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‘I want to be super approachable because I’m as fallible as anyone else’

6 Apr 2020

Psychologist Dr Melanie Polkosky, who is senior VP of customer experience at Sweepr, reflects on her career path to date.

Dr Melanie Polkosky is senior vice-president of customer experience at Sweepr, a company focused on using artificial intelligence, voice assistance and behavioural psychology to better connect people with internet-enabled technologies in the home.

Polkosky has a background in social-cognitive psychology, and draws on her expertise in social behaviour and how we process information about other people to inform her work in user experience (UX) design. At Sweepr, she helps research and design “more effective, comfortable and human experiences with increasingly intelligent technologies”.

Here, she discusses her career path, coaching other women, and working from home.

‘It’s critical for women to support each other, especially when their perspective is the only one like it in the room’

What does your role at Sweepr involve?

I wear a number of hats in Sweepr, including UX architect, copywriter and UX researcher, as well as voice UI designer. Beyond that, I manage our design team, support our sales team and also have senior management responsibilities.

Although it sounds like a lot (and it is), it’s not terribly different than what I’ve done most of my career. I enjoy variety and have an unquenchable thirst for learning new things and challenging my growth edges, so I find doing many different jobs helps to keep me engaged, enthusiastic and fresh.

Has your career path been straightforward?

Not at all! I grew up in a very small town in Pennsylvania in the US, where virtually all the women I knew became teachers. So, I thought that’s what I would be too. My undergraduate degree was in education with an intention to teach English, especially writing and language.

Then, I pursued my interests in linguistics further and became a speech-language pathologist. In that field, my expertise was in communication interventions for individuals with severe and multiple disabilities who were largely non-speaking. That’s when I was introduced to speech technology.

After a brief stint in design school for multimedia design, I learned about the field of human factors and again returned to graduate school for a doctorate in cognitive psychology, again intending to teach.

Melanie Polkosky is smiling into the camera.

Dr Melanie Polkosky. Image: Sweepr

Through a series of lucky breaks, I wound up as an intern at IBM Voice Systems and subsequently spent 14 years developing a career as a voice interface designer, researcher and consultant.

In 2014, I started my own business as a UX freelance researcher and designer, broadening my skills into a variety of mobile, web and product research areas. Finally, in 2018, the team at Sweepr found me and I’ve been holding both a management role and UX execution role ever since.

How do your diverse skills overlap in your roles?

I would probably describe the two sides of my career as UX, which encompasses the entirety of my role at Sweepr, and the other side as a certified professional coach, which is a small side practice I have on weekends.

I mostly coach UX designers and professional women. I see both these sides as tapping into the same skillset: communication as a means for having a positive impact on others.

In the case of UX, I write copy, research and help create technology experiences that are successful, delightful and even fun, even when users are doing something frustrating, like trying to solve a tech problem in their home.

With coaching, I’m also using specific conversational techniques to create awareness for my clients, uncovering issues that are blocking them from what they want from their career or life, empowering them and inspiring them to move toward their goals.

In fact, the animating force for all the seemingly disparate roles I’ve had in my life has been a quote from Daniel Webster: “If all my possessions were taken from me, with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of communication – for with it, I would regain all the rest”.

Why are you passionate about coaching women, in particular?

The topic of women in tech is really important to me. I wrote a book called Uncovering Truffles: The Scarcity and Value of Women in STEM in 2015. In researching the book, I uncovered the statistic that over 52pc of women leave the STEM fields by the time they’re in their mid-30s.

It was a fully disheartening moment. I was in my mid-40s at the time, so I had survived far longer than many, but it was at considerable personal cost and knowing that I wanted to leave virtually every minute I had been in the industry.

The central metaphor of my book is that women are like truffles in that they are both rare, unique and intensely valuable. Now that I’m an experienced female leader in technology, I want women to feel empowered when they see things differently.

I’ve found it’s critical for women to support each other and encourage each other’s voices, especially when their perspective is the only one like it in the room.

I find so much encouragement, inspiration and empowerment from the younger women I’m lucky to have around me in Sweepr, which is an incredible gift after so many years as virtually the only one. I’ve learned so much just from observing the differences in my own reactions to situations, compared to women 20 years younger.

I think one of the major reasons I’ve lasted as long as I have is due to having a coach who helped me see my own value at a time when I was fully disempowered. Female voices are a critical component of developing technology that works for people, instead of against them, so we must find the people, female and male, who will assist us and amplify our perspective.

What skills have you found to be most important when working from home?

I’d say that to be effective in working from home, a number of skills become quite critical: listening at least as much as you speak, and proactively and regularly communicating your status to the people who rely on you. I have a kind of personal rule that every day, I want to have at least one contact with all the people who I need to maintain ongoing collaborative relationships with, as well as someone I don’t speak to often.

For example, I touch most functions in Sweepr, so I try to have at least one interaction, no matter how brief, with each of the functions in our company, as well as each of the members of my own team. I ask myself, ‘What value have I provided today?’ and ‘What is the evidence of my contribution?’.

The maxim ‘out of sight, out of mind’ really applies to remote work. I’ve tried to use it as a constant reminder to put my efforts into being approachable, upbeat, easy to work with and delivering materials that make a positive difference for my colleagues.

What are some tools that have helped you?

Zoom is my favourite for video conferencing and collaborative work where screen sharing is needed. I love Slack as a means for saying a quick hello to someone, getting a quick answer or contributing to broader conversations in the different topic channels.

I’m kind of a bit of a jokester, so I like to make sure I at least make people smile every day. It’s probably a reaction to knowing that, sometimes, people expect me to be intimidating. I hate that! Instead, I want to be super approachable because I’m as fallible as anyone else.

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