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January 3, 2023
Roberta says goodbye and shares tips on carving your own career path, finding your tribe, and growing as a leader.
Roberta Dombrowski is currently VP of User Research at User Interviews. She is also an ICF certified Coach & Mindfulness Teacher, Level II Reiki Practitioner, and Predictive Index (PI) Certified Talent Optimization Leader. Roberta has been instrumental in creating and shaping cultures of learning at User Interviews, edX, Predictive Index, and Year Up.
Roberta - 00:00:01: Essentially like, if the path ahead of you looks very clear, you're walking in somebody else's path. You make your own path. It's really scary, really exciting. It's the blessing and the curse of career development. I tell that to people all the time. But yeah, figure out what drives you, what motivates you. You'll know it, you'll sense it. Yeah. Research yourself.
Erin - 00:00:25: This is Erin May.
JH - 00:00:27: I'm John-Henry Forster. And this is Awkward, Silences
Erin - 00:00:31: Silences.
Erin - 00:00:39: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to Awkward Silences. We're here today with Roberta.
Roberta - 00:00:45: Hey, it's good to be here.
Erin - 00:00:47: Got JH here too
JH - 00:00:48: As always. Yes
Erin - 00:00:53: To be honest, slightly sad episode because it is our last regular episode with Roberta, but hopefully not our last ever episode with Roberta. And that is because Roberta is moving on to other things. Tell us about it, Roberta.
Roberta - 00:01:09: Yeah, my last day with the team is going to be early January. I got this really great opportunity to join the team at Design Department. They do leadership development training, coaching for design leaders in the space. And coaching is my real joy and passion. I remember interviewing for my role at User Interviews, and I think it was Tucker on the phone. I was like, I was born to be a coach. He's like, yeah, right. And so, yeah, it's definitely bittersweet right now because it's a very exciting thing. But I love the team, so I'm going to miss everyone.
JH - 00:01:48: Yeah. I think throughout this episode will probably say a lot of nice things about you, but I do want to just confirm the coaching piece. I feel like half of our conversations have usually had some reference to it. I know you've been doing stuff on the side to kind of level up and build the coaching practice and stuff. So, when you were describing the opportunity, it did, like, as you were saying to me, I was like, oh, that checks that box. So, I'm very sad to see you go and all that, but it does seem to line up with a lot of things that have always been very top of mind for you. So excited for you as well.
Roberta - 00:02:15: Yeah, I appreciate that. It's definitely an awe moment for me personally. I had a conversation with my husband Scott, actually, in January, where I was just talking about, what are my dreams, aspirations? And I was like, my retirement plan is I want to be a coach. And he asked me the question, like, why wait till retirement? And it was, like, a valid question. And since that, things have not been the same for me, you just need one person to ask you, like, a question and everything can kind of change.
Erin - 00:02:47: Why not?
Roberta - 00:02:48: Yeah, why not?
Erin - 00:02:49: And you kind of did a try before you buy, like they say, right?
Roberta - 00:02:53: Yeah.
Erin - 00:02:54: Do the job you wish you had or and you have been doing so much of that informally here at User Interviews, more formally extracurricularly. So, it's nice when someone leaves to do something that feels kind of perfect. So, our loss, but excited for you. But let's use this as an opportunity to kind of take a walk down memory lane. And I don't know, any big lessons or learnings over your time here, talking to so many researchers and people who do research.
Roberta - 00:03:24: So many yeah, I wish there was, like, a counter, honestly, when I first started becoming a researcher and designer that I could count how many sessions I facilitated ever. And then, like, how many different jobs. I want to say it's probably like 200 people I've talked to, at least from so many different company sizes, roles. I think, for me, a big one. And part of the reason why I'm making the transition, too, is every single interview I would facilitate with someone, I just start really broad question like, what's your biggest challenge in your role? And a lot of what I was hearing was just like, oh, it's hard to get buy in for research. I'm really exhausted, I'm feeling burned out. Like, all these different themes. I would hear about self-care, too, and that was surprising to me. It was surprising and not surprising because that's something I deal with as a leader, too. But yeah, that was something I wasn't expecting. And also, part of what isn't giving me the push, too, because it's a different type of problem to solve than, like, a software problem. I think some other things, too, is just how people are learning. That's why I took this job. Super nerdy. Our customers, researchers are learning in such different ways. Each company is so unique. Each researcher is so unique, too. And so that's been really interesting. And yeah, I can kind of keep rambling, but just like, internally, so many systems that we've built, too. So, I'll kind of pause there for now.
JH - 00:04:58: I'm just trying to think, you've been with us for a year and a half, which time is weird because I'm not sure if that seems like a long time or a little time since we've done so much together. But just off the top, some of the highlights I think of when I think of your time here. There's obviously just all of the rigor and leveling up around our research practice when you kind of got plugged into everything. My team, product managers, product designers, historically doing that in sort of scrappy, hands-on ways, it's a pretty good effect. But I think seeing a professional researcher come in and level that up has been huge. So that's been really cool. And I know you've done a lot of enablement and education around that as well, internally and externally. I think wrangling our insight management was a big win. Similarly, we have feedback, passive, active, all these different things coming in that we never quite made sense of or had categorized in a useful way to look for trends and stuff like that. Recently, we've been doing something to improve the quality of the panel. And it's been cool to be able to go into that insight library and actually see this trend is coming way down because people are not completely backs up the quantity we're seeing. So that stuff has been really powerful. Obviously building the team and expanding the number of researchers in New York, doing all the thought leadership stuff with us. I feel like I'm already missing a ton of stuff. Eron, you have stuff to add?
Erin - 00:06:11: Well, no, but just to double click. I think that's the business phrase of the year, by the way. Double clicking the thing, but to double click into the first one to sort of Roberta, when you came in, you spent a lot of time very intentionally sort of building systems and enablement resources and just different ways to enable others to do research. I think that was one of your very early priorities. And a year and a half later, I like to think you weren't building knowing you were going to leave later from the beginning. But it's cool to leave a legacy, right? You didn't just do what you were able to do while you were here, and that added a contribution and then you left. It's more of a loop, right. You created gifts that will keep giving after you leave. And so while I'm sad to see you go, I think that is kind of the best thing a person can do when they're building a new function in a company, is to set it up so that when you leave, all that work isn't lost. I think, to me, that's some of the best. And then, of course, the insights from the strategic research you did as well have been super valuable. But I think some of those systems and enablement resources and training others so that they can teach others is what will have the most lasting impact.
Roberta - 00:07:33: Yeah, I'm like, starting to get weepy on it. It means a lot coming from both of you, because you both met my mentors, and as I was onboarding, I took time to understand the needs of the team because that's what it's for. Like, building these systems about our customers and research, it was never for me, it was for the team. And that's always just my hope. Like, I started my career in education and enablement because I wanted to enable other people. And my hope always when I go into companies is to build a system that can self-sustain after I leave. And I know Erin, you said, like, oh, you didn't build this with the intention, but that is my intention is to build a culture of learning wherever I go, because communities and cultures can't sustain just because of one person. It has to be the entire system and other teams. And so, it really means a lot that I can step away and other people can step up and the rest of the team and the community that we've built together will still exist. You, Erin, JH, the rest of the team can kind of champion and push that forward as well. And I'll still be here in the background too.
JH - 00:08:54: Our goal for the episode is to get you to cry. So, we're getting there.
Erin - 00:08:56: Yeah, that might have been our shot. I don't know if we'll get another one.
JH - 00:09:01: Yeah, we should have doubled down there. Yeah, maybe it’s a, slow down a little bit. Obviously, you had some pretty good familiarity with UI before joining. We had caught up a while back following the pod and some other stuff. What was it like when you first joined in those first couple of weeks and you're meeting people and going deeper on stuff?
Roberta - 00:09:20: It's so funny. We talked about what's been the biggest surprise in interviewing and everything like that. I vividly remember I hopped on the interview, 1st, 2nd round was with both of you and I'm an avid listener of the podcast and so it was really weird for me to be with both of you at the same time. And you're speaking back to me and we're interacting in real time. But both of you said insights management and, like, research repository. We're going to have to do this. And I was like, oh yeah, I can do this. Like, I'll figure it out. I had no freaking clue. I had no clue how much went into that when we finally started to get into it in the team and it's just such a skill and so much involved, I think. Another thing just I had listened to the podcast for so long, I look at old Tweets and each year I would see the Tools Map coming out and just like huge shout out to Erin's content machine that she's created of just like the amazing content that we have and getting inside seeing the team biggest surprise. Everyone is wicked smart inside of User Interviews. We're super data driven as well.
Erin - 00:10:28: That was a surprise?
Roberta - 00:10:31: It's a surprise in the sense that you are the same way internally as you exude externally because sometimes you join teams and there's a cultural shift of like, oh, this is the persona that we put off externally. And then internally it's completely different. But it's like, oh no, these people are smart. I need to step up my game as a leader to be able to have conversations with the team and impact and lead here. And so that was something new, I think. Another thing that was very jarring as I was learning was just, JHmentioned this. The team was already doing research before I joined. So, there was some bad habits, there was some just like I was coming in from scratch when it comes to research. We didn't have informed consent for when we were doing things. So as a research leader. I was like, oh shit, like I got to do this. We can talk about it now because we have it, but yeah, it's just like little stuff like that we're like aha. And coming in, it's fun to kind of you get to build it from scratch. You get to own it and influence the team in that way.
JH - 00:11:37: Yeah, I think there's always that kind of cool mental, and I think I've had to do this a lot, having been here for a while, of being able to reflect on kind of what got us here, won't get us there type of stuff. And so, yeah, we used to do some of our product specs this way or whatever, but it was because we were horribly understaffed and cutting corners or we used to do research this way. And it's cool to be able to have either people come in and help break those things and get you to the next level or for the team to do the reflection necessary to identify, like, oh, this is no longer serving us. We need to change this or evolve it or throw it out. So, I think it was cool, like, when you have somebody in your role come in that can kind of be that change agent, see things with fresh eyes. That's a really powerful way of doing that. So that was great.
Roberta - 00:12:17: Yeah.
JH - 00:12:19: All right, a quick awkward interruption here. It's fun to talk about user research, but you know what's really fun is doing user research and we want to help you with that.
Erin - 00:12:27: We want to help you so much that we have created a special place, it's called userinterviews.com/awkward for you to get your first three participants free.
JH - 00:12:39: We all know we should be talking to users more, so we've went ahead and removed as many barriers as possible. It's going to be easy; it's going to be quick. You're going to love it. So, get over there and check it out.
Erin - 00:12:47: And then when you're done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review, please. Just thinking about what you were saying about us being smart. Thanks.
Erin - 00:13:00: But recently I've had this experience, which is like old school user interviews to me of let's call it intellectually curious people like not knowing the answer to something and just like trying to figure it out. And I don't think there's anything more satisfying than that. Coming to a difficult situation with a lot of humility and curiosity and trying to figure it out together, I think it can be really hard to approach problems that way when, I don't know, you're busy or feel like you have to have the answer or should have the answer or whatever it is. But I think those are cool moments.
Roberta- 00:13:36: Yeah. I would definitely describe our team as curious, humble. I was talking to one of our designers today in a session, and I use the term ‘lightly flex’, so our team can lightly flex our achievements. We're humble, but we can still own our wins and what we're good at, which is nice. So that's been fun to see too.
JH - 00:14:00: Like the humble, brag sort of thing. A cool thing thinking about kind of your tenure here is I remember early on as you're getting the lay of the land and kind of doing stakeholder interviews and stuff, there's a couple of times where you would be coming to me or others with things of, I think we should do something like this or proposing, like a multi week process or whatever. And I remember there was like a fun couple of back and forths where I would kind of nudge you sometimes of being like, well, you're like the VP. This might be something you can just decide or maybe we can pull this forward. And it was cool to see. I don't mean to take credit for that, but just the evolution of like kind of the early hesitancy. That was a light flex. And towards more recently, a lot more decisiveness and driving things and initiate. And I think that's true for anyone coming to a role. Right. You can't come in and be a bulldozer when you don't know how things work, but just seeing that has been really cool to observe as well.
Roberta - 00:14:52: I appreciate that. I'd say some of the most unexpected thing, I think, during my time here is how much I've grown as a leader. This role was super unique in that I was reporting into the CEO. We were doing like, go to market pricing research, also, like product research and all the orgs that I had been in in the past. I was reporting into a VP of Product or a Director of Product. And it was very new for me, the level at which I didn't know, like, how do I work with JH as like a VP of Product? How do I work with all these other leaders? And the fact that I could go to the rest of the team, and they trusted me, and they were just like, Roberta, make the decision. Like it's you, you own it. And it felt like when you said that a lot of things changed for me. And I think that things like storytelling, the way that I share stories with the team changed, how I make decisions, the patterns I was seeing, it was just very unique vantage point that I've been in over the last year and a half that I don't think many research leaders get access to. Like being on that executive level, that leadership team level. So, I feel like I've grown so much because of it.
Erin - 00:16:08: Yeah. What are you most excited about for? I mean you, were born to be a coach. You're going to get to do that. You're going to get to work with other design leaders. So, it seems like there's a lot to like.
Roberta- 00:16:20: Yeah.
Erin - 00:16:21: Yeah. What are you most excited about?
Roberta- 00:16:22: On a personal level? This will give Basel a chuckle. The team is very much about, like, sustainability at design department, and it's a four-day work week. I was not the person that always submitted that question and our Ask Me Anything, but, yeah, I'm excited as a leader, we're often there for our teams. I'm excited to take some time back personally, travel some more, still, obviously help other leaders. So that's really exciting. I'm going to be continuing my coaching certification. I've been going through training over the last year, so that'll be happening too, and then I'll be able to teach some really cool curriculum about things like authenticity and leading and how do you design alliances with teams and create visions and all the real things that get me jazzed up. I'm really excited too. Just part of my role is going to be looking at how do you deliver training in a virtual world, which is what I did my master’s and kind of dissertation in. So, I'm excited to go back and think about some problems I haven't thought about in a while, too, of what does this look like post COVID? Now that training and education has shifted a little bit.
Erin - 00:17:42: You've been very intentional about your career. Right? And I've had quite a sort of circuitous journey, you could say, but now you're very much in-house, leading a team, practicing, practicing, being a researcher for researchers, all this meta stuff. And you've taught before and worked in education before and so this kind of back and forth between practicing in house and then more consulting, and I think that's an interesting sort of flow we could see being appealing to some folks listening. And we were just talking about sort of designing your research career yesterday.
Roberta - 00:18:21: Yes.
Erin - 00:18:22: Any tips for folks looking to get some insight from how you've approached your career?
Roberta - 00:18:27: Yeah, I think looking back now, it feels very intentional. In the moment. It didn't feel intentional. I always tried to stick with my intuition on things, of if I was in a role and something fell off, I would listen to that intuition. Why doesn't it feel off? What energizes me, what de-energizes me? And that's a lot of coaching, like values, discovery, what values do I have as a person? And then exploring roles that kind of fit those personal values. When I look back in my career, all of the huge job changes that I've made have been because a role has conflicted with the value in some way, or a new opportunity has popped up that's more aligned with the value.
Erin - 00:19:11: I was going to say. So, what did we do to piss you off, or?
Roberta - 00:19:13: No, you didn't piss me off. It's just that this pushes me closer to the values and so that's always what I recommend, is career paths. There is not a right one. There's this really beautiful Robert Frost quote, I believe, where it talks about if the path ahead looks clear, you're probably walking in somebody else's path. I might be misattributing; it might not be.
Erin May - 00:19:38: It's about the roads diverging in the forest. Is that a different one?
Roberta - 00:19:41: It's a different one. But essentially if the path ahead of you looks very clear, you're walking in somebody else's.
Erin - 00:19:47: Make your own path.
Roberta - 00:19:48: Make your own path. It's really scary, really exciting. It's the blessing and the curse of career development. I tell that to people all the time. But yeah, figure out what drives you, what motivates you. You'll know, it, you'll sense it. Research yourself. Yeah, research yourself. Exactly.
JH - 00:20:07: Yeah. There are lots of great books and exercises and stuff on this that if people are listening that you should definitely check out. I know the one I've really liked is Designing Your Life, I think is the name. It's the Stanford people that wrote it. But it has some cool prompts in there and some ways of doing some exercises to reflect on what you value in your personal life and health and financial stuff. And it does kind of give you the answers or the path, but it gives you some things to think about of, oh, I'm feeling a little under satisfied here. And so something that would give me these types of opportunities or these types of growth potential paths, those are exciting to me. So I'm sure there's a bunch of other great ones, but it's worth a reflection. And it's almost New Year's. I don't know, it's there. It's around New Year's. It's a good time to do reflection.
Roberta - 00:20:54: I know.
Erin - 00:20:54: Roberta, you've been involved in being part of some research communities. I think you started one.
Roberta - 00:21:01: I did, yeah.
Erin - 00:21:04: I don't know, what the future of those things looks like and you're an extra or just any thoughts or folks listening that want to be part of some research communities.
Roberta - 00:21:12: Yeah. When I joined my role at User Interviews, I knew that I would need my tribe of people. What is the support system that I need to be successful? I need a therapist; I need a personal coach. And then one other thing that I thought I needed was like a group of other research leaders that I could connect with. And so, I created a group and it's about twelve research leaders. We meet once a month and discuss different topics. It's been really great. I don't know what's going to happen with that community yet. I actually reached out to someone. I reached out to someone to see if he'd like to take it over and kind of reimagine. We'll definitely be meeting in some capacity next year, but it'll shift in form. I'm a part of a lot of online communities like Research Ops, mixed methods, learners. I'm going to stay involved in that as well. But one really great community Design Department does have online events that they do for leaders. They have like open spaces on Twitter and stuff like that and topics. So there's things out there, depending upon what you're looking for. I missed Twitter, honestly, because that was a huge place where I used to go. But TBD what it would be like.
Erin - 00:22:22: Yeah, exactly. TBD anything could happen with Twitter.
Roberta - 00:22:26: Don't ran off yet.
JH - 00:22:27: Wildlife for sure. It is 2023’s looming while you still have your research, your full-time research hat on. Any things ahead that you're excited about or think might happen or people should be paying attention to.
Roberta - 00:22:40: Yeah, I think because of so much of my time was spent on systems and insights management, I'm really excited about machine learning tools when it comes to repositories and pulling out insights. Not saying that researchers shouldn't be looking at patterns and pulling things out, but how can we use tools to make it a little bit easier? Like, I've used, like, Sprigs kind of tool in the past to send surveys and then sometimes quantify some of the trends in there. That's really nice. Like, how can we speed things up a little? So, yeah, looking at, like, AI and machine learning and how it can help us
Erin - 00:23:15: I had was it chat? GPT? Yeah, I had it write screener survey yesterday, was blown away by the results.
JH - 00:23:24: Yeah, pretty good.
Erin - 00:23:25: So good. Write a screener survey for me for what was it? Software engineers with experience in machine learning. That's how good it was.
JH - 00:23:35: Yeah, it was good. I think the thing just on the quick tangent there is that it always comes across as sort of like, confident and authoritative, so if you don't know the subject you're asking about, you don't know when it's wrong. In that case, it was very accurate and useful, but it's a good bullshit. It just really comes across as being like, this is the answer, and you're like, Is it? ool. How should we wrap this up? What else we touch on?
Roberta - 00:23:58: Nice awkward silence there, too.
JH - 00:24:01: I'm going to tell myself, Roberta, that you're running towards a new opportunity and you're not running away from us. That's going to be what I'll tell myself.
Roberta - 00:24:08: I always say that I had a conversation with Nabil, VP of Ops here. I always ask the same question to people when they transition, is like, are you running from something or towards something? And it's definitely towards something. So, I know we'll keep chatting, we'll be connected, so it'll just look a little different.
Erin May - 00:24:27: Thanks for everything, Roberta. See you on the other side.
JH - 00:24:30: Yeah. Excited for the next few weeks. Should wrap things up.
Roberta - 00:24:32: Yeah. Thank you both.
Erin May - 00:24:37: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences. Brought to you by User Interviews.
JH - 00:24:42: Theme music by Fragile Gang.
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Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.