Profile #16: John Rajeski – Silicon Valley veteran, educator, mentor, data analyst

Paul: John Rajeski is an aspiring people / data analyst, a recent global educator, and a former Silicon Valley start-up co-founder.

John and I spoke about his early career in Silicon Valley, his move into education after the 2008 financial crisis, his experience as a mentor, his recent foray into the field of data analytics, and more.

Hi John. Thanks for joining me. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

John: Passionate about learning; travel; music; cooking; photography; technology and culture (in no particular order) I have lived, studied and/or worked in Asia since 2007 (India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam). Professionally, in business and/or education, I have a strong interest in “guiding resourceful humans and creating more-inclusive organizations”, i.e., due to almost no shortage of examples where there is work to be done in this area.

You started your career in the tech industry in Silicon Valley in areas such as business development and sales. How did you get into tech and how did your career develop? What lessons did you learn at that time that most resonate with you today?

Two interrelated meetings were key. First, a former classmate working at a tech firm provided an introduction for an informational interview. Unexpectedly, I was asked, “Would you mind looking over my CV?” In retrospect, I can still recall immediately saying, “Sure”. What prompted their request was sharing my Resume formatting had caught their attention. Briefly, I informed them they needed two or three pages maximum. In turn, they shared they had joined the company; moved overseas (from Australia); felt intimidated about converting to a Resume and how relieved they were I offered to review it without hesitation. As our meeting wound down, they told me ‘if anything becomes available’ I would be the first person they called. 

A few weeks later… they called me and arranged another interview. After a brief chit-chat, this person said, “So, you were recently in Cairo on a student-exchange program. Tell me a bit more about it?” Three hours later – after only sharing travel stories – they looked at their watch and said, “I have to go. Can you start tomorrow?” I replied, “What exactly will we be doing?” They said, “I have a problem I think you can help me solve, please come in at 10:00 a.m.” I agreed and began the next day. 

Unbeknownst, until later, this person had a Ph.D. in relational databases. Working with them was like a combination business-mentorship for two years in program / partner management or business development, etc. Their generous pay-it-forward mindset and lifelong learning still resonate with me today. What began learning about Databases, Middleware, and Tools led me to work and gain direct knowledge of ERP; from Content Management/Commerce to Enterprise Search to a Mobile Application Startup.

You pivoted your career to education after the financial crisis of 2008 and moved to Asia. Tell us about that. Two big life-changing decisions! Why move into education and why Asia?

While likely, shocking for traditional East Asian career paths, the average tenure at a Silicon Valley company is less than two years. As an example, the above job ended with a series of layoffs. Moving forward, career events and progression, led to getting hired for a position where my role was to craft and lead a pan-Asian Enterprise product market initiative.

Being fortunate and successful (with lots of help and support) until getting laid off again… my boss who hired me for this role, asked, “Would you like to be part of a Startup?” I replied, “Yes”. We went from concept to commercialization (including raising $5M in Venture Capital) and launched a mobile application. I moved to Asia to take the firm to the region. For anyone who has ever worked in a Startup, limiting spending and trying to earn extra money to keep expenses down is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. So, while I was based in Singapore, I took on a consulting role helping to set up a Back Office operation in India right as the Financial Crisis enveloped the world… when we all understood raising additional VC was not an option because even the most rock-solid organizations were unable to secure funding. 

Throughout my tenure in tech, I often reflected on how the above formative experiences continued planting seeds of wanting to pay it forward and give something back. Higher Education seemed the right place; and, pragmatically, needing a job to weather that significant economic crisis forced my hand. Hence, my transition from business to teaching.

You completed your doctorate in education and moved to Japan in 2018. What attracted you to living and working here?

Travelling in Asia, aside from visiting friends or taking personal trips, I was struck by Japan from the very first visit and kept returning. Specifically, the latent potential and underutilization of women and/or the industrial-ness of those who would be classified as a ‘retiree’ running small shops were constant themes. In Higher Ed, I tried to contribute and support university students including offering whatever extra encouragement to young women. Prior to completing my doctorate, I returned to school for a second Master’s degree and self-funded research in Japan on summer and winter university breaks. Moving to Japan in late 2016, I focused on completing my dissertation and landed a university role in 2017 while slowly getting a better grasp of the tech scene here with an eye towards trying to contribute to it at some point in time.

In addition to working as an educator, you’ve worked as a consultant, advising entrepreneurs, start-ups and businesses. People often view academics as living in ivory towers away from everyday life but this doesn’t sound like a representation of you. Could you describe your consulting work and tell us about some of the more interesting projects you’ve worked on?

Revisiting my working experience in India was not just setting up a Back-Office operation but learning from so many capable people. While teaching in South Korea, I led a group of German tech-publishers on a nationwide tour that also visited Japan. Therein gaining more European perspectives on some of the technology they encountered at the organizations visited. Furthermore, last year, I consulted for a Taiwanese-based AI firm on their market-positioning and preliminary VC legwork. This was really enjoyable because their model is 100% virtual with globally-distributed staff throughout America, Asia and Europe. 

The ‘ivory tower’-mindset does really resonate nor was it part of the program which awarded me a doctorate. While research and/or academia have their place most people automatically assume a ‘doctorate’ is a Ph.D. I hold an Ed.D. (Educational Doctorate); just began using the title again after not using it the past year and using it for the first three years after I was awarded it. 

As a research / practitioner degree, it is oriented towards being an applied versus a theoretical degree. My school imparted this orientation on our cohort; best summed up by John Dewey’s mindset of ‘a researcher must never be removed from the hurly-burly of society.’ His colloquial English aside, my degree is actually the older of the two (a topic for another day!) One key takeaway was embodying a leader-servant approach and willingly looking to contribute, learn (including admitting not knowing something) and strive to facilitate and share best practices whenever possible.

Mentoring seems very important to you. Why is that? I’ve often thought that mentoring can benefit the mentor as much as the mentee. What do you think?

Mentorship whether formal or informal is steeped in the human experience. Fortunately, in business and academia, I encountered people who offered to help and/or support however they could. A key to receiving support is humility and a seeking spirit to ask questions; revise or refine one’s beliefs or perhaps, most importantly, avail yourself to others via having an open mind to other’s perspectives to being an active listener and keen observer. One reason why this symbiotic relationship is unique within human history. Finally, yes, agreed both parties benefit, e.g., the mentee for being supported and the mentor for, ideally, continually growing and setting the best possible example.

You’ve also spent a lot of time learning about data analytics recently. Could you tell us about this?

Formally, this is true via self-study, e.g., earning certifications. Informally this has been a continuum since I began working in Silicon Valley due to a fascination with both quantitative data and qualitative information and the learning mindset I encountered. Researching; defending and completing my dissertation crystallized the importance of the interdependence of these two areas. Thus it sparked an interest in not just improving Excel skills but formally learning SQL and Python. As part of this continuum, one business interest and focus is ‘in guiding resourceful humans and creating more-inclusive organizations’. In other words, “no matter how ‘data-centric’ any organization may claim to be, data is still data and to maximize data’s usefulness, meaning must be derived to positively impact real-world issues, i.e., involving people in actual problem-solving to utilize and apply (said) data’s usefulness.”

You and I have spoken about the ‘war for talent’ and how narrow-minded many companies are when considering applicants, with too many firms spending their time looking for ‘perfect’ applicants. As someone transitioning his career again, could you please share your thoughts on this?

To begin, especially in light of recent global events, it seems long past time for ‘the war for talent’ to be retired! Moreover, “conflating a ‘Skills Shortage’ with a ‘Talent Shortage’ only amplifies the ‘Hiring is Broken’ narrative. Briefly, yes, data shows skills shortage due exist in many fields. Yet, there is no shortage of talent! Arguably, there is a glut of talent not fitting “with too many firms spending their time looking for ‘perfect’ applicants” because someone reviewing their resume did not find keywords or phrases to check off their wishlist. 

One reason why the ‘hiring is broken’ narrative drones on endlessly is due to how transactional hiring has become and an imbalance with the relationship aspect(s) of it. Hence, ‘resourceful humans’ versus ‘Human Resources’ as people are not just measured by economic output. Nevertheless, unfortunately, for all parties, when profits are the primary objective this is what people are often distilled down to in the mindset of hiring authorities, etc.

What does a typical day look like for you?

My days are book-ended with quiet time for contemplation and reflection. Between, as an active job seeker, researching; networking; connecting, etc. are regular pursuits. Otherwise, fulfilling my current freelancing role supporting career transitioning professionals pursuing Data Analytics; Full-stack Web Development and/or UX/UI Design roles by supporting their career narrative and job-prep tasks are other endeavors. Finally, walking; biking or exercising at a local park (a highlight of Tokyo); cooking; reading; studying or simply trying to make a positive impact also comprise my day.

What are some of your goals for the future? Personally and/or professionally?

Short-term; to secure a gainful, remote-first, role with a global company in the tech space contributing and supporting the firms’ ongoing success is a primary goal. Long-term; to continue whatever mentorship or support to others as well as contribute to addressing some of Japan’s systemic challenges regarding ageism or the cultural aversion to and shunning of failure (amongst others) are areas of interest to hopefully impact positively (if even in a small way!)

Quickfire questions

– what’s the best thing you’ve spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

While not Yen 10,000 but just over half spent on a vintage Pignose guitar amplifier (guitar fans know how cool these amps are!) Given Tokyo has no shortage of amazing music shops as a great way to find incredible bargains this is also clearly another topic for another day!

– how do you learn new skills? Are you studying anything currently?

While this will might sound ‘clinical’ this is where a doctorate comes into play – 

Learning a new skill/developing your knowledge? Keep in mind:

1) Cognitive Dissonance, i.e., effort. Learning takes time. Reduce feeling overwhelmed by accepting you will likely feel (emotional, mental or physical) exhaustion. Breaks/rest are an integral part learning!

2) Self-efficacy, i.e., believing in oneself. Confusion; disappointment; frustration or irritation are normal. Belief in oneself is often what separates tenacity until the ‘fog clears’ and you gain a greater degree of clarity.

3) Learner Expectancy, i.e., “I can do this!” This belief is especially important when points 1 and/or 2 are the most intense. Tracking your internal dialogue is an excellent way to monitor any (positive or negative) mental messages.

4) Motivation, i.e., what drives you? Intrinsic, the joy of learning. Extrinsic, oriented by X recognition. Knowing this is a vital part of being successful as a learner.

5) Learner Autonomy, i.e., one’s innate curiosities; independence; level of responsibility and/or self-awareness. Being okay with “knowing what you do not know” is an excellent framework to advance from: Embodying a beginner’s mindset can support these qualities, i.e., these five interrelated points!

Currently learning and a work-in-progress, improving at Excel; Japanese; Python; SQL and/or Tableau skills are a few examples

– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

Becoming a Data Head; Hiding in Plain Sight; Blowout; and Atomic Habits – currently reading; 

Precarious Japan and Man’s Search for Meaning – currently re-reading (the latter is an all-time favorite book). 

As a TV show, the original The Twilight Zone, e.g., The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street is still relevant today. For movies, this series; The Great Hack and My Octopus Teacher also come to mind as timely. For humor; Rick and Morty or Archer are both enjoyable… I will leave it at that due to space limitations!

Some great reads and shows in there! Finally, do you have any ask from our readers?

I would offer a suggestion to not just try to pay-it-forward but to try to practice empathy, i.e., put yourself in someone else’s shoes. 

Categorizing people by their title or career, etc. detracts from the mosaic of the life someone has woven. We can all contribute to the growth and success of others with an abundance mindset. While the past few years have revealed many societal disparities, offering solutions in whatever way(s) one can helps to mitigate a scarcity mindset. From actively listening to someone like yourself offering another person a chance to share a bit more about themselves, we all have unique stories and skills and avenues for expression to offer. Leading with a sense of gratitude and appreciation are foundational towards creating greater prosperity for all to be a part of. Simply put, pay-it-forward. Thank you very much for this opportunity!

Very well said, John! Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with me.

You can contact John via LinkedIn here.

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