What does the career path and a day in the life look like for the People Operations Lead at one of Boston's fastest growing tech companies?
We decided to interview, Virginia White - the People Operations Lead at Formlabs, to find out.
Where you grew up? What did you parents do for work? What was your first job growing up?
I grew up in Houston, Texas. My parents worked in completely different industries. My mother is a database programmer for an enormous technology consulting firm, and my father is a paramedic for the city. Both my parents have been steady in their careers/industries for 30+ years.
The first job I ever had was at the Hyde Park Miniature Museum (in Houston, TX). I worked with the grandson of D.D. Smalley, who originally started the museum in his attic. The museum was resurrected and recreated in the gallery of a bookstore for nine months. I was lucky to work there. I was a ‘docent’ – but not in a traditional sense. I spent my weekends fixing model trains, organizing stamps, cleaning typewriters, and explaining the history behind all the objects. One of the really special things about this place was that all the patrons were allowed to pick everything up and play with it. I spent a lot of time repairing things and I loved the opportunity to talk to everybody that came in the door.
Where did you attend college and what did you study?
I went to the San Francisco Art Institute (S.F.A.I.) and I studied New Genres. The major was mostly focused on conceptual art and new media – but I did spend most of my time doing drawings. I’ve always loved making things with my hands. I still do a little bit of this in my spare time.
What were some of your first jobs out of college?
I never really had that big ‘line’ between college work and post-college work. I started working full-time when I was 17 and never stopped. In my first few years of school, I had a lot of different jobs and cobbled things together – writing tutor, library assistant, I even worked for a bankruptcy trustee for a while. I would do whatever was needed to make things work. After a few years that became stressful, so I decided to find one job and stick with it.
I got a job doing ‘Operations’ (aka everything) at a boutique wholesale-to-retail company, Keena. I started while I was in school, and stayed for 4 years. There were only two other people in the office, including the co-founder, and the rest of the employees were sales reps across the country. We sold high-end consumer gifts and accessories (like hand-silkscreened cards, designer pillows, art books, etc) and worked with companies of all sizes. I worked there for 4 years and I loved it. I got so much exposure to the nuts and bolts of running a business and forged a lot of relationships across the consumer goods industry, many of which I still have.
What were some of the foundation skills that you developed from these early jobs that helped you in what you are doing today?
For a long time, I worked at small companies (and Formlabs was small when I started!) and I learned a ton about general operations and ‘keeping the ship running.’ I was usually working with just 2-3 other people total, usually creatives, and I would be behind the scenes getting things done. I got a lot of experience in sales and working with customers. I also had the opportunity to build out an office twice for two different companies and I gained knowledge of project management. I was definitely a master of none; I enjoyed doing everything I could get my hands on, and I was always willing to take on more responsibilities.
The biggest skill I’ve built from these experiences was working with a variety of people and personalities to get the job done. I’ve always been good at (and enjoyed this) but this shows up in people management, project management, and general execution of everything I do. I spend a lot of my time in 1-1 interactions with employees, talking and debugging if there’s something larger we need to improve. At the size Formlabs is now, I hardly ever am doing something just ‘solo’ – most challenges need more than 1 person to ‘make it happen’ at the right scale.
What brought you to the Boston area?
I was ready to move out of San Francisco – I had been there a long time and I was ready to be challenged more. I had planned to apply to graduate school, but then got connected with Formlabs...
You were an early team member at Formlabs. What employee number were you and how did you get connected with them?
I was 10 or 11, depending on how you count. I had been working with another technology and design company, Nervous System, that was using 3D printing, so Formlabs was on my radar. However, Formlabs wasn’t much of a company yet. I happened to be doing some consulting for other companies in Industry Lab, where Formlabs used to have their office, so I got an introduction and applied from there. I did have a ‘traditional’ interview process (phone call, face to face interview). I remember feeling that I bombed the phone interview (for Sales & Marketing Lead, something I wasn’t really ‘qualified’ for) and didn’t have good answers to any questions. I spent the next day or two doing research and figuring out what I could have done better. I vaguely remember emailing them begging them to give me another chance in person – and then I arrived very prepared. I had researched the two (!) jobs that I wanted and came with 4 typed pages that included a list of potential customers and a plan for their future office space. I think that interview went well...
How has your position evolved since joining the company?
My role has (and continues) to change constantly. Every 6-12 months, responsibilities or scale have shifted. I started as ‘Facilities & Operations Lead’ – which was pretty much an office manager role. I thought I was a bit overqualified, but we grew so fast I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing. I thought, “I had better catch up.” In my first year, I was the ‘first’ person for a lot of roles that are now much bigger teams (customer support, sales, logistics, finance, etc). I always thought I would remain more customer-facing, but at some point, I decided what I really cared about were the people who worked within the company, and I wanted to put my attention there. My work in Operations became more focused on scaling our space and how we take care of the people within it. A few years after that, our team and our people needs had grown, and it made sense to build out a People Operations function as well. I’ve worked across the spectrum of People Operations work, from recruiting to HR – and have just now landed on the part that I really love.
Even though I feel like what I’m doing now in People Operations is ‘new’, I see that I’ve always been focused on these themes, just through a different lens. The real difference is that now this is 100% of my job, not the extra sliver that I’m fitting in on the side.
Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as People Lead at Formlabs?
While it is not only on my shoulders, I definitely feel responsible for keeping Formlabs a great place to be, as we scale. Right now, that translates into finding and growing employees, and general engagement. That includes recruiting (Formlabs is still growing tremendously, so we are investing a lot of energy into hiring) and the arc of someone’s life-cycle when they are here (onboarding, growth & careers, offboarding).
What I’m doing right now hits the perfect intersection of working on things that cross both people and culture – with the extra challenge of doing it well while we hire like crazy.
Day in the Life
Coffee, tea, or nothing?
Gave up caffeine a few weeks ago, so currently, chamomile tea.
What time do you get into the office?
Between 8 - 10 AM. I prefer to start my working time by 9 AM, but that doesn’t always happen.
Every day is different, but can you outline what a typical day looks like for you?
I definitely live by my calendar. I’ve only recently learned to find the right balance between ‘scheduled time’ and ‘available for what comes up’, but that’s definitely been a challenge.
- Wake up at the last possible minute and head out the door (I’d love to change this habit)
- Eat something at work, we have so much good food here!
- Read, respond, and organize emails, omnifocus, and administrative tasks
- Plan out the two important things I will get done TODAY
- Knock out phone calls
- Remember to eat something for lunch
- Reserved for project time or 1-1 time (as needed)
- Make sure the two important things got DONE
- Overflow time for reading, responding and organizing emails
- Spend time with my cat and partner OR go to the gym
- Most evenings I also cook dinner
- Clean something (helps me relax)
What time do you head out of the office?
Depends on what time I got there, and what is happening on that day. Almost never around 5 PM. A few days a week I leave by 6, and at least 1 day a week I work later than that. I love to get things done while the office is really quiet, which is usually before 10 AM and after 4 PM.
Do you log back in at night or do you shut it down completely? Or… how do you decompress at night?
I’ve never been great at shutting it down completely, but I’ve been learning how important this is. I prefer to spend my energy getting things done during the day, so in the evening I can be available for the other people and things in my life that I want to spend time with. That said, if I’m really excited about something, I will just work on it until it’s done, even if that means staying up late. I like to follow the energy and inspiration when I have it, not just structure it all into my day.
I do have a lot of blend between work and personal life – almost all of my closest friends work at Formlabs – so even something like cooking dinner at my place for a crowd might turn into some work-related discussion, and I’m OK with that.
I’ve also been teaching yoga at Be. since I started working at Formlabs, and I can’t imagine having one without the other. The contrast between the two environments is pretty extreme. Formlabs energizes me and keeps me charged up, Be. slows me down. Yoga has really been my life-raft if didn’t have this practice I wouldn’t even know how to shut things off.
Recently I decided that I wanted to become a ‘runner’ – so I’m slowly working on that.
Any productivity hacks?
I am a huge believer in the David Allen GTD methodologies. I have been practicing these for years, and still feel like an amateur, but I believe my capacity to take on bigger challenges must be related to my ability to stay productive and get important things done.
Focus on TWO important things you want to accomplish every day, and that’s it.
If possible, don’t keep your email open during the day. Email is a complete time-suck, and even if a lot of your work happens via email (like mine), you’ll probably get more done if you check it less frequently. Responding to emails can ‘feel like’ work, but at the end of the day, if I didn’t reserve time for my brain to really work on something non-reactive, I probably didn’t finish one of my important things for the day.
What are the 3 apps that you can’t live without?
Omnifocus – I started using omnifocus a few months ago, and now I think I couldn’t live without it. It takes ‘organizing time’ and commitment, but it’s so worth it. I use it for both work and personal life projects.
RescueTime – This app told me how much time I was spending responding to emails and working on my calendar. It was shameful. Made it much easier to change my working habits when I could quantify where my time was going.
Apple Podcast App – I’m so obsessed with podcasts that I’ve read very few books the last few months.
What time do you go to bed?
Between 11 PM - 1 AM. If I’m teaching yoga the next day, I go to bed early. Otherwise, I’m at the whim of my energy levels, which can be pretty unpredictable.
Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz. Follow him on Twitter: @kcline6.