In Their Shoes: Building Communities from Nonprofit to Corporate Tech
DEMYSTIFYING DIGITAL COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT WITH KEISHA JACKSON
Keisha is an infectiously energetic digital communities manager at Microsoft. After working in nonprofits and higher education for 11 years, she recently transformed her passion for community and extensive background in business development, strategy, and marketing into her current role at Microsoft as the Digital Communities Manager for their One Commercial Partner organization. While her day job’s in digital relationships, Keisha is committed to empowering her communities through a variety of professional networks and opportunities like the Young Professionals International Network’s International Women’s Day Mentoring Event and previously serving on the Seattle Women's Commission for the City of Seattle. If you ever have an opportunity to hear her speak, you’ll no doubt leave inspired and energized!
ABOUT YOU + YOUR CAREER
Let’s start with an ice breaker. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Keisha: Of course like every little girl with big dreams, I wanted to be Oprah when I grew up! I mean, currently as a grown woman, I still want to be Oprah.
But in all seriousness, I think that’s a very interesting question. Thinking back about that adolescent time, my mind definitely changed multiple times. But I distinctly remember when I was 11 years old, I watched the movie Independence Day starring Will Smith and he was fighting aliens and was a pilot and was just doing all these amazing things. Around that same time, I went on a field trip with my mom, who was attending Tacoma Community College finishing her associate's degree, and her class had a trip to the University of Washington Seattle campus. I was looking at the buildings, enjoying the architecture, and I remember picking up a course catalog and I looked through it trying to figure out what Will Smith’s character’s job was in the movie and how could I do that. I found this major called Aerospace Engineering and thought, “well, this looks very interesting, I want to do that. I could be an Aerospace Engineer and a pilot and I could do the job that Will Smith is doing in Independence Day.”
Now, that’s not what I ended up doing by any means, but I love telling that story because I think about how imaginative we are and the power of influence of media, and now social media. I was so influenced by the books I was reading or the movies I was watching. As a kid, I had this curiosity around the careers of the characters these actors were portraying. Between wanting to be an Aerospace Engineer or being Oprah, I’ve always dreamed big.
As a digital communities manager at Microsoft, how would you explain what you do, and what your company does, to a 10-year-old?
Keisha: Imagine you’re in a classroom with a group of fifth-graders and you’re working on a science project. Everyone is coming up with their own unique projects, and we work together to make sure that the tools that are needed to do those projects are actually listed. We are an engineering company, we are a technology company and we have a lot of software developers and software engineers building the tools needed for people to run their companies and live their lives to the best of their abilities.
In my specific role, you’re a 5th grader in a class and you have five students on a project. I’m the project manager helping everyone understand their unique talents and how they fit into this project, and how their specific skill is going to enhance the project at the end.
That’s what my role as Digital Communities Manager is really about, it’s helping our Microsoft business partners. We’re in this big team, in a partner ecosystem, and we need to know one another, know who we are, know what our talents and skills are and also understand that we have common goals. And as a business strategy person or the project manager, I’m trying to get the team together to understand one another and then to build towards something bigger than ourselves.
How did you find and land your current gig?
Keisha: Absolutely 100% the power of networks and the power of community. I was introduced to a hiring manager at Microsoft via a network connection turned best friend, Jenny.
Jenny and I met in the summer of 2008 where we both worked at College Success Foundation, an organization aimed at college access and with a belief that education breaks the cycle of poverty. Many, many years later, I was looking for a way to move from nonprofit and higher ed into something different — potentially corporate, potentially tech.
I’m somebody who lives in communities, and I mean that in a variety of ways. In particular, I vocalized my career transition goals with — as Michelle Obama would call it, my “crew of girlfriends” — my trusted advisors and my friends who work in different industries.
And I spent a solid year intensely networking, doing informational interviews, and doing formal interviews before I found this opportunity at Microsoft.
When the opportunity became available and the timing was right, Jenny introduced me to the hiring manager via email. But what happened first and behind the scenes is that Jenny and I were in conversation for a whole year before this role arose. She spent that time understanding my talents, skills, interests, my professional passions and also my community-based heart. So when this particular role opened at Microsoft, Jenny contacted me and said, “Hey, here’s a great opportunity that’s very well-suited for your skill sets, but more importantly this particular hiring manager would be a great sponsor for you to come into Microsoft. They’ll be someone who would mentor you and coach you because the learning curve from higher ed into corporate high tech is going to be pretty deep and you want to partner with a good leader.” Having a great friend like Jenny who really knew me and who understood me as a person, a professional, a community-minded citizen and a lifelong learner, she was able to connect a lot of the dots for me that I didn’t necessarily see yet.
That is the truth of what happened but I also get nervous telling people that. When I think about the women that I’ve spent a lot of time coaching, women in undergraduate or graduate school and women in their professional career, and you think about telling someone, “Hopefully, by the luck of the draw, one of your good friends will be the one who connects you to the hiring manager that will fit all of your professional aspirations!”
That’s a far-fetched thing.
But that’s honestly what happened to me. I know many other folks that had that happen, too. But I also know many other people who have gone the industry or recruiting route, by pursuing their MBA and then did the traditional MBA recruiting route with companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others. There are many pathways to get to the door that you want. It’s just a matter of finding the one that works for you.
Fighting imposter syndrome
Keisha: I have 11 years of experience in nonprofits and higher education with a Master of Arts in Student Development/Higher Education from Seattle University. I always thought that when I ultimately made the shift from higher ed to a corporate or tech environment that it would be in university recruiting or HR.
But that’s not the case.
The job I was doing at the University of Washington is very similar to what I do now at Microsoft in our One Commercial Partner organization. I had no idea that “Digital Communities Manager” was a job. I had no idea that the business development, business strategy, and marketing side of what I was doing at the UW was 100% applicable. I could join Microsoft and do a very similar role.
Had I put myself and my own mind in a bucket around what kind of role I could apply for and do at a company like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, I wouldn’t be where I am right now and on this new trajectory. Having a friend like Jenny, and being in deep conversation with her around career aspirations, the types of projects I want to work on, the types of problems I want to solve, helped me identify the work I’m doing in my career and seeing how it transfers between industries.
She saw a skill set within me and a different way of putting a terminology to make it very transferable to Microsoft that I did not have a lens on the experience to see. She’s absolutely critical in my transition from higher ed to corporate high tech.
Some of the people in your corner — your personal board of directors — will be contributors for you, but also a coach. Who can give you that extra roar and push that you might not have within yourself? Because like I said, I had put myself in a particular box.
But having a trusted friend who’s going to give critical, honest feedback and also help bridge some gaps in your own mind is absolutely crucial.
It’s really important that we surround ourselves with people who are honest and for us, right, but also encouraging and helping us achieve the next step.
I feel like I’ve met a lot of higher education professionals looking to get into a corporate environment. What advice would you have for someone looking to make the industry or even job role switch?
Keisha: I am such a deep believer in community. Truly be invested in community, around building your network yes, but also have those two or three people with whom you can have honest conversations.
I think that so many people regardless of industry — whether you’re a doctor or teacher or you deliver pizza — we don’t spend enough time in conversation with other people telling them our ideas, our thoughts, our hopes, our aspirations, our dreams, what we like about our job, what we don’t like.
At the same time, a lot of people aren’t particularly skilled at asking those questions and trying to pull it out of us.
Be in community, be in conversation, think about it as your mini board of directors. There’s never going to be a time where you’re going to think, “I don’t have to talk to another person to get a job.” Even if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to fundraise all your money or you have to figure out how you’re going to sell your product. We all need to be in conversation with someone else, whether it’s one-to-one or one-to-many, so we can build on our ideas and talk things through.
Sometimes we have a block in our mind because we haven’t actually vocalized it aloud yet or to another person. It can be scary but is important to have someone else who can contribute or at least help us unpack the idea.
Not enough people spend time just appreciating the art of conversation and being in true discernment with themselves and vocalizing that with a few trusted people that will actually help them take their ideas, their talent, their skill, their inspiration to the next level. So don’t be afraid of building or tapping into your community.
The second part of that is transferable skills.
All of that is to say: Moving into corporate or high tech roles is not about shifting your higher education or nonprofit skills. There are plenty of corporate roles that require a similar skill set — project management, program management, contract negotiation — things that are required for marketing managers, business strategy professionals, and also for higher education professionals who are advising students or planning events. It’s semantics.
We might call it something different between one industry or another, but it’s absolutely, pretty much, 98% the same thing.
Look into terminology that’s specific to the industry, which you can get online by reading whatever publications that are relevant based on the industry and spend the time investing in that.
Then, really think about what you do in your current role on a day-to-day basis:
Am I writing papers?
Do I enjoy writing?
Do I enjoy research?
Do I enjoy planning events?
Do I enjoy leading meetings?
Am I someone who’s gifted in a certain area and do I want to capitalize on that?
Or am I somebody that seeks out constant change and growth and learning and I want to be consistently challenged in an area that I am not familiar with?
Really think about what makes you happy in your work and what you are actually doing on a day-to-day basis. Are you somebody who needs a lot of flexibility because you have young kids at home? Are you somebody that wants to go back and pursue a higher education degree?
How do you find an employer that aligns with that and that will allow you the flexibility in your career to do that? It’s a matter of doing your own homework to figure out what makes you excited to go to work and do work every day, and understanding that you’re probably more than qualified at the job you want in another company or industry. It’s just a matter of the use of language and studying that industry or company to understand how you “speak” Microsoft, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, or others. It is a completely different language at every institution. There’s definitely a language at the UW and it’s all about that adaptability and knowing that you can move into a different industry.
The experiences that you have in your previous industries are applicable, they count, it’s just how you tell the story and the language you use.
What are the top three skills/traits a person should have to be able to do the work you do?
Keisha: First, you have to be a strong strategist and want to build strategy. I wouldn’t even call that the most important thing, but it’s equally important to what I’ll say after this. In a corporate and high tech environment, you have to come in with ideas.
You have to understand data analysis, how you measure growth, and how you do reporting in a way that’s going to gain visibility from the leadership.
This is a muscle that I came in with and that I’ve been building, and I’ve had a great manager who’s been helping me build what it means to be a business strategist, which can be very different from operating in higher ed or nonprofits. Having strong strategy skills, which encompasses idea development, ideation, and all the way to execution and then being able to report on that, having that end-to-end control is absolutely crucial.
Because I work with digital marketing but in a business strategy organization, it is crucial to understand how business relationships form. I am the business strategy lead for Microsoft Partner Community, a community where tens of thousands of partners communicate their business needs and engage in the perks of being a Microsoft Partner. I have a whole team that I work with in terms of support for that, but the community management aspect — my editorial calendar, the different virtual events I’m offering, the different community forums that are alive and active — there’s an aspect of that that’s about strategy. But, equally important is understanding the voice of the partners (customers) and being able to understand their needs and adapt the community based on that. Listening while building strategies is important to this line of work, and you refine the strategy accordingly.
Things in Microsoft, or other similar companies, change very rapidly. If you’re going to join a company and you’re thinking, I want to make a true difference here, be on the lookout for professional growth and development.
Always think about how your current role is going to give you skill sets for what you want to do next or if you want to expand the role that you’re in, how do you truly work with your manager to allow scope increase, which hopefully means promotion and continued growth.
You have to be thinking about your value-add, your growth, what you’re contributing to this bigger picture, but always thinking about the next role, and even the role after that. You can’t lose sight of the long game even when you’re focused on your current role.
WHAT KEEPS YOU ORGANIZED AND ENERGIZED
What do you absolutely need at your AT-HOME desk to function (top 3-5 things)?
Keisha: A glass of water. Especially as we think about what we’re living through right now with COVID-19 and work-from-home, I’m so privileged and grateful that I’ve had a job at a company where I’ve been able to maintain my same position and livelihood. It’s tough not being in the office, not being able to interact with colleagues, so even the reminder to move my body out of my desk and my office, a glass of water is my tool to do that. I’m trying to be mindful of the number of steps I take every day and the amount of water I’m consuming, and so on my work desk there’s always a 16-ounce glass of water and I try every 90 minutes to drink that glass. It gets me in a habit of getting up and stretching and taking a break in between meetings.
Calendaring has been very helpful. I find that in my own work week, I need to block out a certain amount of time each week for trainings and professional development. Microsoft has a plethora of online tools, trainings, and videos — things to help me enhance myself in terms of my knowledge around technology. For example, I’m not a technologist but working at a tech company you need to know enough to be dangerous at least. I try to take two to three hours every week and do some type of professional development or take a Microsoft training course around a particular technology so that I can have a healthy, strong conversation with my business partners who are deep technologists. To be able to even engage them in the community, I need to have that knowledge base.
And I balance that with professional development that might focus on being a woman in the workplace, being a woman of color in the workplace, being in a certain age group, working with colleagues with significant seniority and balancing those working relationships. I try as a personal goal and mission to work on professional development every week.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
Keisha: In terms of work and everyday functions, I work with two project managers who help me keep everything organized while I think strategy they’re helping with the execution on our digital community content and the other’s thinking execution on our partner-led communities, so they help me do everything every day. We’re a small team and a mighty engine in terms of what we’re churning out.
In terms of a board of directors, there are about five to six women who I work with in the same organization and we’re really able to enhance, criticize in a constructive way, and coach one another multiple times a week in terms of our professional go-forwards within Microsoft.
On a personal note, I am so blessed and jazzed to have so many ladies that I’ve been friends with for such a long time — two of my best friends who are lawyers, Jenny who I mentioned, and another friend who is a fundraiser at an independent school. The five of us are constantly in daily communication: a lot of text messaging, phone calls, some FaceTimes around what can be the stress of life as a woman in your mid-30s and being at varying stages of life, whether it's motherhood or new jobs.
The common thread with all of these groups is a commitment to being very supportive and encouraging around the identity of women at various stages of life and I’m so amazingly blessed that I’ve been able to find multiple pockets and groups of women who all share that common interest, regardless of what job or pedigree we may or may not have.
What are you reading and listening to right now? Professionally or personally. (Podcasts, books)
Keisha: I loved reading Michelle Obama’s book a couple of years ago and now I’m listening to her podcast which is so uplifting. Eloquent Rage by Britney Cooper, it’s a very powerful book where a black feminist discovers her superpower. And then I have a couple of professional development books that Microsoft provided, one is called Playing Big by Tara Moore and it’s focused on women learning to speak up, create space, and lead in all spaces of life, but in particular the professional context. And the last one is Measure What Matters and that focuses on the OKR principle (objectives and key results), helping answer the question: how do you show impact.
ADVICE AND CLOSING THOUGHTS
What’s your #1 interviewing tip for people on the job hunt?
Keisha: My #1 interviewing tip is you — you reading this — you have to prep!
It is unbelievable how many people don’t spend time adequately preparing to interview and to tell their story. There needs to be hours of preparation that goes into writing out your story.
If you’re in college, write out the classes you took, the reading and research that was so important to your discipline, and how you apply that in your daily life and how you think about yourself as a professional encompassing all of that.
If you’re already an established working professional, you need to have stories that are rooted in data and business indicators that you already have at the ready when you are either meeting with an interview panel or meeting with the hiring manager one-to-one. These questions are always going to come up, regardless of industry or your level, so you have to be prepared to actually speak on your own behalf to be your best advocate. If you haven’t done the preparation of researching the company or the teams you're interviewing with, you’re doing a disservice to yourself as a candidate trying to get a job.
What's one piece of advice you'd tell your former self (whether related to career or personal life)?
Keisha: “Keisha get your mind out of the box that it’s in.” And coupled with that failure happens — and failure’s a strong word, it’s all a learning experience. Trying to control things in a box is not healthy and it’s not going to work, because that’s not how the universe and life works. This goes back to my thoughts of my mind being in a box of what I could do in a corporate arena, just based on my own perceptions of who I was, what my talents and skills were, and how I labeled myself and kept myself in the box of “higher ed professional.” I let that be my own limitation in terms of what type of job I was searching for in corporate and high tech.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that hasn’t been mentioned yet?
Keisha: I cannot underscore this enough. Whatever you are doing, whatever stage in life you are at, make sure you are prioritizing your own self-care and your health — nutrition, fitness, mental and physical health. Especially the particular times that we’re living in, there’s a lot of depression, anxiety, and “I’m not going to leave my house.” Put your mask on, leave your house.
Give yourself the gift of self-care, because you cannot pursue your career aspirations or help other people or engage in the opportunity that’s going to knock on your door if you haven’t handled the inside job first.
Give yourself proper sleep and proper nutrition like water and taking a 20-minute break, going for a walk, listening to a podcast. Break up the monotony of what we’re living through right now and even before, during, and after COVID, self care should be a top priority for self-preservation. Many times we prioritize the needs of others above ourselves, but if you have not taken care of your own self, then it’s going to be very difficult to take care of others.