There’s a specific day that occurred in 2016 that I will never be able to forget. On this day, I had a unique conversation with my parents that, looking back, may not have been too unique for a first generational African family given the circumstances. My dad called me on the phone, frantic, with my mom already merged into the call. It was around 4pm and I still had a lot of workday left, given my typical 13+ hour workday. “Hey, what’s going on dad,” I asked. “Your mom and I are very concerned about your future and the decisions that you’re making,” he responded. Now, you can insert any confused face emoji [here] and that wouldn’t do justice to my reactionary facial expression that was on full display at my office. Ignoring the fact that, I just let them know that I was planning to my secure and stable job to go back to school. Me? Your high school valedictorian, civil engineer college graduate from one of the best engineering programs in the nation son, you’re concerned about me? My father continued “Why would you want to leave civil engineering to get a MBA? Being an engineer is a profession. What is business?”
Being a Nigerian American, this line of questioning made sense. I was already in the holy trinity of professions (doctor, lawyer, or engineer) but I had to do what made sense to me. When I looked around at my boss, at the time, and his boss, and his boss’s boss. I wasn’t quite sure that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But I also wasn’t sure that this alternative plan was the answer as well. I decided that the only way to find out was to give something else a try and despite my parents’ opinions and “concerns’ I needed to do this on my own terms. With that, I started on a nine-month journey. Within that time, I took the Professional Engineering exam, gained my engineering professional license in Louisiana and Texas, took the GMAT, visited several business schools, and got accepted into another top national program, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
While at Michigan, I leveraged this time to learn by doing. I had three goals to help guide my career decisions. I wanted to gain insights in the technology, operations, and real estate fields and I was able to check all my boxes by working on projects with the Related Companies, Ford, and Amazon. Through this, I found a passion in the intersection of technology and strategy/operations.
This led me to Microsoft, where I started in a role, new to me, within a fairly new organization called the Customer Success Unit. My peers were people who had been with the company or in tech for several years. However, during this time I didn’t experience what many do in this situation. The foreboding “imposter syndrome” was nowhere in sight. I had already been in this space before, lived in it, and made it to the other side. Whether it is be being one of the few who looked like me in my engineering classes at a PWI (Predominately White Institution), to learning to basics of real estate, to building business plans for an automotive company, to understanding the different processes in fulfillment for a major distributor…I belonged. I took this with me to Microsoft. I knew that I could excel in anything. I just needed to figure out how I could. I took some advice from my manager to spend time learning and some advice from my skip manager to get my hands dirty and do things. I spent the first year sitting in meetings or setting meetings in my spare time to learn. I also started taking on projects that needed a shepherd. The first year was definitely a fire hydrant through a straw situation but it gave me everything I needed to start discovering what I liked doing and what I didn’t like doing. In the second year, I was able to home in on what I liked and what would be a good direction for my career. I was able to give up some projects and focus on the ones that I really was interested in. I became a SME and program owner for a premier tool and process. My peers with years of experience were asking me, a recent career switcher, for my expert opinion on how to solve complex problems that would help thousands of people around the world. I was just where I needed to be.
And on a side note, my father no longer questioned the decision that I made back in 2016. He was able to see the success that I have gained in my new career. These days, instead of introducing me to his friends as his son who used to be an engineer, he happily stated that “this is my son, and he works for Microsoft,” convincing me that: 1) he still proud; and 2) he probably still has now clue what I do or what “business” is.
I would like to end this a with a few tips that worked for me and I hope would be of some benefit to others:
Let others tell you “no”. Don’t take yourself out of the game, even if it is outside your comfort zone. Decide on what you want to do and go for it. Go for that opportunity.
Some things aren’t impossible, you just haven’t figured out the plan yet. Many times, the ultimate solution isn’t one big groundbreaking solve but several small wins instead.
Leverage your village. Why start from the bottom when you could start halfway? Ask for help. Get advice. Talk through your opinions and strategy. Perspectives and opinions can be a value add. Soak them in. Evaluate them and then decide what YOU think is best for the situation.