Joan Freed used to have one definition of impact: shipping code.
The more software she wrote, and the more technical problems she solved, the greater her contribution to her team was.
But then Joan, who is currently the Director of Engineering at Aurora Solar, was asked to go from a developer role to a management role.
“Like most engineering leaders, I was thrust into it. It was, ‘Hey, you’re a good engineer; now we want you to lead this team of people you’ve been working with,’” she says of the transition.
And in excelling in that leadership role, and others to follow, Joan realized that she’d found a way to make even more impact: through mentoring others.
“I could actually have a greater impact and gain the same amount of enjoyment from building a team that is building great software, as I could from building great software myself,” she says.
We sat down with Joan to hear more about the transition, including how mentorship smoothed her path into leadership, and about how she pays it forward by being a good mentor to others.
Pushing Buttons, With Others
Joan’s path into computer science was set as soon as she got her hands on an early PC. “What drew me to engineering was a love of pushing buttons,” she says, referencing calculators and adding machines. Once she first started developing games in her spare time for a Commodore 64, she knew she’d found her career path.
She entered the field by way of tech support, but it was an early mentor who helped her learn how to build great software. She’s still in touch with that mentor to this day.
As she solidified her development expertise, Joan expanded her pool of mentors by looking at her peers. “If we had enough of a similarity in the way that we perceived things or viewed software development, it sort of clicked—we became friends, then expanded our knowledge together,” she explains.
It was that group of peer-mentors that Joan leaned on when she made her first move into engineering leadership.
“I got great enjoyment out of helping people find their path. I was doing some of the things that folks before me had done, in terms of helping people navigate technical issues or challenges or growing new leaders,” she says.
Finding a Culture of Growth
When Joan was ready to move onto a new challenge, she knew she cared most about finding a company whose culture aligned with her values. Her main focus in her previous role was creating a positive, collaborative engineering culture, and she wanted to build on that.
“We’d really fostered an environment where people enjoyed coming to work every day because they worked with good people they actually wanted to spend time with,” she says.
In her first interview with the team at energy startup Aurora Solar, Joan immediately recognized a similar environment.
“I could see the commitment to the values—empowering customers and looking for outcomes over egos—in the way people talk and act,” she says. “There’s the assumption of positive intent, it’s very respectful. It’s really the culture at Aurora that drew me in and has kept me engaged and motivated.”
And now, as Director of Engineering there, Joan is tasked with supporting that culture and creating opportunities for her teams to experience career paths like her own.
To do that, Joan is applying everything she’s learned as a mentor and a mentee. She’s developed her own approach to what successful mentorship looks like: an even blend of comfort and empowerment.
“It’s having someone in your corner that you can talk to, where they have enough context to know you and to know the type of work or challenges you’re facing, but they also have that ability to not be in the weeds with you,” she says. “They can provide some level of objectivity to help you tease out the biases you may have or to ask probing questions you didn't think to ask yourself.”
Good mentorship, not unlike good management, says Joan, is “a way of expanding your own thinking.”
3 Tips for Finding a Great Mentor
Whether early career or not, Joan encourages everyone to build their stable of mentors. “A lot of career opportunities, it’s not always what you know, but who you know,” she says. “Make sure you have a good network of people because you never know when your paths may cross again.”
To do that, Joan suggests:
- Think of friends and peers as mentors. You don’t have to go up into the C-suite to find someone who can provide support and advice. “Start looking at people around you, what they’re doing and how they’re interacting,” she says.
- Be aspirational. “Identify someone you’re aspiring to be like, and reach out,” says Joan. “It can be hard to make that initial contact, but it’s very worthwhile.” She’s still in touch with a mentee who reached out blindly, for instance.
- Embrace communities. From LinkedIn groups to MeetUp events to ERGs, Joan suggests expanding your network via built-in gatherings of people like you.
3 Tips for Being a Great Mentor
Over the years, Joan has been a mentor to dozens of developers and aspiring leaders, and plans on continuing the tradition. When she finds herself in that role, she channels the following pieces of advice:
- Remember that you’re helping people find the path that’s best for them. “If that’s a path at Aurora, which I hope it is, then that’s great. But I’ve helped coach people out of my organization if it wasn’t a fit for them. They were struggling, they weren't happy, and I helped them find some other opportunity where they could shine,” explains Joan.
- Listen actively. “Make sure that you understand what it is they're saying and that you're engaged in that conversation with them,” says Joan.
- Be a positive force. “Be their cheerleader when things are going well, or when they’ve done something that put them outside their comfort zone,” says Joan. “Even if they’ve failed at something, help them understand what they can learn from that failure and how they can bounce back from it.”
Karen Klein wrote her first contract when she was 11.
It laid out how much allowance she would earn for completing certain chores each week. When she got her parents to sign it, she told them that she was going to be a lawyer when she grew up.
A decade and a half later, her mom brought out that piece of paper again—this time as a gift for Karen’s law school graduation.
Since then, Karen has written and reviewed a lot more contracts, as well as merger and acquisition deals, IPOs, and internal documents responding to regulatory bodies, including as the current Chief Legal Officer at global legal and compliance technology company Relativity.
While she set out on the path to be a lawyer of her own volition—“I was really good at arguing, and it got me into a lot of trouble at school, so maybe that’s where it came from!” she says, smiling—her career hasn’t been entirely self-directed. Karen attributes a lot of her success to having people believe in her and invest in her career, and we sat down with her to hear more about how she found those mentors and how she pays back their guidance by being a mentor herself.
In-House and On a Team
After finishing law school, Karen started her career at a law firm. That’s where she found her first mentor in one of the partners she worked for.
“I spent 90% of my time working for him, and he was a mentor before I even knew what a mentor was,” she says. “He not only assigned me great work, but he took the extra time to put things in context. After a meeting or a call, he’d sit and talk with me about what had happened, why the client asked the things that they did, why they were concerned, and ask for my perspective.”
Karen credits that mentor with helping her level up from being a person who executes well on tasks to being a person who understands strategically what needs to be done and why it matters. That knowledge set her up well for her next career step.
Even before joining the firm, Karen knew she’d one day like to move in-house. A self-proclaimed “deal junkie,” her favorite projects were ones that had her learn a lot about a client and their business in order to prepare a deal for them. “But then you wouldn’t hear from the client till the next deal, and I was like, ‘Well, I learned all about their business—I want to apply those things now,’” she says.
Being in-house would also let Karen fulfill what she describes as an inherited drive to build a business. “My parents owned and ran a construction company, and it stuck with me. I saw the stress that owning your own business created, but that mentality of building something and being part of something spoke to me,” she says. “The pride in helping to build something, that was enduring, and influenced me in ways I didn’t appreciate at the time.”
So when Larry—who was in-house counsel at a Chicago-based tech company, her then-firm’s largest client—called Karen and asked her if she’d like to join him there, she immediately said yes, though she did tell him that she knew little to nothing about technology.
“‘That’s okay,’” Karen remembers him saying. “‘You’re smart, you understand contracts and liability. We can teach you the tech part.’”
And teach her he did. That first move led to Karen spending 17 years in travel tech, including at places like Orbitz, Kayak, HotelTonight. Other general counsel she worked with became additional mentors, helping her come up the curve on regulatory issues and how to build a team.
A Full Circle Moment
When Relativity came calling, Karen had joined Ticketmaster only a year before, and was planning to stay there for the remainder of her career. It was pre-pandemic, and she was happy with the challenges and the teams she was building. She took a meeting with Relativity’s CEO just to get to know him as someone influential in the Chicago tech community that Karen so valued, and that was the beginning of her new job at Relativity.
“Once you meet Mike, you want to work with Mike,” says Karen, laughing. “It had this pull of nostalgia, that I could round out my career coming back to a Chicago software company, which is how I started out in-house. There were all these exciting things in store for the company, and it seemed right.”
Karen’s actual transition took a little longer—the pandemic had started, and she didn’t want to leave her team in its first few chaotic months—but she officially joined Relativity a year and a half ago, and now serves as its Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary.
3 Lessons and 4 Tips for Mentorship
Reflecting on her career, Karen says she’s learned three main lessons from all the mentors that have guided her:
- How to embrace feedback. “I have some rough edges, and I had a CEO say to me once, ‘You know, Karen, you’re really effective, but you could be even more effective if…’” she says. “And that made me feel inspired to actually do better.”
- How to get outside of her comfort zone. Multiple mentors have told Karen she was ready to learn something new long before she knew that herself. “It was inspiring to me that he was willing to invite me along,” she says of one general counsel she worked for who gave her the opportunity to sit second chair while he navigated antitrust issues for the company.
- How to have faith in herself. “Everyone has to do something for the first time at some point,” says Karen of her fear of making the leap to senior positions like General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer. “Having people who put that faith and trust in me really helped me make leaps in my career I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make.”
Though she’s now reached an apex in her career, Karen isn’t above seeking out new mentors—including her peers, like other executives at Relativity—and is certainly excited about being able to pay forward all that she’s learned. Her top tips for making the most of a mentorship relationship include:
- Build relationships everywhere. Finding mentors is all about having a connection with people, says Karen. “Trust lets you be comfortable reaching out and asking for that bit of advice, or to bounce ideas off of someone,” she says. “Whether you jump on the phone, or Slack someone, you want a connection that isn’t 100% about the transactional aspects of the work.”
- Agree on the goal. “Establish upfront what you both want from the relationship. What are you seeking from it? What will be in it for them?” she says. “Sometimes people are looking for a place to vent, but that’s not really mentorship.”
- Treat mentorship like a project. That means come prepared with agendas for every meeting, advises Karen. “I’m a list person, so I’ve written down lists of things I wanted some feedback on, or questions I had,” she says. “Of course, leave time for relationship building, to talk about how someone’s life is going. But have specific things that you’re hoping to get out of even a more casual conversation.”
- Circle back and share successes. “One of the biggest satisfactions mentors get is seeing career progressions,” says Karen. “When you make the next step or leap in your career, or something good happens, have a conversation with your mentor to say, ‘Hey, I really appreciate the time you spent with me; here’s what came of it.’ It gives your mentor their own career satisfaction and continual feedback we all want and need.”
January is National Mentorship Month— the perfect time to focus on growing and building important relationships with mentors that will positively affect your professional career.
Research shows that mentorship greatly improves career outcomes by providing professional guidance, skill development, and support through major work and life transitions.
We asked some of our partner companies to tell us about the mentorship opportunities they offer. If you’re ready to unleash your full potential by joining an impactful mentoring program, keep reading to hear what they said. (Plus, they’re all hiring—check out their open jobs under each entry!)
“Clarus Commerce has been running a mentorship program for the last 9 years. Here is how it works:
- Senior leaders nominate mentors within their department.
- The program lasts for about 6 months.
- Those who are interested in being mentored provide 6 topics that they’d like to discuss in mentoring meetings, which help us pair people up. Mentoring topics should focus on topics such as: leadership, how to manage up, presentation skills, communication, work life balance, etc.
- We leverage our Insights and Discovery profiles that each employee has to help better understand each other’s communication styles and help facilitate great discussions.”
Learn more about Clarus Commerce here.
“PwC professionals are provided learning opportunities, supportive career growth and unique mentoring opportunities to help them to fulfill their potential. The firm has several programs that include intentional mentorship and focus on building representation, inclusion and development of their people. For example, the firm launched Enrich, an experience designed to support the development and leadership skills of high-potential female and racially and ethnically diverse senior managers and directors. There is also Thrive, an innovative two-year experience for Black and Latinx entry-level new joiners that helps lay the foundation for a successful career through culture workshops, networking, connectivity and leadership engagement.”
Learn more about PwC here.
“At CallRail we have a program called Connection Point where individual contributors are paired with members of the Senior Leadership Team. Each pair is together for a full quarter and are given topics for their meetings, topics range from; career stories, situational advice and feedback, etc. At the conclusion of the quarter the individual contributors that have been in the program have a round table lunch with the CEO. This has been a great way to foster deeper connections within the organization, demystify senior leadership and help individuals see a path forward.”
Learn more about CallRail here.
“Automattic’s Design Mentoring program is a mutually beneficial partnership providing development opportunities for all. Mentees pick up new skills or get guidance with a project. Mentors practice communication, leadership, and knowledge sharing. The organization benefits from more engaged, productive employees, who have increased job satisfaction because mentorship encourages meaningful work that aligns personal and professional goals. In our distributed work environment, mentoring provides a human connection and a trusted space to grow. Tapping into all of the design experience and skill that our organization has is a powerful way to grow individually … and collectively."
Learn more about Automattic here.
“Relativity Women of the Workplace (RelWoW) Mentorship Circles is a group mentoring program that brings together women at varying stages in their careers and from every department at Relativity. The program sessions are curated by our team and include materials, talking points and action items to help create open dialogue, build connections and develop skills for personal and professional development. The program runs around six months, and includes a kickoff, mid-point event exclusive to program members, and a closing celebration. Relativity also plans to pilot a new mentoring program with broader reach across the company in 2022.”
—Yvonne Frazier – Executive Assistant
Learn more about Relativity here.
“CDW Business Resource Groups are a key source for networking and mentoring opportunities. In 2019, our BeU BRG launched a formal mentoring program through their Project IMPACT initiative aimed at recruiting, retaining and promoting Black coworkers. It has been a successful program that has brought coworkers together across departments and roles, sharing new experiences and perspectives for both mentors and mentees.”
Learn more about CDW here.
“BRIDGE is Kinesso's reverse mentoring program bringing together senior leaders and future leaders globally. Our program pairs employees with Kinesso's Senior Leadership Team, but rather than leadership mentoring employees, our employees mentor our senior leaders!
Through mentorship programs like Bridge, Kinesso's brings together employees across generations, cultures, territories, and job levels. Giving our future leaders the opportunity to share fresh perspectives and innovative ideas allows our current leaders to look at inclusion, capabilities, collaboration, and connectivity from a completely different lens.
"(Bridge) is immensely important for many reasons, but most of all, it shows that no matter where you are in your career, you should never stop learning and growing."
—Arun Kumar, CEO at Kinesso and Global Chief Data & Marketing Technology Officer at IPG”
For more information on Kinesso, please visit Kinesso.com/careers.
Learn more about Kinesso here.
"At SoundCloud, one of our core behaviors is to embrace the challenge- but that doesn’t mean that you go at it alone. We encourage SoundClouders to ask for help and to give help to those who it need along the way. Over the past few years we have offered a mentorship program that connects rising SoundClouders with under-represented identities (gender/race/ethnicity) with more senior level employees around topics of professional branding and career growth, influencing and emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking. In 2022, we aim to launch 2 cohorts of mentorship/coaching targeting different ranks of women of color."
Learn more about SoundCloud here.
“BlackRock has nine employee networks and four professional networks – all of which offer mentorship programs or opportunities.
Our employee networks: Mosaic; Ability & Allies Network; Asian, Middle Eastern & Allies Professional Network; Black Professionals & Allies Network; Families & Allies Network; Out & Allies Network; SOMOS Latinx & Allies Network; and Women's Initiative & Allies Network.
Our professional networks: Analyst Alley, Associates Arena, Global Administrative Initiative Network, and VP Village.”
Learn more about BlackRock here.
“Having both formal and informal mentors is crucial to elevate any career. At Lockheed Martin, mentoring is the development of meaningful relationships to transfer valuable knowledge and understanding from one person to another. It is a personal enhancement strategy through which one person willingly facilitates the development of another by sharing known resources, expertise, values, skills, perspectives, attitudes, and proficiencies. Our mentoring program is tailored to the individual employee to give them the right tools, the right resources, at the right time.”
Learn more about Lockheed Martin here.
“Autodesk is a place where you can shape your future and help others do the same. The Autodesk Mentorship Program empowers employees to take ownership of their careers and build on a mindset of learning from each other by offering mentorship opportunities for professional and personal development, peer-to-peer learning, and focused networking. The program helps you identify your goals and recommends matches for a mentor or mentee to help you accomplish them. Through the Autodesk Mentorship Program, employees can make connections, grow their skills, explore opportunities and build their career paths.”
Learn more about Autodesk here.
“Cummins Women’s Empowerment Network (WEN) focuses on a mission to create the right environment by advocating for equal representation, empowering women, and fostering inclusion for every employee in all work assignments at all levels.
As part of the work to achieve such a mission, WEN focuses on mentoring and development initiatives designed to foster mentoring relationships, broaden employee networks, and provide opportunities for personal and professional growth. Initiatives include Speed Mentoring Sessions, Personal Development & Networking Events and WEN Mentoring Circles Program. This annual Mentoring Circles Program provides a monthly opportunity for exempt employees to participate in a forum for open discussion, explore new perspectives and learn from peers and leaders.
Within the Europe region we also have the Cummins Business Services mentoring program which is open to all employees at all levels.”
Learn more about Cummins here.
“Meet a pairing in Millennium’s Mentorship Program: Cari Smalley, Co-Head HR Business Partners, Americas, and Jasmin Zirino, Operations Specialist. They say, "The mentorship program is a fantastic experience for anyone who wishes to join. It allows you to meet someone you do not directly work with and grow your network. It is invaluable to have the ability to work through solutions to problems, use one another as sounding boards, and occasionally just blow off steam in a supportive space."”
Learn more about Millennium Management here.
“Mentorship is about stepping out of our comfort zone, taking charge and acting upon our ambitions, opening doors for others and learning more about the skills that make our own success.
Expedia Group has a volunteer-led program allowing every employee to have an equal chance to grow and succeed. The program has brought together a group of 1,700 Expedians from all over the world who believe in skills development and the power to elevate others while creating Inclusion at Expedia Group. Through a self-service marketplace platform and organized meetup sessions, EG’s Mentoring Program enables all employees to ask for help and embrace their own identity while belonging to a community that thrives through diversity.”
Learn more about Expedia Group here.
“At Equinix, our employee connection networks (EECNs) play an important role in bringing together communities for learning and growth opportunities, including mentoring. While mentees gain much from mentors, we often find that mentors also discover growth opportunities.
By asking these questions, we instill best practices for a successful mentorship:
What does each party want from this experience? How often to meet? Confidentiality: What’s shareable and what isn’t?
Feedback: What are the expectations around giving and receiving feedback?
And remember, a mentoring relationship is like any other relationship—it takes time to develop. Build trust by getting to know one another.”
Learn more about Equinix here.
"At Unstoppable, it is our commitment to having a crypto forward culture. Every new team member is matched with a Crypto Buddy who acts as their first point of contact outside of their direct team, guides them down the crypto rabbit hole, and welcomes them into Unstoppable’s culture. As a fully remote company, making cross-team collaboration a key part of onboarding strengthens our community. This is also an opportunity for the buddy to hone their mentoring and teaching skills. When the new hire has been with the company for six months, they will then become a mentor themselves, driving a continuous cycle of mentorship."
Learn more about Unstoppable Domains here.
“Mentoring@Uber connects employees who are passionate about helping and up-skilling others with those who are seeking guidance and development. It is a way of connecting and sharing challenges on a mutual and reliable relationship —and trying to get another perspective from an unbiased source. It’s also an opportunity to learn from the experiences of others, or collaborate together to come up with a solution to professional problems that arise. People with mentors perform better, advance in their careers faster, and even maintain more work-life balance. And mentors benefit, too.”
Learn more about Uber here.
“MongoDB has offered two pilot mentorship programs to support underrepresented groups. One program focused on promising first-line managers and ICs from underrepresented groups and the other focused on providing executive mentorship to women & nonbinary leaders at the director level and up. In both programs, participants were matched with a mentor with who they regularly met to discuss career planning and personal development. Feedback from both pilots was hugely positive with participants indicating that they received helpful support from their mentors. Members from our ERGs have also served as mentors to our summer class of interns.”
Learn more about MongoDB here.
“Our Black and Latinx ERG, Array, offers a mentorship program pairing individual contributors within Array to C-Suite and VP level mentors, including PagerDuty CEO Jennifer Tejada. Dedicated to leveling the playing field for Black and Latinx employees, the program is structured so everyone can learn from each other. Mentees are paired with mentors from within or outside their department for a nine-month term, which includes check-ins, themed discussions, and monthly one-on-ones. Bri Solorzano, an Array mentee, explained that this mentorship program allows her to build bonds with higher level executives, and share her personal experiences as a Latinx employee and individual contributor at PagerDuty.”
Learn more about PagerDuty here.
T. Rowe Price
“Due to the highly collaborative culture at T. Rowe Price, the firm understands the value of relationships and the opportunities strong mentorship can provide. It is committed to not only developing talent within its walls but developing the next generation of talent within communities.
The firm will launch a new global mentorship program in 2022, which will offer associates the opportunity to connect with colleagues, agnostic of location or business unit. T. Rowe Price also provides leadership development to youth in the community through strategic partnerships such as the Baltimore Ravens Leadership Institute, a program aimed at high school students.”
Learn more about T. Rowe Price here.
“At Pluralsight, we take growth seriously. Which is why we offer a six-month long mentorship program for all of our employees. Our mentorship program is facilitated bi-annually by Women@Pluralsight, one of our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and aims to empower participants to recognize their full potential. We intentionally pair mentors and mentees to create connections that encourage the development of skills crucial to success, and foster personal and professional growth. In our most recent cycle we paired nearly 200 participants and have plans to continue growing that number. Because at Pluralsight, your growth is our growth, and vice versa.”
Learn more about Pluralsight here.
“At Yelp, we value and actively foster an environment focused on learning and development. There are a variety of mentorship opportunities available, such as:
- New Hire Mentors — new employees are paired with a team mentor to help them onboard and get settled in.
- Engineering Mentorship Program — any IC engineer can sign up to become or get a mentor within Yelp Engineering.
- Manager Mentorship Program — new engineering managers or proto-managers can get support from experienced managers at Yelp.
- Awesome Women in Engineering — This employee resource group’s mentorship program helps AWE members find mentors or mentee within the group.”
Learn more about Yelp here.
“At Turo, we help each other. We collaborate. We challenge each other. And we create the tools to succeed independently and as a team.
When you join Turo engineering, you’re assigned a mentor, a reliable, single point-of-contact to help you set up your environment, navigate the codebase, and acclimate to Turo’s culture and workplace. Mentors have a great responsibility to ensure new Turists feel welcome, offer encouragement, and provide advice and guidance on complex matters of systems and architecture. Engineers who demonstrate our core values of efficiency, pioneering, and being down-to-earth and supportive have an opportunity to mentor new engineers. Mentoring engineers is a great way to build the skills necessary to further your career at Turo.”
“Mentoring has allowed me to deepen my technical understanding and team connections.”
– Lauren Kroner, Senior Software Engineer
Learn more about Turo here.
“In the US, Moody’s has an intergenerational mentoring program, our Pride BRG members coach youth in the Queer Coders program. Our Women’s, Veterans, and Multicultural BRGs have a variety of mentoring programs, including summer intern mentorship, our Asian Leadership Initiative and our ConectaMos Hispanic/Latinx 1:1 mentoring program. Our Women’s Group Mentoring Program just celebrated its 10th anniversary with over 800 mentor-mentee participants over 10 years. In EMEA, Moody’s offers Power to Act reverse mentoring, mentoring through the Women’s and Pride BRGs, and a parental leave mentoring scheme. In APAC, Moody’s has various cross-BRG and cross-department mentoring programs.”
Learn more about Moody’s here.
“At Condé Nast, we are focused on providing positive career development opportunities. We recently launched a Global Mentorship Program as an option for employees to connect and learn from one another. For six months, employees participate as a mentor and/or mentee to develop their careers, grow their skills and guide one another. The structured framework creates and sustains an inclusive experience that empowers everyone’s growth.
The MentorcliQ platform we use lets us create mentoring pairs based on their interests, experiences and personality compatibility. To date we have had 473 active mentorship pairs.”
Learn more about Condé Nast here.
“Thornburg Small Group Mentor Program was created to bring employees of various tenures and experience levels together in order to cultivate organic relationships and opportunities for influence in a low-pressure environment.
The program consists of six small groups comprised of one mentor and three to six mentees. These groups meet for one hour every month for six months. The series concludes with a virtual event where all participants from every group can meet and share takeaways from their experiences.
- Small group format (not one-on-one)
- Low cost, low maintenance, light structure
- Flexibility for mentors to lead through individual style"
Learn more about Thornburg here.
“Women@Okta’s upcoming mentorship program:
W@Okta’s vision for the year is to empower, develop and support women-identified employees in order to ultimately improve gender diversity at Okta. One of our key methods is to empower the next generation of female leadership by providing a platform for women to connect and learn from one another through group and 1:1 mentorship opportunities. Our Professional Development branch is launching a pilot mentorship program with an initial cohort of 32 mentors and mentees.
Goals: Career, personal and organizational
Share your needs, desires, goals, and challenges; career choice and mobility.
Explore people, resources, information, expertise you need – but don’t have – to speed up, enhance, and ensure your results.”
—Professional Development Lead Christina Gallagher (Senior Sales Development Representative) & Partnerships Co-Lead Sarah Schiff (Senior Manager, Customer First Recruiting)
Learn more about Okta here.
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.”