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From User to Director: How Pluralsight’s Abena Saulka Taught Herself to Lead

Abena Saulka is obsessed with obscure apocalyptic movies. Especially ones that feature a zombie apocalypse.

"I wonder how I would survive in the world in an apocalyptic state. Would I survive? Do I have what it takes?" asks Abena.

She thinks about her career similarly. Abena wants to be a CTO or CIO one day. When asked where that goal comes from, she responds, "It was the highest, most impossible goal I could set, and like with apocalyptic movies, I want to know what my limit is," she says.

When it comes to her career goals, Abena is putting herself through the paces, one practical professional move at a time. She's taught herself everything from JavaScript to how to lead with empathy along the way, and now her career has come full circle: she's the Director of Software Engineering at Pluralsight, the technology skills platform she herself used earlier in her career.

"I don't think I have found [my limits] yet. I have to keep pushing," she says, smiling.

We sat down with Abena to hear more about where her drive to test herself comes from, how she found her way to Pluralsight, and what she's looking forward to next.

Finding the Right Environments for Success

Abena grew up in Kumasi, Ghana, where she experienced the British education system.

"You don't question the teachers, you just listen to what the teachers have to say," she says.

It was that experience that made Abena interested in going to the United States for college.

"The US has a very good advertising campaign outside of the US about its educational system. I felt that in an American liberal arts education, you get to have an argument and conversation with the teacher. You get to have your opinion," she says.

Once at Goshen College in the U.S., she studied business, with an eventual goal of being an entrepreneur, inspired by her restaurateur mom. But after an early ecommerce venture went belly-up, Abena realized that she needed to understand how the web worked if she wanted to run a business.

"I had to understand web development to understand what had happened, what we did wrong," she says. "The person we'd hired, I couldn't make sense of whether [what they said] was the truth or not. I was lost, and I decided I had to learn it."

So she headed to Barnes and Noble to buy a copy of HTML for Dummies—"At the time, there was no online place you could go to learn!" she says—and started teaching herself, a few hours a day.

Her self-taught approach worked, and Abena was hired as a webmaster at an insurance company. "I was just very thrilled that I had learned something on my own and I got a job on that," she says. "And once I started working as a software engineer, it incorporated all the elements of business I liked. It had entrepreneurship, you could be a self-starter, you could be a director, and you could take ownership of the work you were doing."

But while that was true for the first decade or so of her career, Abena hit a ceiling.

She'd been continuously training herself through the Pluralsight subscription that her company offered. She'd take a new concept, like C#, and study for a certain amount of time each day, developing her own private projects to test her understanding of the concepts.

She had also been networking with her fellow software engineers. But when Abena wanted to try her hand at applying all her hard-won experience in a leadership role that went beyond having three direct reports, she couldn't get her managers to give her a shot.

"I hit a ceiling. I wanted to be able to drive the business decisions, but no one thought my opinion would matter. I was always told what to do, and that became stifling for me," explains Abena.

Driving Forward, With Belief

Abena decided to supplement her self-directed education with a Master of Science in Technology Management from Columbia University. When even those credentials didn't sway her managers' opinions, she decided to leave, and to find a company that would trust her to take on a leadership role.

It took three years.

Three long years of interviews, research, and more self-studying. In early interviews, Abena realized she wasn't showing enough of the soft skills a leader would need, from empathetic communication to managing at the right level. She read books, practiced, and cemented a new approach: instead of talking about everything she didn't have or hadn't done, she would focus on what the company needed, and talk about how she could meet those needs.

"When I did that, people overlooked the Ghanaian accent, the nervousness. They think, 'This person can actually contribute something to my company,'" she says.

She finally got the job she was looking for, and Abena chalks that success up to her never-wavering belief in herself. Despite the anxiety, the imposter syndrome, and the doubt, she kept coming back to her one belief: keep knocking.

"You have to be an advocate for yourself, and believe that it can happen. I'm an example that if you keep knocking on the door, somebody will open it. Somebody will see you," she says.

Three months into her new job, Abena's boss called her in.

"I said, 'Oh my god, I'm in trouble,'" she says. But her boss wasn't there to reprimand, but rather to commend: he'd heard reports from her team that they felt empowered, supported, and cared for.

The approach inspired by her liberal arts education—one that focused on helping her team help themselves, equipping them with critical thinking skills and always being an accessible sounding board—was succeeding.

Then Pluralsight came calling.

Coming Full Circle

It was actually a PowerToFly email that reached Abena, letting her know that her favorite training tool was looking to hire someone just like her.

"I had such a high respect for Pluralsight that initially I thought, 'I don't think they would want me,'" she says, remembering. A follow-up email from PowerToFly a week later made her feel the need to be brave: "I decided to go through the interview process as a test to defeat that self-doubt."

It ended up being another test that Abena crushed. When she got the job offer, she didn't quite believe it. "I was thinking in my head it was surreal. It was a much bigger role, with more people to manage and more responsibilities, and they thought I could do it. It didn't even cross my mind to turn them down."

She accepted, and now as Director of Software Engineering, Abena's role is to advocate for her developers and to help set and execute the company's future roadmap. It's giving her a chance to apply all of the leadership skills she learned at Columbia.

She's currently working on a project to integrate a new acquisition. "This is the kind of work I wanted to do. I get to see my ideas, and influence the decision-making; it's what I've been striving to do from day one," she says.

"Now I'm part of the company on the inside. I know what it feels like to be a Pluralsight customer. I'm here to advocate for the customer," she says. "Learning is revolutionary. It's such a barrier to so many things."

"To be part of a company that values that, sees that, is very inspiring. It's the difference between being at a company that's just giving you a paycheck and being at a company that really is doing something substantial," says Abena. "It's really satisfying."

If you're interested in making an impact at Pluralsight, check out their open roles here.

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