Three careers by mid-30s
A personal story of fulfillment
Adam posted last week about spending 15 years in the same discipline, same company and same team. My journey is quite different – more of a walk with a machete through the jungle than a path up a ladder and I’ve loved every part of it. Since graduating from college in 2004, I’ve gone from a career in politics, to marketing to product with an MBA and 2 kids in between. And of course, in every “career” I’ve had, there were so many stories of growth and opportunity that I’m forever grateful to have experienced.
As a graduate of UCLA with a degree in Political Science and History, the most logical path was to become a lawyer. As I struggled to convince myself that law school was my path at any cost (my LSAT scores were ok, but not amazing), I sought mentorship and help from one of my advisors who introduced me to the California Fellows program which basically enables you to be a legislative aide in either California Assembly or Senate for a year as a foot in the door to the legislative branch of the government. While I enjoyed learning about law making, I quickly realized that I was a lot more drawn to political campaigns (having done an internship and a summer job on the trail). So at the ripe age of 22, I was convinced that I have scored my dream job of being a political consultant. My boss at the time, took a chance on me because he heard I was a self-starter and thought that I had grit because I’m an immigrant.
If I had to pattern match, I would say this experience was closest to a start-up. Some notable memories in support of this assumption:
· I worked on a state assembly campaign that went from being “unfunded” with 2 staffers to being a targeted race with a staff of 30 people and an army of 100+ volunteers in a span of 3 months
· I figured out how to deliver 5 pallets (4,600 pounds each) of yard signs across all of California between 12pm on a Friday and EOD Monday to be ready for a presidential rally. If you are curious, I paid an intern, rented a van, mobilized volunteers and still made it to a Garth Brooks concert that same weekend
· In the peak of campaign season, I worked grueling 12-14 hour days because you “can’t postpone an election date” pushing out designs and robocalls scripts to various vendors to help candidates get out the vote before the election. A colleague who moved to corporate world before me, told me that I’ll never work this hard again in my life, and she was right
The biggest lesson I learned was the benefit of having a strong bias for action (my manager told me that he’ll always have my back as long as I’m moving forward) and I have taken to heart in every job and opportunity.
💹Transition to corporate life and b2b marketing
While I lived my best life being a political consultant, I also got to experience public relations work in the offseason of campaigns - peaking my interest in marketing. I thought that I had a bunch of transferable skills to marketing (storytelling, making data driven decisions from voter targeting, building campaign websites, etc.), but no degree to back me up and enable that career switch. So I got an MBA at Foster School of Business from where I came to Microsoft as a Marketing Operations Manager.
Throughout 4 ½ years, I traversed the marketing discipline. My marketing career began during the week of a huge Microsoft developer conference (Build) for the launch of Windows 8. I was involved in a lot of release management and marketing readiness, and after the launch, with the help and support of my manager, transitioned to b2b marketing.
While staying on the same team for over 3 years (with a maternity leave in between), I worked on field readiness and enablement, getting a worldwide program to loan out touch devices to field sellers, dabbled in storytelling in industry marketing (pitching Windows devices to healthcare, public safety and government customers) and then made my way over to “inbound marketing” which is when I worked with the product team on Windows licensing strategy and helping transition commercial customers to Windows as a service model with more frequent operating system updates.
The best thing during this chapter of my career was that I ended up piecing together and understanding end to end marketing. While owning all of marketing for a product at a large company requires a bunch of time and a certain level of seniority, I was able to have invaluable experiences such as:
· Operationalizing a major worldwide product launch and helping support and operations teams be ready
· Standing up a device program to help sellers to meet their device quotas
· Organizing and running a photoshoot to create industry images (doctors holding modern Windows tablet, etc.) improving our marketing assets
· Working through a commercial licensing strategy, differentiating features, scaling the message to thousands of sellers and partners
· Building content for websites including pitch decks, battle cards, compete scorecards, case studies
· Talking to customers – at conferences, 1:1 and everything in between
· Understanding how to end of life products
Biggest lesson: Build bridges, not moats – to successfully partner with engineering, share budget for research, offer up visible speaking opportunities and customer connections, and stay empathetic to the tradeoffs engineering teams are making to make product a reality.
👩💻Life in product
As I crisscrossed the marketing discipline, I had a choice – get closer to product or closer to sales as my next job. I decided that the product opportunities were few and far between and a PM lead I deeply respected offered me a position on his team that he believed uniquely suited my skills. As I entered the world of product, it was the steepest learning curve to date but it was also incredibly rewarding and fun. A friend and mentor sent me this card then, and while it was hard to believe at the time, she was of course right:
Over time, I have switched to another product group (from Windows to Microsoft Viva Insights) and I was happy to observe that the PM discipline on the whole was very similar across the company even as the culture of the teams was vastly different. It is in this chapter of my career, that I have also become a lead, which kind of feels like a whole new job, but in reality is a natural extension of my growth as a product leader and thinker.
Biggest lessons so far in unlocking the PM discipline was being clear on the problem we are trying to solve (and why), being diligent on follow ups, practicing precise communication (in written and verbal form), and clarifying assumptions (as often as possible). While these may seem obvious, in reality, these skills take practice, time as well as awareness of the environment you are in.
Summing it all up
As a reflect on my 15 years in the workforce and my moving around and as I compare it to my husbands’ very different journey, here are my top three observations:
1) As a result of the moves I’ve made, I have a huge network of folks in a variety of industries, companies, and geographic locations. This makes for an awesome circle of acquittances, social media feeds and opportunities that continue to come up across the spectrum of politics, marketing and product. I love interesting conversations as well as connecting people and jobs and the breadth of my network helps me everyday to do what I love – connect with people.
2) I have grown into a utility player vs. a specialist. My biggest value add to a company/team is ability to look left to right, to connect the dots, introduce the right people and promote/set up healthy team habits and purposeful culture. So projects I have been successful at have been where you needed to practice systems thinking, taking products to scale and implementing complex integrations across partners/ecosystems.
3) Learn how to manage risk – I don’t really consider myself to have a high tolerance for risk, so I managed this consciously choosing to only change one parameter in a job at a time when starting a new role. For example, when I changed disciplines (from marketing to PM), I stayed with the same business so I could then bring my domain expertise. When I changed business units (from Windows to Viva Insights), I kept the discipline of PM consistent. This approach allowed me to satisfy my curiosity and be constantly learning, while being valuable to the team I was coming, thus minimizing the risk of failure.
Coda on Privilege
As we’ve stated before, we try to end every post reflecting on our privilege and the way our family gives back. I am grateful for a rich and interwoven career journey that has been shaped and helped by so many people. In retrospect, I owe so much to my upbringing, hard work and people around me who supported, helped and guided me through it all. My parents, most importantly, who have instilled the importance of education and ensured that I could complete my undergraduate degree at UCLA debt free.
In addition to being forever grateful for my time at UCLA, it is UW Foster School of Business that has enabled me to do much of my career changing and evolution. So that is why in this post, I highlight the giving opportunities at Foster School of Business.
I’m always happy to chat with anyone who is interested in changing careers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out via comments here or LinkedIn.