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Mindset is everything
In 2009, graduate George Dong climbed the podium stage in the Big House to deliver a commencement speech to his classmates. But George wasn’t the only commencement speaker that day—he gave his address alongside UM alum and Google co-founder, Larry Page, who would eventually (unbeknownst to George) become his employer ten years later.
George’s path to his current position as a Senior Program Manager at Google was anything but easy, nor was it linear. Even before graduating from LSA, George faced challenges while searching for an internship in the summer of 2008, only months before the infamous housing market crash and subsequent recession. This was a time when employers were feeling the strain and freezing hiring, much like what graduates are facing now in a tenuous job market shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Getting rejected is very hard. It's hard for your self esteem and confidence,” George recalls. “And I remember I told myself this at the time: for every rejection I receive I will apply to three additional internships. And that was how I kept myself in a more positive state emotionally, and also stayed sane mentally.”
“Change is the only constant in our life nowadays... there are so many different opportunities if you are motivated, if you are willing to be creative and be open to possibilities. There are a lot of opportunities to pivot.”
George’s persistence paid off. After applying to fifteen internships and facing fourteen rejections, he was finally accepted for a fall internship with the Association of American Universities (AAU). Reflecting back, George believes the challenges he overcame during his internship search helped him in more ways than one.
“That's the summer when the financial crisis unfolded,” George recalled. “So going through that experience the summer of my junior year really prepared me, both mentally and emotionally, for my senior year when I was looking for full-time positions.”
Building on a strong foundation
Although the financial crisis began unfolding as early as December 2007, the disaster reached its peak in September 2008 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 777.68 points in a single day. Whatever challenges George had faced the previous summer searching for internships paled in comparison to the challenges he faced getting hired at a time when the economy was the worst it had been in living memory.
But again, George’s persistence paid off. He used his LSA English degree and followed his passion for social justice to secure a job teaching in the inner-city of Chicago, bringing educational resources to schools and children that typically lack access.
A common fear among graduates is that their first position will play an outsized role the rest of their career and risks boxing them into an unintended career path. George says he shared that fear as a recent graduate, but reflecting back on his formative years as a high school teacher, he advises seniors not to worry.
“Change is the only constant in our life nowadays,” George remarks. “Looking back, there are so many different opportunities if you are motivated, if you are willing to be creative and be open to possibilities. There are a lot of opportunities to pivot.”
After a two-years of teaching, George made his first pivot: he seized the opportunity to research educational disparities in China as a Fullbright Scholar. Over the next few years, he made several more: co-founding the non-profit organization, Education in Sight, before working for Teach for America as the Director of Finance and Operations, and receiving awards and accollations for his work along the way.
His most recent pivot was his move to Silicon Valley; he began working for Google in 2016, first as a technical recruiter and now as a Senior Program Manager working on Google Assistant, an artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant.
As George reflects on his circuitous career journey, he’s identified three life lessons that he attributes to his success and ability to navigate the 2008 financial crash. Realizing the relevance to 2020 graduates going through the COVID-19 recession, George packages these lessons into solid guidance; you can read them here.
However, the fourth and “most important lesson” is what George calls lifelong learning.
“The world is changing rapidly and exponentially in many different areas,” George affirms. “So we have to engage in lifelong learning and be prepared to pivot multiple times in our career... we can’t just show up and expect to be successful in this increasingly competitive job market and in this global stage.”
George took his own advice, continuing his formal education in 2017 when he attended the Wharton School to pursue his MBA. But he stresses that lifelong learning doesn’t only occur in a classroom, and encourages students to develop versatile skill sets elsewhere.
“The degree that you get is just the foundation, it’s not the end all be all,” George emphasized. “It's about what you do after that. Be prepared. Your education is not done.”
Confidence is paramount
Throughout his life, George has sought out mentors for guidance and support, whether they were individuals at UM or senior co-workers and executives.
“Having mentors is pivotal in your career,” George affirms. “I'm very fortunate to have many, many great mentors at different points throughout my life and at every stage of my career.”
With over a decade of work experience, George has sat on both sides of the table as a mentor and and as a mentee. For current students, he elevates the importance of sustaining a relationship with their mentor by communicating often and intentionally after that initial introductory conversation.
“A lot of people will have that first, meaningful conversation,” George mentions. “But being a good mentee is following up in three or six months with your mentor and saying, ‘hey you taught me this lesson, or you gave me this advice and I took this action and thanks to you this happened'... So it’s about the advice-to-action ratio, you need to make sure that your action ratio is really high.”
"We have to engage in lifelong learning and be prepared to pivot multiple times in our career... we can’t just show up and expect to be successful in this increasingly competitive job market and in this global stage.”
George credits the advice-to-action ratio as the key to a successful mentoring relationship, but he maintains the importance of mutual respect and growth for all participants.
“You want to think about how you are providing value in that relationship,” George challenges. “A successful mentoring relationship is where mentors also get a lot out of those conversations, where they also learn from the mentees.”
Although George has fully transitioned from mentee to mentor, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other professionals in his field that he admires. When asked about the role of the liberal arts degree in Silicon Valley, he rattles off an impressive list of tech CEOs and executives with "non-traditional" degrees.
“There's definitely people with liberal arts degrees and majors who have succeeded in the tech sector,” George says. “The CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojciki, someone I really admire, studied history and literature. The CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, studied industrial design as his major, and the CEO of Slack, Stewart Butterfield, studied philosophy as major… the list goes on and on.”
George says this is where the advantage of the liberal arts degree truly comes into play in Silicon Valley, at higher level executive positions where softer skills like communication, public speaking, and leadership are critical.
“For entry level positions in tech, as an example, the technical degree will have the advantage,” George says. “But as they ascend in their career, the value of a liberal arts degree will become more and more important. Because at that point, you don't spend time writing codes, you spend time managing teams. Your success as a leader changes from problem solving individual tasks to inspiring, removing obstacles, and mentoring/coaching the team—and that requires superb interpersonal skills.”
“The degree that you get is just the foundation, it’s not the end all be all. It's about what you do after that. Be prepared. Your education is not done.”
But George warns that neither set of skills is “mutually exclusive,” and emphasizes the importance of a well-rounded education for any type of student.
“I obtained a degree in English from LSA, but I do also realize the importance of technical knowledge in Silicon Valley and in today's world in general,” George states. “So for me, I try to get a little bit better in terms of my technical skills everyday, and today there are plenty of online resources that you can use to do that.”
David Deming, an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University, conducted research that shows that in the tech industry, "it's the jobs that combine technical and interpersonal skills that are booming, like being a computer scientist working on a group project… if it's just technical skill, there's a reasonable chance it can be automated."
For all the twists and turns his career has taken, George has strived at every point to learn from his peers and experiences, putting lifelong learning to the test. At Google, he buttressed his knowledge by interviewing ten Google VPs and directors, eager to understand their motivations and visions by seeking the answers to this question: did you have a 5 or 10 year career plan?
Almost all interviewees said “no.”
“Career opportunities often emerge unexpectedly, whether in a different region or in a new product area. The response to new opportunities from senior leaders is remarkable. They make decisive moves and have high risk tolerance for career pivots. Since every career decision comes with pros and cons, senior leaders go all in once they make the decision.”
This is the advice George has taken to heart throughout his career.
“From the day I graduated, I didn't have a 5 or 10 year plan for my career,” George shares. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in the world in 10 years. A lot of jobs available in ten years are not invented yet. We don’t even know the problems that will emerge in a decade. So it's important to have an open mind.”
To current LSA students and recent graduates looking to break into the tech industry, George highlights two key points.
“Read tech news and have a curious mind,” George recommends. “You don't need to know how to be a machine learning engineer, but you need to know what machine learning is. You need to know what some of the broad tech trends are out there, you need to be able to speak the language.”
“Don't count yourself out. A lot of people think, 'I'm an English major, how am I going to get a job at Google looking at all these folks from engineering schools?’ It looks like it's so far away, but you need to have that confidence. Don't reject yourself.”