Diana Becnel worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant for 8 years before deciding to switch functional areas and move into sales. Today, she is a successful Account Executive and strong advocate for helping minorities break into STEM and tech careers. On this episode, Diana breaks down the importance of finding sponsors at work and not falling for the myth that hard work will equal a promotion or raise. People need to know and hear about your success, and sponsors can help do that for you. Diana inspires us to get over our mental crap and sell ourselves at work.
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Just because you’re doing a good job doesn’t mean you’re gonna get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and women. We struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that.
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 Diana Becnel. Now, Diana is an LA native and she went to Boston university where she got her BBA and stuff and since then has worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant and most recently moving into the sales world as an account executive. Diana is super inspiring because she’s a black woman in tech who really has learned what it takes to move up in that industry, and we talk about finding sponsors and advocating for yourself, and making sure that people can really see the hard work that you’re doing and how working hard is often just not enough to cut it, like, people need to see your hard work, people need to be able to understand the value that you bring, and as women, especially, sometimes, that can feel very uncomfortable or weird, but we just have to get over that.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: Hey Diana, welcome to the show.
Diana Becnel: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here virtually with you today.
Priscilla: Me too. I’m super excited to have you here talk about your career in tech especially as a black woman, especially as a woman in STEM, someone who has fought really hard to have the opportunities that you have today. So yeah, let’s dive into your story. Tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.
Diana: Sure, so I grew up in sunny, beautiful Los Angeles, California. I’m the oldest of about three kids. We grew up in LA in the city and I am back in LA now, which is awesome because I spent seven or eight years away because of different jobs in school, but back in LA and happy to be here. So, I’m excited to be here and talk about how I grew up and my experience going to college and ending up at Microsoft.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I’m really curious if you grew up with a really specific idea in terms of what you wanted to do when you grew up or were you pretty much in exploring mode?
Diana: It’s so interesting because growing up, I always had this desire to be an independent and financially secure woman, that was a huge thing that my mom and family instilled in me, but I actually never knew exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, I envy people who knew at an early age that they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, or an engineer. I wasn’t like that, but I definitely was really exposed to a lot of tech at an early age and business people, which I think greatly influenced my decisions in life. I knew that in order to end up having a good job, becoming financially secure so that I could help take care of myself and my family, that I needed to stay the course and get good grades, go to college, and then end up getting a job. The back of my mind was exposed to technology and business, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to be, and so I think the influences I had as a kid ultimately drove me to technology and business later on.
Priscilla: Yeah, so you mentioned financial security being important to you when you were looking for jobs, where did that really come from for you?
Diana: I think a lot of that came from my parents having some pretty honest conversations about money throughout my whole life and just how money really can make a difference in your life, how financial security is important, and some of the mistakes they made and things they wanted for us, and so I think that helped a lot with that, and look, I believe it’s really important to enjoy what you do, but I also think it’s important to be able to help my mom or pay bills, or buy a house, right, and create generational wealth, and so that was really important to me, and so I was definitely one of those people that was like, yeah, I want to make sure I like my job, but if I can make the money, especially early in my career to give myself freedom later on to really help others and do other things, that’s the way I look at it.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool that you had that super long-term view at that age because that’s something that I definitely didn’t have and I wish I had had now in my early thirties, but yeah, so that’s amazing. I know you went to BU, you went to Boston university and you ended up studying Business. How did that end up happening for you? How did you decide to go that route?
Diana: Looking back, I chose Business because I thought it gave me a little, the flexibility to still figure out what I wanted to do but know that I could make some impact and hopefully make some money after school, and so I chose Business, and originally when I was going into Business, I thought I was going to be a marketing queen. I loved the idea of marketing, I loved the excitement of it, and so I was leaning towards the marketing path and at BU, we have to concentrate in a particular, a minor, but it’s really a concentration, and so you can go everywhere from law to marketing, to finance, accounting, or information systems, which is really like computer science, and to this day, I remember the moment that I shifted my concentration and my major focus. So, for the first couple of years, I was going down the marketing path and we were in this career session and it was, I think, it was either my junior or senior year and one of the professors pulls up a slide and shows the average salaries when you graduate based on the concentration, and marketing was further down on the list and information systems, so the tech side and finance were almost double the salaries, and I remember calling my mom, like, “Mom, I am going into tech. I don’t know how hard it’s going to be but the salary and the opportunity is there,” and I remember my professor also saying to me one-on-one, there’s barely any women. There’s barely any minorities in this field, and that just triggered me. I wanted to change those statistics. That’s always been something about me, I like to prove those statistics wrong, and so I think the combination of hearing that stat and then also seeing the financial difference and the number of jobs and opportunities influenced me to make that switch in the middle of my college journey.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I know that you’re going on nine years of working at Microsoft and that was your first job after college. What ended up making you choose Microsoft and what do you love about what you do?
Diana: I joined Microsoft as a part of a college hire program. So, it’s really interesting because I had a couple of other offers that I was almost pretty much taking, and then the Microsoft offer came in and I still remember, I almost didn’t do the interview because I was like, there’s no way they’re going to hire me, and secondly, I was so tired that senior year I’d been interviewing a lot, I was working, trying to keep up with my grades and they wanted to fly us to DC, and I remember, after my interviews, I felt pretty good about it but still wasn’t sure, and they had some of their college hires talk to us and they talked to us about how not only is Microsoft one of the greatest technology companies in the world, and yes, you’re going to make good money, but it was also all the extras that Microsoft did. They talked a lot about how they care about their people, they’re big on empathy, growth mindset, you got this great gym fitness bonus, they invest in you personally, and so I remember being just blown away by all the additional things Microsoft provided, and so that’s why I ended up taking that job there when I got the offer. My first job, I was hired as what we call a consultant in the consulting organization, and really, what we were doing was going out and helping customers actually implement our software, and so I focused on a particular software that is around business applications, so we would go to big companies like Ashley Furniture, Brightstar, HP, and transform their business process when it came to financial accounting, supply chain and using some of our Microsoft software, and I was traveling to customers a lot, I was on the road a lot and really helping customers transform, which was really exciting.
Priscilla: And during your time at Microsoft, have there been any mentors or sponsors that have really helped you in your career?
Diana: I love mentors. I think you should have all types of mentors, whether they’re just peer mentors who are in the same position as you as well as executives, but I think the number one thing that is so critical especially early on in your career is finding a sponsor, and when I say sponsor, someone who is going to actually advocate for you in those rooms where they make decisions about your promotions, programs that you can be a part of, bonus leadership, all of those things, right? You really have to have a sponsor who can speak up and advocate and has the influence in those rooms for you. So, I think that is one of the most important things I would tell people in corporate America to find. I know we talk a lot about mentors which that is a hundred percent really important, but if you can find a mentor who’s also your sponsor, that is going to change your career, and that’s what happened for me. So, I had two sponsors that really knew my work and they would advocate for me, get my promotions, get my bonuses, and that translated into really good career progression, and then when I was ready to switch out of the consultant role, I had this network of sponsors and mentors, and people that I had worked with and talk to that helped me transition into the new roles that I wanted, and definitely, at these big companies, it’s not always easy to do that. It’s not always easy to jump from consultant to sales or really a product technical person, and so you got to have a sponsor and a mentor who can help you do that.
Priscilla: I totally agree, and I think also what’s interesting about the sponsor thing is that it speaks to how it’s not enough to just be really great at what you do. People have to know about the work that you’re doing, and sometimes that can feel, especially for women, a little uncomfortable to talk about what we’ve done and the impact that we’ve had. So, how did you showcase the strengths that you had and how did you make yourself more visible?
Diana: Yeah, that’s a great question and a great point. All your life, even from when you’re a little kid, if you do a good job, you’re going to get a good grade, so if you do well on the test, you’re going to get a good grade and you’re compensated for doing well, but then when you go to the career and your professional life, to your point, just because you’re doing a good job, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and, to your point, women, we struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that probably in my first year of my career and one of my sponsors and then another one of my mentors, they’ve helped me put decks and emails together highlighting the things that I was doing, and so my cadence now with even my current manager is on our one-on-ones or if I get an email, I forward it to her, I share that I let her see that direct feedback. If a customer said something really good, I forward it to her and share that. In our one-on-ones, I highlight the things that went well and that I did, and so I think that’s really important to do, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, but I know that I have to advocate for myself in order to get that promotion or that good review. The second thing is really making sure that you build confidence in who you are and always go above and beyond. Most people, especially at a company like Microsoft, they’re there for a reason; they work hard, they’re good at their jobs, so you have to differentiate yourself. And so you have to talk to your manager openly saying, “What do I need to do to get promoted? What are the things that I need to differentiate myself from the other person who’s competing with me for that promotion?” So, have that open and honest conversation so that you clearly understand what is required, and then take the actions and even with what he or she said you need to do, go above that. I try and do above my requirements from my boss to show off, like you said, and advocate for yourself that you deserve to keep moving up.
Priscilla: And so, what happened when you decided to transition out of the consultant role? What was next for you after that?
Diana: I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I honestly believe you have to go after and always think about your next career move.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
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Diana: One of my sponsors actually told me, he says every time he gets a job, he has a three-year plan and it doesn’t always work out like that. Sometimes it may take him five years, some time, it took him seven years, some time, it took him two years, but he always has a plan for his next move within the next three years, and so I believe that you should always be thinking about what’s your next step because it takes a while to get there, and then secondly, a lot of things do just fall in your lap. Some things do just happen. Opportunities happen to come up and you have to be ready to take advantage of them, and so I think if you listen to a lot of people in their careers, they’ll tell you they thought they were going one way and then an opportunity popped up, and so I think that does happen a lot and that happened with me, but I also was super proactive about thinking about what I wanted to do next, and doing the networking, gaining the skills that would set me up for that next role that I wanted, finding a sponsor and shadowing, practicing, all of that is really important to be proactive about while you’re going in your career journey.
Priscilla: What was a skill set that for you was a little challenging to get but you figured out a way to fill some kind of gap that you think you had?
Diana: Yeah, that’s a good question, and probably the last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about that because I was at that point where I wanted to move on to my next role and figure out my next role, and so one of the missing skill sets for me in my current job was really negotiation. We call it like “challenger” mindset where you’re really pushing a customer, and I am not the type of person that likes asking anyone for anything especially when it comes to money, so I would never be a good cold caller, but I knew I needed to be able to have some more negotiation skills, and so I spent the last year shadowing some different salespeople. I read several books and I listened to podcasts as well as do different trainings and that’s really where I was able to see it in action and also start practicing it more, and so when I went to interview for this new role that I got, I could speak to that and talk about the readings that I had done, talk about the shadowing that I had done and really bring everything in my experience to the table as this kind of package, like, across the board of skill sets that I had.
Priscilla: Okay, so now you’re in a sales role, right, with Microsoft? Why did you decide to make that change? What prompted that?
Diana: One of the main reasons I decided I wanted to change was because I was currently consulting in a particular technical focus and I wanted to broaden my horizon and I also wanted to have more ownership across the board. So, in consulting, you own a single project, and then in this sales role, you own the entire account, the entire customer, and so I wanted to have more of that ownership. The other main thing is I knew that negotiation and sales was not my strong point, and I stalk a lot of people on LinkedIn, someone who’s a VP, I say, what did they do to get there? And 90% of the time, I was finding they had some type of sales role, and that is because at the end of the day, Microsoft is a for-profit company; we have to sell product and licenses in order to make money, and so that is a huge skill set that is valued from leadership, being able to close deals, being able to grow your accounts and really help customers transform using Microsoft technology, especially when you think about the competition Microsoft has across Amazon, Google, Apple, and so I was like, this is a skillset, this is a type of role that I don’t have. I wasn’t able to say, “Oh, I closed $3 million with these different customers,” and I know how to manage a pipeline, like, all those things I couldn’t say I did, and so that’s what made me decide to go into sales because I knew it would make me a little uncomfortable, but I thought I could be good at it with the right practice and experience and I knew it would add this major bucket of skillset to my resume that I was lacking in preparation for whatever I do next.
Priscilla: Totally makes sense how it could be a little scary and daunting to go into that space but at the same time, you’re right, you’re bringing in the revenue and it’s one of the most highly valued positions that you can be in if you’re successful, and so I’m curious, are you one of the few women on your sales team? What does that look like?
Diana: Yup, I am one of the few women. I am probably one of the youngest people and I’m a black woman, so there’s probably like three things going on: you have the age thing, you have the sex thing, and then the race thing, but then on top of that, I’m talking to customers about transforming their business and driving business outcomes by spending a lot of money with us, and I know they look at me and I’m young and a woman and black, and there’s definitely stereotypes that come with that, and I would say that I deal with that in probably three ways. So, the first is, and I struggled with this a little bit in the beginning but I’m getting better and better every day, is that building the confidence and having the expertise and the knowledge. The first thing is, you’re stereotyped with those three things and people think you don’t know because you’re young or you’re a woman, or you’re black it’s, so number one, knowing that I know what I’m talking about and know my stuff, so I always make sure I’m up to date on that part. That’s something I can control. So, really building that confidence, knowing that I know what I talk about, and then the second thing is knowing that I deserve to be at the table and that there’s a reason that I have this job, and there’s a reason that they brought me on and I deserve to be at the table. I’m here to have a fresh perspective, I’m here to drive change and really be there for customers in a way that maybe others can’t be, and so I just always remind myself of that too. And then, the third thing is understanding and knowing the stereotypes that exist but never letting it stop you or agreeing with it, always pushing forward through it and proving people wrong.
Priscilla: What advice do you have for anyone who might be in college or even, like, early career who wants to break into tech? What do you think are some tips that you would offer that person?
Diana: Sure. Number one, do it and don’t feel intimidated by it. I was intimidated by it and I think a lot of people, especially minorities and women are, you don’t have to be the best coder in the world or even be super technical. So, I think my advice is to not be intimidated. Know that we need you and know there’s so much support out there. When I think about the changes when I started to now, there’s so many programs, so many different online boot camps, support groups, mentors there to help you pass those classes to help you learn coding and all these things. Go out there, do it, come to tech, and there’s so much opportunity here. You don’t have to be super technical or you can, you can build things or you can sell technology, you can market it, you can implement it. There’s so many different ways you can go. So, I really encourage you to leverage the resources out there. Come into tech and you really get to change the world, and it’s a great place to be.
Priscilla: Awesome. That’s a great place to end, Diana. Thank you so much for all the insight that you just offered us with overcoming obstacles and having an amazing career at Microsoft.
Diana: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time, it was great talking to you today.
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