This piece for The Quest’s Meet the Alumni series features Muhammad Usman Ali, an M’19 from Pakistan, who is currently in Denver, Colorado. Hear about his work at Salesforce, Minerva reflections and advice, and the value of learning from every experience. (Transcript lightly edited for clarity.)
Erin Paglione: Where are you now and what have you been doing since graduation?
Muhammad Usman Ali: Just three days after my graduation in May, I was in Japan doing a month-long consulting project. That was fantastic because I got to experience Japanese culture and I really wanted to experience Japanese sports culture specifically. I knew that if I started working in the West as a professional, I can’t just quit my job and go for an internship. That was the last shot I had to not commit for a long time but still do a short stint in Japan and get the best out of it.
After my internship in Japan, I visited my parents in Pakistan. They couldn’t make it to the graduation ceremony so I really wanted to show them the graduation letter.
After that, I moved to Indianapolis for work. I work at Salesforce as a success manager. I was an associate success manager until yesterday [February 12, 2020] when I got a promotion. This program is a very prestigious program at Salesforce. They bring you to Indianapolis for six months of training. Indianapolis is the second biggest hub for Salesforce after San Francisco. We finished that training and in January I relocated to Salesforce Denver.
January was busy because the financial year was closing and the new financial year started in February. I have yet to formally sign a portfolio but I’ll be working with 10 to 20 big customers of Salesforce who are in the mid-sized segment, companies between 600 employees to 1,000 employees. My role is to help these 10 to 20 companies grow and be successful. How I do that is by helping them understand the resources that we have at Salesforce and how we can map the technology capabilities that we have to their needs and their purpose to help these companies grow. My role is to help my customers achieve their business objectives. It’s kind of a consultant role where I need to understand the business model, the technology, and the requirements of the customers to understand the ecosystem of resources we have in-house at Salesforce and connect them.
I’m also volunteering within Salesforce. We have these Ohana Groups (the college alternative of that could be a Minerva club) and I’m part of this group called Genforce which brings people from across generations together to foster mutual learning. One of the projects I got involved with is with the International Labor Organization to help roll out skills innovation facilities in more than 115 countries. I’m part of the team which is actively working to make that happen.
There are also a lot of small things going on. I’m mentoring a few students from Minerva, helping people understand how to make a place inside the technology industry: what does an ideal profile look like in these different roles?
EP: How did you get interested in this work or in Salesforce?
MUA: Salesforce is just a fantastic company. In San Francisco in 2014, there was no Salesforce tower. But by the time we graduated, we had the Salesforce tower. All these people were going around downtown with the Salesforce bags and it was very enticing.
But on a more serious note, I was genuinely interested in working with a startup. I knew that most of the learning comes from working in a small team where you try to do things and learn a lot. I had done that during my internships. Being an international student here in America, the whole visa sponsorship thing and being inside America is way easier if you are with a big company. So I knew that practicality demands me working with a bigger company.
But I wanted to work in a company where I don’t have very traditional learning because I’ve heard that for entry-level employees there isn’t much learning. In consulting what I hear is that you’re just perfecting presentation and deck building for 2-3 years. You’re part of a team working on a big consulting project, but if it’s a big project, it takes time for you to be an active member of the team. In investment banking, it’s a lot of spreadsheets and Excel for a considerable amount of time. I wanted to work with a company that allows me to learn a lot and which does business in the right manner, in other words, in an ethical manner. I wouldn’t say names, but bigger companies, even though they have brought a lot of jobs, they have yet to do things the right way. So I wanted to work with a big company which does business in the right way, and I couldn’t come up with any case against Salesforce. To be honest, it was only after I joined Salesforce that I discovered its culture of learning. In the past eight months, I was just learning. Companies do not do that. It’s a lot of investment into one employee.
In the past eight months, I was just learning. Companies do not do that. It’s a lot of investment into one employee.
EP: What are your long term career goals?
MUA: I have goals at a micro level and a macro level. I try to position myself by building the right habits and the right attitude and by meeting the right people and getting the right kinds of learning. All these are ingredients for your success.
The conception of success, what it looks like in one year or two years, keeps on evolving for me. So to be honest, while being a student, the goal was to get a job to make ends meet.
Now it is to make a good brand for myself inside this company. The way to do that is to invest in yourself. You understand what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, and you can improve what you’re bad at. That’s what I’m focusing on: just learning. That is what success is for me. If I can learn and grow, I’m successful. This is how I see it right now but it might change.
I want to learn from this fantastic company. I’m learning how Salesforce works and how we do business. But I’m not only restricted to that; I’m also learning a lot about other companies through working with customers. I aim to use this learning to eventually start something of my own. I think that my background at Minerva, having been to all of these places, and then this fantastic learning at Salesforce, would position me for success when I actually start my own.
EP: Overall, do you have any takeaways from your time at Minerva? And how do you feel about it looking back now?
MUA: At Minerva, all of us who were in the first class wanted to quickly make sense of what we were studying and if it’s actually going to help us succeed. At times we were confused. At times, we were negative and at times, we were overly positive: “We are the best kids in the world,” “every other college sucks,” “we are the best.” We went through all those phases. But I think now looking back, for myself, a takeaway is being comfortable when you have all the reasons in the world to tell yourself that you’re not comfortable. You could translate a lot of this into traveling and adjusting to a new city and finding which grocery store you are going to go to for the next four months or just creating a life for yourself. It can be translated as pretty much a pain in the ass or it could be translated as exciting or something that is building your muscle to adjust and adapt to places.
I think the main thing that Minerva taught me is not to complain. I think that’s the way I created my experience at Minerva: not to complain, to really go with the flow but also to get learning out of it. So here’s the thing: if you throw me in, let’s say, a tunnel, that’s a fantastic experience for me because, even though it was painful, I would have learned how to come out of that tunnel.
I think every learning counts and [it’s important to] become comfortable with the unknown and with change. These companies are very fast-moving; there are so many moving parts. My team just got changed in the last few weeks and I had no idea. I think my experience at Minerva trained me not to be too worried about change, to quickly adapt to professional and personal circumstances, and to see the light at the end of the tunnel: how to maximize my chances for success, how to leverage existing levers that I can pull to be successful.
I think it is also not the best to be too fine with everything. Complaining all the time is also not the best. If something is wrong, genuinely wrong, I should adjust and I should try to position myself for success within that circumstance. And at the same time, I should also see if I can communicate and if I can make the situation better. Not looking at things from a black and white perspective: it’s bad or it’s good, I’m going to complain or I’m just gonna let it go. You have to kind of do both things at the same time and balance them.
EP: Do you have any advice or recommendations for current Minerva students?
MUA: Don’t be too hooked to grades. For instance, Salesforce even doesn’t know what my GPA is. They don’t even care about that. They had problem-solving in the interviews. They check the real stuff.
When we get accepted at Minerva, Minerva actually looks at tons of variables and then makes a decision. It’s not GPA or SAT. It’s a sad reality that once we’re in Minerva, we kind of go back to being GPA focused. The capital that you can gain out of the Minerva experience is a cultural capital more than any other thing. And cultural capital can be broken down to: quickly adjusting to different situations, being able to work with different leadership styles, being able to work in different kinds of teams in different industries, conflict resolution, how to create a positive work experience, so many things. If somebody can’t extract the cultural capital out of Minerva’s experience of being in seven different countries, I think that is a loss. Because once you graduate, you have other responsibilities.
What you have at Minerva doesn’t come by that easily. So definitely immerse and get into conversations and debates and put yourself into situations. I think that is the biggest thing.
I recently gave a talk at Minerva for the class of M’22 so I gave them this example: if you have only had an apple in your life, if you’re only seen an apple, if you have only smelled an apple, if you’ve only tasted an apple, does this mean that apple is the best food in the world? No, you haven’t tried oranges, you haven’t given the same shot to other things. So, using this analogy, what worked for me is trying different roles in different industries, different civic projects in different industries across the seven cities. That was so great of an experience for me because I got an experience in consulting, banking, working in a small startup, working in a big startup, working remotely, working on-site, with a bad manager, and with a great manager. That really gave me a very fine understanding of the different roles, the different companies, and the different industries. It informed me of what I wanted to be. When I started at Minerva, I was so sure and being so sure about what you want to do so early on, it may be fantastic or may be just plain wrong. We’re entitled to our opinions, but they can be wrong. Let’s be open to that as well.
If you have only had an apple in your life, if you’re only seen an apple, if you have only smelled an apple, if you’ve only tasted an apple, does this mean that apple is the best food in the world?
Minervans want to figure things out fast. Everybody has this professional question: what you want to do in life. The process is the answer. And what is the process? To try it out. I had serendipity even in the people I lived with. I lived with different people in my seven semesters. I wanted the best return on my investment: that is when I can get all the flavors in the world of different civic projects, different locations. So that helped me build my cultural capital and my professional capital.
It’s helped me tremendously in all the ways it can. You can try out different teams in college. College is a safe environment, especially Minerva. You can try out different roles. It’s all right; there’s another semester, or another spring break, or another summer break. If you’re so sure about the things you want to do, then you have not tried other fruits, other professions. And you want to start that role after graduation you may or may not enjoy it or you may not even know if there is a better reality that exists for you that matches your personality, that matches what really fulfills you. So being open to that is fundamental.
EP: Do you have a favorite memory from Minerva that you want to share?
MUA: My philosophy is that anything that I can experience to the fullest, it could be a sunset or it could be a conversation, that becomes a good memory. So anything and everything could be a good memory.
It’s not that a few things stand out but to give you something: I’m a big fan of sweets and trying out different sweets in different cultures. Everybody in my class knows that I was a big fan of Wonder Waffle on Adalbertstrasse in Berlin. It was fantastic. I used to have one waffle a day. I put a couple of pounds but I just enjoyed it with a lot of other people. So that was the way I used to enjoy myself and meet people. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, it was a lot of sugar, but still.
In San Francisco, it was bubble tea: Boba Guys. So in every city, I had a sweet tooth for something which has affected my health rather not in the best way. But it’s all right, I’m working on it.
EP: Is there anything else that you want to add?
MUA: I’ve recently been talking with a lot of students in pretty much all the classes about jobs and internships because I have worked in pretty much all the industries in my internships.
There was a time that I had back to back rejections. Working with students across different classes, something that I am seeing is people are very goal-focused. Goal-focused in a way like “How can we get a job?” There’s one way: “Don’t help me catch the fish, teach me how to fish.” I like teaching people how to fish. And teaching people how to fish is a process. And once you go through the process you become able to answer these questions for yourself, these personal questions, these professional questions.
I like teaching people how to fish. And teaching people how to fish is a process. And once you go through the process you become able to answer these questions for yourself.
Something that I would like to mention is: be willing to love the process and immerse yourself in the process of learning. We all come with the premise that we want to be great learners but at some point in the journey, some of us forget that and stop learning. We just want to figure things out quickly.
So that’s what I would call anti-Minerva, anti-Minerva’s philosophy of learning and education. Be process focused and if anybody wants to speak about what this process looks like, I’m happy to work with the individual person to help them. That is something I can offer to the Minerva community as a whole.