The Bulletin Interviews Alumnus Martin Deak

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Interview by Yuvraj Sakhare

Martin Deak comes from Slovakia and graduated from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in 2016. He currently works with Clean Energy Associates (CEA) in Shanghai, China. In this interview, Martin talks about his time at the Brandt School, his experience working in the renewable energy sector and much more.

The Bulletin: Could you please tell us about your educational background and what inspired you to study public policy at master’s level, particularly at the Willy Brandt School?

Martin Deak: I come from Slovakia, where I studied a bachelor’s in International Relations. I spent the last year of my undergrad as an exchange student at the University of Erfurt and learnt about WBS. At that time, I was unsure about an immediate transition into a master’s degree, but as I did my due diligence, I took an interest in the curriculum and came to like the people who studied at the school. I think in a world where decisions made halfway across the globe may impact our everyday reality, it is very useful to have first-hand insights of individuals from different global regions. That is what WBS helps you develop – a global-local perspective.

The Bulletin: How would you describe your time at WBS and in Erfurt? Has your career path developed as you planned? You wrote your thesis on “Sustainable Energy Transition”. Was working in the renewable energy sector on your mind from the very beginning?

Martin Deak: I went through some transitions while at WBS, each of which was crucial in my development. Through some failures, I realized I needed to learn to express myself in a more constructive and cooperative manner, which has been essential for my professional progress. I went through some personal challenges which I managed to overcome, and later learnt that I was not alone experiencing those – indeed, students may come to Europe or Germany for the first time in their life, and the change of environment, stress related to studies, and other factors may take a toll on one’s worldview. The important thing to remember is that there is a support network – WBS teaching and administrative staff are incredibly supportive and the fellow students will become family for those two short years. I also improved my writing skills, at least I like to think so (thanks to Dr. Edgar Aragón!).

Regarding my thesis topic, I did not truly come to think about it until the last semester, before then my ‘intellectual’ mind was in several places. All lecturers and courses furthered me in one way or another, yet the single most impactful person who helped me narrow down my interests was Dr. Hasnain Bokhari. With Dr. Bokhari’s guidance, I chose to focus on technology and eventually picked clean energy as the topic for my thesis. A few months after graduation I was lucky enough to find a job in the solar energy field.

As it sometimes is, later it clicked on a more profound level as both my parents also work in the energy industry and I have had a latent interest in this sector since childhood.

The Bulletin: You work with Clean Energy Associates in China; can you tell us what CEA does and the role you play? What do you like most about your job?

Martin Deak: CEA is a technical advisory firm in the solar and energy storage industries. We help our clients make engineering, technical, and procurement decisions and build quality projects, typically in the utility sector.

During the first year at CEA, I worked on the Account Management team serving as a liaison between our clients and operations teams. The following two years I spent leading that team, putting more effort into talent development and service improvement. This year I switched to our Supply Chain Management team where my tasks are related to assessing the industry landscape, advising clients on their procurement strategies, and ensuring that business decisions are made with measured risk.

The solar industry is quite young, and you see a lot of companies come and go, the growth or fall may be quite staggering. As an independent advisory firm, our view is as neutral as possible, and I enjoy that greatly about my job. Another important factor is the people – internally, I work with some of the most seasoned solar and storage experts worldwide, externally, many of our clients are at the forefront of the industry, often pushing the limits of solar and storage to the next level.

The Bulletin: Could you tell us how you decided to take up a job in China? How has been your experience living and working in Shanghai? How important is it to know the local language?

Martin Deak: During my studies I spent three months in Fuzhou, across the strait from Taiwan, teaching English to kindergarteners, and then I spent some time doing an internship in Hong Kong. I enjoyed those first experiences with the culture and put China on my list. The decision to move here was made after I met my now wife, who is from Hong Kong. Together we chose Shanghai as one of our top destinations and then worked toward that end.

Shanghai is an international hub, and a good city to start in this country. Adapting to the local environment is seamless for most foreigners – public space organization, infrastructure, services are all very convenient and accessible.

The cultural aspect may at times present a challenge as foreigners remain foreigners which comes with both perks and trials. Being married to a Chinese person has made my life certainly easier, although some command of the Chinese language is necessary. I would recommend to anyone who is planning to move to China to begin actively learning the language as it will open many doors.

Regarding professional life, working in a global firm and industry comes with a cost. In my first and second years, I commonly worked 16-18 hours a day. This was balanced, to an extent, by not having to spend time grocery shopping and on other routine tasks as e-shopping and a large majority of services are readily available at one’s fingertips. There naturally are jobs with a better work-life balance, though it seems that in my industry long working hours are standard.

The Bulletin: What advice would you give someone wanting to start a career in the renewable energy sector? What kind of opportunities one can explore?

Martin Deak: Renewables are here to stay and progress – you may have heard the news from different regions where the cost of clean energy already trumps that of conventional sources, while further technology advancements and cost reductions are underway. Having said that, the industry is young and there are problems to solve. Intermittency of solar and wind can be solved with batteries or other energy storage solutions, and these technologies have now been making headlines in the renewable energy field. Another angle is policy. The solar supply chain is concentrated in China and Southeast Asia. Trade wars and other governmental initiatives focused on punishing foreign countries or localization of manufacturing create risks and turmoil to a sustained advancement in the deployment of renewables. Software aimed at virtually interconnecting distributed energy resources, for example, solar panels on the roof of your house, in order to efficiently utilize renewable energy while it is available, is another becoming topic.

On a personal level, having an interest in technology and a willingness to develop technical expertise in the renewable energy field is certainly a valuable tool for success. Understanding the benefits and risks of different technology solutions and providers may be the difference between success and failure.

The Bulletin: Any advice to students who have just started their MPP course this year?

Martin Deak: I would recommend taking courses with some active component beyond reading scripts and writing papers. Same goes for group projects. Initiatives which include active involvement and direct communication with external stakeholders are helpful, and the skills one learns will be useful in future professional life. Also, this will help expand your network and may even land a job.

Another advice I would give is to maintain a solid daily regimen. Student life may come with shifting schedules and poor lifestyle choices, though remaining anchored is important for health as well as for the inevitable transition into work life.

Follow Yuvraj Sakhare:

Yuvraj Sakhare is a second-year MPP candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, specializing in International Political Economy and European Public Policy. He holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism and has worked as a Business & Economy editor in India. Yuvraj's academic and research interests lie in state-market relations, trade policy, economic governance, foreign policy analysis, and Chinese affairs. He is currently the editor of The Bulletin.