank is something that I have cherished personally.

Over the years, you’ve worked in organizations also in different countries. How has this experience helped you to further advance your career after returning to Nepal?
I got opportunities to work in Nepal and internationally in India, the Netherlands, and Bahrain. I was associated with a software consulting company in India and was engaged in implementation in the Netherlands. It was mainly for the design, development, and implementation of banking, capital market, and financial systems.

I worked at one of the private investment banks in Bahrain, where my role was in the operations and implementation of various technologies and projects. I believe, I had utilized my initial ten years of career in learning skills in banking and financial technology, business processes, projects, and management, which helped me in the later part of my career.

When my family decided to return and settle in Nepal at the end of 2010, while looking for an opportunity, NCHL was an option that I was trusted by the then Board represented by the banks and Nepal Rastra Bank. NCHL was in the initial phase with a mandate to operationalize electronic cheque clearing in Nepal. Bringing NCHL into operations, implementing the system, and managing the business and multiple stakeholders was really challenging but when I look back now it is really satisfying. The skills and experience from my past roles helped me to sail through the initial days of my career after returning to Nepal.

How was it for you to lead an organization like Nepal Clearing House Limited (NCHL) in 2011? What challenges were there for you in this regard? 
NCHL is promoted by the banks and financial institutions and Nepal Rastra Bank, which was mandated to implement and operationalize electronic cheque clearing. We started from almost scratch with one employee in 2011, and until the end of the implementation of the electronic cheque clearing (ECC) system, there were five. NRB and the Nepal Bankers’ Association (NBA) had taken lots of effort to build this institution and to make this a successful case of the public-private-partnership (PPP) model.

Although I had in past handled and implemented other large financial technology projects, managing multiple stakeholders from various sectors for the implementation of ECC was very tricky. The system or project can be implemented but getting buy-ins from multiple stakeholders and bringing them to a consensus was a really challenging part at NCHL. A legal hassle that NCHL had to face at the beginning of its establishment was a real setback but a lesson for successive projects and products that it handled in later years. NCHL was mandated to implement multiple payment systems in a shared infrastructure model. However, the expectation from NCHL was to work as a private entity when it comes to service or product delivery and to work as a public or government entity when it comes to process or governance, which sometimes becomes really challenging.

How do you observe the changes that have occurred in fintech and digital payments in Nepal over the past decade? 
Nepal has seen the fintech and digital payments sector grow as an industry in the last 5-10 years. From manual cheque clearing, limited cards, and SWIFT as the only payment mechanism available, Nepal today has almost all the basic infrastructures and digital instruments that are used internationally from wallets, mobile and internet banking, cards, interbank transfers, instant payment, RTGS, etc. The total annual transactions processed through digital payment systems in Nepal has reached over Rs 16 Trillion (excluding RTGS). The number of mobile banking, cards, wallets, connectIPS has increased in multi-folds that has ensured access to digital payments for end customers, whereas, businesses and merchants have also started to accept such digital payments.

Digital payments of the Nepal government have crossed over 90 percent in expenses and close to 20 percent in revenue collection, which is one of the typical success stories that has been achieved in the last five years. Now, the focus for the industry has been to continue the momentum generated so far in the issuance of digital instruments and to further increase the acceptance of digital payments. In the next five years, we will see digital payments as the basic service, based on which fintech will ride to drive businesses and embedded services.

What advice do you have for young graduates who seek to develop their careers in fintech?
Fintech is something where everyone needs to explore, learn-relearn, and collaborate, irrespective of recent graduates or those with experience. For someone as a newcomer in fintech or a young graduate, understanding current technology is important but more than that an attitude to learn a new concept, technology, and its usage is important.

Technology will always evolve and keep changing. Fintech deals in finance, business, and regulation, so, along with the understanding of technology, domain knowledge will always be an important part of fintech. So young graduates, who intend to develop their career in fintech, should also invest in understanding business and operational processes of banking, finance, and business.

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