From Intuit to Google: Alison Wagonfeld on What it Takes to Build a Successful Career in Tech

September 19, 2016

Usually, when we look at the professional accomplishments of someone we admire, we aren’t able to see what went into the making of that person’s career — the choices they made, the relationships they built, the challenges they faced, and the chances they took. We can only see the results of those choices and chances — the destination, but not the path. But every once in awhile, we meet someone who is willing to share parts of their story and give us a little insight into just how they got from Point A to Point B. Alison Wagonfeld is such a person, and she has plenty of story and insight to share. Currently the Vice President of Marketing for Google’s enterprise cloud businesses, Wagonfeld is not only someone with diverse and impressive experience, she’s someone who has consistently used the same set of simple-but-not-easy skills to evolve from one role to the next. And, while each person’s path is unique, the takeaways from Wagonfeld’s story can be applied with great effect to anyone’s professional journey.

Step 1: Raise Your Hand

No one who has worked with Wagonfeld would be surprised to learn that she’s always been a “hand raiser,” but they might be surprised to learn just how often this trait has helped her advance or pivot her career. “I have always been one of those people who does more than what’s expected,” Wagonfeld says simply. “When I was attending Harvard Business School, students were complaining that they were not receiving their top class choices, and I raised my hand to rebuild the class registration experience. I also ran the Entrepreneurship Club and teamed up with a classmate to start the first HBS business plan contest, which is now in its 20th year.”

Five years after she finished her HBS MBA, Wagonfeld’s extra initiative and engagement paid off when an HBS classmate gave her the heads up on an opening for an associate director at the Harvard Business School California Research Center. Wagonfeld had just wrapped up a two-year stint with a startup called Greenlight, and the HBS position was the perfect way for her to transition back into the workforce after having taken time off to give birth to her first child. “When I interviewed with the HBS professors, they all knew me because of the work I’d done while I was a student,” Wagonfeld says. Long story short, she got the job, eventually became the Executive Director, and was instrumental in launching the Harvard Innovation Lab.

At another career junction, Wagonfeld raised her hand to investigate the mortgage industry for Scott Cook who was then chair of Intuit where Wagonfeld was working on the Quicken CD-ROM business. “I heard through the grapevine that Scott Cook was looking for someone to investigate the mortgage industry,” she recalls. “I knew nothing about mortgages, but the idea of building an online business and working with the chairman of the company seemed interesting to me, so I raised my hand and said I would drive the investigation.” In this case, raising her hand gave Wagonfeld the opportunity to team up with the head of TurboTax engineering to build out Quicken Loans. This provided her with valuable entrepreneurial experience as she tackled multiple roles including product manager, marketing head, and business development lead.

Step 2: Create Opportunity

Sometimes, Wagonfeld had to create situations that would give her the opportunity to raise her hand. It was early in her career, while she was working in Hong Kong as an analyst for Morgan Stanley, that she realized she wanted to work in tech. “It seems ridiculous and really old-school now, but when the company turned on email for the first time, it was kind of an a-ha moment for me,” Wagonfeld recalls. “This was an instance where technology completely changed the way we worked, and that captured my imagination.”

Back in the states and attending HBS, Wagonfeld learned that a Microsoft recruiter was coming to campus. Unfortunately, because she lacked any tech background, she wasn’t able to land one of the coveted interview spots. Frustrated, Wagonfeld reached out to someone she knew at Microsoft’s Hong Kong offices and was able to track down the name of the recruiter — Russ Siegelman. “Once I had the name, I knocked on his door before he started his interviews and offered to bring him lunch if he’d interview me while he ate,” Wagonfeld says. “I think he was so taken aback with the question that he basically had no option but to say yes.” The outcome of this unorthodox move: she got the job. “I ended up getting the one intern position that Microsoft gave out that summer, and it was because I looked for an opportunity and was able to create one where maybe there wasn’t one before.”

Step 3: Accept the Challenge (And Be Patient)

While being willing to take initiative, explore new territory, and work hard are usually considered minimum requirements for anyone who wants to succeed in the fast-paced technology industry, the importance of being able to exercise patience is often overlooked. Wagonfeld’s experience has given her ample opportunity to practice skills on both ends of the spectrum.

While she was in the process of creating a new role for herself at Intuit with her investigation into the mortgage industry, Wagonfeld had to juggle multiple roles during the transition. “For three months, I had two jobs,” she says. “I was working nights and weekends building out the business plan for Quicken Loans, and then I was also doing my day job. I had to be patient with the transition process.”

Joining the Kleiner Perkins-backed startup, Greenlight, as the company’s second employee was a challenge of another kind. “As an online car-buying business, Greenlight was similar to the online mortgage business I’d worked on,” Wagonfeld explains. “I just didn’t realize how much harder it would be. I thought it was tough working with mortgage bankers, but it was even harder working with car dealers.” Despite the level of difficulty (and the fact that, unbeknownst to her team, she was pregnant at the time), Wagonfeld saw the project through to a successful exit, patiently taking each challenge one at a time.

Step 4: Take Chances and Embrace Risk

On the flip side of circumstances that demand perseverance and patience, there are some situations that clearly require a willingness to either take a risk or just give something a chance. Whether it’s a fork in the road or an unexpected invitation, each journey includes its share of opportunities to change the path with one word: yes.

For Wagonfeld, there were many such opportunities. Taking the position at HBS was one instance. Though the role was very different from the ones she’d had at Intuit and Greenlight, Wagonfeld decided to take a chance on something new and ended up staying in the role for, a she puts it, “ten years, three kids, and one hundred cases.”

Her current role with Google developed out of an unexpected invitation to meet Diane Greene, Google’s Cloud Chief. Wagonfeld was working as an operating partner at Emergence Capital Partners at the time. “Emergence was only ten minutes from my house and I loved the team. I thought I’d be there forever,” Wagonfeld says. “Then, out of the blue, I received an invitation to have coffee with Diane Greene to talk about enterprise marketing. Who wouldn’t go meet with Diane Greene?” The coffee turned into a job offer and the rest is history.

Step 5: Do Good Work. Always.

Probably one of Wagonfeld’s most powerful strategies is less of a strategy and more a personal philosophy. “I don’t network for the sake of networking,” she explains. “I’m not one of those people who keeps a list of twenty people to follow up with each quarter, but I do find ways to stay connected with people through events, happening to see them somewhere, or making plans for coffee.” While this organic approach might seem over simplified, there are two other elements that are critical to its success.

“Most of the opportunities I’ve had have come my way because of good work I’ve done elsewhere,” Wagonfeld says, and her career path supports that statement. It was her good work and extra volunteering while a student at HBS that helped her win the associate director post at the HBS California Research Center five years after she’d graduated. Her good work as an intern at Microsoft was partly responsible for Russ Siegelman advocating for Wagonfeld at Greenlight. And the interview process at Google involved many people who already knew Wagonfeld well from past work connections. “The same people we work with come back again and again,” she says.

“You should always do your work and build your life as if it’s forever going to be back channeled, because it will be.”

Wagonfeld’s other “secret weapon” is one she has employed over and over again: asking the simple question, “How can I help?” Whether she was looking for ways to support the community as a student at HBS, trying to transition to a new role at Intuit, or talking with someone about a potential position, the question has always been the same: How can I help? “You have to be clear that it’s not about asking how you can help because you know that helping will serve you,” Wagonfeld says. “It’s never about what the other person can do for you.”

And that helpful attitude applies to cases where there’s no project or job on the line as well. “As much as I can, I try to help when people reach out to ask for soft advice, guidance, or introductions,” she says. “I make time because I feel like it’s part of my philosophy to pay it forward.”