With LinkedIn, Twitter, and so many other avenues for professional expression, our work has never been more public—or more vulnerable to pride and pretense. Just as we’re all living the good life on Facebook, our online work personas reflect an idealized version of who we are and how we got there. That’s fine, but it belies the more interesting and honest stories about professional advancement.
I’d accepted an employment offer from Oakland Unified School District on the condition that I teach special education. I met with Dana Ashby, then Elementary Program Coordinator, to evaluate where I’d fit best. She assigned me to Fruitvale Elementary, where I’d lead small group instruction in reading and math. Due to location and caseload, this was an enviable and sought-after placement. I taught at Fruitvale for three years, working alongside some of the most amazing teachers and young people I’ve ever met. I even taught a few kids to read. Had Dana assigned me anywhere else, I wouldn’t have seen the success that I did.
I wanted to jump from education (and weekend petsitting) to clean energy. Janice was a petsitting client who ran her own cleantech strategy consulting firm. I called her for insight on an unrelated internship opportunity; she offered sharp advice (her trademark) and, soon after, a job. She gave me all sorts of tasks to see what I enjoyed and excelled at. Within a month I was doing junior analyst work on a large-scale solar development project. A year later, I was managing a project on behalf of Sandia National Labs and the US Department of Energy. Janice encouraged so many of the skills I’ve put to work since then. She’s a dynamo and I’m forever grateful to her.
Drawn to the tech industry’s unbridled creativity, I was hunting for a job in consumer tech. I had very little technical experience and had underestimated how hard it would be to switch industries a second time. I wanted to help build a product like Lift (now Coach.me). I’d met Tony, the CEO, twice—once at a Lift event and again at a dessert party (true story). I emailed him for insight into hiring and job searching. He took me out to lunch and a week later offered me a part-time contracting role. I went to work developing in-app coaching content—which was uncharted territory for me and for Lift. Two months later Tony asked me to go full-time. I’ll never forget that conversation: “You should absolutely be working in a startup.” Tony’s generosity remains a source of validation and humility in my career progression. He’s one of the good guys.
Six weeks into a new job at Stitch Labs, Brandon Levey pulled me aside during lunch and asked whether I’d be up for a special project. The company wanted better insights and processes around customer churn. Half of my time would immediately go toward this project. Our VP of sales was rightfully skeptical: “We want to better understand churn, so we’re giving this to the guy who’s been here six weeks?” I eventually put him at ease. Brandon coached me through a lot of the next two months; I count my lucky stars to have had so many conversations with him.
The Sunday after New Years, Brandon made another offer. Each department had an initiative related to a new type of customer; Brandon wanted me to coordinate these efforts. I was excited and terrified and said so. I accepted based on excitement and trust; I’m sure his offer was rooted in similar feeling.
This was not an endless string of green lights. There was failure and merit and hustle and putting oneself in the right place, but the long tail of privilege stretched throughout. Switching industries is easier when you have financial security. San Francisco is a good place to meet tech CEOs—if you can afford to be here in the first place. There was a lot of luck and good fortune, chief among them someone’s willingness to invest in a near-stranger.
I move forward with gratitude, wonder, and (I hope) the sense to pay it forward. I’ll quote Bijan because there’s no better way to close: “Who took a chance on you?”
[ January 2016 ]