After graduating as a civil engineer major at Rice University in 2014, Maria Paula Muñoz opted for a stable career path within the oil and gas industry, only to soon realize that the role wasn’t exactly the best fit for her. On this episode, Maria Paula talks about what it was like to start and go through a challenging yearlong job search process only months after taking her first job after college, what it took to pivot into a brand new industry and function, and how she used her MBA to later break into a career at Google in the tech industry. This episode is a refreshing story for the job-searcher who is seeking career fulfillment or for anyone who has ever felt alone at work.
Check out the Highlights:
2:37 – Choosing engineering as a major, and the pressure of being a child of immigrants
4:44 – Something missing in her first job out of college
7:02- Being the only Latina engineer on her team, and not feeling a sense of belonging at work
10:33 – Pivoting into an internal consulting strategy role, but it doesn’t last long
14:50 – Maria-Paula gets engaged, decides to move to New Jersey, and her yearlong job search process begins
18:40 – Landing a Product Specialist role at Google
19:47- What it takes to succeed in a career in tech
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Maria Paula: Being an engineering major in college, the way my classroom looked most of the time, it skewed male. And, I was pretty used to that, to be honest with you. And that didn’t really phase me, but I think being out in that environment every single day of your job when you’re thinking, okay, I guess this is my life now… I think it did get to me!
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killin’ it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos.Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey! On this episode, you get to hear from Maria Paula Munoz, who graduated from Rice University in 2014 and now works as a product specialist at Google. She talks about what it was like being the only Latina engineer on her team when she worked in the oil & gas industry, going through a grueling year-long job search process, and what it’s been like to break into tech and finally find a role that suits her strengths best.
Priscilla: Hey everyone! Today, we have Maria Paula Munoz who’s a product specialist at Google and she was my MBA classmate at UT Austin. She’s an amazing Colombian Latina from Houston, Texas. We’re both from Houston. So, Maria Paula, welcome to the show and, just super excited to jump into your early career story.
Maria-Paula: Yeah, I’m excited to jump in.
Priscilla: Great. So I know that you went to Rice University and you were a civil engineering major. I’m curious if you went into college knowing that that’s what you were going to major in and if you had a dream job when you were growing up?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so I went in thinking I would go into something STEM related and I thought engineering would probably be a good field. So I don’t know that I ever had a dream job…was definitely not one of those people. And my dad is a petroleum engineer. And I grew up in a household where engineering was always seen as a great career option. It was stable, it was high paying. It was something that if I wanted to, I could just be very comfortable in that type of role and I could be in Houston and anybody from Houston knows that oil and gas is pervasive and most people in some way or another either work in the industry or somehow work in something related to it. So for me, I applied as a biomedical engineer, that took about a week for me to realize I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go down that path and I ended up choosing civil engineering. For me, I was really thinking more about the end goal, less so about, “Oh, do I find this super interesting?”… I did…I can’t say that I didn’t think engineering was interesting, but was it like, did the classes just absolutely light me up? Probably not. Like to me it was more about getting a good job at the end of the four years. And that was definitely something that I think my parents had a lot to do with. And especially, I know we were chatting about being an immigrant child. You just, you constantly think, okay, like my parents have done so much for me, what can I do? Or, how do I make their sacrifices worth it? And so I think that probably was also part of it, too.
Priscilla: Oh, totally. I feel like as a child of immigrants, you always carry that with you. You’re always wondering if what you’re doing is good enough or that it justifies the tremendous risk that they’ve taken. How hard was it to overcome those years doing civil engineering coursework? Like, it just seems so intense.
Maria-Paula: Yeah, it really was survival…(laughs). I think definitely the first two years, especially my freshman year, I had so much imposter syndrome because I think when you do go to a school that attracts great talent you tend to be surrounded by people maybe for the first time in your life that are just incredible at what they do. So for the first time for me, I was certainly not the valedictorian of my class, but I was definitely in the top 20 people. I was now going to school where most of my classes were filled with people who were valedictorians and who had been student president and had done all these things in high school. And now I was sitting next to them taking a really difficult class and some people like you’re always going to have the freaks of nature who don’t study and somehow ace every single test. And, you had that, you definitely had people who struggled. I definitely commiserated with people in my residential college who were in those classes with me. And you end up bonding through those things, but it was tough.
Priscilla: So, luckily you survived, you graduated. Tell us about what was your first job out of college and what was that experience like for you?
Maria-Paula: Yeah. So as I mentioned, oil and gas was just where I thought I was supposed to go. And I was lucky enough, I got an offer from Exxonmobil. And that was really through career services, so that’s how I got the job. I was working within their Projects organizations. So Exxonmobil is a huge corporation. It’s made up of smaller companies if you will, within it. And I was within the Projects org. So we basically worked for the chemicals and the refining organizations and built plants or refineries or worked on projects to improve the existing ones. And my job was as a cost engineer. So basically that was the first step towards a project management career path. And eventually, to be a major project manager. So for me, I think I was very happy with the offer. It was a great offer. Obviously it’s a great company, very well known. My parents were thrilled, it was like this big well-known very stable company. And I think for me, like I worked with some great people. I made some great friends, a couple of mentors I still stay in touch with, but generally I could not find it in myself to really love what I was doing and that, to be completely honest, probably took a month.
Priscilla: Wow, that’s not very long at all!
Maria-Paula: Not at all. And I think to explain a little bit more, my role was basically to work on projects, improvement projects or new projects and come up with a cost estimate. So the reason you need an engineer for those types of rules is because we worked very closely with process design and the engineers out in the field, like the construction engineers. And it’s not just inputting numbers based on what’s going on out there. You really have to understand the labor and the area you’re in and are their existing operations? And how do we work around that? It’s a very cross-functional role, but a lot of your time is out in the field. And I just don’t, I don’t think I realized how much time I’d be on the field, but I also just really didn’t like the environment, yes, in the field, but also even in the office. Being an engineering major in college, like you grow up in a pretty male dominated classroom experience, like the way my classroom looked most of the time, it skewed male. And, I was pretty used to that, to be honest with you. And that didn’t really phase me, but I think being out in that environment every single day of your job when you’re thinking, okay, I guess this is my life now… I think it did get to me! I was, in my team, there were three new hires and I was the only female. I want to say the team maybe had 30, 40 people, there were two other female engineers and that was it, and then me, and so it’s hard to find comradery in that environment where you really are the only one of you and especially being a Latina female…I was the only one. Like there were no others like me. Like I honestly had more in common with some of the admins than the people that I worked with. And so I just don’t really ever feel that I felt that I belonged. And I think that contributed to it. I didn’t love the work. I didn’t find it to be super stimulating. Like I got into engineering because I wanted to think creatively and I wanted to problem solve. And a lot of the work that I was doing was very like, “Look it up in the manual, Look up the, whatever the specs say,” things that had already been planned out. And it was more I was just locating something and putting it in place. There was no creative thought there, so I just didn’t really ever feel at home there. And I never really felt, “Oh, I’m excited to go to work today.” And so that was something that I think, after a month and the first couple of times I said that my friends, my family was like, you’ve just started working, it’s hard to adjust, you’re just adjusting to life after college. Six months in, a year in, when I’m still feeling pretty motivated? That’s when I started really seriously thinking, okay, what am I doing wrong here? Like, why am I not happy with what I’m doing?
Priscilla: Gosh, I feel like so many people do reach this point where they’re like, yeah, this ain’t it. And this isn’t it, what do I do? what’s next? And it seems like you reached that point a lot sooner than most people do. So what did you end up doing? What was your action plan after that?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so, I think one of the best things I did was try to talk to people around me, whether they were at Exxon or not, and just be like, what do you do? So I started figuring out okay, what do other people do? Is there somewhere else within Exxon that I could move to, like what are my options basically? And I do think one of the best things I did was really just voiced some of this to my manager, which I was pretty apprehensive about. And I think a lot of people feel this way. If you don’t have a level of trust with your manager, it can be really hard to open up. And I think what was difficult for me at Exxon, or really at any company that might have a more rigid career path, was that there were essentially three roles that I could move into after my initial cost engineer role. And none of them were things I really wanted to do. And I believe, if I remember correctly, they were all going to be a hundred percent time out in the field. And it’s just being out in the field in and of itself can be difficult. Just being a woman, you’re around a lot of craft who tend to be male, craft, the people who are out building these things who might be, pipe fitters, or who might be, whatever they’re actually working on building these things out there. And so it can be a tough environment because there are very few women, if any, represented out there. And so for you to be out there, you’re an anomaly. They don’t always take you seriously. Vulgar language is definitely much more acceptable there. It’s not like an office environment. So I just didn’t love the field. And to me, those next roles that were available to me, just were not enticing at all. So as we started getting closer to a year of me being with the team and then closer to a year and a half, like generally, they like to start moving you between a year and a half and two years in your first role. So I started talking to my manager, I was like, what are my options? what do you think? I started being more transparent that I wanted to be in the office, and, if possible, I’d love to be closer to something on the business side. And I think my manager actually listened, which I was not used to or I guess I hadn’t expected. And what ended up happening was after saying, Hey, I want to be closer to the business side, my manager finally came to me at one of our monthly one-on-ones or whatever and was like, hey, there was something that opened up and I think you might actually be a great candidate for it. There’s this strategic project going on between the projects, chemicals and refining companies and they brought in a consulting team, and they want an analyst. Is that something you’d be interested in? And so after I found out more about it, I was like, yeah, sign me up! How do I go do that? And so that was really how I ended up pivoting while I was at Exxon into more of a strategy business related role.
Priscilla: At this point you moved into an internal consulting strategy role at Exxon which is super cool but I know that you ended up still looking to leave pretty quickly…so, tell us why you ended up deciding to leave that role?
Maria-Paula: It was really great, but the reason I left and there were really two was one, once I hit, let’s see, a year with that team, it was about time for me to start looking for a different role. And the thing is that role, that analyst role that I was pulled into was never meant to be a career switcher for my time at ExxonMobil. They called it a once in a career role. And I was basically going to be moved right back to the team that I was on into one of those other roles that I was supposed to be looking at a year before. And so I was like, absolutely not! Like, I did not find something that I really enjoy, something I really find interesting just to go right back to where I used to be.
Priscilla: And now, a quick message from our sponsor.
The Art of Applying: Hey, Early Career Moves listener! Are you applying to grad school but feel like a wild card applicant? Maybe you’re concerned about how one bad semester in college will affect your applications, or maybe you’re a passionate, but imperfect, candidate for dream schools like Harvard Kennedy School or Harvard Business School. Well, I’m just like you. I’m Kaneisha Grayson, founder of The Art of Applying and a first-generation professional. That means that I was the first in my family to get a graduate degree. After graduating from Pomona College with a degree in Black Studies, I went on to earn my Masters of Business Administration and Masters of Public Administration from Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. I’ve spent the past ten years running my company and helping thousands of people just like you get into their dream schools with scholarships and fellowships that pay for it. In fact, my team and I have helped our clients earn more than $20MM in merit scholarships and fellowships since I founded the company from my Harvard apartment. Wherever you are in your application process, I invite you to explore working with our team by coming to TheArtofApplying.com/ECM and signing up for a Quick Call. And if you mention the Early Career Moves podcast, you get $100 off enrolling in our Hourly Coaching or Application Accelerator program. If you’re dreaming of going to a top school without paying top dollar, come and speak to us today. Visit us at TheArtofApplying.com/ECM to get started.
Maria Paula: So I was not very happy from a career perspective. And then personally, I actually got engaged. At the time my fiance lived in New Jersey. He’s a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard. And in the military, you move around every two to four years. And so I always struggled with, why would I move for you right now when I know you’re going to have to move again? And I’m so early in my career, like I can’t just pick up and move. Something like engineering is not something you can just move around every two years and have a career with the right trajectory, because you haven’t built up time with these people. Once we did get engaged though, that’s when I knew, okay, like we had talked about it and it was like, okay, I wasn’t happy with where I was going with my job at ExxonMobil. We were now engaged. I should probably actually really start thinking about what are my next steps from here. I started looking for jobs, and it was very slow going and I was very, pretty much completely lost. Like I think finding a job when you’re in school is one thing, especially when you have a really strong career services office, when you maybe have tons of other people around you who are also recruiting for the same thing, it’s so different when you have that support network compared to doing it by yourself. I was very much just like going on LinkedIn and looking for openings or going on Indeed or Google jobs or whatever it is that I could find online and just starting to drop resumes. I just started going at it alone and it probably took eight or nine months before I got any kind of traction.
Priscilla: It’s a very isolating experience to start job searching in your early mid twenties when it’s been a few years since you’ve graduated. What did you do? How did you end up getting your next role?
Maria-Paula: It was tough because I had basically just hit two years of work experience. And it’s still, it’s so little time, I was essentially looking at like entry level jobs still. So it was definitely discouraging. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I’d found a few sites, like, I found Vault, I found some other sites like that basically gave career advice and how to prepare yourself better, how to make your resume stand out, that sort of thing. But I didn’t really start getting traction until later, later when I started actually telling more people that I knew what I was doing. So my close friends had already known for a while, but I just started talking about it more and I think that’s what helped. One of my best friends was like, hey, I actually have a friend at BCG. I think maybe he could submit a recommendation for you, do you want me to try that? Little things like that started helping. So I think I really learned firsthand…that lesson was so important for me that your network and your connections are almost more than half the battle, because that is really what can help get your resume on the top of the pile and not in there with the other thousands. Just getting someone to look at it can be the biggest hurdle.
The way I actually got my next role was through this, think of LinkedIn, but for Rice alumni, called Sally Portal and I just started looking there. I updated a profile there and so remember my fiance is in New Jersey, and I see a posting for a senior project analyst, doing what I was doing, strategic project work in an internal consulting arm in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is the exact city that my fiance was living in. And then it was just like, you’ve gotta be kidding me! What? And so that is literally how I got my job. I reached out to her, the hiring manager, the person who posted that ended up being my manager and she did a phone screen. She had me talk to somebody else, another director. And once I had passed those, I flew up, and interviewed in person with three or four different people that were on her team. And within a week or two, I found out that I got an offer and it was just wild because it was like nothing had happened. I was so frustrated for so long. And then all of a sudden, by just continuing to scour my network, I found someone and I think I was really expedited through this process because she was a Rice alum and she was definitely looking for someone with a STEM background and someone who had that consulting toolkit, even if it wasn’t necessarily the role. But yeah, she put a lot of faith in me and gave me the job and I was able to start, that basically two, three months later. So the end of May, and that is how I made that transition. So I pivoted from oil and gas into consumer packaged goods.
Priscilla: Such a huge accomplishment. I do think those moves are really hard to make early in your career without a master’s degree. And so I’m going to fast-forward a little bit through your early career journey…we know that you did really well at Newell Brands, we know that you went to business school, that’s where we met, but you landed a full-time offer with Google while you were in business school and so I really want to talk about what is it that you do at Google, what does that look like, what does it mean?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so I am a product specialist at Google. I’m essentially within the customer support organization and I’m like the product arm within that organization. So I describe myself as the support lead on different devices. So within hardware, I’m on Google Home. So that’s the smart speakers, smart displays, the things that people have in their home that they can use to talk to their assistant and, as the product specialist, I support the product team and any new launches, any new products that come out, any new features that come out, and I make sure that our customer support organization is prepared to support that launch or that new feature, whatever it is, successfully so that when customers have a problem with that feature or that product, we are ready and up to speed on anything and everything that is going on with that product so that we can help them make the most out of their products.
Priscilla: Very cool! So what are the things that you’re thinking about on a daily basis and what would someone need to really enjoy doing to be able to be successful?
Maria-Paula: I think bottom line to enjoy this type of role, you really need to want to be close to a product roadmap. And what is it that we’re putting out there for people? If I put myself in the shoes of a customer, what do I want in these products that I’m working on? What do I want in a smart speaker? Or what do I want in a display or this casting thing for my TV? I think you have to really empathize and really think about the customer and their journey with a product to enjoy this type of work, because it’s very much about thinking about how a customer uses this in their day-to-day? And what are the issues they might commonly run into? Or what are the things that they constantly voice that they want to see? And how do we feed that back into the product team? How do we make this product more delightful for a user? And so I really think when you’re in something tangible like hardware and you’re in something that works around the product, you have to really want to make this product better for the users that have them in their homes.
Priscilla: So many people dream about working at Google and really want to break into the tech industry. What are some of the skills that you’re really using on a daily basis to be successful, and that you really need to be able to to really survive and do well in tech?
Maria-Paula: As simple as it sounds, just great communication. Like, so much of my work and because Google is such a huge company, is just tracking down who might know something about what you’re trying to find out. So, “Hey, what are we doing? Do we support this music partner? And if we do, what countries are they in? And, what information can I get about this particular partner that I think we should work with? or, Hey, did we ever actually launch this feature? Who’s responsible for it now? Hey, we’re seeing this issue, who do I need to talk to make sure that we fix it? So much of it is just communication. And I think the next thing is just time management, in this type of work, especially something ongoing, like support. You’re never going to get everything done on your to-do list. So you need to learn how to prioritize and manage your time and figure out, okay, here are the 10 things I need to do in the next two days. What are the three most important things that I absolutely have to do today? And what is okay for me to push further back? And especially when you think about things in customer support, like you might have an issue going on that is like “drop everything and take care of it right now”, and then there might be things where, “oh, we’re tracking down this thing that people are complaining about, but the system isn’t necessarily broken. We just need to improve something.” So it’s really about being a time manager and also someone who can drive themselves, but also just working in ambiguity. And I think that’s true for any role you can think of in tech. I think in tech and particularly in the space of smart assistants and where we’re going with artificial intelligence in the home….it’s so unknown for most people. Most people have no idea. And so I’m constantly working on things where there isn’t a blueprint. We don’t really know. And so I’m coming up with it. It’s, it can be hard, but I really love that. And I think that was the missing piece for me in what I was doing before. Like now I’m really driving my own work and while I’m still an individual contributor, I’m definitely taking a lot of initiative and ownership of my work because so much of it, I just have to come up with on my own. No one else is going to do it for me. And so I think it can be really helpful to be that kind of person who is willing to look at a problem that there’s not necessarily an obvious answer to, but be able to be like, okay, I’m going to do some research. I think this might be the right path. I’m not sure, but I’m just going to do it. And if there’s somebody that can help me, I’m going to reach out. I know who to talk to, but I’m just going to go forth and do, and I think that is probably the biggest thing that anybody could do to have a successful career in tech.
Priscilla: Thank you Maria Paula, for being with us today, it’s been such a joy to talk to you!
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community! And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Have a great week!