Do you want to start in the Tech industry and looking for a piece of advice? Listen to this podcast and get to know Carey Jenkins, CEO at Substantial. Carey went from journalism to CEO of a Tech Company. Carey is a people-focused CEO, she believes that healthy relationships are the foundation of any successful team project. She cares about ethics and Technology and the intersection between them. She also published a framework for more Ethical Innovation. Carey believes in the importance of focusing on Growth. And that’s her main goal in her career that she focused on. Find out more about her and her path to becoming a Tech woman in our podcast. Enjoy!
By Andre Marquet on January 14th
For the start, Carey, a little bit more as a person and as a CEO. We know that you spent many years leading large interdisciplinary teams and multi-channel projects. Can you tell us more about your journey?
I started in journalism, a long time ago in the ’90s and thought that was going to be my lifetime career. I studied journalism afterward got a job at a magazine and got pretty disillusioned with magazine journalism pretty quickly. But one of the things that I got to do in that job was two things that became very important to my career path. One was that I was assisting the managing editor and the editor in chief. Two people who put out the magazine had the vision and were in charge of execution, two very strong, powerful women.
The other thing I got to do with that job, which had a huge impact on my career was that one of my responsibilities was to help manage the editorial calendar on the magazine’s website. So this was in 1998 and websites were still very new and magazines were sort of barely paying attention to them, not pushing that much content. The magazine I happened to work for, prioritized it a bit more than other magazines might. And so that experience was interesting for me. I worked with a web team and that also happened to be all women and learned a lot about digital products and pushing content and creating content. And so I left that job and New York City, where I was living at the time and had the crisis that many people do in their late twenties. Like, what am I going to do with my life? And the experience I had working with the website was very unique at the time. And it opened a lot of doors for jobs. And so that’s what funneled me into working in digital products.
What was that very early experience when you realized you want to be in Tech?
No, that’s when I needed a job and experience to do it. And so I said, I’ll go down this path. The digital world was very new at that point. Mostly for the next five or six years was working with marketing and advertising agencies to help them build supporting digital products for brands.
I also went out on my own as an independent consultant and did that for several years before getting recruited out to Seattle, to be a digital product manager. And so that’s why I came out to Seattle. That was about 14 years ago. It’s fair to say, “The west coast product styles are really specific and Seattle was a real technology hub because of Microsoft and Amazon.”
That was when I started to appreciate the challenges and the growth and learning potential. But it was still eight years of me working and leading teams. So for most of my career, I have been in client services meetings as a consultant, not on the client-side building and internal product teams. So there’s always been for me, the sort of dual side to the value I bring, which is that I’m incredibly hands-on with the team internally. But I also have always had to play a very externally facing client services role. And I did that for another eight years and then was at another inflection point in my career and deciding what I want to do next? And I happened to hear about a little company called Substantial from a friend of a friend who was working there at the time. And, you know, they said they were looking to bolster their client services capabilities. And I went to talk to them. I continued my job search and finished a big project I was working at the company I was at at the time. And then decided after that project was done, that it was time to get serious about my next move. And I reached out to Substantial again and said:
“Hey, are you guys still looking? You know, maybe I could come in and talk to some more people”
Which is an important lesson, right? I reached back out to them. I did not wait for them to come and call in and reach back out to them. So I went back and met more people and decided to go on there and was part of their first initial push to have a client services team. That was my job. So what I did is what we, at Substantial, call engagement management, which is a combination of product management, project management, and account management.
Can you tell us a bit about that? What is engagement Management?
So it’s substantial does, is work with companies, startups, enterprises, foundations, um, to help them strategize, create conceptualize, build and deploy, and in many times sustain their digital innovation projects. We do work in a space that doesn’t result in a digital product. But I would say primarily what we ended up doing is, is building out a new service line or a new digital product for clients.
What that means is that we’re usually working with an existing team that they have, or we are their entire product team during the lifetime of the engagement. So you can imagine in a situation like that, the engagement manager has to wear a lot of hats. It’s both a contribution role.
As you can imagine, some of the companies we work with might have a product manager on their side and it might be confusing. On the other hand, other companies we work with don’t have a product manager. They don’t even know how that might work if this is the first product they’re building either because they’re a startup or because digital products are not their core part of their business, they might not even understand what the product manager role does.
So we need to have a role and a person capable of wearing a lot of different hats and helping fill in the gaps right. In the engagement. And you know, the people who work in that role, many of them are like me come from a product management background. We have a lot of product experience. But I would say it’s a challenging role. You might be solving in the technology space or helping to problem solve in the design space. And the next minute you’re ordering lunch for three teams and coordinating it across time zones. It’s a very humble, but powerful position. That was the background I came from and Substantial did it in a uniquely refreshing way, incredibly transparent and honest building healthy relationships with the clients.
What do you love about the role? What do you love about the job?
Well, the interesting thing is, I mean, that role is what led me to the leadership position. So I went from being an engagement manager to director of client services, and then vice president of client services. And once I got into a leadership position, I was leading both the delivery aspect of what we do at Substantial, but also the business development aspect of what we do. And that was a really powerful learning experience, because I was both, on the front end helping to shape the kind of work that we would do and helping to shape the relationships with the clients and partners we bring on and prioritize those. And then on the other end, figuring out how we’re going to execute on it and how we’re going to be successful and learning from the moments when we’re not as successful as we want to be.
And that experience, specifically led to me becoming CEO because getting into business development was not something I’d ever really done in my career. It was incredibly new, very challenging, and scary. And I jumped into it, crossing my fingers, and spent a lot of time learning. And a lot of it had a lot of humility and the moments that I failed.
What are your learning tricks? Did you have a mentor? Did you have someone inside the company that you were looking for?
Well, it’s an interesting question. What’s interesting about Substantial is that from, the moment I came in, I’ve been one of the most senior client services people at the company, and the most senior woman at the company. So there came a point when I realized that I had transitioned from a much larger company that had tons of women, above me to a company where I needed to be the mentor for the people, that I was leading. And that was a really interesting mental shift when you get to a certain point in your career or even a certain age at some of these smaller companies, I’m sure. Experience this a lot at startups where you realize, you are the mentor. So what I did do is get an executive coach and coaching has a benefit that Substantial released several years ago to everyone. And so I had a coach and I took full advantage of that benefit. And that was a huge help on the road to both even thinking I could take on the CEO role and certainly the transition to being CEO. And now I highly recommend that. That’s not to say I don’t have some mentors, but none that I directly work with at my company, that said, I work with amazing people that I learned from all the time. So I might not describe it as a typical mentor relationship, but I learned from all of the leaders at my company and frankly, all of the people who work at my company every day, truly I do. And it’s one of the reasons that I’ve been as Substantial, as long as I have, and I want it to be CEO because it’s an insanely rich learning environment. And that’s true from every single level of the company. So I never want to learn and grow in my current environment, even though I wouldn’t say I have a typical mentor.
When did you realize you wanted to be in the tech industry? Was it after you did the move to substantial or do you already consider yourself being inside the tech industry before that?
At the company I was at before, all my projects were technology projects. But I would not have described myself as in the technology industry at that point. Because the work that I did still seems siloed from the actual technology team that was doing the building and deploying. And that’s not untypical on a traditional agency. Although the product culture has sort of taken over in most places now, most people realize that that’s an antiquated way of building a product. Going to substantial was me specifically choosing technology, to jump into that environment. I wanted to be at a company where they were primarily known for, and that’s what most of the employees specialized in. And, you know, I don’t have a computer science degree. I struggle with technology products, even though I run a technology company. But, working hand in hand with developers, engineers, and designers all at once to build a product has been astonishing. It was a positive experience for me from a learning perspective. Now I’m in the technology industry.
Now we partner with technology companies as well but we also work with lots of companies who don’t know their way through technology. And that’s one of the reasons why they need our help. It’s interesting to work with both kinds of clients. The clients that are sophisticated as far as how they innovate their services and products and those companies that are just starting and conceptualizing what that looks like. But for me, this is one of the reasons why I both stayed at substantial as long as I have also really wanted to lead the company.
This is the first time this experience in my career is when I would say I’m a technologist, even though I have no computer science degree and I’m not a product designer.
AM: You are a product person.
I am a product person, I talk to product communities a lot. And as you mentioned in the intro and particularly about ethics in technology, and one of the things I try to impress upon people is how much power you have as a technologist and defining ourselves as technologists. Even if you are not the person who is writing lines of code or wireframing and interaction if you were working in a product space if you were on a team, whose objective is to release technology into the world. You’re a technologist.
AM: You’re talking about your executive coach practice. I guess that was not the only thing you were doing. So how did you manage to get where you are today?
This was never an objective. That’s not to say I didn’t fight for it, but I never thought I’d be a CEO. I did very much enjoy the leadership journey, the growth and the humility of making mistakes and learning from them and picking myself back up the next day and trying again. And doing that in a way that was very in front of the company and obvious. After a few years on the leadership team, It became an opportunity where I realized our current CEO is going to step down and I had a sort of offhand conversation with my coach, “it’ll be really interesting to see who takes this place”. And she said, why wouldn’t you? By four months later, I was on active discussions for the job. Our founder came to me and said, are you interested in this? There was lots of debate and frankly, I did have to fight for the role up until the moment that I got the call that I was given the role. It was not in my career path to be a CEO, but that once I decided that’s what I wanted, I still had to fight for it. That’s important for people to understand, you have to direct your career path and your ideas of what you want.
AM: As a Manager what is the most important goal that you are now focusing on?
The most important goal that I focus on and I still have quite a few direct reports is growth. Helping the people that I work with understand that they have. Almost unlimited capacity to grow to what they want to do and what they want to be. That is the real turning point for my career, which is when I realized that, you know, even in my late thirties, early forties, I still had so much to learn.
And that was a good thing and not a bad thing. Right. Because particularly for women, we are put in environments where I think we feel like the outward appearance needs to be, that we always know what we’re doing. And we always know the right thing to say, and we never ask a dumb question. What that I think tends to do for women is make us feel like we can’t admit we need growth, or that we can admit vulnerability. In situations where we might not know the exact thing to do and that when we make mistakes, it is heart-wrenching. Women can be a real perfectionist. This idea of an opportunity for growth.
And what that means, growth is not something that just happens. You have to work for that. Um, but that’s what you should be working for. Like working for titles. It is going to be a game that doesn’t pay off in the end. Working for growth is going to pay off in the end. And that’s the number one thing that I try to do.
We have a manager’s form at substantial where we get all of our managers together. That’s one of the number one things we work on in that group is how to encourage growth among our people.
Technology never stops changing, right? It’s changing every single moment of every day. If you are a technologist, you have to be ready for those changes, no matter what does it matter how good you were yesterday at deploying something or designing something, you’re going to have a whole new set of challenges today.
And so if you can’t come at that with the humility and the willingness to be wrong, to make mistakes, the desire more than anything to learn. It’s not going to be fulfilling, right? It’s not, it’s that you probably won’t grow. I mean, there’s all of the things that it could do to your career path, but more than that, it’s not going to feel good.
In your own words: “it is hard to reflect on the last few years or even the last few months, and ignore the role technology platforms play in our collective sense-making, our social relationships, our physical and mental health, and our politics and elections”.
How and why did you become passionate about the intersection of ethics and technology? What was the trigger point and taking stock from what you just said?
Not long after I got my bearings as a CEO, I started thinking a lot about what it means to be a technologist. And that for me clearly would intersect with who I am as a human being: which is a mother and a vast consumer of technology.
“It started me to think about what substantial was responsible for out in the world because we’re a client services company. I think it would be easy for us to think that it’s out of our control. That our clients are the ones in control of what their products do and how they do it, but that’s not true.” They come to us for our expertise. They come to us for our strategies and our skill sets. And we can be more intentional about how we help our partners. So it started in some respects, it’s just on what is substantial responsibility in the technology space to service his clients ethically and morally?
And then it became a bigger conversation because I do get asked to speak in the community a fair bit. Mostly because I’m a woman CEO and technology, which I recognize is a rarer thing than it absolutely should be. But I wanted to start those conversations out in the community because when I speak to the community, It’s typically with a lot of product people who are earlier on in their careers, who are deciding where they go. Many of them already work for the largest platforms in the world or working for startups — who are desperately trying to be the next largest platform in the world. And if you’re on the West coast of the United States, as I am the product culture here is incredibly strong. It’s very fast-paced. It’s very competitive. I wanted to reach the technology community at large to talk to them about the responsibility they have as individuals. What they can bring to any situation as a technologist, as a product creator, whether they’re working for Facebook or Amazon, or they’re at the next startup down the street, or they’re in a consulting environment.
That’s why you publish the framework for more Ethical Innovation. Right? Can tell us a little bit about that framework. What’s the result?
A Framework for More Ethical Innovation
Given what seems like a singular focus on exponential scale and massive valuations, we should all be concerned about an…
So there are tons of frameworks out there and processes that you can do in the design space for more ethical innovation, human-centered research, and human-centered design, there are lots of things you can do in the development space, around security compliance and how we utilize people’s data. My framework is much more a set of questions that should be asked in the kinds of meetings that I’ve been in my entire career. These are the kinds of meetings that you have that are across discipline meetings or with leadership making business cases. The kinds of meetings that prioritize resources for feature sets. All, all sorts of meetings. These are meetings with CEOs all the way down to meetings with product managers and individual contributors, where we decide every single day, these micro-decisions about what the product is going to do and how the user’s going to interact, and what value we’re supposed to be providing for that user. And that’s really where ethics needs to happen.
It doesn’t replace a monetization strategy that comes from above, right? If the monetization strategy that comes down from leadership is wholly unethical. I’m not saying that an individual contributor with one micro-interaction can, can change that. But what I am saying is that products are built with such large spread out teams at this point, and are built-in moments throughout a given day, right? If you’re using modern software practices, which is becoming much more prevalent, like they’re very agile, using lean startup, those micro-decisions that happen throughout the day have huge impacts on the product that’s going to get released to the user.
AM: Can you give me an example of an ethical decision that you encounter often?
Let me use a case study that I like to use a lot when I talk about ethics and innovation and it’s a med health platform. It’s not one that substantial was involved in, but this was a platform that was built on the backbone of an advertising platform. It was a platform for doctors to use, and it was free for them, for doctors, and helped them manage their individual practices. So it offered them some tool kits to help them manage their practices and what it offered, on top of that was advertising. So it was advertising to doctors.
So the company that developed this, the startup, the question you might ask was who was their customer? Was their customer the doctor, or was their customer who’s advertising on the platform? Their users were doctors- Their customers were pharmaceutical companies. Because that’s, who was advertising on the platform. So when they started to build out feature sets for that platform and they started to do research, they weren’t thinking about what we can do to make doctors more efficient, give great medical advice to their patients. What they did was decide how we can get more eyeballs on our ads and sell more pharmaceutical companies’ products?
A whole host of design, technology, and prioritization meetings happened to develop a product that in the end was selling opioids to doctors when they use the platform for efficiency. Regardless of whether or not that was the right thing to do in that patient’s case. And it affected hundreds of thousands of patients and drove hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the pharmaceutical company.
The reason I use that case study is that you can imagine the original meetings where some higher-up leaders, CEO, vice presidents, and SVPs decided that their primary concern was they’re a pharmaceutical company customer and that their advertising platform was right for this kind of thing.
What I’m thinking about are the hundreds to thousands of product creators that worked on that over a year and a half, who researched whether this would make people prescribe more pain meds and whether or not that would increase addiction. They did all that. They used design principles, data principles, and data security, and they served their users.
Nobody stopped to say, do we have the right users in this case? So that’s why I try to talk about the individual responsibility we have and the framework is around those questions. These are questions that anyone should be able to ask in any meeting.
Why is this product important? And what is the value that you’re bringing? Were you thinking about who this is serving? What those objectives are? Who’s going to be impacted? Could you be transparent to every single person who’s going to work on this product about what the intentions of this product are?
Another big famous change is the way your company or your product team operates the operating system. If all of the decisions are being made top-down that can be a ripe environment for ethical trade-offs. People lower down from those decisions don’t understand why they’re being made and they become order takers. They don’t become individual thinkers about what is the best way to serve an objective. Are you incentivizing based on success metrics that have nothing to do with the quality of the product? For instance, are you just incentivizing on speed to market or just incentivizing on eyeballs? These are the kinds of things that can also encourage trade-offs that can cross ethical boundaries.
And the third one is to reduce blind spots. And this one is really about diversity in your team. I cannot express enough that if you take all of the moral and ethical reasons, why diversity is important for our society, I can assure you, you will build a better product if you have a more diverse team. Working on it because more diverse points of view are much more likely to have richer ethical discussions.
Do you describe Substantial as an inclusive workplace? And, just to quantify how many older than 50 employees do you have?
Uh, it’s a great question. And over 50, maybe one, um, over 40, maybe seven of which I’ve been one for quite a while. Um, we are a work in progress and are failing in many respects, like many companies, particularly, um, on the West coast. It’s a very homogenous environment in the technology space and, and we’re failing at it. It’s been something we’ve been working on with true resources and budget for going on our second year, we started in 2019 and gone through 2020. I have a fairly diverse executive team that I’m proud of. We are still majority white at the company to a degree that I think is not healthy, nor does it depict our regional diversity. I wish I could say this was easy or that I had the answers, I don’t.
I can tell you that we have clients at this point, who particularly if they are working on products that have a large effect on vulnerable populations or diverse populations, want a representative team, and good for them for demanding it. People want to see a team that reflects society at large building the products that are going to serve society at large. I think having reduced blind spots is incredibly important. Think in Systems is also another important point, designer getting into systems thinking. Pin-pointing where your product lives in the ecosystem that it’s going to live in. All of the other agents in that ecosystem, because one of the things that can help in ethical innovation is thinking about unintended consequences.
Is there any advice nice that you want to give, uh, someone that wants to start in the tech industry? What was your 10-year goal when you were 24?
I’ve never had a ten-year plan. I would compare to where that person is, where I was when I was 34, um, rather than 24. In my twenties, I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay rent. I went to graduate school when I was 24. So that was one thing I did out of fear of what to do with my life. And it was, it was for journalism. So you can see how much that affected my ten-year plan.
But I still think it’s a good question. Think about where technology was like 10 years ago. Technology changes. So understand that if the technology is what you’re passionate about right now, what you’re doing in 10 years could look very different.
If tech is what’s exciting to you. So the other thing I would say with 10 years of your career is that you should be chasing. Growth opportunities. You should be chasing great managers, great people to work with. More than you should be chasing the name of the company or the title. Now, I’m not going to tell you not to chase money, because again, that was a decision I would do a little bit differently in my twenties. If I could talk to myself when I was 24, I would be smarter about money and negotiate harder. So I would never tell you to turn down the massive salaries that they’re offering at these huge technology companies if that’s important to you. When you’re thinking about where you want to go, you should look for a diversity of opportunities. Spend some time in a very large technology company, and then spend some time at a small startup or a smaller company. In a giant company you have very little say in the direction of the objectives you’re working towards a smaller company, you have a much bigger impact. Now it’s a lot more responsibility. There’s a lot more room for failure. There’s a lot less money usually.
Um, but that experience does build leadership. So if in your head right now, you’re thinking, well, I want to be a CEO or I want to be a leader. I would recommend in a 10 year time that you balance your time between large organizations and small company portfolio.
AM: We got a list of books that you recommended. The one that caught my eye was weapons of mass destruction. Um, can you tell us a little bit about why, why are you recommending it?
Yeah, so weapons of mass destruction came out it’s four years old now, which is as it was 2016. Yeah. So it’s a long time in technology. There are a couple of books that I recommend for people who want to understand technology. The first one is the machine platform crowd and weapons of mass destruction.
Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future
Amazon.com: Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future (9780393356069): McAfee, Andrew, Brynjolfsson…
Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
Buy Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy on Amazon.com ✓ FREE…
Weapons of mass destruction are about algorithms and how they are utilized, and what are the unintended consequences are to the people affected by those algorithms. It’s incredibly well-written and well-researched, and it’s sort of the applied mathematics version of it. It’s very applicable to both us as consumers, and what you might be doing in a technology company, particularly if it uses big data. I can’t recommend it enough. And even though it’s, again, a little bit old at this point, it’s all still incredibly valid.
Carey recommends 📚 on product and leadership:
📕 How to Do Nothing (Jenny Odell)
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy [Odell, Jenny] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers…
📘 Primed to Perform (Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi)
Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total…
Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation [Doshi, Neel…
📗 So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Cal Newport)
So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love
So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love [Newport, Cal] on Amazon.com…
📙 Caste (Isabel Wilkerson)
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