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How this engineer hacked her career and became a GM at Microsoft

Sophia Velastegui Chief Product Officer doppler labs


A couple of months ago, Sophia Velastegui was approached with an
exciting job offer: To become the general manager of Microsoft’s
artificial intelligence product unit.

She began the job in December. It was another pinnacle career
move for the star engineer, named to Business Insider’s list
of the
most powerful female engineers of 2017.

Before Microsoft, Velastegui worked at a number of tech
companies: Most recently, she was at Doppler Labs, the
smart headphone company that shut down in November
. She’s
also worked at Nest, then Alphabet’s smart home company, where
she was in charge of the roadmap for the chips in the
company’s smart home appliances. She also spent 5 years as a
manager at Apple. Plus, she holds several patents and sits on the
board of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering.

Velastegui tells us that after she appeared on our annual list,
she was approached by a number of companies. She says she was
even asked to come back to Apple, which was tempting because she
still lives a few miles from the its Silicon Valley headquarters.

But the thought of diving deep into AI, one of the most important
up-and-coming technologies, and at the position of general
manager — just a few rungs down from the executive leadership
team — was too good to pass up, even though it means having to
move her family to the Seattle area, she tells Business Insider.

And all of her success to date is because when Velastegui
first started out, she realized that her career depended on
overcoming her natural shyness.

A phobia of public speaking

Velastegui was working at Applied Materials when her boss gave
her an opportunity that could advance her career. She was to give
a public presentation on the team’s work, putting her in the

public speaking
ter Burg

“Pubic speaking was kind of a phobia,” she explains, but she
agreed to do it anyway. “I presented to the vice president and I
was horrible at it.”

But instead of crawling into a corner and giving up, she figured
that “deliberate practice makes perfect.” 

And she came up with a game plan that she perfected over the
years that trained her out of her shyness, helped her network at
business events, and led her to job offers from Apple, Google and

  • She joined Toastmasters, a nonprofit organization that helps
    its members practice their public speaking skills in a friendly
  • She volunteered for speaking gigs internally within Applied
    Materials, even though they terrified her. After a while, she
    grew more skilled at it and comfortable. “You have to practice,
    have to take more risks and then you get better,” she discovered.

As she grew more comfortable speaking to strangers, she
engineered a plan that allowed her to grow her business network,
too, which led her to job offers at Apple and then Google.

Anyone can do this

This is Velastegui’s process for overcoming her shyness. It’s a
plan that can be used by anyone, shy or not, to boost your

  1. Pick people you want to meet ahead of
     This step is about overcoming the fear of
    talking to strangers at parties. Ahead of each event, she scans
    the attendees list and the speaker list, finding 10 people she
    would like to meet and “five people I make it a point to meet,”
    she says.
  2. Plan some conversation starters. She studies
    their LinkedIn profiles and other background information, which
    helps her plan some conversation-starters.
  3. Make a meet-up plan ahead of time. She sends a
    LinkedIn message to the people she wants to speak with, asking
    to meet her at the event.
  4. Make them remember her. At the event, her goal
    is to have a good conversation so they remember her and are
    willing to meet her again.

  5. woman meeting coffee

    The most important part: follow-up with people in your
    network. “I try to have 4-5 more follow-ups per month,
    one a week,” she says. “[You need to] nurture your
    network so you have relationships,” not just the empty
    LinkedIn stats on how many people are in your network.

  6. View this as a work project. As for finding
    the time, she views her career as just another long-term
    project she is working on. “Networking for career development
    should be just as important as the projects I work on,” she
    says. “If this is a project just like anything else, [one] that
    can lead ot a promotion, why wouldn’t I spend this kind of
    effort, 30 minutes to 1 hour a week?” She says that for the
    benefits you get, the time investment is “basically nothing.”
  7. Cast a wide net. She networks with people
    outside and insider her company. Knowing more people at your
    own company is “super helpful when you have to do work
    internally,” she says.
  8. Equal opportunity and safe networking. She
    reaches out to both women and men. Pro tip: “Always take a
    location that is very public and not, like, the hottest date
    location,” she says with a laugh. A breakfast, lunch or coffee
    during the day is better than a dinner or a drink in the
    evening, too.  There should be no question that the
    invitation is a business meetup, not a social one.
  9. Two a month. Finally, she attends at least two
    networking events or conferences a month, looking for shindigs
    that let her meet a wide variety of people, from engineers to
    business people to lawyers. She’s not focused just on hanging
    out with like-minded engineers.
  10. View yourself as “a company.” The key is
    to “view yourself as a company,” she says. “You need a board of
    directors … you want a broad perspective. When you look for
    mentors and advocates it should be people of different

After years of hacking her career, she’s become so skilled and
confident in public speaking and networking with strangers, she
doesn’t think twice. For instance, after she was named to
Business Insider’s list of powerful engineers, she contacted many
other women on the list to introduce herself.

grace hopper celebrationSelena Larson/ReadWrite

And then she took it the next level, organizing a panel at the
annual Grace Hopper Celebration — a conference for women in
computing — with eight other women on the list. It was a workshop
on how women engineers can take their careers to the next level.

She only had a couple of days to pull the panel together. “I
bombarded them,” she said, to get enough people to agree to do
the panel with her. And it turned out to be one of the
big hit sessions of the conference. 

And at the event, she met Terry Myerson, Microsoft’s executive
vice president of Windows and Devices for a networking coffee. A
month later, she had a job offer from Microsoft.

And there’s another bonus to hacking her career like this, it has
made her a much better manager, she says. “I know how to
get people excited about a project using the same skills as
I’ve developed for external networking. It’s no longer scary for
me,” she says.

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