“You’re Not There To Solve The Math Problems, You’re There To Be A Storyteller”

Words of Wisdom with Darren Shimkus, General Manager of Udemy for Business
I had the pleasure of interviewing Darren Shimkus, GM of Udemy for Business. Darren has nearly two decades of experience building and growing high-performing sales, marketing, operations, and product management teams. Prior to Udemy, he worked in training and executive development at the Corporate Executive Board in Washington, D.C. and London, and in product, marketing, and operational roles at several technology companies. He received his B.A. from William & Mary and his MBA from Stanford University.

Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in a house where I was the first to go to university, and everyone was expected to work and contribute. At 14, I started working as a custodian and dishwasher in a nursing home. I’d like to say that it was for altruistic reasons, but the truth is that at that point, there weren’t many places that would hire a kid my age. My day-to-day tasks weren’t always the most fun, but I really connected with the people I worked with. We were a diverse group of high school students and dropouts, of Haitian immigrants, and people with roots in the town for 150 years or more. To this day, that crew represents the broadest cross section of America I’ve ever worked with. What I remember most and what inspires me even to this day, is seeing many of my co-workers rise up and take the initiative to better themselves in their jobs. They had humble backgrounds and they worked hard to learn the necessary skills to step into management roles or lead kitchen and service crews. I’ll never forget seeing the true pride that they felt. College and graduate school put my life on a decidedly different track. Being with Udemy now, I’m trying to offer millions of people around the world the chance to do the same.

Yitzi: So what exactly does Udemy do?

Udemy helps people learn at work with online courses. Somehow, society has built an educational system where we’re born, go to school for fifteen-twenty years to learn, and then we’re done with formal learning. We’re supposed to switch overnight from students to productive employees. The world doesn’t work like that anymore, and people absolutely need to learn new skills at work all the time. We give employees a place to go when they need to learn how to do something new — whether that’s coding in a new programming language, running a marketing campaign, or improving soft skills like management and public speaking. Companies around the world use our collection of 2,000+ on-demand, video-based courses to give their employees a place to learn, so they can do whatever comes next — whether that’s a promotion, completing a project, or even changing careers.

Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading this division?

I can’t stop thinking about the shrinking life of workplace skills. It’s absolutely staggering that 20% of the skills we use at work will be obsolete in a year. This kind of change should be completely transforming the way businesses recruit and hire, but recruiting practices really haven’t changed in many companies and industries. Interview and selection processes mostly work to identify and assess current (and past!) skills. Only the most forward-thinking companies are hiring based on aptitude for learning and a growth mindset. How do you build a culture of learning where everyone is engaged in building skills? How do you find employees who are good at their current role and are also thinking about the skills they need for the role they’ll have next year? Working with companies on the challenges related to the half-life of skills is the most interesting and rewarding work.

Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of the best parts of my job is hearing how learning on Udemy has transformed the lives of our students. Recently it was a single mom who used our platform and learned how to code. Those new skills got her a promotion sooner. It’s also very inspiring to hear the stories of people who have decided to reinvent themselves and follow their passions in a completely new industry. That’s not just good, that’s life-changing. It’s certainly why I’m here, and I think the vast majority of our team is as well. There’s just an emotional connection with our mission at Udemy that I personally haven’t felt anywhere else.

Yitzi: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a GM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You might think that you’re hired to manage or start a business. The truth is that you’re also a full-time recruiter while running that business. Early on in my tenure, I realized that bringing more senior leadership across our sales, marketing, and product teams would help our business grow and reach the next level. So, I hired a recruiting firm and moved on. Three months later we weren’t even close to filling those roles. Only when I dug in, started devoting almost half my time to reaching out to great candidates, getting coffees, and networking, did I start to see those game-changing candidates. I realized that the best candidates are looking for companies that can tap into their energy and passion, and you’re the best person to convey the vision and get people excited about the company.
  2. Building a team culture is going to be a lot harder than you think. It’s also one of the most rewarding and impactful things you will do. When you step into a new position, a team culture already exists. You might think it’s good, bad, brilliant, or dysfunctional. Or all of the above! As leaders, we should always objectively evaluate the culture we’ve walked into first. Is there a difference between what we say and what we do? Ask questions so you’re not making assumptions. It’s entirely possible to move company culture in new directions, but you need to communicate openly to bring people along with you. I’ve found that people are willing to change when you talk clearly about how changes will affect and benefit them. And, be really thoughtful about the new hires you bring in and how they will add to the culture.
  3. You’re not there to solve the math problems. You’re there to be a storyteller. You might be great at solving complex business problems and circling your answer at the end, like we all did in math class. But the majority of your conversations — internally as well as externally — will begin with you telling the big picture story of your company, what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Your job is to get hundreds or thousands of people solving math problems, and you have to be able to easily and effectively communicate why something is important before anyone will be interested in the “weeds” of the business.
  4. Don’t cast yourself as the hero. When the buck stops with you, it’s tempting to think you’re doing good work if you swoop in and solve problems. And, you’re likely chomping at the bit to make sure you’re having an impact on the business. You can easily burn your first six months (or longer) trying to put out fires and answering emergency calls. That’s not the best use of your time and talent. I find that asking myself if something is important vs. urgent is a great way to focus and prioritize. You need subject-matter experts in marketing, product, and everything else to roll up their sleeves but your role is to support them, rally them, and make sure you’re making progress against your vision.
  5. Recognize that in a fast growing organization, your job changes every six months or so. Managing a team of fifty is a lot different than a team of a five hundred people. Everyone needs professional development, especially leaders. In a fast-growing company, you need to take the time to invest in yourself and make sure you’re prepared for the job you’ll have next. I like to network with leaders at the next stage of a company to get advice and get a glimpse into what’s ahead.

Yitzi: I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

This might be a bit unexpected, but I would love to have breakfast with food-blogger and entrepreneur, Kenji Lopez-Alt. I’m a huge fan of the work he’s done on “Serious Eats” to change the way people cook and eat, and even moreso about his approach to learning. Kenji is a voracious learner, always experimenting and dismissing preconceived notions. All of this just oozes out of his writing. Beyond that, in a world where newspaper restaurant critics are a dying breed and celebrity chefs dish out light “foodtainment” on TV, Kenji has created a new kind of job in the industry. And he’s done it while staying true to what he really cares about. I’d ask Kenji about how he carved out his niche, the blind alleys he’s gone down, and how he sustains his passion when the going gets tough. I’d also ask him why in the world he hasn’t published a course on Udemy yet!