Given the buzz she’s created within our own circle, we couldn’t be more honored to have Fer Alvarez featured as our second interview on Cubicholia. Since 2014, she’s role-hopped at popular tech firm, Dropbox (a file hosting service startup), switching from inbound marketing analyst to account executive to partner manager. Recently, she traded in her cowboy boots for the ever-glamourous “best coast” by making a big move to the Dropbox San Francisco office. Keep reading to learn more about Fer’s time at Dropbox, advice on navigating the ropes at your first job, and on moving up the tech ladder (feminism in tow).
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I’m a proud Texas Ex (hook ‘em) and studied Marketing and Urban Studies.
What led you to Dropbox?
It was random. I was not looking for a career in tech and felt like I knew more about what I didn’t want to do than what I did want to do (not necessarily a bad thing). The AC at the fall career fair broke and it was 100 degrees outside (fun!). So between the nerves, the rush, the crowds and the black suit I was wearing, I was positively drenched in sweat. On my way out, I spotted a booth giving out t-shirts and I desperately needed a change of clothes, so I came up to the recruiter to talk for a minute in order to get my free shirt. A minute was all it took! Dropbox was landing in Austin and looking for new grads to build, shape, and grow the Austin office. I was hooked! Everyone I met throughout the recruiting process was smart, kind, and refreshingly different from the consultants, bankers, and marketers I’d spent the last three years recruiting with.
At the time, tech seemed like a risky option. I virtually knew no one in tech, not to mention that taking a sales job seemed unattractive and opposite from the strategy work I thought I wanted to do. It took a lot of respect for my intuition and a little bit of courage to pick Dropbox, and I’m really glad I did.
Describe your best day at work.
This was surprisingly hard to answer. But one of my favorite memories happened at the very beginning of my time at Dropbox Austin. I was asked to host our weekly office meeting with another colleague. We decided to shoot an opening in the form of SNL’s Weekend Update and trolled/roasted half the office- including ourselves with an embarrassing blooper reel. It was an absolute hit, and that Friday evening turned into an unforgettable Friday night with the class of new grad coworkers that would later turn out to become some of my closest friends.
You switched roles pretty frequently – how did you navigate that process?
It’s tricky – especially as a young employee. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve had luck on my side. I started my career at a time where the company was growing and had gaps to fill and tons of opportunity to be proactive.
From the beginning of my Dropbox career, I’ve been involved in growing our business in Latin America. Dropbox’ growth into a global company poses uniquely challenging problems, and this was one of the reasons I was drawn to working here.
I started slowly getting involved in side projects and doing work outside of my core role. I was lucky to have supportive leads who invested in my growth and cared about my development—not only on the results I produced for them.
Having honest conversations is key, there’s a way to say “I’m happy and working hard, but want to figure out a way to eventually get to point B.” Sometimes all it takes is to raise your hand. Be vocal about your passions and goals, most of the time people are receptive to that. Remember that work ethic is key, and the rapport you build inside the workplace is powerful. Always keep your eyes open for fresh opportunities and keep checking in with yourself about how challenged and happy you feel. I would caution against always looking forward though. Recognize that sometimes searching for the next thing is the wrong move. Enjoy what you’ve worked for, and get better at it. Having caveated that, I would say most importantly, you shouldn’t be the person saying “I’m not qualified” or “that’s too ambitious.”
Our last interview was about going back to school. We’d love to hear your thought process behind that decision from the working in the tech industry perspective.
I don’t know if I have a good answer here. In terms of tech, I have noticed that at least at Dropbox, a masters is a nice to have, but not necessary to grow inside the company. I think this is true across similar companies. However, tech is a maturing and aging industry, [so] this may not be the case forever.
Personally, I’m torn. I love school – there’s something so romantic about it! And more knowledge is never a bad thing; school makes you a smarter, more prepared and cultured member of society. Even knowing these truths, I’m still not sure that grad school is the right choice for me—in part because there are other ways to learn and build networks, I have a serious fear of debt, and because I’d go to school to learn a very specific skill or subject. For example, if I wanted to change careers completely, like go back to school and study journalism, or learn how to code. Right now, I’m not convinced it is worth it, and I don’t need it to advance my career (having said that, I reserve the right to change my mind on this, I basically do every other month).
Why SF, and how did you go about reaching that goal?
For me it seemed like a natural next step both personally and professionally.
From the professional side, being part of the beginning of an office and get to influence culture through hiring, action, and friendship was a unique and wonderful experience that I wouldn’t trade. After two years of building a family I felt like it was time to professionally develop in HQ. I wanted to be closer to where decisions are made and get a deeper exposure to cross-functional projects. My lead and majority of my team are also based here, and the connections in the Bay Area in terms of tech can’t be matched in Austin.
From the personal side, I was looking forward to the challenge. I spent 6 wonderfully formative years in Austin where I grew into a more confident and adventurous person. San Francisco is a city that inspires the same feelings I had when I first moved to Austin- awe, excitement, promise, and that indescribable feeling of endless possibilities that makes your heart beat really fast when you stop and realize “wow, I live here.” It’s a city that has many opportunities to move and use your body – I want to camp, hike, float, boat, and jump while I can and it is an amazing airport hub for travel!
As far as how I went about reaching the goal, it wasn’t dissimilar to navigating role changes. I made my lead aware of my desire to move, and he vouched for me when the timing was right. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want! It might take you coming up with a good business case, or being patient but in life we’re often more in control than we think.
Austin to SF road trip playlist?
Oh boy- this was a 5 day road trip so there was a lot of music played. Including a mix CD (yes CD) my friend made as a goodbye gift that included gems like: God Bless Texas, Fast Car, and California Love (he has a great sense of humor). I also played the entire Hamilton soundtrack, which my father at first objected to, but would later ask me to “not talk during the song, go back to that part and turn the volume up.”
I did actually make a playlist that’s been playing since my landing in the left coast. I’ve picked the 25 biggest hits and made smaller playlist with a few current obsessions. Hope the readers enjoy!
What’s the latest tech trend you’re geeking out about?
I think virtual reality is scary in the best way. It seems like we’ve only tapped the surface and I see applications for it that could truly change the world in fields such as medicine, communications, engineering, education, mental health and more. I got to try a VR headset recently and it almost felt like an out of body experience.
What’s your favorite thing about working in tech?
There are the obvious things that shouldn’t be discounted – the perks are really great (three meals, wellness reimbursement, a beautiful workspace, unlimited PTO, etc). Although some people think this is really a plot to keep me at work longer, for me, it’s undebatable that they help with work-life balance and I’m very grateful for them.
But my favorite thing is the energy that surrounds and lives in tech companies that feels a lot like momentum and relevance. Being a woman in tech in this moment in time is a pretty exciting thing. I’m part of large conversations and I feel like I’m solving meaningful problems (within the small bubble that is my company, but still). It’s been my experience that I’ve had more impact than my peers in other industries.
There’s also plenty of criticism and ridiculousness to it too—just tune in to Silicon Valley on HBO—it’s hilariously accurate. But tech is filled with people who are ambitious, scary smart, and really hardworking. That’s always a good crowd to be around because the way I see it, your vibe attracts your tribe and vice-versa, so I’m happy to be surrounded by amazing individuals.
Best piece of advice you received to actively tailor your career to your interests?
A friend (and amazing woman) once told that there isn’t only one path for all of life. That profoundly resonated with me, we are taught to pick things and make commitments and this sometimes leads us into conformity. Don’t get me wrong, consistency and responsibility, showing up and following through are some things I live by. But, I also think each person is so complex that when thinking about your career and your interests it’s ok to change your mind and to take your time figuring how and where these meet, or better yet, where they don’t.
I firmly believe that we have enough time to explore, understand, and study every aspect of our person- that includes how your career and interests contribute to your happiness. Most of all realize that you are free! Free to choose, free to change, free to only keep what shines on its own and free to let go!
We can’t help but notice all of your stunning travelgrams since starting at Dropbox—what’s your favorite and least-favorite part about traveling for work?
Least-favorite: constant FOMO—sometime being gone sucks.
Favorite: it’s travel! It might be for work, but I make it a point to carve out time for it to feel my own. Every time I travel I do at least one (but sometimes many) activities that feel cultural or adventurous—a museum exhibit, a scenic walk with my camera, a hike, a new restaurant opening, hit a tourist spot. It sometimes takes being OK with a little less sleep if work is busy, but it means making the most out of the singular opportunity I have to experience different places on borrowed dime and time. PS—if you wanna check out said travelgrams feel free to follow me @ferialv.
Thank you for your sharing your thoughts with us, Fer! We know you’re going to keep kicking ass in SF, and can’t wait to follow along. Making a big move for work? Working in tech? We’d love to hear your take on this in comments!
#1: “Having honest conversations is key, there’s a way to say “I’m happy and working hard, but want to figure out a way to eventually get to point B.” Sometimes all it takes is to raise your hand.”
#2: “Being a woman in tech in this moment in time is a pretty exciting thing. I’m part of large conversations and I feel like I’m solving meaningful problems.”
#3: “Most of all realize that you are free! Free to choose, free to change, free to only keep what shines on its own and free to let go!”