Go East or Bust

ECs: I remember sitting in the same shoes as many of you last year – happy with my summer internship, but more excited to leave the working world and return to the safe haven of the HBS “bubble.” However, I quickly abandoned my hopes of daily visits to the Redline as the state of the economy and my interest in Asia required me to pursue the network job search with much time and energy. How could I think about landing my dream job when “landing a job” seemed so tough?

If I had known that one bold e-mail would make the difference in landing my dream job, then perhaps I would not have wasted so much time worrying at first. However, I still had to go through a great deal of work to find what I wanted, but now that I have started working, I can truly say that all of the work was well worth it. While my experience involves a network job search in China, some of my story can be applied to other industries, so don’t discard this article yet. My only request of you is that you keep this story to yourself and do not forward it on to my present employer.

To give a little background on myself, I graduated from HBS in June 2003 and worked for Trilogy software and two other struggling dot-coms in three years of consulting/business development experience prior to school. In a pre-HBS trip to SE Asia, I discovered a new passion for Asia that led me to China, where I worked for Intel’s software lab in Shanghai in the summer of 2002. While it took me a long time to “network” into this great internship, after that experience, I made it my goal to “network” my way into a sales or marketing job in mainland China for a large tech company. This might not be a hard goal except for the fact that: 1) prior to heading to Shanghai, I spoke Mandarin with the proficiency of a 2-year-old, 2) I had no work experience or personal connections to China before HBS and 3) the Chinese market is rapidly developing and now foreigners who aren’t fluent or who don’t have deep expertise in a specific field/company have little to no chance of success.

When I was in Shanghai last summer, I continued the same efforts as I had done while at my first-year at HBS: seeking advice from classmates and attending networking events and countless lunches with anyone who could point me in the direction of a job. However, my most valuable contact happened when I wasn’t doing any of these activities – having a drink with a friend during the World Cup. He introduced me to a lawyer who worked for Dell in Shanghai and he mentioned that he had a 1-on-1 session with Michael Dell before coming to China. At the end of the hour meeting, Michael asked him in a halfway joking manner, “Do you think that Legend (the #1 PC manufacturer in China) would be open for an acquisition?” I dismissed the remark as inconsequential and after talking with him, didn’t think that Dell would be a good fit for me. After all, Dell was localizing heavily and had no use for foreigners who weren’t fluent in Chinese (rejection #421 for me). I crossed Dell off as a company that I should not waste time on and thought more about my other not-so-promising options…

A few months later, Michael Dell came to MIT. Rather than giving a speech, he opened up an hour-long session directly for Q&A. After responding to 8 or 9 questions, he moved over to my section of the audience. I had been at HBS long enough to know that asking a question in a public forum is the closest thing to “death by peer firing squad”, but I figured that I’m at MIT, so why not? I was preparing to be the first to ask a question on China when someone right in front of spoke up, “what are the obstacles to growing Dell in China?” Michael responded with a quick witty remark, then didn’t say anything. The audience laughed in their typical mocking tone and there was a brief pause since no one wanted to follow up with a question. Since I knew I had nothing to lose, I stood up and waited for the microphone to be passed to me. I frantically thought about a good follow-up question as I grabbed the microphone. My heart started pounding faster and faster as all eyes turned to me. I really didn’t know what to say, so I asked the boldest question that I knew: “I heard a rumor that you might be interested in acquiring Legend. Is this true and if it is not true, how do you plan on growing aggressively in China?”

Right after I spoke, I knew that this was a stupid question and cursed myself for taking the chance to look like a fool. Not only was it presumptuous of me to ask this question, but also my tone sounded arrogant and I’m sure that the crowd would immediately start to hiss.

However, I certainly didn’t expect to see Michael’s reaction.
Previously, Michael had been answering questions in a friendly, yet unemotional and conservative “CEO-speak” way. After all, he had conducted hundreds if not thousands of these sessions and had heard most questions. However, my question clearly caught him off guard. He took a step back, loosened his jacket and looked down at the ground. He reached for his forehead and furrowed his brow. After a seemingly long pause, he turned to me in a questioning tone, “where did you hear that rumor?”

I had remained standing, but my mouth was dry and I didn’t know what to say. Michael then smiled and joked: “Do all MBAs think that M&A is the best way to grow a company?” The audience laughed to ease the tension. Michael responded to my question and the session ended after another 40 minutes. The typical “pit-divers” swarmed the stage and my hope of following up on my question was lost. I managed to fluster Michael Dell for a second, but didn’t accomplish much else that day.

After returning to Hamilton, I thought about my brief encounter with Michael and wondered if trying to work at Dell was really a hopeless act.

After all, Dell was growing quickly in China and had to add people. I discarded the idea as a waste of time and started going through the countless e-mails piling up in my inbox as well as the three cases scattered on my floor.

Later that night, I came back from Redline and sat at my desk. I decided that if I had been bold in asking a tough question to Michael Dell, I might as well follow up with a bold e-mail to him. Maybe if I sent it at 1 a.m., I would have better luck at making it through the flood of e-mails he receives. Since I didn’t know Michael Dell’s email, I looked up my friend’s email address: jason_black@dell.com. I took a guess that Michael Dell’s address is probably Michael_Dell@dell.com. I sent an email titled: “HELPING DELL CHINA CHALLENGE LEGEND”. Given that Legend dominates the China market with a 30% market share vs. Dell at 5%, I thought that this title might attract his attention. I went on to write three concise, yet convincing bullet points about my experience with Intel, my knowledge of sales/marketing in the tech sector and my passion for China. Finally, I added a little wit, by commenting on the question that I had asked Michael that day as well as my desire to “be direct” in my communication. This act was certainly a wasted 30 minutes, but since Dell was a bad fit, why not try?

To my surprise, I received a response 16 hours later titled and bolded in all caps: ***IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED***. Someone in Michael Dell’s office had read my e-mail and forwarded it on to five other people with the instructions that “Bob in Asia Pacific must follow up with this one right away.” Eight hours later, at 4 a.m. Boston time, Bob then responded in an e-mail to me asking, “Andy, when can I call you? Please describe your dream job at Dell.”

I couldn’t believe it! Would getting a job be that simple? I then responded to Bob that morning before class with a list of nine bullets for all of the elements of my “dream job” that I wanted. Before sending it, I thought to myself, “am I asking for too much? Am I being a typical, demanding HBS graduate in a down economy?” I then decided that if I’ve been this bold thus far, I might as well dream big. I sent the e-mail and then waited for three days, chastising myself for asking fo
r so much. Finally, Bob responded, “Well, I don’t know if we can find a match for you, but perhaps we can talk.” In my next response, I corrected my error and used a much more humble approach, deeply apologizing for my tone and reasserting my passion for China and helping Dell.

The next five months consisted of numerous e-mail volleys, 2 a.m. conference calls and a flight to China where I had a grueling round of interviews, but I did manage to end up with my dream job. While the exact terms were only a small fraction (about 1/9th) of what I had originally asked, the important component was the job in China. Dell hired me as the first foreigner working directly in sales in all of greater China, selling across all of Dell’s product lines to American- and European-based multinational companies. I have been hired on a localized package and carry a quota like everyone else in the 300+ sales force. I had studied “sales force planning”, “hiring procedure” and “channel alignment” in classes such as LEAD and Business Marketing, but I assure you that “direct sales” is a completely different ballgame that HBS does not even cover.

This role was clearly one that Dell did not plan, but one that was created as an experiment for me. While heading directly into sales directly out of HBS is a ludicrous idea and one that very few people consider, heading directly into sales in a tough market like China without much if any sales, language or cultural skills is one that virtually everyone called ridiculous! When I told my best friend that I turned down a six-figure job with Siebel to take a 60%-plus pay cut and work in an intense market where my odds of success are below 25%, he told me that I was crazy. When I told him my salary, he started laughing:

“You HAVE TO BE JOKING! You are graduating from Harvard Business School and accepting a job that pays less than my 24-year-old sister. NO ONE in their right mind would make such a decision. You should have your head checked.”

I still face many doubters inside and outside the company now that I’m in China. Even after I started, I had one anonymous phone in the middle of the night call telling me that “working at Dell in sales is nothing that I’ve encountered before and that I should consider choosing a backup opportunity.” While skepticism may discourage some people, achieving impossible goals motivates me. I strongly believe that sales experience is a great way to build my career towards general management and think that international experience is an even bigger plus. This may not be the path for everyone, but it is the right path for me.

While last summer was my first time living outside of the U.S., the rewards have been phenomenal and I intend to continue to follow my passion. In addition to contacting Michael Dell, I tried a number of tactics to contact high-level executives such as planning events such as Cyberposium, attending career treks and using my personal non-HBS network, but I took the time to think creatively about how to contact and position myself with each person. Ultimately, both quantity and quality matter, but its sheer determination and confidence that helped me the most.

While I have only been studying Mandarin for a little more than a year and still speak with the aptitude of a 10-year-old Chinese kid, I continue to study the language and face the challenges of learning a new line of products, earning the respect of my co-workers and managers, and meeting with CIOs to reach my sales and profit targets. I could write a case study about the obstacles of selling in a brutal market like China, but I will save this until I can claim some success at sales. My only message to those of you pursuing the networked job and internship search is: 1) be passionate, 2) be creative and 3) be persistent.

Best of luck in pursuing your dream job and have a great second year!