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Transitioning from consulting to tech in the Middle East

I recently switched jobs and here’s what people see: Around March 2021, I secured 3 job offers – (1) a Strategy role at Swvl – a Dubai-headquartered startup that is revolutionizing mobility in the MENAP region and Africa (2) Chief of Staff to the CEO at one of India’s leading micro-mobility players and (3) a Strategy role with an Indian Premier League (IPL) team in and around the cricket world.

I accepted the offer to join Swvl’s strategy and innovation team based in Dubai; a transition from strategy consulting to tech, across countries and in the middle of a global pandemic. Navigating through this phase wasn’t straight-forward and I believe I would’ve benefitted from hearing someone else’s story – the real story; not the version we often read on LinkedIn. So, let me tell you mine.

Here’s what people don’t see: The last few months before March 2021 were some of the most challenging months of my career so far; I don’t say this very lightly – there were days where I’ve almost broken down during my evening run after a 10-12 hour workday. I was working at a leading strategy consulting firm, was recently promoted with a 20-25 precent raise and working on pretty interesting projects. So, what was going wrong?

Let me take you back a few years. I completed my Bachelor’s degree from BITS Pilani’s Dubai campus in 2014 and my Master’s degree in Management from Columbia University, New York in 2016. My time at Columbia and New York allowed me to learn about a multitude of career opportunities – consulting, tech strategy, product etc. Consulting was the go-to choice for a large number of students in my cohort given the steep learning curve and lucrative exit opportunities it provides. Personally, I’ve always been super passionate and intrigued about the tech and internet space. The idea of creating a product or service that solves a problem for someone (even 1 person) was the attraction for me. While I appeared for a bunch of consulting interviews and secured an offer from a management consulting firm’s New York office, I kept looking for a role in tech. I didn’t have the perfect resume for a tech role in 2016/17 (I don’t even today, in fact one never does) but I had the desire to find a role that I’d be a good fit for. So, I kept looking.

I sent a well-drafted cold message on LinkedIn to a Product Manager at a tech company in Dubai and received a positive response. I had my foot in the door – a case study and a couple of interviews later I had an offer to join them as a Business Analyst. Long story short (some other time; what transpired was interesting and gave me valuable life-lessons but doesn’t sit well in this story) – after a lot of thought I chose to take up the consulting role. I spent the next 4.5 years working on strategy projects across the US, MENA and Asia, supporting CXOs identify and solve some of their most complex challenges. The learning and growth was exponential but around mid 2020, I found myself routinely thinking about the bigger picture, thinking about the kind of impact I was having on these projects and questioning if I was really working on something I resonate with personally. It was time to make a change.

Here’s how I went about it:

Before you start:

Self-Awareness: What phase of your career are you in? What motivates you? What drives you to wake up every day? Personally, what’s the most important thing for you in your next gig?

In my case, I felt that the academic background and 4-5 years of global consulting experience had given me the skills and exposure I’d hoped for. Earlier in my career, I admit that among other things I was driven by things such as the learning/growth opportunities, brand of the organization/client I worked for, compensation or even the perks of consulting. But a few years down the line, the desire to make meaningful impact and contributing towards solving a larger problem seemed to be the real calling. The lack of it had created a void of sorts and I was seeking for that opportunity in my next gig. I believe this becomes super critical for folks who are looking to switch because they’re lacking something in their current role – not mindfully thinking along these lines can lead a new role that feels just the same.

Professional Awareness: What geography and sector/industry do you want to work in? What kind of role do you want to target? What kind of compensation/benefits package are you looking for?

Thinking mindfully and being self-aware leads to professional awareness too. A few consulting engagements in the tech space and all my interactions with people from tech – from classrooms and career fairs in New York to coffee chats and interviews on the West Coast – gave me a sense of belonging. I strongly felt that the internet/tech company space would also potentially give me a platform to “contribute towards solving a larger problem”. Given my previous experience in strategy, growth/expansion and a deep understanding of the APAC and MENA markets, it’s where I wanted to focus all my energy.

So, over the past 4-5 months, I applied to a bunch (read ‘00s) of exciting opportunities in strategy in the tech space in both the APAC and the MENA region. I was only targeting core strategy roles such as – Business/Corp Strategy Manager, Strategy & Innovation Manager, Chief of Staff to the CEO etc.

Market Awareness: What’s the job market like? What skills are in demand? How and where your experience could be a good fit?

I started this process towards the end of 2020; the hiring freeze and reduced budgets meant the wait would be longer but being aware of what I was targeting was key. Personally and based on interaction with multiple recruiters, I felt my experience would be a better fit for companies scaling from 1 to 10 or 10 to 100 rather than a 0 to 1 journey. I prepared to tell the listener how my experience will be valuable in their company’s onward journey rather than just share my experience.

Once you start:

Research: Company history and trajectory

A quick research around the industry and the company, their trajectory and future potential should give you enough data points to decide if the opportunity is exciting. If you want to be really sure, the best way is to connect with someone on the inside.

Keep it personalized and structured: Resume, messages, pitches

It’s practically not possible to tailor your resume for every job posting but it’s a great practice to have 2-3 versions of your resume which highlight the different kinds of experience and achievements based on the intended audience e.g. a version tailored for product strategy roles in tech and another one for business strategy role at a larger corporate.

LinkedIn messages and pitches are most effective when they’re succinct but informative. Write an introductory note highlighting your background, experiences and interest in their company/connecting with them. Again, 2 versions. One short note to personalize LinkedIn connection requests and a little longer one for InMails. And, please personalize.

Just ask: Networking, cold-reach-outs, Referrals

Sometimes, the power of social media (for creating positive influence) baffles me. I’ve often found if you ask, people are willing to help. Cold-reach outs have often yielded great results for me. Have I been lucky? Maybe. But, I’ve also made an effort to keep cold messages structured – prioritize people with common experiences (alumni network, same ex-company, someone with many mutual connections etc.), follow-up politely after a few days or a week and show them you’re passionate about that job.

The role I’ve taken up at Swvl was not on LinkedIn or even their Careers page. I had reached out to a few employees on LinkedIn and expressed my desire to explore roles that’d be a good fit. The HR gave me a ring in 24 hours and in under 2 weeks I went through a few round of interviews. One of the employees I messaged took the trouble to forward my resume internally and to the right person. That’s all it takes – one person willing to take out 1 minute to forward your email.

It’s all about the odds (and luck)

Irrespective of what you do, there is a certain amount of luck involved in a job search process. If you want to get technical, it’s a classic supply demand issue. You may be perfect for a role but there are 100s of people who went to the same universities and worked in the same companies as you. It’s likely 100s or 1000s more are a great fit for the job. It’s then a matter of being at the right place at the right time. What I can tell you confidently is that if you do ever thing in your control correctly, you’ll get that “dream job” sooner than you think.

In fact, let’s talk about “dream jobs”. I’m not a believer of this term. What’s a “dream job”? If Apple is your dream company, I’m sure you’d like some of the roles in other top Internet companies in the valley. Recently, a friend of mine told me that she was rejected by her dream company. My immediate response was, “there’s plenty of good fish in the sea”. Keep applying to roles and companies in your area of interest in a targeted manner. Rejection is inevitable; my Gmail inbox is full of exactly that. You don’t need a 100 job offers but you need many applications to get 1; it’s all about the odds.

Once you’re almost there:

Interviews: How to prepare, How much to prepare, Case studies, Behavioral interviews, HR Discussions

One of the most common reasons why good, competitive candidates who make it to the interview get rejected is their lack of preparation. And, even those who think about preparation think about it with a narrow lens. Let me explain – preparation is not just going through the company website and their Glassdoor page etc. I believe exhaustive preparation must include a thorough research of the company, their product and operations/different businesses, interactions with some folks on the inside to understand their trajectory in the recent past and their future potential, research on the sector in general and their competitors and also thinking out of the box about changes they can make, things they can do differently (efficiency levers) and other areas or businesses they can explore (growth/expansion levers).

The learnings from a detailed deep-dive will be valuable in solving a live/take-home case study. Always do more than required. Something as simple as sending the interviewer a thank you email with a summary of the case/discussion can go a long way. If it was a take-home case, make it elaborate – endeavour to demonstrate skills across the spectrum such as analysis (quantitative/qualitative), leadership and stakeholder management and even your presentation/design skills.

For other discussions be prepared with answers to all the common behavioral questions – Why you? Why this company? Why this role? Why a change now? Why you’re a fit? Strengths/Weaknesses? .. the list goes on. The key is to ensure the responses are as personalized for that industry and company.

Why do you want to work for this company? What excited you about this role? These questions, can never have the same answer in different interviews. A generic answer will surely dent your chances. Be truthful and answer based on your personal assessment, news/online articles and content and interactions with existing employees. Tie it all back to your background and previous experience – share why it’s something you’re looking to take it up. In other areas of the interview, focus on the regional nuances if you’re moving across countries. Talk about the trends and recent developments in that region and why that excites you. You can’t fake any of this – only hours of genuine preparation can help.

During one of my pre-interview research sessions I stumbled upon an interesting YouTube video about the company and the Founder. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm ensured I watched about 4-5 hours of videos about the founder, the company and their business before I slept that night. But again, you can never prepare enough.

Choosing between offers

I think this is very closely related to Self-Awareness and Professional awareness that I’ve covered earlier. Other than ensuring the decision is aligned with my gut instinct, one of the things that’s helped me make this decision is visualizing how it’ll be like in that role in 6-8 months, what I might be working on etc. Again, talking to current and former employees and your hiring manager might be valuable. Unless the difference is huge, don’t go by the dollar.

Compensation discussions

The one thing I will stress on here is – “Know your worth.” Companies try to put a number based on your current salary + x% but you must know your worth. If you’re not truly satisfied with the compensation, if not now then a few months down the line it’ll start eating at you. So, know your worth and know what you’ll settle for ”happily”. Research on the salary bands or benchmarks in the company and industry for similar positions. If the offer is way off, in most cases it’s best to politely walk away. If it’s close, and you do negotiate – be polite but firm and highlight what you bring to the table to make your case. “I would be more comfortable with Y because..” sounds much better than “I want Y”.

So, let me wrap this up by wishing you all the luck for your next career move. Like me, if you’re keen to explore the tech world in the MENA region, I hope you can learn from my experience. Until next time – stay restless, question yourself, take action and believe that the dots will connect.

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