Agents of Change: How Individual Contributors Lead From Within

Individual contribution is vital — and lionhearted — work. Building a culture of confidence can invite it into forward-thinking companies.

Written by Jenny Lyons-Cunha
Published on Jun. 28, 2022
Agents of Change: How Individual Contributors Lead From Within
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“Collective action begins with a solo act.” 

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Michelle Nijhuis described individual contributors as agents of incredible change — capable of mobilizing joint action toward causes as varied as environmental conservation and systemic reform. Yet individuals often shy away from the phenomenon Nijuis called “moral rebellion,” despite their expertise.

The reason: uncomfortable feedback.  

It’s a challenge that Dr. Dana Auten, senior product scientist at The Predictive Index, faces daily. For Auten, being an individual contributor in tech means facing fear of pushback. 

“It can be challenging to speak up because, although it’s valued, my perspective differs from the other teams I work with,” Auten said. “The most scientifically sound route isn’t always the easiest.”

But the push through momentary — and healthy — discomfort can come with great reward. 

“Sharing your perspective — despite fear of being judged — can lead to successful collaboration and the optimal balance between science and user wants,” Auten added. 

Individual contributors can bring new ideas, peer mentorship and expertise to any conversation, and possess the power to foster unity and change within their respective organizations. Built In Boston connected with tech professionals from Dawn, Indigo, LightmatterThe Predictive Index, Mainstay and OneView Commerce to learn more about how they confidently lend their voice to the greater good. 

 

Lauren Fry
eCommerce Specialist • Dawn Foods

 

Dawn strives to disrupt the bakery industry by providing customers with partnership, insights, bakery products and expertise that empowers them to achieve their aspirations.

 

Describe the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

I am an e-commerce specialist on the Dawn Foods digital team, led out of Boston. Day-to-day, you will find me working in our PIM, Salsify and reporting out on our digital catalog. I partner closely with marketing and the digital product development teams to ensure that we are providing the right product content on our e-commerce platform and that it is easy for our customers to search and browse for the products that they are shopping for. 

Our digital catalog is just about two years old now. At the start, we focused on getting the basic catalog information ready for our e-commerce launch and have now shifted focus to the quality of our content and ways we can improve the customer experience.

Currently, I am excited to be leading a workstream to bring personalization to our e-commerce platform. We hope to leverage e-commerce as a tool to introduce customers to items that will inspire them. It is also important that in this world where there are many supply constraints, we help our customers easily find products that are in-stock and available to them.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

I always strive to be one who takes the initiative with projects and collaborates with counterparts. Leading the personalization workstream has been my biggest leadership opportunity at Dawn so far, and I am loving it. 

Two of the most important things that I have learned about leading a long-term project like this is to stay flexible and build a cushion into the timeline. Teams can change, priorities may get reshaped and scope can flex — you must stay agile and be ready to pivot.

It is all about having enthusiasm, being a good human that others enjoy working with and building an action-driven reputation.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future?

I would love to be a part of and lead more collaborative projects that drive digital enhancements on our e-commerce platform. In order to do this, I will need to stay curious, listen to the needs of the business and have support from the decision-makers on my team who influence our roadmap. I think it is all about having enthusiasm, being a good human that others enjoy working with and building an action-driven reputation.

 

 

Lindsey DeVore
Software Engineer, DevOps • Indigo

 

Indigo is a greentech company that aims to improve profitability, environmental sustainability and consumer health through the use of natural microbiology and digital technologies. 

 

Describe the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

As a software engineer on the Indigo DevOps team, my focus is providing unified practices, golden-path tooling and developer productivity enhancements in collaboration with our teams, as they build a carbon credit issuance product, a grain trading platform, several sustainability science programs and much much more.

My team gets to look at the big picture from the infrastructure side and pick the places where we can go deep to make the greatest impact. As soon as I joined Indigo, I was able to plug into a major internal financial and compliance automation and tooling project and focus on the workflow through successful completion. 

The best part of the job for me is learning from team members with non-technical backgrounds and initiative-specific developers about their domain expertise and processes — while helping to improve and streamline service through deployment time reductions and feature optimizations. 

I get to play a part in making developers’ lives a little easier and faster while learning myself. It’s a unique opportunity to get to work on common tooling that all of our peers, products and programs at Indigo use on a daily basis.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

As a DevOps engineer at Indigo, you have the exposure to provide mentorship and knowledge of best practices across the organization. You get to be involved in and lead many projects, whether you’re helping a team with a migration, showing a developer how to use a tool, building automation or optimizing an internal tool. 

You need to be a fast learner, motivated and passionate about sharing information with others. This includes helping your fellow teammates get up to speed on projects. 

Recently, I was running point for a major migration effort. When it came time to hand the project over to my teammate, it was my responsibility to set her up for success. We worked side by side until she was in a comfortable place to perform the work with async support from myself and other teammates. 

Now, she is the point person for these efforts and is crushing it. A big part of being a leader is being able to share your knowledge with others.

A big part of being a leader is being able to share your knowledge with others.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future?

Being at Indigo, there is an abundance of opportunity at my fingertips. The world is my oyster! One year and five months ago, I started at Indigo as an IT infrastructure management intern tasked with building out automation that would create an audit log for our IT systems.

I loved being hands-on-keyboard on a daily basis. When I was hired as a full-time member of the DevOps team, it was immediately clear that I’d found a perfect place for me. I trust my teammates to help me shape my next step. 

I am constantly engaged with people who are willing, passionate and eager about supporting and helping me. I am happiest and thriving when I am surrounded by people that I want to someday be like: These are the people who help me discover the new paths and interests I’ll gear up to pursue. 

I couldn’t ask for a better model for me than my current manager the director of DevOps at Indigo, Kelsey Steinbeck. I’m not quite sure if I’ll follow an individual contributor or management track at Indigo, but I have clear pathways, great role models and a supportive team to help me choose what comes next.

 

 

Inside of the Lightmatter office
Lightmatter

 

 

Esha Radhakrishnani
Physical Design Engineer • Lightmatter

 

Lightmatter is an artificial intelligence and photonic computer company that has developed a new paradigm in processor chip architecture that uses photons instead of electrons. 

 

Describe the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

I’m currently working as a physical design engineer and am responsible for taping out the photonic and digital IC’s photonic and digital that make our products at Lightmatter. 

The most exciting part of my job is building something out of whack that nobody has ever seen or built before. What motivates me is that not only will Envise accelerate performance, but it has an immense outcome in saving the planet by reducing the overall energy consumption. 

At present, I’m responsible for a module in our ASIC — from design to sign off to tape out. This is where all the fruits of our labor become tangible, and I cannot wait to get silicon back to see it all come together. I’m stoked to be a part of the journey.

I’m stoked to be a part of the journey.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

Being in a startup is always challenging and fun. Two of the key principles at Lightmatter are to question everything and to not be limited by your job description. Both of these resonate with me. 

As a part of the team, I had the opportunity to hone some of my soft skills as an engineer by jumping into program management that helped collaborate with different disciplines. Being in an inclusive environment, my feedback to my peers on trying to improve processes and design quality is always valued. This exposure has taught me to always listen to my gut and be verbose without having a fear of failure. 

In my almost two years at Lightmatter, I have grown my technical knowledge, gained more confidence and improved my emotional quotient.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future?

In the next three to five years, I see myself becoming a chip lead, doing static-timing analysis, IO budgeting, clocking architecture, excelling at front-end design and coding in Python. 

In the next 10 years, I see myself becoming a VP or director of engineering that understands all the disciplines involving analog, photonics and digital. Lightmatter is helping me get there by giving me hands-on experience.

 

 

A wall in The Predictive Index office that says Decode the Human
The Predictive Index

 

Dr. Dana Auten
Senior Product Scientist • The Predictive Index

 

The Predictive Index is the talent optimization platform that strives to empower companies to align their talent and business strategies. 

 

Describe the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

My work falls into three major areas: evidence-based product development, psychometric maintenance of our products and stakeholder education. I provide subject matter expertise to develop valid tools that enable businesses to select, retain and promote optimal talent, to diagnose and enhance employee engagement, and to design teams that are suited to specific strategic initiatives. 

I also develop internal and external educational resources that enable clients to utilize our products in a scientifically sound manner.

My most exciting project is developing the next iteration of our employee-engagement product. With this project we’ve had the opportunity to creatively transform a simple survey into an insightful, user-friendly experience. We discovered that demand existed for a pulse survey experience and I was responsible for developing and validating the new pulse questions. 

In one and a half years at PI, this has been my first opportunity to own an aspect of a product from beginning to end. It has required me to participate in both discovery and definition work. Being involved in ideation, creation and delivery has made me very proud of myself and of our teamwork.

Leadership in my role looks like speaking up even when my opinion isn’t popular.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

Leadership in my role looks like speaking up even when my opinion isn’t popular. I am the science lead for two products and responsible for ensuring the scientific rigor of those products. 

My team is small, and few others at my company share my expertise. It is therefore critical that I share my perspective. If we introduce a new feature or alter the user’s experience, I need to ensure that those changes won’t degrade the psychometric properties of the product. This is important because the scientific rigor of our products is a major strength for our business.

It can be challenging to share ideas, because my perspective differs from the product, UX, design and marketing professionals that I work with. But I’ve also learned that diverse perspectives are valuable — they typically lead to successful collaboration and an optimal balance between science and user wants.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future?

Working in this industry has challenged me to think more creatively and practice flexibility in approaching problems. It has also exposed me to a variety of responsibilities, projects and people. My goal is to learn as much as I can from that variety. 

I am currently working on broadening the scope of my role and my experience. For example, I am taking on more client-facing work, raising internal awareness of what my team does and conducting research that will improve how clients and users interpret and apply product insights. 

I am also challenging myself to take on work that intimidates me, like higher-stakes client work. My manager has been key in helping me identify those opportunities. She encourages me by reminding me that much of the insecurity I feel is imposter syndrome and by instilling confidence in me. 

I am less focused on finding a career path and more focused on expanding my skills in a way that will allow me to identify aspects of my work that fulfill me most. I have recently noticed that I gain a lot from talking with peers and friends about their career paths — and think at some point in my career I will enjoy coaching or formal mentorship

 

 

Jonathan Porter
Senior Data Engineer • Mainstay

 

Mainstay is an edtech and artificial intelligence company that strives to help learners using research and a behavioral intelligence framework.

 

Describe the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

My role at Mainstay is to build the data platform that powers analytics in our application and allows for self-serve analytics for the company. I’m currently working on streaming data for real-time analytics.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

I’ve had the opportunity to be able to drive our technical data roadmap and design our data architecture. It’s been an experience I’ve enjoyed immensely — because I enjoy building things,  but also because I feel fully supported and valued by the leadership here at Mainstay.

Having a roadmap for how to get there is something that is really valuable.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future?

I’m quite happy with where I’m at in my career. I enjoy designing at a high level, but also getting into the weeds and actually building out systems. In the future, I can see myself continuing down the IC path into a more senior technical role. Having a roadmap for how to get there is something that is really valuable, and I’m so grateful Mainstay has implemented a clear one. 

 

 

OneView Commerce team members having a meeting in a conference room in the office
OneView Commerce

 

Brenden Campbell
Senior Business Analyst • OneView Commerce

 

OneView Commerce seeks to empower retailers to optimize their store and digital experiences using a headless, API-first retail-as-a-service platform. 

 

Describe the most exciting project you’re working on right now.

I’m the product owner of one of our company’s client-facing development teams. My role consists of working with both client and internal teams to define product requirements and curate our team backlog.

We’re currently in the middle of a large scale transformation project replacing a 30-year-old point of sale for one of Australia largest retailers.

By directing your efforts into setting up your teammates for success you can achieve so much more than would be possible on your own.

 

How have you shown leadership in your current role?

As a product owner, it’s my responsibility to ensure that everything the team is working towards delivers the highest value for the product — which means that my success is no longer measured by my individual contribution, as it had been in my previous business analyst roles. Rather, it is measured by the success of the team as a whole. 

I’ve learned that you can’t do everything by yourself. By directing your efforts into setting up your teammates for success you can achieve so much more than would be possible on your own.

 

What do you see as a potential career path in the near future?

I have a fantastic team around me at the moment, so I’m pretty content in the near term. At some point, I would definitely like to become more involved in longer-term, bigger picture product strategy.

I tend to find my motivation in others, more so than anything intrinsic. For me, the key to growth has always been to find a great leader to get behind. If I have that, that rest tends to follow.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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