This engineer created a fool-proof plan to overcome shyness -- and it led her to jobs at Apple, Google, and now Microsoft

Doppler LabsSophia Velastegui

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 realised 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 spotlight.

“Public 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 Microsoft.

  • She joined Toastmasters, a nonprofit organisation that helps its members practice their public speaking skills in a friendly environment.
  • 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 career.

  1. Pick people you want to meet ahead of time.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. 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 backgrounds.”

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, organising 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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