Laura is an educator, writer, and theater director, committed to creating a more equal and healthier planet. From casting game shows in India to teaching clown to Egyptian university students, she remains open to the unexpected and learns about the world by seeing it.
Jenny Donnelly, Head of Platform Engineering at Nextdoor, is no novice to the tech world—she came on the scene when most of us were still using dialup. If you were to look at the linear progression on her LinkedIn profile, you might think she'd had her sights set on rising the ranks in Silicon Valley since she was an undergrad.
But as she explains, it was exactly the opposite: "I will admit I fell into tech. I studied sociology in college, to the chagrin of my parents," she jokes. (Not to mention she was looking for something that wouldn't require her to wear a suit.)
After graduating from Northwestern, she interned at a public policy think tank for a year, temping on the side at a tech recruiting firm just to make ends meet. She soon realized that she needed a job that would allow her to live in the Bay Area, so she transitioned into tech full-time at the height of the dot.com boom.
She started working full-time at the tech recruiting firm she'd been temping at and quickly fell in love with coding and solving technical problems. Eventually, she realized she still had a lot to learn, so she left her job as a technologist to work as an engineer at a web-services company.
"I took a big pay cut to do that. I felt like I was starting from scratch, but I decided to go to a place that aligned more with my long-term career goals and where I could learn the skills I needed to learn to advance."
This move set the stage for the rest of her career. "I don't have a CS degree. I always have a lot to learn. And I'm always drawn to teams, companies, and cultures where I feel like I can add value but also learn and be mentored at the same time."
This approach has served her well: in her 20+ year tech career, she's gone from entry-level engineer to the head of platform engineering. She was kind enough to share some advice on how she's advanced her career.
Read on for her tips!
1. Balance Organic and Strategic Career Growth
Although it may not look this way from the outside, Jenny didn't plan every step in her career. Some moves were deliberate, and others...not so much.
Like when she was content working on code at Yahoo, and a management position came her way.
"When my manager was transitioning out of the company, he said 'I would love to groom you [for] this role.' I was really shocked. I did not feel like I wanted to do it or could do it. And reluctantly, I was put in positions where I was clearly owning decisions, with more visibility."
Taking opportunities for growth when they came up, even if they were outside her comfort zone, allowed Jenny's career to develop organically. This gave her more energy to focus on doing her job, rather than obsessively strategizing.
But sometimes, strategy is useful.
Later on in her career at Yahoo, she found herself reporting directly to the Chief Architect with a vacant VP position between them. She wondered if she could be considered eligible for that role...and after consulting with friends and family, she realized that she just needed to ask. "I was very shy and didn't feel like I had the right to ask."
Ultimately, she worked up the courage and asked him, "Why couldn't I do this job? What would it take?"
The result? The Chief Architect explained the areas where she had gaps and helped her get the experience she needed to fill them, which ultimately allowed her to reach the VP level at Nextdoor.
Jenny insists that asking about roles we want doesn't need to be intimidating or negative. It is a conversation about learning and growth. It's either that or not knowing when your next promotion is coming and why.
2. Know that the strongest individual contributor does not always make the best manager.
Initially, Jenny didn't see herself as management material because she was not the strongest engineer on her team. But now, she knows that management has more to do with connecting with others and less to do with coding.
A manager has to be able to help solve technical and non-technical problems.
When asked whether, from a management perspective, putting in hours or turning out results is more important, she says that although results are important to the business, being mindful of team dynamic is crucial to getting those results. "It's not just about what you and your team get done. It becomes more about how everyone feels on that journey of getting stuff done."
3. Perfection is an Illusion.
Jenny is here to report that the "do it all, have it all" narrative is a myth. When she excels at work, there may be slack at home; when things at home are great, she may be dropping the ball at work. She thinks that acknowledging and accepting this is important for our sanity and self worth.
"No one's going to kick butt in a lot of areas at the same time. I think people put a lot of pressure on themselves to do everything perfectly at all times. When they fall short, they feel there's something wrong with them...we should not feel emotional baggage about stuff we're not getting done."
4. Practice prioritizing.
Jenny ditched the illusion of perfection after one of her maternity leaves. "I was sleep deprived. I was very stressed out. Something had to give."
The first thing she did was declare bankruptcy on her inbox. "That allowed me to ask, what's most important? What's impactful? And start there. I was doing a lot prior to that that was not that important or impactful."
She knows it takes experience to prioritize, and confidence to draw the line somewhere. If you're neither experienced nor feeling confident, she suggests talking with managers, mentors, or experienced colleagues for advice.
5. It's okay to have a personal life.
One of Jenny's mentors showed her that it's acceptable to openly choose your personal life in the workplace. "She always made it a point to say, 'I'm leaving early to pick up my kids,' with confidence and authority. She was very transparent about that. I took that as a model."
She sees that it's possible to bring our whole selves to work—dentist appointments, school runs and all—instead of suppressing or relegating our personal life, which causes burnout and resentment.
Sometimes our personal lives hit low points, and sometimes it affects our work. But Jenny sees personal challenges as an opportunity for sharing, for two reasons: (1) your employer should know if you need more leeway in times like these, and (2) judicious sharing can lead to relationship building.
As a leader, she finds it helpful when employees let her know what's going on. "If anyone wants to share anything with me, I think that's great. I think these are seeds for connection. You should share as much as you feel comfortable with to get the support you need."
6. Take stock of your life before agreeing to tackle a new project/role.
Before taking on new projects, Jenny asks herself what she'll have to sacrifice. She then puts safety nets in place to make sure that things function while her attention is elsewhere.
"I recently had a project that was incredibly demanding. It was a conscious decision that I knew would require sacrifices from my family. I tried to set those guard rails: I warned my family. I got additional help on the nanny front. I just stockpiled my support at home to allow me to go into this more demanding project."
7. Love your job and know yourself.
Above all, Jenny says that the key to any kind of work-life integration is to love your job. "If that's not there, then everything feels like a sacrifice." She explains that one part of loving your job is being engaged by the content of your work, and another part is feeling that you are not only adding value, but being valued.
In order to love our jobs, we have to know ourselves in order to choose the right one. What gets us up in the morning? Is it money? Making the world a better place? Connecting with others? "Find out what makes you tick and optimize for that," Jenny advises.
Bonus tip: When possible, work with a community of people you like.
Jenny muses, "It's kind of interesting how someone's journey can seem like it's going all the way around, but sometimes comes back full circle." She studied sociology because she was interested in people, and now she works at a company that, although firmly in the tech industry, is approaching work from a very human perspective.
Nextdoor uses technology to help people build strong communities, and "that's exactly what they've done at the company as well." It's a place where she can be herself and model healthy work-life integration (for example, marking dentist appointments, etc., on her public calendar) for her employees the same way her boss once did for her.
If you're interested in learning more about the community at Nextdoor, click here. And if you have more questions for Jenny about how to handle competing priorities, let her know in the comments!
A Q&A with Lisa, a Financial Consultant at Fidelity Investments
When was the last time a client told you how you've impacted their family? For Financial Consultant, Lisa, this isn't an unusual occurrence!
Understanding the needs and wants of her clients on a more personal level is at the heart of what Lisa does as a Financial Consultant at Fidelity. She accompanies her clients through different stages of life and helps them makes changes to their financial plans as needed. She keeps a box of tissues in her office for when clients experience tragedy and celebrates with them when they reach their financial goals.
This highly personal working relationship is the norm at Fidelity Investments, where Financial Consultants present customized financial products and services for every stage in their clients' lives. To do this effectively, Fidelity utilizes a client-based approach grounded in relationship building. Fidelity also leverages a team of professionals with varied expertise to design custom financial plans. Lisa loves working at Fidelity because its culture, as well as its training and development resources, have allowed her to grow in the areas she feels are most important to her role. For Lisa, the most important skills of a Financial Consultant are active listening, organizational skills, and being personable. Additionally, her business unit's remote work policy affords her needed flexibility as she transitions to a new stage of life as an empty nester and the primary caregiver of her aging mother.
To better understand Fidelity's human approach, both with their clients and their employees, we asked Lisa some questions about her role and experience with the company.
Read on to learn more about what it takes to be a successful Financial Consultant at Fidelity and be sure to check out their open roles!
What does the Financial Consultant role at Fidelity entail?
I meet with Fidelity's clients semiannually for reviews, and we go through their investments, financial planning goals, and risk tolerance. We create a sound plan that's flexible, so we can adapt and change it as clients are going through different events in their lives: in the accumulation phase and when they decide to retire, helping to develop a sustainable stream of income.
As things transpire in their lives, we touch on big decisions like when they should retire, legacy transfer and planning, and estate planning.
How do you go about getting to know the clients you support in order to best consult with them?
The key is active listening, asking open ended questions, and finding out what is most important to the client. You need to know what their goals are, and what their fears are, because this is their money.
I use my own family experience and share my other clients' stories and how I've helped them, especially with difficult decisions. I meet with the families and talk about estate planning. Or when a spouse passes away, I help transition assets to the surviving spouse. There's a lot of emotion that comes into play, and you have to be there as a sounding board and help them move forward. There's a box of tissues in my office for those emotional moments, but there are also wonderful things, like hearing about grandchildren and helping clients pay for their children's education.
Which guiding principles do you follow when working with clients? How do they inform your work?
We start with a financial plan by finding out what clients' goals are, their risk tolerance, their values. I am also here to educate clients and build trust. I think the most important principle is showing integrity and letting them know that you care and you're here to help. Fidelity is all about putting the customer first.
How does this come through when you work with clients?
I let the needs of the client determine which solutions we implement. My compensation plan is in line with the needs of the client. It's about helping retain assets and grow assets, and building on client relationships, not being incentivized solely on commission.
What resources/support does Fidelity provide you with to help you meet clients' needs and put the client first?
Fidelity works in a team approach. There are many different resources. One of the best examples of this is the relationship manager. The relationship manager I work with helps the clients with most of their service needs. She's really instrumental, because I support a large book of clients and she enables me to focus on their planning needs.
There are also a wide range of specialists that can be called on to ensure each aspect of a plan is reviewed by experts from senior portfolio specialists for managed accounts, to fixed income specialists, regional planning consultants and estate planners.
Beyond that, Fidelity offers Financial Consultants ongoing training opportunities including in-office coaching, off-site trainings, and phone/web-based training. Paired with world-class technology and software, Fidelity associates are equipped with support that enables long-term growth.
That's awesome. It's great that you have so much support.
Yes, absolutely! That is a big difference from where I used to work.
On that note, what are three skills you've developed since joining the team at Fidelity?
I think active listening is the most important skill in being able to discover what the goals are of clients. Finding out what's really important to them, tapping into their fears, and also being able to develop trust so that they can share all of their life experiences with you openly in a warm, friendly environment.
The other skill is to go even deeper into financial planning. You touch on retirement, college, estate planning, working with the extended family, wealth transfer, and getting to know the next generation.
And thirdly, it's organizational skills. Fidelity moves at a fast pace. You have several meetings a day. There's a lot of callbacks and working with your business partners so that every client gets a call back on the same day and has their questions answered.
How would you describe the culture at Fidelity?
It's a team approach: very warm, friendly. I get along with all my colleagues. Everybody is very supportive. You have business partners that you can leverage. You have a manager who has an open-door policy.
How do you give and receive feedback at Fidelity?
They send out surveys asking clients to rate their experience. Fidelity really relies on the feedback of clients and I do as well.
The other is manager feedback. We have monthly reviews where we sit down and talk. I create my own business goals at the beginning of the year, and we monitor my progress and see if I'm reaching those goals.
What do you like most about working at Fidelity?
Flexibility with work. My business unit gives us the ability to work from anywhere. I do have an aging mother who lives alone. There are times that I can work from her house and coordinate her care. It relieves a lot of stress. The relationship manager I work with is able to work from home two days a week. She has two small children. I think it really improved her quality of life. With the technology, it's amazing. You really can work from anywhere. I think especially for women, it ensures longevity in their roles as they transition through parts of their lives.
And finally, tell us a little about life outside of work!
I have three children. We are empty nesters, so we're transitioning. We have two dogs. I'm caring for my mother as well. We own a lake house and get to go up there and relax after a stressful week — we'll go out on a kayak or climb a mountain. That's serenity.
Think you have what it takes to be a Financial Consultant? Check out Fidelity's available roles!
When you're a student, having a meaningful summer internship lead to a full-time offer after graduation is typically a "best-case scenario."
But what if you could intern at a remote-reliant, flexible company over the summer (and get the chance to talk about your work at a major conference!) and then continue working part-time while you study?
That's exactly what Varsha Varadarajan, an MS in Computer Science candidate at USC, has been able to do with cloud services company DigitalOcean. She interned for two months over the summer in their New York Office, and now she's continuing to work remotely as a part-time engineering intern while she studies. She'll be joining DigitalOcean full-time once she graduates, and she's set to present on the tool she worked on over the summer at KubeCon!
We recently sat down with Varsha to learn more about how she balances work and school, why she was drawn to DigitalOcean, and the support and opportunities she's received at this early stage of her career.
If you're looking for engineering internships that will give you the chance to take on real responsibility in a supportive environment, read on to learn why DigitalOcean might be the perfect place for you! And be sure to check out their open roles here.
You must be busy! How are you able to balance grad school and working for DigitalOcean?
My manager's been amazing. He's always told me, "You've only got 20 hours working at DigitalOcean, and we want to do more, but make sure you graduate from school." He understands that my education takes priority.
Just last week I had midterms, so I told my manager I wasn't going to be working a lot and he was super understanding. Some weeks I focus more on my coursework, and some weeks on DigitalOcean.
Why did you decide to intern at DigitalOcean?
I was drawn to DigitalOcean because I was already a fan of the product. [In my previous role], I used DigitalOcean quite regularly. I think the simplicity of DigitalOcean's control panel is really awesome, and their APIs were always very good to work with… When I found the internship on LinkedIn, I knew it was what I wanted—not just using Kubernetes, but providing the underlying service.
What was the most difficult aspect of your internship, and how did DigitalOcean support you?
The project that I was given was separate from the core initially, but then the second half of my internship dealt with me integrating that with the core architectures. There was a lot to learn, quickly. My mentor was fantastic. He told me what was next, what to do if something didn't work, and how to debug something. I wouldn't have done anything without my mentor!
What do you like most about working at DigitalOcean?
Because they deal with so many customers, I get to make a valuable contribution. I like actually operating Kubernetes, instead of just using it. The programming language was also easy to learn, so it gave me the confidence to contribute more.
What's it like to be an intern at DigitalOcean? Is it a formal program?
They have a summer intern program every year. It's great because the previous year's interns are there to support you and help you out informally with anything that you're struggling with.
What has been the most helpful to you in terms of building your confidence at DigitalOcean?
When I joined, I really wanted to contribute something, but I knew that there was only so much I could do in two months. My mentor helped me break down the internship into steps to track my progress and feel like I'd achieved something.
In the second half of my internship, I started getting more involved with the team as a whole. They really encouraged me to express my opinions and participate. They would ask me questions about my implementation to help me get better, but they were always very encouraging. It's not like they'd say, "this is a bad idea," they would just encourage me to consider other solutions as well. Knowing I had their support made me feel comfortable sharing my thoughts and questions with the team, which in turn gave me the confidence to implement solutions.
Why is DigitalOcean a great place for younger engineers to start their careers?
At DigitalOcean, the teams are small enough that you'll be given real responsibility once you show you're ready for it. Additionally, it's a great place to see projects holistically, not just from the perspective of your small piece of the project. For example, when my project got integrated, we met with the UI team, so I got to see the end-to-end flow.
If you were to picture a career for yourself at DigitalOcean 10 years from now, what would you like to be doing?
I would still want to be on the product side. Being our Principal Architect maybe, but I don't know if 10 years is sufficient for that! It'd be really cool to work on something from scratch, usually you don't get to do that.
Last but not least, tell us more about KubeCon! What a great opportunity.
I'm going to be talking about Clusterlint, the tool I worked on as an intern for the containers team at DigitalOcean. We open sourced it, so all Kubernetes developers will be able to benefit from it!
KubeCon is the conference for technologists right now, as Kubernetes has emerged as one of the most popular technologies in the last few years. People for just about every notable software organization attend this conference, so getting accepted to talk there is a huge deal!
DigitalOcean highly encourages all of its engineers to give talks, host workshops, etc. In fact, from my team, one other talk proposal was also accepted!
I just looked at the number of attendees for my talk. It's 355! That's pretty daunting for me as this is the first time I have ever given a talk for such a huge audience. Thankfully, I am pairing with my internship mentor Adam Wolfe Gordon for the 30-35 minute talk. And, my team is incredibly supportive of me. So, hopefully, it goes well!
Interested in doing impactful work at DigitalOcean? Check out their open roles here.