Katya Hott, currently the UX Research Manager at SeatGeek, was a committed researcher long before she officially moved into the world of UX.
That set her up for success in the field in more ways than one, including to learn more about UX itself: when she was first starting out, she combed LinkedIn to find people who were working on the same things that she was. She cold emailed a few—and ended up with her first-ever mentor.
It wasn’t a traditional mentor-mentee relationship: it wasn’t arranged by a program or company, and both Katya and her “mentor” were at about the same places in their career.
“We didn’t treat it as this formal mentor partnership, but we started meeting regularly,” says Katya. “We were growing our teams at the same time, and we’d share advice over email or coffee.”
Experiencing great mentorship from an industry peer made Katya wonder if she could pay it forward by mentoring someone else. Even if she was just a few years into her career, she had insight to share, right?
Thus kicked off Katya’s homegrown intern mentorship program—and a long history of learning by helping others.
We sat down with Katya to talk more about her experience, from how she got into UX research in the first place and how mentorship has influenced her approach to management.
Language and Learning, Together
Katya has a thing for languages. That includes learning them, making them up, and studying them.
“I knew from when I was little that I wanted to be a teacher,” says Katya. “I was just very interested in words and how language shapes reality, or the other way around.”
That led to studying linguistics, which introduced her to technology. “A lot of what we can do with language study is totally enhanced by technology,” she says.
Katya got hands-on experience working at the intersection of language and technology when she worked as a teacher in Boston and New York. “I was always the youngest teacher, the techie teacher,” she says, referencing the apps she built into her lesson plans. When her principal told her about a grad program at NYU that combined learning and digital media design, she looked into it—and ended up enrolling.
“I was researching what makes a good learning game and how people learn through game play,” she says. “So much of that tied back to what I had learned about how people learn through language and communication.”
She got an internship writing content for an educational games start-up. When she realized no one on the team was doing formal user testing, she offered to bring the game to her teacher friends to get their feedback.
“They were like, ‘Sure, we're a 10 person startup, do whatever you want,’” remembers Katya, smiling. She went out into the field to get feedback, then developed a simple framework to convey the different types of feedback she was getting. The design team was immediately impressed, and Katya realized she’d found her next career pivot. “I loved being the bridge between people who use technology and people who design it,” she says.
Katya then spent a year in edtech doing “playtesting,” the games word for user research, along with some project management.
Along the way, she realized that all the learning she’d done throughout her career, from being in the classroom to writing game content to researching how users used it, was something she could pay forward.
Embracing Mentorship: 3 Key Lessons
When Katya joined that edtech startup full-time after her internship, she knew she had limited experience. “I had training from grad school, and that was about it,” she says. Thus the LinkedIn research and the informal mentorship.
When the next class of interns joined her company, Katya realized she could be a really helpful resource to them.
“I knew exactly what classes they were in. I knew who their professors were. I knew what things they were studying. It became very clear that for each intern that came after me, that I should be involved,” she says.
So she set up weekly meetings to coach them. She did the same thing when she moved to a different company, this time helping to set up their internship pipeline to her grad program and again making the space to help them. Along the way, she was continuing to build her own pool of mentors.
“I was reaching out to people who are more junior than me and to people who are more experienced than me, and realized they must be doing the same thing. There's this whole chain of people who are just learning from each other without being direct managers or teammates,” she reflects.
In mentoring others, Katya learned a few key lessons:
- How to give feedback. As a mentor, Katya found herself in a great environment in which to practice giving feedback. Since she wasn’t the person making the final decisions on whether the interns would get offers back or not, giving them feedback was lower stakes. “It can be a little rattling to give feedback to a direct report, because it feels like it’s so tied to eventual performance reviews. With a mentee, there’s no agenda behind it,” she says.
- How to break complicated ideas down. “I found myself explaining things that I knew inside and out in a way that I didn’t have to do on a regular basis with [my peers],” she says.
- How to maximize productivity as a player-coach. “One-on-ones can be extremely productive,” explains Katya. “I just had a meeting with a more junior team member on our design team who was interested in helping out on a project I’m leading, and instead of giving them homework, I said, ‘We have 20 minutes left in our meeting—let’s do some work.’ If I had said that I didn’t have time for that kind of check in with someone who's not even on my team, that would've never happened.”
All of that experience set Katya up to be a great manager of people when it came time for her to do that. “Everything I needed to do to be a good manager, I’d been practicing for years,” she says. “Becoming a new manager became less scary immediately once I realized I could draw upon my years of experience mentoring.”
A New Challenge at SeatGeek
During the pandemic, Katya’s feelings about working in edtech changed. “The blurred lines of what it meant to be a parent and a teacher were fuzzier than ever,” she says. “It all felt too close to home. I saw the world was pivoting, and thought it was a good time for me to pivot as well.”
She started looking for a role where she could build out a research team (because she’d loved doing that in her past position) in a new, challenging setting. When she saw a UX research role at SeatGeek, she was immediately curious.
“I thought, ‘This is a live event ticketing company in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic—how is this job even posted?’ It piqued my interest,” she says. She reached out, and in her conversations with the SeatGeek team, Katya found herself impressed.
“They were so smart, so resilient, and so creative, steering a company through what could have easily been the end of the organization and figuring out ways to come out much stronger,” she says.
Katya was intrigued by working in a brand-new industry with a brand-new set of challenges, and when they offered her the role, she took it. She spent her first year embedding herself within the organization, learning about what she calls the “research appetite” on different teams, and showing the value that user research and data could add to different parts of the process.
This second year, she’s ready to start setting up her team. Katya is currently hiring for several roles—meaning she will have plenty of opportunities to apply the management approach she’s honed through mentorship.
Go Pay it Forward
Katya has found her mentees naturally, including via people who reach out to express interest in her work. If you’re looking for people to mentor, she recommends leveraging:
- Employee resource groups
- Internship programs
- MeetUp and Slack communities
If you think that you might have something to offer as a mentor, even if you’re earlier on in your career, Katya has one message for you: make the time and do it.
“Don’t be afraid to add more meetings,” she says. “I always make space for mentorship. Doing this work is one of the highlights of my job. Being that open door is so incredibly gratifying, and makes me feel like I’m still learning and growing soft skills. Make the time for it.”