Kate Mason on doing the work

Kate Mason is Head of Corporate Communications at Medium. After completing a PhD in English, Kate found her passion in the technology world working at Khan Academy, YouTube and Google. She has a world ranking in debate and thrives on creating world-class narratives and cultivating excellent relationships within organizations. Kate is a new mum and believes putting your head down and doing the work will yield career success.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
At different times for different reasons, I oscillated between wanting to be a lawyer and a writer. At some point, I decided that writing just wasn't possible, that the chances of becoming a successful writer and earning a living that way was somehow out of reach. So I decided to focus on the lawyer part. I went to law school but left my degree after three years and did my PhD in English, instead. In some ways I ticked both childhood boxes, but I'm not a writer and I'm not a lawyer now, although I kind of do elements of both in my job. Maybe I was on the money a little bit!

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
My husband, James and our son, Charlie. James is my best friend and we'd never run out of things to talk about and we’re both obsessed with Charlie.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. I read it when I was about eighteen and it was one of those books that I’ve read and reread over the years. Without sounding twee, it weaved together characters and history and life in a way that I hadn't really seen done before in writing. It's one of the books I think about the most today.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I sleep whenever I can get it! I try to be asleep by about 9:30pm because I'm up at about 5:00am with my son. It's not terrible because I’m a morning person so it suits me, but if I could get to bed earlier I would.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
During my PhD, I considered a career in academia. That was the plan but I got to the end of it and realized a couple of things. One, I was a bit lonely. I liked talking to people a lot more than I had given myself credit for. Two, I felt that I'd been moving very slowly, that academia moved at a glacial pace. The work I was doing that I was investing a huge amount of energy and love into was probably being read by tens of people, if I was lucky. And three, I was really craving a team and having a bigger scale and impact.

So I left academia entirely and went to work at Google. Strangely, again, being part-lawyer and part-writer was very much a part of the role there. You're careful what you say and you have to do a lot of written work and speaking. It felt like a really natural move in a weird way but it was just so exhilarating because it seemed to answer all those things that I was craving: scale, amazing people, and it moved super, super fast.

I have stayed in tech since then. I moved over to the US with Google and then I worked at Khan Academy, the education startup. Now I'm at Medium and, sort of strangely, I've stayed in that same tech universe, but I found the most literary part of Silicon Valley with a startup that's focused on words. I feel very much at home, but I had certainly no plan that the path was going to take the trajectory that it did.

I run communications for Medium and that involves talking to the press and trying to work out what stories we want to tell internally. I work with all of the teams - from product engineering, design, product science - to uncover the interesting parts of what we're doing so that I can connect reporters with the right folks when they want to write about us.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
Being able to come into an organization and gain trust. As a comms person, you're on the frontline speaking for your company. You're representing them to press, you have to have their back and I obviously always do, but the obstacle that I'm most proud of overcoming is winning that trust and being very authentic both internally and externally.

What motivates you?
It might sound very Californian and maybe Silicon Valley-ish and maybe I've been here for too long, but I’m motivated by products that are changing the world. I've been lucky to spend my whole career working on things that have enormous impact and are helping people. That really excites me. I feel like I've been at critical parts of technological history that feel really, really big and important.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
So many things, but I think I left my PhD somewhat worried I'd made a really big mistake; that I invested a whole bunch of years in something that I was essentially turning my back on. I worried I'd missed this corporate path that all my friends were already on and I was going to be too late to jump onboard. I wish I’d known that working hard and being smart was always going to pay off and that employers don't really care what you know. They care that you can learn something very fast and just be super capable. I think if I had known that, it would've alleviated some of the anxiety I felt at the beginning of my career.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Personally, it's my family. Having a child and my husband - it's a huge part of my life that I'm really proud of. Professionally, it's completing my PhD. It was the hardest thing I've done. It takes you to the ends of where you think your brain can go. It's very isolating and very scary to suddenly be the expert in a field, or have to believe that you're the expert in a field. I'm immensely proud of that.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Believing that I could. It's just a real sense of “I've puzzled through tricky things before; I'm sure I can do this one”. Then just putting one foot after the other.

What is your life motto?
On the show Friday Night Lights the football team always chants, "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose” before a game." I don't think I would necessarily call it a life motto, but it was one of those things that I heard and it really stuck. If you can go into things honestly, and fairly, and behave with lots of joy, you're never going to lose.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Put your head down and just do the work. I think you can get really anxious or distracted by people around you getting promoted, or perceiving that they're doing a better job than you. The workplace is a weird place but the people that I really admire, they’re just heads-down doing the work.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I really admire Mellody Hobson. She runs an investment portfolio and she also happens to be married to George Lucas. She's an absolute badass. Every time I hear her interviewed or read anything that she's been quoted in, I am struck by her wisdom and her tenacity.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
I don't value the top for top's sake. There's probably a whole lot of Machiavellian reasons or ways you could get to the top, and I wouldn't want to be at that top. I sort of inverted my answer, which is, I've wanted to work in places where the people who get to the top are the ones who really work hard, are really respectful of other peoples' opinions, and very authentic humans. Those are the things that get you to the top in my mind.

What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
Women just being there.  It's not that women are more kind, or more intelligent, or more anything else. Their presence alone makes me feel really comfortable and engenders that sense of belonging.

What’s your favorite TED Talk?
Elizabeth Gilbert's Your elusive creative genius

What's next?
I’ve only just started at Medium, so what's next is growing this team and seeing where we can go. I'm super excited about it.



As told to Caroline Hugall over GoogleHangout on Wednesday 3rd February 2016. Kate lives and works in San Francisco.