Culture

Q&A with an early Personerd: Kathleen’s journey at Persona

An early Personerd shares how her unique career path led her to the tech space and discusses her time at Persona so far.

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⚡ Key takeaways

This past October, we celebrated Persona’s fifth anniversary! As we reflect on how much Persona has evolved since our founding, we wanted to share a few of our favorite moments from a recent Q&A between Brandon and Kathleen, two members of our incredible Product Enablement Team. 

Having joined Persona back in 2019, Kathleen is one of our earliest Personerds. Brandon later joined her team in 2022. Together, they explore how Kathleen's unique career path led her to the tech space and discuss her experience these last four years at Persona.

Interested in hearing the full conversation, including some fun rapid-fire questions? Listen here.

From 10 to 200+

When you joined, there were around 10 people at Persona. What has that been like seeing the journey of exponential growth to the point where now there are a couple hundred employees? 

It's definitely crazy; Persona is the earliest startup I’ve ever joined. Coursera was ~80 folks when I joined, Scale was about 30, and Persona, as you mentioned, about 10. Every stage feels different. You would think 30 to 10 isn't a big change, but it feels very different. Persona felt like a big group project when I first joined. It's like, okay, we're all working together and hopefully we will survive another year and keep going at it. Maybe this will go somewhere and maybe it won't. To see where it is today, it feels like a big change.

It's pretty amazing to see things that I never expected to see in terms of the maturity of our organization and the types of customers we are supporting, too. Some of these names that I don't think I would've ever imagined just three to four years later we would have in our customer book, given where we began.

At the same time, I would say Persona is still a fairly small organization. We're under 300 people, and people-wise, a lot of the folks I worked with are still here. It still feels very close-knit, and I think you and I have the benefit of meeting a lot of the new hires as they're going through our programs. It’s been really nice to feel like we're connected to new folks as the company grows and help them adjust more quickly and feel connected to Persona. 

Persona's Friendsgiving (2019)

Starting from scratch

It sounds like being new to a function and building something from scratch is a theme in your career journey. Can you talk more about that?

There were a lot of times where I felt like I was starting over from scratch — especially with leaping from law to partnerships to content strategy, which was a completely new team at the time. Then I was rotating into various functions, which is what I did at Scale for about a year before ultimately landing in customer success at Persona.

What made it a little bit easier — at least in terms of my transition to Persona — is that we were really early in our journey and Persona's product was a lot simpler at the time. When I first joined, we had maybe 20 customers max, and those customers were far smaller. I had a chance to grow and learn with Persona as the team developed a lot of what we have now, so what I had to learn at the very beginning was less than what a new hire would have to learn today. 

Also, when a team is really small, you can cut directly to the people who are super generous with their time. I spent a ton of time with Dan, Charles, Lewis, Bill, Melissa, and all the early folks who took the time out of their day. Vincent actually taught me 80% of what I know! So I had the benefit of a concentrated set of knowledge in a small group of people. It was their time as kind individuals that helped me ramp up.

As the company grows larger, newer folks don't have that benefit. Part of what we're doing on the enablement team is trying to figure out how we help them now that the set of things they need to know is larger and the set of customers we support is wider. Demands are still very high, and the knowledge is spread out across increasingly larger groups of people, so you really have to figure out how to get this information.

Personerd welcome dinner (2019)

Early memories

What is your favorite memory so far from your four years at Persona?  

Very early on when I was still getting to know folks at Persona, it was really cool to see people share about their interests outside of work. There’s this technique called PechaKucha, which is essentially a storytelling technique where you make a bunch of slides with just pictures and you have a couple seconds to talk toward each slide and just flip through. Charles asked everyone to prepare a PechaKucha, but Charles' was definitely the most interesting one. His was focused on garnishes — specific ways to garnish foods to make them look nice and appealing. I remember sitting through this hilarious presentation that our CTO gave around food garnishes — it was very quirky and charming, and I think that's very much Charles's MO.

Then it was my turn and I was like, "Oh, what am I going to do?" And so I did one on houseplants — literally a five minute presentation focused on houseplants of various kinds. This was before houseplants became really popular, so I'd like to think I'm ahead of the curve. During the pandemic, it seemed like everyone wanted the latest houseplant, and this was around a year before, so that was really fun.

A slide from Kathleen's PechaKucha presentation on houseplants (2019)

Career priorities

Looking back to when you were making the decision to join here, do you have any questions in mind that you wish you could have asked? Is there anything you would've liked to have known before you accepted Persona's offer to join the team?

I can't think of much, in part because going into Persona, I changed a lot about what I was looking for in a company. I used to think, is this the role that I want to build my career in? What is the room for growth in a particular role? Where is the company going to go, and will it be successful?

I think those are all still valid things that folks should evaluate companies on, but by the time I took the role at Persona, I cared a lot about specific people that I would be working with: who is my manager? Is this someone that I trust? Is this someone I think I could build up trust with? Who is the leadership team? Do I feel like they are open and honest and transparent with me? Do I feel like they're real people? Are they selling me on what seems like a vision and a dream? How do they think about me as a human being with needs outside of work? That meant a lot more to me than a specific career path, in part because my career path has been so winding. 

Even today, if you were to ask me where it's going, I'm pretty sure it's not linear in any sort of fashion. I don't care as much about what I'm actually going to be doing as long as I'm learning and contributing. I could do a lot of different things on the business side, but the thing that will impact my day-to-day happiness is how I feel about the people I'm working with and the trust that we have in each other.

I don't care as much about what I'm actually going to be doing as long as I'm learning and contributing. The thing that will impact my day-to-day happiness is how I feel about the people I'm working with and the trust that we have in each other.
Kathleen Cui
Company VR offsite (2020)

Getting to know the identity space

Let's say somebody listening to this has no experience in the identity space. Would there be a question you'd recommend they ask to folks that are experts in this space or something you would want them to know about this space?

Before I joined, I didn't understand what identity really meant in the context of Persona. I think when people think about identity, sometimes they think about authentication, which is very different, and sometimes they think about background checks. It's a very big space, and Persona's a very particular piece of it.

I think what would be helpful to understand is where the identity space is going, how identity systems are formed, the challenges today with piecing together an individual's identity, as well as what we'll think will happen in the future, given a lot of changes in technology and legislation around how different countries are handling identity.

I think that'd be a really interesting question because it gives you a sense of where we were and how this might change. And if you're thinking about opportunities in the identity space, who is positioned to capture those opportunities? This could be an interesting way to evaluate if you were really curious in identifying possible organizations who are doing interesting things.

Growing professionally

How do you continue to think about challenging yourself and your personal career development here?

There are two directions I could take this answer. One is around where the function can go: what are new types of projects we can take on that haven’t been done before? Whenever you're doing something for the first time, you're always challenging yourself, and approaching it thoughtfully can be challenging. So whether that is starting to build external-facing content or inserting ourselves more on the process side, there's more things to be done than the number of people to do it. Benefits of working at a startup, right? So it's really easy to identify places where you can be like, "Hey, I'm going to raise my hand and try this out." I feel like that happens on a weekly basis.

The second is understanding my own weaknesses in how I approach certain situations and finding ways to practice elements of what might be challenging for me based on my nature. As an example, throughout my career, I've struggled when it comes to conflict. My general tendency is to be more conflict-avoidant and a little less assertive, questioning my own judgment or opinions and not necessarily speaking them so loudly in the room. As I grow more comfortable at Persona and I feel like I have the trust of the people I work with, I think I can challenge myself to be more assertive and opinionated — to push my opinions a little bit more strongly, knowing that that's not my general tendency. I think maybe someone would be on the opposite end and challenge themselves in a different direction but standing behind what I think a little bit more.

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