The career of Zhao Yan

Zhao Yan was a student in my class who graduated seven years ago; we had not in contact until last week when he came to see me. After our casual conversation, I asked him to share his experience with my current students. Following is his story:

“I graduated seven years ago and worked at Microsoft. It has been a great career that I have not even dream of, and I would never become who am I today without a career plan. In just seven years, I got promoted twice and advanced to senior product manager when others would take at least ten or fifteen years to get that position.

I still remember my first class at Carnegie Mellon when we were required to develop a career plan by professor Vu. I thought: “Why do we need to be in such a hurry? We still have at least four more years to think about what we want to do.” I wrote down a few paragraphs and did not even think about it. During the class discussion, Professor Vu said: “Zhao Yan, you wrote that you want to be a software developer. Is that all you want?” I was surprised, so I said: “Why not, I like to code.” Professor Vu insisted: “For the rest of your life? Is that the career that you want? Do you have aspirations for anything else? By that time the whole class was laughing. I was embarrassed, so I argued: “Yes, that what I want.” Professor Vu said: “You come to see me after class, this is not an acceptable career plan.”

In high school, students only go to the teachers’ office when they are in trouble so I thought that I would be punished for my bad attitude. However, when I came to his office, he was not angry but explained to me about the career plan. He said: “Zhao Yan, career planning is about developing a map that helps you manage your learning, so you know what you need. It shows you what courses you must take and what skills you must develop. You are the captain of your own ship, and you cannot sail in the ocean without a map. Even when you graduate and begin to explore your career, the career plan shows you what other skills you must develop to ensure that your work fits with your personal interest. By following a plan, you will learn new things to manage the changes in your life and throughout your career.”

I was embarrassed, so I apologize for my misbehavior, but he told me: “It is OK, let us work together on the career plan. You must think about where you are now, where you want to be, and how you are going to get there. What do you want in a career? What do you like to do? What are your strengths and weaknesses? As a Computer Science student, you need to explore multiple career paths to identify where you want to go in three years, five years, seven years, and ten years. By exploring all the positions that interest you, you can find what skills and qualifications required and plan your future. By having a plan, you can select appropriate courses to improve your skills, so you are ready to go to work. This is what college education is about; it gives you the opportunity to make a decision about your life. You cannot go to school in a random fashion just like a leave in a waterfall and flow whenever it takes you.As a college student, you must plan your career and your life now when you still have time to make the right decision.”

I spent the weekend to develop a career plan then came to see him. He read it carefully and gave me some advice, by the beginning of the week, I had a detailed career plan. Based on that, I selected the appropriate courses that I need, to strengthen my skills so by the time I graduated, I had no problem to get a job at Microsoft. My first job was a software developer like many other graduates, but with a career plan in place, I focused on developing my project management skills. In three years, I got promoted to project manager for a team of twelve people. Because I had a strong technical foundation, my project completed on time and within budget. I had a chance to manage another project of twenty-five people. I succeed then continued to another more important project of fifty people. Based on the career plan, I know what I need to achieve my career goals. By that time, the technical skills are no longer critical, but the soft skills became essential. I looked into my career plan where Professor Vu wrote: “Ask yourself, what actions that can help you to achieve your next goal? What other training that you need and who can support you to get there.” Based on his advice, I told my senior manager that I would like to learn more from his experience since he had over twenty years of working and he can teach me a lot. To my surprise, he agreed to mentor me and let me work close to him. By learning from someone like him, it helped me to achieve my next goal of becoming a product manager where I managed a team to support a product called the Hololens.

The HoloLens is a holographic computer built into a headset that lets you see, hear, and interact with holograms within an environment such as a living room or an office space in an immersive, interactive holographic experience. This technology will change many things, as Microsoft is building the entire future in this technology. I was so happy to be part of this team and looking back; I can say that without a career plan, I would never achieve this goal in such a short time. At Microsoft, I made many friends and was challenged in ways I could not even have thought but having a detailed “roadmap” I found my passion of being a professional software engineer.

When I was young, I considered getting a college degree, and a job that pays well would be a success. Now I measure it by the respect that others have for me, how my skills are valued, the strength of my personal relationships with others, and how much I enjoy working as a professional. As I reflect on my career, I would like to appreciate Professor Vu and others who helped me to make it happen. As he asked me to share my experience with you, I would say: “Plan your career with all your heart and mind because you cannot sail in the ocean without a map. You are all the captain of your ship, and you need to have a detailed career plan, so you know what you need to learn and what to do with your life. Do not wait until you graduate but do it as early as possible because you go to college to plan your future and it is you who are responsible for your future.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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