“You have to play the cards you're dealt."
This was just one of the tips that Matie Alumnus and Technical Team Manager at Amazon Web Services, Philip Parrock, shared with the 350 strong student crowd at the second Careers Café hosted by the Alumni Relations Office at Stellenbosch University (SU).
Philip, who was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (cancer that develops in one's lymphatic system) in February 2018, talked not only about how he had turned what would be devastating news to anyone into a learning opportunity, but shared other important advice with the students too.
“Be honest about your skills and abilities. Set and manage your deadlines and be clear about how much work you can do. Try to think of success in the long term, not in the short term. If you have to work ludicrous hours to get a project completed, you might end up sacrificing quality and that will reflect poorly on you. In most cases, a well-executed project, completed in a reasonable amount of time is worth a lot more than a rushed, low quality project," he said.
The Careers Café series was launched in 2016 by the office to provide a platform for alumni to engage with the university by offering their time and skills to help current students prepare for their future careers. Through this interaction, current students are able to learn from the real-life experiences of Matie graduates in the corporate world and benefit from advice and tips from them as well. Other career development opportunities on campus are also promoted through this event, encouraging students to further improve their work preparedness.
Philip's journey at SU started in 2010 after he returned from England, where he had worked in the hospitality industry.
After travelling more than 13 000 kilometres from South Africa to England to see the world, discomfort with where he found himself pushed him to return to Cape Town six months later. Back in Cape Town, he took up a full-time job working as a care assistant for a local retirement home.
“I spent a lot of time in Stellenbosch over weekends, because a few of my friends from Pretoria were studying there. That's when I first started thinking about studying at Stellenbosch University."
“I actually applied very late, on 28 August, with only two days left before applications for degree programmes closed on 30 August," he adds and laughs.
Philip enrolled for a BA in International Studies in 2010 and upon completion of that degree, finished an Honours and Masters in Political Science at the university as well. As a student who lived off-campus in private accommodation, Philip joined the private student organisation (PSO), Pieke, in his first-year at varsity.
PSO's are student house committee structures that are formed for private students. They are similar to the house committee's (well-known as HKs at Maties) of residences and usually grouped with residences and other PSOs to form clusters that work together to coordinate student social, cultural and academic activities, represent students in matters on campus and provide a united voice for those who fall outside of the more traditional university structures.
As a student, he played both rugby and soccer in his second year.
“I was not as focused on getting involved in student governing structures on campus," he says.
But, by his second year, his interaction with male students from Pieke piqued his interest in these structures.
At the end of his first year, he volunteered for Pieke's Second Years Committee and in 2012 became a member of Pieke's HK focused on social activities for students. A year later he was elected as Pieke's Primarius.
“Working within university structures and being exposed to different people of different backgrounds, I had my first taste of bureaucracy, which would stand me in good stead as I went on to work in a massive multi-national company."
“By the end of 2014, I was working on the last draft of my Masters and getting ready to start looking for permanent work. I sent out 60 CVs to a number of companies in South Africa, but received no response from any of them. It's at that point that you realise you don't have the experience to compete with other applicants and that you need to gain that somehow."
When he spotted a seasonal job advertised by Amazon Web Services, which is owned by Amazon, he submitted a CV, not sure where it would lead. AWS is the single largest cloud computing company in the world, with a 41% market share in public cloud computing and is larger than its next 10 competitors combined.
“After being told about seasonal jobs at Amazon Web Services, I applied and was called in for an interview. But during the interview they offered me a permanent job as a Technical Customer Service Associate in their global customer service department training new staff recruited to the company."
At the time Amazon Web Services was also expanding its customer service base in Cape Town. When Philip started at the company in 2015, there were around 50 people in the department. This would grow by 169 in 2016, and on to over 300 people today.
A year and a half later, he was appointed as a Team Lead for new Customer Service Associates where he oversaw a team of 15 people.
“Suddenly there were additional responsibilities, beyond the overall performance management and administrative duties I was responsible for. Now I had HR matters to attend to, was expected to understand how to implement labour law practices, oversee staff welfare and various benefits."
Life was good. However, in February 2018, what had started as pain in his hip in late 2017 and had led to a full hip replacement, was diagnosed as cancer.
“An MRI scan showed that there where lesions on my femur moving right up into my back and that those lesions were coming from the inside of my body. The cancer had started eating away at my femur."
Two weeks later, Philip was sitting in the oncology ward at the Kuilsriver Netcare, getting his first round of chemotherapy.
“I was out of commission for seven months and received chemo five days at a time."
It's been less than a month since he was told that he is in remission, but already he is back at work. In September, he received a promotion and is now a Technical Team Manager.
“This demonstrates my third tip – prepare yourself for the job you want so that when the opportunity comes, you are ready for it. So, while it may not seem like the right thing to do, if there is a promotion you would like to work towards or a different position that you would like to fill, do not think of it as an opportunity to prove yourself, think of it as a reward for proving yourself. In the business world it is very difficult to be given a chance, rather go out and make your own luck, prove that you can do the job so that when it comes to the promotion or job interview, the interviewer is so convinced by your ability that the interview is just a formality."
“In the time that I've been with Amazon Web Services I've learnt that the base of knowledge and experience you accrue at university is useful, but to be truly successful, you have to go above and beyond what is expected of you to be successful in the long term."
- Photo: Matie alumnus and Careers Café speaker, Philip Parrock (second from the right), with the students who won an opportunity to interact with him and learn about the soft skills one needs t0 develop a career. From the left are Phathiswa Hohlo, Marvin Koopman, Alumni Relations Coordinator at the Alumni Relations Office, Thandeka Mwakipesile, Olona Ndzuzo, Philip and his wife Lisa, who is also a Matie alumnus. (Lynne Rippenaar-Moses)