July 14, 2022

Life and Career Lessons from Nancy Wang

Last month we kicked off our new Ask Me Anything series with a lively Zoom session featuring Nancy Wang, general manager of AWS Data Protection and Governance. A rising star in the tech field, Wang is also CEO of Advancing Women in Tech, a nonprofit that she launched in 2017; an advisor to several early-stage VC funds; and the founder of Penn Engineering Online’s Executives in Residence program.

More than 25 MCIT Online students joined Wang for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on everything from time management and goal setting to the importance of mentorship in engineering and computer science. Here are some highlights of the discussion.

Finding the Balance between Work and Life

One of the first questions focused on Wang’s day-to-day life. With a demanding day job and multiple additional professional commitments, how does she juggle it all?

Specifically, Wang said she spends about 70 percent of a typical workday engaged in meetings and strategy work for AWS. An additional 10 to 15 percent is focused on AWIT, with a further 10 to 15 on upcoming initiatives for Penn Engineering Online. Her VC startup work varies from day to day depending on where the startups she’s advising are in their development.

Wang also manages to fit in five workouts a week and spend quality time with family and friends. To make it all work, she’s adopted a color-coded calendar system.

“I have color coding for all of my different activities across all the different work streams,” she said. “And between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., I calendar by 15-minute increments. Not to sound scary, but that is how I keep everything in order in my head of what I’m doing from every 15-minute increment.”

The Importance of Mentors and Sponsors

As a woman of color who’s quite a bit younger than most of her peers, Wang said her mentors have been instrumental in helping her achieve her goals.

“I have to credit a lot of my mentors for giving me confidence,” she said. “I’ve got meetings with the CEO of AWS and the CTO of AWS. You walk into that room, and no one looks like you. They’re also a few decades older. And you’re there trying to convince them of your project, your proposal, your idea, and getting them to buy in. It’s kind of scary. Having that confidence makes all the difference.”

Wang pointed out that mentors can also provide valuable career guidance based on their own journeys. But even more valuable than a mentor, Wang said, is a trusted sponsor—someone who not only offers advice and answers questions but also has your back.

“That’s probably made the biggest difference in my career—having someone who puts their own reputation on the line for your performance,” Wang said. “Everyone makes mistakes. But the important thing is when you make that mistake, is it terminal for your career, or is it more of a learning opportunity? And sponsors can help facilitate that conversation.

“It’s not enough just to have mentors. Also engage with those mentors to see how you can convert them into sponsors.”

Setting Goals for the Future

In response to a question about goals, Wang stressed the importance of identifying goals that are aggressive but very well defined.

“This is what I work with a lot of my mentees on,” she said. “So let’s say I want to excel in my career this year. What does that mean? Does that mean promotion? Does that mean taking on bigger projects? Does that mean getting a raise? If you’re not able to define it well, then it becomes more challenging to know whether or not you’ve met or exceeded that goal.”

Describing her own goal-setting process, Wang said she sets both short-term and long-term goals on an annual basis and uses an OKR (objectives and key results) process to help her achieve them. 

“For example, this year I wanted to make director, so I’m going to do that this year,” she said. “I wanted to get more involved with Penn, so I’m doing that right now. I also wanted to build out additional SAS offerings for IT, and we’re doing that. So I’ve met all my OKRs, which is awesome.”

In the longer term, Wang hopes to be a CEO someday to strengthen her ability to elevate the voices of underrepresented leaders. While she doesn’t expect to reach that goal in the next couple of years, she’s planning now to position herself for the opportunity down the road.

“What steps do I need to take? Where do I need to be at different points? What experiences do I need to get? For example, one of the experiences I need in order to get to that goal is going through an acquisition,” she said. “So that’s an experience that I’m searching for now.”

But Wang also said it’s vitally important to know the motivations behind your goals. “For me, it’s less about the title but rather how it fulfills my personal mission of what I want to do with women in tech,” she said. “Understanding what part of that goal drives you and why you’re doing it will keep you on that path.”