A Thousand Days of Edtech, Part 1 of X
Lessons from an Ex-Bookseller in Edtech
The nucleus of edtech is composed of two things: the ability to learn and a sincere love of learning. I’ve been with my company for a little over three and a half years now — more than a thousand days — and I can say with certainty that I have grown my skillset tenfold (at least). Part of these acquisitions were from self-study, but a bigger part of it was connecting with my colleagues from many different teams. I’m sharing a few important things I’ve picked up after having been here for approximately 1000 days, all of which has become deeply ingrained in my work ethic. I want to work in UX design someday, and I’m going to make sure I never forget anything I’ve picked up here.
There’s a lot I’ve learned, so I can’t say for sure how many parts this will be, but my hope is that my experience will help others who have stumbled into the start up world.
Lesson 1: Never Stop Learning
I worked at an independent bookshop for two and a half years before starting at my fancy San Francisco job. I’d been reading my entire life, so learning was a core part of my being. I was drawn to the place because their tagline was “Never Stop Learning”. This has been my favorite motto since starting at Udemy back in 2014. I remember being really bummed out that I couldn’t get one of the fancy hand-designed shirts that showcased these words because they’d stopped making them (it’s what happens when things are part of the Old Brand), but I liked it because they’re words I’ve lived by since, I don’t know…forever.
I had impostor syndrome for the longest time. By some miracle, I’d been hired to work as a customer support associate at a tech company despite my resume including jobs like being a bookshop retail girl and a TA for my professors in college. I’d been given a shot, and like Hamilton said, I wasn’t going to throw it away. To this day, I’m sure that my references were the ones who helped tip the scales in my favor, so I owed it to them to learn all I could. My strength was in my determination to learn what I could do to help my team succeed, and I was ready for anything.
There’s a Million Things I Haven’t Learned, but Just You Wait
Here’s a list of some of the many things I’ve picked up since working at Udemy, considering my background in retail/education/other random things. It sounds a lot like a reading list for a very specific high school curriculum:
- Learning can be done by teaching
- Writing 200+ how-to articles on your own isn’t as bad as it sounds
- Support teams literally know everything about a product in its entirety
- People are always willing to help you learn something new
- Make a friend in every team so you know what they need to go through when a project is in progress
- How to work with remote teams
- Basic SQL knowledge
- How to host events, from board game nights to hackathons
- What it means to be data-driven
- Feedback is fuel and helps teams work well together
- Making a change is difficult, but can be done with sharing the proper resources
- Being a customer advocate, both externally and within the company to help drive change
- People in San Francisco really like kombucha, but no one outside of the city seems to know what it is (a recent learning from my visit to London last week)
This is a lot, of course, so I’ll start with the first couple centered around the Never Stop Learning value and work my way down. It’s been a continuing journey, and I think it’s one worth taking.
One of my favorite books is called The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. It’s about a supernatural MI5 in London, and the premise is that the protagonist (a regular employee in this MI5) knew she’d have her memory stolen in due time, so she spent years meticulously documenting every aspect of her work and home life. This is how I went about my work when I started here, and how I continued doing my work up to this day.
I was the first employee hired to join the newly born Support Team as an associate, and I wasn’t going to take any chances with forgetting things. As I learned how to respond to tickets, I wrote how-to articles on every single aspect of the job and kept them in Evernote. When the company started using Confluence to make internal Wikis, I invested time into learning the product so that I could put all 200+ of my articles into it. I started the framework of the articles, sorted them all into understandable categories, and made sure that anyone could edit it so that it could become a living document since the product could change at any given time.
We had remote teams in other parts of the world, so it was imperative that we had some way to share information without the teams having to ask the same questions every day, especially since we were on different time zones. I loved being a part of the team, and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment every time someone said thank you for the Wiki.
At the time, I was the around the 50th person hired, and the only one dedicated to support, so we had no formal onboarding processes. The Wiki proved to be helpful not just for our remote teams, but for our new hires in the local office as well. Each time someone new came on, I sat with them and asked for feedback on the articles. If something didn’t make sense, I took note of it and rewrote it. If my colleague found a clearer way to explain something, I’d get excited and show them how to make changes. (Everyone had to get used to Confluence, and for the longest time, the support team was the only team that had any sort of content — and it was also the most robust.)
Support: The Unsung Heroes
The wikis were a huge help to our support teams on the other side of the world, but they also became helpful to other teams within the company. As a support team, we were the center of the product. It was imperative that we knew everything about everything. Most teams are very focused on their own projects, which makes sense, but this also meant that the expertise stopped at one project. We have three different kinds of customers: students, instructors, and B2B clients. With a massive user base, it was understandable that product teams focused on student-facing features didn’t know much about instructor ones, and vice versa.
I’ve worked on teams that were student- and instructor-facing, and having this exposure gave me a unique view of the company as a whole. Respect and mad props should be given to your support team, because we need to make sure we know about every single release so that we can answer any questions that come up. I guarantee that if you ask a team lead how to do something on the product, they’ll know how to do it, what bugs exist, if there are any workarounds, and how it’s meant to function.
Every day on support is a day of learning. I’ve become more malleable about inevitable changes, and like the rest of the team, I can turn on a dime when necessary. We are as swift as the product team’s sprints.
Make Friends with All the Teams
I think this is the most important aspect of “Never Stop Learning”. It’s too easy to become used to your own work, your own team, and your own speed. In my opinion, being truly productive largely depends on understanding how other teams work. What is difficult for them, and why? What is a reasonable expectation when it comes to a turnaround time? What is their favorite flavor of cake? Having worked in retail and education, it has never been a waste of time for me to learn more about who I’m working with and how to best communicate with them. Not only does this create a more harmonious workspace, but it also makes you a better team player.
Having tea (or your caffeine/beverage of choice) with a colleague is an excellent way to learn something new. I now live with two of my coworkers who are both female engineers. One works in front-end development and is my favorite person to ask about usability, because she’s the one that will have to build it. The other is a data engineer, and she’s a wizard at data visualization and helps me understand how significant a change was within the product. I may not be on the product team, but this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t understand how everyone’s work affects the company’s goals.
The things I’ve learned from them, including what I already know from support, have made me more confident about voicing potential problems in design reviews and customer-facing changes when a support representative is needed. Knowledge is power. (Also, it’s awesome living with coworkers, because you already work well together and respect each other enough to make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself at home.)
It’s a huge plus to have an advocate, too. I’ve spoken with with people all over the company and I’ve learned tips and tricks from all of them, whether it’s from engineering, design, product, UX research, or business development. Having this understanding is critical to my own growth as well as the company’s. Being surrounded by so many intelligent people is a wonder. It’s worth anyone’s time to get to know their colleagues and what they do.
That’s it for part one. For those who have just started at a new company, good luck! For those that want to get started, keep applying. Make it your job to keep applying. For those that are experienced in the world of companies, I’d love to learn more from you. Til next time!