“Creativity determines the difference between a leader and a follower.”
Our education system has done a great job of teaching us how to arrive on time, on how to answer test questions and how to be disciplined in our approach for work. In a sense, we’ve been taught “out of” creativity. Can you recall how many truly creative projects you’ve taken on in the studies of history, math, economics and English? Most people can count them on one hand. The point is, being trained to become a disciplined, industrial type of worker has shaped us to approach job hunting in the same manner. The creative process has been sucked out of us.
Many people think incorporating creativity in the job hunting process as “risky” and “against the grain.” In reality, by staying within the norm, you’re simply putting yourself into the mediocre middle. The majority of people do exactly that: They play it safe. They follow the rules. They stay in the norm. And so, they inevitably blend into the crowd.
So how do you stand out from the crowd? You do so by being an artist. Why? Well, it’s quite simple. Art has the power to convey emotions. To create a connection. To showcase creativity. No story demonstrates that better than the story of Hanna Phan.
I was reading through numerous blog postings when I had stumbled across her story of how she landed a job at SlideRocket. When I had finished watching her “presume” and reading her story, I was absolutely inspired. So were the thousands that had read and shared her story through social networks as well. To this day, she has had 1,290 people share her story on Facebook, 1,854 retweets, 204 LinkedIn shares and multiple job offers from different companies.
I was lucky enough to interview Hanna numerous times. On our first Skype session I found her to be incredibly genuine and forthcoming. The result is an incredibly detailed life story that features a number of recurring themes that led to her innovative approach to job hunting. What you’ll find is that Hanna’s story isn’t about how to be an overnight success. If anything, it’s been an incredible journey for her – one we can all learn from.
This is her story.
I don’t have a birth certificate. You’ll understand why as I tell you my story…
My parents are from Vietnam. They were refugees during the Vietnam War and had escaped on a boat trying to find a better life in Canada.
The Vietnam war was (1955-1975) fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and South Vietnam, supported by the United States. The U.S. viewed the war as a way to prevent communists from taking over South Vietnam. In the 1975, after the end of the Vietnam War, mass Vietnamese immigration to the United States began. Many immigrants were fleeing persecution or poverty. Forced to flee from their homeland, many refugees, including Hanna’s parents, boarded dangerously crude and overcrowded boats and took to the sea to escape.
During the immigration escape, my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, gave birth to me on a private Malaysian island where the boat had happened to land. My mom almost gave me away to a Malaysian woman on the island because there was a fifty-fifty chance we wouldn’t survive. Keep in mind, there were ruthless pirates out there on ocean waters and conditions on the boat were brutal.
Luckily that never happened.
My parents immigrated safely to Canada four years later and landed in Toronto. We were lucky enough to be sponsored by the Red Cross. And my life in Canada began.
Don’t be Afraid of Trying Something New
My father was an entrepreneur and had a small electronics store. Being that I was the only geeky one out of my brothers and sisters, I helped out at the store after school. This was officially the first job I ever had.
When I was younger, I lived and breathed the business. Our life as a family was tied to it. My dad always had work during vacation and there was time we’d have to end our vacation to come back to take care of business at the store. He’d try to make time, but the business always came first.
I made sure people didn’t steal things, so basically I was security guard. I was also the cashier. I was also the tester of products. I was also customer service since I helped people with the VCRs and Walkmans. They would always try to negotiate with me when I was the salesperson. I would say “no tax” if they gave me cash. You could say I was a quick learner because I wasn’t afraid of trying something new.
What the store also taught me was how to be a good risk taker. It was inherent in me. I learned by watching my dad – I’d listen in on conversations and eventually negotiated the pricing for electronics and toys in the store.
I get excited about getting a good deal.
There’s always a deal to be had.
Dip Your Toes Into the Water
Hanna’s story highlights the importance of dipping your toes into the water.
You can only really truly know what you love once you experience it.
You can do all the pre-work in the world to qualify possible “passions” like interviewing other people, researching the job responsibilities online and looking at the different attributes of the job, but at the end of the day, nothing replaces living and breathing the work itself. So kick off those sandals, soak up the sun and dip your toes in the water. Hanna did that by working in multiple job roles at her dad’s store and found out at an early age that she loved the entrepreneurial spirit of owning a business.
A Lesson of Risk Through Karaoke
Eventually, we got into the Karaoke business by selling laser disc rentals (we were actually one of the first to bring it into North America). Karaoke was a new thing we started. It’s amazing how you don’t even realize how cutting edge technology can be, even when it’s at the tip of your fingertips.
People were so intrigued with the sing along concept but a lot of people would get nervous going on stage. So I’d help my dad set up the wires and I’d also be there to warm up the crowd.
He’d say, “Hanna, you’re the kid, you need to go up there and show them that even a kid can do this.”
So I walked up to the front and started belting out a song.
I did it to show them that you don’t need to be so great to have fun.
The Risk of Not Taking a Risk
There is a risk in not taking a risk: It’s complacency. It’s stagnancy. It’s a dead end job (or no job at all).
How do we overcome our fears to take an intelligent risk?
We have to tell ourselves what happens if we don’t take action.
If I don’t invest the time and energy into an amazing job pitch, I may never get my dream job.
If I don’t challenge myself to think out of the box on how I’m going to impact a company (and how I’ll get their attention on what I can deliver), I may never get noticed.
If I don’t utilize social media to build my brand, I may never develop a brand beyond a piece of paper (my resume).
Challenge yourself – get yourself to overcome one of your biggest fears EVERY day by reminding yourself of the agony of “not doing.” It tends to work best when you remind yourself right when the fear hits you. Do this day in and day out and you’ll see the change gradually. If you feel that “becoming an artist” in the job hunting process is too big of a leap for you right away, take incremental steps. Here are a few key tips to help you break out of our shell and into a creative mindset:
Start by talking to someone everyday you wouldn’t normally chat with.
When you’re amongst a crowd, sing one of your favorite songs out loud.
Ask someone out on a date.
The point is, these exercises are here to show you that taking a risk isn’t as hard as you think.
Remember, there’s a risk to not taking a risk.
If You Don’t Adapt, You Won’t Survive
Fast forward to college. This is where I first discovered what I was passionate about.
I attended University of Western Ontario with a focus on computer science and economics. When I graduated in 2002 though, there was the infamous tech bust and I had a technical degree, so I decided to stay in school. So I enrolled into a masters program focused around biomedical engineering.
During my job search, I had actually started off looking for companies that made medical devices. It was related to what I was studying (biomedical engineering) and I could use my engineering and skills to improve medical devices. It seemed like a natural fit.
The problem was, these types of companies just weren’t hiring. It was such a narrow field! So I struggled to find out how to apply my skills to the job opportunities out there in the market.
After graduating from college, my friend who I studied with in computer science, was working at Electronic Arts in Vancouver and actually told me to give him my resume for an engineering job. I thought, “Why not?” After all, computer graphics seemed pretty simple.
Embrace Change (when it makes sense)
Instead of sticking to her guns and insisting on working at a medical device company, Hanna made the decision to adapt her skills to where the opportunity presented itself.
Change is hard. It requires you to broaden your horizons. But when it makes sense, you’ve got to make the change.
After he submitted my resume, he sent me the job description for a network engineering position. The thing is, I didn’t know a thing about networking!
I got a phone call from a recruiter asking about my background and she told me that the interviews were going to be held in Toronto.
Basically, my resume had gone into an engineering pool of opportunities and they were going to determine where I was the best fit.
You Don’t Know Unless You Ask (Ask Intelligently)
I’m sweating my pants because I’ve never had a technical interview like this before.
Fresh out of school, they wanted me to look at code during this interview. They wanted me to figure out what was wrong with this code.
The interviewer would ask, “How would you make this more efficient?”
I was just shitting my pants. There were 3 interviews that day and you just jump room to room. For the very last interview of the day, I met up with the recruiter.
He asked, “How’d it go?”
“I have no idea. Can you tell me?”
“I’ll let you know.”
So I started to ask the questions I had about the company.
“What’s the career development like at EA? How long does it take for an engineer to move into management?”
“Well, they would do engineering for 2-3 years. They would work with their manager to move them over into management.”
“How can you fast track that?”
“Well, you have to work with your manager, but that doesn’t happen.”
“What if I wanted to make it into management today?”
I felt like I would be better managing a technical team. I didn’t want to be a code monkey. (No offense to the coders out there, we all know how hard it is to code) I pushed on.
“I’m really interested into getting into the management field.”
There was a silent pause.
“Actually, there might be something that might fit this, but you’d have to do another set of interviews. Well, at EA they’re just starting this new program called DDOP, director development onboarding program, a pilot program for new hires / graduates. They basically train them in the management role and grow them into it. This pilot was designed for junior people to become management stars at EA. Let me see if this is available for you.”
The key lesson I learned was that it’s important to get past the fear right away. Get to the point you’re trying to make and then let yourself feel the fear afterwards. Doing this builds courage and confidence.
The following week, I get a phone call for an interview for the management position! They liked me and I found out later I made it. I was the last hire.
Hearing the words “You’re hired” was a beautiful thing. That’s how I go into management and it took off from there.
The lesson I learned was: If you don’t ask, you don’t know.
I had worked at EA for a few years when one day, out of the blue, I suddenly became very ill. It came out of nowhere. I didn’t know what it was, but I had really big stomach pains. They thought it was my appendix and I said, “Are you sure? Do some more imaging!”
I wanted to make sure after all. Luckily it wasn’t my appendix.
I ended up being hospitalized for 5 days. Being in the hospital and having to stare at the white walls made me think about life again. I started to think, “If I die, am I happy with my life right now?” And a huge part of this question was around my career because it was a big part of my life.
Have you ever hit rock bottom before?
Rock bottom is a place:
Where you realize you have no passion for the work.
Where you realize you were meant to accomplish so much more.
Where you realized things HAD to change because the pain of staying the same was too much to bear.
Most of us have but we don’t realize one key piece of the puzzle: you don’t have to settle for “rock bottom,” “mediocre” or “good enough.”
You can reach for being great and it starts with setting a goal.
You need to define what you want in order to achieve it.
Let’s examine case studies of businesses that had clearly defined goals:
· BMW wants to provide you the ultimate driving experience by blending luxury and sport.
· Beach Body’s P90X videos strive to help you get into the best shape of your life, all within your home.
· Apple’s iPhone strives to provide you best possible customer experience of computing, digital photography, video, applications, and telephony all within one device.
Each of these companies has performed incredibly well by having a strong focus on their goals. Great companies have clearly defined goals. You should too.
If you don’t have any goals defined – how can you build a plan to achieve those goals?
It’s like throwing a dart blindfolded. (Don’t try that at home…you’ll end up with holes in your wall. I speak from experience.)
Define where the destination is and you can begin to map out how to get there.
I’m very ambitious and I realized I wanted to try a lot of different things – I wanted to explore. I wanted to branch out.
I thought that would help me grow as a person and so I made up my mind. I knew this when I asked myself, “Where do I see myself in 4 years? Do I want to become the Director of QA?” And the answer was no. I paid attention to what the QA Director had to do and the decisions they had to make and at the end of the day, it didn’t really excite me. Ironically, I felt like what most of us seemed to care about in college was the idea of having a high-ranking “title” at work.
During this time, my friend had her own security business and for the past year had always tried to recruit me to her company. She basically said, “Well, if you want to come over, I need you to start right away.”
A month later I gave my notice and I went to my friend’s company. I became a security consultant. Eventually the company was acquired, but the acquisition didn’t turn out so smoothly. They eventually let go of the entire professional services team after a year.
I was a part of that team.
All summer, I was trying to figure out, what am I going to do? I really had no idea where I was going, what I was going to be and I was on an emotional roller coaster. Then the recession hit really hard in October 2008. Oddly enough, because of the fact that I had a mortgage, a severance that would last me a few months, a credit loan for emergency money and my boyfriend still had a job, I didn’t feel too downbeat about my prospects. Not yet at least.
I intended to take a break but at the time, I did get some interviews through referrals from a friend at Lucas Arts in San Francisco and another friend at a different security company. I didn’t think the interviews went bad, but all of a sudden, I never heard back. There were no more emails and no more calls from them. And then I thought…
Wow, this recession is real.
It was like everyone just stopped. All I could think was, wow, this is really bad timing.
But I felt like this was a great opportunity to give back to the community, so I worked at a non-profit for a while. I also ran a marathon and raised $6,000 for charity. So during this time I felt like I finally didn’t have any excuses for doing the things I always wanted to do. I also felt like I needed to brush up on my public speaking, so I joined Toastmasters. (Toastmasters is basically a public speaking club)
“You’re an expert if you believe you’re an expert”
Being fearless in trying new things, I dove right in on my first Toastmasters presentation. Being entrepreneurial is in my blood. So I fired up a Powerpoint where I talked about what I was passionate about. I basically delivered a seven-minute speech on “How to deliver a great presentation.”
My opening line was, “People are dying everyday of boredom, 99% of all presentations just suck.” And I got a chuckle from the audience right away.
I kept going. “Here are the three steps to approach better looking slides.” I just kept going on with that, and people really enjoyed it because they learned from it. I started buying books on presentations and I just dove right into learning it. I would process the information and then deliver it in my own words and style.
I became known as the Powerpoint guru and someone told me I should start giving workshops on these. I ended up doing it often and even hosted an hour workshop for the Toastmasters conference. Ironically, I never expected myself to be an expert in anything. But I quickly learned on my own:
“You’re an expert if you believe you’re an expert.”
Spend time with your believers
What really kept me alive during this recession is having the right people surrounding me that truly believed in me. It’s like having your own cheer leading team, because you’re often your biggest critic. Our mind is so powerful that it has the power to affect how we act and feel. When people believe in you, they don’t highlight your shortcomings. They highlight your potential and your strengths. They have louder voices than your own to drown out your criticism. They see the diamond in the rough.
During times of struggle, you become very aware of yourself and you tend to think a lot about where you’re at and where you should be headed. And sometimes you can be very critical of yourself and your self-belief begins to fade.
This also gets exacerbated with doubters. People who weren’t my cheerleaders would say that I was doing something wrong since I didn’t take on a job that reflects what I studied in college. “Why didn’t you do that since you studied it in school?”
I doubted myself at least once a day and I wouldn’t be able to sleep some days until 5 or 6 in the morning. I would try to keep a confident persona, but it was the opposite.
At that time, having my supporters around me helped a lot through this time. I realized I was happy in what I was doing at the time. I ran a marathon, worked with a non-profit, a mentorship program and raised money for the Earth Fund (environmental awareness). These were all things I believed in. I realized that passion came in pieces for me.
Finally, I asked the big question: What was I missing?
I realized I wanted to solve big problems.
So I decided to jump right back into the job search.
I started by submitting resumes to 10 different companies as a warm up. You know, just to get comfortable with the rhythm and the process. I reached out to Zynga, a really successful online gaming company that leverages Facebook as a platform. I submitted online and also had a friend of mine (an old EA contact) who was high up in the chain there refer me. I did get a call back from a recruiter but she was quick to point out that I didn’t have recent gaming experience in the last 3 years. She said we’ll “put you into a different pile” based on the lack of recent experience. When we talked on the phone, she basically said that they were looking for someone who was in gaming recently.
This got me fired up. I realized I needed to approach this differently.
Interview the Company First
This is where the big shift happened. I asked myself, “Where do I really want to work at?” Instead of having other people qualify me for the job, I’m going to actively choose where I want to go. Sure I have contacts here, but do I want to work at these companies? Zynga took a lot of effort to be persistent. It was a closed minded thing, but she sees all these different experiences outside of the traditional gaming experience. What she’s looking for specifically is someone who had recent gaming experience. And I didn’t fit her criteria. It was like trying to fit square peg into a hole. After all, I had spent years working at a non profit, community work, charitable causes and presentation seminars.
I had all these great experiences, but they didn’t fit into the roles I was applying for.
I had to really think about what I really, really wanted.
So I began to think, “Who would understand the presentation stuff I had done recently?”
I love presentations but I didn’t want to just be doing presentations. I wanted to change the way people present as a culture. It shifts the way people work if you can change that within a company and I wanted to do this with the tech industry.
Hanna answered the core question of job hunting: What’s my purpose?
Understand your purpose and it will fuel your drive.
If I told you that it was your job to sort through a box of potatoes and to throw away the rotten ones, would you feel a strong sense of purpose? Or would you feel like a cog in a machine? Now – what if I told you that by sorting out the bad potatoes you were helping out the local food bank in supplying fresh food supplies to needy families in the area – would that change your perspective and your sense of purpose in the work? Now that you understood the purpose of the work you want to do – does it potentially change your attitude or perhaps even your choice of work?
I’m not here to dictate what purpose is. Everyone’s got a different definition based on their experiences in life and their own set of values.
But what I do want to ask you is:
What does purpose mean to you?
For Hanna, it meant changing the way people work by teaching them a new way of presenting. Once she had that figured out, she began to work on…
I began to write a list of characteristics of the ideal company:
1. I would be appreciated for my presentation skills
2. I would be appreciated for my entrepreneurial aspirations
3. High energy, high tech company
4. A big city location and lifestyle similar to San Francisco, Vancouver, and Toronto
I was immediately able to narrow down my list to these companies:
Prezi, a company focused on cloud based presentation software, was looking for product managers. But their job opportunities were based in Budapest, so that was out as an option.
SlideRocket, a company focused on presentations that could be created and viewed online, also caught my attention.
I looked into their job openings and found one open for a product manager position and I as I read through the description, I began to think, “Oh my gosh, this is so cool. VMware had recently acquired Slide Rocket and they wanted to integrate it into the company culture – that fit exactly what I was looking for! Holy crap – did I just hit the jackpot?” I re-read it over and over again.
Here’s what the job description said:
Job Description This product manager role will be responsible for achieving successful VMware-wide rollout of SlideRocket as our presentation platform, and driving both internal group adoption, process change and product roadmap evolution to achieve this goal. This role will lead the rollout of SlideRocket over the next six months, supported by IT program management office, SlideRocket product teams, VMware corporate marketing and various product marketing teams.
Specific responsibilities include, but are not limited to:
– Create and drive a SlideRocket use case roadmap and adoption campaign throughout VMware
– Scalable Evangelism, Education, Support: Develop and provide training to groups and individuals at a regular cadence, including best practices guidance on presentation design and content organization. Showcase unique capabilities of the application, with special focus on graphical treatments, media streaming, and content management.
– Product/Solution Management. Manage priorities, feature sets of both Sliderocket core roadmap and VMware implementation of content, recommended features to achieve various organization and use case requirements. Be an extension of the SlideRocket team, and liase between VMware and SlideRocket development teams on user experience and product enhancements; track feedback and milestones.
Time was of the essence. This job had already been posted for a week and I knew they were going to be flooded with applicants.
I knew this was the job I wanted. But I couldn’t take the typical resume route. I didn’t want to be another rat in the wheel. And if that was the case, well then, I realized I needed to go about my job search with a completely different approach.
Inspired by a podcast and blog post by Seth Godin, the first thing I did was trash my resume.
The problem with a resume is that it doesn’t scream, “This is ME! I’m creative, energetic, full of life,” and there’s no visual way to express what you want to say to someone through a piece of paper.
Gone was the resume.
So, off I went to explore other ways to tell my story – the story of why I wanted to work for a certain company – with a truly creative approach.
Then, the light bulb went off – I needed to approach this job search in the same way I would court someone. With a love letter. A visual one. I needed to convince them that I was worth the wait. That I could stand out in a pile of applicants.
And then it hit me.
I had my “aha!” moment.
I was going to create a presentation resume to court them, with their very own product!
One of the criteria was to “quickly learn how to use SlideRocket.” It was a no brainer!
I was really excited to start creating my presentation. The only thing was…I was looking at a blank canvas in front of me. What do I say in it? I started to brainstorm…
It was a big question. I began to think that I should start how I could be the solution to their challenge. In other words, if I was in that role, what would I do to help with the Enterprise roll out of SlideRocket at VMware? And what are my 3 key attributes that I want to get across? And given that people have short attention spans, I knew I only had 30 seconds to deliver that message.
So I began to write. Before I knew it, I had written three different versions.
I didn’t consider any of them to be the “final” draft, but it was something I could work with. I put it into Powerpoint and imported it into SlideRocket.
I added text into their slides and I started stringing the story together by tying images to the presentation slides. I began surfing istockphoto.com and shutterstock.com for that. If you’re ever surfed these sites before, you know how tedious of a process it can be. It can take hours if not days to find the right images you’re looking for.
Finally, after much searching, I had found what I was looking for. It was so simple. Yet so well drawn. (You can see it in my presume link)
I began to tie my major themes in the presentation to the images. For example:
1. “Nothing is impossible” – This theme reminded me of magic, so I used a magic trick photo
2. “I’ve got the passion and guts to be successful” – I thought back to the days I did karaoke in front of large crowds and that’s why I chose the karaoke image.
By the way, even though I’ve giving you the steps on how I made my presume, I want you to know, there isn’t a secret step by step formula. You have to understand, when you’re going through the creative process and it’s a journey that doesn’t happen over night.
I began to work furiously day and night. This would go on for weeks. I even spent a day and a half just to find the right song. I used this website to find the music for the presume: http://www.friendlymusic.com/
I started browsing, then used the advanced search tab and narrowed it down to a few songs, played them over and over again and asked myself, “Am I going to get sick of this?”
I would play it to my husband and ask him, “Which one resonates with you?”
Since he knew me so well he would tell me which ones fit and which ones should be tossed.
As I worked on the presume, I would routinely be up until Midnight or 1 AM. Keep in mind too, that these were full days where I would start early in the morning and would work long hours deep into the night.
Even on the last day, I got cold feet. Doubts began to creep in. Should I still do this? Because once I do, it’s out there in the world for everyone to see. When you do something completely different, when you put yourself completely out there, you always have second thoughts because it’s so different.
What’s the worst that can happen?
I decided it was a risk worth taking. It was a smart risk in the grand scheme of themes.
So with that said, I dove right in.
The Tweet Heard ‘Round the World
I tweeted Chuck Dietrich, the CEO of Slide Rocket. I gave him a link to my presume, which you can watch here:
Here’s our Twitter conversation (read it from the bottom up):