ThoughtWorks partnered with Okta four years ago to take its traditional, on-premises environment to the cloud. Kelsey van Haaster also went through her own transformation-- out of a career in consulting + motherhood to pursue her passion for technology. Now, Kelsey is the Identity Product Owner at Thoughtworks leading a completely remote team and connecting thousands of ThoughtWorkers every day. Since Kelsey joined us onstage at Oktane and became #OktaCertified, we were eager to sit down to understand her story and share her sage advice with other aspiring IT leaders.
Tell us about your current role at ThoughtWorks.
I am the Identity Product Owner and resident Okta Certified Administrator for the ThoughtWorks global identity team. We are a globally distributed, remote-first team of six people, serving more than 5000 employees. Based on where we’re located, we can provide 24/7 support. We use an agile approach and are a flat team structurally. We’re all very hands-on and experienced because due to the nature of the role, you might be the only person awake so you need to make a sound, educated decision.
What is the most challenging part of your role?
Communication. I’m a good communicator, but trying to keep everyone on the same page is challenging. I need to make sure I’m always up to date about what’s going on and that everyone has what they need to be able to continue problem solving. At the same time, I need to stay big-picture across multiple streams of work.
And the most rewarding part?
Seeing that we really make a difference. We can deliver significant change and business value working the way we do. Also, the relationships between the team. Despite we the fact that we don’t sit together and we’ve never all physically met together all at once, we all have really close social relationships. We put extra effort into making sure we know each other as people. It’s the closest and most collaborative team I’ve ever been a part of and it’s led to a very special kind of trust.
Tell us about your career path. How did you get into identity?
IT is actually my second career. I started in my thirties after spending many years in sales-- it’s never too late to learn new skills! While taking a career break to have a family, I started studying IT part time, purely as an interest, and was immediately hooked. I quite accidentally ended up teaching OOP theory to first year Computer Science students while at the same time completing a first class honors degree in software development.
For various reasons, I ended up taking a role as a Systems Analyst, spending much of my early years working in the Higher Education field and specializing in Learning Management Systems. I then moved into consulting and worked in many different domains. I had always found Identity fascinating, particularly so in the Australian government and education contexts where the need for federation across, local, state and federal jurisdictions was dire. I was consulting for ThoughtWorks when the internal role of Product Owner for the identity team came up. The rest is history, but I can say, it's the best, most satisfying job I have ever had.
How has Okta helped you to develop your career?
ThoughtWorks is always an interesting problem space, we have a very flat hierarchy and employees are not accustomed to heavy handed IT admins telling them what they can and cannot do, so rolling out any Identity Management product was always going to be tricky. Okta's flexibility and willingness to engage and listen have been key to it's success at ThoughtWorks.
For me, the opportunity to complete certification has allowed me to learn much more about how to get the best out of the platform, as well as deepening my understanding of the domain I am working in. The credentials have increased my confidence and others’ confidence in me as the owner of identity. I’m able to to better explain to our company how we’re using Okta and how it helps protect our employees’ and their data. I’ve learned over the years that the best way to learn something is to put yourself under some pressure. I used the training and certification process as a framework to learn things I might not otherwise.
How did you prepare for certification?
I took the Okta Essentials course which was a great introduction for me. It really is essential and it was the beginning of really delving into how the product works and what we could do with it at ThoughtWorks.
I also took advantage of the training courses in the Certification Exam study guides. I created a demo environment and set everything up for practice and experimentation. This hands-on work really helped.
What were some of the most transformational moments in your career?
One is when I was first invited to teach Java students at an undergraduate level. This turned what was just an interest into a career. One of my mentors presented me with the opportunity and while I didn’t know if it was right for me, I’ve always said “if someone offers you an opportunity you say yes and figure out how to do it later.”
The second was becoming the Identity PO at ThoughtWorks. Previously I had always considered myself a generalist. This role has encouraged me to specialize and obtain a focus on getting deep knowledge in one specific subject area. It’s one that’s important to me. I’m very strongly a data privacy advocate and identity is a massive part of that. However, the generalist skills over the years have helped that quite a lot.
What is your advice for others getting started in this field?
1) Remember that opportunity is often disguised as hard or dirty work. Always say yes when it knocks on your door, even if you do have to figure out how later.
2) A lot of people hear “IT” and say “Oh, that’s too complicated”. I’d argue that it’s actually not. It’s about developing relationships and understanding what people need. It’s a communications job as much as it is any other kind of job. If it interests you, you can learn the technical skills. IT is an enabling business and there’s something in it for anyone who is interested.
3) Particularly for women, find a mentor and be a mentor. These mentors will change throughout your career depending on what your needs are. Know that people are willing to support if you ask. But on the flipside, it’s not always easy to ask. So if you know of someone who needs a hand-up, advocate for them and support them. Women need to support each other, especially in tech. I’m very grateful to the women who did this for me and I strive to always be that person for others.