When you think of “pharmacist”, you probably think of your local friendly retail-store pharmacist who fills your prescriptions, right? On this episode, Manasa Murthy talks to us about being a different kind of pharmacist that works in a hospital ICU setting, watching people fight for their lives everyday. Manasa walks us through how she became a critical care pharmacist, and why she decided to leave that path behind to take a huge risk: get an MBA and lead healthcare strategy to fix the structural issues she experienced first-hand as an ex-pharmacist.
Manasa Murthy: I would oftentimes see someone almost die every single day, so really realizing that life is short and you really want to make sure what you’re doing with your life is something that makes you happy and provides meaning and so similarly, I think when you’re evaluating different paths, everything is not going to always be greener but just really making sure that you’re doing something for the right reasons and that you feel good about it and ultimately, you don’t want to have any regret.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Welcome to the Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Hey, everyone, welcome to Episode 28 of Season One of the Early Career Moves podcast. Today, I’m really excited to introduce to you Manasa Murthy. Manasa’s story is really cool. She was a… or still is a pharmacist. She has her PharmD from the University of Arizona and for several years she was a clinical ICU pharmacist working in super high intense situations in hospitals and on this episode, she’s going to talk about what that career path was like, what it took to get to that point and also why she decided to take a step back from being a pharmacist and decided to get her MBA to pivot into more of a health care strategy role and today, Manasa works at H-E-B which is a pretty big deal, a grocery retailer in Texas and she’s leading their health care strategy and yeah, it’s just like been behind the scenes working on a lot of health care initiatives. So, really excited to share her story with you. I think her last point at the end of the episode, she talks about her perspective on career and how being a pharmacist has informed her perspective in terms of taking risks and not having any regrets. So, make sure to tune in for that but yeah, enjoy this episode. I think it’s just really cool to see behind the scenes what it means to be a pharmacist, what it takes to get there and also, what it’s like to step away from such a prestigious career. All right, enjoy.
Okay everyone, today we have a very special guest. We have Manasa Murthy and super excited to welcome you. Welcome to the show.
Manasa Murthy: Thank you, Priscilla. I’m excited to be here.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Yeah. So, why don’t you go ahead and get us started by sharing a little bit about your personal background.
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, sure. So, I’m originally from Southern California. My parents are from India and they immigrated here and have lived in the US pretty much longer than they’ve lived in India now and so I grew up in Southern California and growing up, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. My whole family’s pretty much kind of a bunch of doctors and health care providers, so I always was interested in that space. My dad’s a dentist and he would do a lot of community work in a lot of rural areas and there’s also a professor at a university. So, I was really interested in a lot of the science behind that and what it brought but I was always really scared of blood and so I hated going to the doctor, the dentist and ] all of that and so when it came down to going to college and deciding what I wanted to do, I always knew I wanted to do science but I was like not into going into medical school or nursing school or dentistry just because the blood aspect and we happened to have some close family friends who were pharmacists and they weren’t retail pharmacies.
They worked in hospitals and the husband was a professor at a local pharmacy school. So, I got to shadow them and I thought that was a really interesting field to play in; the science field but not have to be directly involved in patient care and so, with that, I decided to embark on a pharmacy career. So, I was debating between where to go for college and growing up in California, generally, I always thought the UC’s are where I’d end up but I randomly applied to the University of Arizona because at the time, they had a really good pharmacy school and they also had this pre-pharmacy program. So, I applied, not thinking much of it and then I was accepted but they also gave me a pretty big scholarship to go. So, I figured, why not change it up? And I mean, a pretty big decision to go out of state without knowing anybody and decided to go to U of A for undergrad and that was a really great experience. So, that’s a little bit background, I guess.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Yeah. So, with the PharmD, like what does that path look like? Like do you have to start in undergrad to get your PharmD? How does that work?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah. So, a PharmD is very like a similar pathway to an M.D. or a DDS, so you need to do undergrad first and then apply so it’s a graduate degree. The nice thing about pharmacy school though is you can do a lot of the prerequisites and still apply for a PharmD but it’s become pretty competitive. So, for me, I finished undergrad in two years and applied but there were only two people with that. The majority of people had an undergrad degree and I think more so now, everybody else finishes a four-year degree and then applies to pharmacy school and then pharmacy school itself is four years after undergrad.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Okay, so you were in school like six years total?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, so I did six years and then after that, I… within pharmacy, there’s a lot of different options. I think people traditionally think of retail, CVS, Walgreens but there’s a lot of other roles for pharmacists outside of the retail setting. So, whether that’s in the hospital or an ambulatory care clinic. So, clinics that help you with chronic disease states or research or even in pharma and so for me, I always knew I wanted to be more on the clinical side of pharmacy because oftentimes, you learn a lot in pharmacy school, it’s the same, it’s equivalent of medical school in terms of duration but you don’t necessarily get to use all those skills in the retail setting. So, I knew I wanted to go on the hospital side of it so I decided to pursue a residency which is generally how you can be more specialized in pharmacy school and the residency processes, again, it’s very similar to medical school. So, it’s a match system, you interview with a bunch of hospitals and then wherever match, you go so it can be anywhere from one to two years.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And so, back then, did you think like, this is going to be my forever career?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, back then I did because I still think pharmacy and a lot of these health care professions have a lot of opportunity and reach within them. Like I mentioned, within pharmacy, there’s a lot you can do and I ultimately specialize in critical care, so working in ICUs and what not and I thought that’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life because even within that, there’s kind of a career ladder you can grow ultimately to have your own ICU or have the mix of patient care and leadership and teaching and so, that’s really what I set my goal out to be going out of… graduating from Pharmacy school.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Yeah, I honestly had no idea that there were pharmacists in ICUs but now that I think about it, that makes total sense.
Manasa Murthy: People don’t realize because again, you always think pharmacists are just retail but like in the ICU setting, your average patient has anywhere from 20 to 40 medications and so you think about it in medical school or nursing school, they probably get one to two semesters of pharmacology. So, even though they’re great from a physician perspective, you really have the skills to diagnose and assess the patient. The therapeutic side is really where the skill of the pharmacist comes in. Understanding the evidence behind how you treat and what you should use is really important there.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: What do you think people, like young people should know about pharmacy school? What are the things that they should be prepared and get ready for?
Manasa Murthy: I mean, I think very similar to all of these health care degrees, they’re all pretty competitive to get into but I think they’re all worth it. There’s a lot of opportunity within the health care field and pharmacy school itself is not easy either. There’s a lot of science and what not that goes into it but I think what they should know is I think the field of pharmacy is also really growing and changing and it’s an interesting time now, more so to be involved within it, especially as you look at some of these trends in health care where… when I graduated, I graduated Pharmacy school 10 years ago, I was pretty young when I finished and then a lot of the trend was go to hospitals and I mean, it’s more specialized but now, when we think about health care, there’s a big focus to try to make it more localized, essentially to help improve outcomes and save costs and so you can see that with changes in retailers where even things like companies like CVS and Walgreens are trying to bring medical care within the retail footprint and with that, comes changes in how pharmacies practice which ultimately, in my hopes, is to drive towards more of the skills that we’ve learned in school and not be just focused on dispensing medications but really using more of the clinical knowledge that you learn.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Mhm.
Manasa Murthy: So, yeah, that’s what I would say.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Yeah and who do you think is a good fit for this career, like in terms of strengths or interests?
Manasa Murthy: I mean, I think now it’s really interesting. I think, before, it was more of a focus on science and the ability to learn and distill down information because there’s a lot of information you learn within pharmacy but I think a big… a really important skill within pharmacy, regardless of where you work, is the ability to communicate. Working in hospitals, for example, everybody knows what the role of a physician is, what the role of nurse is, the pharmacists role can change depending on where you are because even the idea of a clinical pharmacist, meaning a residency trained pharmacist, is not widespread or the same model everywhere and the ability to communicate your knowledge and provide recommendations in a meaningful way is ultimately how you can drive value for cost for patients and so I think communication is a really big key aspect that we might have the best recommendation but if you can communicate it, that’s a really important skill. I think another one is in analytics, ability to understand how things come together, especially now when more of that is driving the trends towards pharmacy and it’s really interesting when I had students who are learning a lot more analytics within pharmacy because the pharmacy space itself is really being disrupted by a lot of these [0:10:11] companies and even tech companies. So, I think if you could have those skills, you can create your own career or changing career than what we traditionally thought of as pharmacy.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And so, now, take us to the point where maybe you finish your residency. Like, how old were you at that point and what was your first job like as a pharmacist?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, well, I did two years of residency. My first year was just a general pharmacotherapy residency. So, that’s really how you understand how hospitals work, working with… and you’re essentially rounding with different medical teams just like you do when you’re a medical resident. So, that’s how you get really good training and just that’s foundational to understand how health care is provided in a hospital setting. The second year where I specialize in critical care. So, working in nine different ICU, the pediatric ICU, the neuro ICU, cardiac, all of those because there’s a lot of nuances on how you treat those patients and so after that, I had an ICU job. So, like I said, I’m originally from Southern California, I did my residency in Northern California at UC Davis Med Center in Sacramento.
My first job was at Cedar Sinai in L.A and there they have I want to say six, I forget now, six ICUs and I would rotate between all of them essentially and it’s a really cool experience because as you start to realize like each hospital has its own kind of way of functioning and protocols and what not. So, Davis, where I trained, had a huge ICU kind of population. We had burn and different patient populations and a lot of trauma. Where at Cedar’s, Cedar Sinai, there’s a lot of other level one trauma centers there. So, there’s like UCLA, USC, all within kind of a short distance. So, Cedar’s was really interesting because one of the things that was different is they had a big transplant population. So, we did a lot of cardiac transplants and kidney transplants and liver transplants. So, I got to basically see different types of practices and that was really valuable.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: So, a lot of exposure in your first two years.
Manasa Murthy: Yeah and just learning about how people practice differently and even just different kinds of care. As you know, Cedar Sinai is an interesting hospital because, again, you have celebrity doctors who can come in and practice, where UC Davis is your traditional academic teaching center, where it’s much more protocolized and research heavy. So, just learning about the different fields, about how these systems work was just really valuable I think.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: So, working on the ICU sounds very high pressure, like a very high pressure environment. Did you thrive in that or what was that like for you?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, I mean, I enjoy that. So, for pharmacy, I think ICU or emergency medicine, two of those are probably the more kind of high pressure environments because again, like I never worked in a pharmacy, I wasn’t touching drugs, you’re rounding with teams and telling them what they should prescribe and monitoring of patients and working very closely with physicians and nurses and other allied professionals. So, it’s really cool because you have very hands on experience with that and I mean, the irony is I didn’t go into these other fields because I didn’t like blood but working in the ICU, you pretty much blood everywhere, you are and you get accustomed to it but it is high pressure, in the sense, you have to be able to make pretty quick decisions and especially, when there’s kind of cold blues where somebody’s lost their pulse and the pharmacist role on that is really anticipating the drugs to draw up and help understand like what’s the reasoning behind these codes. So, you play a pretty big role in that as well.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And there’s also like no margin for error, right? In this role or what does that look like?
Manasa Murthy: I mean, I think the value of having a pharmacist within especially the ICU, I guess you can say is, again, evaluation of appropriateness of therapy and so, you do… you’re there as a way to not only recommend and provide guidance there but also, yeah, to your point, be there as a way to reduce errors and I think that’s a really big value that pharmacist’s bring to health care in general of understanding how we can minimize medication related errors and that happens very often in the hospital setting or in the health care system in general and so, yeah, there is that pressure of like really making sure when you’re verifying medication that it’s appropriate and there’s not issues that are going to cause it but I think you get used to that as you work. So, it’s a fear that lessens as you become more and more confident in your skill.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Makes sense. Yeah. Okay, so obviously you’re no longer a pharmacist that’s practicing, right? How did you get to the point where you started to even think about leaving this career behind?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, So, I’m still… I mean, I still have my licenses, so I still have my pharmacy license in both California and Texas. You don’t practice clinically but mean like I said, I never really envision going outside of the profession but like I said, I graduated pretty early and I worked at various health systems. So, the most kind of recent hospital system that I worked at before transitioning was Ascension health in Austin and the health system there is called Seton and I had a pretty interesting role, in the sense that, I had my own ICU of 24 beds but I also had more of a leadership role. So, it’s this dual thing where, in addition to taking care of patients, I was in charge of clinical guidelines and network for the entire network of hospitals in Austin. So, there’s 12 of them and with a lot of these health systems, the focus is really on improving efficiencies and outcomes but also, minimizing costs and just in health care, there’s such strong, there’s a lot of waste that happens and there’s a big effort to reduce the waste and improve outcomes for patients but what I was finding when I was working is a lot of my time was focused on how do we cut costs, how do we cut costs?
And a lot of that’s great but sometimes, it’s not necessarily best for patient outcomes and when you work in hospital settings, what you quickly realize is that people oftentimes making the decisions are not clinicians themselves, they’re people in leadership and the people in leadership are generally MBAs or MHAs but a lot of them have never really taken care of a patient and so, although I love working in patient care and had really strong relationships with all the physicians and nurses that I work with, I started to get really annoyed by just how a lot of these decisions were being made and a lot of it came down to dollars and cents and not necessarily outcomes and then a second piece of the decision, I guess, to transition to a different role was, I felt like being in the ICU, I saw the sickest patients.
So, we would always take care of them, we’d fix them essentially, or make them better and then they’d be discharged only to find that, a week or two later they’d be readmitted and the point of that is that we weren’t really solving an underlying issue, it was just, okay, they came in for heart failure, we’ll treat them by getting rid of fluid but then the problem is not that they had the flu in the first place, the problem is that they’re noncompliant with their medication, they’re noncompliant with their diet or a lot of these underlying things and nobody’s really doing that well. So, those two things combined made me complain a lot essentially and my husband’s like, “Stop complaining about it, do something” and so I decided I probably should get these skill sets to have more of a leadership role beyond pharmacy but more on the hospital or health care lens and that’s when I realized I really didn’t have the background to understand the financials of health care and some of these other things that impact it. So, I decided to go and apply for business school.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And you talked about coming from a family of a lot of doctors and this was just maybe it was expected for you to go this path and stay in this path. Was it a scary kind of decision to make or to let them know about this change or was it pretty natural?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, it actually was because I had worked pretty hard to get to the role that I was and I was fortunate in the sense that, when I moved to Texas, the role that I got would have been a role that would have taken me probably 20 years if I had stayed where I did my residency because there’s so many trained clinical pharmacists and so it was a pretty nice job in the sense that working in the ICU is I didn’t have to work weekends or nights which doesn’t really happen, especially in critical care. So… and then in Austin specifically, like there’s not as many jobs for highly trained pharmacists or residency trained pharmacists and I was at the place where they employed those people. So, I was essentially giving up my job to do that and so it was a very… it was scary at the time because I’m like I had this nice job, there wasn’t really anything wrong with it but I just felt like I wasn’t completely happy and I knew I wanted to do more.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Okay, so now talk to us about the MBA like experience for you. How do you think it helped to equip you for what was next?
Manasa Murthy: I think the MBA, like for me, again, my background was completely science based, right? So, I had never even taken any business classes, like I didn’t even know what accounting was or what do you learn in finance besides how much money you have and very basic understanding of these things and so, for me, I think a lot of it was extremely valuable as, especially now as we think about how health care is changing, to understand how you can make impact like you really do have to understand dollars and cents and what’s happening from a macroeconomic perspective and I think business school is really helpful to get this broader context outside of just taking care of patients and how hospitals work for me to understand, like where can you actually move the needle?
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And so when you are thinking about like your summer internship and what kind of roles you would have after the MBA, how did that evolve for you over time?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah and so, again, like going into business school, I was like, well, I know I want to do something in health care. I want to do something where I can have an impact and I want to do something where I can both use my clinical experience as well as whatever I’ll in business school. I didn’t really know what that looked like and so all throughout business school, I was just trying to put my hand in anything that was health care related and understand like is this meaningful to me? Is this something that’s actually going to drive impact and something that’s going to make me happier than what was doing before? And so, I tried different things but for my internship I was at… I tried pharma essentially because I felt like there was a lot of opportunities in the pharmaceutical space and it seemed like there… I’d had never really given that a shot even in pharmacy school. So, I was like, why not?
So, for my internship, I was at J&J and I did a marketing strategy role within Janssen which is a pharmaceutical arm of J&J and I focused on one space which is immunology which is one of their highest growing areas within the company and it was just really interesting to see how marketing works, especially from the lens of a pharmaceutical company, how they leverage their physicians and pharmacists and marketers and data to do different things. So, it was really interesting on this other side because another thing that you do as a clinical pharmacist is you do a lot of cost containment. So, you’re trying to think through like how do we make sure we’re not spending a lot of money on these expensive drugs that don’t really move the needle on outcomes? And so, a lot of what I did was police that to some extent because I was really well versed in the evidence behind it. Now, here in J&J, my role was being on the opposite side to be like, how can you get this past these hospital formularies want to pay for these?
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Mm.
Manasa Murthy: So, it’s really interesting to understand the other side of it.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Okay and so I know that now you’re the Director of Health and Wellness at H-E-B which is so cool. Lots of Texans just like love H-E-B. What does that role look like and how did you land this role?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, so it’s an interesting story as well. So, like I said, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do post B school and I was just applying for a lot of different things that had some kind of health care flavor or opportunity within them. So, looking at consulting or pharma or even more on the startup or VC side I was hoping a lot of things and trying to recruit as well which is really hard and also was trying to stay within Austin or Texas in general and so that kind of narrowed a lot of my opportunities and the H-E-B option came up really out of luck I would say because I was pretty involved with a lot of the health care stuff at McCombs and one day the CEO of H-E-B, Martin Otto, he routinely comes to McCombs to speak. He’s really into teaching and education and so he was at the Marketing Fellows talk and he’s really just passionate about health care. So, I think he was talking about H-E-B and what they’re doing for the community but I think he also went off on this discussion around health care and how there’s a lot of waste and there’s a real opportunity to provide more efficient offering of health care and ultimately, move the needle for outcomes and so one of my friends, Mario, was there and I think he was also really interested in pursuing H-E-B as an option post business school.
So, I was walking outside of McCombs and he’s like “Hey Manasa, would you ever be interested in looking at H-E-B?” And to me, at the time, I was like, well, I know they have pharmacies and they’re probably doing something in the space but I wasn’t really sure what they were doing. So, I was like, “Of course, why not?” So, he’s like “Send me your resume.” And so, he sent it to Lamar, who’s a professor at Marketing Fellows and he’s like, this looks good and he’s friends with Martin and just sent it off to Martin and Martin sent it to their recruiter, who basically sent me a bunch of interviews for a job that I didn’t know I was interviewing for. So, that’s how that happened.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: So, cool. Definitely like a preparation meets luck type thing., right?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, I would say that for sure.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Okay and so, when they finally told you about this role, how did they sell it to you and what made you say yes? Yeah. I mean, so I had these ideas of what it would be and again, like, I didn’t even know what they were thinking of, what this role would be and they offered me two different roles and this one was more of a customer facing role, ultimately, like how does H-E-B play in the health and wellness space from a customer lens. The other role is more kind of clinical operations. We have clinics that we’re hoping to scale as well and so for me, I felt like I had done more of the health care stuff, even working in the hospitals and this seemed more of a challenge. I was really excited about this role and so where we see this, I guess this role of where we’re playing, our ultimate goal is to really be a destination for customers in our communities in Texas. We serve such a broad population in Texas itself and have a pretty big footprint here and we think we can really leverage a lot of our businesses and offerings to ultimately move the needle on health for our communities through with a primary focus on food first but also providing solutions through clinics, pharmacies or dieticians, as well as just how well integrated we are with community and so my role is really in charge of the strategy behind all of that and how does it all ultimately come together. Everything from building that journey and what that looks like to our end user customer across these businesses but also how digital and data and marketing and all of those kind of supportive businesses help support that come to fruition.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And so this probably felt like such a different kind of role that you had ever had, right? What has the adjustment period looked like for you? I know you’ve been there now for a year, right?
Manasa Murthy: So, I actually started during business school, so my second semester I started. It was an internship but mainly I was like, I don’t know anything about groceries, let me just try to learn about it and I ultimately just ended up doing my full-time job then and it was nice to really learn and meet people early. So, yeah. So, I started in business school, I guess, almost two years now. A year and a half, I guess you could say.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: What has been like the biggest learning curves for you.
Manasa Murthy: I mean, I think it’s different working in a business setting obviously than straight health care. Here, it’s a matter of working with different business stakeholders to make sure we’re aligned with goals and communication, again, is key. So, that I think that’s a similarity but a difference is even if you have an idea, you really have to make sure that idea has legs or backing it up with financials, data and having a real strategic point of view is really important. So, I think that was what I anticipated but that, I would say, is different from working in the health care setting where you’re just going patient to patient or working on projects but here, it’s like working across a lot of different stakeholders and I think, especially working at a big company like this, realizing how many people work on so many little details that I never realized until I worked in retail itself. So…
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: What excites you the most about what you’re doing now?
Manasa Murthy: I think I’m most excited about just the opportunity to actually create impact. Like I said, I think the biggest… for us, our biggest piece is like, how do we really play starting with food? Because I think food plays such a role in chronic diseases, both from how we prevent them but also how we treat them and if you think about the populations in Texas, we have a huge population of diabetics, overweight populations and we’re primary grocery store in those towns and nobody’s really doing anything to address those things and I think if we can start to get enabling people in communities to understand how you can eat healthier and live better without the guilt and judgment that people traditionally feel around food, that really can help support that and move the needle for our customers around health and then that combined with these services, so, specifically, pharmacists who are providing more clinical services outside dispensing roles or dietitians who have more expertise in more detailed or specific dietary lifestyles, as well as just our clinics which are much more focused on holistic care than kind of this fee for service model. I think all of those things combined can really move the needle. So, I’m excited about how this can actually come to life.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: That is really cool and I wonder if H-E-B is one of the few grocery retailers that are really thinking about this. Have you seen this across the country? Have you seen other models that are doing this?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, I think a lot of… it’s interesting. I think a lot of different retailers are starting to see this and it’s not just grocery retailers. It’s even non-traditional retailers like companies like Best Buy that are trying to get into health care and then your other companies like tech which just see a huge margin in waste and an area to disrupt. Like I said earlier, I think people are starting to see the value of localized care and that’s where a lot of grocers are starting to understand, like, is there an opportunity here, especially because a lot of them already offer pharmacies. I think where we can probably win is just the heart that we have for a lot of what we do which shows in a lot of our products and the experience at H-E-B in general and sometimes, when you go to other retailers, especially because they have a national footprint, sometimes that personalized feel doesn’t come across and I think that’s what you really need also in health to make people feel seen and make them want to change their behavior so that they’re ultimately healthier.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: I love that. Okay, so my last question for you. What advice would you give to someone who might have been… might be in your shoes that you were in when you were considering going this different path? Like what kind of tips or advice or things would you have them think about?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, I mean, for me, like, again, so one thing that I really valued about being in the ICU is this idea of like just perception and how you… your view of life. I would oftentimes see someone almost die every single day. So, really realizing that life is short and you really want to make sure what you’re doing with your life is something that makes you happy and provides meaning and so similarly, I think when you’re evaluating different paths, everything is not going to always be greener but just really making sure that you’re doing something for the right reasons and that you feel good about it and ultimately, you don’t want to have any regrets. So, using that framework to decide what you think because at the end of the day, like even when I went to business school and embarked on this path, I was like, okay, well, suppose I just like suck at business school and I fail and all of this? Worst case scenario is I could still try to find a job as a pharmacist somewhere. It might not have been the ideal pharmacy job that I had pre business school but at least I tried and so really trying to frame that perspective I think would be really helpful so it doesn’t seem as daunting of a jump because I think you, essentially can do anything you put your mind to and even for me, going to business school is scary. I didn’t know anything and then I was in this room full of people who are accountants or came from banking or marketing, all these really core business skills that I just didn’t even know what these people did and so I think, if you put your mind to it, you really could do anything but just really having that perspective at the end of the day, you should be happy with your decision.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: This was such a delightful conversation. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, no problem. Thanks, Priscilla.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes and become a part of our newsletter community and if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Growing up in Echo Park within Los Angeles, Angelica Martin knew that she loved animals and dreamed of becoming a vet. After spending time teaching Special Education as a high school student, she realized her love for helping other humans and pivoted her career goal to becoming a doctor. On this episode, learn about the financial and structural obstacles that Angelica has overcome to get to where she is today, as an MD Candidate at UC Davis. Her story will inspire you to make no excuses and get stubborn about your career dreams.
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Bill & Melinda Gates Scholarship
Post-Bac Program at UC Davis
Angelica Ramirez Martin: I got accepted to medical school in November and any medical student will tell you that as soon as you get that first acceptance, it’s like brick are off of your shoulders. You are going to be a doctor somewhere, somehow. You got in somewhere. So, that’s great. So, I had that pressure lifted off my shoulders.
Podcast Introduction: Welcome to the Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights remarkable, young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Guest Introduction: Hey everyone, welcome to Episode 27 of Season One of the Early Career Moves podcast. Today, I’m so excited to welcome Angelica Ramirez Martin. Angelica is a Latina from L.A and she is currently now a third year medical student at UC Davis. On today’s episode, she’s going to break down what it took for her to get to this point, to now be an M.D. candidate, future Latina doctor at UC Davis and I love her story because it’s not a linear one. It’s one that was very… it was a winding road, it was non-linear, there were many points of time when Angelica wasn’t sure how exactly she would get to her destination but you can tell from her story how stubborn, in a good way, she was about her career goal and dream.
A little bit about Angelica: she and I crossed paths in college. She was a biology, women’s and gender studies double major. After college, she went to Boston University, where she got a Master’s in Public Health and then she worked at California Physicians Alliance, where she advoMCATed for health care reform and eventually even became an Executive Director. No big deal and after this, is when she decided to go get her post BACC which she’ll talk about what that means and how this was a really critical step to help her get to med school at UC Davis and eventually, what it was like to cross that big finish line and get her medical school acceptance. So excited to share her story with you. Before I leave you to the interview, I just want to remind you Episode 30 will be the last episode of Season One. It’s been such an amazing ride to go down Season One with you and on the last episode, I will be sharing my top five favorite nuggets that I personally got from all of the interviews that we did in Season One. So, definitely tune in for that one and I hope you enjoy today’s episode.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Hey, Angelica, so excited to have you on the show. Welcome.
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Hi. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Of course. So, I’m really excited to have you on the show today to talk about your journey to med school, what it looked like. Now you’re on your way to become a doctor and so, let’s start with just you sharing a little bit about your upbringing, where you’re from and a little bit about yourself.
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah. So, I grew up in Echo Park which is a small community, well, not that small, it’s pretty big in L.A. Mostly, when I was there, actually, it’s changed a lot in the recent years but when I was there, it was a mostly immigrant community. I grew up in a single parent home, so my dad died when I was three years old. So, it was always just my mom, my sister who’s older and my younger brother and I went to the local schools, very overcrowded, my high school graduating class was 5000 students but I was very lucky to live in that community. It taught me to be independent because I had to take the bus to school since middle school and everything and walk to elementary school and all that and it wasn’t the safest but you get street smart which I really value now. So, after high school, I went to Wellesley and that was definitely different.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Yeah, which is where we crossed paths and so I want to hear a little bit about how you decided to become a human doctor. I know you mentioned that you were really interested in becoming a vet and wanting to pursue that path. How did you kind of land in this place where you were like, okay, I want to go to med school?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah, I’ve always really loved animals. So, apparently, my dad had these old National Geographic videos and when he died, I think we kept them for a while and we didn’t have cable or anything like that. So, I must have put them on over and over again and the power of a teacher was really evident throughout my elementary school trajectory because one teacher saw me and he was like, hey, we were talking about some other student and how he thought that she was
going to get a scholarship for her softball skills or something like that and I looked at him and, wanting validation as well, I was like, “Oh, what do you think I’ll get a scholarship in?” And he’s like, “I think you’re going to get a scholarship for Biology.” and ever since then, I’m just like, “Oh, okay. I think I’m good at biology.”
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
And I really liked it. Yeah. He had such an impact on my life and so I wanted to be a vet growing up and I’m a really stubborn person. So, I just kept wanting to be a vet and no one said anything to me about how difficult it is, how competitive it is to get into vet school until I got to high school and I was just like, “Oh, okay, cool. That’s fine.” and I just kept at it until I… because I was being raised by a single mother, I had to provide a lot of my own stuff, just provide for myself, take care of myself and also money was very tight, we completely relied on the social services of L.A county to survive and my band teacher because I was in high school, marching band and jazz band, my band teacher knew my older sister. My sister was in color guard and so he gave her a job during our vaMCATion time as a teacher’s aide and when she graduated because she is three years older than me, I was a freshman and he’s like “Hey Angelica. I was wondering if you wanted to take over your sister shop so that you can have a little bit of money. You’re here all the time anyway, so you can get paid for this.”
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
So, he put me in charge of the music writing class and running that class, there was a group of special ED kids and for one period and I just… my interactions with them completely changed my career trajectory. I’m just like, wait, why am I wanting to help animals feel better when there are people, especially people in my own community, that I can help? And I immediately thought that I was going to research and find a cure for Down Syndrome but then I spoke to a couple of people and they’re just like “You know that going into research and trying to find a cure for something means that you are going to be in a lab and you are not a lab personality. You’re little too…”
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
You need people interaction and I was just like, “Oh, yeah, that’s true. Thank you for pointing that out.” and I’m like, great, I’ll be a doctor and then ever since, then switched over to wanting to be a human doctor.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Very cool. So, you were pre-med at Wellesley. What was it like getting through the coursework? I know it’s really rigorous. Like what was that like for you?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah. So, going to Wellesley, I didn’t meet anyone that told me, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be in the science classes and you’re not supposed to want to become a physician.” and everything like that. So, I honestly was just keeping up with everyone else, you know? Everyone is doing the work, okay, I’m going to do more to. So, it wasn’t… I was just checking off boxes. It just felt like, okay, well I have this amount of homework to do, let me go ahead and do the homework. More than anything, what helped me get through the first couple years of Wellesley was making friends and just feeling at home over there, feeling like I was becoming the person that I went there to become, this confident, quick thinking individual and that was just by being surrounded by people and being surrounded by other students and trying to mimic what they were doing. So, a lot of my peers, yeah, they went to really good high schools and have been prepped since probably birth and everything like that. So, by trying to imitate them in the way that they spoke, the way that they were approaching the problems and everything in class was great for my schoolwork but then outside of that, I think a lot of my growth and confidence came from interacting with the students, my friends, on a personal level and that led into having confidence in class.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Yeah, totally agree. So, I know then, after Wellesley, you decided to go to get your MPH, your Master’s in Public Health because you are a Bill and Melinda Gates scholar and so you had all this funding that you needed to use and so you decided to get your MPH. How did you use those two years of your MPH to get ready for med school? What was that like?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah. So, I had my full schedule for my MPH which I believe was four classes and then I had a fifth class which was at the undergrad campus, just Organic Chemistry A and then the second semester of my first year, I had that second Organic Chemistry class and then, during my second year at my MPH, I tried to start studying for the MCAT, at least towards the end so, that the second semester of my second year and because I thought that I wanted to go straight from my MPH into medical school which a couple of students did and it just didn’t end up working for me, I had to push back my MCAT just because it was too much, taking a full course load and studying for the MCAT at the same time and then trying to move back home and everything. It was a mess.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Okay. So, tell us about the MCAT process. Like how intense was it? How many hours do you need to prepare for it?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
I learned some great lessons from preparing for the MCAT. It should be pretty intense. It definitely depends on your foundation, how strong your basic science foundation is but it should definitely be pretty intense. There was a moment in time where I was studying like it was my full-time job, eight hours a day, especially during the weekends, taking practice exams and everything because the exam itself is eight hours. So, you have to simulate that during your practice exams. When I actually did well on the MCAT, it was because I was following a very strict schedule of like waking up at seven A.M. and then studying for a couple hours, taking a break at noon for lunch and I would eat the same lunch every single day and then I would also, eat the same breakfast every single day and reviewing afterwards and blah, blah, blah. So, it’s a pretty intense process and it’s also scary. No one talks about what it takes to prepare for the MCAT and for me, when I did score well, I actually took two months off of work, completely off without pay to study for the MCAT and what does that mean? That means that I had to be smart and either save up for two months worth of rent because I’ve always only relied on myself.
I can ask my family for money and no one really talks about that, students in my situation where it’s just like it’s scary to prepare for the MCAT because of the financial implications of it. So, I always try to also find free resources. I was at the library a lot and they have these books and that code that’s in the book, hey, it still works. So, I would use that as well but it’s still difficult to get all of the MCAT studying in place and to get all of your life in place that’s needed to study for the MCAT. I think it’s important to point out that I took them MCAT three times. You usually only want to take it once and score well but I took the old MCAT and I scored okay in that one and then I took the new MCAT as soon as it came out. I was part of that first group on the first day to take it. I did not score well on that one and then I actually had to retake the new one because your score is only good for three years. So, my old score which was good, was expiring. So, I took it and I did well on that one. So, yeah, I took it three times.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
And is it really expensive to sign up for it?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Oh yeah. I completely forgot about that, yes. So, every time you sign up for it, I think it’s $300 or $200. There is a fee assistance program that brings it down to, I think, $100 or $150 but it’s still $100 or $150. So, it’s still a lot of money when you have none but yeah and then if you have to move your date, there’s a penalty, you have to pay for that as well and that happened a couple of times for me.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Ok and so tell us a little bit about your decision to enroll in a post BACC program and like, tell us a little bit about like what is that? Why do people choose to do that and why did you decide to do that for your path to get into med school?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
So, I applied to medical school a year after getting out of MPH so, I started working immediately after my MPH and I applied with the first two MCAT scores that I had and I went on one interview and I got waitlisted and I was hoping and praying that I would get off the waitlist but that didn’t happen. I ended up getting rejected. So, that’s when I started studying again for the MCAT and I took it that third time. The thing is that applying to medical school is a year-long process, it is so grueling and demanding. I mean, you submit 20 essays plus just waiting to hear anything from the schools and, of course, every essay that you submit is a $100 fee application. So, it’s just grueling mentally, economically, physically. So, I wanted to make sure that I only applied for one more time and I looked at my application and I was asking myself, how could I make this as strong as possible? Like, what is my weakness here? What are they seeing to make them think that I shouldn’t be accepted into their med school? And I was very honest with myself and I was like, well, my MCAT score is okay, it’s not bad and what else could it be in terms of my extracurriculars and everything? I mean, that’s more than okay. It has to be my grades.
So, even though I did really well in my graduate school program, medical schools really like to see a strong undergrad science grade profile. So, I looked at my grades from Wellesley and Wellesley actually sent out a letter with our transcript saying due to grade deflation, we have lower than national average science GPA. I hope you take that into consideration when you’re looking at our alumni and it’s like, okay, well, that letter is great and all but when I’m being compared to individuals that have a higher GPA, it’s really difficult for the admissions person to be like, oh, no, there’s this letter here that’s saying that they have lower GPA. So, we need to take that into consideration. I mean, I don’t know how that works. So, anyways, I was like, I need to get my science GPA up and show them that I really can do science. I know that I’ve been out of school for, at that point it had been five years, but I still can do science and I can excel at that. So… and the way that you can show schools to do this is either through a formal post BACC program. So, certain schools have these programs set up or you take upper-level science division classes as a cohort of… my program was 20 people or you can just go on your own and start taking random upper division science courses and you just stack up probably like 8 or 6 and you show the school that, hey, look, I took these classes and I scored really well, my GPA as high.
So, I ended up choosing the formal way of doing it because I knew that I also needed connections to the health care field here in California because being in Massachusetts for undergrad and graduate school, I didn’t make the connections in terms of mentors that could read over my essays or tell me that I should change this aspect of my application or speak to this person who can advocate for me because of the connections that they know or whatever. So, that’s why I chose to apply to the UC post BACC programs and so it was honestly a very, looking back on it, it was exactly what my application needed to show that, hey, I took all the science courses and at a UC and you can compare me to other students and I scored as good, if not better, in the same classes as they are. So, ignore my undergrad scores.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
And was it scary to have to go the post BACC route after you were already working, already making money and have to maybe take out loans to go this direction? Like, how did you think of it like in terms of finances?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
There’s this thread in my life about having to make decisions based on my finances. So, once again, for the post BACC program, it was very scary. It wasn’t like, oh, I need to take classes, let me go ahead and take classes. It was actually very scary to think that I had to step away for a year from actually bringing in income and being able to take care of myself and how am I going to pay for the classes. So, a lot of people don’t talk about that either. They think that it’s just very easy to say, well, you want to go to medical school, you have to get… you have to take these extra classes and I wish that it was like that and I wish that’s all I had to focus on but I had to basically build myself up and prep myself to step away from earning an income and just solely becoming a student again and that was very scary.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
That is so scary. So, how did you make that work? Did you have to just save up for personal living expenses and take out loans?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah, that’s basically it. I was very smart about my money and how it was spent and I saved up leading to the post BACC program and I know a couple other people in my program had to take out loans and just trying to make ends meet that way but it’s… that was part of the reason why I didn’t do a post BACC earlier because I didn’t want to have to take that scary step of not making money and not being able to take care of myself in that way. So, if any other student feels that, way which I actually spoke to the student last week who was having the same trouble making the decision, it’s perfectly normal and it’s something that each person has to find a way to navigate through and for me, it was saying… it was reassuring to myself that you’ll be fine, just save up for it. This is an investment in yourself and this is something that has to be done in order for you to get to the next step and get to where you want to be but it was very much an internal process of like, you’ll be fine.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
And did you have to spend the year after that applying? Was that like a separate year after that year?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Mhm. Exactly. So, I’m leaving my job and I’m going to school and then I’m supposed to find some job for one year. So, like what’s going to do it? Where am I going to do that? Who’s going to hire me? So, that was also another panic inducing thought.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Mhm. So, how… what did you end up doing in that case?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
The universe ended up working out in my favor in that I was working at a nonprofit before starting in the post BACC program and I told them, they were very supportive, it was a health advocacy nonprofit, I told them that I was going to leave because I got accepted to the program. They were extremely happy for me. So, I was… during the post BACC program, finishing it up and the Executive Director of the nonprofit was stepping down as I was finishing the post BACC program. So, the President of the nonprofit called me and he was like, “Hey, we know you’re finishing up, we know you’re going to be applying to med school and starting next year, probably so, we would love for you to be our Executive Director if that is possible.” and I was really hesitant to say yes. I mean, I… so, I had already moved up through the ranks at this organization, I was Associate Director before I left and I loved it, I loved the work and everything but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take on the Executive Director role. Once again, it was a very scary decision that I had to make; whether I take this role and possibly grow and learn and do some really amazing things with my one year or I try to play it safe and try to find something else because I’m just not comfortable taking the ED role but I ended up once again talking to myself and being like, you know what? Sink or swim. You sink or swim in every situation and you can take this position and just remind yourself, sink or swim, just go for it. So, I ended up being an Executive Director for this organization for a year and once again, it was a great decision and I look back on it fondly.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Yeah, I’m sure you grew so much as an Executive Director, being so young and being in charge of so much at the time and I’m curious, when you were thinking about how to set the agenda for your year as an Executive Director, what did you… how did you choose what you would focus on?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
So, I looked at the organization and I was like, well, there needs to be some foundational work here so that anyone who comes after me can build on it. So, I focused on that during my year and I’m like, if I do a good job during this year that I have, I will feel comfortable saying that I was an Executive Director who contributed to this organization, to longevity of it and to the mission of it. So, that’s how I approach that one-year timeline.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
And all during this time, you’re also applying to med school and I’m assuming like interviewing and getting all of that complete.
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah, I had to be very scheduled during that first summer. So, I would work and then immediately I would just go over. I like working at coffee shops, so I would just go over to a coffee shop, buy myself a drink as like a bribe basically to myself to work on my applications and I would take my dinner with me and just not leave until I got some work done. So, it was a very stressful first couple of months but it gets done if your organized.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Yeah. So, tell us about the big moment, like when you finally got your acceptance and you decided to go to UC Davis, like, what was that like?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
So, I was actually very lucky in that I got an early acceptance to a different medical school. So, I got accepted to medical school in November and any medical student will tell you that as soon as you get that first acceptance, it’s like bricks are off of your shoulders. You are going to be a doctor somewhere, somehow. You got in somewhere so that’s great. So, I had that pressure lifted off my shoulders. So, I actually interviewed a little bit later at Davis and I didn’t give my acceptance to Davis until either March or April. Yeah. So, anyways, I was having a really rough day at the office that morning and I like going grocery shopping, I just like looking at the different aisles and just walking around, I really like cooking as well, so I just like doing that. So, there was a grocery store around the corner from my office. I was having a rough day, so I ended up going to the grocery store to walk around and get myself a treat and I was in the chip aisle and I receive a phone call because Davis actually calls you and I ended up crying, of course, in the chip, I was just like, okay, well, this is definitely memorable but yeah, it was just great to hear from your dream school that you’re accepted and that they want you to be a part of their class and it was like, okay, my plans are solidified because before then, it was like, well, I’m not really sure, I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of different schools and I don’t know when I’ll move but as soon as Davis called, it was like, okay, well, I’m going to do this and their orientation starts this day and it was very beautiful to finally have a plan for the next year. So, it was great. It was amazing.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
That’s amazing and now you’re in med school. Now, you’re finally doing the thing. If you could go back in time and tell your younger self, someone who’s trying to go down your path, what would you tell yourself?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Well, I would definitely repeat what someone else told me earlier in my career. He knew that I didn’t get accepted to medical school the first time and we were talking about it and he’s like You know Angelica…” he’s was an older gentleman. He was like, “You know, I’m old and I have been through so many different phases of my life and looking back now, I see each phase of that and I honestly believe that I was where I was supposed to be. I was supposed to learn something from that situation at some point and that is the reason why I didn’t get to this or get to that and so you should try thinking about it that way.” and ever since he told me that, I completely agree. If I would have gotten into med school that first time, I never would have done the health policy work that I’ve done, I never would have been ED and learned so many lessons from that, I wouldn’t have met my husband during the post BACC and everything like that. So, I would tell myself that it’s frustrating but try to think of it as you’re here to learn something. There’s something here that you’re supposed to take from this and then also, I think the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that you need friends that are in similar situations. So, I would try to make more friends that are on the pre-med path specifically because even just in a science class and being like, “Hey, we have homework due tomorrow, I got these answers. Did you get the same answers?” Being able to do that completely changes everything and that’s what I had with the post BACC. 20 of us were in the same classes and we were able to run our ideas past each other, we are able to study together for the same exact exam and everything and that completely changed everything. So, I think that’s the biggest thing that I would tell myself; find friends who are on the same path as you and make sure that you lean on them and that they lean on you.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Those are awesome pieces of advice. Thank you so much Angelica for being here with us today, sharing your story. I’m excited for people to, like, learn from your path and not be afraid to like take some pauses and steps back and reassess and plan to succeed, you know?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely a winding path but I think that being stubborn and keeping your eyes on the prize definitely works out. I mean, if you stick to that, if you’re willing to take chances, beautiful things can come from it.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast. Be sure to visit ECM podcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes and become a part of our newsletter community and if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Did you know that since 1978, the number of Black men enrolled in medical school in the U.S. has actually decreased, from 3.1% to 2.9%? It’s a sad state of affairs when it comes to Black male representation in U.S. medical schools, which makes this episode very special. Dekoiya Burton is an MD/MBA fourth year student at UT Austin and Dell Medical School, and is the only Black male in his entire medical school class. Born to teenage parents in Houston, TX, Dekoiya’s story is an unlikely one, and on this episode, he details the obstacles he’s overcome on his journey to becoming a Black doctor.
This episode is great for: pre-med college students, MD hopefuls, those applying to med school, going through the MD process, or anyone who’s had a big goal and had to overcome significant obstacles.
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Dekoiya: There are going to be a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do it, and you can do it. There are a lot of people who were like, “It’s really hard to get in medical school.” Don’t let them deter your dream. Even if it takes you 10 times to apply, all you need is one yes. You can have 10,000 No’s and all you need is one yes.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, so I have a crazy stat for you. Did you know that in 1978, Black men made up 3.1% of all medical school enrollments? But in 2019-20, that number has actually decreased to 2.9%. That means that in nearly 30 years, we’ve actually moved backwards in terms of Black male representation in med school. As we know, this has nothing to do with innate ability and everything to do with systemic racism and educational opportunity, which is what makes today’s episode so special. My guest today, Dekoiya Burton, is a Black male MD/MBA student at UT Austin. Dekoiya is a Houston native, who was born to teenage parents in a family that struggled financially. On this episode, he talks about the challenges that low income and people of color face in their pursuit to becoming a doctor, the shocking grief that he felt when he realized he was the only Black male in his medical school class, and the strategies that helped him make it through that difficult chapter and emerge into a stronger person.
Priscilla: Okay, everyone, I’m super excited to welcome Dekoiya Burton to today’s podcast. Welcome, Dekoiya.
Dekoiya: Thanks. Thanks for having me, super excited to be here.
Priscilla: Yeah. So today we’re going to hear a little bit about his story and specifically his MD/MBA story. So let’s go ahead and kind of jump in here. I would love to hear a little bit about maybe your own personal background, where is home for you and what was it like growing up where you’re from?
Dekoiya: Yeah. So I am from Houston, Texas, H-town, what have you. My parents had me when they were 14 and 15. And so I was born to teenage parents, which presented a lot of different challenges, I would say. We definitely struggled financially. Definitely have seen my parents grow up and grow into parenting. It’s been interesting because I feel like they’re more like my big brother and my big sister than sometimes my parents. Especially as we got older, I feel like the age gap between us has really gone down. But home for me is Houston. I had a large supportive family. Obviously, my parents were very young raising a child and so I owe a lot of my success to my grandmothers, my aunts, uncles, church community, just like a really broad community that really inspired me to be my best, and really inspired me to do well in school. I think sometimes with teenage parents, people write them off as though their children can’t be much. And I will say my mom, even though she had me young, she was really big on education and going to school, and really big on holding her children to their dreams. So I told her when I was maybe way little, at some point I wanted to be a doctor. And she said, “Okay, I’ll hold you to that.” And here we are all these years later. I’m in my fourth year of medical school and things like that. She didn’t accept anything less than excellent from us and she still doesn’t. And so I really owe a lot of my success to my mom.
Priscilla: Pretty incredible. So she held you to that. So many people have that dream of becoming a doctor, and it’s so cool that you’re actually making it happen now. And in terms of your schooling experiences, were you someone who always tried to take the AP science class? How did that play out for you in school for you growing up?
Dekoiya: I am very lucky because statistics show that young men from my background, my social economic status have to decide that they want to go to medical school at age 10 in order to get there, otherwise they’ll face some significant hurdles. And the reason being is because you’re able to basically get all the way up to calculus in high school. And being able to get all the way up to calculus in high school and things like AP chemistry, because I was able to take some of my science and math classes in middle school, allowed me to be on this fast track and allowed me to see a lot of the same stuff that I saw in high school, especially as a senior, to see it again in college and do really well in those classes. And so as disheartening as that is, I think it’s super important for young especially Black men, women, and children, to have mentors to say, “This kid wants to do this. I’ve identified this kid as someone who can do it, and I’m going to make sure that they’re put in the right bases to accomplish their dream.” So my mom was big on magnet schools. I always went to magnet schools.
Priscilla: I never really made that connection that you just mentioned in terms of getting to take calculus before college and how that would prevent people from being able to perform at a high level with the pre-med courses that you have to take. Another thing that I’ve noticed, which I’m curious what you think is, I feel like a lot of people who I know that go down that track of becoming a doctor, maybe their parents were doctors or someone in their family. I wonder if there’s data out there that shows that if someone in your family is a doctor or your parent is, you’re just so much more likely to go down that path. Have you found that at all, like your classmates?
Dekoiya: I mean, yes. Well, what’s interesting is that medicine, and it’s so sad, because to be a doctor, I’m not going to lie to you, is quite expensive. And we forego a lot of pay in our 20s to become physicians, right? I’m 26 now going on 27, and I’ve only worked for one year. And my salary for that year was $30,000. Whereas some of my colleagues, I have friends who studied other things, who were already making six figures. And so if you are someone who is of low social economic status and don’t really have a lot of support, it’s really hard because you have to forego a lot of opportunity costs and a lot of pay, which you could be earning in order to come out on the other side. And as far as knowing people in medicine, it’s such a hard system. You have to take the MCAT, so you have to know, understand the MCAT and you have to understand how to apply to med school. You have to really understand what is it like to interview. What are people looking for at medical school applicants? And there’s just a whole culture of medicine that all of us have to adjust to. But I think it’s particularly hard for students of low SES because they’re literally learning how to operate in a system that was built for middle, upper middle-class, and wealthy students to thrive in. And so it’s just really complicated. But with that said, I will say I’ve had amazing mentors throughout high school, throughout college, even now in medical school and as I’m applying to residency, mentorship, getting people in your corner to say, “Hey, I see something in you. Hey, let me know how I can help you. Hey, I know this person, I know that person. Let me give you money. Let me just build you up.” I think that is crucial to anybody who wants to become a doctor.
Priscilla: Because it’s such a long road, right?
Priscilla: And you almost need that community and also people supporting you.
Dekoiya: Right, yeah.
Priscilla: You ended up at Boston University for undergrad. What was it like for you entering knowing this was a big goal for you? Did you feel that high pressure competition at the beginning?
Dekoiya: I think we, in our education system, worry about what other people are doing too much. I think we worry about meeting these standards. Yes, you want to do well in your pre-med classes. But for me, I knew that meant building a really good community around myself with people who I could trust and people who would be in the trenches studying on Friday night with me, studying on late nights with me. And I really was lucky enough to find a community at BU of people who also wanted to go to medical school. And the way that I got through that was to study with them and really lean on them. And they also leaned on me and we would just, you’re not in this alone, right. And also asking for help. So if you don’t understand something, going to office hours, right, going and asking questions and raising your hand, and having a discussion with the professor is super important because at the end of the day, you’re paying to be there, make the most of it. And then I also think being willing to take advantage of the university resources, whether that be tutoring, I would do that. And whether that be quizzing yourself with your friends. I don’t know. I think you got to have fun with this because especially something like medicine, it’s so long that if you’re like, “Oh, I’ll just wait until I’m a doctor,” well, it takes a decade essentially to become one. So I’m like, you can’t just say, “I’m just going to power through this for the next 10 years.” You got to really learn how to build some skills that’ll keep you growing because it’s a long road.
Priscilla: Do you think that you also always had a mindset of “I’m going to get through this. I know this is going to happen, and it’s just a matter of time and hard work”? Or did you have moments where you did doubt it?
Dekoiya: Oh, I definitely had moments where I doubted. I’ll never forget. I remember physics, I hated physics, still do to this day. And I remember one day, I was a junior then, I called my dad and I was crying and I said, “Dad, I don’t know.” I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” And I said, “I don’t know. I’m so tired.” And I said, “What if I fail, dad? What if I fail?” And my dad, he said, “Well, if you decide you want to do something else, we’ll still support you.” And he was like, “And if you don’t want to do it, that’s okay.” And he was like, “It’s going to be fine, just keep going.” But yeah, oh, I definitely had my moments of real tears, and real frustration, and those moments happen and you just kind of pick yourself up and keep going. You know what I mean? And you lean on your family. Call your dad, call your mom. Call anybody you need to be like, “Hey, I’m struggling with this and I need to hear some good thoughts. I need to hear some positive energy, definitely.” Definitely lean on your community. It’s super important.
Priscilla: So for someone who might be listening, who’s like, “Well, what does it look like to apply to med school?” What did that process look like for you?
Dekoiya: Well, it’s kind of different because there’s two applications you need to fill out. So there’s the AMCAS American Medical College Application Service, and that is a central application process to apply to most medical schools in the US. And, of course, being from Texas, we are Texas, we have our own, and that one’s called TMDSAS. So most people in the US don’t even worry about Texas because they’re not from here. But me, I had to fill out two different applications, one of them from Texas, and then one of them for the rest of the US. You have to write a personal statement. You have to link your MCAT scores, fill out all of this biographical information about yourself. And then what happens is let’s say you apply, you press ‘submit’ and you send your application to all these medical schools, and then they send you back what we call a ‘secondary.’ And a secondary is basically open-ended questions that they ask to get to know you. And I remember I was working a summer camp job, and so I was working 24-hour days and stuff, but I took little breaks and did this. And I would answer those open-ended questions and then send them back. And then if they liked me, they would offer me an interview. And if they didn’t, they would say nothing. And then you would interview the previous year before you matriculate. And basically the interview was just about, they wanted to know who you are. It’s kind of like this who you are, what led you to medicine? What do you see as your strengths? What do you see as some weaknesses? And they just try and get to know you. It’s definitely a very long process. It takes a year to do, but it’s definitely worth it.
Priscilla: Did you pay anyone to help you navigate the admissions process or did you just figure this out on your own? Did BU help you?
Dekoiya: Yeah. So BU has a pre-professional advising office that was super helpful. Actually, they were infamous for crushing people’s dreams, but some kind of way. Okay. I will say this, I’ll say this, there are going to be a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do it, and you can do it. There are a lot of people who are like, “I don’t know, et cetera, et cetera. It’s really hard to get in medical school.” Don’t let them deter your dream. Even if it takes you 10 times to apply, all you need is one yes. You can have 10,000 noes, and all you need is one yes. So I had pre-professional advising at BU, which was super helpful. And then, I don’t know, I did a lot of reading. I’m a very inquisitive person. I’m like, “Oh, how does this work? How do I do this?” And so I would do a lot of just reading and trying to understand the process of how this works. And once you understand what you need to do, it’s just a matter of doing it. I think people sometimes get caught up in that anxiety. “Oh, did I do this right?” I’m like, if you can have someone look it over and have someone look over your part, you definitely should have someone look over your personal statement and stuff.
Priscilla: How bad were the MCATs?
Dekoiya: They definitely require you to be disciplined. I remember the summer before my senior year, I was working part-time and I was studying. So I would do 20 hours of work every week, and then 20 hours of studying. My job from 8:00 to noon, take a break. And then I took a little course, a little MCAT course, which helped me a little bit with Kaplan. You don’t necessarily need one but just something I did. And then I would go to that class from 1:00 PM to 4:00, and then I would take a dinner break from 4:00 to 6:00. And then I would study from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM, and I would do that. I did that my whole summer, yeah, before your senior year.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
The Art of Applying: Hey, Early Career Moves listener. Do you dream of going to graduate school to change your life and the world for the better, but are having trouble starting your application? We’re here to help. I’m Kaneisha Grayson, founder of The Art of Applying and a first-generation professional. By first-generation professional, I mean that I was in the first generation in my family to get a graduate degree. After graduating from Pomona College, with a degree in Black studies, I went on to earn my masters of business administration and masters of public administration from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. Because I have such a passion for helping non-traditional applicants get into top graduate schools without being weighed down with six figures of student loan debt, I’ve spent the past 10 years helping thousands of people just like you get into their dream schools with scholarships and fellowships that pay for it. In fact, my team and I at The Art of Applying have helped our clients earn more than $20 million in merit, scholarships, and fellowships since I started the business from my Harvard apartment. Wherever you are in your application process, whether it’s studying for the tests or working on your essays, I invite you to explore working with our team by coming to theartofapplying.com/ecm and signing up for a 15-minute quick call. And if you mention the Early Career Moves Podcast, you get $100 off enrolling in our hourly coaching or application accelerator program. If you’re dreaming of going to a top school without paying top dollar, come and speak to us today.
Priscilla: And so you decided to come to UT Dell. What was it like finally being like, “I’m a med student”?
Dekoiya: Shocking, culture shock. I am the only Black man in my class. And so for a long time, I had relied on community and relied on the feeling of belongingness to get me through. And when I got to med school, I felt like I didn’t belong. And I was passing my courses fine and everything, but I became severely depressed and severely anxious. And I’m saying this, not because I want pity but I want people to know that it’s very real. And especially in high achieving students like medical students, and you get to medical school and it’s nothing like what you ever thought it would be. And there’s a lot of expectations of yourself and a lot of expectations of you. Learning how to navigate that in which you’re willing to give up, to me, these expectations and what you’re willing to keep really keep yourself grounded and vitalized. I think, I really struggled with that first year. And it was hard, it was really hard. At one point I was like, “I’m going to leave.” Yeah. I mean, I thought about quitting. I thought about, “Am I doing the right thing? Do I belong here? Can I stay here?” Here I was, my dream becoming true from age 10, and here I was in medical school and I was ready to give it up. I didn’t, clearly.
I forget where I heard this, but I heard someone say one time, “You don’t get to quit on your worst day. You get to quit on your best day. If you don’t like something, stick with it. And on your best day, if it’s still something that you can’t do, then okay, you can quit. But you don’t get to quit on your worst day.” And so I powered through it and really found the things that brought me life in medical school, whether that be doing things like this, like talking about my past or really talking about health equity and anti-Blackness and medical education and anti-Blackness in medicine, those things bring me life. And so once I was able to find my niche in medicine was when I was like, okay, I do belong here. I can do this. I will do this. I just got to figure out my own two feet and where I’m going to take this. Yeah. So it’s been hard but it’s been very, very rewarding.
Priscilla: Yeah. So you’re really unique in that you decided to add the dual MBA to your path. So how did that happen? What made you decide to go in that direction too?
Dekoiya: So actually it’s so funny because when I first went to Dell, I told myself I would never get an MBA. Why would you ever do that? And then here I am on the cusp of getting both. I think for me, once I realized that so much of healthcare is run by finances and business, and I just wanted to understand what are the business schools that drive healthcare, and how do I understand it? There’s so much happening as far as healthcare innovation, healthcare tech that a lot of physicians should be a part of. And a lot of physicians could offer a lot of insights to the solutions. Because I think now, we’re in a space where if we want to really solve some of the healthcare systems issues, it’s going to take more than just physicians and business people alone. We’re going to have to be really talking to each other and try new different models of care. And so for me, having that interdisciplinary background, that interdisciplinary experience was super crucial for me into learning how do we rebuild or how do we build parallel systems of care outside of the one that we currently have? So that’s why I did my MBA.
Priscilla: What would you tell someone who’s interested in pursuing your path? What would be your one piece of advice, and then what are you just most excited about for your future?
Dekoiya: Oh, I kind of have a bunch of little neat things to say, but I’ll try to be concise. Find yourself a great mentor and stick with that person. And that person doesn’t necessarily have to look like you or come where you come from, but someone who sees you and knows you really well and will advocate for you. And obviously that means putting yourself out there and trying to get to know your professors and advisors and things like that. So I would say that my second thing would be to surround yourself with good community. And I’m not just saying people who you can go party with and have fun with, all that is great, but people who will study with you and challenge you to be a better student and challenge you to level up. Luckily for me, my friends who I often had really great time were also the same people that I studied with. So that’ll help you realize that you’re not alone in the process. And then my third advice would be to ask all the dang questions in the world. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” and “can you help me?” I think those would be my three biggest things for people who want to pursue medicine.
And what am I most excited for? Well, here, I’m going to graduate soon and figure out where I will train for residency. So that’s what I’m excited for. I know it won’t be in Austin because the program that I want to do, they don’t offer it here. So I’m going to be moving in the next year, which will be exciting. So I’m excited for that. And I’m just excited to see the dream realized. I’m excited to see how I will change. I’m excited to see what the future holds as far as what I can do with my MD/MBA. I’m just super excited for the future in general.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning in to the Early Career Moves Podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
On this episode, you’ll hear from Diego Granados – a Mexico City native, Microsoft Product Manager and YouTuber. On this episode, Diego tells us exactly what it means to be a product manager in tech, how to break into this career path, and what it takes to be successful in the role. Diego reassures any aspiring product manager that you don’t need to have a “technical” background or MBA to break into this path – and his YouTube channel, PM Diego Granados, dives even deeper to help people pivot into this fulfilling and exciting career path.
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
PM Diego Granados – YouTube Channel
Diego: You have to be a good storyteller as a PM. As a CEO, yes, you have people reporting to you, but as a product manager, you don’t have anybody reporting to you. So you have to convince them. You have to influence them to make a product, to make changes, to change the priorities. And you do that through stories.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killin’ it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, have you ever thought about breaking into product management or wondered what a product manager in tech actually does? This is the perfect episode for you. Today I interview Diego Granados, who is a successful product manager at Microsoft, and he will break down exactly what it takes to break into this path no matter where you’re coming from. Diego is a Mexico native, he was a joy to talk to, he has an MBA from Duke Fuqua and he was originally trained as an engineer, but it turns out you don’t need either of those things to actually become a product manager. So tune in, and if you want to learn more, check the show notes on my website to make sure that you check out his YouTube channel, where he really goes in depth and helps people break into product management.
Priscilla: Hey Diego, welcome to the show!
Diego: Thank you so much Priscilla for inviting me. I’m super excited about this opportunity.
Priscilla: Of course, I’m super excited to dive into your path that led you to now be a Product Manager at Microsoft. So let’s dive in, and why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background really quickly?
Diego: Yeah, absolutely. Hello everyone. My name is Diego Granados and I am originally from Mexico City and I lived most of my life there, I studied electric engineering and I always thought that I was going to be working in building computers and new cell phones and video game consoles, but very fast I realized that it was not for me and I can tell you more about it, but all I can say is that now working as a PM, there is absolutely no traditional path to get into product management. And that’s one of the things that really excites me about this role.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t we start with just defining product management? There seems to be lots of different terms for what it is to be a product manager. Can you tell us a little bit about these titles and what they mean?
Diego: There are different definitions to product management and depending on the book or the website that you cite, it’s going to be different yet similar in a way. But in that sense, if I can summarize what PM’s do…so, as a product manager, yes, you’ll be in the middle of technology and business and customers. And starting with the customers, PMs have to talk a lot with customers for many different reasons, right? Like from getting ideas and feedback all the way to testing or even to do a simple ideation phase where you run surveys and interview customers to figure out pain points. And that’s one of the beauties of being in product management is that you have all of this input from all these different customers. Then, product managers are also storytellers. And this is one of my favorite things that I keep talking about is you have to be a good storyteller as a PM. You have to make sure that the stories that you tell and how you convince people and how you write documents and product requirements or even presentations, they have to convey a story because like I was saying, as a CEO, yes, you have people reporting to you, but as a product manager, you don’t have anybody reporting to you. So you have to convince them, you have to influence them to make a product, to make changes, to change the priorities. And you do that through stories. And the stories are a combination of customer input feedback, data that you take and input from management and input from other teams. And you have to make a story out of all of this. So product managers are storytellers. And you also have to communicate in different languages. That’s another skill that PMs need to have. I’m not going to talk in the same way to engineering that I do to marketing or legal or finance. I have to constantly switch these quote-unquote languages so that I can be effective in meetings and be effective in the things that I write to convey that story. So we also have to understand and be empathic with not just customers, but with our different colleagues. We also have to talk about business, right? I think we always talk about improving products and having these successful features into the market, but we have to make money out of it. So you always have to think about the business and how are you going to price it and what’s the cost and is it going to be a bundle? Is it going to be attached to another license? And you have to deal with all of this ambiguity of the business itself. And finally people think that sometimes you do it alone, but in reality, it’s a dialogue or a conversation with your teammates and absorbing all the feedback from everyone and the customer. So you have to navigate in this ocean of ambiguity to basically in the end answer three big questions: What are we building? Why are we building it? And a combination of how and when is it going to be delivered? We could go into many more details, but I would say at a high level, this is what a product manager is. And just to finish answering your question, in general, the title is always, or almost always product management. There are a few exceptions, like for example, Microsoft still calls their product managers, program managers, but outside of Microsoft, I have not seen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but I have not seen other companies mix those titles. And sometimes companies also just make it a little bit more specific by saying technical product manager versus business product manager, or just regular product manager. But that will be the only difference. Everything else, like project or program manager, again, except for Microsoft, it’s a very different role that sometimes gets confused with product manager and product owner, which is another title that is out there. But to summarize everything, I would say many companies are still confused on the title. Many companies still don’t adopt the product versus program manager like Microsoft, but in general, most of the time should just be product manager or technical product manager.
Priscilla: Yeah. And obviously the word product is pretty general, right? Like people could be working on a software or a hardware product, you know, what should people kind of be thinking about as they think about that role in choosing the product that they’re working on?
Diego: I would say search for the word technology on the internet and whatever pops out, I’m sure there’s a PM role for that. And it just doesn’t just extend to things like just hardware, software, or cloud. If it goes within industries, not the same to be a PM in a software business like Microsoft than to be a PM in the healthcare industry. That’s completely different in terms of the technology. The role might be similar, but the technology is going to be completely different. Right? And so, as you think of the PM role, the soft skills, you’re going to carry those with you along different products, different technologies and soft skills, again, being a storyteller and influencing others and all that. The technology, no ledge. It’s going to be easier to ramp up on that than the soft skills. So if you start to be in a hardware product, that’s a PM for manufacturing cars, that doesn’t mean that you can not end up in a hardware product in a software company like Google and working for Google home because you have that expertise of hardware and you also bring all the soft skills. So I think for aspiring PMs or for any PM in general, I think it’s about what is really exciting to you. What are the things you’d like to be working on? Do you like the B2B side of companies? Do you like business to consumer? Do you like products that are on a windows shop in retailers? Do you like medical devices? But there’s opportunities for it to be a PM in so many different technologies and products.
Priscilla: Yeah, definitely a lot to consider there. So in terms of qualifications, I know that you have an MBA, but have you seen that an MBA is necessary to become a product manager?
Diego: Not really. And that’s one of the things that I mentioned earlier, which is, I love the fact that to become a product manager, there are so many paths to get into this. Most of the PMs that you see out there, like me, have an MBA, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only path to get into product management. It’s just one way to get into PM.
Priscilla: Got it. So from the product managers that you’ve known and worked with, what do their backgrounds usually look like?
Diego: Honestly, it’s all over the place. I have friends who used to be in the army. I have friends who used to be architects, or friends also in sales or in finance. So really there is no traditional path. I think we call it a traditional background when we say a tech background or an engineering background, but really again, it’s just one way to become a PM. There are so many product managers that don’t have a technical or an engineering background. And that’s, again, one thing that I really like about this role, because it’s about what can you bring to the table? How can you help the team and that diversity of thought and backgrounds. I think it makes it a very rich and unique role. And yeah, there’s no traditional way. Having an MBA is just one way to do it. Having an engineering background is just one way to do it, but there are other ways to get into product management.
Priscilla: That’s really good to know, and really encouraging for people who are really interested in breaking into product management. So from what you’ve seen, what are some of the traits that the most successful Product Managers have in common?
Diego: Communication is key. Like I was saying before, we speak different languages, but the way you write your emails or text messages or user stories or product requirements, communication is super important for product management, because you are going to be talking all the time to different stakeholders, not necessarily in the meeting, but constantly talking to others. So that’s one thing. Leadership is definitely another important one. You are going to be leading without any authority. You have to influence, like you were saying, and that you have to make sure that your leadership style is helping the team. You don’t have anybody reporting to you. So how you, through your leadership, influence others. Dealing with ambiguity is a big one. Since day one that you join any company as a product manager, there’s going to be ambiguity. Tons of it. And you have to make sense out of that ambiguity and it’s your role to help the team understand the ambiguity on requirements, customer feedback, what’s the roadmap, what are we launching in the next two, three, five, six months, one year. Being a storyteller like I was mentioning before, it’s not just how you write an email, but it’s what message are you conveying to the team and how you’re communicating with these customers. And empathy. Empathy with customers, empathy with teams, understanding motivations and incentives. These characteristics are super important to product managers to make sure that it’s successful. And there are many others like being able to listen and presentation skills and how you’re going to put a presentation together. All of these, it’s important, but in general, the ones that I mentioned, like communication, leadership, dealing with ambiguity, storyteller, customer empathy, I would say those are big for a PM to have.
Priscilla: Yeah, so let’s transition a little bit to your own story and how you broke into product management. I know that you started out your career as an engineer at IBM, and then you moved into business intelligence consulting for five years. Tell me about why you decided to leave consulting to then get your MBA at Duke.
Diego: One thing to know about the consulting life is that in most cases, not all the time, but in most cases you finish a project, you give the project to the customer and that’s it. Then you start another project. And having that closure, I always felt like I needed to see what’s next. What happens next? Having that next set of next steps was missing for me. And. It was always interesting to learn from different customers, but at the same time, at some point it got repetitive. It was look at the data, understand the problem and figure out how best to represent and give them insights and then start all over again. So I was looking for what is next? What’s the next step for me?I knew that I wanted to change jobs, but I wasn’t sure exactly what type of job I wanted. And after debating, whether I wanted to simply switch to another company or maybe doing a master’s degree in the end, after talking to both people in different industries and alumni from MBAs, I realized that the potential for a master’s degree was beyond just switching a job. It was actually learning many more things about, for example, marketing and strategy and finance and all these other things that, as an engineer, I never had a formal education of those. And that’s what led me to start thinking about, okay it’s time to do an MBA.
Priscilla: So when you got to Duke, did you start off knowing you wanted to do product management or did you explore other options?
Diego: When I joined, I said, I know about consulting, why not be in a top consulting firm? I want to be in McKinsey, Bain, BCG. I want to be a management consultant. And it sounded really exciting and I put that in all the papers that I sent to Duke. And then the second day of classes, I realized that consulting was not for me. I was always thinking about my own experience as a consultant. And I said, no, I want something different. I want that closure. I want to be able to launch the products, but I didn’t know what kind of role will help me with that. So I went through the obvious ones, like marketing or operations. I was like, maybe this can help me. That was until I joined the tech club. And we started hearing from our second years who came back from their internships and they started talking about product management. And that was the moment when I realized that the role existed before that I had no clue that product management was a thing.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
The Art of Applying: Hey Early Career Moves listener, do you dream of going to graduate school to change your life and the world for the better, but you’re worried about your less than perfect test scores or so-so GPA? Or maybe you’re interested in top 10 business law policy and other highly competitive dual degree programs but you’re discouraged and overwhelmed when you think about what it takes to get in. Well, I’m here to say that we got you. At The Art of Applying, we believe you’re a lot more than just your test score. I’m Kaneisha, Grayson, founder of The Art of Applying and a first-generation professional. After growing up in a high crime, low income neighborhood, I went on to get my black studies degree from Pomona college and two masters from Harvard, a master’s of business administration from Harvard business school and a master’s of public administration from Harvard Kennedy school. Since graduating from Harvard, I’ve become a self-made entrepreneur where my team and I at the art of applying helped thousands of people just like you get into your dream schools with scholarships and fellowships that pay for it. In fact, we’ve helped our clients earn more than $20 million in merit, scholarships and fellowships since our founding. Wherever you are in your application process, I invite you to explore working with our team by coming to the art of applying.com/ecm and signing up for a quick call. And if you mentioned The Early Career Moves Podcast, you get $100 off enrolling in our hourly coaching or application accelerator program. If you’re dreaming of going to a top school without paying top dollar, come and speak to us today.
Priscilla: So during your business school experience, you got to intern as a product manager. Tell us about that experience and what was it like?
Diego: My first product manager role was my internship at Cisco in California. I was super excited. It was sort of a nontraditional Cisco role. So I was not working on routers or switches or access points. I was actually hired for my internship to do sort of like a business case around a new product that was cooking at the time. We know that through the network that Cisco deploys, the wireless network, we can detect phones, tablets, computers, anything that is connected to wifi. How do we make a product that helps customers think of a hospital? How do we help them to track where phones are or wheelchairs or anything that is connected to the network? A lot of equipment is very expensive and so how do we help them with that? Since we already had the infrastructure, we can build a platform for it. And so that’s what I was working on, the business case I was working on for my summer internship.
Priscilla: Very cool. So what was the hardest thing for you to adjust to as you were trying out this product manager role for the first time?
Diego: I joined and my manager and the senior PM that I was working with at the time were like, well, so here’s the idea and we need to find out if it’s feasible, if we can do it, if we’re going to make business out of it. So yeah, we need you to give us an answer. And it was overwhelming. It was exciting at the time too, because it was like this huge problem and there was no clear structure or no clear way to perceive. And it was part of my job to figure that out and talking to customers and talking to partners and talking to other parts of Cisco, just to make sense out of the, hey, should we build this or not? And that was super exciting, but super challenging too. What made me comfortable was that I was always uncomfortable because I thought I was not making progress, but the more I talked to people, the more the engineering thing asked me questions and I was able to solve them. I realized that I actually was making progress. I was actually able to answer their questions in meetings where managers would say, hey, do you have data to back up our assumption then I’ll be like, well, I’m not sure if this is enough data, but here’s what three or four customers said. Here’s the survey that we run. Here’s the studies that I found online. Here’s the competitors. So I would just be putting this data together, but it was the first business case that I would do in that sense. I was always not sure if it was the right way to do it. And in the end, what would happen at the end of my summer internship was that I left Cisco to go back to school. And then I got the offer to come back full time. And when I accepted my offer to start at Cisco after graduation, one of the PMs that was close to my team said, Hey, by the way, just so you know, they took your business case and they made a product out of it and they started building it. And then now you’re going to go back and continue working on the project. So even though I felt that I didn’t have the confidence where I was unsure all the time in the end, it was a great experience for me.
Priscilla: Yeah. That’s really cool because it goes back to what you were saying around consulting, not being able to see the final product from your work. And it looks like you really got that even through your internship, which is pretty rare I would say for a lot of interns to come back a year later and see that your project is being implemented. So that’s pretty amazing.
Diego: Yes and it was super exciting to see how something that I built, a presentation because in the end, that was my deliverable. It was super fun to see, oh, actually they did something with it and I’m going to go back and continue working on it.
Priscilla: So how did you make the jump to Microsoft from Cisco?
Diego: After two years at Cisco, I was still working on the same product. We were still making it bigger and launching new features, so I had the opportunity to see the whole spectrum of PM from ideation, all the way to launching a product. It was very fun and very exciting. But I realized that if I wanted to continue growing at Cisco, I had to start thinking of taking a more traditional path in the company. What I mean by that is that I had to understand the trends of Cisco. Like for example, routing, switching, and access points or wireless, were kind of the bread and butter for the company and I had to transition into those products for me to learn more about the company and continue growing. But being a young millennial PM, I was not very excited about those products and I had to be honest with myself and say, yes, I could learn a ton of it, but I was just not very excited about it. So I started to plan, okay, what’s next in my career and the one thing that I decided to do was I was not just going to leave Cisco for the sake of leaving Cisco. I was going to leave Cisco to another company that was really exciting for me, that I could work on products that I could be excited for and I could show it to the world, to my family, to friends and be like, yes, that’s the thing that I’m building. And I started my research and after interviewing with different companies like Amazon and Microsoft and Google, the one that was really exciting to me and I love the team and I love the culture of the company was Microsoft. And I’m a huge gamer. And I love new technologies like AR and VR. And at a company like Microsoft, what I’m working on today, even three years or five years, I want to switch to another place that gives me that opportunity to test really cool things, Microsoft is a place for that and that’s part of why I’ve decided to join Microsoft in the end.
Priscilla: That’s a really good point. And I think it’s great that you were able to be reflective and figure out which kind of product would get you really excited. So tell us what excites you the most about what you do today at Microsoft?
Diego: I work mostly as a technical PM, not fully technical, not fully just business, sort of in the middle, working on AI and machine learning. So what I do is I work with my AI team on building machine learning features that go into other Microsoft products. So we work closely within dynamics 365, the B2B product family of Microsoft. There’s one product called customer insights and they do have some AI capabilities and my role is to help bring those capabilities to life. I work on machine learning predictions and how we put those as features into that customer insights product. And I have to say before that I knew nothing about machine learning, so it’s also been really exciting from a learning perspective. It’s definitely a new world to me and it’s something that once you are working on it and you see the possibilities and even the challenges it’s really exciting to work in AI and machine learning.
Priscilla: Amazing. Amazing. So, Diego, will you tell us a little bit about your YouTube channel and the work that you’re doing to help people break into product management?
Diego: Yes. So when I was in business school, I would buy, you know, any book that was out there at the time or watch videos or read articles about how cool it was to be a PM. And the books were mostly about interviews, right, and they would give you like, oh, here’s a question and here’s a simple answer. And I would read those and I was like, that’s so cool. That’s a great answer. I have no idea how to get from where I am to that great answer. Like how did they come up with that? So after graduation and after working as a PM and after interviewing a lot of folks to get into product management at Cisco, and now at Microsoft, I started understanding more about the interview process, the things that we look for in candidates, and also just by listening to so many answers from candidates, it led me to realize that. A lot of them were having the same issues that I had, which is yes, that was a great answer in that book. But when you are in real life and in an interview, it’s hard to craft that answer. So I started helping some folks online with one-on-one sessions, especially through LinkedIn. And at some point it was impossible for me to keep up. Besides working in Microsoft, I’m also studying a second master’s degree and I just didn’t have the time to meet with as many as I wanted to help them through creating resumes and preparing for interviews. So I started thinking what’s the best way to help them. And that’s how I started with my YouTube channel. And I want to focus my channel on helping people to first of all, understand more about PM and second help them de-mystify the steps to get into product management and that is breaking down here’s what a great answer looks like and here’s how you build to that answer. And that’s why I created my YouTube channel.
Priscilla: Great. So last question. What advice do you have for aspiring product managers, other than checking out your invaluable YouTube resources?
Diego: There are many ways to get into PM and I’ll try to summarize it super fast in this answer, but essentially you have to understand that if you’re trying to go from your current role into a new company, as a PM, it can be really tricky because you’re changing probably industry, you’re changing role and company. The more variables you’re trying to change, the harder it becomes. So one way to get into product management is change the company. Like for example, if you’re interested in Google or Microsoft or Amazon or Apple or any company you want, try to change to that company in a role that you are doing today and then navigate your way into product management by networking and building side projects. But that’s one option. Another option is if you want to do it in your same company, networking with product managers and see how you can help them. That’s a second way to transition into PM. A third one is if you don’t have PMs in your company and you’re struggling to prove that you have the PM value, and this applies to both working, uh, you know, professionals and students, start building side projects. For the engineers out there, it’s not about just coding. For the non-engineers out there, it’s not about coding. It’s about thinking like a PM, building the business case, interacting with users, building a portfolio and showing to the world, hey, I can be a PM. I built this project from scratch and here’s how I would approach it if I were a PM. All of those are going to be just extra points in your resume and through the interviews. And finally, I would say, courses are going to help you understand more about the PM world, but there’s no certification, at least not today, there is no certification that is going to prove to the world that you can be a PM because certifications are not about proving the skills, it’s about proving the knowledge and PM is about skills. So the more you do versus learning and getting the certifications, the more you do, the better or the easier it’ll be to talk to recruiters or other PMs about yes, you can be a PM. So in summary don’t feel overwhelmed by the fact that you’re not getting a PM role today. There are so many paths to get into product management and reach out. There’s always somebody to help to get you into product management.
Priscilla: Diego. This was so helpful. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Diego: Thank you, Priscilla. This was awesome. I really enjoyed it. And for anybody out there struggling, feel free to reach out on LinkedIn or my YouTube channel. I’m here to help you guys. I was struggling like you a few years ago, I broke into PM, and now what I’m trying to do is really demystify the process of getting into product management.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community! And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Have a great week!
After graduating as a civil engineer major at Rice University in 2014, Maria Paula Muñoz opted for a stable career path within the oil and gas industry, only to soon realize that the role wasn’t exactly the best fit for her. On this episode, Maria Paula talks about what it was like to start and go through a challenging yearlong job search process only months after taking her first job after college, what it took to pivot into a brand new industry and function, and how she used her MBA to later break into a career at Google in the tech industry. This episode is a refreshing story for the job-searcher who is seeking career fulfillment or for anyone who has ever felt alone at work.
Check out the Highlights:
2:37 – Choosing engineering as a major, and the pressure of being a child of immigrants
4:44 – Something missing in her first job out of college
7:02- Being the only Latina engineer on her team, and not feeling a sense of belonging at work
10:33 – Pivoting into an internal consulting strategy role, but it doesn’t last long
14:50 – Maria-Paula gets engaged, decides to move to New Jersey, and her yearlong job search process begins
18:40 – Landing a Product Specialist role at Google
19:47- What it takes to succeed in a career in tech
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Maria Paula: Being an engineering major in college, the way my classroom looked most of the time, it skewed male. And, I was pretty used to that, to be honest with you. And that didn’t really phase me, but I think being out in that environment every single day of your job when you’re thinking, okay, I guess this is my life now… I think it did get to me!
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killin’ it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos.Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey! On this episode, you get to hear from Maria Paula Munoz, who graduated from Rice University in 2014 and now works as a product specialist at Google. She talks about what it was like being the only Latina engineer on her team when she worked in the oil & gas industry, going through a grueling year-long job search process, and what it’s been like to break into tech and finally find a role that suits her strengths best.
Priscilla: Hey everyone! Today, we have Maria Paula Munoz who’s a product specialist at Google and she was my MBA classmate at UT Austin. She’s an amazing Colombian Latina from Houston, Texas. We’re both from Houston. So, Maria Paula, welcome to the show and, just super excited to jump into your early career story.
Maria-Paula: Yeah, I’m excited to jump in.
Priscilla: Great. So I know that you went to Rice University and you were a civil engineering major. I’m curious if you went into college knowing that that’s what you were going to major in and if you had a dream job when you were growing up?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so I went in thinking I would go into something STEM related and I thought engineering would probably be a good field. So I don’t know that I ever had a dream job…was definitely not one of those people. And my dad is a petroleum engineer. And I grew up in a household where engineering was always seen as a great career option. It was stable, it was high paying. It was something that if I wanted to, I could just be very comfortable in that type of role and I could be in Houston and anybody from Houston knows that oil and gas is pervasive and most people in some way or another either work in the industry or somehow work in something related to it. So for me, I applied as a biomedical engineer, that took about a week for me to realize I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go down that path and I ended up choosing civil engineering. For me, I was really thinking more about the end goal, less so about, “Oh, do I find this super interesting?”… I did…I can’t say that I didn’t think engineering was interesting, but was it like, did the classes just absolutely light me up? Probably not. Like to me it was more about getting a good job at the end of the four years. And that was definitely something that I think my parents had a lot to do with. And especially, I know we were chatting about being an immigrant child. You just, you constantly think, okay, like my parents have done so much for me, what can I do? Or, how do I make their sacrifices worth it? And so I think that probably was also part of it, too.
Priscilla: Oh, totally. I feel like as a child of immigrants, you always carry that with you. You’re always wondering if what you’re doing is good enough or that it justifies the tremendous risk that they’ve taken. How hard was it to overcome those years doing civil engineering coursework? Like, it just seems so intense.
Maria-Paula: Yeah, it really was survival…(laughs). I think definitely the first two years, especially my freshman year, I had so much imposter syndrome because I think when you do go to a school that attracts great talent you tend to be surrounded by people maybe for the first time in your life that are just incredible at what they do. So for the first time for me, I was certainly not the valedictorian of my class, but I was definitely in the top 20 people. I was now going to school where most of my classes were filled with people who were valedictorians and who had been student president and had done all these things in high school. And now I was sitting next to them taking a really difficult class and some people like you’re always going to have the freaks of nature who don’t study and somehow ace every single test. And, you had that, you definitely had people who struggled. I definitely commiserated with people in my residential college who were in those classes with me. And you end up bonding through those things, but it was tough.
Priscilla: So, luckily you survived, you graduated. Tell us about what was your first job out of college and what was that experience like for you?
Maria-Paula: Yeah. So as I mentioned, oil and gas was just where I thought I was supposed to go. And I was lucky enough, I got an offer from Exxonmobil. And that was really through career services, so that’s how I got the job. I was working within their Projects organizations. So Exxonmobil is a huge corporation. It’s made up of smaller companies if you will, within it. And I was within the Projects org. So we basically worked for the chemicals and the refining organizations and built plants or refineries or worked on projects to improve the existing ones. And my job was as a cost engineer. So basically that was the first step towards a project management career path. And eventually, to be a major project manager. So for me, I think I was very happy with the offer. It was a great offer. Obviously it’s a great company, very well known. My parents were thrilled, it was like this big well-known very stable company. And I think for me, like I worked with some great people. I made some great friends, a couple of mentors I still stay in touch with, but generally I could not find it in myself to really love what I was doing and that, to be completely honest, probably took a month.
Priscilla: Wow, that’s not very long at all!
Maria-Paula: Not at all. And I think to explain a little bit more, my role was basically to work on projects, improvement projects or new projects and come up with a cost estimate. So the reason you need an engineer for those types of rules is because we worked very closely with process design and the engineers out in the field, like the construction engineers. And it’s not just inputting numbers based on what’s going on out there. You really have to understand the labor and the area you’re in and are their existing operations? And how do we work around that? It’s a very cross-functional role, but a lot of your time is out in the field. And I just don’t, I don’t think I realized how much time I’d be on the field, but I also just really didn’t like the environment, yes, in the field, but also even in the office. Being an engineering major in college, like you grow up in a pretty male dominated classroom experience, like the way my classroom looked most of the time, it skewed male. And, I was pretty used to that, to be honest with you. And that didn’t really phase me, but I think being out in that environment every single day of your job when you’re thinking, okay, I guess this is my life now… I think it did get to me! I was, in my team, there were three new hires and I was the only female. I want to say the team maybe had 30, 40 people, there were two other female engineers and that was it, and then me, and so it’s hard to find comradery in that environment where you really are the only one of you and especially being a Latina female…I was the only one. Like there were no others like me. Like I honestly had more in common with some of the admins than the people that I worked with. And so I just don’t really ever feel that I felt that I belonged. And I think that contributed to it. I didn’t love the work. I didn’t find it to be super stimulating. Like I got into engineering because I wanted to think creatively and I wanted to problem solve. And a lot of the work that I was doing was very like, “Look it up in the manual, Look up the, whatever the specs say,” things that had already been planned out. And it was more I was just locating something and putting it in place. There was no creative thought there, so I just didn’t really ever feel at home there. And I never really felt, “Oh, I’m excited to go to work today.” And so that was something that I think, after a month and the first couple of times I said that my friends, my family was like, you’ve just started working, it’s hard to adjust, you’re just adjusting to life after college. Six months in, a year in, when I’m still feeling pretty motivated? That’s when I started really seriously thinking, okay, what am I doing wrong here? Like, why am I not happy with what I’m doing?
Priscilla: Gosh, I feel like so many people do reach this point where they’re like, yeah, this ain’t it. And this isn’t it, what do I do? what’s next? And it seems like you reached that point a lot sooner than most people do. So what did you end up doing? What was your action plan after that?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so, I think one of the best things I did was try to talk to people around me, whether they were at Exxon or not, and just be like, what do you do? So I started figuring out okay, what do other people do? Is there somewhere else within Exxon that I could move to, like what are my options basically? And I do think one of the best things I did was really just voiced some of this to my manager, which I was pretty apprehensive about. And I think a lot of people feel this way. If you don’t have a level of trust with your manager, it can be really hard to open up. And I think what was difficult for me at Exxon, or really at any company that might have a more rigid career path, was that there were essentially three roles that I could move into after my initial cost engineer role. And none of them were things I really wanted to do. And I believe, if I remember correctly, they were all going to be a hundred percent time out in the field. And it’s just being out in the field in and of itself can be difficult. Just being a woman, you’re around a lot of craft who tend to be male, craft, the people who are out building these things who might be, pipe fitters, or who might be, whatever they’re actually working on building these things out there. And so it can be a tough environment because there are very few women, if any, represented out there. And so for you to be out there, you’re an anomaly. They don’t always take you seriously. Vulgar language is definitely much more acceptable there. It’s not like an office environment. So I just didn’t love the field. And to me, those next roles that were available to me, just were not enticing at all. So as we started getting closer to a year of me being with the team and then closer to a year and a half, like generally, they like to start moving you between a year and a half and two years in your first role. So I started talking to my manager, I was like, what are my options? what do you think? I started being more transparent that I wanted to be in the office, and, if possible, I’d love to be closer to something on the business side. And I think my manager actually listened, which I was not used to or I guess I hadn’t expected. And what ended up happening was after saying, Hey, I want to be closer to the business side, my manager finally came to me at one of our monthly one-on-ones or whatever and was like, hey, there was something that opened up and I think you might actually be a great candidate for it. There’s this strategic project going on between the projects, chemicals and refining companies and they brought in a consulting team, and they want an analyst. Is that something you’d be interested in? And so after I found out more about it, I was like, yeah, sign me up! How do I go do that? And so that was really how I ended up pivoting while I was at Exxon into more of a strategy business related role.
Priscilla: At this point you moved into an internal consulting strategy role at Exxon which is super cool but I know that you ended up still looking to leave pretty quickly…so, tell us why you ended up deciding to leave that role?
Maria-Paula: It was really great, but the reason I left and there were really two was one, once I hit, let’s see, a year with that team, it was about time for me to start looking for a different role. And the thing is that role, that analyst role that I was pulled into was never meant to be a career switcher for my time at ExxonMobil. They called it a once in a career role. And I was basically going to be moved right back to the team that I was on into one of those other roles that I was supposed to be looking at a year before. And so I was like, absolutely not! Like, I did not find something that I really enjoy, something I really find interesting just to go right back to where I used to be.
Priscilla: And now, a quick message from our sponsor.
The Art of Applying: Hey, Early Career Moves listener! Are you applying to grad school but feel like a wild card applicant? Maybe you’re concerned about how one bad semester in college will affect your applications, or maybe you’re a passionate, but imperfect, candidate for dream schools like Harvard Kennedy School or Harvard Business School. Well, I’m just like you. I’m Kaneisha Grayson, founder of The Art of Applying and a first-generation professional. That means that I was the first in my family to get a graduate degree. After graduating from Pomona College with a degree in Black Studies, I went on to earn my Masters of Business Administration and Masters of Public Administration from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. I’ve spent the past ten years running my company and helping thousands of people just like you get into their dream schools with scholarships and fellowships that pay for it. In fact, my team and I have helped our clients earn more than $20MM in merit scholarships and fellowships since I founded the company from my Harvard apartment. Wherever you are in your application process, I invite you to explore working with our team by coming to TheArtofApplying.com/ECM and signing up for a Quick Call. And if you mention the Early Career Moves podcast, you get $100 off enrolling in our Hourly Coaching or Application Accelerator program. If you’re dreaming of going to a top school without paying top dollar, come and speak to us today. Visit us at TheArtofApplying.com/ECM to get started.
Maria Paula: So I was not very happy from a career perspective. And then personally, I actually got engaged. At the time my fiance lived in New Jersey. He’s a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard. And in the military, you move around every two to four years. And so I always struggled with, why would I move for you right now when I know you’re going to have to move again? And I’m so early in my career, like I can’t just pick up and move. Something like engineering is not something you can just move around every two years and have a career with the right trajectory, because you haven’t built up time with these people. Once we did get engaged though, that’s when I knew, okay, like we had talked about it and it was like, okay, I wasn’t happy with where I was going with my job at ExxonMobil. We were now engaged. I should probably actually really start thinking about what are my next steps from here. I started looking for jobs, and it was very slow going and I was very, pretty much completely lost. Like I think finding a job when you’re in school is one thing, especially when you have a really strong career services office, when you maybe have tons of other people around you who are also recruiting for the same thing, it’s so different when you have that support network compared to doing it by yourself. I was very much just like going on LinkedIn and looking for openings or going on Indeed or Google jobs or whatever it is that I could find online and just starting to drop resumes. I just started going at it alone and it probably took eight or nine months before I got any kind of traction.
Priscilla: It’s a very isolating experience to start job searching in your early mid twenties when it’s been a few years since you’ve graduated. What did you do? How did you end up getting your next role?
Maria-Paula: It was tough because I had basically just hit two years of work experience. And it’s still, it’s so little time, I was essentially looking at like entry level jobs still. So it was definitely discouraging. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I’d found a few sites, like, I found Vault, I found some other sites like that basically gave career advice and how to prepare yourself better, how to make your resume stand out, that sort of thing. But I didn’t really start getting traction until later, later when I started actually telling more people that I knew what I was doing. So my close friends had already known for a while, but I just started talking about it more and I think that’s what helped. One of my best friends was like, hey, I actually have a friend at BCG. I think maybe he could submit a recommendation for you, do you want me to try that? Little things like that started helping. So I think I really learned firsthand…that lesson was so important for me that your network and your connections are almost more than half the battle, because that is really what can help get your resume on the top of the pile and not in there with the other thousands. Just getting someone to look at it can be the biggest hurdle.
The way I actually got my next role was through this, think of LinkedIn, but for Rice alumni, called Sally Portal and I just started looking there. I updated a profile there and so remember my fiance is in New Jersey, and I see a posting for a senior project analyst, doing what I was doing, strategic project work in an internal consulting arm in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is the exact city that my fiance was living in. And then it was just like, you’ve gotta be kidding me! What? And so that is literally how I got my job. I reached out to her, the hiring manager, the person who posted that ended up being my manager and she did a phone screen. She had me talk to somebody else, another director. And once I had passed those, I flew up, and interviewed in person with three or four different people that were on her team. And within a week or two, I found out that I got an offer and it was just wild because it was like nothing had happened. I was so frustrated for so long. And then all of a sudden, by just continuing to scour my network, I found someone and I think I was really expedited through this process because she was a Rice alum and she was definitely looking for someone with a STEM background and someone who had that consulting toolkit, even if it wasn’t necessarily the role. But yeah, she put a lot of faith in me and gave me the job and I was able to start, that basically two, three months later. So the end of May, and that is how I made that transition. So I pivoted from oil and gas into consumer packaged goods.
Priscilla: Such a huge accomplishment. I do think those moves are really hard to make early in your career without a master’s degree. And so I’m going to fast-forward a little bit through your early career journey…we know that you did really well at Newell Brands, we know that you went to business school, that’s where we met, but you landed a full-time offer with Google while you were in business school and so I really want to talk about what is it that you do at Google, what does that look like, what does it mean?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so I am a product specialist at Google. I’m essentially within the customer support organization and I’m like the product arm within that organization. So I describe myself as the support lead on different devices. So within hardware, I’m on Google Home. So that’s the smart speakers, smart displays, the things that people have in their home that they can use to talk to their assistant and, as the product specialist, I support the product team and any new launches, any new products that come out, any new features that come out, and I make sure that our customer support organization is prepared to support that launch or that new feature, whatever it is, successfully so that when customers have a problem with that feature or that product, we are ready and up to speed on anything and everything that is going on with that product so that we can help them make the most out of their products.
Priscilla: Very cool! So what are the things that you’re thinking about on a daily basis and what would someone need to really enjoy doing to be able to be successful?
Maria-Paula: I think bottom line to enjoy this type of role, you really need to want to be close to a product roadmap. And what is it that we’re putting out there for people? If I put myself in the shoes of a customer, what do I want in these products that I’m working on? What do I want in a smart speaker? Or what do I want in a display or this casting thing for my TV? I think you have to really empathize and really think about the customer and their journey with a product to enjoy this type of work, because it’s very much about thinking about how a customer uses this in their day-to-day? And what are the issues they might commonly run into? Or what are the things that they constantly voice that they want to see? And how do we feed that back into the product team? How do we make this product more delightful for a user? And so I really think when you’re in something tangible like hardware and you’re in something that works around the product, you have to really want to make this product better for the users that have them in their homes.
Priscilla: So many people dream about working at Google and really want to break into the tech industry. What are some of the skills that you’re really using on a daily basis to be successful, and that you really need to be able to to really survive and do well in tech?
Maria-Paula: As simple as it sounds, just great communication. Like, so much of my work and because Google is such a huge company, is just tracking down who might know something about what you’re trying to find out. So, “Hey, what are we doing? Do we support this music partner? And if we do, what countries are they in? And, what information can I get about this particular partner that I think we should work with? or, Hey, did we ever actually launch this feature? Who’s responsible for it now? Hey, we’re seeing this issue, who do I need to talk to make sure that we fix it? So much of it is just communication. And I think the next thing is just time management, in this type of work, especially something ongoing, like support. You’re never going to get everything done on your to-do list. So you need to learn how to prioritize and manage your time and figure out, okay, here are the 10 things I need to do in the next two days. What are the three most important things that I absolutely have to do today? And what is okay for me to push further back? And especially when you think about things in customer support, like you might have an issue going on that is like “drop everything and take care of it right now”, and then there might be things where, “oh, we’re tracking down this thing that people are complaining about, but the system isn’t necessarily broken. We just need to improve something.” So it’s really about being a time manager and also someone who can drive themselves, but also just working in ambiguity. And I think that’s true for any role you can think of in tech. I think in tech and particularly in the space of smart assistants and where we’re going with artificial intelligence in the home….it’s so unknown for most people. Most people have no idea. And so I’m constantly working on things where there isn’t a blueprint. We don’t really know. And so I’m coming up with it. It’s, it can be hard, but I really love that. And I think that was the missing piece for me in what I was doing before. Like now I’m really driving my own work and while I’m still an individual contributor, I’m definitely taking a lot of initiative and ownership of my work because so much of it, I just have to come up with on my own. No one else is going to do it for me. And so I think it can be really helpful to be that kind of person who is willing to look at a problem that there’s not necessarily an obvious answer to, but be able to be like, okay, I’m going to do some research. I think this might be the right path. I’m not sure, but I’m just going to do it. And if there’s somebody that can help me, I’m going to reach out. I know who to talk to, but I’m just going to go forth and do, and I think that is probably the biggest thing that anybody could do to have a successful career in tech.
Priscilla: Thank you Maria Paula, for being with us today, it’s been such a joy to talk to you!
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community! And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Have a great week!