Like most graduating seniors during the 2011-2012 academic year, Om Marwah spoke to multiple job recruiters, shot off numerous emails in search of his next step and did a fair bit of partying. Unlike most, however, Om didn’t end up in another entry-level position after graduation. Instead, he created his own job at Walmart Labs, Walmart’s research division based out of Mountain View, California. Using his interdisciplinary background in geography and cognitive science, then-recent graduate Om focused on using a behavioral science perspective in marketing and advertising, a relatively novel tactic in an economy where big data now reigns supreme. Three years later, he’s been featured on Forbes’ 2015 30 Under 30 list under enterprise technology and has been invited to speak all over the country about his approach to market research and using large data sets. I spoke to Om a day after he had given a talk to an Econ 103 (Introduction to Econometrics) class at UCLA, asking him about his story and how life in the real world has been so far.
On a day-to-day basis, what does your job look like at Walmart Labs?
I work with a very talented team of people that primarily focuses on innovation. I decide when I want to work and what I want to build. I have very flexible hours and am usually in the office from about 10:30 a.m. or so to 7 p.m. Sometimes, I work from home. All in all, we have very few meetings, as we’re focused on our projects.
Tell me a little bit about your time at UCLA. Did you start out majoring in geography or cognitive science?
I actually started out as a bio major and tried out a few internships in various fields like consulting, which I didn’t like. I stayed with bio until fall of my junior year and then realized it wasn’t for me. That was when I realized my passion, and switched to geography and cognitive science.
What specific experiences at UCLA, either academically or otherwise, have helped you in your career path?
I learned to take my (academic) education, reconstrue how I saw it and apply it in an innovative way. Ultimately, UCLA gave me a backbone for that sort of knowledge. I learned as much as I could, and I would audit courses I wasn’t signed up for, such as graduate psychology courses. In addition, being extremely social, throwing parties and learning how to live life to the fullest gave me an intangible skill for getting ahead in life. I lived at The Treehouse, and there was a lot of that. The ability to build a social network, make relationships with people from all walks of life and be able to truthfully understand those people and genuinely care about them is invaluable. College is the kind of environment that allows you to create those relationships. Picking up these kinds of intangible traits differentiate people from success. Anyone can get a job from Google, but if you want to rise up in the pack, you do that by being a person who not only seems like a leader, but also is someone who people enjoy spending their time with.
In terms of specific courses that were memorable, I thought Life Sciences 2 with Jay Phelan was hilarious and made me understand the human body. Also, Geography 110 (Population and Natural Resources); everyone should understand population and natural resources because they’re the fundamental backbone of the world around us. As a freshman, it blew my mind to be able to explain and understand food scarcity and overpopulation. For me, it explained the core of what the world is really going through.
What was your job search like? Would you change anything about it, and what advice based on your experiences would you give to graduating seniors this year?
My job search was a twist-and-turn story. I started out trying to pursue my interdisciplinary passions of cognitive science and geography. I scoped out what opportunities did exist for me. At the time, “big data” was just taking off, and I knew I had found a niche for me. I practiced, narrowing down my pitch to what I knew would be valuable. I built relationships, went to conferences (Om volunteered at a big data conference spring break of his senior year) and further discussed with, and had my ideas vetted by, CEOs and VPs. As the school year went on, I continued to build my relationships, refining and having my approach validated by (people involved in big data). Then, I got in front of stakeholders and essentially invented my dream job. I essentially created a position for myself. There’s so much innovation happening in the world right now. Any student is capable of doing this, not just me.
What career opportunities or resources at UCLA did you use?
Well, I did go to career fairs. Career fairs are good practice for selling yourself, but your audience is made of recruiters. If you’re trying to be interdisciplinary, and you have innovative ideas, then they’re not speaking your language. A lot of people get jobs at (career fairs), but for me, I only found them useful as practice. I had to pitch my ideas at a more senior level than recruiters.
What advice do you have for people that may be unsure coming in, or like you, had multiple interests, like initially majoring in biology or doing varied internships?
It may sound cheesy, but believe in yourself. Feeling lost is part of finding what’s important. It’s important to be confused because that’s when you know you’re on the verge of a breakthrough. I don’t know how I ended up in an upper division geography class my freshman year, but that’s how I discovered my passion. Go down the rabbit hole. Keep taking all kinds of classes, because you’ll find your passion that way. When you do find it, it’ll all click. Don’t feel bad that others know what they want to do. Read everything, focus on yourself, learn as much as you can. If you’re not doing too well in school, realize you got into UCLA and that you’re a genius. The genius may not be brought out by the environment you’re in, but try to connect to it.
Step outside of campus and learn about the real world. Use the resources at UCLA to grow that interdisciplinary. Party hard, you know. Life is about getting crazy. Study hard. I hit the unit cap and had two majors. Someone else graduates with one major in three years. Who knows more? If you can’t afford it, that’s fine, but go get that knowledge.