When Erika Messerschmidt was 12, she joined a soccer team that was way out of her league. (Literally—she had come from a division three team, and this team was division one.)
"The level of play was just so much higher than what I was used to," says Erika. "Every single day, my dad would pick me up and I would cry on the way home because I felt so inadequate."
Erika didn't give up. She laced up her cleats and put on her goalkeeping gloves and showed up, day in and day out, to practice. She drilled, she did speed work, she studied plays, and overall, she pushed herself. And then she was just as good as everyone else.
"It just took practice, time, and repetition," says Erika. "I experienced exactly the same situation when I joined [Okta] and started a new job. It's painful at first, because you don't know the technology as well as everyone else, and you have to ramp up and get confident."
Erika applied the same dedication and focus she did to sports to her new role, and now, almost a year into being a Solutions Engineer at identity management company Okta, she's comfortable, confident, and constantly learning. We sat down with Erika to hear more about why she joined Okta, what else in her history has set her up for success in the field of solutions engineering, and what advice she has for others who are looking to build their confidence at work.
Pursuing the right kinds of challenges
Erika wasn't always confident that she could find the right space for her to succeed. She went into college thinking that she'd never study anything in STEM because she lost confidence in her math skills in high school. She tried a neuroscience major, but realized she didn't like the lab environment.
But then she found cybersecurity engineering. While it was a technical field, she was able to find ways to understand it that lined up with the ways she liked to learn.
For instance, she took a computer networking class where she realized that the protocols behind those networks were based on how the U.S. mail system works."I was able to relate it to something that I had tangibly understood my entire life—and that's been the way that I've learned technology throughout my career—I try to relate it to something that is physical and easier to grasp," says Erika.
After graduating and spending three and a half years at her first job, a place she'd been since a summer internship during college, Erika realized she was ready for another challenge. "I was really focused on finding a technology to sell that I know I love, that I've used, and that ubiquitously, everyone I know is happy with as well," she says.
When an Okta recruiter reached out, Erika was immediately intrigued. She'd used Okta's single-sign-on solution and knew it was a great product. What she didn't know was how at home she'd feel when she interviewed—when she felt that personal connection, her decision was made.
"Walking away from [my old company] was definitely a risk, and difficult, but I knew that Okta was going to be the best decision for me," says Erika. "And I haven't looked back. I absolutely love working for Okta. I love how it's just as I had imagined—the product is very easy to use, and it's had such a big impact on our customers."
As a solutions engineer, Erika gets to see that impact firsthand, working throughout the sales cycle to show clients what Okta could do for them, adapting Okta's products to their needs.
Finding success in solutions engineering
While Erika had a learning curve to catch up to her new coworkers' understanding of Okta's products, she came up that curve pretty quickly. Only three months into her role, she was working on the largest deal her team had ever done.
The deal was for a community college with more than 20 campuses and a need to create a unified identity experience across them, and Erika and a fellow sales engineer were able to close it.
Since then, Erika has worked on several other big deals, and throughout them, she's reminded of the importance of her soft skills.
"People assume that when you get someone with a good personality who's also good with technology that they'll just know how to engage with a customer, but there are a lot of nuances to what you need to think about as a sales engineer when you are working deals day in and day out," she says. From learning the ins and outs to the sales cycle to navigating relationships with clients and coworkers alike, it's a lot to master, says Erika.
That sometimes weighs heavily on her, especially as a woman in a very male-dominated field.
"I catch myself thinking that I'm a representative for womanhood when I give a presentation or answer technical questions," she says. "I had to coach myself to get away from that mentality. I used to think, if I didn't know the answer to something, 'Oh, I just improperly represented female sales engineers; now that person is going to develop a bias against women and it's my fault.'"
Erika has addressed that by leaning into the good aspects of that pressure, like using it to aid in her preparation and to drive her sense of accomplishment, while not letting herself be swallowed by it. "I want people to have a good experience with me, and to change the way they see the potential for women to succeed in my role," she says. "But at the same time, not be so hard on myself to where if I make one mistake, I worry that I've damaged the reputation of others who are going to come after me."
5 tips for building confidence at work
One of the ways that Erika has found success at work is leaning into what makes her different. "I leverage my differences to make them into strengths that set me apart from others who are doing the same role I am," she says. Whether that's making genuine connections with clients or coming up with frameworks that help others understand, finding ways to apply her strengths has given Erika a lot of professional confidence.
Here are the other tips she has for women looking to do the same:
1. Recognize that confidence can be learned.
"One of the biggest misconceptions about confidence is that people are born confident," says Erika. "While some people are definitely more sure of themselves just based on their upbringing, confidence is something that is built through overcoming obstacles in life. And it's also built through the relationships that you have and people who build you up."
Erika credits her parents for giving her a solid base of confidence—"I've been really fortunate in my life to have had parents who were always extremely supportive of me and always built up my confidence, and that's had a big impact on my level of self-assurance," she says—but says that work mentors and friends have also been big contributors to that.
2. Remember that being confident doesn't mean never having self-doubt; it's knowing how to work through it.
"I have self doubt all the time, even though I consider myself to be a confident person," says Erika. "You develop over time a playbook for how to shut that voice down in your head that tells you that you're not good enough."
Her playbook includes telling herself out loud that she made a mistake but will learn from it; catching up with a friend who can be a rational partner to talk through what might've gone wrong; and meditating on the positive side of getting a chance to improve.
3. Find your own best methods.
Erika says she was coached on how to become a better public speaker by a well-meaning person who focused so much on memorization that Erika ended up losing her own personality and preferred delivery style. Now she takes advice, but makes sure to adapt it in line with her own method.
"I'm the only person who knows what the best way is for me to prepare, to give a presentation that conveys information in a way that's engaging," she says. "A lot of that is just me being able to be myself, to make little jokes, by not focusing directly on the information I have written on the slide but by telling a story."
4. Discover how you learn best.
"Technical skills don't really have anything to do with personality, they just have to do with acquiring information. But knowing the way that you learn best, that's an example of an asset that is related to your personality that you can then use to accelerate your learning at a quicker rate," says Erika. "Even if you don't know where you excel in the workplace, you've definitely exhibited strengths in other areas of life, so you just have to work to understand how to learn and apply those strengths in other situations."
5. Recognize that age doesn't matter.
Erika is still fairly early in her career, but that hasn't stopped experienced career veterans from asking her for advice.
"If you show that you have knowledge in a certain area, people don't care how old you are. They just want to learn from the skill that you have developed in a different way," she says. "Most people honestly don't care about age. I always thought that that was going to be a big deal in my career, especially when I'm talking to customers who are usually very experienced. But honestly, as long as you know what you're talking about, people tend to respect you and want to learn."