My Journey to Microsoft: Why Knowing Who You Are Is The First Step to Accomplishing Anything

Walner Dort - Microsoft

There will always be someone that wonders how you got to where you are. Here I tell how I got to where I am, and why it is less important than who I am. The more you lean into who you are, the higher you will elevate.

The Question

I often get asked, “Hey, being that you are a mechanical engineer, how did you get a job at Microsoft?”. I wasn’t sure I knew the answer [even with more than a year into the role]. Like many others, given an opportunity, I often think, “why me?”

A Risk I Was Willing to Take.

As a Black boy growing up in Irvington, New Jersey, I’d be lying if I said I knew where I would be today. I wouldn’t be lying if I said I am where I am because of where I came from. The answer to the question above starts here. Knowing who you are and where you are from are the most important things someone can learn about themselves. It gives you a place to start.

To answer the question above, I need to understand why I chose to do mechanical engineering in the first place. Growing up, I always wanted to know how things like cars, planes and trains worked. Somebody told me that mechanical engineering was a diverse discipline where you learn a little bit of everything. I figured why not learn the fundamentals of engineering for the things that I cared about? I asked a lot of questions. This was something that I noticed helped me get through all of my academics to date. I had been fearless enough not to know, and that was okay for me. I could always ask. It created in me what I like to call a #DoBetter attitude. This attitude is not dependent on knowing, but it is somewhat dependent on learning. How much can I learn from this experience/opportunity?

After graduating and obtaining my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, I applied to many different jobs across the country. I was open to relocating. At the beginning of my career, I knew that no matter what I was doing, understanding business and technology would get me the furthest. I landed my first job in my career as a Product Development Engineer at the world’s largest manufacturer of diesel engine technology. The position was in Madison, Wisconsin. Having lived in New Jersey my whole life [a place where I knew everyone], moving to a place where I knew no one was indeed a risk. A risk I was willing to take.

Getting in Tune with Myself

Fast forward two and a half years and I had been excelling within my role. I learned vital business/engineering concepts that helped me grow comfortable in my new profession. These tools opened me up to a new way of thinking. Tools that helped me understand what assumptions can be made for given scenarios and how to be empowered when making decisions as a leader. You learn that what’s possible is determined by our perspective, assumptions, motivations etc. This kind of understanding tends to bleed into other areas of life as you learn it.

I began to ask myself what is possible for me? Why would I want to do x versus y? Why, if something was obtainable, could it be mine versus not? I call this getting in tune with myself.

By getting in tune with myself, I learned that I had more in me that I wanted to learn and achieve. As a Black man in mechanical engineering, I could have been satisfied with where I was [given how rare it was for someone like me to be there in the first place].

My general understanding of computer science [via my degree requirements] and interest in tech via random YouTube videos would eventually lead to my interest in large tech companies. It was the scale for me. How could the understanding I have of how things are made work to serve so many people? I thought, “There must be something unique going on at the tech companies that only they can solve.” This sparked my interest in going to my first AfroTech Conference in November of 2018 in San Francisco, California.

Getting Lost on Purpose

I didn’t think it was likely for me to get an opportunity [at AfroTech] given my background, I figured it would be worthwhile to learn more about tech companies and talk to them first hand. I’ve never been to California, so this was a good reason to cross that off my list as well. I noticed that AfroTech was allowing people to put up their resumes onto the conference website for opportunities. I paid to get my resume professionally redone to highlight my transferable skills to give me the best chance of getting noticed.

The investment paid off as I had interviews with multiple tech companies—everyone from Amazon, Yahoo, Google, and of course, Microsoft. I was surprised.

I left the AfroTech Conference feeling great thinking that if I could land some interviews, then I must have something that they want. I eagerly waited to hear back from my recruiters about my candidacy. A couple of days later, I had received the bad news that I had not been selected for both of the roles that I interviewed for within Microsoft. It was not the end of the world, being that I still had a great job. But it was still disappointing. My recruiter had asked me about some of my motivations and was genuinely rooting for me and offered me the opportunity to contact them if I ever needed anything moving forward. I accepted and took them up on the offer.

I contacted the recruiter about the 2018 NSBE conference and asked whether Microsoft accepted any pre-screening for open roles within the company. The recruiter could get me an interview with a hiring manager interested in my candidacy. I passed the NSBE interview and was invited to do an onsite interview. The onsite interview was intimidating, and I thought I would somehow need to code when I did not know how to. But instead, I was surprised to see that the interview was more so about how I think. The interviewer asked me questions I couldn’t possibly know the answer to. I fearlessly asked questions for clarification and fearlessly guessed what I thought could be a plausible solution. I did well on the interview and got an offer.

Owning the Surreal

At that moment I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was happy but also very confused. I knew I had gone in and given it my best shot, but somehow I was confused when it went my way. I had thoughts like, “Well, that was just an interview; the job will require a lot more than that. All because you got it doesn’t mean you can do it. I don’t want to move my whole life to Seattle to fail at a job I know nothing about.” I also had an offer from another mechanical engineering company that would take me back to New Jersey, where all of my friends and family are. The anxiety was real.

I had a couple of days to figure out what I wanted to do and decided that once again, the best decision for me was the decision that would stretch me the furthest. Which opportunity do I think I can learn the most from? For me, that answer was Microsoft. There is something about continually putting yourself in an uncomfortable position that will force you to do better. By taking control of my unique perspective, understanding the risk of my assumptions and being in tune with my motivations, I gained clarity.

My Answer

After almost two years, I surely do not know everything about all of the epic things that Microsoft does. But my daily approach of a #DoBetter attitude has led me to a place where I am fearless enough not to know, communicate my desire to learn more and execute what I do know. The most significant learning that I have from my experience so far is the importance of getting in tune with who you are and what you want. So in every scenario where you ask yourself, “Why Me?” answer that question with every reason you can think of.

What’s Next?

I built a brand based on the #DoBetter attitude that I referred to in this message. The brand is called “#DoBetter Simply Because You Can.” The brand’s purpose is to help those going through transitional times to feel empowered in owning their story. Using the things that got them to where they are now, to not only do more but to #DoBetter in the future.

If you feel like you got anything from reading this, please share as you see fit. You can follow the #DoBetter brand on Instagram @dobetteralways and online at www.dobetteralways.com.

Originally published on Medium by Walner Dort. This post has been edited for clarity.
Keisha Morant

A freelance writer with a passion for telling impactful tech stories online.

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