So maybe you’re considering changing careers. You’re in consulting, but California is beckoning, and you want to move into tech. You’re going to face some practical hurdles, of course, but you’re also going face some “you” questions: How do you know whether you’ll like product management? How can you tell if you’ve got what it takes to fit in a “customer success” role?
Common questions. Elusive answers.
That’s the dilemma faced by Sonali Mangal, who went into management consulting at A.T. Kearney after getting her MBA from Wharton in 2013. After a couple of years at the global management consulting firm, Sonali realized two things: she didn’t want to stay in consulting, and she didn’t have, and couldn’t find, the resources to know what roles she’d fit into in her desired industry, tech.
“A.T. Kearney was a great gig, I really enjoyed it and I learned a lot,” Sonali tells Poets&Quants. “The MBA itself was a transformative experience. I think I did grow a lot, but all in all, after doing consulting for a year and a half or so, I did feel that maybe that wasn’t the right fit for me, for a variety of reasons. The most important thing was that I wanted to get back into tech.”
‘WOULD I ACTUALLY ENJOY DOING THIS? IS THIS SOMETHING WORTH EXPLORING? OR IS IT NOT FOR ME?’
Sonali had come to the U.S. from India to get her MBA, leaving behind a job at Microsoft’s main development office in Hyderabad. Now, MBA in hand and CV brimming with experience, she wanted to back into tech. As she went through the job search process, however, she came across roles she wasn’t altogether familiar with.
“I was a program manager at Microsoft, so I was familiar with that role, but there were a lot of other roles that I heard about like product marketing, customer success, growth management — all of these roles, unless and until you really speak with someone who is in that job, it’s very hard to assess whether a role is a good fit for you or not,” Sonali says. “That’s where this realization kind of dawned on me, and it’s true across all jobs: You can Google ‘What does a VC do?’ or ‘What does an investment banker do?’ and you might get some job description, you might get some answers on sites like Quora, but it’s still not enough to really tell you, ‘Would I actually enjoy doing this? Is this something worth exploring? Or is it not for me?’”
Sonali found a job at a top Silicon Valley company. But she couldn’t forget the vacuum of information facing job-seekers. So she came up with the sort of solution you might expect from a newly minted MBA not far removed from completing the confidence-building Leadership Ventures of Wharton: She launched a podcast in which she interviews people in various roles and industries, Q&A style, asking them specific and pragmatic questions about their roles.
GOING BEYOND JOB DESCRIPTION
The idea, Sonali says, is to educate students and young professionals about various careers and professions. And there’s no substitute for inside knowledge.
“Once anyone gets into a job, after they’ve spent some time in it, they have a pretty good idea of what that job is,” she says. “But that information is in their heads, available to people who ask them, but not easily accessible. So that’s what the podcast is trying to attempt — I’m not sure how good of an attempt it is, but I’m trying to make that information accessible.”
With a few exceptions, the podcast, Learn Educate Discover (available for free on iTunes), is in a simple interview format. Every episode — there are 74 in all — is a discussion between Sonali and someone from a different profession, “an informal but detailed discussion so that someone who is listening gets a good idea of, ‘Hey, does this sound interesting to me?’
“We go beyond the job description to things like, ‘Give me examples of projects that you’ve worked on,’ and ‘Walk me through the kind of things that you do when you actually do these projects, what what are the interesting aspects, the not-so-interesting aspects?’” Sonali says. “One question that I really like to ask is, ‘What are the qualities in a person that you think will actually enjoy this job?’ Because oftentimes that’s not very clear, right?”
GREAT INTERVIEWS AND ARTICULATE STORYTELLERS
Sonali posted her first podcast interview in October 2015, and her most recent on February 16, 2017. She’s had about 40,000 total downloads (though as she points out, the metrics for podcast usership is not totally reliable). She tries to post weekly; sometimes she posts more often, sometimes less. Topics covered on LED have included social entrepreneurship, B2B content marketing, venture capital, and investment banking — but she’s also done podcasts with physicians, comedians, startup CEOs, and photojournalists. Interviewees have included professionals from LinkedIn, Amazon, Airbnb, McKinsey, and Deutsche Bank; most recently she did a podcast on data journalism with a reporter from the Telegraph in the UK.
“I try and keep a weekly cadence,” Sonali says, “but sometimes I might have one that has a publicly available talk which I think is interesting. I’ve also tried to branch out into some other areas, for example I recently had someone who is an ex-Silicon Valley exec who was employee No. 258 at Yahoo; he was diagnosed with cancer recently and that changed his perspective on life and career. He came on to talk more about that — more about how to think about your career as opposed to talking about a specific career, per se.”
Some great interviews stand out. In episode 21 she spoke with Anuj Kulkarni, co-founder of India-based energy-efficient street lighting social venture Prajwal Bharat (www.prajwalbharat.com/), and she was blown away by his storytelling ability. “He brought so much passion into what he was sharing,” Sonali says. “He just shared so many stories that it really livened up the discussion. One thing that I’ve realized is that the more people share stories and anecdotes that illustrate what they do, it really helps give a good idea exactly what that job is.”
It helps, too, when the interviewee is especially articulate, as episode 36 demonstrated. Facebook product marketing manager George Zeng “shared a lot of ideas on how he’s approaching his job in a very atypical way. Every job has a certain ‘this is how we do things,’ but he really tried to approach his job in a very different way — and he shared a lot of very interesting new ideas, and he was very well-received by listeners. I remember one listener said she heard our discussion and it helped her get a job as a PMM at LinkedIn.”
Sonali used her two years at Wharton to transform herself in more ways than simply professionally. She “came out a much more confident person compared to who I was when I went in,” she says, and one of the reasons was her experience with Leadership Ventures.
Wharton describes its MBA Leadership Ventures as “experiences that facilitate self-discovery, leadership, and character development.” Sonali describes them as “literally transformative” because participants accomplish things they never thought they were capable of.
“One of the things I used to hear a lot at Wharton was how you should put yourself through ‘stretch’ experiences — the idea being whatever you think you might want to do that puts you out of your comfort zone, just do it, because two years gives you access to a lot of different things and people,” Sonali says. “Through the Wharton Leadership Ventures I went to Quantico, a Marine Corps base in Virginia, and we were there for a night and a day and split up into teams and basically had to do a couple of exercises. One of them was going across a swamp, literally submerged in the swamp, and you’re wearing the uniform and carrying a fake gun and the swamp has barbed wire across it in places — and there were a lot of places where I had to duck under the swamp and come back up and that was the only way to get across. In one place there was a tree trunk that was completely submerged in the swamp and you had to crawl inside it under the water. And I don’t swim!
“For a person who doesn’t swim, to hold your breath and do that inside a swamp — I was like, I really wanted to pull out at that point. The great thing is once you do it, you literally are a new person because you didn’t ever imagine yourself doing that.”
ADVENTURES IN JOURNALISM
She never imagined herself as a journalist, either — until she dabbled in photojournalism on a trip to Taiwan, and the result was a book of her photos.
“I published a photo book in Taiwan called ‘Profiling the Unseen: A Journey Across Taipei, Delhi, and San Francisco,’ and the idea behind that book is basically to talk to people who we run into on a regular basis who provide us with various services — the doorman or the concierge. I started working on the book when I was with A.T. Kearney, and I was on an engagement in Taiwan, and that’s also very journalistic because it required me to go out and speak with people and just learn about what they were doing.”
It’s an experience that perhaps presaged her plunge into podcasting. “I have been thinking about what is the common theme of this podcast,” Sonali says. “Sometimes I do think this is the kind of work that a journalist does. It’s something I have a lot of passion for, and I hope it adds value to people’s job searches.”