What we learnt building and running a fellowship helping people build meta skills for navigating their careers 💼 and leveling up 📈 after getting initial traction in tech
In Mar-Apr 2022, Karen and I collaborated and ran the first cohort of The Meta Fellowship (no affiliation to the company fka Facebook), so named because we wanted to empower people with the meta skills we thought were important to help people navigate their careers, which is where they spend the vast majority of their time. We did know many people in the first cohort personally, but I’m still proud to say we ended up with 13 ICs (representing product 📱, design 🎨, data 📊 and engineering 👩💻) and 4 engineering managers across 5 countries in North America, South America and Africa 🇧🇷🇨🇴🇰🇪🇿🇼🇺🇸.
The mindset shifts that we triggered and frameworks/tools empowered people to have difficult conversations with managers, advocate for compensation increases, learn how to communicate/influence and survive in a tough environment, and some even made the transition to a great fit new role! It seemed like there was something there there worth doubling down on (at least on the IC track), so I’ve been hard at work recruiting and finalizing a second cohort for Fall 2022. 🚀🍁🤞🏼
You might be able to squeeze in if this sounds interesting before we shut off applications at the end of this week, application here: https://www.themetafellowship.org/apply.
1/ Navigating The Idea Maze 💡
A) Some Background Context 🖼
Karen and I had a history of collaboration across education projects, and I asked her if she might be open to collaborating on this back in 2021. At that time, we were curious about how we might demystify and empower more people career-wise: to understand tech, do what they found meaningful, challenging and also be compensated accordingly.
She came from a technical background and had worked as a founder and engineering manager in tech, mentoring/helping numerous people transition into tech and supporting her direct reports to grow in their abilities. She cared deeply about addressing what she called ‘last-mile’ gaps in education (including via a nonprofit she helped cofound in South Africa called Bona Ikamva that mentors high school students and helps them choose career paths and majors while applying for university and is powered by volunteers).
I had come from a nontechnical background but had been building a nonprofit school network in South Africa and also running experiences and experiments to empower people from various backgrounds. I was also shifting from K12 to adult learning and upskilling because:
- I had discovered economic empowerment to be an important twin of educational empowerment.
- The feedback loop to know if what you’re building works is shorter in adult than K12.
- Frankly, it was more lucrative.
B) Early Versions 🐣
Leading up to this, an early prototype actually began as an explainer series trying to demystify tech for non technical folks. We had drafted the first in what we planned to be a 10–12 email series.
But, we realized we were missing a few key things that held us back, and one which was going to be a big stumbling block in terms of impact: we did not have an audience. In my day job (scaling a developer training product/bootcamp for The African Leadership Group), I was writing a similar email series as part of an engagement drip email campaign (to keep users engaged between application acceptance and start of program). But a few months in, I could see neither of us had really spent time or felt super compelled by this form factor, which caused us to pivot …
This time we started dreaming up a course/fellowship in Notion (which we used to build and convert into a landing page using super.so).
We initially focused on this because we felt there many things that existed in the broader landscape and wanted to focus on (what we perceived of as) a gap, intentionally deprioritizing:
- ❌ We didn’t want to focus on complete beginners (whether in their discipline or new to work period) because there were lots of options for this, including increasingly aggregator and navigation tools like CareerKarma.
- ❌ We didn’t focus on helping people get into tech (though we did organically attract a couple people like this).
- ❌ We didn’t focus just on general management training because we felt like many other companies and books already covered some of the core techniques (e.g., LifeLabs Learning or 📕 Measure What Matters on OKRs by John Doerr).
- ✅ We focused on what we felt was unique or missing from the ecosystem, and thus what we thought would differentiate our experience.
- 🕳 We believed there was a gap, and not enough career navigation resources or training that used contemplation as a core tool/framework or really helped people deal with imposter syndrome.
2/ Testing and Validation 🧪
So we did what you’re supposed to do, we aligned on and crystallized a concept (fellowship experience with group facilitation/coaching to cover key themes/topics and individual 1:1 coaching to go deeper) and then began sharing it with folks in our network in August 2021 to gauge interest and run some customer validation interviews.
Through our first round of interviews, we further refined our user persona:
- 💼 Software engineers / developers with at least 3–4 years of experience, aka not beginners
- 👩💼 Looking for support moving from individual contributor to manager / managing teams of engineers
- 🤔 Self-aware
- 😊 Non-entrepreneurial seemed a better fit, but open to anyone generally aligned with the above if they feel they will get value!
- 🎒 ‘Courses’ were too limiting and had too many biases and preconceived notions against (even cohort-based ones), so we actually shifted toward framing it as a ‘Fellowship.’
Armed with a refined user persona and the Notion/Super landing page, we did a second wave of outreach.
We ultimately iterated twice more on the value proposition and target user, transitioning to a Webflow site and doing waves of outreach in
- Sep 2021 (realizing people might not realize skills they lack here, we did a wave reaching out to managers asking about direct reports) and
- Nov 2021-Jan 2022 (positioning for and reaching out to individuals themselves again), when we were able to recruit a group of values aligned folks (mostly from our networks, past employers, and a tiny bit of sharing on LinkedIn) — all of whom were able and willing to pay something (and in some cases, with their companies agreeing to sponsor).
👤 The User Personas for each version:
v1: engineers with 5–10 years of experience who wanted to level up from IC to manager
v2: had a similar product user persona as v1, but a different marketing user persona, as we thought we might be able to have more success through engineering managers because we thought they might be more likely to identify their direct reports who could use this experience and upskilling
v3 we expanded beyond just engineers because product managers, designers, and data/product analysts (more broadly ‘people in tech’) were asking if they could participate → and we returned to aligning our product and marketing user persona
- we had to decide if our experience could support this wider audience
- given we had been thinking the experience would a rough mix of:
- 50% self reflection & authentic leadership
- 5% communication
- 25% technical skills
- we decided that expanding our audience wouldn’t change the core offering too much.
3/ Launching and Results 🚀
What was great for both Karen and myself was that now that we had a group of values-aligned people who wanted to be a part of this experience (through our Nov-Jan outreach), we interviewed them and identified the top themes (listed in order of prominence):
- How do I overcome lack of confidence, or deal with imposter syndrome?
- How do I clearly and firmly communicate my strengths to others?
- How do I know what is the right role for me?
- How do I identify the skills I need to learn and design a learning plan for myself?
- How do I transition into a traditional technical career path?
- How do I improve my connection and collaboration with other team members?
- How do I improve my productivity and efficacy?
- How do I become a better leader?
Then we designed the content and experience specifically to respond to the above, with this group of committed individuals serving as a strong motivation and forcing function to create content/frameworks and synthesize insights from research and our own experience that we thought could help fellows unpack and address these top of mind themes.
To figure out logistics:
- We asked/sent surveys confirming if people across 12 hours of time zones would be willing to jump on a call at the same time (it turns out they were, but some didn’t always have cameras on which we think hampered the community building experience!).
- We set 6 weekly group sessions for everyone and the specific dates.
- Everyone received a set number of individual 1:1 coaching sessions with Karn, myself or other mentors we brought in given the career domain and challenges fellows were wrestling with.
- There were three bonus group sessions for the 4 engineering managers.
Our Weekly Group session topics ended up being:
🧐🦸♀️ Topic 1: Contemplation and Identifying Super Powers (along w Intros)
👤🦄 Topic 2: Imposter Syndrome and Contemplating Ideal You
📣👂 Topic 3: Improving Communication and Facilitation
🗺️💼 Topic 4: Planning Your Role and Career
🌱🎓 Topic 5: Becoming A Life Long Learner
🦁🏆 Topic 6: Leadership Styles Overview (and Close)
What we experienced and learnt:
- We had nearly 100% attendance
- We built frameworks that were unique and powerful, especially for imposter syndrome, communication, contemplation and superpowers/ideal you.
- The planning your role and career, life-long learning and leadership frameworks we built are similar to others but we felt still useful (and hope to continue refining it over time).
- 13 of our fellows attended the final event (75%) and expressed some promising shifts in mindset (a few sample quotes):
- I learnt so much about communication in a way that was intriguing. I thought I was good at communication. I just took it for granted, but you can actually be deliberate about your audience, and the five pillars we talked about: presence, facilitation, content, delivery.
- I learnt about myself and the value of contemplation — from our first meeting. This is something I’ve been trying to do, which is hear my own voices and contemplate how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. When I started this process, I had a knot — now I can see that I can untangle this knot [by giving me] a lot of tools for contemplation, helping me understand that I don’t need to be afraid to make some difficult decisions and how to draw up an action plan. I realized that I am the owner of my career and life.
- When talking about what we need and want, identifying what those things are for ourselves was helpful for me to articulate. I was feeling weird about some stuff at work and I wasn’t really sure what it was that I wanted to be able to articulate. Then I was able to immediately turn around and talk to my boss about it — and immediately get this problem resolved.
- The biggest mindset shift — I always had some avoidance of the management track. I think being able to participate has given me | I got to feel more what management means and I may like it. So I’m embracing it.
- The way I view imposter syndrome has really changed. It’s something I struggled with for a long time. Listening to everyone share their experience with imposter syndrome. That made everything a little bit ok. I remember something Karn shared during that session: sometimes imposter syndrome is not a bad thing, you are putting yourself on this level and you want to get to that level. Thinking of it that way made everything seem ok. It’s something I take into meetings when imposter syndrome starts to creep in — everyone else on this call is also experiencing IS, but it’s just that they’re wearing it well. It’s something I’ve taken with me and something I’ll implement for a very long time.
- These tools allow me to think, to get a scientific method to embrace the movement/change in life that is inevitable — to give a direction, to say “I want this.” To say, “I’m here” — talking to Mari also gave me deep confidence to look for a job with a scientific way to approach it.
- [During] the last session with Rudulfo , we learnt that there are different ways to learn, for example this space to learn from each other and each others’ experience. This was mind opening/blowing for me — I used to think about learning only in traditional ways. One learning goal for me is taking ownership of my skills — and let others know that my experience and my knowledge is valued. That is very important for me. And now, with the help of Karen and Mari, I was able to apply for a different job. Next week, I am going to a new company! It’s amazing
Things we wished had gone better or aim to improve in the future:
- 🎥 Requiring cameras on will be a pre-requisite for the future; it’s just so important to building trust and relationships in the short time we have together each week.
- 🌱 We did not do great at scaffolding and fostering community, and creating the space for deeper/lasting relationships across fellows.
- 📊 It’s one thing to hear anecdotally how people believe the changed, but actually measuring the impact of this change is something we’re dreaming up.
- 🤝 We did not ask for referrals or sharing to help recruit future fellows until much later (a few months) after the cohort ended, and thus we didn’t capitalize on the great experiences fellows had to build our next cohort.
- 🔀 We did have assignments/readings in between but they weren’t super well integrated and we didn’t otherwise have deeper asynchronous learning content.
4/ What’s Next?
My cofounder Karen has gotten super busy and found other avenues to effect change and mentor others, but I felt like there was something here.
I started with a product spec and a hypothesis to better measure impact, and worked with a past participant on an initial redesign (though she paused to focus on her day job).
I continued speaking with folks (new and old relationships), and got a bump of applicants when I published my announcement about joining Reforge on LinkedIn.
In parallel, to really see if this had legs, I began to refine my user personas and also match the individuals against them. I also wanted to test if people would really want and be able to pay on two tiers (early career/emerging market at $250 and mid career/developed market at $500).
Three persona themes began to emerge and be validated against my hypotheses:
- Culture Influencer / Upward Navigator (more than 5 years of experience**)— these folks are trying to define the right role in my current company internally and expand/elevate strategic influence and possibly into management or leadership (sometimes it’s people just surviving in a tough environment, but other times it’s people figuring out how to thrive!)
- Career Navigator (early career, less than 5 years**) — these folks are navigating potential career transition & pursuing new opportunities externally (and possibly new functional domains) actively because they have a hunch that the current function and/or environment is not the right fit (or they don’t want to be doing this forever) (an anti pattern is someone who is primarily focused on getting a better paying or more prestigious job)
- Domain Expander (early career, less than 5 years**) — these folks are working toward skills expansion within their domain, and trying to continue to level up by finding the right environments, managers, projects and skills/expertise development. Many at this career phase are figuring out how to go from mid → senior and then potentially position for higher level IC work (e.g., in engineering, Staff or Principal, which includes architecture, coaching, and coordination/collaboration/glue work) or management.
** There are of course folks in the upward influence space that are less than 5 years, and career navigators and domain expanders who have more than 5 years of experience as well, and years of experience anyway are just a shitty proxy to gauge what kinds of career and role problems they’re working on, but just to give a sense of the altitude and kinds of problems these fellows are tackling.
For all of the right fit folks, they value and see how important it is to navigate and own their career with introspection & introspection.
So, I’m defining success metrics 🎯 this time:
- 👤 Team: Running a cohort solo (without Karen)
- 🍣 Cohort: Recruiting a cohort of 6–8 personas that seem to be struggling with issues others might face
- 💰 Revenue: Receiving a target amount on average per participant, implying a certain top line revenue (we experimented with different explicit pricing tiers this time, will likely continue to iterate/evolve this in the future | I’ve also gotten better at selling)
- 🔀 Asynch: Building and introducing asynchronous content
- 👍 Impact: Receiving an average rating of 8/10 on satisfaction and an NPS of 50+ along with better measurement of impact of the fellowship using a newly designed rubric and self assessment (we’ll be sharing this next week as we think it’s helpful to anyone trying to define/establish career product-market fit in their first 10 years)
- 🤝 Referrals: getting a referral of one-two good fit personas per person to fill a future cohort
- 📣 Content: Forcing mechanism to create and publish content on a weekly basis (I’ve published at least on LinkedIn/my website twice, Monday August 15th and Monday August 22nd — let’s see if I can keep this up)
Fingers crossed I get to build this with Cohort 2, acceptance emails (with final cost) went out to 7 individuals last week. As of publishing this Monday August 29th, 2022 at 1:30 pm EST, 6 have accepted! 🎉
My hope is I’ll get to validate demand and find a way to repeatably, reliably , systematically grow this in a (business) sustainable way. We’ll see how it goes from here. Follow to stay updated on how this goes.