Transcript of podcast episode with alumni guest speaker, Nina Ma.
Podcast length: 43:30
Cate: Welcome everybody to today's episode of Career Talk. I’m Cate Linforth, I will be hosting this podcast I’m the International Employer Liaison Officer here at the University of Birmingham Careers Network, and I am so excited today because our guest today is Nina Ma, who is a former student of the University and now has a very exciting career at Microsoft. Welcome, Nina.
Nina: Thank you, thank you so much for having me.
Cate: Thank you for joining us. Before we get started, did you want to tell us a little bit about yourself, where you're from, what you studied and a bit more about what you do now and where you're located now?
Nina: Yes, of course. Hi everyone, my name is Nina Ma and I studied at the University of Birmingham from 2015 to 2018. I got my degree in psychology during those three years. I’m originally from China, so I’ve been living in Birmingham for the past six and a half years, and now I am a Cloud Solution Architect at Microsoft and I’ve been in this role for the past six months. Prior to this, I was a Technology Data and Analytics Senior Associate at PwC for three years and that was a graduate job that I went into after I graduated from the University. Yeah I’m still currently based in Birmingham.
Cate: Lovely well, we are so delighted to have you on today and really looking forward to talking about your career journey and how you went from studying at Birmingham to where you are now. So, broadly speaking, for those of us who are listening who aren't within the tech world - what does your role involve and what do you do on a day to day as a Cloud Solution Architect?
Nina: That's actually a really good question because every time I meet someone or when my friends ask me about my job when I say Cloud Solution Architect, I know that it probably doesn't mean anything to most people. So essentially, I work with Azure. Azure is the Microsoft cloud services and I help our clients our customers to build their architecture in Azure. So I’ll collect requirements from them to understand what sort of services that they need and what are the business needs, what are their requirements and then I’ll build architecture solution in Azure by putting together different services, different functionality that are that are on offer in Azure. Yeah, just help our clients be successful in the cloud adoption journey and yeah that’s pretty much my job, in a nutshell.
Cate: That's really interesting, so it sounds like you have the best of both worlds and that you are client facing and you get to work with a lot of different people and a lot of different companies and clients, but similarly you get to get into the nitty gritty and actually implement the change that that they're looking for, is that right?
Nina: Yeah definitely so in my job we actually don't do sort of hands-on implementations. Most of the work that we do is more around proof of concepts. So my role is not chargeable per se, so our customers don't pay for our time, so it's a free resource that's offered by Microsoft to support our customers. But otherwise you're absolutely right, I think my favourite thing about my job is how versatile it is. The role is very flexible and yeah I really get the best of both worlds. I still have the customer facing side where I can speak to customers, have that customer interaction and I think they're very, very important and transferable skills. On the other hand, it is also a technical role where I am constantly upskilling myself in the technical realm and so yeah I think it's a really well rounded role that equips me with both non-technical and technical skills.
Cate: That's great and is this something that while you were studying with us at Birmingham, is this something that you were interested in? Is that what you wanted to do for your career, or when you came to university, what did you originally think that you wanted to go into after your studies?
Nina: So if I’m being honest, when I first went into the university I would have never thought that I would be doing what I’m doing today. I had very different dreams and ambitions and ideas of what I thought I would want to do in life at that point in time. Everything has changed in the course of my study and even though they're still changing, I think I’m still figuring out what I actually want to do. I’m still trying to create a career development plan to see where I want to take my career.
So when I first started at university, I was quite immature and I was 17 at the time so I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into academia, study for my undergrad and the masters and PhDs and just keep studying, because that's what my mom wanted me to do, and I think that's quite stereotypical for Chinese parents to want their kids to get the highest degree possible.
I think I just kind of assumed or sort of accepted that that was the only way to go, that was what I wanted to do as well. But I think, after I started my degree very, very quickly, I realised that you know, there are a lot of options when it comes to career. And you know, keep studying was not the only way to go and in fact, you can get great jobs and most of the jobs actually in the market, just with a bachelor's degree.
So when I was in university, I was still very, very lost as to what I wanted to do. So I did a lot of random things just because, so I did a lot of part time job at the university. At the time I think my biggest regret I guess at the university was that I didn't really do any internships because I didn't realise I guess at that point in time, how important they are. So, by the time I was in my final year I was very, very sure that I wanted to find a job, instead of going to academia, even though previously, I was still doing a lot of research placements because I thought that was what I was going to go into.
So by the time I was in my final year I think I realised, it hit me that I needed a job. I don't want to do this anymore. But at the time I didn't have any corporate experience, I was applying for graduate schemes to companies that I had never even heard of at that point in time. I was quite you know clueless, quite ignorant at the time. But I was very lucky in the sense that I just went for without thinking too much. I think I applied for about 20 graduate scheme at the time which I think, for some people is a lot, but for other people it's probably not a lot considering, you know the experience I had at the time.
At the time PwC was the top graduate employer by Times so I was like you know what this is going to be my top choice, even though I didn't really know what it was about. And, at the time I was quite interested in technology because I was part of a student society called WISE, which stands for Women in Science and Engineering. I helped them organise a conference for women in tech, and I was like this is actually pretty cool and in my second year at university, I also worked at the IT service desk for the university, so I think tech is something that at the time, I thought was very up and coming, and I was very interested in the area. So yeah I just applied for tech and I joined to PwC in the technology risk team at the time, and later on merged into technology data and analytics. So that's how I guess sort of maneuvered my way into technology from a psychology degree, I guess.
Cate: It's fascinating because having known you while you were at university, you mentioned being clueless or feeling a bit lost with regard to your career, I never would have perceived that knowing you because, from my perception at university, you were always very driven and very engaged and very involved in lots of different ways. So I think it's fascinating how hindsight changes things but also how your perception of yourself is always very different or can be very different to what others perceive or view as well.
Tell us a little bit more about your time at Birmingham, you mentioned being involved in in the WISE society and that helping to perhaps shift your thinking a little bit towards tech in a sense, and also your part time job working that and the IT service desk. Was there anything else that helped shape your career path, or can you tell us a little bit about like if you engaged in Careers Network activity or attended any of the employer things to help shape your thinking or even shape your understanding of certain employers?
Nina: Yeah definitely, so I think you are absolutely right about my time at the University, I think I was definitely very active and very engaged in a lot of different things. But I think, looking back my biggest issue was that I wasn't sure why was doing those things. I was doing those things, because I feel like I should but didn't have a direction, and I feel like I wasn't necessarily doing the right things or doing things in the most efficient way. I think, in a way, I guess, I was doing things but they're not exactly the right things for me to reach my career goal or help me move farther along in my career or at the time, they were not the things that necessarily helped me to secure a good job in a way.
Very frankly I think at the time I just didn't know what jobs are good and what companies are good, what are good careers. You know I think I was probably in a way, I was living under a rock because I feel like I just I was very clueless like a lot of the very big names in you know very big companies, I had never heard of them at the time. A lot of people were talking about these like really competitive careers and I had no idea what they were on about, quite frankly.
So yeah I was doing a lot of different things that, I worked a lot of part time jobs at uni and, especially, even with Careers Network, when I was between my first and second year, I did an internship with Careers Network. Actually like the equivalent of your current role, but it was just like an intern like assistant, instead of an officer. So yeah International Employer Liaison Assistant yeah that's the title of the internship I did at the time. I think it was they were all great experience and Careers Network definitely has a lot to offer to students, the careers fairs, I think, are great. If it weren't for them, I would have known even less employers at the time.
I had one to one careers meetings with career advisers as well, but I think the problem with me at the time I guess is that, yes, I go to see careers advisers, but I think I didn't really know what I won't say that the time and I think I was not super open to a lot of things, I think, which I think now looking back, it was definitely something that I wish I could tell my younger self. To sort of be more open minded and explore more career options, instead of just do what I was being told by my family, by my community, by the society, etc.
Cate: I think it's so tricky, though, because you come to university and your sole focus when you come to university is to study hard and get a good degree and that's the purpose that you're there. But then ultimately there comes a point when you start realizing that actually the purpose that you're there is to get a good job at the end of your studies. I think it's a tricky shift in mindset and also, it's a tricky shift in priorities, perhaps sometimes. I often think that and there are a lot of people who are in that same stage that you talked about being in where you're just exploring a lot of different things, but don't really know exactly what you want to do. I think that's a really common trend that we see, certainly in Careers Network. We have three stages of a career journey, the explorer stage, the planning your career stage, and then the applying stage.
So many people jump straight to applying without knowing what they want to do yet, and so I think the experience that you talk about and is actually really common as well. Add into that mix that, as an international student the job application process can often be quite different than what you expect from your home country. I know that in China, the process, there are differences in both the timeline of applications for graduate jobs and sometimes both the process as well. It's a lot to try and navigate whilst you're also trying to focus on your studies and then, if you add in that external pressures from loved ones as well and there's a lot going on.
When you were studying with us at Birmingham, did you know that you wanted to stay in the UK or was your plan to return home after your studies or were you open to everything?
Nina: I think, initially, I wanted to return. I say I wanted to, I think my mom wanted me to go back to China.
I think by the end of my studies, like by the beginning of my final year actually, I was like I there's no way I’m going to go back, I definitely wanted to stay in the UK. It was a very stressful time actually in my final year because it's not just me having to find a graduate job. Because for home students, or EU students still at this time, if they can’t find a job immediately or if they can’t find their dream job immediately, they can you know apply in the next cycle. But for me, it was just this one chance because I didn't have an internship from before because I just didn't know that you needed one I guess, and I didn't know that I wanted to go into tech at that time, or I didn’t even know what options there were.
I just had that one chance to have a graduate job, so it was quite stressful to be fair. Even though looking back now it wasn't hard really to find a graduate job, and I was very stressed about visa actually but looking back now companies are quite good, or graduate scheme that are worth doing that are actually good companies, they will sponsor your visa. So that’s not actually a determining factor, a lot of the times. For me, I know I wanted to get a job and yeah and a good job and a good company should be able to support their international employees, you know by sponsoring their visa. So yeah, it was actually not as hard as I thought, because my mom was telling me how difficult it is to find a job in the UK. She said that you need to have this study, that study, and I think everybody was feeding me with this misconception about how big of a challenge it was to the point I wasn't really believing in myself.
I was like this is so difficult, even though it was not. I mean how hard could it be because in society after all, most people have a job right or the world wouldn't go around. But everybody was telling me how difficult it was to find a job when it actually wasn't, so I think it just the fact that I bought into this this false idea of the challenge when it's not really a challenge so and I almost felt like I was lucky in a way. But in fact, I wasn't lucky, it was sort of it was just not that hard, especially for me you know, to find a job at PwC or the big four in general, they recruit a lot of graduates. They hire so many so many graduates every year across the country so it's definitely not as hard as people think. I think, because at the time, my mom was telling me how like in China, like even PhDs can’t find a job, they have to apply to be a security guard or something, which I think just gave me this very false idea of the job market.
I felt like very lucky I guess in a way to get a job, but I realised there are a lot of better job opportunities and better companies and more competitive and more sort of rewarding careers that I could have went for but I didn't know about them or I didn't think that they were possible for me. I didn't think it was possible for me to work at Microsoft because I didn't have a degree in computer science, but you know very quickly I realised those are not necessary, and those are not sort of criteria. I guess to dream big, you know, everything's possible.
Cate: I think it's so overwhelming and you hit the nail on the head with regard to the visa stress because, it is an essential factor for anyone who's from outside of the UK now. It makes everything such a time sensitive matter for you and it adds a whole other element of stress that home students don't have to focus on when they're looking for graduate jobs. So many people tell you how difficult it is, and that's not to downplay it at all, because I do think that it can be quite difficult, but similarly companies will sponsor students for the right candidate, they'll sponsor a visa. I think that you demonstrated yourself and promoted yourself and demonstrated your skills in such a way in that they felt that that was worthwhile, which is fantastic. And that's not an uncommon occurrence, I wouldn't say that everyone is able to stay in the UK, but I certainly think that there are opportunities and now that we have the graduate route visa, current students have more and more opportunities to stay in the UK.
So tell me a little bit more about the application process and getting the job at PwC. You mentioned it was a graduate scheme, did you work in several different areas of the business during the graduate scheme or were you assigned to one area in particular?
Nina: I say a graduate scheme but it’s more a graduate intake. It was a permanent job. I applied to the technology risk team, and that was the team I’ve been in the entire time. Obviously, we had a reorder and we merged with the data analytics team, but yeah there was not like a sort of rotational scheme that you often find with graduate schemes.
The application process, I think I was when I was applying for graduate job, I was very unprepared because I had never ever at that point in time applied for corporate jobs. I had no idea what I needed to do, and time was tight because by the time I started applying it was already end of October. I think I applied for my first job on the 28th October, I think something like that. So I was very, very, very late to the party and I wish I was, I guess, more sort of conscious and more aware, when I when I first started my degree, because I know that I could have gotten a much better job if I knew. A lot of the jobs, if you didn't have like any internship experience, it was just wasn't possible to go straight into a graduate role. A lot of people who are more aware, who are more sort of conscious about their career, they started in the first year, you know doing spring week, insight weeks and that sort of stuff and then an internship in a second year and that sort of stuff. But I just had no idea about them when I first started.
But put those aside, I think, when I was applying for graduate schemes, I found everything else pretty simple I guess, all the online test I didn't prepare for any of them I just went straight into it because it was quite late and didn't have the time. I failed a lot, like a lot of video interviews because I just wasn't used to that format.
Cate: It was pre-Covid, wasn’t it?
Nina: Yeah, it was pre-Covid.
Cate: We weren't as used to the video interviews and the video teleconferencing on such a day-to-day basis as we are now, I suppose.
Nina: Exactly yeah. It took me like a lot of failure, I think I passed like maybe two or three video interviews, can’t even remember. But PwC didn't have a video interview process at the time so obviously that helped with me getting the job. But yeah, I was very underprepared and I know that if I were more prepared, I would have definitely been able to get a better job because my ability, and now I know that I’m actually really good at interviews, you know after doing interviews for different companies and internal interviews as well, I think it's actually my forte but, at the time I was just very, very unprepared and clueless about what I needed to do and what I needed to say during interviews, I guess.
Cate: I think the interviews are such an interesting skill because the more you do them, the more comfortable you get at them, the more you learn the type of things to say and what not to say and how to present yourself in an interview setting. I always like to think that an interview is a good experience, even if it's a bad interview because it each one, the more you do, the easier it gets and and the better you come across, hopefully. But I think like you say it is tricky, unless you go into it very prepared sometimes that lesson takes a little bit longer to learn. But once you get into the swing of it and you find your groove and your style in an interview and it all becomes a bit easier. Is that is that how you found it as well?
Nina: Yeah, definitely. I would say now I’m very comfortable with interviews. It's not to say that I get every single job interview but it's more like I am not nervous about interviews. I feel comfortable and I know how to connect with interviewers. I think now that I’m at this stage of my career, I guess, I struggle more when it comes to like technical interviews, because sometimes I’m not from a technical background, sometimes that can be quite challenging but with the soft side, like culture fit interview, just general more like you know competency-based interview, I would say I’m very comfortable with those ones.
I don't even prepare for interviews, I never actually prepare for interviews because I have been to so many real interview practices that I know exactly what I need to, like I have examples in my head that would just like light up when the corresponding question is asked.
Even what mock interviews are not as good as I, you know just real interviews. They're really a good way to improve interview skills.
Cate: Nothing compares to that first-hand experience of actually doing something. So then, tell me about did you have an assessment centre for that role, or what other stages were there to between application and actually getting the job? And how did you find them?
Nina: At the time, I applied online. So, I’ll just use PwC as an example because of job I went into. So, I applied online, I did online tests which consisted of logical reasoning tests and numerical reasoning tests. Then I went into the office to do an assessment centre. It consisted of three parts, so there was a group exercise, there was a report writing exercise, and then the final section was to do the logical reasoning and numerical reasoning test again in person, just to make sure that people are not cheating, to check that the person who's the candidate themselves actually did the test, not somebody else. So yeah, it was quite straightforward quite simple. I would say that's actually the stage where most people fail, the assessment centre. Then afterwards, it was the partner interview, so I was interviewed by the partner I'd later work with, so yeah it was a very casual, very informal chat.
Cate: And it obviously resulted in a job, so it was a successful experience.
How did you find the transition from being a full-time student and studying to working full time? What did you find most challenging about that transition into full time work?
Nina: That's actually a really, really, really good question. I think a lot of things are quite different, just the fact that I’m actually a proper adult. I earn my own money, pay my own bills, that sort of stuff. Obviously at university, I also paid bills, but I think it's a very different mindset because I think I was always thinking about, I knew that it was temporary like I need to study and then I’ll move on to work. But now I know that I’ll be working for the next, I don't know, 45 years. So it's a very different mindset, because now, I’m still thinking about sort of my next step, what I want out of my career and like I said before, I’m still figuring out what I want to do.
So I think as a student there were definitely less stress and less sort of just less things to worry about in general. Probably because I was doing it wrong. I think if I was like applying for internships or spring weeks, it would probably have been more stressful, but I would say, definitely now I constantly need to think about my career which can be you know quite stressful. I think as a student, you have more flexibility when it comes to your day because you can study whenever you want. There are pros and cons, obviously now I have a little bit more structure, even though my job is very, very, very flexible at Microsoft. It’s not a nine to five job per se, like on paper it is, but in reality it is very flexible, which I do appreciate.
I think the other change, I guess it's the relationship. When you're a student, there's that environment or the atmosphere where you just can make friends with everyone, but I think in a work environment it is sort of not as obvious sometimes, you don't know if we're just colleagues, or are we friends. But I would say that in my previous job, at PwC, because it was a graduate intake and there were so many of us, and I have made a lot of really good friends. Even though I’m not working there anymore we're still in touch, we still meet up, we still hang out and I think that's something that's really great.
Cate: I think that companies that provide those social elements as well and to their graduate intakes find that they help that transition a little bit more, because it is difficult, going from a student to working full time. You mentioned some of the adulting and some of the life admin that you have to get used to, and whilst yes, you do pay bills and everything whilst you're a student, there's such a focus on being a student that when you leave academia and go into working full time in a more corporate environment. There's a whole host of other things that have to be taken care of as well, and it is a big shift.
What do you enjoy most about your current role, would you say.
Nina: I think, from my current role, I would say is the learning opportunities. There are so many opportunities to upskill and to learn to get certifications and I just feel like it's a really great environment to train and develop myself and everyone is very supportive, all of my colleagues are very supportive and helpful and they're always happy to answer questions I have. I think it's a great learning environment.
I think, just in general, people are really, really generally very nice, like at Microsoft everyone is open to conversations. Like I said before, I know it's not for everybody, but I really hope that I can make friends at work, not just as colleagues. I think I’m making friends with like my colleagues as well. So yeah, I think that's something really nice because you know I think sometimes, I don't know about everybody else but, for me, the prospect of working for the next 40 years non-stop is quite depressing and is quite terrifying. But if you can do that with people you get along with, people that are friends with you, I think that just makes it a lot easier and more doable. Quite frankly, I’d rather do a job that by nature is horrendous but with nice people than doing a fun job but with horrendous people, if that makes sense.
Cate: Definitely, I wholeheartedly agree with you, I think that there is a lot to be said for enjoying the people that you work with, it makes the days go by a lot quicker. We spend so much of our time at work that it needs to be the right environment and the right experience, both for your mental well-being more than anything else, but also just so that it isn't such a daunting prospect of how long we will be in the workforce.
Nina, I’m really conscious of your time so I don't want to keep you longer, but I would like to finish on one question that I am have started asking everyone. What recommendations do you have for any students who were in a similar position to you about making the most of their time, both at Birmingham, but just generally in the UK for international students, in terms of generally for life, but also from a career perspective? Do you have any recommendations for students who are in a similar place to you?
Nina: I guess I have two recommendations. One is on more the experience and life side, the other one is on the career side. The one on the life in the UK side, I would say please do not only hang out and socialise with people from your country. We all sort of came here for a reason and you know study abroad is so valuable, not because of the degree, but because of the experience in general. I really wish people can step out of their comfort zone and meet different people because Birmingham is such a diverse university, there are so many people from so many different countries, it is so international. Just meet people and integrate into the wider university community and it's definitely challenging, is definitely not comfortable, it’s definitely something that people have to make a conscious effort to achieve. But I would say it's definitely worth it, I benefited and so much from just meeting, people making friends with people from all over the world. Even now like we're really good friends, I go to their weddings and etc, and it's such an invaluable experience for international students.
I think on the career side, I would definitely say start early. That was probably the biggest mistake I’ve made whilst at university. I started very late to look into, to really sit down and think about what I wanted to do with my career. Quite frankly, you know, not knowing things, being rather ignorant didn't help at all. So I think definitely start early and be open minded be open to explore and also forget about whatever your parents are saying, or forget about what your community are saying, because you're in the UK now and the labour market is different, the job sort of prospect is different. So don't apply whatever you know growing up to the situation in the UK, because here it is a lot more flexible is not as hard, I would say. At least compared to where I’m from to find a good job and you don't have to have done the specific degree a lot of times. Explore your opportunities and know what you can achieve. Dream big, I think that’s the important thing, and never think ‘oh the acceptance rate is like 1%, I’m not going to apply’. What if the 1% is you, right, for you it’s 100%. Just start early and dream big, I think that's what I would say
Cate: That's such a wonderful message, I think you know you don't know unless you try. There’s a sports quote that says ‘don't let the fear of striking out stop you from playing the game’, and I think that is such an important model to live by.
It has been so incredibly wonderful to talk to you today Nina, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much for participating in our Career Talk podcast. It's been really lovely to hear a bit more about your career, but also your career journey and see what you're up to now, so we really appreciate you. Thank you very much for being on.
Nina: Thank you so much for having me, I hope that's helpful.
Cate: That's great. Thank you.