Katie Luby will be graduating this spring from the MIT Sloan Fellows program, and can’t say enough good things about the experience. Coming from Salesforce, and with an anthropology and design educational background, business school was a whole new animal. Katie feels her experience at MIT Sloan Fellows will uniquely enhance her work as a human-centered design practitioner, especially in the areas of technology implementation, innovation, and leadership. While she has gained many tools to help her in her work, the most meaningful aspect of her time at MIT Sloan has been the relationships she has developed with the other Fellows. With a diverse cohort from all around the world, the exposure to new ways of thinking and working has been unparalleled. Add in the fact that her 8 ½ year old daughter has been with her throughout the experience, and she wouldn’t change a thing.
Our guest today, is Katie Luby, MIT Sloan Fellow, MBA student, and Innovation and Transformation Director, Design Architect at Salesforce. Katie started out studying movies, earned her master’s in design from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and worked in tech for companies like Motorola, Sapient, and Razorfish before landing at Salesforce, where she has been since 2013, except for her current stay in Boston as an MIT Sloan Fellow.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? What do you like to do for fun? [2:10]
I am from Chicago, born and raised in Evanston. It is a great city to be in, with lots of swimming, bike riding, great culture and museums. During most of my free time I try to get outside and enjoy some of the cultural offerings. In Boston there is also great culture, and a little smaller city which is nice, and I am really looking forward to spring right now since the weather has been “interesting.”
You started out studying film and cinematography and then did a Masters in Design. How did you go from the movies to design? [3:17]
I feel like I have a pretty windy path, but also feel like everything I have done really has built on itself. In undergrad I studied anthropology, so I’ve always been interested in the study of people and behaviors and culture. Coming out of school, applied anthropology didn’t really exist in the field – you really had to go to a tribe to study, we really couldn’t study ourselves, and between the time I graduated and then got a masters suddenly ethnography was being used as a tool with all sorts of design problems, business problems, cultural problems – so that fell into place. Between my undergrad and masters I worked on documentary films and film production. I spent some time in San Francisco and then came back to Chicago, working with a lot of really smart creative people in advertising. I worked in teams to make advertising ideas come alive, sourcing materials, building things, conceptualizing ideas in real form, dealing with budgets, and problem solving. I never considered myself a creative, but loved the idea of design and art direction looking to solve a problem. When I found the institute of design, one of just a few programs in the country that accepts people in their masters program without an undergrad degree in design, I learned theory and practice around how to solve problems with a design perspective. A hot topic now is design thinking, and it is really the perspective of who the users are and what the issue at hand is. Are we looking at the right problem? Coming up with creative and elegant solutions to meet that need? With technology, we think about what’s feasible, with a lens of why and how we should implement technology, which is important for businesses to consider. We always hear, “We need an app,” but what do they need an app for? Is that what their customers really want? So what I do is help businesses understand what the problem is, redefine it, and help them look at things more broadly.
Let’s turn to your experience at MIT Sloan. Why did you want to add an MBA to your MS? [13:39]
When I think about my first degree from IIT it was looked at kind of as a business school for designers, who wouldn’t normally know how to present their ideas in a business sense. So I loved that, but as I’ve spent more time in the world of tech I realized I am now immersed in the world of business and wanted to get a wider view, on different industries, on how businesses are looking at problems today, and on leadership. So I came to MIT Sloan Fellows Program specifically to immerse myself in their leadership program. Also MIT because the way they look at technology and how business processes and technology and organizational planning fits in to how we look at business today. I matured into wanting to have a better vocabulary and better way to inquire about some of these broader issues in business.
Why did you choose the full-time, one-year MIT Sloan Fellows option, as opposed to the more common, part-time EMBA program? [15:36]
I am super impressed by the EMBAs because of the ways they can come in bursts on campus and continue doing everything with their jobs. I feel really privileged and supported by my company to immerse myself here. One reason I chose Sloan Fellows was about being in the MIT and Boston ecosystem of innovation. I really wanted to plant myself here. There are a lot of things that happen here that are not on your schedule, and you need to be here and available for all of it. I really wanted the whole experience.
I also don’t know if I’d be able to do a full-time job and this. I didn’t think about it that way. I am also a single mom, and really wanted to do this with my daughter as an adventure. With an EMBA Program I was concerned it would be one more thing taking my time, whereas if we’re here together we’re experiencing it together. There is a huge community with families. Our cohort of 109 has 130 children, with 10 children born since we’ve been here, and that family we’re building together in this unique situation has been a huge part of being here. I thought of this as a full immersive experience, and don’t think I would do it differently.
What did you find most difficult in the MIT Sloan Fellows application process? [17:58]
I can’t recall anything feeling difficult, but if I think about it from an advice perspective, you really need to have a point of view on what you want. It really felt like you needed to say, “I know why I am doing this and know what I am in pursuit of,” so you definitely need to have some direction. That was the compelling part of the application for me. You can’t just fill in the boxes, you need to say why you want this as part of your journey. Knowing how to articulate your own vision can be a challenge, but I don’t remember anything tactically being very difficult.
The year is almost up. Have you gotten what you wanted out of the Sloan Fellows experience? [19:34]
MIT is unique in that we are in the business school, but have amazing exposure to what’s outside of it. There are incredible things going on, in science, engineering, computer science. The exposure has been really amazing and has changed some of my perspective. Coming from the user experience and application side of technology and working at a company out of Silicon Valley, the whole mindset is, “Can you build an app and a company?” Here I am surrounded by people working on really compelling ideas and science. Making a business around an idea is a second thought, and I don’t think I could have gotten that anywhere else. So being exposed to innovation has provided a whole new view. The leadership part has also been really interesting. Obviously I’ve been exposed to entirely new methods and practices and thought leadership, but here you are put in positions to be a leader – teambuilding, challenges you face on projects, and then they bring in amazing people – leaders from organizations to tell you what is difficult about being a leader, and they are not always success stories.
What did you like best about the MIT Sloan Fellows program? [22:38]
There are a million different layers to what I like about being here. We are a very international group from a lot of different industries, so the perspectives in the room are really diverse. With cases in the Global Markets class, there is someone from that geography in the room, or with discussions about a particular industry, there is someone from that industry in the room. There is incredible access to people here, professors and research, as well as adjacent programs. There is a concerted effort to get people in the business school out of the business school, working in other departments as well. There is big amazing stuff going on here, and I am constantly reminded why I am here.
What can be improved? [24:16]
I think there is an element of how prepared one can be. If I could go back in time I would have done work before I got here, immersing myself in things that were new, like math, which I hadn’t prepared for. I kept my head above water, but relearning how to be a student again is nontrivial. While the administration mentioned this, I didn’t hear the call as loudly as I should have.
I think there is just a lot you can do here, and I am pretty sure that there is more I could have done. Perhaps some frameworks on how to approach things would be helpful – “if you are in pursuit of this, here’s a path you can take.” So ways to highlight certain things such that you are not making decisions all along the way, mapping the curriculum a little bit, to cut through how much content there is here. So maybe it is an onboarding problem? I do think they do the best they can, especially with such diversity. I got to do all the things I wanted to do but not in an organized way.
Was it hard to go back to being a full-time student? [27:14]
Studying is challenging – especially just relearning how to study. At work even if you are learning new things you turn them around quickly and are broadcasting back. Here you are really absorbing – you are in a constant state of absorbing, and the pace is really fast, moving quickly from new concept to new concept. Another thing that is esoteric – at work you are moving towards a goal, and you get closure. Here you move on. You don’t get the sense of reward. So many of us have said, “I am used to being really good at stuff,” and you need to open yourself up to not being good at stuff here. It is a funny stretch of your ego. So the pace, the way you focus and feel about what you are doing is very different than work, but it is so much fun and super worthwhile, and a good practice to relearn how to learn. This experience is changing the way I engage when trying to learn something.
What does your daughter think of your going back to school? Do you ever do homework together? [30:05]
I think she is proud of me, which is sweet. With work I would sometimes have homework, but the first few months I was here it was summer and you are really in class all day every day getting through the core, and then with the teamwork, it’s very time-consuming. She was aware I was mentally less present. I think that was interesting for her to watch – how hard I was working, so I think she is proud, and she has really benefited being around a university, and being exposed to people from all over the world. I think it will turn out that she will look back on the experience and remember it fondly.
Your year at MIT Sloan is almost over. When do you graduate? [31:54]
June 8th. We have four more weeks of class and then a trip to DC, and then graduation. There are three modules throughout the year, one in New York, one in Boston, and one in DC, which involve meetings with leadership in the areas and innovation. These trips are well-curated time away from campus. From Sloan there are also a bunch of treks – China, India, or Israel labs, a Silicon Valley trek, Morocco trek – essentially students organize around an interest and geography and put together a curated trip to investigate. There are tons of opportunities to focus on immersing.
What will you miss the most about MIT Sloan Fellows? [33:49]
The people. We came from everywhere and are here together for just one year. Some of us will be near each other after graduation, but with people coming from all over the world, the temporal part won’t exist after June 8th. There will be a different way to be connected.
What are your plans for the future? How do you intend to use your MBA? [35:18]
I am going back to Salesforce, and the MBA will influence how I work and approach things. There is a lot of work here around operations research, so that translates to more tools for a more qualitative researcher like myself. I have more tools about how businesses make decisions to talk about with my clients. Also, the behaviors and culture it takes to be innovative – that’s another layer of what it means to be innovative and transformative. I hope to weave this learning into the practice I was doing before. It has also made me think more about what my career looks like and what leadership looks like, so I can look ahead at what type of leader and what type of organization I want to be in.
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