Kate KoehnKate Koehn successfully retrained as a Program Manager for Amazon Web Services.

Despite her love from a young age for the scale, ambition and complexity of engineering, Kate had assumed that a technical role would be too difficult for her to access. But after working in recruitment and teaching, Kate has flourished in her current role at Amazon – thanks in no small part to a supportive working environment, a natural passion for technology and a flair for building professional relationships.

Kate Koehn is based in Seattle as a Program Manager for S3 Index, Amazon Web Services, where she is responsible for driving programmes for capacity management. Kate is passionate about technology, engineering, automation – and she loves to bake.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

In my current role, I’m responsible for driving programmes to scale server capacity to stay ahead of customer demand for data storage on the Cloud. However, my career started out very differently. I studied psychology and then taught English in France, before working in restaurants and even a motorbike repair shop. I always had a passion for maths and engineering – in fact I used to do my friends’ maths tests for fun and with help I re-built my own scooter engine – but I had assumed that a career in tech or engineering would not be accessible for somebody like me because I didn’t have the degree or the experience.

Thankfully I was wrong about that – and I love my job at Amazon. Working closely with a fantastic team of innovators and builders gives me energy every day, and I’m excited to see how far I can progress within the company.

Tell us about how you retrained into your current role.

I started out as a recruitment co-ordinator for Amazon, so I was working closely with engineering teams in Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to support their resourcing needs. I knew this wasn’t a job I wanted to be doing long term when I took it, but it was a foot in the door and it meant I was constantly in touch with specialist teams doing exactly the kind of job I had dreamed of.

Over time, I knew that Amazon S3 was where I wanted to be. Thanks to my time in recruiting, I had a desk in the office of the Senior Manager of Engineering for Amazon S3. Listening in on their meetings, I was fascinated by the scale, responsiveness and complexity of the challenges when working on a distributed system as large as Amazon S3. I still didn’t know exactly how I could be there given that I didn’t have any technical training – so I asked!

Eventually I was able to apply for a position as a Programme Manager where I could demonstrate my passion for technology while also identifying which additional skills I might need. I knew this role was a step in the right direction, but not the long-term goal. Again, I made my desired career goals known to management, and shortly thereafter I transitioned into my current Technical Programme Management role. Outside work, I’m also studying Computer Science and getting a certificate in Python programming which has given me the fundamentals in key areas – that’s taken about 18 months to complete, and I’m nearly there!

For anybody who is looking to retrain but doesn’t know where to start, I would say that it requires perseverance, broad industry knowledge and a clear idea of what you want. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you want, take some time to research careers that speak to you. There is nothing wrong with saying to your manager or senior contacts in a different department, ‘I want to work for your team, but I don’t have the right credentials – how do I make this happen?’ After that, it’s about getting the right skills through continuous learning and a long-term approach to career planning.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not initially, no! However, I now have a much clearer idea of where I want to go and there are clearly defined career paths for me within Amazon should I choose to pursue them. One of the benefits of working for Amazon is that it is a bit like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career?

The biggest challenge so far has been staying focused and being extra judicious about where I spend my time and energy. Coming from a non-tech background, there is a lot of information I don’t know. The more I learn, the more I discover how much I don’t know. It is very easy to try to go down all the rabbit holes of unknown information that exist at every turn in this complex industry, and get completely overwhelmed by the volume of things to learn. No one in this industry knows everything, and it’s important to remember that and focus on learning the things that matter to be able to do my job well. After I’m done with my current course, I’ll spend more time in those rabbit holes for fun.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I’m really proud of my career to date and I consider that progress a huge achievement. I want to continue to take on new challenges, solving problems and facing situations that I’ve never encountered before.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Those early experiences in different industries really helped to develop my transferable skills. Working in recruitment for Amazon also meant I understood the bigger picture. In hindsight it was a privileged position that allowed me to watch and learn before getting involved myself.

In general, I love making colleagues’ lives easier, supporting them every day and showing my value within the organisation. I think that quality has been invaluable so far and will continue to be important throughout my development.

In terms of transferable skills, being able to build and maintain positive working relationships has been a key theme. I’m really lucky to work within a collaborative, inclusive culture at Amazon where colleagues understand the benefits of sharing their ‘tribal knowledge’.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I currently run two mentoring programmes at Amazon. We hold tech talks, build networks and provide mentoring both formally and informally. I also mentor a few people from recruiting who are looking to make a similar career jump to mine, and I really enjoy helping others navigate our culture and internal relationships.

In my opinion, Amazon does mentoring brilliantly. Sharing ‘tribal knowledge’ is second nature – all you have to do is ask, be considerate and set some time aside if you have a particular question. I’ve always found that colleagues are excited to tell you what they know because it improves the entire business. This is the reason why in addition to my official mentor, I have several unofficial mentors. Mentoring also plays an important role in helping identify gaps in my own knowledge and thinking about ways to fill them.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

In hindsight I would have studied for a technical role from the outset. I would tell myself to believe that I was smart enough to pursue a technical career!

I would also have looked for more inspirational role models and examples of women working in technology, which is partly why I want to help promote the accessibility of these roles to other women and girls who are interested in tech careers but may not know where to being.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Amazon never ceases to surprise you with new opportunities, so you never know!

In general, I want to make as much of my day-to-day role as productive as possible, and then move on to the next layer of challenges. I’m already in the process of automating aspects of our capacity management so engineers are less reliant on me and better able to access quick tools that save time and energy.

Further down the line, I want to help engineering teams deliver invaluable features by embedding with software development teams and getting a detailed understanding of their challenges – and the potential solutions we could provide.

Outside of my own career, I’m passionate about promoting tech roles to women and girls. Although colleges in my native USA, for example, are now seeing more women than men entering STEM degrees at undergraduate level, the gender imbalance across the industry globally is still pronounced. At Amazon we understand the link between diversity, inclusion and innovation – which is why I was pleased to see the company launch Amazon Amplify in the UK which is a series of initiatives designed to further increase the number of women in technology and innovation roles across our UK business.