According to recent career change statistics the average person will change careers 5-7 times during their entire working life. The data even goes so far as to show that 30% of us will now change our careers or jobs every 12 months. Despite this, many of us are still apprehensive to change and feel uncomfortable with the uncertainty that lurks around it.
But for Sunny Alam, Harvard Business School alumni and current go-to-market program leader for international markets at Philips, he would advise anyone to run towards the nerve-racking rabbit hole that we call ‘change’. He encourages young professionals everywhere to continually strive to reinvent themselves and adapt to the new situations that we see in our constantly changing global world. Just as he has done through his whole professional career. Needless to say, our curiosity was piqued.
When we first heard from Sunny, he told us he had changed jobs, and even changed industries, multiple times throughout his life. Starting out as a software engineer, becoming an entrepreneur, and now trying his hand in marketing and sales. Personally, I’m surprised he hasn’t become a hat-maker yet since he wears so many of them. But naturally, being the keen young professionals we are, we knew it would be a crime not to pick his brain on his career changes and absorb all the wisdom he has up for grabs.
Can you briefly introduce yourself to the audience?
My name is Sunny Alam, I am the program leader for Philip’s international go-to-market strategy for the health system and I focus primarily on how we engage in the market, especially given the current situation and how the world is changing.
I grew up and spent the majority of my career in Midland, Michigan, but my parents are from Bangladesh. After graduating from high school, I went to Saginaw Valley State University to study computer information’s systems and engineering, and later on went to Harvard Business School to study Business Administration and General Management. I would say I have always been a very ambitious person and I knew from early on that I wanted to create real impact in the world.
When I started at university my original plan was to study economics, it was only after taking one class of software engineering that I knew I needed to make the switch to IT. Keep in mind this was back in 1994, in the early days of IT when computers and the technology boom were just starting to emerge. I found that I could make sense out of the 1’s and 0’s and soon realized that I could use this to make meaningful changes that could be applied in real life. Not just making a calculator or creating a schedule in a teacher lounge, as were the functions of computers back in those days. But make real meaningful differences. So I made the decision to pursue software engineering and never looked back… until I was in the middle of my career. The plot thickens.
What motivated you to change your career?
So after I graduated university I started to work for Dow Corning, which is known as Dow Chemical today, working as a software engineer. I focused a lot on research and development and eventually became the software engineer manager. Early 2001, me and my team worked towards creating Dow’s very first e-commerce site. This was a big milestone for me and my team and was a big success for Dow Corning, and it was from this experience that I saw a golden opportunity…
At this time the dot-com boom was beginning and I got the idea that we should start hosting other businesses on our data centre servers (nowadays we call this cloud), since we weren’t using our data centre’s full capacity. I ended up pitching this idea to our CIO, who, to my dismay, thought it was a really bad idea, and turned me down right away. She told me I was too young to understand these sorts of things is not our core business. But… I still believed in my idea.
The following year, I had a stroke of luck, we had a change of management. So I jumped at the first moment to pitch my idea again this time to our new team leader and… he loved the idea. So we hit the ground running and eventually I saw the fruits of my labour pay off – we had managed to generate revenue from this initiative and doubled our initial investment and residual income for the company. This is probably one of the biggest achievements in my career. I attribute this success to a few things; observing and acting on changes I saw in the industry, believing in the vision I had despite set-backs and finally, acting with plenty of knowledge under my belt.
As fantastic as this achievement was, it was short-lived, because I knew something was changing, and that was how unsustainable IT-based jobs were becoming as I saw more and more jobs being outsourced. Accepting this new reality, I decided it was time to change fields. And it was around this time that I decided to make the move to Europe and try my hand at entrepreneurship. Because I had realized that everything I was doing for Dow… I could do on my own. So I started my own company in program management and consultancy for IT solutions.
Entrepreneurship is not something to be taken lightly. I must say, it was not a very comfortable feeling – leaving behind a stable job with good pay. But that’s the price of entrepreneurship. Taking this leap into the unknown was probably one of the most terrifying things I have ever done but it was also one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life.
I knew myself and I knew my industry and I thought to myself… What do I have to lose? I gave myself a year, that was my threshold, I would live without a regular paycheck for one year and then after that, I would find a more stable job. So with a strong fact-based case for myself and my company in the back of my pocket, I convinced multiple clients that I had a winning solution for their IT needs. It was during this time that I found myself in the midst of another industry-altering event – the 2008 financial crisis.
Striving to make a difference in the world, I knew I couldn’t leave this page unturned. On behalf of my company, I took a role working for the Dutch banking company ING Investment management in order to help build their IT support model and service management for banking during this crisis. But now I was juggling my consultancy company and my job at ING, and so I soon became overwhelmed and had to take a step back. I reflected on myself, the changes happening to the world and the industry I was in and I noticed something. As I watched many IT jobs be whisked away and outsourced to countries like India, I saw that positions such as marketing and sales were not being outsourced. And with this as my matchstick, I lit a new flame yet again.
I left the freelance program management to join the technology company Cisco Systems where I started to enter the Supply chain world. After working for Cisco It was time to go ‘all-in’ and take on sales, marketing and business development as my new career focus (this is when I started to work at NXP Semiconductor). Now, some people can pick up this career path without much studying beforehand but I knew if I was to pursue this, then I wanted to know everything there is to know and learn everything the ground up. So I booked the next flight back to the USA and started studying for my MBA at Harvard Business School, and this finally led me to where I am today, working at Philips.
As a foreigner coming to the Netherlands, what are the challenges/difficulties you experienced with?
Even though in the Netherlands most people speak really good English, I knew from the get-go that it would be very difficult for me to find a job here, especially in a middle tier company, without having the language down. So I started to learn Dutch, but I’m going to be honest, it really wasn’t my forte. So with the realisation that I was never going to become fluent like a native I set my sights solely on multi-national companies instead, whose focus is more English oriented.
But what I knew I had to pick up was understanding the culture and what I mean by the culture… is understanding the people. Without people we are nobody. You need to engage with a lot of locals and learn as much as you can about the way of life and traditions here. Don’t try to resist the culture, instead embrace it even though you are unfamiliar with it and sometimes uncomfortable with it. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you much about Dutch directness, for you to understand what I’m talking about. Take the cultural insights you learn under your wing and use them to your advantage.
Finally, I learnt early on that the Netherlands is a competitive landscape and without having the language down, and only having limited exposure to the culture, I knew things would be tough. But I thought to myself how can I close these gaps? My conclusion was I needed to prove myself through serious competency, by being 4 or 5 times better competency wise at what I am working at I was able to give myself a competitive edge.
Final words, what are 3 pieces of advice you want to give young foreign professionals who are in the quest of a career change?
Never ever take a shortcut. Don’t think you can just leapfrog over and become CEO of a company, I don’t believe in that kind of leadership. Learn everything from the ground up before you take a big step towards a senior role.
Don’t be afraid to keep on reinventing yourself. You think you want something now but keep on reflecting; is this something for you in the future as well? A lot of time we think we know but we don’t know until we do it. You need to become ambidextrous in the sense that you keep on exploring other things whilst you are exploiting your current role.
Find a good coach, this is very important. Find someone who can give you an external view and a non-bias view. I don’t recommend that your boss be your coach, always have a coach from the outside. Moreover, I would recommend conducting a 360-degree review, where various people in your life can give you feedback. This should be a mix of people from outside and inside of your work. Ask them to give honest feedback on your capabilities. I have done this and it really opened my eyes. Oftentimes we think we are good at something but we are actually not. This was really important for me to understand in my career journey.
This is the final and most important point, I tell this to a lot of people and give this as advice. You must pay yourself before you pay anybody else. So invest in yourself. The best investment you can ever do, it can be in education or developing a new skill set, but you must invest in yourself.
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