A global tech executive reflects on a 25 year career and provides the tal&dev community with five key tips for success.
Needless to say, careers are one of the most important journeys in life. As I stand here today, facing what is possibly the last third of mine, I find myself at a place in the trip that I probably didn’t imagine when it all started. For one, the world has changed a lot in the last 25 years. Technology has enabled so many new business models and opportunities that I frankly couldn't imagine when I was in college. Besides that, individual circumstances and choices take us in directions that probably we never considered.
Careers are journeys. Where I am now and my professional aspirations are different from my ambitions at an earlier time. I love what I do and the people I work with. They are a very important part of my life but are not my life nor define me. Never forget that during your own expedition.
I was born and raised in Colombia and I’m an Electrical Engineer. I went into that field because it felt challenging, “state-of-the-art” and a good fit with my math and science skills. In addition, being an audiophile, I loved the idea of being able to build one of those pieces of hardware. For context, it was during my first year in college that I got my first PC. The internet didn't exist and any modern kitchen appliance from today probably has more computing power than that PC. When I graduated, it’s fair to say that I didn’t have a clear idea of what my career would be. At that time in life, most people were concerned with getting “a job”. If it paid well, even better. I got one. Learned a few things. Moved to the next one. Got a better deal and earned a few other things. Moved again and this time I landed my first big job, as an account manager for AT&T Network Systems (what would later become Lucent Technologies, now part of NOKIA). After a couple of years, I decided to go back to school. This time for an MBA. I had made my first real professional decision: I would focus on the business side, rather than the engineering side of Tech.
It was during my first year in college that I got my first PC. The internet didn't exist and any modern kitchen appliance from today probably has more computing power than that PC.
I’ve been very fortunate. By the time I finished business school my professional goal was to grow into positions of increased responsibility and influence within the Tech corporate world. Since then, I’ve had five different employers over the course of more than 20 years: The Boston Consulting Group, Telefonica S.A., Eastman Chemical Inc., Microsoft and, currently, Google. Fifteen or so different jobs in 7 countries across all of them. Would I’ve been able to plan it? No. Have I liked it? Yes, for the most part. Have I met my career goals? If given the opportunity, would I make different decisions? Some, for sure. My goals and priorities have also shifted throughout life.
Instead of telling a linear story about those stages in my career and the decisions over the years, I’d rather share some of the lessons I’ve learnt along the way. The kind of things that validated some of the decisions I made and, in other cases, would have prevented me from making mistakes. The most relevant ones, in no particular order, are:
The last one is obvious and I don’t pretend these to be the only things that matter. Hard work and dedication, most often than not, are predictors of a fruitful career. That said, I believe no amount of hard work will be sufficient without applying some, if not all, of these. I have worked with some brilliant colleagues, met some of my best friends, have been able to provide for my family and grow as a person, mentor and leader. For me, these learnings capture the kind of things I wish I had known and practiced consistently throughout my career. At the same time, the struggle to learn them is a journey in itself.
I believe no amount of hard work will be sufficient without applying some, if not all, of these. These learnings capture the kind of things I wish I had known and practiced consistently throughout my career. At the same time, the struggle to learn them is a journey in itself.
Master the Core skills
Let me start with the basics. Not the lessons that became evident to me after years in the professional world but rather the things I wished I had invested more on from the beginning.
I’ve been a people-manager for 20 years. As a manager, a very significant part of the time is devoted to recruiting. That means cultivating potential future candidates and also actually interviewing and making hiring decisions. Earlier in my career, I used to put a lot of focus on hiring the person most able to do the job from day one. Over time, I’ve learnt to focus on bringing onboard the people with the best skills to grow into the role, deliver results and take it to the next level. Of course, they need to have the required subject matter expertise and experience but what will determine their success is their ability to operate effectively within large organizations.
What are those skills? For me, there are four key, interrelated ones: Confidence, Comfort with ambiguity, Collaboration effectiveness and Coachability. These are broad concepts and we all can get better at those but it takes effort. Let me expand a bit on each one of them.
Confidence, of course, signals ability and drive to argue your convictions, push forward, take risks and stay the course when facing setbacks. Notice this is not just about being a good debater. You need to develop the fortitude to weather setbacks and careers, as life is full of those. Comfort with ambiguity is about the ability to make decisions in absence of all details or data. It is also about being able to change course when required, even if a lot has been invested already on a given plan. Collaboration effectiveness captures many things. Ultimately it is about your ability to make things happen in environments where you don’t control everything and need to rely on others, not once but over and over again. It’s about listening, checking for understanding and pairing intent with the impact of communication. What it is not about is politicking or intriguing. It is about being dependable and accountable, focusing on the team’s success. Essentially, every job in the world needs it.
I leave Coachability to the end because I think it is the most important. Learning to be vulnerable, take and act on feedback is very hard. It requires being able to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand their perspective without taking their feedback defensively. Being able to give feedback is also part of this same skill. At the end of the day, it all comes down to recognizing when we need to change or how to influence others to change.
Learning to be vulnerable, take and act on feedback is very hard. It requires being able to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand their perspective without taking their feedback defensively.
Choose the people, not the job
This one is something that probably very few would disagree with. I think no job is interesting enough if you don’t get along with the people you work with, particularly your manager.
I’ve been lucky to have, mostly, great teams and great managers. I’ve learnt a lot from them and for the most part I admire them. I’ve never left a job because of a bad immediate manager or team but I have seen innumerable people do it, even for jobs that initially looked great “on paper”. As a manager, I’ve also seen people leave their jobs in pursuit of a promotion or bigger responsibilities even knowing that the organization they were joining was not healthy. After learning the lesson, I’ve seen many of them go back to their original team or company. We can not control all the pieces but we can choose whether to join a team or stay with it based on the people.
There are however, other factors beyond good interpersonal relationships that can have a direct impact on your career. I call them Association and Pull. Choose good teams, because you want to be associated with them. You want to benefit from the aura of competence, positive culture and good management skills that come from a respected team. It will open doors in the future. Moreover, working with good managers, even in assignments that may not be the most attractive, is likely to be recognized down the road. Good managers are more likely to be promoted and have a successful trajectory. You want to know as many of those and have the opportunity to be pulled by them into their new organizations or assignments.
Choose good teams, because you want to be associated with them. You want to benefit from the aura of competence, positive culture and good management skills that come from a respected team. It will open doors in the future.
Change and keep changing
How is this possible? Weren’t you supposed to stay with the good team and good manager?
Yes, there is a potential contradiction and the key is to learn to balance it.
I particularly cherish my years in Consulting. I highly recommend to anyone in business school to consider going into Consulting. Consider it as an extension to the MBA, albeit this time being paid for it. Why is consulting so great of an experience? Many would say it is because you get to have visibility into and work on really important projects for your clients. I agree with that but I would probably add that the variety and continuous shift of assignments is more important in the longer term. Change keeps you on edge, avoids complacency and accelerates learning. That’s the key benefit of change. Never to stop learning and growing. And when you continue learning and growing you maintain your relevance within the organization. I’ll come back to that further down.
I left consulting for several reasons. One, was to try my chances during the dot.com boom era. A second one, was to join a team l liked a lot from my client at the time (see above). Finally, I wanted to actually be responsible for starting and running a business myself. Once I left consulting and joined industry I realized that the speed of change is radically different. There are obvious logical reasons. Implementing plans and running a business is an ongoing effort and there is a lot of value in staying course and mastering the details. You must realize though, that staying in the same job or doing the same thing for too long, while comfortable, will cause you to stagnate professionally and lose broader perspective.
Fast forward several years and employers, I experienced that myself. Due to liking a team too much and also being scared of taking a step back if going somewhere else, I ended up running a part of the business that was being marginalized for too long. I wasn’t growing professionally but I was afraid to change. Furthermore, I wasn’t listening to the signals. It hit me hard. I had to scramble to find a new role but in retrospect the lesson about the importance of change became evident. I also learnt that setbacks are part of any career. Learning from them and moving forward is the key.
You must realize though, that staying in the same job or doing the same thing for too long, while comfortable, will cause you to stagnate professionally and lose broader perspective.
The importance of relevance, as the complement to change cannot be underestimated. Before going to business school, my manager at the time said something to me: “Whatever company you work for, make sure you work in the area or department that is most relevant to their business. That’s where the opportunities for growth are”.
Seems very logical yet, as many other things, is a lesson that sometimes is ignored. I do realize this is very personal. Many people would decide to work within functional areas aligned to their personal interests that are, however, not core to the business. From a career progression and growth perspective, though, those functions most likely won’t offer the same opportunities to learn, change, grow and ultimately attain broader responsibility within the organization. Additionally, non core functions are the most likely to be under cost controls or simply outsourced. In this context, the Tech industry is particularly brutal. Products that are relevant today become obsolete in a matter of months. Business models that generate most of the revenue may be easily upended by a new innovation. Staying relevant in that context is key.
Relevance within an organization goes beyond being part of the core functional area. After all, what is core today may not be core tomorrow. That’s how change and relevance come together. At the end of the day, investing in yourself needs to be top of mind. Keep on learning, take on new projects, go back to school, take advantage of the many online learning opportunities available and, of course, change roles, keep on changing and growing.
The final reflection on relevance is to look at it in a context broader than the group you may be working for. Sometimes, someone else may consider your experience and skills very important to their business. Maybe it is a totally different team within your company, someone in a different industry needing such skills or, simply, a competitor. Ultimately that ended being my case. I happened to have developed deep experience in an area in high demand by a competitor. That, paired with great chemistry with the team and the itch for change, have brought me to my current role.
Products that are relevant today become obsolete in a matter of months. Business models that generate most of the revenue may be easily upended by a new innovation. Staying relevant in that context is key.
Don’t be an a**hole
Is hard to believe that this needs to be in the list of lessons learnt. It has to. I’d like to think that I never fit that mold. I have however met a few of those and they have tested me. In the corporate world, if not everywhere, it is very normal to find ambitious and competitive people. The challenge arises when those attributes are not matched with a set of well developed Core skills.
Don’t be one of those. Do your work and listen, be humble and learn from interpersonal mistakes. Solicit feedback from your stakeholders and from your team. Act on organizational polls. Walk the talk. The reasons are many. Careers are a marathon, not a sprint and your ability to avoid alienating people will be rewarded in the long run. Besides, you wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of such behavior. The analogy I like most for this is the bank-account one. Make sure you deposit as much as you withdraw. Only if you have a positive balance you will be able to go back to the same people when you need their help. You will also expand your network and reputation.
Careers are a marathon, not a sprint and your ability to avoid alienating people will be rewarded in the long run. Make sure you deposit as much as you withdraw. Only if you have a positive balance you will be able to go back to the same people when you need their help.
While the list of positive reasons can be much longer, be also aware that these behaviors are more and more shunned in the corporate world. The kind of organizations that attract the best talent and succeed also know that keeping the talent requires the right culture and accountability for unacceptable behaviors.
To cap this story, let me repeat what I mentioned at the very beginning. Careers are journeys. Where I am now and my professional aspirations are different from my ambitions at an earlier time. I love what I do and the people I work with. They are a very important part of my life but are not my life nor define me. Never forget that during your own expedition. Bon voyage!
About the author: Marcelo Prieto is the Head of Business Planning for Commercial Programs at Google Cloud, a global leader in the delivery of cutting-edge, enterprise-grade cloud solutions to help companies operate more efficiently and build a foundation for the future. Previously, Marcelo spent 16 years at Microsoft in a variety of roles focused on designing and running monetization models and programs for corporate and enterprise customers worldwide. Marcelo resides in the Seattle area with his family and multiple pets. He is also an amateur watercolorist.
January 4, 2021
Understand your own potential and predicted performance based on what you are ready, willing and able for.
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Understand what career path best fits you.
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