How I Broke Into Tech: Katie Pagenkopf

Author Date October 20, 2022 Read 10 min
You’re not defined by your work, your job title, or what you studied in school. In this “How I Broke Into Tech” series, we’re talking to projekt202 team…

You’re not defined by your work, your job title, or what you studied in school. In this “How I Broke Into Tech” series, we’re talking to projekt202 team members and discussing the varied backgrounds that can lead to a career within the tech industry.

For our very first interview, we talked with Katie Pagenkopf, a projekt202 ESI Practice Director who graduated with a degree in music performance. Read on to learn how she got started in tech, her proudest career achievement, and the key skill she credits to her music performance degree.

If you have any degrees, what are they in?

I grew up in the Seattle area, in a very blue-collar, middle-class family. Early on, I got involved in music through public education. God bless teachers. After high school, I moved to New York City for college. I studied the upright bass at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. So I have a Fine Arts degree in music performance.

What were the first steps to changing your career?

Well, I realized I was much more conventional than I thought. I don’t want to work in the evenings and on the weekends, which is when musicians typically do shows. About halfway through school, I realized being a full-time musician was not for me.

At the same time, I was also really getting into politics. I got my first job working for a talk radio startup called Greenstone media, founded by Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda. Working here was my feminist dream come true. Unfortunately, this was in 2007, right before the financial crisis. We were a startup and we needed additional rounds of funding. It just didn’t happen. When that fell apart in 2008, I worked some random jobs.

Eventually, I got my life together. As fun as music was, when I would walk into an interview and tell the hiring manager that I had a music degree, I could just see the enthusiasm bleed out of their face. They no longer wanted to talk with me. So I went back to school and I got my MBA.

How did you decide on getting an MBA?

Simply put, I went to music school and paid for it with student loans. I got out of undergrad with almost $100,000 in student loans, so not the brightest thing. I thought to myself, well, I’m going to have to make some decent money. At that time, my dad was helping me pay my bills each month and I was already a grown-ass adult.

I was fascinated with economics and how the larger economy functioned, but studying economics had some risks for me. While I was working at a law firm, we had some empty offices that we rented to an independent financial advisor. I began to get to know him and he said to me one day, “Why don’t you get your MBA?” At the time, I thought that an MBA was for people who wanted to become stockbrokers, right? I had that idea of the New York Stock Exchange and people looking up at televisions and screaming. I said, “Oh no, that is not for me.” But then he was able to help me understand that an MBA can be a lot of things. So I came around to it.

The thing about studying music? It teaches you intense accountability. It’s up to you to go into the practice room by yourself with your instrument and figure it out. And if you don’t, there’s no one to blame but yourself.

What skills would you say are important for almost any career?

I would say the willingness to roll your sleeves up and do something. I am continually shocked by people who are willing to say, “Oh, leadership needs to do this,” or “I don’t have the X, Y, or Z.” I personally find life more interesting when I can go off and figure out something on my own and then come back to the naysayers and say, “Well, here it is, and if you’d like to repeat my success, here’s the process I took.”

That, and to remember that we’re all individually accountable for trying to get along with our colleagues. I struggle with people solely blaming others. Part of your job is to get along with your colleagues whether you like it or not. That’s just part of being human. Part of being human is getting along with other people.

How did you get started in tech?

Well, outside of business school, I was trying to do as much networking as I could. Through my church, I was introduced to this guy, Mark Hurst, who had founded a company called Creative Good. Creative Good did a lot of essentially what our ESI Group at projekt202 does, so combined strategy and research. I began working part-time, helping them with their website and that kind of stuff. This role eventually grew into my becoming a consultant for them. I began working on projects like The New Yorker Magazine.

Toward the end of my MBA, I became interested in the concept of customer experience and understanding if customers were happy with a product or not. One of my marketing professors blew my mind when he told me there are a lot of business opportunities around understanding the customer experience and trying to make it better.

I ended up doing research for Virgin America right before they were bought by Alaska Airlines. I also helped Ion Hewitt with their benefits, then ended up moving into advertising and worked for Starcom where I had Samsung as a client. This allowed me to see the device side of tech, how a company like Samsung thinks about the larger ecosystem of tech and how their devices fit into that.

When I grew bored with that, I began working for a large bank. At this bank, I got into agile and was working with developer teams. This is where I learned how to write user stories. This was also where I got experience being a relationship manager and bringing in third-party vendors to help us build a product. The whole time that I was working at the bank, I was in touch with projekt202. I was interested in the switch from the client to the consulting side of things, and I knew that projekt202 would be an ideal entry point. That’s my whole story in a nutshell.

What attracted you to the tech field?

While getting my MBA, I had an accounting professor who was the controller at Etsy. He arranged a company tour for me and some of my classmates. He set us up to go to Etsy, where he worked, Squarespace, and Roku. I had this whirlwind of a day in New York City. I just loved the level of energy and the ideas that were being explored and the fact that there was clearly a need for some business acumen in these very techy spaces.

What skills have transferred from previous roles or followed you from the beginning of your career until now?

The thing about studying music? It teaches you intense accountability. It’s up to you to go into the practice room by yourself with your instrument and figure it out. And if you don’t, there is no one to blame but yourself. This is the biggest contributing factor toward my learning intense accountability. It forced me to ask what can I do between now and my next private lesson to at least make some forward progress and be able to show some forward momentum.

What advice would you give to those who feel stuck in their career or want to make changes within their current roles?

I would encourage people to use their curiosity to lead them. Hopefully, there’s at least one thing you can find in your job responsibilities that you’d like to maybe know more about, or you suspect you could be good at or better. Just find that one thing and nurture that.

I’ve learned in life that the reward for good work is more of the work that you want to do. At the risk of sounding a bit evangelical, it’s like the faith of a mustard seed. It doesn’t have to be huge. Mustard seeds are tiny things, but they grow into these big bushes.

I’ve been a big fan of faking it ‘til you make it. I think I actually prefer the jobs that I don’t 100% fit in because that’s where the learning opportunity is.

Do you have any advice on how to begin searching for jobs but might not know the exact title of they’d like to pursue?

I’ve always relied on networking. But let’s define what I mean by networking. I’m an introvert. I’m not the networker who shows up at conferences and introduces myself to everyone. I’m the networker who has a one-on-one coffee or a drink with someone and I try to keep it short.

Before I really knew what I wanted to do, I would talk about the projects or activities I had done, what I liked about them, and what I thought I did well in them. Very quickly, I noticed people saying, “Huh, it sounds like you would do well in consulting.” I was shocked but intrigued. So, talking with people really helped me. I never spent hours on Indeed searching for job titles or anything like that.

What advice would you give to people, especially women, who feel as though they can’t apply for a job if they don’t meet 100% of the requirements?

For me, it’s all about interview preparation. I can come across on paper really well, but a lot of my anxiety comes from filling that gap of that last 20 to 30 percent where I don’t quite meet every single requirement. So my solution for that has been over-preparation for interviews. For me, this means literally writing out responses to the standard questions. I also really benefited from working with a career coach who was available during graduate school.

Was there ever a role that you applied for and landed but you weren’t 100% qualified to do? How did you proceed?

Oh, yeah. I mean, I think most of them up until this role at projekt202 were. I’ve been a big fan of faking it ’til you make it. When I get a new job, I know that those first six months are going to be really intense. I just accept that there is a learning curve because if I just charge through those six months, I get through my learning curve. I think I actually prefer the jobs that I don’t 100% fit in because that’s where the learning opportunity is.

My dad was a mechanic, right? I didn’t go to Harvard, I didn’t go to Wharton. I don’t have a lot of those checkboxes. But, here I am.

What is the most important career lesson you’ve learned so far?

You can’t steer a still ship.

I didn’t come up with that on my own. I heard that at a conference when I was in college. Those are words I live by. Analysis Paralysis is a real thing. The problem when you are perfectly still is that you have no feedback to know if you’re going in the right or wrong direction, or if you want to change directions. So, I always recommend that you at least take a step back so that you have some kind of feedback to go off of.

What is your favorite thing about your current role?

The people. Period. projekt202 is not perfect, of course, but coming from my previous bank job, it feels pretty damn close to perfect. This is a community. For me, the fact that I can talk to pretty much anyone at projekt202 and hear an incredible story about their last interesting job or some amazing hobby or maybe they just got back from climbing Mount Everest. It just seems like that’s kind of what this group is about. The further along I get in my career, the more important it is that I like who I work with because I’m not usually solving problems on my own.

And, honestly, work is my creative outlet. I’ve been very lucky that I’m able to funnel my creativity into my job and my work community. Because there’s my job, which is what I do day to day, but then there’s also the community aspect. Stuff like our Women’s History Month panel discussion, I think of it as investing in the community of my job. For whatever reason, that’s just inherently more satisfying on the warm and fuzzy side of things.

What has been your proudest professional accomplishment?

Maybe this is recency bias, but when I was working at the bank, I had an amazing colleague. He taught me how to write user stories. He taught me the ins and outs of Scrum, Agile and Kanban, and all that good stuff. He is from India and wanted very much to live in North America and I was able to help him navigate the visa system.

Just a few weeks ago, he got an I-140, which is the document he needs to move forward in the visa process. At this point, it’s basically guaranteed that he will get his Green Card. That’s just one person I was able to help, but a beautiful human being—a man who now has a delightful wife and they’re living in Canada now. So that was a real proud moment for me.

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