Pinterest webinar: Leveraging your research superpower for mid-career pivot

Editor's note: Automated speech-to-text transcription, edited lightly for clarity. 

At The Quirk’s Event - LA, Head of Research and Design at Pinterest, Cassandra Rowe, gave a presentation in which she discussed how she leveraged her skills to make a mid-career pivot. Rowe then recorded the session to be broadcasted as part of Wisdom Wednesday on March 15. 

Webinar transcription:

Joe Rydholm: 

Hi everybody. I’m Quirk’s Editor, Joe Rydholm. Welcome to our webinar “Transformation: Leveraging Your Research Superpowers for a Mid-Career Pivot.” Before we get started let’s just quickly go over the ways you can participate in today’s  discussion. You can use the chat tab to interact with other attendees and you can use the Q&A tab to submit questions to the presenter during the session and we’ll answer as many as possible during the Q&A portion. Enjoy the presentation! 

Cassandra Rowe: 

Hi everyone. Thank you so much for joining me. My name is Cassandra. For the next 20 minutes, we'll be talking about transformation, specifically how you can leverage your research skills to transform your career. 

So good morning, good afternoon, or good evening to you all. I'm coming to you from Oakland, California. Today will cover off on a handful of things. 

First, I'll introduce myself, I'll talk to you a little bit about Pinterest and how the research team at Pinterest functions. Then I'll define transformation so we're all on the same page, and I'll share a few examples of how I've pivoted throughout my research career and share some learnings that I've gained along the way. Lastly, close for a few minutes of Q&A. 

So let's jump in. 

As I mentioned, my name is Cassandra, and currently I'm the head of research and design at Pinterest. I've been at Pinterest for the last eight years as it has grown from a small scrappy startup to a global household name to ground yourself. In the conversation today, I wanted to share a little bit more about myself, a snapshot of my career.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, and I've been super fortunate to work for multiple household names including Disney Channel, Netflix and now Pinterest. 

I have an undergraduate degree in business from the George Washington University and a master's degree from the University of Southern California. 

And along the way there have been dips, things that are outside of my control. And as we reflect on the last couple of years and how much we've oftentimes had to face, I've been thinking a lot about transformation and how our identity is shaped and changed along the way.

So we're talking about identity. What defines me, who and what am I? 

First and foremost, I'm a researcher. I think I was born to be a researcher. I'm one of those naturally curious, some might say nosy people. And maybe because I'm from a small town, I've always been very interested in understanding and exploring differences. 

My first job out of undergrad was at Lieberman Research, a large traditional market research agency in LA. 

And at Lieberman, I gained a foundational understanding in the right way to do research. At the time, I focused on quantitative research and survey development, and I learned the process of grounding each project in a carefully crafted objective. 

I'm also a builder, and throughout my career, as I've worked for some of these companies, I've leveraged research to build at Disney. We built great products, including a kids' channel for boys called Disney XD. We leveraged insights to build amazing brands like High School Musical, Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers. I got to build a great company alongside others. I helped create the industry standard when it comes to streaming TV and movies. 

And now at Pinterest, I leverage research to build great teams, leveraging rigor and process of research and applying them to building and scaling teams. 

Lastly, I'm a leader today at Pinterest. I lead the design and research orgs of about 150 people across product design, content design, product strategy, design systems and operations. 

Today, I'll focus on my identity as a researcher because I'm still exploring what it means to shift from research to design leader. 

So who here has heard of Pinterest? 

If we were in the room, I assume nearly everyone would raise their hand because you've heard of Pinterest. Maybe some of you even use it or your friend, sister, coworker, or even mom might use Pinterest. 

For those with a little bit less familiarity. At Pinterest, we define ourselves as a visual search engine. 

The mission of Pinterest is to bring everyone inspiration to create a life they love. And people all around the world, like Alyssa come to Pinterest to discover ideas for what to wear, how to style their nails, what to eat, where to travel, even what to buy for their homes, closets and lives. 

And our unique value proposition is that Pinterest is a safe and positive corner of the internet. And according to pinners, 53% consider their time well spent on Pinterest, something that's unique from other social platforms they use, and something I'm extremely proud of.

Today, over 450 million people around the world use Pinterest once a month or more. There are 240 billion pins saved and a team of over 7,500 pin employees build and maintain the Pinterest product in 23 offices around the world. 

Within Pinterest, the research team sits within the design org and partners closely with engineers, designers and product managers to develop, build and maintain the Pinterest product. 

The job of the research team is to be the voice of the user. We do this by studying people as individuals through qualitative research, both in person through one-on-ones in homes and focus groups and virtually or remotely through tools to connect and speak with both users and non-users. And we study people as part of larger systems through surveys and behavioral analysis. 

Our mixed methods research team today partners with all functions across Pinterest, working with the consumer org or piner org, our ads and shopping teams and also within our content and creator teams. 

The research team conducts a mixture of strategic and tactical research and leverages that research throughout the product development process, grounding early decisions in a deep understanding of markets, users or by supporting new product launches through evaluative qualitative UX research. 

And regardless of the type of research or the partner we're working with, the job of research is to connect with users, synthesize insights and make sense of it all. Derive and share those insights with our cross functionals to inform product decisions and drive change. 

So enough about me, enough about Pinterest. You promised we'd be talking about transformation and career progression. Let's move on. 

So to ground ourselves, what exactly is transformation? 

Transformation is change. I know it sounds big and scary and it can be a metamorphosis, a shift in our identity. It's especially challenging if we don't expect that change or if we're trying to encourage others to help us change.

But as I mentioned earlier, my career has had dips and highlights, and I've experienced many transformations. 

Some of these I've sought out. Others were due to shifts and changes in the industry as research continues to develop as a field and a career path. Some of these were also natural growth opportunities that I identified or earned along the way. 

And as I reflect back on my journey, I think of transformation going hand in hand with our identity. Each of these career changes, these shifts in our identity. You work for a new company with a new team, and oftentimes are called something different. And as I started our conversation today, I was talking about things that I identify with, things that define me. 

I'm a researcher, for example. This is a classification that I both give myself. One of those things that I see as part of my identity, but also a classifier that others give me. And while these are based on my experiences, it's easy to get stuck, especially in these outward classifications. 

I'm a student, I'm a market researcher. I work for an agency and we take shortcuts and leverage some of these outside or external classifiers, and they might not allow us to grow or stretch. And it's important for us to look below the surface, look at the knowledge, skills and values that really do define who we are below the surface and help leverage those to encourage and allow us to have mid-career transformations.

So what are some of the transformations that I've been through? I moved from student to professional as I got my first job. 

I worked at a research agency and I moved to a client side role. I was a market researcher and today I'm a UX researcher. I was known for quant and now I'm known as a qualitative researcher. I moved from an IC or individual contributor to a people manager. And as I mentioned one that I'm still working through a researcher to a design leader. 

I do want to note there's a lot of people who talk about their first move from student to professional. And I'm not going to talk about that today. That's something that many other people are much more of an expert at. And I'll dive into some of my mid-career changes and talk you through those as examples of how I evolved and changed.

Pardon about that. Got to fix my computer. Alrighty. So moving on. 

My first transformation or transition was really early in my career and it was a shift from the agency to the client side. 

I mentioned to you earlier that I started at Lieberman, which is a market research agency specializing in quantitative research. And while I was at Lieberman, my identity was defined by my projects, and as a quantitative market researcher. 

I worked for a research agency, I partnered with senior researchers to execute end-to-end research. I worked for a mixture of clients including entertainment, manufacturing and retail. These are all external classifiers that defined me. 

However, at Liberman, I also learned the foundational craft of research. Liberman broke down research into pieces, training people as they grew to develop an understanding of the steps along the way that were critical to completing a project. I worked across a handful of clients, as I mentioned on a host of projects, reigning in scope and complexity.

But learning this foundation of how to conduct research allowed me to later apply additional complexities I needed to move faster or spend less money. 

These helped me make decisions that didn't impact the outcome of the work. And by developing these skills, this understanding of the process of research, it set me up to successfully transition to an in-house research role at Disney Channel where I took this knowledge and partnered with external agencies to conduct brand tracking projects, focus groups and ultimately develop and build brands. 

These foundational skills are the things that enabled me to make this first pivot and change from being on the agency side to the client side. And so as I mentioned, these external classifiers have changed while I developed skills and was able to grow. 

My second pivot was from market research into UX. 

I was a market researcher, a brand researcher, my role at Lieberman and at Disney Channel and at Netflix. My research role was within the growth team, a team that was a natural overlap of marketing and product organization. 

This team's goal was to deeply understand market conditions, user needs and develop a unique onboarding and marketing plan to help Netflix grow from a U.S.-based streaming company, U.S.-based DVD company to a global streaming platform. 

My previous market research experience at Disney was relevant to this role, and I was able to develop a UX toolkit because we also focused on the new user onboarding experience and the day zero experience in partnership with ENG product and design. 

So over time in this role, I was able to continue to develop my research skills and become a partner who had both market research and UX experience later building a kids only platform and focusing on social experiences.

And so at Netflix, I was able to evolve that skillset again, that deep understanding of my craft, what I brought to the table by leveraging my market research experience and expanding my skills to learn processes and best practices of UX projects. 

There's often times a lot of discussion about the differences between market research and UX, but ultimately these forms of research are complementary. And my combined experience allowed me to select the appropriate methodology to address the research question, to balance rigor and speed, gather both behavioral and quantifiable learnings and perceptions and stories that drove decision making. 

It allowed me to change how I classified myself from market research to UX and also made me a better researcher by having the combined experience.

My third transformation is when I grew from being an IC or individual contributor to being a people manager. 

While those first two changes were evolutions of how I was classified, which brought over time new skills, this shift required me to first explore if I wanted to be a manager and if I had the skills that were necessary to make that change. 

So a little bit of context at Pinterest when I joined it was rapidly growing and we needed to have more people manage as our teams were growing really quickly. I had joined as a senior IC with really clearly outlined responsibilities, but as the team grew, we brought on more junior researchers, and we began to break apart some of our large scopes. 

And so as we grew, I needed to understand first and foremost if I wanted to be a people manager. So I mapped out and understood my skills and that was able to help me ground my decision and my strengths as a researcher. 

Many of us have strengths that are transferable to leadership, rigor, process and deep passion for problem solving are critical to being a leader and also make us strong researchers. 

A strong storytelling background also enables me to be a better communicator with my teams. 

However, when I mapped out my skills and what was needed to be a people manager, I understood that there were areas I'd have to develop, I'd have to shift from building products to developing people, securing resources, creating processes and hiring and developing people. 

Ultimately, I decided to switch into management and stay in management because I love growing in developing people and teams.

So I just shared three examples of transformations that I've gone through in my career, changes to my role that allowed me to expand my skill set and take on more responsibilities. And when I look back at these, each of these, while very different, help me learn five things that I wanted to share with you. 

So first and foremost, don't let others classify or limit us in ways that we can contribute or the skills that we can build as we explore new types of career opportunities. 

Just because today we define ourselves as a market researcher, doesn't mean we can only apply for roles that are classified as market research. Lean into your skills, your qualities and look and explore new opportunities for yourself. You have to be the one that defines you. Don't let others classify you and what you can do. 

Secondly, be ready for change when it comes your way. Most of my biggest transformations came when I was already on the job. Leverage your existing skills and build and expand upon them.

Number three, be your largest advocate. Be your biggest advocate, cheerleader for yourself. Keep track of measure and share your contributions and impact. No one is going to be a better cheerleader than you will be for yourself. 

Number four, leverage research to have a point of view and share it. Increase in your influence and your visibility by being the voice of the user, sharing what you've learned to inform decision making. 

And last, but certainly not least, building foster strong, authentic relationships. We are so fortunate to work in a field where people are naturally empathetic and typically very kind and help others build friendships, find sponsors and sponsor others as they learn and grow in their career. 

With that, I'm going to say thank you. Thank you for your time today. I hope this was helpful and I look forward to getting some questions. I'm chatting with you further now. We're going to open it up for Q&A.