The Alumni Spotlight is an interview series where we interview Asia Studies alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Asian Studies and for any advice that would be useful to our students. This interview features Drew Wallin, BA ’11. Mr. Wallin is currently a Program Manager at Google.
Tell us how you became interested in Asian Studies?
I was very fortunate that my family took part in a sister city exchange program when I was in elementary school, and I was able to live in a small village in Hokkaido, Japan for two years. That experience influenced me greatly and I knew that I always wanted to go back to Japan and develop my understanding of Japanese language, history, and culture.
While a student, was there anything you did to get ahead with your career? Or anything that you would recommend that other students do?
Taking part in the Go Global exchange was instrumental in my development, as I was exposed to a greater depth of cultural experience, more networking opportunities, and additional career path options in Japan than I would have discovered on my own.
I studied in Kyoto at Ritsumeikan University. During my time there, I went to a professor’s house which was a renovated ‘Kyomachiya.’ This visit piqued my interest in this architectural form and gave me new perspective on some major social and economic issues related to the changing urban landscape of Kyoto. As a result, I was able to create a research proposal to study kyomachiya in a master’s program at Kyoto University under the MEXT research scholarship following my graduation from UBC.
How did you get your first “adult” job after graduating?
I was in the ‘job hunting’ period of my master’s program at Kyoto University, and my brother was in the process of founding a company for which Japan was a crucial market. It was very fortunate timing and I joined the company in another department, with the aim of leading the Japanese territory once we solidified our go-to-market in North America and expanded to Japan.
The company was called AppBridge, and we were a software company focused on enterprise data migration to Google Drive. Japan was a very strategic market because Google use was quite high for Gmail, Calendar, etc. but Drive utilization was very low at the time.
After your first job, how did your career progress and what are you currently doing?
I took a role at a startup, so I was able to work in a variety of different areas, while leading several important projects. Taking on a lot of responsibility at an early stage of my career was very challenging, but it led to me taking on an executive role much more rapidly than I would have been able to in a larger, more established company. I am now working as a Program Manager at Google.
I founded a subsidiary company in Japan called AppBridge Japan under our parent org. As the director of the company, I had to find an office, negotiate reseller and partnership agreements, work with various partners and customers directly, conduct trainings and seminars, work with professional contractors such as law firms and accounting firms, hire and train staff, operate under a very limited budget (we were a bootstrapped organization relying on revenue and grants/etc.), all in Japanese. I was revenue positive within 1 year of operation, at which point we were acquired.
What do you enjoy about your current job? What are the challenges?
The team at Google is incredibly supportive and great to work with, and the scale we operate at is truly global. My overall team runs a product which reaches nearly a billion active monthly users, so although there is great satisfaction gained from supporting so many people, there is a great deal of pressure to make sure everything runs as expected and there is a very high bar of expectation to meet.
We were acquired under the umbrella of Google Drive initially, but we work with G Suite as a whole. There are several products within G Suite with hundreds of millions of monthly active users. I work very closely with the team at Google Japan, where I often visit to meet internal teams, partners, customers, and present at conferences, such as Google Atmosphere Tokyo 2016, and Google NEXT Tokyo 2017, where I presented in Japanese, and Japanese/English respectively.
Are there opportunities for recent graduates in your industry? What does a typical entry-level position entail?
In my current industry, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity. A typical entry-level position is determined by the track a graduate enters (engineering, design, customer facing, etc.), but one skill common to all role types is a requirement that each person is self-starting and somewhat entrepreneurial. In other words, people should try to think of solutions on their own before asking for help. A lot of the time the problems people are wrestling with don’t necessarily have a clear answer, and the ability to think critically about novel and difficult problems is a massive asset.
Has learning an Asian language helped you in your personal or professional life? What tips do you have for students who are keen to play the ‘language card’ in their career development?
Absolutely. It has been instrumental in my development. It seems like a lot of language students tend to focus exclusively on ‘language-focused’ jobs such as translation or teaching, but in my experience, the true value of language ability has often been found in unplanned or unexpected opportunities which result from having an interest and skill in Japanese. Some of my closest friends and mentors have come from serendipitous meetings due to being in Japan or my ability to speak Japanese, not from a focused attempt to advance in my career.
Do you have any other advice that you would like to impart to students and/or recent graduates?
Spend as much time as possible around people who inspire you, be humble, and give thanks to those in your life who support you.