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Bonus Skills: A Conversation between Volunteers Leah and Kate

Written by Leah Brunetto

Have you ever picked up any skills without planning?

It can be hard to feel productive after you’ve been working on the same tasks for a while. Sometimes, we can be hard on ourselves for not moving ahead quickly enough, and of course, work can get tedious. Gaining a new perspective on ourselves can give us some more steam for our journey — today, we’d like to take a step back and tell you about some bonus skills we picked up along the way, and how they’ve transformed and connected us.

Working on a website at a nonprofit, I’ve been working on content updates and offering releases with marketing staff for three years. I knew nothing about marketing or content management systems when starting my job. At first, I was just to go-to person for technical purposes, but later I’ve taken on more of a role in other ways, such as communicating with internal clients, recording schedules, and becoming an expert on existing content and in house assets. I learned that I really liked all this, and it was something I was good at.

This experience gave me more confidence and inspired me to look for opportunities to write and help with communications outside my organization. I happened to be at a Women Accelerators event this spring, and there was an announcement that they were looking for contributors to their blog, to write about women’s career building topics. This really caught my attention, because I had been reading and listening to a lot of media about self-empowerment, and the idea of creating my own resources to help others got me really excited.

After getting involved as a volunteer, it wasn’t too long before I met fellow volunteer Kate, an account manager for a software company who also writes for the Women Accelerators website. Kate is very passionate about writing, and has so much hard-earned wisdom about work, so I was eager to hear more about her journey. We met up on a sunny afternoon in Kendall Square to talk about some skills that she gained on the job, and how they’ve unexpectedly shaped the career she has today:

LB: So, I’m very curious — when we first met over e-mail you mentioned you had a story about your unexpected growth in your role. What changed?

KH: It all started with my client meetings. Our company’s product is the same all the time, but the people you work with will all have different needs. As an account manager, I’m the go to person. If the client is having a problem, they call and mention things like “It would be great if your product could do this…” When clients come to you and say “I really wanna be able to do A, B, C, and D…” sometimes you think, “Well, our software does Z.” And when you’re in charge of the product, you can’t just change everything on a whim. You have to think: “Are there creative ways you can implement this without disrupting the way the product works? “

First, I’d just bring all my notes back and say “here are the problems” and my boss would come up with something. After doing this for a few months, out of the blue, my boss asked “What do you think?”

One time, he was traveling and couldn’t meet with me for over three days. I ended up thinking about a project the whole time and just made a decision. He told me that was I right. At this point, I knew more about the project than him! It was terrifying but exciting to realize, “I’m the only person who can do this!”

LB: That is amazing! But I could see that even being a little scary. When we start out, we’re used to looking to other people for all the answers.

KH: Yeah, that’s absolutely what’s happened for me! My boss hasn’t worked with as many biologists yet, and hasn’t done this complex of a data management setup yet. Whenever anything like this comes up, it goes to me.

LB: So you’ve become a specialist?

KH: Yes I suppose so!

LB: It’s so amazing to hear that after a short period of time, you made this great transformation, and it wasn’t something you could have really predicted. I know you started out studying chemistry, and I wonder if you could have ever imagined yourself as a software product manager!

KH: Right! We should feel comfortable giving ourselves permission to start and try something we’re interested in. So much of the time, people don’t even feel they’re allowed to do things, like try sculpting, and that’s just not OK.

LB: I totally feel that way with my job. My title isn’t “writer” or “editor”, and saying I want to try it feels kind of taboo!.Yet, here I am, interviewing you for an article and writing for the website!

KH: Yeah, I get a sense that people feel disloyal if they want to try out something new. Then, there is the whole issue of imposter syndrome: “But I don’t actually know what I’m doing…”, “What if it’s not good enough?”

LB: It seems like the key for us was just letting the transformation be gradual. We weren’t even aware of it at the beginning. Not to say that we weren’t making an effort — at the same time, this all requires a willingness to jump in and try new things. You could say, “Oh, well I was just thrown into this situation and had to adapt”, but we should definitely give ourselves credit, too. It sounds like you took a lot initiative with your project and really brought something new to it.

This was a very empowering conversation for me, and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to talk with Kate. I think our stories illustrate a few concepts:

  • Success doesn’t come all at once.
  • Skills are developed simply by doing them. As long as you’re doing it, you’re moving ahead even if you’re not doing “great”.
  • You don’t need to ask for anyone’s permission to learn a new skill, give anything you’re interested in a try!

Take a moment to name one thing you’ve learned or rediscovered in your current job. Next, imagine how you can use it in or outside your workplace in a new way. What greater role might this play in your career and life?