Lead(H)er: Tacita Morway, VP of Engineering at ActBlue
Tacita Morway's resume is a bit unconventional. Now the Vice President of Engineering at ActBlue, Morway has worked in construction, founded a landscaping design company, and attended art school. The connections, though, are crystal clear to her.
“I always look for the problems that are going to be exciting, interesting, and satisfying, and for the people that I’m going to be pumped to work with,” Morway said. “It’s about, where can I be learning and growing? ”
Morway grew up in a construction family, and when she went to college, she felt parallels from that world to the problem solving with patterns involved in computer science. After earning her first degree in Computer Science, she spent a couple of years navigating the corporate world. Morway found that she missed the tactile work of construction and switched careers to work as a heavy machinery operator and, in time, own her own landscaping company. That change grew out of a desire to combine the physical work of construction with the pattern-based thinking she enjoyed in software development.
Intending to study industrial design, Morway enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. However, she found herself fueled by painting courses and ultimately graduated with a degree in painting and drawing with an emphasis in landscapes. While she still paints today, she decided to return to landscape architecture and founded her own landscape design and build company. A couple of years in, Morway recognized that she was most engaged when she was developing the software that helped her team track projects, materials and manage communications.
“Trees take a long time to grow,” Morway said. “Like putting paint on a canvas, the immediacy of impact when you're writing code is just more satisfying to me, and so I came full circle. That kicked me back into the engineering world, and I haven't strayed since.”
With stops along the way at WGBH, Zipcar, and Salsify, Morway now heads up the engineering department at ActBlue, an online fundraising platform that helps connect campaigns, charities, and causes with small-dollar donors.
“The organizations and individuals we serve have other missions, and building technology and infrastructure to support their own fundraising is not part of that mission,” Morway said. “So we get to do that for them and make their lives easier.”
Morway’s primary focus is to not only ensure that her teams are operating at their best and are operating in sync with the rest of the organization. It also means helping individuals grow and stay excited about what they’re doing while deeply understanding and owning their impact and role in the company as a whole. Building an empowered, motivated team of diverse voices and perspectives is at the core of what she’s doing.
At an organization like ActBlue, Morway said, each individual voice can carry weight, regardless of how long the person has been at the company.
“You’re part of a system of thinkers,” she said. “We’ve got this really great blend of people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, so how do we create a space where they all feel they have a pathway to adding value and having impact?”
In addition to helping create those pathways, Morway is excited to tackle the challenge of growing a company that considers all of America its primary market. There’s no way to draw up a single audience persona, opening the door to plenty of creative ideas about how to move forward.
Morway pulls on her varied career experiences to help with big questions like these. While she sometimes questioned her own career path in comparison to colleagues with more neatly defined progressions, each decision added value that she feels every day.
“Nothing felt like a big risk,” she said of her career moves. “It felt like it was riskier to get stuck in something that wasn’t right for me and to not explore the other opportunities for learning. I was young, and I knew that I had a lot of flexibility that I might not have in 15 to 20 years. That sense of impermanence let me be open to unexpected decisions, and they all contributed to how I operate in any position in any workplace today.”
Rapid Fire Questions
What do you like to do in your free time?
I really enjoy hanging out with my family. I’ve got two kids, I’m married, and we have a dog and a couple of chickens. I love hanging out with them all and picking up new projects, making messes that we spend the next three days ignoring. I also enjoy building things -- I’ll build these climbing structures for my kids, which I of course later regret as I watch them trying to defy the laws of gravity as they propel themselves off of them. I paint and I draw still on the side.
Then there’s also me time, which is different. I spend so much of my life talking with people all day every day, whether it's my family or people I work with, and so anytime an opportunity for just pure quiet arises, I will sit and do as much of nothing as possible.
How do you typically manage stress?
If I’m feeling stressed, that’s a signal that I need to step back and reprioritize. I need to get clear about what I’m trying to accomplish and check myself -- am I set up for success to accomplish this right now? Do I need to tag some other people in to help? Do I need to find a way to safely drop some balls, and which ones are okay to drop? I reset those priorities to affirm that I'm spending my time well and try to scope back. So I manage stress by kind of undoing it and making it go away by clarifying my direction.
I grew up hearing these two things a lot: “this, too, shall pass”, and “it builds character”. Those are two messages I got a lot as a kid, and I think that sort of impacted how I experience a lot of things and try to almost neutralize them. This is just a thing I’m experiencing right now, and like anything else, it is going to pass. Let me just learn from it and grow from it and use it as a signal to refine my focus.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
Too many! I don’t even actually like caffeine, I just really like the coffee. At my last job, they had a fancy coffee machine, so now here I am drinking three cups a day. I’m working with a colleague right now to embrace the decaf and change the pattern.
What do you consider one of your favorite places in the Boston area?
I think what I really love is just walking around neighborhoods. It’s a really walkable city, and the surrounding cities are all very walkable. When I was a kid, me and a buddy would go on these walks where we’d take a coin and flip it when we reached an intersection to find a direction. We’d try to get lost that way, and I just love that. I love just wandering around, seeing the different kinds of houses and different states of sidewalks and different vibes wherever you go. So I guess my favorite thing isn’t a place, it’s an activity.
What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments so far?
I don’t think I have one single great accomplishment. I feel really good when I learn that I've helped somebody see something that they couldn't see, or helped them through a challenge. Every time I can contribute to someone getting out of their own way -- that’s why I do this work.
Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
I don't tend to think in advance in that way, as my resume can attest. If someone had told me 10 years ago what I'd be doing now, I wouldn't have been surprised, but I certainly wasn't intentionally aiming for this.
What’s your advice to recent college graduates?
Have fun! Having fun is really important, and one of the ways to let yourself move towards having fun is to check your expectations of yourself and really question whether they’re reasonable. Why do I have these expectations? Are these helping or hurting me? Where do they come from? Is this expectation I have of myself something my friend would think that I should have of myself, and how is having that expectation impacting what I'm choosing to do or not do?
On the flip side of that, constantly question your expectations of others around you. What do you expect of your boss, your colleagues, your place of work? And is that reasonable? That type of interrogation can drive empathy and a deeper understanding of who you're working with, and when you do that, I think it opens up a lot of opportunities for stronger connections and collaborations in a way that can lead to really interesting and unexpected things.