It is one thing to hear a piece of guidance and say you agree with it, and it is an entirely different thing to really ingest wisdom and let it fundamentally change your perspective.
Shellye and I were catching up at our favorite Thai restaurant in the heart of Silicon Valley. I was lamenting the slow advancement in my career at Apple compared to what I knew I could do given the opportunity. I was dutiful in my job and performing exceptionally well, but I was not excited. Through the process of launching dozens of products—from iMac to Apple TV to Laptop, and most recently Apple Watch—I noticed a pattern that ran across each effort, and I used that insight to hone a new product development process. It operationalized a process that can scale to existing as well as new product categories, but it also took away some of the significant challenges that I loved to tackle. I also knew that my opportunities to grow in this role were limited. It became monotonous in its way, launching waves of products year after year after year.
After listening to me vent my frustrations, Shellye challenged me: What I was doing about it? I thought for a second, then reiterated that I was doing my job well and was rated highly in my performance. Then Shellye said, “Risk and Opportunity are two sides of the same coin.” I had been craving opportunity, but I hadn’t been looking to take risks. She called me out for my aversion to risk-taking and explained that I would need to embrace it to chase challenging and rewarding opportunities. Or, I could settle.
Rather than nod and agree and move on, I munched my pad Thai and pondered what she had said. I let her words sink in, and I grappled with them. Reluctantly, I realized that I was expecting opportunities to come to me without me having to take personal risks. I was settling for predictability and straightforwardness because I was afraid to challenge myself—and possibly fail. When I had been venting to Shellye, I placed the blame on the environment and others, never acknowledging my explicit role in the situation. Shellye didn’t allow my excuses to stand, and she wouldn’t let me settle for the easy and safe path. She knew I craved high growth opportunities, but she also knew that I didn’t put in the effort, or have the mindset, to make that leap. By changing my perspective and forcing myself to consider risk as opportunity, I became emboldened. No, I wouldn’t settle for the status quo.
To that point, the majority of my career was in business units, developing products in engineering or product management. Instead of staying set in the product development track, I stretched my horizon of what career paths I would consider and looked to emerging technology. Apple is known for its investment in emerging technology and developing it to align with market needs. Apple’s platform architecture team works across all of Apple’s portfolio—hardware, software, and services—to plan and develop advanced technology.
I went to the platform architect team and told them I was interested in joining them to spearhead faster tech transfer. After that, I had advocates within the team, and they told me when an opportunity came. I acted quickly, and I landed the role. At Platform Architecture, I worked on emerging technology from the back end, front end, and all the messy middle. The knowledge and experience I gained through that work led to Nest, Google, and now Microsoft.
I’ve adopted “Risk and Opportunity are two sides of the same coin” as one of my career mantra as well. I still look back and am so thankful for Shellye diving deeper and naming the situation, forcing me to understand how I was holding myself back. By reframing the context and considering it in the positive light of opportunities, I’ve learned to have the courage to take on risks and flip them to opportunities for high growth.
As I succeeded in my opportunities, I took on more. Sometimes I failed, but if you’re not failing, you are not trying enough. Along the way, I am continually learning and, just as importantly, enjoying the journey.
– Sophia Velastegui, Chief Technology Officer, AI in Microsoft’s Operation Apps, Board director at Blackline (NASDAQ: BL), & AI expert serving on the World Economic Forum.