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Skills Series - Jazmin Tanner

Introduction to Jazmin Tanner

With youth development programs being pivotal in Jazmin’s growth, she's been tenacious at ensuring everyone has opportunities that those programmes afforded her.

In 2018 Jasmine co-founded Project Z, a non-profit addressing the skills gap by preparing underrepresented youth for the future of work through experiential project-based learning, while simultaneously creating a pipeline of diverse talent for companies.

Jazmin also supports the vision of a world where we freely share, in the sum of all knowledge, in her role as a senior technical program manager at the Wikimedia Foundation.

She is an accountability partner for teams creating products that allow users to edit and access Wikipedia and other Wiki projects. Jazmin has been recognized as an Aspen ideas festival scholar, world economic forum global shaper, national black MBA association, DC mentor of the year, and inductee of the national coalition of 100 black women.

Jazmin has served on panels, written articles and facilitated various workshops on goals, achievement, diversity, equity, inclusion, economic empowerment, careers, and youth empowerment.

What do you think a skill is and what do skills mean to you?

I’d say skills are a set of personal tools you acquire over time in order to apply to different situations.

That's essentially what it boils down to; how are you creating resources, mental resources and tools for yourself, so when you're thrown in different situations, you can pull the right tool out of your kit. In order to work your way into a new opportunity or out of a challenge.

How does that compare to technical skills?

I honestly think it's still a set of tools, even with technical skills. Because whether it's app development or web development, you have to figure out what the right programming languages are. If you're a developer and you assess if there’s a bug or a feature that you want to fix - What is the right stringing together of that programming language in order to fix that problem? Where if you're a designer and your users want something, what is the best workflow to take your users on in order to solve whatever problem work? It's still acquiring a tool, a certain toolset.

What's your earliest memory of developing a skill?

I was in a youth development program when I was in high school. And some of the things that they taught us were a lot of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

No matter what the challenge is, you should be able to take a challenge that may feel like it's really big, and break it down in order to solve parts of that problem.

An example was giving a speech. I wasn't used to public speaking, so I had to understand what were all of the steps were. I had to watch other great public speakers to see their process in order to deliver a speech properly.

How would you say that's played out in where you are today? Is that still a set of tools and an approach that you're still using today?

Yes, it is still something very much that I apply. When I was younger and my mentor told me you're going to be in this oratorical competition, you're going to have to speak publicly in front of people.

You need to think about what are the three points you're going to hit on. Here's how you structure it. Those are things I still apply to when I need to speak publicly.

Some things haven’t changed. I still get nervous when speaking in front of people, but I still go through the same ritual. I would say some of those things are now a bit more in autopilot.

I know that I need to prepare ahead of time. I need to think of what are points I absolutely want to hit on what is the style of speaking.

Practice makes perfect. Do you think that that there's a moment where you realise that happening?

Have you found the more you practice skills the easier they become?

Absolutely. There’s a saying: You're not paying me for the three hours it takes in order for me to accomplish something, you're paying me for the years it took me to do it.
The way that I notice that it's different, is I'm able to accomplish whatever it is in a shorter amount of time. And with that extra time, I could maybe level that up.

For example, with technical program management preparing for something like a retrospective. I have a set of principles. We want to solve this problem. This is the right template to apply. And I'm having to spend less time going on Google to search the right template for a specific retrospective, because I’ve memorised it.

If you reflect on where you were at that point, were there any particular skills that you struggled with?

Yeah. One was maths. I was not great at math. I was struggling at regular high school math. I could not get it. Today I get it. It was something that took practice over a time. Maths is still not my favourite thing, but I know how to do it.

How did you cope with that struggle and being able to commit to developing that skill?

It took a lot of practice. It was hard and I had someone that had to help me.

In order for me to finish my degree in marketing, which was very maths intensive, I had to go a maths centre where you could get help with your homework. I had to go every single day just to keep my grades up.

I had to go and ask for help.

You’re juggling your day job as a senior technical program manager and Project Z. Can you tell us a bit more about the skills that you're using with both of those?

I love project Z so much is because it was actually a marriage of skills.

When I came out of college, I was a chair of leaders of tomorrow the programme I was at at high school, but I noticed there was a gap in the programming based on the direction of jobs and the things that they were teaching. It's great for college prep, but the reality of the situation is not everyone should go to college right away, or not everyone can go to college right away, but they still need to have a quality job, and still have continuous education.

And so when I created Project Z, the skills that I got from running the leaders of tomorrow programming as a non-profit I was able to apply to create my own non-profit. I had a sandbox, so working in an environment that was already stood up to learn the ins and outs to create my own.

Additionally, before I started working at the Wikimedia Foundation, I was a consultant. I was an IT project manager, but I was able to learn client development and the types of things that are taught to different consultants. I apply that model to Project Z for the students and it’s embedded in the programme.

When they work on projects, they learn how to get their own clients. All of that came from me working in consulting and transferring.

As I try one thing with on role I'll apply it back and forth.

Tell us a little bit more about Project Z and how it works?

I will either partner with DC government where I'll have an advance, separate cohort.

We put out a call for youth ages 16 to 24, and in their application, they’ll detail their educational journey, where do they want to go e.g. do they want to be business owners. If so, what industry. What things do they need in order to get there? We are asking them what skills they currently have and what skills do they need to receive.

Based on some similarities and the cohort of students, that is the launchpad to start sourcing projects. We work with government entities. We work with non-profits and for-profit companies to develop projects that can be completed within six weeks. The students come together and outline what client their scope of work is and run through a project schedule of when we are going to complete it.

By the end of the programme, the students have a showcase and have mentors along the way to help them with roadblocks. They have lessons each week and then they submit their assignments at the end of the week, which is checked over. They're given feedback. They have retrospectives that they run together.

Are there any elements that are key to unlocking the true value of those experiences?

I would say working in ambiguity. Receiving maybe half or 70% of instructions and figuring out once you learn how to problem-solve. You can apply that to almost anything.

Not throwing your hands up and giving up. Instead of feeling impassioned and having the confidence to say I can figure whatever this problem is out. With the future of work, we don't know what jobs are going to look like. They're changing so much. So it's not enough to say here are the specific rules and just follow these rules and you'll be okay.

No matter what the situation is, you need to be able to understand how to figure it out.

How do you go about teaching someone to problem-solve?

You take a problem that's big and you first divide down, and you subtract whatever you can that's a distraction. Once you do that, you add solutions while it’s in small pieces, and you put it back together and then multiply it over time.

And whatever the lessons learned from figuring out that problem, you extrapolate it on other situations.

An example of this: The project that we gave to the students last year - we wanted them to develop a website for a virtual reality experience called walking for freedom Venezuela.

This was the first time having to talk to a customer and take it from a concept to a customer. First they built a prototype and had the meeting with the client, and they learned that was the wrong approach. They didn't ask them what needed to included as a first step.

The students leant that before you even get to a prototype, you need to have some wireframes. You need to do some testing, then you can get to a prototype and building what is your success criteria?

That's an example of getting an ambiguous project, build a website, and then having to figure out we need to be very specific in our understanding of what the client needs.

You’re now a technical program manager now, wanting to transition into product management, which would be a career change for you. Can you tell us a little bit about what the differences are between those, particularly from a skills perspective?

Program management is about organising process. It’s partnering with different stakeholders, mainly the developers and engineers that are building the actual product. And once the product manager establishes the vision for whatever it is, you're helping the team reach whatever that vision is and you're protecting their time or moving any like blockers that may get in the way of them accomplishing those goals.

If there might be like a slip in timeline, you're figuring out with the product manager, what can be rejiggered around, making sure people are happy, as a part is input into making sure that the project is a success.

With product management you are more of a visionary, you need to still care about people, but the people are the customer. What is a need or a challenge or opportunity that is there for your users and coming up with a vision that makes sense and addressing whatever those needs are?

Being able to get the development team on board and believe in your vision and communicating that back to users. Some of those skills that are transferable. You still need to be able to communicate well, just who you're communicating to is a little bit different.

You have to be creative. Coming up with ideas, coming up with ideas in relation to solving the needs of users.

What is it that drew you to wanting to transition away from the program management to the product management?

As I worked with my development teams and with product managers I would realise I was really invested, not just in how we got things accomplished, but what we were doing and why we were doing it. I have really strong convictions about it. And I was like, I think I can do this.

I think Project Z also plays into that because coming up with programming for the youth and helping to scope out what a project will be for the students to work on it. It is in the vein of product management in a way I had to come up with a vision in order to create the programme and see it through.

What would you say is your superpower? What’s your greatest skill? What's the thing that you're most good at and how does that play into your various roles?

It would have to be empathy as a skill. In activism you have to be able to identify with the people that are most marginalised or at least have the humility to understand your own privileges and your place within a movement in order to be helpful.

In product management, you have to empathise with users and in program management, empathising with the team is key. Having a sense of empathy and listening before acting has been really helpful.

How do you learn how to be empathetic?

I think it's listening more and talking less. I think that was something that I was taught at a young age, but it has also been reaffirmed many of the times where I haven't done well on an activity or in a subject at school. It was because I was doing too much or trying to do, instead of trying to listen and understand.

I would say take a step back to deeply learn. It's not enough just to do your homework. You have to also study.

Why did you get things right? Why do you get things wrong? And can you reach a moment going back over it and get it right.

What would your tips be for someone who does need to do more? How do they go getting into more of a routine where it becomes natural for them to go that extra step?

Whatever time you think it'll take you to do something, add more time in order to invest in learning more. You have to prioritise creating time to understand something and then being willing to ask for help.

You can reach out to someone on LinkedIn and on social. 9 times out of 10 someone's really willing to help you. So if you can't unlock something by yourself, talk to a subject matter expert that can give you whatever that next step.

In thinking about jobs, skills, If you're able to take a moment to like truly understand the environment, to be empathetic, you can see what the need is because sometimes if you're able to fill a need that other people aren't seeing there, that's really valuable because people will pay more for things when someone is filling a need, as opposed to if there's an excess.

On the skill of listening. Do you have any particular tips, hints, tools that you've used over time to be a better and more effective listener?

There is this book called: A facilitator's guide to participatory decision-making and it’s one of the best books because it teaches you there's a lot of different ways to listen. One thing you can try is paraphrasing, phrasing, or mirroring.

Here’s an example: The aim is for people that are watching today to be able to walk away from this series with at least one tangible thing that they can do. And that's a skill of active listening.

That right there is using some mirroring and therapy phrasing before even jumping into responding. Say it back to the person. You don't have to say it exactly the way that they said, but make sure you've got it and that you fully understand before you start to actually respond.

Have you found an effective way of staying current and avoiding skills that will be obsolete in the future?

I think that goes back to understanding the need. The World Economic Forum just released a report on the direction of the job market. I took some time to read through it, to understand what those jobs will look like and I apply those to Project Z to help others.

Paying attention to my work. What is there a need for and can I fulfil that?

So an example there, in June, during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement a lot of companies were asking, what can we do? What can we do? And so particularly for product management, I took some time and put together a deck that explained how to build more inclusively and remove bias from products.

I shared that within the product department where I work and that created a working group for us to develop a framework around inclusive product development. Taking the extra time to do some research, talk to people, create the deck. I didn't know at the time, but we got all the resources need for the working group. And so now the product managers are saying it would be helpful to have a dedicated person or a dedicated team for D&I product development.

To summarise that, looking externally - looking at reports by entities on what jobs are increasing, which jobs are decreasing. And then also looking at where you work now. What are unique needs that are being created and how can you position yourself to take that on?

Do you have any particular insights on the jobs of the future? Where do you see demand and what skills are needed for the future of work?

When it comes to technology and design and how we interact with it; problem-solving type of jobs, those are the ones that we'll continue to see, as well as thing things that are in the arts and are creative.

The entertainment industry is still huge. Will always be huge. We will always consume. It will look a little bit different. You could be a YouTube content creator and make millions of dollars. And that's a job, right?

If you asked me five years ago people can make money millions of dollar on YouTube, I definitely would have had no idea.

Do you think that all people can learn all skills or do you think that there are certain people that suit certain things better?

Can everyone learn one of the jobs that will be available in the future? I think the answer is yes. And so what truly needs to happen? There needs to be a systemic change in how we learn. The way a lot of education systems are still set up is teaching for jobs that are dying out.

I think if we were to have more things directly related to problem-solving, in arts, and working on projects or critical thinking problem-solving.

Not just technical and digital literacy in terms of can you code, but do you understand the algorithms for it? Do you understand like how it works together, different languages?

Learning things like empathy and getting counselling in school and effective communication. I think if young people were taught those things, they’ll be equipped for whatever jobs come down the pipeline.

What would you be your advice to people that may need to be thinking about a career change?

Start in two places. First, externally at reports. What are going to be the needs for jobs? Also, you are currently working somewhere, what are jobs that are around that are high paying in your company that they are of interest?

What skills do they have now that they can improve upon to get to that next level or what skills do they need to acquire. Figure out what acquisition or refinement of skills is needed. There are loads of free certifications and bootcamps online, reaching out again to mentors on CareerEar.

Networking, networking and networking. Because if you can talk through your skills to someone, to the right person at the right time, they may give you that opportunity.

What skill are you're learning right now and how?

I'm learning more about design at the moment. The reason I’m learning more about design is because it's more about how people think about how they interact with things. The way that I'm learning that is by working in interviewing teams and asking them their current process in building, to understand what people are doing now. I'm looking at other companies to understand what things they're doing well.

I'm in a couple of Slack groups with PMs that have a focus on design, and then talking to like actual designers. So talking to people, reading books, and literally interviewing teams about their processes.

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