Have you ever wondered who exactly designs all of the wonderful tech at the tip of your fingers? Meet Lia Napolitano – an incredible experience designer who’s been Design Lead for Siri at Apple, Oculus Quest at Facebook and now leads design at Caffeine. On this episode, Lia breaks down what it was like to break into design at Apple – the “holy grail” of design – coming from a liberal arts background. She talks about what it means to be a designer and what it was like to get into the “room where it happens” – pitching winning ideas to senior executives as a young twenty-something.
Are you a woman of color seeking to transition or thrive in the tech industry? Are you someone who struggles with imposter syndrome, speaking up for yourself or prioritizing your wellbeing at work? On this episode, you’ll hear from mindset & career coach Rebecca Garcia, a daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and Mexico. Rebecca is a self-taught developer, ex-product manager and, as of the publish date, a program manager at Facebook. With experience working in tech startups and tech giants, Rebecca inspires women of color to step into their power in tech.
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Rebecca Garcia Coaching
And then there’s this playing big kind of fear where you’re like, I don’t know if I’m ready to take up more space. I don’t know if I’m ready to do these things. I think I can do them but I don’t know if I’m ready yet. And so whenever you start to inch towards that playing big fear, that’s how you’re going in the right direction because you’re growing and you’re starting to take those risks.
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.
Hey everyone, today you get to hear from Rebecca Garcia, a mindset and career coach for women of color looking to transition into tech. Rebecca is a first-generation American and daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and Mexico. She’s worked across tech startups, big tech giants in several different roles as a self-taught developer, a product manager, and now a program manager at Facebook. I really love this conversation with Rebecca because she has a very calming presence and she helped me reframe a lot of different ideas that I had around imposter syndrome and how we really need to prioritize our mental health and wellbeing above all in our careers. So if you’re looking to transition into tech, look no further, check out Rebecca Garcia and check her out at MindsetCoachForWomen.com.
Priscilla: Okay. Welcome, Rebecca, to the show.
Rebecca: Thank you for having me, so excited to be here.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t we start by just having you share a little bit about your background so that our audience can get familiarized with who you are or your personal background, and then what you do today?
Rebecca: Absolutely. So I’m so excited to share my work as both a mindset and career coach. I specifically work with women of color and started off working with women in tech. And I have grown my career as a woman in tech as a self-taught developer turned product manager, program manager, doing a lot of different shifts along the way. And by day, I am a program manager at Facebook on the developer programs team, specifically working on a lot of different partnerships and events. And I’m also first-generation a daughter of immigrants. My mother immigrated from Mexico, my father immigrated from the Philippines. Growing up, I didn’t see anybody who looked like me and I didn’t know that there was a career path for me in tech. I had been learning to code as I was growing up, copying and pasting HTML and CSS on my MySpace, my Neopets pages. It was really fun and exciting.
I knew that when I was little, that I wanted to help people but I didn’t know at the time how to be able to combine that. I ended up starting to follow that passion and built my career as a self-taught developer. I was at Squarespace as it was growing from 250 to 500 employees. I found myself as a program manager at Microsoft, managing a full-time technical training program for underserved New Yorkers, helping them to become IT and assist admins. And in between, I’ve been a technical product manager at a handful of different startups most recently at a startup helping to end the gender pay gap, and most recently as a program manager at Facebook. So that’s my little journey in a nutshell with a lot of pivots and twists.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool. So tell us what it means to be a program manager, especially now at Facebook. What are you responsible for? What does that kind of look like for you?
Rebecca: Yeah. So at Facebook, as some folks may know, there’s a lot of different emerging technologies, whether that’s augmented reality, AR, or virtual reality, VR, or technology around natural language processing, NLP. Essentially, my role as a program manager is to help get more developers and more creators on these new emerging Facebook products. It’s really fun because I get to work with a lot of different teams. So I work with engineering, we work with marketing, and we get to dream up these different programs to get folks engaged and involved and give back to the community. Some folks like to ask me, “Well, why did you transition from being a developer or transitioned from being a product manager?” And honestly, I think the role that I’m in right now is just a really fun and exciting combination of my different various experiences and it helped set me up for it. So for anybody out there who’s thinking that you have to have a straight and clear narrow career path, I’m here to tell you that you don’t. If you think about the tech industry being a, quote-unquote “young industry” there’s so many different roles out there that didn’t exist 5, 10 years ago. So it’s like sky’s the limit and yeah, it’s just a lot of fun what I get to do at Facebook.
Priscilla: Now tell us a little bit about how you decided to become a career coach and then becoming a mindset coach, and what does that mean?
Rebecca: Absolutely. So a handful of years ago, I used to meet folks for coffee very often. So I’ve spent the last 10 years in New York City and I would get reached out to and folks say, “Oh, I’d love to hear more about your background. I’d love to hear more about your story. Tell me how you that into X role at the time, whether that was as a developer or program manager, product manager.” I used to meet them for coffee and, quote-unquote, “have them pick my brain” and I realized that a lot of these folks could use a more structured way to help them to define their unique value proposition essentially about themselves and their transferable skills and how to interview and move into a new role, because tech interviewing can be nuanced and some folks might seem intimidated or scared by it, but it’s actually not that scary. It doesn’t have to be that scary. So I transitioned into coaching because I wanted to help a lot of these women and especially women of color who were struggling with how to make those pivots and make those shifts.
So I’ve been doing that work for handful of years now, and I then realized that there was an even bigger gap with imposter syndrome that, you know, even though I helped these folks move into new roles, that the imposter syndrome still followed them. How can we start to dismantle the imposter syndrome and realize that it’s not just, “Oh, you need to work harder. You need to” quote-unquote, “be more confident” especially for people of color, it’s not that easy. So that’s the work that I’m doing today is to help people understand where imposter syndrome comes from, the unique challenges that come along with it as a person of color and how they can start to essentially reprogram their brains to stop feeling — not to stop feeling that imposter syndrome but to start realizing just how amazing they are and the skill sets that they’re building and the things that they’re learning that are so much more than their imposter syndrome.
Priscilla: Yeah. And so when you got your first job in tech at a big tech company, what were some of the immediate challenges that you identified when you were first starting out your career?
Rebecca: Yeah. When I was first starting out in tech, I think one of the biggest challenges that I realized was, especially starting out at some smaller companies, at some startups, I noticed that it was very easy to get sidetracked and to want to do all the things. That’s the exciting part about tech is being able to do all the different things. But I realized that I wasn’t helping myself for the long term, for my career and honing in on what were the strengths that I had versus trying to level up all the, quote-unquote, “weaknesses” and I think that this is something that prevents folks early in their career from moving more into a mid-level or senior role is that they become generalists. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting out, you start out as a generalist, but I have learned from Tim Ferris to become a specialized generalist. That’s essentially how I felt my career is as a specialized generalist, where I can do all the things but I know what I am not only, quote-unquote, “good at” but more passionate about, even though I can do a lot of project management, that’s not the only value that I bring. I bring innovation and I bring rallying people to the table. How can you start to figure out and narrow down on, “Okay, I’ve grown a bunch of these different skills. Now, what are the skills that I want to start to focus on that I’m passionately moving towards?” And it doesn’t mean you have to be good at them right away but that you’re letting them push you forward.
Priscilla: Yeah. So you help women break into tech. What are some of the pain points or maybe issues that you see, some of the people that you help get tripped up on the most? Is it something like in the interview process? Is it once they’re in the door and more of that mindset challenge? What are maybe one or two things that you’re like, “Oh, people really struggle with this?”
Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve got a few. So one of the first ones is definitely discrediting their previous experience, and I’ll give an example of, say, somebody went to a boot camp but they worked in finance before. On their resume, they take out the stuff from finance because they’re like, “Well, this isn’t relevant to the job that I want as a developer”. They’re leaving off all that valuable professional experience, going back to your point about the soft skills, right? So they’re missing out on that they’ve worked on multiple teams, that they understand the product, that they have this background in finance that’s valuable. That’s the first thing is discrediting their experience. And when I say experience, it doesn’t have to be working experience. It can be volunteer work that you’ve done. It can be side projects that you’ve done and. Again, if you’re feeling that you’re lacking experience, these side projects or the volunteer work is a really great way to boost that. So that’s the first one is discrediting experience.
And the second piece on the interview process, what I tend to see goes one way or the other. The first way leans back towards that other one of discrediting their experience. And so they’re not really sharing their background and how it got them where they are. Usually what I see folks doing is they start off in their most recent experience. They say, “Oh, I’m a developer at this. And then before I did this and I did this, and then I studied this in school.” And so they’re doing it in the reverse order, where they should switch the order and they share what is it that led you to where you are now? How has that built up so that they can start talking about that. So sometimes they’re leaving stuff out, or the other thing that I see is that they’re over-preparing and just talking at the interviewer. They’re like, “Oh yeah, I practiced my elevator pitch. I did this and did that but they didn’t listen to me.” And well, it’s a two-way street. You got to ask them questions too, give them room to breathe. Instead of just talking at the interviewer, see the interviewer as a person and start to get comfortable asking questions, which as a person of color, it can be very hard because you might think, “Oh, in some cultures that might be considered disrespectful” or in some cultures you’re taught not to speak unless you’re spoken to or all sorts of unique experiences that people of color and people with different backgrounds have. Those are some of the common themes.
And then the last piece, the imposter syndrome piece, where for anyone who’s not familiar with imposter syndrome, it’s this idea that you feel like you might be a fraud, like you don’t belong there. Especially if you’re a woman, you might think this because I know for me I’ve many times been the only woman on a team. And so it can feel like, “Oh, I don’t know if I fit in. Do I belong here? Is this the right company for me?” And so you start to question your experience. You start to question your capabilities. And in terms of tackling imposter syndrome, I actually think that you can flip the narrative on imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome doesn’t mean that you don’t know enough. There’s actually a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where once you start to learn things, you realize how much more there is to learn. And the folks that think that they know everything, it’s because they are not willing to look at all the things that they could learn, so they’re staying stuck. You’re actually at a great point if you’re coming up against imposter syndrome. Yeah, because it means you realize how much more there is to learn and that means your potential is limitless, in my mind.
It doesn’t have to be something terrible that we keep trying to get rid of. That’s another thing that some of my work is going into, which is people from underrepresented backgrounds, we are taught to discredit our feelings. We’re taught to stay quiet or we’re taught to not let things get to us. When we push down those emotions, they bubble back up to the surface and all that resistance that you were having against taking action or against speaking up, it kind of daze itself in and it grows roots. So how can we learn to care for our emotional wellbeing instead of, I think a lot of the advice out there is “just be more confident and speak up” and the reason it doesn’t work is because it doesn’t feel safe as a person of color or it doesn’t feel right. Or maybe you’re like, “I’m an introvert. I can’t do that.” So understanding why it might not even feel right in your body and being able to work through that by working through your emotions and knowing that it’s okay that you don’t know everything. That actually means you’re growing.
Priscilla: So that’s really interesting, that phenomenon you mentioned about people who are probably doing the same thing feel confident in what they’re doing, right, because they’ve been doing it for so long. But yeah, try something different and I’m sure people will feel not so secure, right?
Rebecca: And just to that last point that you had on doing something new, I think there’s also a way that you can differentiate between the, “Oh, this is really scary and I don’t want to do this” or “I don’t know if I can do this” and that kind of “This is new and exciting. I want to do this.” Another thing I learned from the author, Tara Moore, is there is this kind of staying small fear, right, where you’re like, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m not sure if I’m ready for this.” and you’re hiding. And then there’s this playing big kind of fear, where you’re like, “I don’t know if I’m ready to take up more space. I don’t know if I’m ready to do these things. I think I can do them but I don’t know if I’m ready yet.” And so whenever you start to inch towards that playing big fear, that’s how you’re going in the right direction because you’re growing and you’re starting to take those risks and you can start to see it as excitement rather than anxiety.
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Priscilla: Did you experience that in your career where it felt really unnatural and maybe kind of like, “Am I bragging on myself” by talking about your accomplishments or anything like that?
Rebecca: Absolutely. That is something that definitely comes up a lot, where I hear folks say that like you said, you don’t want to seem braggy, you don’t want to seem like you’re boasting. And maybe in your culture, I know that I was told be humble. I think that there is a difference between bragging and boasting and puffing out your chest versus sharing the work that you do or telling people the work that you do or the work that you’re excited and capable of doing, because that allows you to be of service to others. Because if you don’t speak up and you don’t say those things, then how are the opportunities going to find you? How are you going to make the right connections if you’re constantly — you’re waiting for somebody to tap you on the shoulder and give you a permission slip to be successful? You’re basically placing your success in somebody else’s hands versus you being able to pick the direction that you want to go in because that’s how opportunities come to you is when people know you for certain things. Or a lot of the early advice is like, “Oh, build your network”. I think of networking, it’s a long-term strategy. I think of it as a boomerang, right? You make connections and then they come back around and then they happen to be helpful later. But those connections are only as valuable as much as you let people know what it is that you want to do or what it is that you’re capable and excited to do. So just putting it out there as a reframe of it’s not you bragging, it’s you advocating for yourself, advocating for your career because you are the only person who can be that advocate for yourself. So not just a mentor, not just a manager, you get to pick the direction of your career.
Priscilla: What are some wellbeing things that you do or maybe even advise your clients, people that you work with to do to find some kind of sanity and separateness from work, because work is in our house now, right? It’s like at home all the time.
Rebecca: Yeah, that is a great question. One of the things that I like to do, especially after having a lot of Zoom calls, meetings, back-to-back stuff going on, is to take a nervous system break. I’m sure if I had just started spouting off to folks like, “Oh, you should meditate”. Everybody has heard that they, quote-unquote, “should meditate” but before even meditation, just giving your nervous system a break, meaning how can you get out of that heightened state of doing stuff all the time and go, right? Because we’re working from home, we have to create that. Whereas in the past we might’ve had it naturally built in, right? So I’ll give an example of when I worked in Manhattan, for lunch I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go walk and I’m going to go pick up lunch from somewhere and maybe I’ll listen to a podcast while I’m walking.” That was essentially a nervous system break. And now that we don’t have that built in, how can you build it in? One practice is to notice the things that help get you out of that going mode, and so whether that’s listening to a podcast or doing the dishes for 10 minutes or just being away from the computer, being away from your work. And make a list of those things that allow you to feel a little bit more relaxed and incorporate them into your day and don’t feel guilty about it because we don’t have those things built into our day now. If we don’t build them in now, it’s building these wellness practices into your life, everybody’s, “I don’t have time for that. I’m too busy.” But it’s learning to swim before you’re drowning, before you’re burnt out, before you’re really tired, before you’re just, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t function.” So just throwing that out there is taking a nervous system break here and there and the world will be okay. Your inbox, your emails will still be there. The notifications will still be there 10, 15 minutes later.
Priscilla: So true, yeah. I think those walks are just like creating your own version of a commute, right, like before or after work. It helps so much to get out of your head for sure. Well, my last question for you before we wrap up is just what is maybe your number one career lesson that you would want to impart on younger folks, especially those looking to get into tech?
Rebecca: Yeah. So one of the quotes that I love to say is from the author Jon Acuff, and his quote is “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” It’s really easy for us to look at other people and say, “Well, they have this thing. I don’t have that thing. I don’t have these skills yet. I don’t feel ready.” When you look at a job description, actually see it as a wish list. Don’t see it as you need to meet every single thing on that list. I say this as somebody who has worked in hiring and has worked with recruiters, and sometimes those job descriptions aren’t even written by the hiring manager. Sometimes they’re written by a recruiting team with the things that they would in an ideal world love to have, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow into doing those things. So that’s one thing to keep in mind.
The second piece is how important mental health is. I know that there’s a stigma against it in many cultures and where, “Oh, therapy is only for people who can afford it” or therapy means that there’s something really wrong with you or “Oh, meditation and yoga, it’s too woo-woo for me” or “I can’t do that” and you end up putting off all of these things. I wish that I had spent more time helping myself. It’s like that when you get on an airplane and they’re like, “Put your oxygen mask on first,” because how are you going to put out your most valuable work and how are you going to provide the most value if you are unable to function well? So taking care of yourself is important. It’s not a luxury. It’s a base need. So honor yourself, honor your feelings. You may have family members or cultures that don’t agree with this but at the end of the day, who is it that’s living your life and building your career? It’s you, right? So why not take that time for you? So I hope that’s helpful for folks out there who are thinking, “How can I become successful?” And I will tell you at the mid senior part of my career of working in tech at big companies and small companies, burnout is real and it happens at any stage in your career. And if you can take care of yourself now, do it. Put yourself first and keep putting yourself first.
Priscilla: Yeah, awesome. Well, Rebecca, where can people find you online and potentially even work with you?
Rebecca: Yeah. So come find me on Instagram at Mindset Coach for Women. That’s also my new domain MindsetCoachForWomen.com, if not, RebeccaGarcia.tech. I would love to connect with you, shoot me a DM, tag me if you listened to this podcast episode and you found it helpful. I do career workshops, as well as mindfulness and wellness practices, and I’m excited to help more folks with imposter syndrome. So thank you so much for having me.
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 love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Have you ever wondered how you could merge different passions, or “take-and-leave” different aspects from different careers to build one that works for you? Well, that’s exactly what Frankie Arvelo did during his early career years. A child of immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, Frankie defied society’s expectations by attending a top 10 law school and working at Goldman Sachs by his early 20’s. When his first career stop didn’t quite cut it for him, Frankie decided he needed something more: an MBA. The MBA journey exposed him to a new career vision that could blend the law with the exciting startup ecosystem and allow him to call the shots in his own career.
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You’re always selling. Every interaction, every single person, you’re always selling something. Be ready. You never know what can come of it in an interaction with someone. Someone may have an opportunity for you five years down the road. They remember you from that good interaction with you or they may remember a better interaction with you because you weren’t prepared.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am 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.
Hey, everyone, today, you get to hear from Frankie Arvelo. Frankie is a startup counsel based out of Austin, Texas. He is a child of immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. He has his JD from UPenn, his MBA from UT Austin. He currently specializes with working with early stage startup founders and helps them with issues like seed fund raising and investor management. His story was really inspiring to me because he’s someone who’s really intentionally crafted his career to make it into something that really works for him and is in alignment with his own passions and values. He loves working with underrepresented founders and he is also a big DEI champion. So, if you’re someone who’s really interested in the intersection of business, tech, law, this is the episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Frankie, welcome to the show.
Frankie: Thank you, nice being here.
Priscilla: Yeah, I’m really excited to dive into your early career story and hear about how you eventually became a startup counsel, but first, tell us a little bit about yourself, how you grew up, where you’re from, and also talk to us about going to Penn Law. I know that you went to Penn Law right after undergrad and graduated during the great recession. So, talk to us about how you got there and how you thought through financing that chapter of your life.
Frankie: Absolutely. So, right now, I’m based in Austin, Texas. I have two toddlers and a wife that I love dearly. But let’s go way back. Originally, I was born to immigrant parents. My father’s Dominican, my mother’s Ecuadorian. They split up on when I was a child in New York City, so that’s why I always think as this whole, I live in Hell’s Kitchen on the West side and it was, this was eighties, early nineties, it was rough back then. It’s gentrified a lot now. It’s changed so much the last time I visited, but back then, there’s a lot of drugs, prostitution, people out of work, it was hard getting through it, but as I tell people now that it was an important part of my journey because getting through that really helps you understand that nothing I face now is that hard, right? And nothing can be that bad. So, we moved to Boston when I was in middle school, I have a little bit of an Northeastern accent and that’s where my family is now. I went to a testing school out there, but even then, we lived in section eight housing. We lived in neighborhoods that weren’t super nice but were okay. So, I went to UMass Amherst, I studied Sports Management, and I knew I was getting a law degree, went directly to Penn out in Philadelphia. During law school, actually, was looking for alternative careers outside of law. I decided to join Goldman in New York as a compliance officer, so I worked in the commodity trading floor and it was a great experience, a lot of brilliant people, didn’t want to do that the rest of my life, so I decided to get my MBA. Fast forward a little bit, decided to get back into law, I professionalized my practice and worked with startups. So, I’ve been on my own as a solo attorney for about little over a year now. I was the first person in my family to go to grad school, the second to go to college. My brother beat me cause he’s six years older, but yeah, so we really, I didn’t have much guidance. I had some guidance at UMass, but at a big school like that, it’s hard to find the right people. I had people telling me to go to schools that weren’t really that good and I think that they made assumptions about me because of the way I spoke, and I can dive into it a little bit more, cause I did grow up in the hood. Anyway, so I decided to be really focused. I think I bought some books that are like Ivy League admissions, how to get in, and I couldn’t find people that are alums or anything like that, but I just did as much research as I could about the school.
So, the second piece is paying for it. So, I graduated in, what was it, it’s technically December of 2007 or something, yeah, 2006, I’m getting my years confused. I’m getting older. December 2006, so I had a, basically, half a year or nine months or eight months or something like that before school started at Penn, and I made it my job to look for scholarships. There are so many scholarships that go unused because people don’t, not enough people apply to them. I applied to things like the MCCA scholarship, that’s the Minority Corporate Counsel Association scholarship, I got something called the Edward scholarship in Boston. So, I was able to cobble together in addition to some of the money that Penn got me, an additional $30,000, $35,000 just from applying, even though it was $1,000 a year, $500 there, just, I made it a job just to apply. I was like, hey, I need, cause again, I grew up poor. It’s not like I had a ton of money sitting around, right? I had some need-based grants, but still loans are loans, you got to pay them back.
Priscilla: Yeah, and especially when you’re first gen, you have to think through how you’re going to pay that off and how long it’s going to take because you’re the only one responsible for making that happen. So, I’m curious, what was the biggest pain point for you when you did transition to law school at Penn? What was it like being in that super elite space?
Frankie: It was culture shock, if you will. I, again, I grew up in inner cities with a lot of Black and Brown folks, even at UMass, I would say, I was mostly around Black and Brown people, and then at Penn, the classroom changed in terms of racial diversity and also in terms of, just as important to me, economic diversity, there were people with a lot more money than people I met at UMass, right? They’re daughters of, like, senators and governors and people who would go on to become congressmen and whatnot. So, that was a big shock, I did not expect that. I mean, I was always different in a room, but I was really different in the room. Even the Black and Brown folks were different than me. They were rich. So, there’s something called the Socratic Method, right? Which basically means that the professor calls on the student, cold call, and then they’ll ask them a ton of questions, and the student has to be, like, on the spot, they have to oftentimes stand up in front of a class of 80 people where everyone’s, like, trying to judge who’s the smartest, who’s the alpha, who doesn’t know what they’re talking about? So, just that intense pressure you feel from being cold called. So, I remember I was cold called once. I think it was a civil procedure class and I made some comment, whatever, I don’t even remember what it was and I sat down. After the class, one of my colleagues said, “You made a really good point, but you sound a little urban saying it.”
Frankie: I was like, “What does that mean?” He said, “It sounded a little different,” and I remember I took that back, I was like, he’s calling me ghetto, oh, okay, oh, wow, and then I found myself actively changing the way I spoke after that, and it’s still to this day, I still do it to the point where when I go back, even now, the people I grew up with who maybe not necessarily, didn’t go to college or have any fancy degrees, they tell me I speak white, right? Let’s just use it and say what it is, like, “Oh, you speak White now,” and then I can’t speak the way I used to because I’m just, now, this is the way I speak, right? But then, you get into the whole entire complex of, like, what is my real identity? And then, I tried to let it go and say, I can’t, I have too much to do, but it’s something that I think all of us need to keep in mind, right? But that was a shock, how people were so different and feeling like I needed to change how I spoke so I could seem “smart.”
Priscilla: Yeah, it’s such a shame that that happened to you, but sadly, it’s not an uncommon experience and many of us have to negotiate that identity and how we present ourselves in BIPOC spaces and how we present ourselves in mostly White spaces, so yeah, I know that you graduated around the great recession. How did you think through your career options? What did you end up doing after law school?
Frankie: So, part of it was just the force of what was going on in the market, so I would say summer of 2009 is when I would’ve gotten my two L internship, right? There were very few good ones. I would say firms weren’t hiring as well. I was a middling student, I’ll be honest, right? I was, like, the B+ student, if you will. So, there were fewer spots at great firms, I knew I wanted to public insurance because frankly, I was tired of being poor. Yeah, tired, right? I can’t do it, and I want to provide for my family eventually, my mom and whatnot, her retirement plan is her kids, right? So, I have to help out there, and I understood that back then. So, I knew that I wanted to do that, I knew…public insurance, there weren’t any great firms, so I started looking outside of law and I was like, what do I want to do? And I remember back then, I enjoyed my business classes better. So, I was like, I think I might want to get into business, and then I saw the Goldman opportunity as a way back in to the business because when I talked to a recruiter back then they said that people make transitions from compliance to business side. So, maybe sales or some other role, non-operational role, so I thought that could be an angle for me to make that move and also want to live in New York again. I just, all my friends were moving there, I love the energy of the city, I wanted it to be there, right? So, that’s why I was looking at going that way, but I was pretty sure I wanted to work in business, sure I want to work in New York. Goldman is a great firm although everyone hated it back then, and still hate it now. So, yeah, I just said that that was the path I want to go down.
Priscilla: Yeah, obviously, Goldman Sachs is an amazing company to have as a first job after law school, but what was that first real career job experience like for you? What were some of the challenges that you faced and what did you end up doing after?
Frankie: I know I need seasoning back then. It was a culture shock in terms of the level of professionalism that is expected and demanded of you. I had a manager who was, she was in the Israeli defense force, so don’t mess with her, and she was the first person to teach me this, right? She was the first person that said, “If you come to me for a problem, you better have a solution in mind,” and I remember our first meeting, I said, “These are all the things I see that are wrong,” and I had no solutions and she told me that, and I was like, oh, okay. I can’t complain about things being wrong. I need to fix them, right? She also just demanded perfection in terms of email communications, in terms of presentation skills, et cetera. She ended up going to maternity leave and I had another manager named David who really took me under his wing, really counseled me, really said he wants me to be the best I could be there, and then I had another African-American man named Keith, another attorney who also did the same with me and he’s actually one of my mentors to this day, and then just the atmosphere and the energy, right? Like, you’re on a trading floor, you’re going into that giant building with a billion other people that has, like, its own gym and own doctor’s office because you never leave, right? So, that energy was, like, a lot. I initially didn’t like it, but then I had learned to lean into it. I remember maybe my first year of struggling a little bit of just, like, a wild stallion, did not want to be controlled, but then I learned that, hey, this is my career, I need to show up, and this is big boy time. So, put on my big boy pants and don’t complain and get the work done, and I also learned to not be so worried about what people thought of me, if that makes sense. And then my second year, because of that, my performance jumped tremendously and I also just knew the rules a bit better, so I didn’t feel like I was faking it when I was giving people advice. I just do what I was talking about, so I ended up, like, giving presentations that were international and had more seniority, and then I ended up giving presentations to managing partners and people that ran billion-dollar businesses where I was lead, and yeah, it was good, it was good, and I’ll need to side-sleeve for a couple of reasons. One is, I didn’t like being the person that no one ever wants to talk to. When you send someone an email and it has a little compliance, cause that’s your title, like, on it, people tend to not want to talk to you and no one wants to hang out with you, and I was like, this is a weird energy, and I also just didn’t want to be back office the rest of my life. I want to be more of a revenue generator. It’s harder to replace you when you’re a revenue generator than when you’re in your back office if things go down, and also, I think that was the year where Warren Buffet did a giant buyback of equity, so the cash bonus pool dropped tremendously. So, I did better, but I got paid less than my bonus, I was like, that makes no sense. So, for those reasons, I was like, I need to leave, but it was a good place to be though.
Priscilla: Cool. So, I know you went to get your MBA at UT Austin McCombs School of Business. How did you end up using your MBA years in Austin to get familiar with the startup world and start to envision a future as a startup counsel?
Frankie: So, my first year, I was really just focused on school work and not doing anything outside of Austin and just doing some clubs and whatnot. My second year is when I got plugged into the startup scene and that’s when I became more involved in places like Capital Factory, that’s when I started freelancing and working with my friends as an attorney. I was like, hey, one of the great things about MBA is this, is that whilst you learn about risk and everything’s going to break, and start seeing opportunity, and you start saying, hey, whoa, there’s a way to make money here. So, that’s when I had my aha moment. I was like, wait, I have a lot of grit. I’m licensed to practice law. People are asking me for help. I should just put up a shingle and make some money.
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Frankie: So, during my fall semester, I worked for Longhorn Startup Lab and it’s run by Josh Bear and Bob Metcalf who are two of the pillars of the Austin tech community, and just got connected to a lot of folks in the scene, so I worked for a firm called Egan Nelson, good firm, really good people, they’re a quality boutique here in Austin, learned a lot, I think, for anyone that’s thinking of eventually hanging up the shingle and being their own solo lawyer, I do recommend that you go to a firm or somewhere first where you learn from people who’ve done it before and who really know their stuff because there are so many mistakes you can make and if you’re just learning on the job and it all falls on you, you’re gonna make those mistakes and that’s not going to be good for your clients. Some people make it out okay doing it that way, but it’s really risky.
So, went there, they focused on startups. We helped companies from formation all the way through exit, left there because a law firm model is this: law firm model is you either are a rainmaker bee or working bee, and I felt that if I stayed there, I was always going to be a working bee, and that’s just not my personality. Going back to a comment I made about working at Goldman being back office, I didn’t want to be quasi back office at a law firm, I wanted to be the rainmaker, and I want to bring in new relationships, and I didn’t see that happening there. So, that’s why I joined another firm. I ended up joining another firm as a partner, left because I thought I could do it better on my own market.
Priscilla: Tell us what it means to be a startup counsel, and what do you do and why do you do it?
Frankie: I help clients with everything. Alright, a couple of weeks ago, there was a client that was dealing with an issue where two of their employees and the contractor decided to start talking poorly of the management and how they didn’t know what they were doing, and all this other stuff, and I helped them in a situation of how to terminate those folks while also protecting themselves as a company, messaging around that to other employees and customers because they were central employees, and how do you get that done thinking through that strategically? There’s also items like I helped a client close on some fundraising, which during the time of COVID is hard to do. So, initially, they went to traditional venture capital type money and they weren’t getting any bites there because they were hitting the traditional metrics of monthly recurring revenue and whatnot, and then we were able to raise a round which is going to help the company fill some orders and make some more revenue in, and all that, right? And then, and I’ve done things, like, like what sort of entity should I be when I’m thinking of forming a company? Should it be an LLC? Should it be a corporation? And there’s many considerations around that, right? Generally, if you’re looking to get venture money and grow really fast and sell, it should be a corporation, generally, right? And so the reason I call myself counsel is I have a partnership with my clients and a real relationship. To me, it’s hey, most of my clients get it, they’re like, alright, I’m going to spend a little time with Frankie now, we’re going to think strategically about this issue or something that’s coming up, and then that’s going to save me a ton of money or a ton of dilution in the future, and then me, Frankie, I know not to burn time on things that don’t matter. I know to be thoughtful about, hey, I know their cast situation is tight now, maybe I can give them a payment plan, or sometimes, if a plan is really good, I think, I loved their idea on their team, I might take some equity and then I’ll cut my rate. Those are things that I can do when I work for my own firm that I couldn’t do when I worked for another firm, like, they take an equity thing. A lot of lawyers don’t like doing that because inside baseball, the malpractice insurance won’t cover it if you take equity in a client, so if a client has a claim against you, your malpractice is not going to cover it. So, that’s scary for a lot of attorneys, I get why they don’t do that. My risk profile is a little higher, I’m fine doing it, right, for certain clients. Those are things, like, these are things and levers I can pull and things I do with clients where I really see, like, it is a true relationship and I really wanna help them out.
Quick aside, quick story, I tore my Achilles, it’s terrible, don’t play football if you’re over 35, about nine days ago, I posted something on social media about it, and then one of my clients sent me some “Tiff’s Treats” and said, “Please get better. Hope you and the family are doing well,” like, I wouldn’t get that at a big firm, right? The big firms sees you as a number. You meaning the founder as, like, a number. With me, these are people, this is, like, friends, these are friends, if you will, and I want to help them grow their business. So, I’m counsel, not an attorney for that reason.
Priscilla: Yeah, I love that. I love that you get to cultivate those relationships and make them meaningful ones at the same time. So, as you look back, Frankie, at your 12, 14-year career, your early career years, what is the one thing that you would go back in time and tell younger Frankie about career in terms of advice?
Frankie: Great question. Go back in time and shake me. I would have told my younger self to be more patient, to be easier on myself in terms of I have a tendency to beat myself up when I make mistakes, and also just to really be grateful, this is a non-career piece, but I think it flows into your life which flows into your career, t all works together, to be more grateful for what you have in your life and not focus so much on what you don’t have, and that was taught to me by my wife who’s a yoga teacher and author. She really showed me that and it’s actually made me a much happier person.
So, those are the things I would have told myself. If there’s any specific career advice I would give of myself besides the be more patient if you work is that, you’re always selling, every interaction of every single person, you’re always selling something. Be ready, you never know what can come of any interaction with someone. Someone may have an opportunity for you five years down the road. They remember you from that good interaction of you or they maybe remember a bad interaction of you because you weren’t prepared, and they made, no, we’re not going to consider this person for that. Always remember that you’re selling, be patient and be grateful for what you have.
Priscilla: That is such great advice. I think it’s so true that whether you like it or not, you are always selling yourself, right? And people are deciding if you’re someone that they’d want to work with or they’d want to call up for something, so yeah, thanks for sharing that, I appreciate you being here, Frankie, it’s just so inspiring to hear your story and how you went from child of immigrants growing up with not a lot, humble beginnings, but making it all the way to Penn Law, and I know now you teach part-time at Penn Law and you do so many other amazing things, so thanks so much for being with us today.
Frankie: Awesome, take care
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. 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.
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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.
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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.
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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!