Making the Move: Chemical Engineer to Chief of Staff at Microsoft

The Making the Move series strives to inspire those who come from different (non-tech) backgrounds and want to break into the world of tech. Here’s a secret… You don’t need to be a computer science or software engineering major!

Today, I am sharing the career journey of Nives Stanfelj, who was until recently the Chief of Staff (aka Director of Business Management) for the Microsoft Energy & Resources Industry organization. Since I first started my career in the oil and gas (O&G) industry (check out my conversation with the CEO from when I was an intern here), I thought it was neat to find another O&G alumni who hailed from Canada.

There’s a lot of stigma around the O&G industry, but energy is needed to make the world go round and there is also a lot of focus and progress being made around the energy transition. Careers in the energy industry are important and impactful, providing the world’s ever growing energy needs and helping energy companies across all sectors innovate and evolve their operations to solve one of the world’s biggest challenges—the trilemma around energy security, energy equality, and sustainability. 

Chemical engineering in Canada

Nives did her undergrad in Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo. During this time, she realized that she was more interested in the process control side which was focused on optimization and controlling plant operations. Upon graduation, she didn’t feel quite yet ready to join the corporate world, so she decided to pursue a Master’s degree at McMaster University specializing in Advanced Process Control. 

In her Master’s program, Nives worked on a thesis project that was sponsored by Shell and had the opportunity to physically work at refineries. This practical experience then led her to Esso where she worked as a process applications engineer for a couple years. 

From customer to consultant 

The O&G industry has always been cyclical with boom and bust periods, so layoffs happened every so often. During this time, Nives started looking at other possibilities and was inspired by a friend who moved to Texas. Along with a move across the border, Nives landed a new role at a small consulting services company that specialized in advanced process control and optimization for the process manufacturing industry. She went from being the plant engineer who used software and services at an O&G operating company to the consultant that designed and implemented these solutions. 

Nives found that her hands-on experiences as an engineer made her valuable as a consultant because she understood what it was like to be in her customers’ shoes. Along with her knowledge of the landscape, her transferrable skills and experiences helped her work closely with customers on software implementation projects. 

Transitioning into technical sales 

After years of consulting projects, she became more interested in the business development side—aka sales—and enjoyed talking to customers about how software and services could address business needs and deliver tangible value. Once again, her practical hands-on experiences as an engineer made her successful because it never felt like she was “selling” anything. She simply talked about her own experiences and how to solve the relevant problems that her customers were facing. 

Anytime you can take your prior experiences and make them relevant to your customer (or audience) it makes it easier to connect and add value to them. 

nives stanfelj

Making the move to Microsoft

Over the years, Nives worked at a couple of specialty software companies and had roles spanning sales, product marketing, and business development. In her last role at Honeywell Process Solutions, she started working with Microsoft on partnership opportunities and got her first real exposure to the company. Once again, she saw an opportunity to be on the other side of the table given her experience as a Microsoft partner and an energy industry practitioner.

After transitioning into a Microsoft role that supported sales teams who worked with O&G customers, Nives continued to take on roles across different organizations at both the subsidiary and corporate levels that focused on the process manufacturing and energy industries, including working with independent solution providers (ISV).

Day in the life of the Chief of Staff

In late 2019, a new Energy industry team was establishing itself and one of Nives’ former peers called her up to see if she would be interested in a business manager role to help grow this brand new team. Nives described this role as busy, intense and elaborate, where she did a little bit (and a lot) of everything. She also had the opportunity to see leadership in action close-up—how budgeting, investments and decisions were made—and what it took to run and grow a new business.

With so many different deliverables, initiatives and fire drills going on at the same time, it was essential to prioritize, employ the 80/20 rule, accept and learn from missteps, and most importantly, engage team members and stakeholders to ensure that the business met its goals. In the end, Nives found that the meaningful collaboration across her network of colleagues enabled her success and brought her the most professional and personal satisfaction.

Final words of advice

  1. Assess your experiences and how they can be translated into what tech companies are trying to do. For example, Microsoft is focused on how we provide differentiated business value through digital transformation from an industry lens. You can contribute to developing and/or articulating that differentiation based on the unique industry perspective you bring to the table.
  2. You don’t need to become a technology expert, but you should do your homework. If you want to join a tech company, try to research and understand what is going on in the tech space. At least have an idea of what the key concepts (e.g. the cloud) are. Tip: Get your fundamental certifications and check out my free study guides here.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take a leap. You don’t need to know everything or have all the qualifications to take on a new role. Even if it ends up not being a perfect fit, you will still learn something from the process and there is always a next step that you can take. 
  4. Do the best damn job you can, make friends, create a good network and try to support and influence others for maximum impact. The world is small, and your network and reputation will help you wherever you go in your career. Try to find that balance between keeping your interests and experiences broad while also establishing a solid background in a particular area that can lead you to new opportunities.
  5. Believe in your skills and experiences and capabilities. You can take your career to all kinds of places, but it is up to you to seek new opportunities and take action. 

Thank you so much to Nives for sharing her journey and insights to inspire those who come from the O&G and energy industry. Please also congratulate Nives who recently started a new role leading executive engagement and communications for Microsoft’s Energy & Resources Industry team!

Read more inspiring #MakingTheMove stories here.