From engineering leader to HR leader: how Diego Rejtman surprised himself with a new passion he didn’t know he had
Pushing himself to ask, "What am I about?" took this engineer into an entirely new obsession
Word on the street was that Diego Rejtman was an inspiring ball of energy. I was particularly excited about this interview because who doesn’t look forward to a “ray of sunshine” during a Seattle winter?
Suddenly, I hear – in the most cheerful of tones – “Toyyyyyyy!”
He welcomes me with the warmest of welcomes. We trade the quick intros on how to properly pronounce each other’s names (his last name is pronounced Rike-man), and my guard is immediately eviscerated. He offers me a seat in front of his roundtable that is filled with a collection of gum offerings, which are already the sign of a happy host (or gum addict).
Before we can TRULY get started with the interview, he happily explains that he doesn’t want this story to be the “Diego Show.” Since I was prepared to do PRECISELY that, I was a little thrown, but automatically intrigued by this honest glimpse at his self-awareness and humility.
He explained that he doesn’t mind serving as a “vessel” to tell the story of Microsoft’s new way of thinking – the “Growth Mindset,” which has been led by CEO Satya Nadella and Chief People Officer, Kathleen Hogan. Furthermore, he can’t do any story without communicating the hard work of his newly inherited team, Microsoft Global University Recruiting.
Okay, you’re on Diego. Let’s get this vessel out to sea!
He Already Had a Vision
Hailing from Buenos Aires, Argentina, he happily reminisces of the days where – at the insistence of his mom – a 15-year-old, game-obsessed Diego would write letters to American gaming companies expressing interest in what books he should read, what programming languages they used, and how he could become an employee one day. “Do you know, they all wrote me back,” says Diego as he points to one of his first response letters on one of his prominently placed inspirational boards.
After graduating from college, Diego worked closely with a recruiter named Holly to accept an offer through the exact department he runs today. “I remember her,” he says. “Did you know that 80% of people remember their recruiters out of college?” I don’t, but – admittedly – one of my closest personal relationships is with my B-School recruiter from nearly fifteen years ago. So, there’s some truth to it.
From there, Diego followed his dreams of gaming to work on the Xbox operating system. For 15 years, he went from a Software Design Engineer to a Principal Engineering Manager at Microsoft. He’s quite proud of his accomplishments in the engineering space, but he admitted he reached a moment of crisis about seven years ago.
Despite his booming engineering career, he was swayed by a Bay-Area tech company for a great engineering role and for a lot more money. He seriously considered the opportunity for him and his family. Why leave simply for money? I’m sure you’re thinking, “I’d love THAT crisis.” But, stay with me. Diego found this decision to be one of the toughest. In fact, it landed him in the emergency room with a panic attack. The opportunity awakened a crossroad in him.
“What am I about?” Diego took this question to heart. He chose to stay at Microsoft, but not without his newfound hobby – culture. He jumps up and points to another quote on his inspirational board, which I’m quickly learning is a part of his meeting style. In fact, it was this crossroad that led to the creation of his series of boards, which he describes as being his proudest takeaway when he decides to retire. “I started this experiment of posting clippings of my learnings on my office walls. This could be a page from a book or an image of a powerful concept,” he beams. “When Satya and Kathleen introduced the concept of the Growth Mindset into the company culture, it enabled this wall to gain a new dimension.”
Diego recalls a presentation where he overheard an audience member ask “why the hell is HE in engineering?” He later asked her why she made such a statement, especially considering she didn’t know him personally. She said it was due to his warmth and authentic ability to connect with people, tools better suited for another area of business. Furthermore, his manager had even noticed this natural gift and mentioned that it would be a disservice to Diego and the company if he didn’t explore a platform to use this ability.
So, when I asked Diego, “what does having a hobby of culture mean?” Diego said it was these moments and his boards of inspiration that led him to “culture.” After his epiphany to take on this well-suited hobby, he began nurturing it in as many ways as possible by partnering with HR. In fact, his boss was so supportive, that they agreed that 80% of his time would go to Xbox engineering, with the other 20% of his time leading to culture cultivation.
At first, Diego experienced a sense of guilt, but he later realized that this hobby was just as beneficial to him as it was to Microsoft. He took on HR-based projects, including working closely with the Hispanic Organization for Leaders in Action (HOLA), an employee resource group at the company. Fast forward to a little over a year ago, Nadella announced the idea that experiences drive the collection of knowledge.
“I want to be clear that if it wasn’t for this idea, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s not an idea of mine,” Diego clarified. “The credit goes to those who are a beacon of light to me. It’s lifelong learning. It’s something you can learn and aren’t born with,” he explained. “It’s about constant learning, getting out of your comfort zone and growing over time.”
And in a matter of a 15-second explanation, the story of Diego’s career switch made all the sense in the world. He recalls reading a book about a guy who – in an effort to impact the world – simply wrote to whoever and whenever to get his point across or take action. Whether it was a CEO or a country’s President, pressing “send” was never an issue for the author. Diego got hit with the idea and immediately followed suit. “Don’t wait, act now,” he advised. He took fingers to laptop keyboard and shot a note to Hogan, expressing his desire to meet with her for 30 minutes and gain an understanding of how his cultivated hobby would be of service to the company. She agreed.
During their first meeting, he brought a seed and a canister. He revealed his plan to grow as a culture connoisseur over the next five years, with the goal to bring this grown-out tree five years later to prove his point. She connected Diego with some of her team members so he could continue to find ways to work closely with HR. On a chance encounter a year later, they ended up on the same flight and she told him about a position where she felt he would shine.
Of course, he thought about his plant and questioned if he was moving too soon, to which she questioned “why wait?”
She connected him with the hiring manager – Chuck Edward, CVP of Global Talent Acquisition – who was looking for the new Senior Director of University Recruiting. After about six weeks of chats and the hiring manager checking with his HR peers about Diego’s culture projects, he was offered the role, which he felt “took courage on the management side.”
Now let’s take a step back. Diego is a seasoned, well-regarded software engineer with technical leadership. He does not have the formal training of an HR leader. His experience only spans across a “hobby.”
The self-aware Diego made it clear that he was not lost on these facts. “I looked at my [HR] peers, who all had degrees in areas like psychology or social development,” he said. Furthermore, his decision to take the role did not come without any fear. A multitude of concerns crossed his mind. “Was I willing to give up my track record [in software engineering]? Would my career slow down? Would I be successful? Would I even like it?” he lamented.
When asked about his family’s role in this tough decision, he said while getting teary eyed, “When I made the change and sent the text to my family, my sister replied ‘this is you.’” Diego added, “It felt really good.”
Diego took on the challenge and added – again, as genuine recognition of executive leadership’s stance – “it was actually easier to choose me than the traditional choice.” Of course, the idea is to tap into a person’s growing interests and passions for a mutually beneficial outcome for the employee and the company.
I asked what is the company looking for when considering the candidates? He quotes a former colleague/Distinguished Engineer, Joe Long. “Consider three things. IQ. Is the person smart? EQ, or emotional quotient. Does the person have emotional intelligence and can they work well with others? And grit, or perseverance,” he explained as he pointed back to the Growth Mindset’s support of nurturing a person’s curiosity and endless desire to learn.
How did his new team receive him?
Diego admits he expected a neutral reception from an inherited team of people who clearly were more experts in the craft of HR than himself. He perked up in his chair and added that he was surprised by the warm welcome he received. “They rolled out the red carpet for me! They assigned me a mentor, a peer mentor and an onboarding document,” he said with a further burst of excitement. Please note, most people do not get super excited over an onboarding document. But, our guy, Diego does. “They celebrated the idea [of a non-traditional hire]”
Diego continues to be amazed by the team’s charter, dedicated work and overall impact on the company.
And in that moment, he suggests that we take a break and tour the building to give me a sense of the day-to-day. We pass some leftover lunch as we walk in on a team of recruiters working on narrowing down potential candidates for one of their clients, a hiring manager. They are in the zone. We then walk by several of his team members as he gleefully waves in their direction and they genuinely smile back. We head over to the lobby, which is Candidate Central. Filled with a cool mural that candidates can write notes on, games and other devices to calm them down prior to an interview. Diego offers me coffee from what he deems as the best coffee machine in the world.
While light-hearted and cheerful, it’s important to note that Diego has an unwavering sense of respect for this group of 200 people that work in support of University Recruiting’s mission. Admittedly, he was never aware of how expansive Microsoft is simply because he only looked at the world from an “engineering lens.” However, in his new role, he is looking at it from both engineering and other functions like marketing, finance, and operations – globally. His team lives across 27 countries, serving 160 international subsidiaries within their respective regions.
Taking on the New Challenge of a New Role
As he ramps into his new role, Diego has been taking a world tour to become familiar with his people and the team’s charter. For example, he just got back from a week stint in China where he met with his team, some of the universities they cover and some of the students they work closely with. “It helps me understand how we’re different, yet how we’re the same,” he explained. Ultimately, “it’s like Jerry Maguire. Help me help you.”
“Diego leads with a smile – but not only that, he leads with empathy and understanding. Having come from outside the HR function and from engineering, he is always seeking to find a common ground and win-win outcomes for the business,” said Kevin Mottram, Senior University Recruiter Manager in IMEA (i.e., India, Middle East and Africa).
Suddenly, he whips out his guitar. Described as one of only one hundred, it is a hybrid of both a guitar and ukulele that he loves to sing impromptu songs to those he meets with. Apparently, he’s done this since his time in engineering. Then he belts out a jingle of how he hopes I write a great piece about Microsoft’s new direction and his team.
When asked how smoothly his ramp has been, Diego admits that it has been challenging, but in a positive way. “It’s been a long time since I’ve worked as hard as I have these last two months,” as he referenced his desire to learn what the team covers and how he can help. “I work for them. I’m also working as a bit of a connector with business and engineering with HR, plus cross pollinating some best practices.”
Secondly, he admits that navigating the variety of time zones is a challenge. He leans over and shows me his schedule, which literally has no breaks and has me wondering how he found two hours for this interview. Diego points out his first meeting at 7 a.m. and his last meeting at 9 p.m. He doesn’t complain, he just takes it as another way for him to work with and help others as is the case with his late meeting with a gentleman in Dubai. “I’ve always been a ‘Breakfast Dad’ so I could get up and make breakfast for my girls [ages 8 and 11],” he adds. “But, for days that I can’t, my wife and I figure it out.”
Mottram adds, “The cultural or geo-political intricacies of how we do recruiting in Africa or India [as an example], versus where we stand in the U.S., may be many – and I think he is doing a good job to understand those intricacies by displaying curiosity and a desire to truly lead a global recruiting function. With this, he is a very warm and welcoming person, and I’d say recruiting is his innate calling – so without the formal experience in HR, myself and my team see that authenticity in how he is leading with a sincere deep passion for recruiting at Microsoft.”
Describing himself as a “sponge” for learning everything he can about his new organization, ultimately, Diego wants his positive energy to be felt across his new team. He’s excited to serve as proof that operating under a Growth Mindset has its merits, leading to an effective, innovative organization with happy employees who recognize that “change is good.”
“Diego is a leader who cares a lot about people and [is] extremely positive. It is always enjoyable to talk with him about the team or work. Recognizing great success and tough challenges, he clearly demonstrates ‘growth mindset’ by challenging the status quo or trying new things,” said Jihoon Heo, Talent Acquisition Director at APJC (i.e., Asia, Pacific, Japan and China).
As I begin to wrap up my interview, he reminds me that this new role is more than just a new role and a win for his hobby of culture. He wholeheartedly attributes his evolution to Holly Peterson, that recruiter who opened the gates of Microsoft to him 15 years ago. He commences to read an email he sent her about his new role and how she played such a major part in his career. “I always felt you partnered so well with recruiting and your technical background makes you a GREAT fit for that role!” responded Holly Peterson who is now the Global Head of Talent at Qubit.
“I truly wanted to pay it forward and inspire the next generation of students in search of THEIR dream jobs,” Diego concluded.
While he doesn’t know if he’ll ever return to engineering, he doesn’t rule out the possibility. He now believes, “after spending some years in HR, I would be a better engineering leader. Sure, I will need to revisit some programming and the technical aspects, but I will better understand the new students that I will be working with. It’s all about perspective.”
At the end of the day, Diego wants students considering Microsoft to know this is truly a company that wants new employees to “come as you are and do what you love.”
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