Tech Role Models: Emily Withrow, Director of Quartz Bot Studio

Today's Tech Role Model is Emith Withrow. Emily is the director of the Quartz Bot Studio.

Today’s Role Model is Emily Withrow. Emily is director of the Quartz Bot Studio, where she writes, designs, and builds narrative experiences for messaging and voice platforms. Her work examines how people and bots interact, and how to build meaningful relationships with audiences on these emerging platforms. She’s also faculty at Northwestern University, where she taught for six years prior to joining Quartz. Withrow spends much of her free time talking with robots, rock climbing, and researching recipes she will eventually abandon for nachos.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

My official title is “Director, Quartz Bot Studio.” I’ve been at the Bot Studio for almost two years, and in the director role for about six or seven months.

What attracted you to this director role?

The mix, and the freedom. We’re a small team with a mandate to explore, which is an incredible thing. My job is a mix of writing, editing, design, observation, play, code, data/analytics, direction, and management. I get to exercise different parts of my brain, and I love it.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

My day really begins the night before. I review my calendar for the following day, and then write out everything I plan to do, hour by hour. I block off time for big-ticket items that will require a lot of attention, and I even write down what to eat for lunch and reminders to drink water. That way, I can follow a script and focus my decision-making on deeper work when I’m fresh. If I start my day by saying, “What should I do today?” I’m sunk.

So: My days always start with a Slack check-in with my team. I’m remote, so I post what I’m up to and read their statuses. From there I usually dive into a large task—this could be working on the conversation design for a new project, reviewing and giving feedback on a project proposal, putting together a project budget, editing a giant feature, or working on a prototype for something more experimental.

My meetings are typically stacked on Tuesdays—one-on-ones with people on my team, strategy meetings, pitch meetings. Lunch, I totally shut down and eat without a screen (unless it’s our team lunches on Wednesdays!) and often read a book. This is crucial because the rest of my day is spent looking at a screen.

Afternoons I typically reserve for more creative work—writing and editing, building. Sometimes things are derailed by an urgent issue—something’s broken or not functioning as expected, etc. Then I help triage and troubleshoot. I typically check email twice a day, beginning and end, and respond.

I keep water-tight boundaries on home vs. work, so when I log off, I stay off until the next day. (There are periods in which this is not possible, of course, but mostly it works!)

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Creative problem-solving, killer observational powers, and a can-figure-it-out attitude. There’s nothing I love more than hard problems with no obvious answers. The learning curve for me, therefore, over my career, has been a slowww understanding that not every difficult problem is one that needs me, or one that advances the ball. So that means getting choosier and more strategic about what problems I work on over time.

That, and my path has been paved by picking up new tools or technologies when I’m curious about them. Understanding the guts of something is quite powerful. You understand the thing’s potential and limitations, and when everything breaks, you’re more useful.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your director role?

Literally all of it. Our team is amazing, and I’m constantly inspired.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

I think it’s continuing to fight the easiest answer. (Note that I’m not saying simplest. Easiest.)

Working in a new space means you’re working so hard to find good answers. When you find one, it’s hard to resist the urge to keep doing that one thing—to rest and repeat the solution you found. But this field is also constantly evolving, so there’s a real danger in not continuing to push your thinking forward, or to revisit things you’d rejected before.

And of course, as you form opinions, you become less open to other ideas. So I think that’s the main challenge—constantly checking myself to make sure I’m finding fresh ways to look at the problem, and to really listen and observe.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

Our core team is already a crazy mix of people, so that’s a daily for me, in terms of interaction with design/creative/editorial/product/analytics/etc. And then of course we have a commercial arm, so I’m also working with our business development and sales teams.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your director role?

I’m always working on truly listening, and on giving and receiving better feedback.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

It’s hard to know where to start, but I think the largest bucket is around communication—understanding your audience and writing/speaking directly to them, both in the work we do, and in how we frame our work.

The second would be around how to function in a remote role, and how to best balance a demanding job with an active personal life.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your director role?

Thoughtfulness, high analytical/critical function, unbound curiosity and enthusiasm for the unknown.

In your role, what metrics define success?

I think if we’re doing it right, everyone feels comfortable putting out new ideas, giving open feedback, and jumping into new projects. Failure would mean people are holding onto their thoughts.

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