#MakingTheMove: Art History Major to Microsoft Leader in Privacy

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

Who’d ever think that an Art History major who dreamt of working in museums would end up becoming the Senior Director of Privacy at Microsoft? As a people manager who has hired 50+ people throughout his career, Christian Epstein‘s favourite interview question is “Tell me about a mistake you’ve made and what you’ve learned from it.”

Today, I am excited to share Christian’s career journey from Denmark to the U.S. and insights from his experiences and perspectives as a people manager.

Growing up and finding opportunities in reality

As a student, Christian thought that an Art History (ARHI) degree with a minor in Statistics would be cool, though he eventually found out that it was a tough field to find employment in. For a time, he worked at restaurants to make ends meet as he tried breaking into the world of renaissance art.

Over time, he decided that it was time to pivot his focus and find a “real job” so he started working at a call center where his stats background came in handy and he developed prediction models for the Denmark elections. In this role, he built reports and generated insights for customers to support their market research and sales strategies (e.g. growing newspaper memberships). Christian also pursued some coding projects in his spare time, and one day his CEO wanted to build out a web portal and commissioned Christian for the job. This was his first step into the world of IT!

Switching it up in life and career

As Christian advanced in his IT career, he took on developer roles, started leading teams, and consulted startups. By the time he was mid-career, Christian had already lived in Denmark, New Zealand and Germany, and became interested in moving to the U.S. with his family.

7 years ago, he joined Microsoft Denmark as a Cloud Solution Architect, providing guidance on cloud strategy and architecture to the biggest international customers in Denmark. When faced with a couple of job opportunities in the U.S., he decided to stay in the same role with a similar scope so that the change wouldn’t be too drastic in both his personal and professional life.

Heeding the responsibilities of an Individual Contributor (IC) vs. Manager

The first time Christian took on a Manager role was because he was inspired by a strong people leader and wanted to learn how to lead from her. Christian also thought that middle management was a valued skill at Microsoft, and it was how he learned to hire and scale teams as well as tackle challenges like coaching other managers on becoming better managers.

Depending on how his roles and teams evolved over time, Christian regularly evaluated his skills, interests, and workload to make several switches between IC and Manager roles. As a manager, he had to lead sales meetings, code reviews, write his own code, and help each of his team members manage their careers. Whenever Christian got to a point where he felt that he could not do a good enough job as a people manager, he would take a step back and focus on being an IC until he was ready to try again. Overall, he has found the role of a people manager to be very rewarding and enjoys helping dozens of people around the company succeed.

Career advice from a people manager’s perspective

  1. Demonstrate talent and a growth mindset. Talent is the potential to grow further and take on additional challenges or responsibilities. A growth mindset is a willingness to learn new things, ask for help when it’s needed, and adapt to feedback.
  2. Help a hiring manager see where you can end up in 2-3 years at a company. Prove that you have a promising trajectory within and beyond the team.
  3. Walk the talk. Prove everything on paper (on your resume) in the interview. Don’t go into an interview saying that you’re super curious and then ask zero questions at the end.
  4. Be vulnerable when asked about a time that you made a mistake. Walk through how it happened and what you learned from it. Don’t try to mention a “non-mistake”.
  5. To advance in your career, you need to fulfil your core priorities. Take full accountability and ownership of these. 80% of your role should be defined by your core priorities. 20% of your role is up to you to make an extended impact. Consider volunteering and extracurricular opportunities to amplify your impact, but remember that these do not make up for any slack in your core priorities.

Thank you so much to Christian for taking the time to share his career path and advice! I personally enjoyed his career sessions with the Blacks at Microsoft community when he discussed career development and advancement.

Read more inspiring #MakingTheMove stories here and if you’re job hunting, please check out resume resources below: