Follow the Excitement, Follow the Challenge with Stephanie Wong (1/2)

Welcome to episode 177 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 1 of an interview with Stephanie Wong, discussing her path into the tech industry, internship experiences, time at Oracle, experience in pre-sales and post-sales roles, saying no to a dream company, and diving into content creation.

Original Recording Date: 06-13-2022

Topics – Meet Stephanie Wong, Getting into Tech, Entertainment Influence on the West Coast, Joining Oracle, A Customer Success Pivot, Traditional and Non-Traditional Paths, Saying No to a Dream Company, Back to Sales Engineering, Getting Past a Plateau

2:53 – Meet Stephanie Wong

  • Stephanie Wong works for Google Cloud as the Head of Developer Engagement.
    • She is primarily a content creator and an engineer as well as a first generation Asian American based in the San Francisco area.
    • Throughout her career at Google, she has grown to have an audience of enterprise developers, IT executives, data scientists, startup founders, and other technical practitioners.
    • Over the last 4 years, she has been able to write, produce, and host over 450 videos, articles, podcasts, and tutorials amounting to around 10 million views.
    • Stephanie enjoys tapping into the technical community with refreshing takes about product launches in a way that dismantles egos in tech and helps to educate engineers in new ways.
  • If you want to follow up with Stephanie, you can find her
  • John recommends two cool things…
  • Stephanie took over the podcast last year, and it’s been like her own little Nerd Journey, getting used to hosting and having to immerse herself in all cloud topics and speaking to them at a certain depth and comfortably.
    • It’s been a huge honor and a lot of fun for Stephanie, feeling it has helped her boost her own career path in all things cloud.
    • In their roles as sales engineers, Nick and John both have broad portfolios of products they can dig deeper into based on interest and customer questions. It will be interesting to hear how Stephanie keeps up to date.

5:57 – Getting into Tech

  • Stephanie has had a somewhat unconventional path into both engineering and content creation.
  • Unlike many of the engineers around her, Stephanie did not graduate with a computer science degree.
  • Stephanie got a different kind of CS degree (communications studies) and minored in digital humanities.
  • She’s always had a deep passion for entertainment and video production.
  • In school she tried to merge those by studying interpersonal and broad based communication and doing a minor that allowed her to dive deep into the impact of technology on society, literature, and other areas.
  • When she entered the job market she almost went into entertainment (hard to advance in). But she landed in tech partially due to her college and the companies that were recruiting at the time.
  • Stephanie had some very interesting internship experiences related to her minor. They introduced her to technology, which really gave her the edge needed to get hired into her first job at Oracle (not her intention specifically).
    • Stephanie chose the minor because she was not interested in completely committing to engineering or computer science, but she did want to get exposed to technology (had a passion for consumer technology).
    • When she found out digital humanities was being offered at UCLA she jumped at the opportunity. It gave her a chance to study things like social media analytics, content information systems, and really understand the broad concepts of technology and how they touch our lives (getting to do research on this).
    • Social media analytics apprenticeships that Stephanie did were related to current events like the Boston bombing and the Kenyan presidential elections of 2013. She researched along with others how data collected from social media could be compared to the way news outlets covered the same events and how this could incite violent or peacemaking speech. Check out Stephanie’s LinkedIn (links at beginning of this show) to learn more!

9:09 – Entertainment Influence on the West Coast

  • John noticed coming from southern California to northern California that both are company towns.
    • Southern California has proximity to the entertainment industry, and a large majority of what happens there is touched by that.
    • When John moved to northern California to work in the technology / software industry, this same phenomenon was not present any longer (i.e. not as many people writing movie scripts in the bay area, for example).
  • Stephanie’s first internship was with a company called LiveFyre (a comment management system / platform often used on blogs), acting as an online community manager.
  • When she went back to Los Angeles (the following summer), she interned at a company called DS2DIO (a dance studio sponsored by YouTube).
    • Fun fact – Stephanie is also a hip hop dancer.
    • Through this experience she was able to be around a number of very talented dancers and help with production (on set). She also did some research for them to help build a repository of dancers.
  • The next year she interned at Warner Brother Records in marketing and sales, doing some research in the music industry.
  • Around this time Stephanie realized she didn’t really want to work in the entertainment industry as her first job and not get paid for it.
  • As a result, she went to every single career fair UCLA had to offer and found out Oracle was recruiting for sales and sales engineering positions.
    • At the time she had no idea what sales engineering was or really what Oracle was.
    • Stephanie’s parents were very excited about her working for a stable technology company in the bay area.

12:18 – Joining Oracle

  • Stephanie’s parents had also underscored the importance of training no matter the industry she chose. Oracle was offering 6 weeks of training and chose to say yes to the opportunity.
    • Later on she would be swept into the world of cloud technologies.
  • Stephanie had the sense all along that she wanted to rekindle the passion for entertainment, but there was not really a way to do this once she was working a 9-5 job in silicon valley.
  • It’s interesting that Stephanie was not a computer science major but there was still active recruiting for roles in a software company which happened to be in sales and sales engineering.
    • John says Oracle is fairly well known for having "class of" programs in big cities (which Stephanie was a part of).
    • Just because you get hired does not necessarily mean you will be working there 5 years later.
    • Nick mentioned this sounds like the VMware Academy program through which college students are trained to become solution engineers / sales engineers (and many other potential roles).
  • Stephanie is thankful for the opportunity afforded to her by Oracle. It set her on a path in her career to eventually be hired by Google Cloud.
    • Stephanie had tried attempted multiple times to get hired by Google Cloud right after school.
    • Being a part of the program at Oracle taught her both about sales engineering and enterprise technology.
    • Oracle started off in databases management and then acquired a number of SaaS companies (ERP system vendors, for example), and in 2014 they were really ramping the sales force up for cloud (part of the reason for the "class of" programs).
    • Sales engineering lined up more with what Stephanie wanted to do.
    • Being a part of the business intelligence and analytics sales engineering team complimented her digital humanities experience.

15:30 – A Customer Success Pivot

  • After 1.5 years at Oracle, she could sense that cloud technology was really starting to be a market mover. There was a lot of traction around virtual machines, infrastructure-as-a-service, and platform-as-a-service.
  • Oracle decided to create its first database-as-a-service and infrastructure-as-a-service products. Stephanie decided to interview for a role on this team.
    • She wanted more implementation and onboarding experience with customers and gain a sharper skillset in these areas.
  • This customer success role and the sales engineering role are on opposite sides of the sale. Listen to the way John describes the difference.
  • Stephanie mentioned the customer success management role was post sales and responsible for being the main point of contact for customers who had already purchased a service.
    • She and others in the role handled onboarding but also helped with implementing and consumption (since consumption was important for corporate revenue recognition).
    • Customer success personnel would also help with support issues and escalations, ensuring technical issues were resolved.
    • Stephanie and team managed the customer relationship and were also responsible for upselling a bit (encouraging expanding utilization or adding new products).
  • John mentions the concept of upselling goes back to grocery stores putting candy bars, beverages, and other items close to check out counters for that last minute impulse buy.
  • The skillset for customer success managers was a bit different from that of sales engineers according to Stephanie.
    • The customer success manager is managing a relationship that is more long term. You are not just selling a product and passing it off to the team. You are that team.
    • Instead of presenting on how the solution would work or doing a proof of concept you’re helping to implement and ensure things are running smoothly.
    • If something does not work properly you’re the first person the customer is going to speak with about it, and it creates a lot of accountability.
    • The technical topic set was a bit different than when Stephanie was on the sales engineering team. She had to learn more about databases (which sometime had to be replicated across regions).
    • Some of the features of the platform were still being built out during this time.
    • Stephanie also had to learn how to spin up virtual machines, for example, and things such as these were important skills to learn as she wanted to transition to a different company.
  • Nick has seen in some cases where customer success is not a technical role but still a relationship role that supports consumption or helping customers adopt products / functionalities they already own.

19:54 – Traditional and Non-Traditional Paths

  • Stephanie chose to make a move to a more technical role because she enjoyed learning, but it was a bit intimidating. She lacked the traditional computer science / engineering background.
  • Stephanie feels like throughout her career she has known how to toe the line in such a way that she knows she will be comfortable and happy.
  • She’s not the strongest software engineer out there and doesn’t want to be. Stephanie needs to be able to understand things at a level that allows her to meet others where they are and convey complex concepts in a way that truly helps. This is her "sweet spot."
  • John says there does not seem to be a traditional path into sales engineering / post-sales roles or for getting into IT operations (which can often be a precursor to these roles).
    • Nick was a math teacher who wandered into IT.
    • John was pursuing an economics degree.
    • Maybe the digital humanities studies are a more appropriate path into sales engineering than we might have considered?
      • When Stephanie first read the job description for sales engineering it sounded kind of in line with her degree. It involved business communication and a little of the technical consulting.
      • Stephanie thought the role could work but didn’t really know until she got into it.
    • A lot of people in the "class of" program with Stephanie came from different backgrounds (economics, film, some even had a digital humanities minor).
      • A number of people had gone into fields like mechanical engineering, for example. Stephanie believed this would propel these individuals further in the industry because they were more "technical." That was not necessarily true as these folks needed to learn a new set of skills just like Stephanie.
      • This speaks to the idea that you should never let stereotypes affect your perception of the direction you should take, something Stephanie has continued being mindful of as her career grows.
      • These are self-induced limitations / blinders.

23:35 – Saying No to a Dream Company

  • The same thing happened when Stephanie went into developer relations.
    • There are a large percentage of folks who believe to be in developer relations you need to be a strong software engineer. That is true to be fair, but it’s not the only way to get into the space.
    • In the developer relations space, Stephanie having an unconventional background is twice as true as for sales engineering.
  • The transition into developer relations happened 1.5 years or so after joining Google Cloud.
  • Toward the end of her time at Oracle, a number of people were leaving to pursue travel or other interests (medical school, some other role).
  • Stephanie decided she wanted to travel too, fully prepared to quit with no alternative plan.
    • At the time she learned Google Cloud was hiring sales representatives. She didn’t want to do that specific role and almost said no. But then, she decided to move forward through the process to gain the experience. If an offer was extended, she would then make a decision (since Google Cloud was somewhere she had always wanted to work).
    • Stephanie had applied 2 or 3 times in the past with one of them being an ad sales specialist and even a receptionist (to see if she could get her foot in the door and pivot).
    • Google Cloud extended an offer to Stephanie for the sales rep position, but it was not as compelling as she had hoped based on what she was making at Oracle, leading her to say no.
      • It was a tough decision, and she spoke to many people about it. She followed her intuition and said no.
    • A couple months later when she was about to quit Oracle, Google Cloud let her know they had a sales engineering position open (more in line with what she wanted).
    • Stephane initially wanted to know if she needed to do the same set of interviews again. They told her she had done half of them.
      • They needed her to do the technical interviews for the role and a presentation. But she had already done the sales related interviews, and the team doing the hiring had recent enough notes on it.
      • Stephanie ended up going through this new round of interviews and preparing more for it than she ever has. She was very intimidated but did the presentation and demo and got the job.
    • Instead of traveling for the length of time she wanted Stephanie traveled only for about a month before starting as a Google Customer Engineer (or sales engineer) in July 2017.
  • Stephanie knew early on Google was known for having a great and forward looking culture and wanted to experience it.
    • It seemed they (Google) valued work life balance, had less red tape, and hired great people.
    • Because of these factors she wanted to keep trying, classifying it as one of her dream companies.
  • Stephanie had to make sure that if she didn’t get the job she would be ok and told herself this. Google is not the only innovative company out there.
    • She also looked at what others were doing like pursuing graduate school, and getting education seemed like a logical next step.
    • Stephanie also applied to Stanford (a dream school of hers that she never got into), looking at various programs that were interesting like digital journalism.
    • She took the GRE and wrote her personal statement, using weekend time for the work. In the midst of writing the personal statement she realized she was not passionate about the topic and was doing it for the wrong reasons.
    • Stephanie decided to drop the pursuit because it was not for the right reasons, understanding she could potentially pursue it later.
    • When it came to Google, she did the interviews afforded to her because it was a great challenge. But she reminded herself not getting in is not the end of the world.
    • "There are plenty of great companies out there, and if it’s not a good fit, then it just wasn’t meant to be." – Stephanie Wong
  • Nick admires Stephanie for being able to say no to a dream company.
    • If Stephanie had said yes to the sales rep role she feels it would have been harder to get to a technical role, realizing she could choose to wait and gain more experience.
    • At the time she had worked for Oracle for 3 years. In the first couple years they (Google) said no. But as she gained more experience Google was knocking down her door.
    • "The right opportunities will come when you gain the right experience." – Stephanie Wong
    • Stephanie trusted that if she continued learning things would fall in line (and they did a couple of months later).
  • The take away from the Stanford example is when you feel something isn’t sitting right, it probably isn’t.
    • The people who will be evaluating you will notice this, and even if you do get it you won’t truly be happy.
    • Stephanie chose to follow the things that were exciting and challenging (her pivot into joining the customer success management team at Oracle).
  • The take away from the Google turn down and eventually getting it is if something doesn’t feel right that might sway your direction, talk to people and consider all factors.
    • Many things needed to come into the picture for Stephanie to say yes.

32:53 – Back to Sales Engineering

  • The type of statement Stephanie would have to write to move forward with graduate school was in conflict with how she actually felt.
    • It was kind of an experiment for Stephanie and was not the first time she attempted something similar.
    • In her last year of school she had attempted to apply to Harvard Business School through the 2+2 program but didn’t make it (sort of a hail mary).
    • It was a good experience for her to realize that something was not fitting.
    • The personal statement for Stanford seemed like a reach. It needed to express a passion for digital journalism, and Stephanie lacked some experience.
  • It seems like Stephanie had to go through a similar exercise when approaching the sales rep position at Google Cloud even if it didn’t require writing a personal statement.
    • Every interview is a good exercise for interviewing the company and ensuring it is a fit.
    • Stephanie learned after the time spent with people going through the interview process for the sales rep position, maybe it was not the direction she wanted to go.
    • She at this point had 3 years experience as a sales engineer and better knew her interests in the industry.
  • Stephanie went back to sales engineering at Google (after being in customer success at Oracle as her most recent experience).
    • She wanted to get into Google and knew she had the right experience level.
    • The customer success manager role was similar to sales engineering in many ways (a number of transferrable skills, not a drastic change):
      • Working with customers
      • Helping consult on architectural decisions
      • Building out solutions for customers
  • Nick mentioned that some point have a certain level of comfort being on a certain side of the fence.
    • The role Stephanie was applying to at Google Cloud was on a team where she knew some of the people (good feedback on the team).
    • Financial incentives were different. The quota was more like a goal, tied to the entire team and not to one specific person.
    • Leveraging relationships before joining a company is a key to success (easier said than done).
      • John says he’s had a number of folks contact him about working at Google Cloud. It’s helpful when you know people but not impossible to work around it.
    • Maybe there’s also a blinder / limiting factor people have when working in pre or post-sales which prevents them from considering what success on the other side of the sale might look like.
      • Some people might shy away from pre-sales because you need to be motivated by competition, wanting to drive business goals.
      • Stephanie did not have a quota stress-inducing environment during her time on either side of the fence. Some of this likely depends on the team.
      • When Stephanie joined Google Cloud she didn’t know what post-sales teams were like. She knew what the pre-sales team was like, had friends on it, and it met expectations for that first year.

39:55 – Getting Past a Plateau

  • After that first year Stephanie thought she might be plateauing on the pre-sales team and started to consider other roles. This led to exploring developer relations / advocacy…by accident.

  • She knew that developer relations was very technical and likely would not have considered it as an option.

    • Within a few months of joining Google Cloud Stephanie met another Customer Engineer who wanted to make YouTube videos for fun. She thought that sounded great. It was something she always wanted to do but did not know how to go about dong it.
    • Stephanie had a passion for both media and tech, and when this engineer suggested they do YouTube videos together it turned out to be exactly the kind of push she needed.
    • They ended up filming with cheap web cams and record in empty conference rooms (or wherever might be available).
    • They created demos, interviewed people, and would talk about most anything…posting it all on their YouTube channel called GCP Live.
    • This provided exposure but with no expectations. Stephanie didn’t think it would lead to anything.
    • Stephanie’s current manager reached out to both her and the other engineer because he was creating videos for developer relations and had access to budget. The manager in question had a nice studio and asked Stephanie and her peer if they wanted to create some content in that studio.
    • Stephanie was able to leverage the videos as good evidence of performance as a Customer Engineer.
    • Nick’s feedback is the metrics from the videos are evidence of making a wider impact, which is what is needed to advance.
    • This type of activity is not directly related to driving business, and some of the folks who were collaborating with Stephanie and her peer could not claim credit for these activities and were asked to stop.
    • The team Stephanie was on had a slightly different structure than others, and she was able to present it in the right way to her leadership. She had helped charter an initiative showcase Google Cloud technologies to untapped new audiences with hundreds of thousands of views in the first few months.
    • Stephanie was able to excel in doing this work in addition to excelling in what was already expected of her. You cannot take on things like if you let your primary responsibilities fall by the wayside.
  • Stephanie then got additional opportunities to gain visibility like being the broadcast host for Google Cloud’s Next conference.

    • Through this experience she interviewed the director of developer relations.
    • This director shared that Stephanie’s current boss was looking to start a team dedicated to creating online scalable content in the form of videos, podcasts, and other tutorials.
    • Stephanie was very intimidated by developer relations. Her manager put her at ease, mentioning she could always learn more on the job. The manager was looking for someone passionate about technical content creation.
    • This comes back to the lesson of looking for opportunities that excite yet challenge you.
    • At the time Stephanie was already considering a higher level Customer Engineer position, but it did not produce the same nervous excitement as the developer relations position.
    • Taking the position in developer relations jumpstarted Stephanie’s career in a totally different direction than she ever expected.
  • It’s interesting that Stephanie just jumped in and did some of these things without anyone asking her to do them.

    • You have to remove the fear that what is produced will be imperfect when you begin because it will be. Or as John says, you’re definitely going to be bad at it in the beginning.
    • Stephanie and her team talk about this frequently and call it the first pancake principle. The first pancake you make isn’t going to be a good one, but the act of iterating and doing makes you better.
    • Do it because you want to, it’s fun, and you have some sort of curiousity / interest in it. The rest will fall into place.
    • Because Stephanie kept saying yes to things interesting to her like content creation, things started to come to her.
    • "Luck is when hard work meets opportunity." – Stephanie Wong
    • In John’s experience doing swing dancing, they would talk about the myth of the natural dancer (someone who was just born with the talent). In reality the person was bad at it when you weren’t around to watch.
      • Listen to John’s story about a tap dancing instructor who could not remember when they were bad at tap dancing.
      • Be willing to be bad at something because the earlier you’re bad, the sooner you can be good.
  • In the outro Nick and John reference Episode 19 on dreaming in bands and Episode 80 with Manny Sidhu about catching a technology trend wave.

  • Also check out this YouTube video Stephanie created on "How I Got My Dream Job at Google."

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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