Learning is both a personal and a career opportunity: a lifelong skill that helps us navigate challenges, work more effectively and become better developers. Commit’s Sarah Marion sat down with Bethany Foote, head of infrastructure engineering at Outschool, to talk about the challenges of building a learner’s mindset, both as an individual and within a company culture, as well as how new executives can become better learners. See the first post here and the second post here.
On helping new executives learn
Sarah: I’m curious how you handle the influx of new information and reassess what were best practices 10 years ago. Bringing a learner’s mindset is easy when you’re new, but how do you do it when you’re no longer early in your career and there’s value in what you already know?
Bethany: The first thing is to be humble and be open to feedback. If you start from the position that you already know everything, you’re going to be very resistant to people trying to tell you otherwise. It’s important to realize that you might not know everything or have an appreciation of the full history of what’s going on.
When I first came to Outschool, for example, I didn’t know the full history of the organization and why certain decisions were made. It would have been overly aggressive of me to come in and say, “Well, that decision two years ago was totally wrong. I don’t know what that person was thinking.” I wasn’t there, I don’t know the specific pressures they were under or why they made that choice.
I have a toolkit that I draw from, but when I draw from it I also ask myself, is this the right tool for the job? Or is there something I don’t know that I need to bring in? I try really hard not to be afraid to ask questions.
At Outschool, the very first engineer ever hired is still with the organization. He’s one of my peers—he has tremendous knowledge and he’s very generous with his time, so I often go to him and ask questions. I try to stay abreast of new technology, but I think the key to a learner’s mindset is understanding that even after 20 years in the industry, you have stuff to learn—even from a co-op student. I have things to learn about the industry, the company I work for and the tools I use. My way is not always the best way. Step one is being open to that reality.
Sarah: I’m curious if you have tips on how people can teach new execs who are coming into an organization in senior roles without that context. Specifically, how do you encourage them to have an open mind? It’s wonderful if they’re like you and they recognize that’s a trap they can fall into, but I’m sure many of us have had an experience working with an executive who isn’t necessarily as thoughtful about learning.
Bethany: The context and history of the organization is valuable to everyone. Amir, one of the founders of Outschool, did a fundraising presentation back when the company was starting. That video has become one of the things we show new hires during the onboarding process, to give them a bit of history about Outschool and where we came from.
Another thing to do is to ask the executive out for a virtual coffee where you can get to know each other and open the door to giving them information and history about the organization. I’ve found that a lot of leaders really appreciate that. They want the context, they want the history. It can be really valuable to make yourself available and say, “Hey, I’d love to tell you more, would you like a tour of the codebase?” Build that into your culture and your onboarding right from the beginning.
Sarah: Having someone walk new hires through the funding pitch is such good advice. Especially when bringing the first developers onboard. There’s all of this business logic captured from the brain of the founder or CEO. It feels obvious, but it’s so useful to make it explicit as to why decisions were made.
Bethany: Exactly. A really interesting thing about Outschool is that its original implementation was not as a software company. It was live, in-person classes in the Bay Area for secular homeschoolers. It evolved into an online platform because they discovered a demand for that through meeting the homeschooling community in the Bay Area. That’s an important piece of context and history that you may not know about if you come to Outschool today.
Sarah: Another challenge that developers who enter executive or leadership roles face is the transition away from working exclusively with technical people and working more with business executives. It can be intimidating to learn how to speak the language of business people. I’m curious how you help build confidence around that.
Bethany: There’s a certain amount of ‘fake it till you make it,’ but you also have to be willing to own it when you don’t know things. Having humility and understanding that you don’t know everything is important. I recently took a course in financial accounting for executives because I knew I had a gap. So I went out and used my education budget to fill that gap, which was hugely advantageous.
Where I haven’t had a prescribed education budget, I’ve actually gone to my leaders when I was an engineering manager, and said, “I would really like to take these courses. I think they will benefit me and the organization. Can I do that?”
Google can be a great resource, but where you have a bigger functional gap, like I did with accounting, ask for courses that will help you.
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Bethany Foote is the head of Infrastructure Engineering at Outschool. Her extensive experience in tech includes cloud SAAS products, enterprise applications, mission-critical space systems, and more.
Sarah Marion leads Startup Partnerships at Commit. She’s spent her career collaborating with early stage founders as they solve valuable problems.
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