In episode 142, Erik and Kerel talk with Abdul Rastagar, GTM Leader, marketing author, and career coach. Abdul hosts a quick 5 minute LinkedIn podcast called Up Your Game where he interviews marketing executives to give career advice for those who are looking to get into the marketing field. He has also written a book called Up Your Game based off of the many interviews he’s completed. Growing up in many different places in his childhood - from Afghanistan and throughout Europe - Abdul eventually made it to the US and now resides in California. He received his degree in organic chemistry and became a pharmaceutical scientist until realizing that he wanted to do something else, something that he would love. He bridged the gap between pharmaceuticals and marketing and made it fully over to the technology marketing field and fell in love with the ways of thinking and fast paced environment.
Abdul shares his unique perspective of being an uncommon person in the United States and how he was met with kindness and empathy from the most unexpecting people. He also offers his experience on how to best jump career paths, why he has been called for more balance in his personal and professional life and he gives advice for people who are looking to get into the marketing field whether right out of college or as a career transition.
“The other thing that really inspires me is the idea of helping people. I like to think that success, my measure of success, is not how much I know or accomplish, it's how much knowledge I can pass on to other people.”
We want to welcome all of our listeners to another episode of Minority Report Podcast with Erik and Kerel. Each episode, we talk with leaders in business tech and media. And today joining us is Abdul Rastagar, who is a marketing author, career coach and business leader. Let's get to know Abdul. Welcome. How are you?
Abdul Rastagar 00:26
I'm doing great. I'm so excited to be on the show. Thank you guys for having me.
Oh, that's great. We're super excited you're hanging out with us and excited to talk to you a little bit about you. So for our audience and for the folks that may not know you, Abdul, tell us a little bit about you. Let's go way back and tell us about, like, where you were born and raised and where do you come from?
Abdul Rastagar 00:47
That's a loaded question. I come from a lot of places. So I'll start with my parents who are from Afghanistan. War refugees from the Soviet war. But because of that, for better or for worse, I've grown up in a lot of different places. So I was born in Europe, raised in Europe, through multiple countries. We did a short stint back in Afghanistan, and came back when the Soviets invaded. Moved to the US, lived here most of my life. Went back to Europe twice as I was living in the US for multiple years. But at the end of the day, my heart, I'm a California boy, I'm a beach boy. (laughs) I guess that's what you can say. That's what I am.
Interesting. And Abdul, I was going to ask you, I mean, thinking about growing up and living in different places as you just described, I'm curious to understand from you, how has that helped shape your sort of perspective on people that come from different places, and even sort of leading into your career and what you do as a coach and everything else. I'm sure it had to have a significant impact on your perspective and outlook.
Abdul Rastagar 01:49
It's defined everything about me. I grew up in the first 11 years of my life, we moved in six different cities. And because of that, I never really had any long term friends, but it taught me to make friends and not be sad when I left them. And it taught me to actually look forward to making new friends and not to get stuck on the old, right? And actually, ironically, I still have some of those relationships even from those very early years. So that's one thing. Another thing, it's taught me multiple languages, which teaches you different ways of thinking, right? And it gives you a perspective that not everybody thinks like you and you're not always right. It's also taught me some of the kind of more difficult things that you're not always welcome, right? Growing up, I'll give you some examples, when I was in Germany as a kid and remind you I was a kid, even younger than 10 years old. I would see, I don't know what it's like now, but back then there was a fairly strong anti-Turkish movement because there were so many Turkish immigrants. And being named Abdul everybody assumed I was Turkish, right, so I would get it too. And you know, you would hear chants on the streets of 'Ausländer raus,' which means 'foreigners out.' Which is pretty hardcore, right, to hear as a child. And I don't want to make it sound like that was all of Germany. All of Germany was great, but there were instances when you get that, right? So that's something I grew up with, it got more and more difficult over time. I think after September 11, as you can imagine, very difficult. But even before that, I mean, when I was a teenager, people would either jokingly or seriously call me terrorist all the time. And that kind of sticks with you over the years, right. Most of them actually didn't even mean anything bad about it, they were just joking, but not realizing what impact that had. Once September 11 hit, that was a pretty defining time for me because I was a young adult, single, right in that same age group as all those guys on the plane named Abdul, right, so everybody's looking at me suspiciously. Or at least I felt everybody was looking at me suspiciously. And a lot of the paranoia that I was having was, I would see things happening on TV, I would hear about it on radio, somebody would call in and scream and yell about "all Muslims, this and that," irrelevant whether I was Muslim or not, I had the name, so therefore, it stuck. I had an incredible learning experience. I lived by myself in Boston at the time and my neighbor, a guy I barely even knew in the apartment a few rooms down, knocked on my door, and he said, "Hey, are you okay?" And he had a tub of ice cream in his hand. And, you know, all he knew about me was my name was Abdul, because we would pass each other in the hallway, he would play with my dog and that's all he knew. But he was open enough to give me that opportunity to kind of express myself. And I had nobody in Boston, I had actually just only moved there recently, so being able to just share my fears with him. And it was such an eye opening experience for me that somebody, a complete stranger, pretty much a stranger would have that compassion and empathy. And that's been a really good learning experience to take with me over the years. When something bad happens, it impacts people pretty badly. So...
Tremendous. It's interesting, as I'm hearing you describe that, and first, thank you for sharing your perspective. Sometimes I think, you know, a lot of folks don't think about an international perspective of what that's like to sort of have happened. So thank you for sharing your personal experiences, which are really fascinating. And I'm thinking about that example you just used right now, you know, in Boston, the moment of just kindness and recognition and you know, of just person to person, you know, "How are you? Are you okay?' Right? Through Europe, Afghanistan, California, other places, tell us about another moment or two where that happened to you where the kindness of humans with each other sort of manifested or happened.
Abdul Rastagar 05:24
I mean, for me that experience, the one I just mentioned in Boston is probably the single most overwhelming one because it was a personal outreach from a near stranger on September 11th, on a day when the world was basically, my reality and everybody's reality was collapsing, right? That was a pretty powerful one. Another one that was actually really, really informative and I hate to keep pointing to September 11, but there were some real impactful events that happened there for me personally. In the weeks and months afterwards, the loudest defenders of Arabs and Muslims and anybody with that name, and coming from that region, the loudest defenders were Japanese Americans. And that, to me, is also a memory that I'll always carry with me. Because those were people who had gone through World War II, right? They had gone through the internment camps, they'd gone through wrongful imprisonment. And they were, you know, out on TV saying, "Look, this happened to us, it was wrong, we can't do the same thing to other people." And that was also one of those really impactful kinds of experiences that I had. So it wasn't a single individual that I even knew or met, but it was just the voice that was out there defending people saying, "Hey, not everyone's like that." Again, it's a learning lesson for me to take forward with me.
That's great. I want to come back to some more of your life experiences and things that you can share with others. But first, I want to ask you about some great content you've put out on your own. And for those who don't know, it'd be great to have you go check it out, but tell us about Up Your Game. And tell us about sort of the inspiration behind creating Up Your Game and all the content there.
Abdul Rastagar 07:02
Yeah, so Up Your Game is a podcast I do on LinkedIn, it's video. So screencast, whatever you want to call it. It's these short form interviews that I do with marketing executives. So it's very much focused on a marketing audience about how to do better in your job interviews, and provides career advice. So it's very focused, right? It's not all things about marketing everywhere. It's just how do you get that job? How do you prepare for it? How do you get started very, really strongly, you know, how do you get started on the right foot? The intention is for each episode to be under five minutes. And the idea behind that is that, you know, people are busy. But you know, a lot of times in between Zoom calls or whatever, we have 5, 6, 7 minutes, you can just hop on, watch a video and move on with your day, right? And I started out right at the beginning of the pandemic and everybody was losing their jobs. And I was thinking, what can I do here, right? I can't really, on a large scale, help everybody. But I do know a little bit about some marketing. I know a lot of marketing executives, maybe I'll grab four or five of them, we do these interviews. And it was going to be just a weekend project. And we did five interviews and I put them on LinkedIn. And the response was so overwhelming and so positive and so immediate, that I thought to myself, I got to keep going here. And it's been just going, right? So that's been fantastic. It's been a fantastic experience. And I've learned so much from it. I get messages all the time from people saying things like, "This is so insightful for what I'm trying to do or achieve or where I'm trying to go in my career." Because of that experience as a podcaster, I've been able to connect people now. So I can, you know, somebody's looking for a career coach or an executive coach, I can, they come to me and I connect them with the white person. That's really exciting for me as well. And all of that led to eventually a book that I wrote with the same name Up Your Game, right, and it's the same topic on [inaudible] career advice for marketers and interview advice. And the concept was the same, it's got to be short. So I set out to do a 40 page book, which turned out to be slightly longer, but it's very short. It's two chapters, you can read it in a couple hours. And the idea behind it is let's skip all of the gimmicks and all the verbose unnecessary introduction, let's just go straight into the point. Right, and that's actually kind of my philosophy of marketing in general. So again, same idea with it.
Abdul, where did your love from marketing come from? And how did you get into marketing?
Abdul Rastagar 09:20
I had to develop it. I didn't naturally grow up and think, "Hey, I'm gonna be a marketer." In fact, I started out, I got a degree in organic chemistry, and I was a pharmaceutical scientist and a medicinal chemist. And one day I thought to myself, this isn't really, I enjoy it, but this isn't really what I want to do. This is not something I want to do for multiple reasons. Part of it is I'm around chemicals all day long, it's not healthy. There's a very, very defined career track and there's not much I can do with it beyond that. So I went back trying to like soul search, what is it that I really want and for me, it's the idea of speaking to customers, to audiences trying to understand what people's pain points are and what can we develop to address those things. That was really kind of interesting to me. So as I was in business school, I was looking for what was my kind of career path. And that was the one that was very natural for me. So that's the direction I went and I fell in love with it. Very, very different from organic chemistry. But one of the things I got out of it, I had that strong analytical background that comes with being a research scientist, right, you're really, really data driven. And I've taken that philosophy, that mindset and applied it to my work. So even though I'm not necessarily a data marketer, or a data scientist, I do think very much in terms of what are results, what are outcomes, what are the right metrics? And what we did as scientists, we were, it was actually very, very easy for us to get data, it was very difficult to get the right results. That was just the nature of the work, right, in developing new medicines and so forth. But data collection was easy. When I look at marketing, data collection is the hard part, people don't do it very well. Or if they do, they collect the wrong data a lot of times, so really trying to understand what is the data that we need? Because you don't want to spend all your time just collecting data for the sake of it? What is the right data that we need? And how does that impact outcomes? So that's the very, very strong impact on my later career.
What do you think's like one of the biggest things that maybe marketing has taught you? Over the years I look at your experience, and you've been in product marketing, go-to-market strategy, you just talked a lot about data, is there one thing that sort of stands out from a marketing perspective that maybe has taught you throughout your career?
Abdul Rastagar 11:33
What I've learned is that we don't do a good job of listening to customers to the market. We think we do, we claim we do, but if you actually sit back and listen, watch, everybody's telling the customers what they need. And it's very rare that so many people are actually thinking about "What is it that I need?" and listening. There's a few people out there like, Henry Ford is the famous example, right? He knew the market better than the market view itself. I'm not Henry Ford and I haven't met any Henry Ford's personally, people of that caliber, or like a Steve Jobs type caliber. For the rest of us who are like normal human beings, we have to be able to really look at what the customer needs and do an analytical analysis and listen. Listen both analytically and with empathy, right? And be able to shut off all of our blinders and our kind of biases for what we want to hear and be able to really take in what's going on out there. I don't know how many people do that very well. I don't think I'm an expert at it. And I haven't met too many experts. There's a handful I've seen over the years.
Thank you Abdul, that's great. I want to come back to a little bit about your career path and how you got started. Tell us about that transition when you said, "Hey, I want to move out of this area of expertise and sort of transition into another." Tell us about how that sort of worked out and like what brought you to that.
Abdul Rastagar 12:51
It worked out, in hindsight, very well, but it was scary and it was hard. It was extremely difficult and I don't want to, you know, make it sound like "Hey, I'm like, oh, I'm gonna go from this and I'm gonna go to that and I'm good." It's very difficult to do that type of transition. So what I actually did is I bridged it, I was a pharmaceutical researcher. So I started doing marketing for pharmaceutical technology companies. So there was that, I had at least I can make the argument that I understand the pharmaceutical and the life sciences industry very well, right, because I didn't know marketing, I didn't know technologies, at least I have something in there, right? And that's how I bridged it. And that's advice I've given a lot over the years to, especially younger, kind of marketers, you know, who are still in school trying to figure out what to do, and they don't necessarily have a lot of work experience. But it was hard, it was hard to learn the language of marketing, to learn the thinking of marketing. It's a very different mindset. As a scientist, let's face it, we had big, big ego, we thought we knew everything better than everybody else, right. And everyone around me was PhDs and PostDocs, and really, really intelligent people, but because of that, a lot of times they think they know the truth, and nobody else does. And as a marketer, I had to learn to let go of that mindset. That mindset rubbed off on me as well. And eventually you kind of realize, hey, you don't know everything out there. That the customer knows better than you do. They know what their pain point is, you have to understand it. So that was one thing. The other thing, like just learning the basic terminology and language of marketing was important. And some of the things I picked up on really early was there were certain areas that I thought that were missing. Like I said, we don't do a good job as marketers and we haven't always done a great job at really understanding what the outcomes are and what the data is that we need. It's nice to see over the last few years, as digital marketing has done much stronger, that people are more metrics focused. I caution that we have to make sure that we get the right metrics. But when I transitioned into marketing, you know, in the early 2000s, that really wasn't that big of a thing, right? I mean, Google was just kind of starting up, social media didn't exist, YouTube didn't, I mean it was barely in its infancy. So it was a pretty, pretty different world back then. Just understanding that, hey, what could be done versus what's out here today has two different kinds of realms of possibilities.
That's great. And thank you for your honesty there because for some the connections are different, right? It's like, I always knew I wanted to be a marketer. And I always thought I had it in me. And I just needed to do this and that. And it's great to hear that, you know, sometimes even if it isn't just like an immediate fit, you can chip away, you can figure it out, right, by absolutely applying yourself and knowing that it isn't going to be easy, and then it might be hard, but yet you can still get to the point where you're at. So thank you so much for sharing that with everyone because I think that's really, really helpful. I want to ask you a little bit about inspiration and things that sort of get you excited and motivated going forward. Where are you drawing inspiration from these days?
Abdul Rastagar 15:48
So you mean specifically for career exploration? Or just broader?
Maybe personally, and then sort of professionally? So first, what's inspiring you sort of personally, and then what's inspiring you professionally?
Abdul Rastagar 16:00
Yeah, so personally, I mean, I've had a number of pretty significant health issues over the last year, year and a half that I've had to deal with in my immediate family and myself. And, you know, we always talk about ‘make sure you're number one, take care of yourself first.’ It's easy to say that, but then in the reality of working every day, and being a parent, you kind of lose sight of these things, right? For me, these challenges I've had over the last year and a half have been very much eye opening that, “Hey, you really do need to take a step back, you really need to take care of yourself and mean it,'' right and actually take action behind that. It's easy to say, but it's more difficult to take action. So for me to be able to take some time off from work to be able to take care of my own physical health, to take care of my family's health, those are those are pretty important things. So as I'm looking further into my career, right, what is inspiring me, I want to keep doing what I've been doing. But I want to do it with a level of balance, remembering that I am more important than the job title, right, as a human being. My family is more important than that. The other thing that really inspires me is the idea of helping people. I like to think that success, my measure of success, is not how much I know or accomplish, it's how much knowledge I can pass on to other people. And that actually drove the idea behind Up Your Game, the podcast and drove the idea behind the book. It drives a lot of the reasons I mentor a lot of people online, you know, I've just been doing a lot of mentoring. Every time I see somebody else succeed, it actually it makes me feel, it makes me feel great. I feel like I've succeeded. So those are the things that inspire me for me, kind of on my personal side. Professionally, I mean, I love technology. I love technology marketing. I think it's just so fun. It's so fast paced, it's so intense. Sometimes intense in a bad way, sometimes intense in a good way. But being able to do something, see the results, and hey, this didn't work out, well, let's do it differently, and then see different results. That's phenomenal for me. Whereas in some of the other areas, perhaps more traditional industries, things just go slower, right, much more kind of bureaucratic. And it's a longer term approach. I like the rapid fire kind of approach to things.
Yeah, that's great. And you mentioned a word that I was actually going to follow up with. You mentioned mentors. And I want to sort of ask you to sort of think a little bit across those 11 years and six different cities, right, you know, I think you shared some really interesting experiences that I think folks can connect with that go through different cities and have to quickly make friends and then appreciate what they have and then finding a way to appreciate it again, very quickly, you know. But who are one or two mentors you can think of in those 11 years across six different cities that you think about from time to time, that maybe are kind of like mentors to you today, going forward? Who are a couple of those people?
Abdul Rastagar 18:52
My big brother. (laughs) Yeah, I got a lot of beatings from him, but I also got a lot of good advice from him and he helped raise me. You know, my parents were immigrants, they were working hard, they weren't around all day, all the time. My brother was there to kind of set me straight. As a childhood mentor he's probably the single most important mentor. As an adult, they are obviously more professional, others who are in the professional space that I'm in. And one guy who just retired recently, who really kind of helped me move into- helped me understand the direction I need to go into. And one thing about mentors is I have learned over the last few years, you shouldn't have one or two, you should have many, right? That was an eye opener for me and somebody else had told me that "Hey, why do you have just one mentor?" And I'm like "Doesn't everybody?" like "No! I've got five!" Ok well, maybe that's not a bad idea. And because some people are stronger in some areas and they know more about certain things. So if you have multiple people, you can kind of fill those gaps and get a broader view.
Tremendous. Micro mentors. (laughs)
Abdul Rastagar 19:55
Abdul, we spoke about the book that you wrote, right, but I'm curious to know, what are you reading these days? What types of content are you consuming to stay informed, either from a marketing perspective or even just, you know, in your personal life?
Abdul Rastagar 20:17
So in the last few months, I've deliberately taken a hands off approach from anything business related, so no sharp talk. And that's part of the kind of trying to get back into mental health and physical health, right, so that's intentional. So I've really been reading a lot of, I guess, classic literature, a lot of the stuff that we read in high school and I read it, because I was forced to, I didn't really like it. Now I'm like maybe I should read, Catch 22 and actually enjoy it or things along those lines. So I've been reading a lot of books along those lines. And I personally, I like, I love history as well. So I read a lot of history books, as well.
Gotcha, gotcha. What advice would you have for anyone that's out there that maybe is just finishing up college and potentially looking to start a career in marketing or, you know, maybe someone that's in a different field right now and thinking about like, should I switch and move over into marketing? What advice would you have for them?
Abdul Rastagar 21:11
So the mentor part is pretty important. I think everybody needs to start with mentors right off the bat, 1, 2, 3, whatever it is, get going if you don't have a mentor. And find mentors who are able to provide you with things that you don't know, right, it's easy. There's no value in finding somebody who already knows what you know. So that's one piece. The other piece, the college students who are looking for that of "How do I get started?" Internships are pretty critical. I used to work at a company where we hired a lot of students from this business school group, right. And those students, they would go on these internships for two to three months at a time and then move on to the next company and do an internship there. And by the time they had graduated college, as undergraduates, they already had done four or five internships, they had so much practical experience, they had references from all the bosses they've worked for, their resume looked great compared to somebody else who really, truly didn't have a resume, it's just hey, I went to college. So the practical work experience, you can't beat it. For those who are looking to transition their careers, I think, the idea of being able to break it down in chunks and see where there's overlap, because you know, no one's ever going to have the same 100% knowledge of the other industry or trade or whatever it is they're going into, which is, by definition, you're changing career tracks. But what I did, apply to what I wanted to do, right. So if you're a salesperson looking to get into marketing, well, you are in a very strong footing because you have that customer empathy and customer knowledge that a lot of marketers don't have. So that's your foot in the door, right? If you're an engineer and you've been doing technology all your time and you want to do something else, think about what are some of the transition pieces that you have. You have the data and analytical knowledge, right? You have the specific mindset and skill set that perhaps a lot of those people in that industry don't have, just as I had the organic chemistry and analytical background that marketers didn't have.
Gotcha. Appreciate that. Alright, fun question that I love asking every guest that we have on the podcast, which is to tell us what are the top three apps that you use on your phone, but you can't name, email, calendar, or text messaging, because those are just way too boring.
Abdul Rastagar 23:19
I have to admit, I tried to get off my phone as much as possible and I utterly failed. It's an unhealthy addiction.
(laughs) Join the club. Join the club.
Abdul Rastagar 23:28
It's awful. I use WhatsApp quite frequently because I communicate with people all over the world. I have family everywhere, right, so WhatsApp's a phenomenal technology for that piece. That's probably one of my most important ones. And YouTube, I actually listen to a lot of things like when I'm driving, I'll listen to a YouTube video, not watching them, just listening. That's one and then Audible for just audiobooks. So between those three, pretty heavily dependent on my phone. I try to get off spending too much time on LinkedIn or spending too much time on Twitter or whatever. It was a deliberate effort to reduce some time.
Well, that's great. Well, thank you Abdul for spending some time with us. And a lot of our audience likes to stay in touch or follow you. What are some ways that they can get in touch and stay in touch with you?
Abdul Rastagar 24:13
LinkedIn. LinkedIn is the best way. Abdul Rastagar, right, I'm always happy to meet people. A lot of times somebody will connect with me and then a few weeks later, we'll actually have a coffee chat over Zoom and it's great to meet so many different diverse people.
Excellent. Well, thank you, Abdul Rastagar, thanks for hanging out with us. And thanks everyone for listening to another episode. If you want to find more episodes, you can find us where you find all of your audio and video, just search Minority Report Podcast and look for the logo. Thanks again.