Welcome to the UNDP Career Journey Podcast brought to you by the Talent Development Unit, part of the Office of Human Resources. Our conversations explore fascinating careers at UNDP and give an overview on how you can enhance your career experience through continuous learning. I’m Valentina and today our conversation is Etab Al-Taki. Welcome to the UNDP Career Journey Podcast, Etab and it’s a pleasure to meet you.
“Thank you very much, Valentina. It’s a pleasure being here with you, and thank you for this amazing opportunity”.
Thank you so much. So would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?
“My name is Etab Al-Taki. I’m from Syria. I’m based in Kabul right now in a detailed assignment for SDG integration in Afghanistan Country Office. I joined UNDP Syria in 2016, as a team leader for Livelihood & Economic Recovery. And after that, I was leading also the SDGs integration Unit. And I also joined UNDP amazing opportunity for the Virtual Development Assignment Programme, I was supporting Yemen Country Office as well. And based on that I have this opportunity with Afghanistan Country office. So it’s being like an amazing five years. But I also was with UNDP in 2005. I joined as a consultant first during the preparation of the Tenth Five Year Development Plan for Syria. They asked me to prepare or to develop the chapter on environment, because this is my background environmental engineering. And I developed the chapter in this five year plan. And after that, they asked me to join the team as a Programme Officer. So, I started from being a Programme Officer in 2005, four years with UNDP and after that with UNFPA as Gender and Communication Program Manager. Leaving the UN for five years, going back to the civil society, because this is also my other passion, but coming now back to UNDP as a Program Specialist, so it was quite a journey”.
Yeah, thank you. I can say that. Yeah. Congratulations. So my first question will be related to the field you’re working on. So, how did you become interested in this field?
“You know, it’s a beautiful question. Because basically, life sometimes take us to different pathways. I noticed that from my experience, I’ve been like 20 years in development now. I noticed that many people, they study something and they end up doing something else. I encourage young people, I also worked a lot with youth in Syria, and here as well. So, I encourage them to look inside themselves from the beginning from the early age, saying, ‘What do you really interested in? What do you really like?’ to start like planning your career according to your passion, because if you do something that you like, you will succeed in it more. For me from the beginning, from early age, I was very interested in people and environment. So, if you lose me anyway, I am learning. You can find me either talking to people or reading or losing myself in nature. So, I know that I like these things. Yet, when I come to like choosing my career after high school, I went to civil engineering, because my marks were good. So, I went there. I remember, in my fourth year at the university, I realized that this is not really what I wanted. All this mathematics and engineering and the only thing that I liked was that you put something on paper as a project, and then you have a chance to see it materialize before your eyes. The fourth year at the university, they opened this opportunity to become of specialized in different aspects of civil engineering, and one of them was environment. And for me, it was that an amazing opportunity that I will go for environment. This is what I like. So, I ended up being a civil engineer, as well as an environmental engineer and this really opened the door for me. Going to the civil engineering for eight years, the only thing I enjoyed, as I said is only to see the project on paper, being reality, but also talking to the workers. I was always sitting with the workers, talking about their problems trying to understand their background, their culture, what are challenges in their life. So, I realized that I need more, this will not be enough for me. So, that’s why I continue my study. I finished my diploma in environmental engineering. And after that, I finished my master’s degree from Oxford Brookes University through a scholarship in environmental assessment and management. And this was only the beginning of my career, so I would say that it’s important to understand what you like to do or what you’re good at. Then, follow your dreams and not allowing anyone to put you down or to say that you cannot do it or you’re not good enough to do it. Just follow your dreams and you will get there”.
Yeah, thank you. You know, sometimes we are driven by also what are the market requests so we try to identify the skills and the job that may be more relevant. In the end is our passions, and, as you said, aptitude that actually guide us throughout our life. So, thank you.
“And it’s never too late. You can always follow your dreams, always”.
Yeah, this is a great message. So how does your job affect your general lifestyle?
“This is an excellent question. Because for me, I always tell it to my friends and colleagues, and even the young ones and my relatives, that development is not a job, it’s a life mission. I don’t expect that you go, like from nine to five and working on something, let’s say environmental protection, and after five, you go home, and you do something to harm environment. This is not the way, so if you’re interested in development, it will be like 24/7, and it’s become a lifestyle. So, you care about people, you care about solving problems, you care about development challenges, you care about what’s going on in the world, your care about the connectivity between all the things happening everywhere. So, this is the way I see it. For me, I told them many many times that as if they are paying me for doing my hobby, so it’s something that you like, something you enjoy, and something that you keep improving to enhance your skills. So, learning for me it’s for life and development it’s for life. So, it becomes a lifestyle, it becomes like a belief in your daily life and you can really improve with all the time, it’s never enough, it’s never ended in any way”.
Yeah, thank you. I completely agree. So, since you said that, actually, it is a lifestyle, right? When you leave work in the evening and look back on your day, what needs to have happened for you to think, ‘Oh, yes, that was a great day’?.
“I feel happy when I go home learning something new. So, for me all the time, when I have some like, free time, or I finished some tasks or between jobs or whatever, I always seek to learn new things. Because as you said, the market is not easy now, it’s become more challenging after the pandemic, so it’s important for us to keep learning. Learning for me is for life. So, I feel really happy when I go home learning something new, either from course or from colleagues or from local community. So, just keep this in mind that you need always to learn something new and to improve your skills. The second thing is if I did something good in terms of like prove that your idea was good, and you really succeed in implementing it, for example, putting a business model, starting from a small idea, and really improving it with your counterparts with local communities, putting in the paper and then start doing it. The day you feel that this business model is working and you can really report on it, this is the day you go home feeling really, really beautifully”.
Thank you. Yeah, exactly. So also, the aim of the podcast is to show our continuous learning is a great chance for our career to enhance. So it’s really nice to see that also, continuous learning is a part of your day and one of the requirements to say, ‘Oh, yes, this day was a good one’.
“Yeah, especially if you are able to help others or to solve problems for like some communities and you feel that your work matters and you feel that you are contributing in a positive way to know no matter what the craziness is going on around the world right now, at least through your job, you can do something really good and you contribute a little bit to the public good, I would say”.
Yeah, you make an impact somehow and what type of your job you will tend to talk to friends or loved ones about?
“I tend to talk about business models, like creating a business model from A to Zed and it works and then you can talk about it. You can look at it and reflect on it in a way that you can really present it as a knowledge product. I like to talk about this with my colleagues and with some people who ask for advice, for example, or some entrepreneurs for example, that they have a good idea, but they don’t know how to take it forward. So, sharing knowledge for me is important. I also like to talk about the balance in life, no matter how much you like your job. It’s important also to keep time for family, for friends, for your hobbies, for nature, just to take time out because as much as I like my work, I’m not a workaholic. So, I enjoy my work, but as part of my life in general. Sometimes it’s important to remember that because we tend to really get lost in our jobs and we feel like we’re always under pressure. But it’s not a life-or-death kind of mission that we are here now. So, it’s better to take time off sometimes to reflect, time for yourself as well. This is important”.
Yeah, you’re right and especially when people were from remote, then it can become even more difficult to identify this work life balance. What did you learn in school or at university, since you were mentioning your path, that has been most useful for you at work?
“First, that no matter how much you work and your career and your skills and your educational degrees, you still have a lot to learn. So, it’s never enough for me, learning is for life, as I said. So this is what I learned that learning is only opening the door for another door. So it’s like a journey, that every step you take, you take it for another world of knowledge and learning. For me, this is important. And also, I learned, I noticed that from an early age, but now it’s proven to be the talk of the world about the connectivity. No matter what we are doing, no matter how small your part is, but it’s part of something bigger. So, this connectivity is very important in our work. You cannot really succeed in your work alone as a standalone project or standalone field or type of intervention, because you always need to think and connect with others in terms of development aspects like economy, environment, finance, and all that, but also in terms of other people, what they are doing, other partners, the impact of local community. So, this is very important. Never think of your life or your project as a standalone thing. You are not alone in this world, so connectivity is very important for me. The more I work in development, the more I realize it in a very solid terms. The pandemic put us in isolation in a way but it’s connected us even more to think about what is important, what matters. So it’s very important to realize the lessons that we learn and to implement them in a way”.
Yeah, absolutely. What have been the greatest resources when searching for career advancement? So, how do you usually plan your career moves.
“As you know, most of our career moves are not planned. Something leads to another thing and then you find yourself in this job. But if you are fortunate enough to plan your moves, that would to be really good. For me, the most important thing is that I need to work in a place that I feel belonging to and I feel comfortable with. And the work environment is very important for me and interesting, so I cannot do jobs for money only, for example, I’m not comfortable in this type of work. I know for example where I want to work. So, the UN was my choice. UNDP among the UN organizations is also my choice. Because what I really like about UNDP is that it’s a job which has all the jobs in one. At UNDP you work in development, and you can work in anything in development, which is great. So for me, this integrated approach and then taking vision into mission is important, so UNDP is my choice, I would say, the top choice. And also it’s important to know when you need to move, because after four or five years, for example, in one position, you had enough, you learn what you need to learn, you contribute as much as you can. And now you need to just enhance your career. So, for me four to five years, it’s always the way I feel like ‘Yes, it’s time to move’. But finding the right job is not always easy, so sometimes it happens by chance, sometimes it happens like as my work now here in Kabul, which I really enjoyed a lot because you are doing great things in terms of SDGs integration, this is my passion, so I’m grateful for UNDP for this, opening channels especially for national staff. It’s very important because internationals have more platforms and place for connection because they travel a lot and they stay together as international community more. They have more access to international community and channels more than nationals. So for me the move that UNDP has started taking in terms of people’s strategy and all these learning channels that they open to us, for example, the partnership with Coursera, or LinkedIn or People Certificate, managing successful programs also the Virtual Development Assignment. All these things really helped me a lot because in my free time during the pandemic, finishing my work, staying at home doing nothing, I had the chance to finish, I’d say like more than 10 online courses, because I felt it’s good. But also through this opening channel for nationals to be part of other country offices is a great, great move and I think it will open more opportunities for us in the future. So, I encourage all my colleagues to take part in this, it was really a rewarding experience”.
Yeah, thank you when, as you were mentioning before, also networking could be a good way to get to know new opportunities for our career. So this is also another way to enhance.
“Yes, yes. It’s important and also to for example, you work sometimes with some teams and one of these teams go somewhere else and call you back saying ‘We need you on this’. This is like the beauty of being as a family in a way, so I like it a lot”.
So if you were looking for someone to, let’s say, do your job, what qualities would they need to have for you to be a good candidate?
“You know, you don’t realize what you did ‘till you hand over your work to another colleague. And then you start realizing what you did in three, four years or when you apply to a new job and you review your CV. So, only then you realize what you’ve done and what qualities are needed to finish this work, or to finish this task. For me, I would say that many people can do your work, I mean, you’re not the only one. There’s no one irreplaceable. But doing development in general and doing SDGs integration, in particular, needs lots of technical skills in terms of you need to know a little bit about everything, you need to know more about economy, society, environment, development, finance, politics, and also you need to have a real passion about it, because sometimes it’s very demanding and you can be faced by lots of resistance sometimes when you talk about monitoring and evaluation, or integration or system approach or new way of thinking. So, you have to be patient and you have to have passion about it, because you cannot stop by the first obstacle. You have to be innovative in a way that because of the complex nature of the deployment challenges that you are facing now, you need to be really innovative in a way. So for me, it’s about enhancing your technical skills, having what it takes, what it needs, and then enhance your soft skills in terms of passion, problem solving, innovation, and working with others, learning from others and accept criticism. All these things and the lesson learned that I have developed through my career, and it’s helped me a lot, and hopefully it will help me in my future career as well”.
Yeah, thank you. So this is a great tip. How about the way you see your career in the future? So, how would you like your career to develop.
“And now I’m looking for an international job, because I’m still on national staff and I felt that I regret not to take this opportunity earlier. I encourage everybody, because international experience is completely different, you learn from other people, you are introduced to new ways of working and thinking. I am at this stage now. My work year will end by the end of this year, we don’t know what will happen after that, but I’m applying. So for me, it’s about time. I mean, if you really feel confident enough to apply for an international job and to pursue your career and to take this knowledge to another place, why not, but I’m flexible. So for me, as I said, it’s the most important thing to have a rewarding job in terms of how I feel about myself. But opportunities will come at the end. And you cannot really plan them now. So, you just need to enhance your skills, apply and wait and pray for the best to happen. So that’s what will happen now”.
Yeah, so I wish you to find the job that aligns not only to your experience, but also to your passion.
Thank you so much for your time, it was a pleasure to have you on our podcast.
“Thank you very much for this opportunity and thank you for this like channel, it’s needed. I think we can all learn from others and be inspired by other experiences as well. So, I wish you all the best and thank you for this opportunity. I’m grateful for it”.
Thank you also for listening to this episode. We hope these conversations will inspire you to keep learning and advance in your career. To access and listen to this audio recording, you can visit our dedicated page on the Career Development Experience section of the UNDP Talent Development Hub.