Monday, May 3, 2021

My next play: I’m going back to school, again.

When I was getting my MBA I met a few MBA students from other schools who were doing joint MBA/MPA’s through Harvard’s Kennedy School. I had no idea such joint programs existed and was bummed that I did not try to do a program like that at the time. I looked more into Harvard’s MPA programs and saw they had a full time Mid-Career 1 Year MPA. This program is designed for people later in their careers that often already have advanced degrees. Before I graduated with my MBA 8 years ago, I made the goal to attend this program.

Even before the pandemic, my wife and I decided that if I was going to apply to Harvard’s MPA program, 2020 was the year to do it for our family (which now includes 3 kids under 6). She has been extremely supportive even though this means moving our family again after only having moved to Raleigh from the Bay Area in September of last year. She has been an incredible partner on my career adventures. I like to tease her about how lucky she is that I don’t like to golf or watch sports but I do have one hobby that is really expensive and time consuming: grad school. Few things sound more fun to me than being a student again so I can sit in interesting classes and get to know interesting people.

I was interested in this program for a lot of reasons. Interest in the public sector/public service has been brewing in me for a long time. As the son of a Cuban immigrant, I have always felt a deep gratitude, respect and love for the United States from a young age. I saw how my family was able to leave a dangerous political situation and build successful lives in the US with the personal freedoms that were disappearing in Cuba when they fled. I believe the US has a net positive impact on the world and helping the standing/influence of the US on the world stage motivates me.

At the age of 19, I served a two-year, full time volunteer mission for my church working with Spanish speaking congregations in Southern California. That was an incredible experience for a lot of reasons, but it definitely helped to bust open my world view on many different levels. One of my most memorable experiences was trying to provide some comfort to an alcoholic around Christmas time. He lived in a junky trailer behind a house in the worst part of town. Listening to him describe how he was driven to alcohol after losing his wife and daughter tragically as he illegally crossed into the US seeking a better life was a life changing moment for me. I really saw, recognized and felt the suffering of someone from a different culture, religion and country. That moment has helped drive the need for my life to have a positive impact outside of my immediate sphere of influence. I also at that time was able to recognize how fortunate I had been in many aspects of my life.

As an undergrad I was initially drawn more to studying business, but after being rejected from BYU’s competitive undergraduate business program, I decided to study Political Science. I absolutely loved my classes but continued to nurture the business side of me with club affiliations and internships. I graduated in 2009 during the peak of the recession. I did not have a job at graduation but was fortunate enough to get another marketing internship at a software company where I continued to build marketable skills. As that summer was starting to wrap up, I felt that marketing in a software company was a really good fit for me. I’m naturally an evangelist for the things I care about so promoting a product or service that I believed in felt good. As the son of a software engineer, I always had an interest in technology and I liked the pace and excitement of the industry. Unfortunately, I was not having much success trying to get a full time job where I was interning because of a hiring freeze. I continued to look for jobs in tech all over the country. My plan was if I was not able to get a job in tech by the end of the summer, I would move to DC to pursue more public sector interests. This was a significant career fork in the road for me.

It’s a long story for another blog post, but I was fortunate to land my first job at Salesforce in San Francisco. When I got that job, I had never even visited San Francisco before. I was ready for that adventure and eagerly packed everything into the back of my truck and moved to SF. At that point I started flying down the tech career path. Being in SF provided a ton of new experiences and greatly expanded what I thought was possible for me professionally. You are going to laugh, but I had never even had Indian food before I moved to San Francisco. During that time, I also met my amazing wife and we got married. Working in marketing was still feeling like a great fit, but after 3 years at Salesforce I decided to return to BYU to do an MBA. An MBA had also been a goal of mine since my undergrad. My goal in getting an MBA was to prep myself for future leadership, have fun, learn and expand my horizon and that’s exactly what I did. After exploring different cities, industries and jobs during my MBA program, tech marketing still seemed like the best place for me, so after my MBA I returned to Silicon Valley to work at LinkedIn in marketing. That was a great experience, but after a few years, I was itching for another adventure and specifically something that would accelerate my career experiences.

My thought process was that if I am going to be living in Silicon Valley, the pedal needs to be to the metal. I joined Zoom in April of 2017 when there was about 100M in revenue and 500 employees. Zoom was a rocketship. Immediately after joining I had more responsibility and experiences that I had ever had before. I was fortunate enough to run the first two Zoomtopia’s,  be on the IPO deal team and build out our international, partner marketing and localization programs. I built a talented team of around 20 marketers in 5 different countries.

The pandemic had a profound impact on our business at Zoom that I will definitely describe in more detail in a later blog post someday. I will say though that working at Zoom in 2020 during the pandemic and all the challenges we faced as a company, gave me chance to work on a lot of things outside of my day job that started to scratch the public service/public sector itch, including launching Zoom’s International Government relations program. Zoom overnight had become center stage on critical issues like the future of work, security, relations with China, privacy and many others. I had a front row seat on the biggest collision of policy, technology, international relations and public health that we have had as a nation in a very long time. This has helped me recognize areas where I think there needs to be some changes for the US to continue to expand our leadership position in technology.

My experiences the last year and a half at Zoom during the pandemic have really brought together my professional experiences and some of my long-standing interests in ways I could have never predicted. It stirred some passions that have been taking a back seat the first ~10 years of my career. Adding fuel to the fire has been seeing the political turmoil in the US over the last four years. Personally, I value diversity of thought, peace, diplomacy and respect in the political process. As I angrily watched protestors storm the US capitol, it solidified my desire to pursue this path. I have felt very strongly for the last 8 years that I have wanted to pursue this path, but like it often does, how this might all work only became clearer towards the end of my 8-year journey to apply to this program.

I feel grateful and privileged to be able to take this detour. Very quickly in my career I was able to provide enough for myself and my family to even be able to think about pursuing my interests and passions, even when that has meant stepping out of the workforce or taking what some might consider riskier moves. I view my career as an adventure, not just a way to make a living. Most people are not able to do that, so I feel the weight of making it count and using this experience for good.

I feel lucky to have had so many people in my corner (parents, family, mentors, bosses, friends) throughout my whole life that always encouraged me, nudged me and helped me see what was possible, even when I did not. If you were to tell me in high school that I would go to grad school at Harvard, I would have laughed you out of the room. Below is the video of when I found out I had been accepted.

At this point you are probably thinking, “well…what the heck are you going to do after you graduate?”. My response to that is “ask me in a year”.

I have been so focused on my tech career, that now I will take this year to re-tool, learn and explore the public sector. I am interested in tech policy, local government, international relations and the refugee crisis. This could mean I pursue one of those areas after graduation, or I find other ways to apply it to my business career or incorporate public service later into my life.

As always, let’s keep in touch and if you roll through Boston in the next 12 months and want to say hi, please reach out.


  1. Wow! What a turn...and an amazing opportunity. Super excited for you, and can't wait to hear what this next chapter brings for you.

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  3. So interesting Derek! I love hearing about your journey. When I was applying for the MBA program at BYU I also thought about applying for the MPA program as well. So I may have to look into this program someday. I am excited to hear how it goes for you! Enjoy Boston!

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