CX Profiles: Alice Egan
Alice is fearless. If you ask her about her career path, that’s probably not how she would put it. But I’ll say it because it’s true.
She gets that if she doesn’t know something today, she can learn it for tomorrow. She doesn’t hold herself back the way so many people do, and that’s precisely the type of courage it takes to build a modern career.
Growing up in a New York City suburb, Alice wasn’t exposed to much of the tech world. Her father did a bit of freelance work for IBM building their website in the late ’90s. Beyond that, she was raised in a creative household.
“Growing up, most of my friends’ parents were doctors, lawyers, or they worked in the entertainment industry. I didn’t know anyone whose parents worked in the software industry. My parents are creative. When I was growing up, they were both freelance writers and authors.”
How’d she land in tech?
That’s where fearlessness comes into play.
Exploring the world
Languages sparked Alice’s interest in the world around her, which started at a young age while watching her mother grow an English-language consultancy in New York.
“My mom always inspired in me an interest in people, puzzles, languages, and culture. She would elbow me on the subway and ask, ‘Alice, what language do you think those people are speaking?’”
It’s not surprising that Alice focused on finding a place to become fluent in French when it was time to look at colleges. That’s how she chose Tulane in New Orleans.
During college, Alice studied French and Linguistics. To satisfy her wanderlust, she chose a semester abroad in Paris as well as Senegal. In Senegal, she completed an independent study exploring how high school-aged girls switch the languages they used based on the situation and context. Many of these students were trilingual, and Alice saw how influential situations are on language and interactions. After studying abroad, she wasn’t ready to stop seeing all the world had to offer.
“After going to Senegal, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll join the Peace Corps or join an international organization.’ I just really wanted to get abroad in some way, shape, or form.”
Of course, she needed to finish her degree first. Returning to Tulane from Senegal, she was looking for a way to continue her adventure when the stars aligned.
“I’m standing outside of the French Department, and I’m twiddling my thumbs one day realizing I have three months until I graduate, and I have no plan. I want to travel, and I also don’t really have money. And I see a poster for Codofil, The Council for the Language and Development of French in Louisiana. It seriously said:
‘Are you studying French?’
‘Are you studying linguistics?’
‘Are you a Louisiana student?’
‘Do you want to spend a year abroad on the government’s dime in France, Nova Scotia, or Belgium?’ And I’m like, Yes, yes, yes!”
Since the program advertised was for master’s students, she figured she wouldn’t be chosen but started the application anyway. Seeing a partially completed application, a member of the committee called her and said if she sent in an essay, chances were good she would get a spot. That was all the encouragement she needed. One essay later, Alice had a full scholarship to move to Belgium, where she spent a year and a half.
During her first ten months in Belgium, she worked at restaurants and went to school. Bilingual waitressing was an interesting challenge.
“I worked at an Irish pub where I was constantly switching between French and English. Then I got a job at a restaurant that was all French all the time. I have a lot of respect for people who work in another language. It can be really intimidating. Restaurant jobs tee you up for doing anything customer-facing.”
Taking advantage of living in one of the world’s most internationally focused cities, she landed her first-ever paid internship as an editorial assistant for the EU policy review journal of a Brussels-based think tank. An editorial gig at a Belgian study abroad company followed, giving Alice her first glimpse into the tech side of business.
“That’s where I started dabbling with HTML. They’d never had a native English speaker writing all the descriptions for the different programs.”
She began virtually exploring Central and South American cities while writing descriptions of the locations students could choose from. But as many expats find, once Alice’s studies were finished, so was her visa.
Alice reluctantly moved back to New York.
“I was completely devastated. I did not want to go back, I wanted to keep living abroad, but I stayed on my visa until I absolutely had to come back. I figured I’d stay with my parents and save up to do whatever I wanted to next.”
She ended up getting a temp job on the enrollment team at Success Academy Charter schools, a network of 32 charter schools across the city.
Not long into her time on the team, Alice was promoted to a full-time role.
“It was basically like my first customer support job. My job was to process applications as they came in and then answer parents’ questions about the application’s status, their next steps, and their uniform process. It’s quite lengthy. It played to some of my strengths because the parents were coming primarily from West Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, so I got to use my language skills in helping parents get their kids into school.”
The position came with a lot of challenges — especially having tough conversations with parents.
“When it comes to helping people get their kids into a school that could give them a leg up and open their worlds, there were definitely some hard conversations I had to have. I actually don’t even know if I knew what I was getting myself into. But I just tried to find a lot of empathy. It was hard; it was one other woman and me balancing. We had 15,000 applications that year for 1,500 spots or even less. There were a lot of kids that didn’t get in. I guess balancing that out were the parents that were happy when their kids were accepted. But there were definitely hard conversations.”
Working at Success Academy ignited her enthusiasm for Spanish, so Alice decided to go backpacking and see a new part of the world. She thought back to the beautiful cities she wrote about for the study abroad program and decided it was about time to see those in person. First, she went to Guatemala and then backpacked around for ten days. That wasn’t nearly enough:
“I got back to New York and was on a subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan when the train doors got stuck, and the wind and snow were gusting in, and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to go back to Guatemala.’” She went back to stay for six weeks and study Spanish, then backpacked through other countries for four months.
Around this time, she was accepted into an English-speaking international business master’s program in Belgium. Alice went back, but only briefly.
“I didn’t like the program. I thought it was a waste of money and a waste of time. So, I came to terms with it. I realized I was going about it the wrong way and that if I wanted business experience, I should go put down roots and get a job at a company.”
After six months in the program, she quit and found herself again on her parents’ couch in Queens.
The San Francisco chapter
Uncertain about where to go next, Alice tapped her personal network for ideas, and everyone was enthusiastic about the opportunities out in San Francisco. As luck would have it, her dad’s best friend from college and his wife lived there, and the two kindly extended an invitation for Alice to stay with them while she checked it out. Nervous about making the wrong move yet again, it was an offer she couldn’t refuse. She bought a one-way ticket out to San Francisco.
“When I say I moved out to San Francisco knowing nothing about tech, I mean it.”
“It honestly had never really even dawned on me that people worked at Facebook.”
Prowling through LinkedIn, she noticed a former colleague from the charter school had moved to San Francisco and was working at a company called Guidebook. Guidebook makes mobile apps for events worldwide, which was an international edge she was hoping to come across. They had a job posting for a Customer Success Associate, a job she’d never heard of, but the description matched a lot of skills she had and others she hoped to hone, so Alice applied.
“I ended up getting the job, so it was my first SaaS customer support experience.” Guidebook had just gotten a Series B, and it was a crash course in tech startup culture, whether or not Alice was ready for it. “The tech industry is fast-paced. If you’re the kind of person who is curious and you want to keep up, you will. Curiosity has allowed me to go from 0 to 60.”
The position was entry-level but wide-ranging (she “wore many hats,” as the industry saying goes). In addition to learning the ropes and weathering her first SaaS product launch, it was her job to build the event apps for paying customers so that attendees could download and navigate with them at events ranging from gaming conferences to robotics competitions. That meant a combination of project management, customer education, technical troubleshooting, and emotional support. Guidebook’s Customer Success team used Zendesk, so that was her first time seeing all that the platform had to offer (more on that later).
Feeling financially undervalued, once she’d adjusted to the pace and lingo, it was time to find a better-paying role. Alice worked with a recruiter and found a job at another software startup called Xola that makes booking software for tourism companies ranging from pedal pub beer bike tours in Munich to crystal rebirthing ceremonies in Sedona. Her role was Customer Success Manager, and her main responsibility was to help Xola’s customers use and adopt the software.
“I would say I probably did five jobs. I did account management, technical support, training, webinars, and everything that had to do with customer education. I wrote our Zendesk Help Center and our support articles. I also did advanced technical troubleshooting, anything to do with payment issues or fraud. The smaller the customer, the more complex the business tended to be.”
The work was challenging and rewarding, but Alice found herself wondering if she truly belonged in tech. She wasn’t a developer; she hadn’t moved to SF seeking tech glory — she was a traveler, a people person! She found herself rousing early in the mornings to work on a business plan for San Francisco’s first community-focused hostel and wine bar. After several months she convinced her boss at Xola to let her go part-time, and Alice balanced customer success with running an Airbnb business and trying to get the hostel plan off the ground.
Not surprisingly, after almost a year of juggling all three, she was exhausted, burnt out and felt all over the place. Working in travel or tech, it didn’t matter.
“I realized I just wanted a job where I could get mentorship and hone my craft in one thing.”
And as life would have it, just as she had this aha moment, Xola laid off everyone in the San Francisco office, Alice included.
Moving on & up to become a Solutions Consultant
Luckily, a friend and former coworker working at Zendesk had just convinced her to apply for a job there as a Solutions Consultant (SC). It was another tech job she’d never heard of, and originally, she didn’t think she met the job requirements.
“She showed me the job description, and I looked at it and said, ‘I can’t do this. It says you have to be technical; you have to know how to use APIs. I really don’t think I can do this job.’”
Her friend convinced her that the role played to more of her strengths than the job req implied — and with that backing, she decided not to sell herself short and applied.
Sidenote: Since starting at Zendesk, Alice has also helped to rewrite job descriptions to be less intimidating and remove overemphasis on the non-critical skills that made her think she wasn’t a good fit.
“Through the interview process, I realized I’d been doing this job all along — that over the past two and a half years at the startups, I was learning to understand a company’s business model and figuring out how to map it to our software solution. And demonstrating an ROI to the business.”
Zendesk ended up hiring her as an Associate SC, giving her extra time to ramp up and learn the sales and technical sides of the role.
In a matter of weeks, Alice had gone from scrappy startup and overloaded with side hustles to a tightly defined technical sales role at a publicly-traded SaaS company. Excited, full of gratitude, and eager to learn, Alice also remembers feeling very intimidated during her first few months at Zendesk, the biggest company she’d ever worked for:
“This was my first job on the sales side, and it’s a technical role. You have to understand how to support your account executives through the sales cycle, value sell, and speak to SaaS technical concepts. I’d never done sales, and I wasn’t a developer! I went in with my head held high, but I definitely worried I wouldn’t be able to walk the talk.”
Instead of feeding her anxiety, Alice decided to do what she’d always done best — ask questions and be curious. She lucked out with a supportive manager who helped her navigate her new world and the backing of a strong, collaborative team who always had time to give her answers or guidance.
Solutions consulting, or sales engineering, has turned out to be an ideal job for Alice.
“On the one hand, it plays to my natural strengths like storytelling and puzzle-solving but challenges me to learn new technical concepts and keep up with ever-changing industry trends. And for me, the best kind of job is one that allows you to naturally feel like ‘I rock at this’ and then still be challenged to learn new things.”
The wide range of businesses Zendesk sells into gives Alice a peek into all kinds of companies and industries, and the cross-functional role itself a view into other areas of Zendesk’s business that make the wheels go round.
“As a Solutions Consultant, your job is to know and retain as much information about your products as you can and translate the technical merits into value for your customers. You’re engineering the sale, so you need to know how to engineer people into the sales cycle to back up the different moving parts. Whether that’s a platform developer for deep technical guidance, a product manager for roadmap insight, or a teammate for complex configurations that need a second pair of eyes. You’re leveraging that person’s expertise.”
During her first two years on the job, Alice was promoted into a full Solutions Consultant role, supporting a team of account executives selling Zendesk solutions to companies in the city of San Francisco. Needless to say, she learned a ton about the SaaS industry while presenting a future state with Zendesk to mainly fellow tech companies — how different software solutions fit into a larger technology stack, the true meaning of a robust API, the benefits of the cloud vs. on-premise solutions, and technical or security requirements that varied from industry to industry.
Our Solutions Consultant finds a new adventure
A one-way ticket to San Francisco had turned into four years living and breathing tech in the Bay Area, but Alice hadn’t ever fully locked away her dreams of living abroad.
“I turned 30 and thought, ‘What am I doing next?’ I felt like I was ready to move on from SF.”
She loved her friends and all the city had given her, but it was time to explore new things, and so she asked her manager if she could transfer to London. It turned out they were hiring for her role over there, and it was easier than she thought to make the case. After two years with an excellent track record of winning deals and picking up new things, it wasn’t tough for management to envision her succeeding in the London office. In October 2019, just four months after she’d asked for the transfer, she had another one-way ticket, this time, headed across the pond.
“I left on a Friday, started work on a Monday. They didn’t have to ramp me up.”
Alice had been in England just five months when COVID hit, so the move definitely turned out to be different than she’d expected. Selling to a base of customers across the UK and Ireland meant she was working with more traditional businesses than back in San Francisco, where the majority were cloud-focused from day one.
“COVID has sped up digital transformation for legacy companies, so it’s been eye-opening to be a part of it in real-time for my customers and invigorating to have a different spin on my Zendesk pitch.”
In 2021 Alice is excited to be aligned to a sales team focusing specifically on the UK’s booming Fintech industry and leading the Presales Women of Zendesk group she co-founded through an impactful yearly agenda built to grow, connect, and support all the ladies across regions. She’s used the extra time at home in her flat over the last year to slowly but sustainably start SaaS Savvy, your online resource for breaking into and succeeding in the tech industry. Alice aims to burst the bubble that surrounds the tech industry, and help more people coming from diverse backgrounds or wild career paths understand and confidently speak to cloud-based technologies and the ever-growing industry itself. Tech for the non-techie, it’s soon to roll out as a set of online courses aimed at those in non-technical roles ranging from sales to marketing and customer success.
It takes a brave person to leap into new worlds, both personally and professionally. We’ve seen that a few times in our CX Profiles.
It also takes an exceptional company to support employees in exploring new careers instead of expecting them to onboard as experts. Zendesk and Alice certainly seem to be a perfect match, and I can’t wait to see where this new adventure takes her once the world safely reopens.
Interested in asking Alice more about tackling new fields with confidence?
Ask in the comments below or reach out to her here.
Note: most of the photos in the post came from Alice’s stunning Instagram, Beauty in Buildings.
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