Category Archives: Career

My Five-Year Zig Zag Journey

A month ago, I gave up my summer internship team in the Bay Area and decided to join a completely different team in Seattle. It was not an easy decision to make, as both roles equally have their merits. Even though I was only given a couple of days to decide, I did so much thinking that left me reflecting for days. What’s more, Facebook’s “On This Day” feature reminded me that I went through a similar process five years ago – staying in Minnesota headquarters versus moving to a regional office in Houston. As Steve Jobs once said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”, this blog post is my attempt to connect the dots and uncover some learnings professionally and personally.

On Making Decisions

As we progress more in career and life, the decisions we are faced with are no longer easy, especially when you are open to possibilities. As I’ve learned over the years, what makes the decisions so challenging is that it is quite rare to find a winner that checks all the boxes. For example, if I prefer the sunshine in California, I have to pay for the high rent; if I decide to continue working in the US, I might be faced with the “bamboo ceiling” that prevents me from going far in my career.

 It was when deciding which role to take for my first job out of MBA that I truly understood I couldn’t have it all. When I got off the phone with HR about my options, I jumped into making a list of criteria. I first came up with four criteria, but got too greedy and expanded the list to eight. When I was trying to tally up the scores for these eight criteria, it dawned on me that not all eight mattered as much and I was micromanaging. Thus, I refocused and narrowed down the list to three that matter the most to me at this point in my career. 

After telling HR about my decision, I did not have much “buyer’s remorse” compared to my state of being after saying “yes” to Houston five years ago. You can say that I have become more comfortable owning my decision and all the associated consequences. When I was working in Houston, there were times when I wish I stayed put in Minnesota. After a few struggles, I realized that you could never use what you know now to judge the right or wrong of the decision made back then. The best decision is based on what we know at the time, not what we have learned after certain events happen. The unpredictability of life is what makes it so exciting.

On Taking Calculated Risks

Taking risks stretches me, tests my resilience, and allows me to see the possibilities beyond what I had experienced before. Thanks to the move to Houston, I’ve came to see that I learn very fast, enjoy working with people from diverse background, and can hustle. In addition to the professional gains, I found out about what mattered to me the most when picking a city to live in the long term – weather, nature, and diverse community (more on that in “Houston Impression”). Had I stayed in Minnesota, I would have grown content with where I was.

As I am risk-averse, I like to take on calculated risks. I usually have two criteria in terms of judging risks: (1) does the gains in general outweigh the losses; (2) do I have a good exit if the plan was to go south. I’ve learned through my move to Houston that though the change puts me out of the comfort zone, it definitely came at the expenses of losing all the personal and professional network I’ve built for six years and investing time to start all over. Due to this experience, as I later contemplated about a big promotion opportunity in Ecolab China, I turned it down because the move was too costly (not in $ terms) and a lot of uncertainty existed for the job prospect. In addition, before embarking on something brand new, I make sure I have a solution to hedge the risks. Getting my MBA was my hedge against moving to Houston, as I always had plans for the degree but not sure when to go and what to focus on. When picking internship office last summer, knowing most full-timers will end up in Seattle was my hedge to work on a product I was passionate about in a smaller office.

I am not saying what I do is the perfect way. However, taking calculated risks works well for me and you need to find a solution that you are most comfortable with. I am a big proponent of the YOLO philosophy. If you find yourself keep wondering “What if I took that job?”, “What if I went to graduate school?” etc, it is time that you take actions to minimize your regret. If quitting a job to pursue the dream of writing is too bold for you, taking on a blogging gig on the side can be a good first step towards that goal with the stability of a regular paycheck.

On Bouncing Back

I was catching up with a friend who was going through a similar struggle of taking risks. She was happy for me that I was doing well and was a lot closer towards my goal. She told me learning a change turned out amazing for me was exactly what she needed. Then I shared with her that not everything was smooth sailing and I definitely had my share of struggles.

During my first year in Houston, I worked a lot with the “hope” of being promoted early on. However, that “hope” was never communicated to my manager and I found out later on that the team had a different plan for me. When I learned about the team’s expectation, I more than once broke down in tears in front of my manager and my manager’s manager (I know it was not professional but it was hard to control my emotions), only to come home to my roommate and cried even more.

During my second year in Houston, I took on the responsibilities of an interim finance manager of the same team, worked even longer hours, and started applying to business school. At the time, I was quite pessimistic with my career prospect in the company that I saw MBA as my only exit. Thus, I was devasted when I was not accepted by any of the programs I applied to, although looking back now I know my applications were not that admission ready. I was seeking a stamp of approval through MBA acceptance to show that I was smart and competent, as I was not able to get it through a promotion the year before. The admission rejections ended up a bigger strike. I felt I was at rock bottom. With some encouragement and mentoring, I picked myself back up and started looking for other roles internally. I turned down an internal transfer to the Shanghai office, networked and found a business operation role that I always felt would be perfect for me.

During my third year in Houston, I was a lot happier than the first two years as I loved my new role. As a result, I built more confidence that I knew really well my strengths and passion (covered in this post). I attended a local hackathon, which piqued my interest in tech and product management. I researched and decided that business school was still the best way to switch careers. Thus, I applied to business schools again and this time was waitlisted at two top programs at first. I hustled a lot to win over the admission by retaking my GMAT, visiting the campus again to meet with admission, and having alums write letters of recommendation for me. Eventually, I got off the waitlists of both programs and happily picked Michigan Ross. The rest is history.

I shared these detailed account of my past three years because I want to let you know that taking risks definitely comes with expenses. However, these experiences have a profound impact on my journey, as I’ve built resilience, knew what I wanted to get out of my MBA experience, and had a clearer idea of what my priorities are professionally and personally. These are things I will never be able to gain as much, had I stayed in Minnesota or not applied for an MBA program. I’ve also developed a sense of serendipity that things turn out the way they are for a reason. Had I gotten into an MBA program the first year I applied, I would not have ended up at Michigan Ross nor would I have that strong a conviction that tech would be the right career path for me. As Steve Job said “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever”, having this mentality allows me to be less stressed, knowing that things will work out in the end.

 On Getting to Where You Want to Be

I am a big advocate of taking smaller steps towards a goal. It would definitely be ideal to get to where you want to be right away. However, that ideal state rarely happens. It usually requires breaking down an ambitious goal into smaller milestones and working towards each milestone. In business school, I learned that this philosophy is similar to design thinking process of “design, prototype, and iterate based on feedback”.

Take my career switch into tech as an example. After attending the hackathon in Houston, I researched about career in tech by reading lots of medium (where a lot of techies write and share their thoughts) posts on product management and talking to a few product managers. I learned that (1) it is hard to break into with no technical background; (2) MBA program with strong career switch resources can help; (3) Amazon is one tech company that is more forgiving in terms of technical background. With these information in mind, I applied to Michigan Ross MBA program, because its curriculum is heavily geared towards career switchers (especially MAP!) and the school has a huge alumni network in Amazon. Once I started business school, I picked most of my curricular and extracurricular activities with the goal of breaking into tech. I participated in tech case competitions, got involved with the tech club, worked on MAP at a tech company, etc. I am happy to report that now I am working for Amazon in Seattle post MBA graduation!

After coming back from my first Seattle visit in April 2014, I raved to my friend how much I loved the city for its emerald color and the outdoors and how much I wanted to move here. Five years later, it took me a move out west to Houston, a couple of job changes, and an MBA degree to finally make the dream happen. It was also five years ago when I took the risk to start this blog. Apart from rediscovering my passion for writing through blogging, I was able to keep in touch with friends near and far and even made new friends thanks to my blog posts. I am grateful for all the risks and challenges I took on during those five years and beyond excited for the next chapter in life!

Three Quarters In as MBA1

Three quarters of my first year MBA life is wrapping up and I finally can get a breather as I have completed summer internship recruiting! The past six months in business school have been challenging but also exhilarating. Thus, I want to take some time to reflect and share with you what I have learned.

#1 If you know what you want to pursue, go for it relentlessly and find the right resources to make it happen. I did it through changing job internally before business school and finding the right MBA program!

Prior to business school, I was working in corporate finance for a global chemical company. When I was working in the financial planning & analysis role, I realized I wanted to be closer to the customers and have more opportunities to solve problems creatively. When I shared my intention to pursue a business operation role, which would allow me to be a finance business partner to the sales team, some of my coworkers did not understand my motivation – “you are doing so well in this role. Why do you give up the foundations you have built for a role that requires very different skillset?” During my internal job search process, I also could sense concerns that I might not be able to work effectively with sales to instill the financial disciplines needed. Regardless of all these opinions, I held onto the blind faith that I knew about my skills and capabilities better than anyone else and stayed persistent with my pursuit. After killing it at my role and lots of networking, I successfully moved into the role I wanted. Boy, I loved it so much! Although it was not easy at the beginning to build the trust with the sales team who had years of experience selling products, I was able to bring my strengths to the table and eventually become their trusted advisor.

It was in this business operation role that I learned I truly enjoyed working on cross-functional teams and solving different problems. As a result of the job switch, I was encouraged that I can make the best career decision for myself. I then applied to business school to switch functions from finance to strategy and general management. In the Ross MBA program, I prioritized my curriculum and extracurricular to focus more on skills I did not have before. Not having a lot of opportunities to solve ambiguous business problems, I led a team project for the community consulting club and competed in the Amazon case competition. The “hypothesis first” consulting approach also helped me develop a good framework to tackle the problems before digging into the data.

Speaking of business school application, why I picked Ross for my MBA led me to the second reflection #2 personal fit is more important than any ranking. You should always choose based on what matters the most to you and not just rankings. For my MBA application, I interacted with students and alumni from at least half of the top 15 US MBA programs and felt the strongest connection with the Ross community. Ross students are fun, collaborative, and humble. Even though Ross is not the highest ranked MBA program (the program is ranked No.7 this year!), it is exactly what I need due to its reputation as a “career switcher” program. MAP and many action-based learning opportunities will help me convince future recruiters that I have mastered the right skillsets to excel in a position that is very different from the roles I held before MBA. Having gone through the internship recruiting process, I can definitely attest to the commonly shared observation that recruiters care a lot about the function and background that I come from (I have friends in the Top 5 MBA program who struggled with the switch). When I was ready to plan for the long haul and use my MAP (a strategy project with a global tech company) to make the case as a career switcher for full-time recruiting, I received a great offer for a non-finance role with a top Ross on-campus employer! I am so happy that I chose the perfect program to make it happen!

Another example of ranking does not matter as much is choosing which city to live. Minneapolis is repeatedly ranked as the Top 20 Cities for Young Professionals to Live while Houston does not often make the list. However, I still like Houston a little more than Minneapolis for its hospitality and diversity. These factors are what I value and outweigh the rest, but ranking does not take them into account. I always consider that ranking is for the average Joe. It is a good reference, but you need to know what is different between you and Joe.

I reconnected with a few good friends before business school after starting my MBA and they all consistently mentioned that I look even happier than before. I do feel happier, knowing that I am working towards my goals and surrounded by a group of smart and supportive classmates. This is what you get when you are in the right environment and right culture. This is #therossdifference!

To share a bit on my recruiting journey, I present you the final reflection #3 Push your physical and mental capacity and you can be surprised of what you are capable of. I was reading a WSJ article on how the mental state can affect the performance of long-distance runner. As someone who trained diligently for 10ks and half marathon before, I can 100% relate and draw a connection between running and my time as an MBA1. When I was running the 10k or half-marathon race, especially towards the finish line, I would constantly cheer myself up with “You can do this!” “You are stronger than you think!” I did the same as an MBA1. Almost everyone who started the MBA program heard about the three-legged chair – social, academic, and recruiting. Usually, we can only pick two out of the three to focus on but even two can be hard to manage. Thus, whenever I felt I could not take on any more work, I thought about my race moments and pushed through harder. I traded sleep for a couple of extra hours to prepare for interviews, traded in-flight movies for industry knowledge index cards on the flight to consulting interviews, … When the thought of “my MBA life is so stressful and challenging” surfaced, I simply put that idea aside and followed through. After the challenging recruiting season, I am amazed at what my mental and physical capacities are. I feel more confident about what I can handle.

At the Michigan Design and Business Conference this year, the keynote speaker Emily Tsiang from Stanford Life Design Lab shared with us how to “Design Your Life”. All the attendees were required to fill out an odyssey journey on “how might you explore, engage or learn about the multiple great lives within you?”. I wrote down three lives that I want to engage more, as “a creative problem solver”, “a writer”, and “a mentor”. To explore each of these lives in the short-term, I want to understand my strengths more through the summer internship, come back to updating the blog regularly (still want to follow the “once a month update” commitment set in 2017!), and apply to be an MBA peer career coach at Ross.

I know I always have you, my blog readers, to hold me accountable. Thank you as always for being a part of my journey!

P.S. Shown is a picture taken in Horseshoe Bend during my spring break trip. Visits to Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks reminded me how much I love nature and miss spending quality outdoor till my body (especially my legs!) gives out. I can’t wait to hit the trails on the Pacific Northwest this summer! #getoutside

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On Choosing Major and Discovering Passion

In college, I was afraid of picking the wrong major and ending up in a job that I do not enjoy. Putting interest aside, I had an even tougher time when “staying in the US or going back to China” was thrown into the mix. What major I choose could determine how challenging it would be to find a job in the US and get H1B visa sponsorship. Having worked for 4.5 years while still discovering my strengths, weaknesses, and passion, I would like to share with you what I have learned. The article is primarily intended for college students, but might help anyone in pursuit of a fulfilling career.

Picking One Major/Job Does Not Restrict You from Exploring Other Interests

I struggled with deciding on my major, mainly because I am naturally curious about many different subjects – I love the talent focus of HR, excel in the analytical side of finance, get intrigued by the creative energy from marketing, and always enjoy reading insights shared by the psychologists. With the H1B complication, I even contemplated the accounting major, since public accounting firms then were usually generous with visa sponsorship. I was overwhelmed.

I remember talking to Irene, the co-founder of STLF and a Bush Foundation Fellow, and she shared that in college she had planned to graduate with major in marketing and minor in both supply chain and entrepreneurship. However, she felt a lot less freedom fulfilling all the different requirements of majors and minors than taking the classes that she was truly interested. Thus, she gave up the minors. Even though major(s) and minor(s) could demonstrate the commitment to a particular field, taking classes I love outside the business school and doing part-time internships matter more than what show up on transcript, I had one major (finance). Nevertheless, till this day, I am still learning about other disciplines either at work or outside work. I serve on marketing committees at employee resource groups, develop training programs for new hires, mentor college students, and read psychology books (the Heath Brothers and Dan Ariely all make great authors). I do not let the finance major define my interests. As a bonus, I rediscovered my passion to write, since blogging became a great avenue to help more international students.

Make the Call and Don’t Punish Yourself Later

Before deciding on finance, I seriously debated accounting because I wanted to stay in the US after graduation. At the time, I liked finance a bit more and had a neutral feeling towards accounting. An important factor was that it was easier to find jobs in the US with degrees in accounting than in finance. Then the questions I had to answer are:

  • US or home?
  • Am I willing to go back home when I can’t find finance job in the US?
  • Am I willing to take a less desirable job so I could stay in the US?

In the end, I favored interests, because I could not see myself spending another year studying accounting to receive 150 credits (Most public accounting firms require 150 credits to sit for the CPA exams). I thought if I could not find a job in the US, I would be happier doing something I enjoy in China. Fortunately, I was able to find a finance position in the US.

Had I decided staying in the US was more important and looked for a job in public accounting, I might not be as fortunate in hindsight. Soon after my graduation, the US immigration services started the lottery system to decide who could receive visa. A couple of public accounting firms stopped providing sponsorship due to the risks that new international new hires may not be able to stay. Regardless, if I ended up being the unlucky one, I would remind myself what I prioritized to make the decisions. I would not punish myself for the change of events because lottery and sponsorship were factors that I could not possibly predict.

Research and Start Somewhere

What worked incredibly well for me in the interest search process is learning from people in the fields that I am interested in and getting hands-on experience, the latter of which helps me reflect on my likes and dislikes.

Here are my suggestions:

  • Use all the resources. In my previous post, I discussed the importance of standing upon the shoulders of giants instead of uncovering everything on your own. It makes better use of your time and allows you to experience more.
    • College career center should be your first stop
      • I always recommend Future Fright Week workshops to any Carlson student. The workshops do a fantastic job highlighting different career paths of the majors.
      • Reach out alumni for coffee and job shadowing opportunities (I have written a post on informational interviews).
      • If you are thinking about returning home after graduation, this interview might give you some ideas. This is featured on the International Careers facebook page which includes interviews with several other international alums.
      • University of Minnesota Alumni webinars are great for college graduates and could serve as good guidance for current students as well.
    • The Internet is a gold mine. You could find a lot of relevant articles by googling. The resources are particularly abundant if you are interested in consulting and investment banking.
  • Start small with projects/internship to explore your interests. Even taking on a leadership position in a student club will shed some light.
  • Understand your strengths, weaknesses, and values. Even though I was skeptical about leadership training, thinking it was just theoretical and fluffy, I embraced the concept and actively participated in LeaderShape and First Year Leadership Institute. The experience allows me to reflect on my values and receive feedback from a close-knit community. 7+ years later, I still hold all those learnings to heart and highly recommend them.
  • Develop a routine to keep track. Whether they are follow-up actions from a networking conversation, articles on industry trends, a great story for future interview questions, find a way to record them. My friend Jess, a passionate educator and talented handlettering artist @prettyprintsandpaper, shared her method of using bullet journal to capture her findings and stay organized. I really like “Bullet Journal for Career Planning” and “Bullet Journal for Job Interviews”. These two articles not only have enlightening content, but also are fun to read because her handletterings are so pleasing to the eyes!  bullet-journal-career-job-search-1                                          (Image courtesy of PrettyPrintsAndPaper)

If you are not 100% happy with what you do, do not stop exploring. I have faith that diligent research, experimental projects, and self-reflection will eventually allow you to connect all the dots.

Stand Upon the Shoulders of Giants

My mentee from my undergraduate school reached out to me for advice on choosing majors. The first question I asked was “Have you signed up for the Future Fright Week sessions in the fall?” After explaining to her what Future Fright Week sessions are (workshops aiming to educate underclassmen on majors and the associated career paths), I told her that I was glad that she asked me (That’s what mentors are for!) but that “I am not the only resource you have. Take advantage of all that are available to you”.

After that exchange, I had an epiphany – it is very important to be resourceful! How do you define “resourceful”? Jeff Bezo considered it the most important characteristic he looked for in a wife, “a woman who could get me out of a Third World Prison“. In all seriousness, I define “resourceful” as knowing how to identify and engage resources to help you. In the world of international students, being resourceful could include knowing what workshops to attend to polish up certain skills, finding articles to read to stay informed of the industry trends, involving outside assistance (academic advisors, career advisors, professors, alumni connections, mentors, strangers on Quora.com, etc).  Isaac Newton once said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”. You do not need to handle all the problems alone. If you could ask an expert and solve a problem in 20 minutes rather than spend more than 2 hours figuring it out yourself, why not raise your hand? Although the outcome might be the same for both scenarios, you could save a lot more time to deal with even bigger challenges.

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Speaking of giants, I want to give a big shout out to Michelle Moylan at University of Minnesota who led the initiative to build a new Career Website for Minnesota’s International Students and Alumni. I am so excited about it that I wrote this post right away. In her own words, “On this page you will find information to help you with US job searching (including lists of companies who have hired U of MN international students and lists of what companies in what states and cities sponsor H1B visas), with non-US job searching, applying to graduate school and more.” Furthermore, if you have suggestions for additional content, you could email Michele at moyl0002@umn.edu. By doing so, you are not only getting your own questions answered, but also doing a favor for the rest of the audience. Michelle also spearheaded the International Careers Facebook page, which shares the latest relevant articles and provides updates on various program initiatives for international students.

If you are an international student, drop everything and add the two sites as your favorites! Even if you do not attend University of Minnesota, great resources have no boundaries thanks to the power of the Internet. If you are not an international student, I hope this could be a reminder that we have more resource than we think. It just takes a little digging and the courage to say “I don’t know about this. Can you help me?”

I have been aspiring to be “a giant” for my fellow readers. Subscribe to my blog by putting down your email address (quick painfree process!) so you will receive notifications when I share new learnings and reflections!

P.S. On a different note, I was a little bummed that the readership stats on my last post “Email from a Blog Reader – FOMO and 20 Slots” did not fare as well as I expected. I could probably write it a bit more concisely. Regardless, it described my big learning in 2015 that I found a sense of direction to some extent. One of my favorite bloggers on Medium Bo Ren also mentioned “FOMO” in her article on “maximizer” and “satisficer”. I highly recommend.