Julie Ng

Looking Back on a Decade, My Career and Luck

8 min

Happy New Year! It’s 2020, a new year and time to write a looking back post. I stopped blogging personal things many years ago, figuring I had grown out of self-centered ramblings on the public internet. I still feel that way.

But this post is not just for me. It’s also for those, esp. younger professionals who get ask me regularly “how did you do it?” As a woman, as someone who didn’t study IT, how did this American move to Germany and become a Cloud Solution Architect at Microsoft? If you’re interested in how to support other under-represented groups and perspectives in your environment, this may also be interesting to you.

Disclaimer: thoughts below are my personal opinions and do not represent those of my employers past and present in any way.

I never had a plan. But I got lucky.

I hate to say it and you might not want to hear it. It’s not just my imposter syndrome. I firmly believe I had luck along the way. Yes, I earned much of what I have today. But some of it was also unplanned circumstance and fortitude that the pieces I pursued fell into place as they did.

Luck in my first job - small subsidiaries mean more exposure

I graduated from college in 2007. I didn’t plan for a career in IT. I needed to pay rent in Germany’s most expensive city.

I joined an American company, figuring it would be my best chances to get a working visa and provide me opportunity of returning to the U.S. with a job. I started at Ancestry.com as an entry-level designer, my first full-time IT job. But because they were just expanding into continental Europe, within 2 years I was responsible for user experience (UX) design for Germany, Italy, France and Sweden. I got to travel regularly to London and the U.S. and even work 2 weeks from the then new San Francisco office.

In retrospect that sounds like a smartly planned career move. But at the beginning, it was more like: who wants to be the only IT person and only woman working with a bunch of white men at least 15 years older than you? Not my first choice, but I needed money and Ancestry was the first and only company to take the risk of hiring me without a visa. I negotiated a contract with a clause that gave me 2 months to apply for and receive the visa.

2012-2016 - Co-founder and Failed Entrepreneuer

I loved my time at Ancestry and only left because my manager left and I hated his replacement. After 3 years I was also doing some front-end development, because there was no one else - another fortunate circumstance for me.

On stage at UX Munich 2015 with my co-founders and co-organizers

On stage at UX Munich 2015 with my co-founders and co-organizers

I unexpectedly fell in love with Munich and the web industry. Although I had no intentions to move back to the U.S. or Berlin, I wished we had a better a better tech-scene. Sure I tried hard and succeeded in creating one, co-founding Refresh Munich e.V., as well as co-organizing the 2013 and 2015 UX Munich conferences.

Meeting your Co-founders on a Train. Luck?

While I chose to work hard, I feel fortunate to have met my co-founders. We met by chance at on a train ride from Frontend Conference Zurich back to Munich. I still count meeting great designer and typographer Erik Spiekermann as the highlight of my professional life. I think we were fortunate that he and all our amazing industry idols said “yes” to speaking at UX Munich. And by the way, all the speakers were so down to earth - inspiring!

Maybe I feel it’s luck because I am not only grateful but also acutely aware I could have just as easily slipped through the cracks.

2016 - Two Extremes, from Startups to Corporate IT

I failed to become an entrepreneur and long-term freelancer because of poor cash flow planning and balancing side hustles, not bad luck. I was tired and in debt. My plan was just to get a job and out of debt.

Circumstance - taking a corporate job although NDA meant I knew nothing about it

Another chance meeting. A new person moved into our shared office just as I was leaving. A friend was hiring. I was just going to practice interviewing. Bu I ended up at a subsidiary of the world’s largest insurance company, Allianz and provided consulting services. Because of NDA agreements with the parent company, they could tell me nothing specific about my job. I liked the manager, who was kind and empathetic. So I said yes.

Inside the Allianz Germany Agile Training Center

Inside the Allianz Germany Agile Training Center

And I loved it. Allianz Germany was moving to Amazon Web Services. I joined in 2016 just as they started. We worked in a cool office near the main train station and had iMacs. I had my ups and downs, including once where I cried at home because my colleagues jokingly guessed my age to be 18 and then more seriously at 25. Looking young means people think you have less experience than you actual do. That’s still a challenge today.

Anyway, I think taking a job you know little about and having it turn out to be IT transformation into the cloud and loving it is not a plan, but good fortune.

2017 - Career Leapfrogging to Enterprise Architecture

Ok, I knew more than I thought

Looking back I fought hard that first year. I discovered I knew a great deal of cloud experience from my self-employment years. It didn’t matter that it was mostly Heroku, not AWS. I knew what a 12 factor app was. I knew git and git submodules. What I didn’t understand or considered complex was somethings actually just old and legacy methodology. I didn’t know how to do things the “old” way. I only knew the new cloud native way.

Circumstance - yet another chance meeting?

If you ask my former colleagues, they would say I earned it, period. Stop talking small of yourself. Maybe I feel it’s luck because I am not only grateful but also acutely aware I could have just as easily slipped through the cracks. But someone noticed me. And suddenly my manager was the chief architect and my skip level manager the company CIO.

It was unreal. At that point, I also knew I would not go back to self-employment because I was making a lot of money. People say “you earned it.” That’s how much you are worth, it’s not luck. I agree, the money amount is not luck. But knowing what that amount is? That was circumstance, someone telling me I was asking for 20K less than what I was worth.

If you want to help someone advance in their career, tell them how much they’re worth - tactfully and in a trusted environment. It feels horrible in retrospect to realize you’re at the bottom of your role’s income bracket, even if you were happy before. I am thankful to have had people I trust who have helped me be on even ground with my colleagues. Thank you.

2019 and joining Microsoft

I also had my ups and downs at Allianz. But I left on a high note. As an enterprise architect, governance is one of your mandates, which means you can force your way into topics. You really can do whatever you want. I think my unique skill is to bridge the gap between business requirements and technology. I love understanding why enterprise solutions are complicated. I loved participating in company wide technology solutions. How can we abstract away security and compliance requirements as much as possible for a great developer experience?

Choices not Chance

A recruiter approaches someone because of their resume and experience. So yes that was me earning an opportunity not luck. I figured it’s Microsoft, of course I will interview. And when the offer came? Of course I took the job. I knew if I didn’t, I would always wonder “what if…”?

It’s been a ride, a mixed one. I have never explicitly planned much in my life. And jumps in my career feel as if they “just happened” by chance. Sometimes I waited, and an a fortunate circumstance presented itself and I seized and opportunity. But now, it’s not cicrumstance pushing me forward but maybe backward. So maybe for the first time in my life, I feel as if I’ve made a conscious decision for a path. I’ve made a plan for myself. This post is about looking back. Details in a future post on looking forward.

Epilogue - Luck and Thankful

Most of my life, I lived my life “by the seat of my pants”, pursuing my heart’s desires, not driven by a career, position or salary. And I’ve been fortunate to have people who supported me, helped lift me. The rest, career, position and salary have been secondary but have fallen into place for me.

That’s my opinion about my personal experience. You are more than welcome to disagree with me. I also tell others to stop selling themselves short and to acknowledge how hard they’ve worked to achieve what they have. That is also true for my own story.

But you know what is also luck? I have never personally experienced discrimination because of my gender or race. The worst I’ve experienced is colleagues underestimating my age and therefore experience, which is a misunderstanding easily bridged with education. I know this discrimination happens and is real. Especially because I haven’t experienced it, I count myself lucky. I have not had people pushing me down, but the opposite, people lifting me.

So that was a quick reflection on over 10 years in IT and how I fortunate I feel to be where I am today. I don’t thank my lucky stars. I thank you.