Idealog’s one-on-one with Kiwi Twitter bigwig, Kate Taylor

AUT’s high-flying alumna and Twitter head of global operations, Kate Taylor, is currently at home with a new baby, so we interrupted the bonding process to get the low down on how she turned a passion for film into a career with social media juggernaut Twitter, the importance of mastering soft skills and how, sometimes, you just have to accept that Thom Yorke is giving you a sign.

Idealog: You were born in South Africa, emigrated to New Zealand, lived in London and now you’re based in San Francisco. Do you think that’s affected the way you look at things?

Taylor: I think so, yeah, it’s definitely shaped who I am as a person. I think I just have a bit of a global outlook. I'm empathetic for how different people feel about different things and I put myself in other people’s shoes. Those are the kinds of personality traits that maybe come from being in very different cultures. 

What kind of a child were you? 

I was a bit of a tomboy, honestly. A tree-climbing, cross-country running, field hockey playing girl. I was very much into my sports. As a teen I was really into film and theatre.

So did you have an early interest in technology and business?

Technology less so, but it’s something I’m quite passionate about now. I don’t think we teach our girls very much about picking up the sciences and maths and technology. We certainly didn’t when I was growing up. It just didn’t seem like an option for girls. But my dad was a management consultant and he was always working for different businesses and I think that might have helped me develop an interest in business.

What was the high school experience like for you? Were you at least encouraged to aim high? 

Well, one of the things I was very interested in at the time was working in film and TV. There’s quite a lot of technology involved in editing and working with the camera and that kind of thing, so I did gain some tech aptitude trying to make stuff with the school camera, so that stuff was happening.

I never felt discouraged – I was at an all-girls school – but I don’t think there was a very strong push towards the sciences, and there were no computers, when I was at Epsom Girls Grammar. 

Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do when you got out of high school?

Oh yes, definitely. I wanted to be a film director.

And why did you choose AUT?

I just heard it was really good. 

I went into the AUT communications program because it had a TV major, but I didn’t end up doing the TV major. It was a very small, select group that managed to major in that elective and I just didn’t manage to make it, but I did learn an interesting thing: I realised that when you start in TV, you start at the bottom. There’s a real hierarchy there, where you have to work your way up and I’m not very well behaved when it comes to starting at the bottom and doing the leg work. I like to achieve things and jump as many steps as I can. I think as I got a bit older, I thought ‘oh it was really cool that I didn’t end up doing that stuff’. Instead, I went into this technology space where people can get that leg up really quickly. People in these companies start their own business and the next thing you know, they are really young entrepreneurs who have accomplished a lot. It’s really a dynamic industry that doesn’t necessarily expect you to ‘pay your dues’ as much. 

How did you get from that film-focus to multimedia?

They had a multimedia major at AUT and they had journalism, public relations, radio and I was thinking ‘what is going to give me the greatest, long term career options?’

Also, and this is a stupid anecdote, the release of the Radiohead album, OK Computer, had come out and there were posters all over the music stores for OK Computer, and I thought ‘That’s what it is! I’m gonna do a multimedia major! It’s a sign from Thom Yorke!’ 

That makes perfect sense.

Well I just thought it was a good blend of creativity and something that may pay off down the road. It seemed sensible. I was a little bit disappointed because I was making a ‘second choice’ almost, but it was the best decision I could have ever made. It was so good for me. It was incredible. It has paid off in so many ways.

And the big story for me, from AUT, was an internship in that last year which ended up leading to a job, a really good job, and everything has just totally flowed off that internship. 

So what was the internship?

It was with Terabyte Interactive. I was following the project manager – Lara Bowen, my mentor – around and doing smaller project-based stuff for her, and getting to do really cool stuff – working on the Auckland Museum interactive kiosks for example. It was a really inspiring experience, just to see what creative stuff they were making.

A couple of years later I left Auckland for London and she was my soft landing. She was already there and got me a job. So she kind of made London a possibility for me.

And you worked at CBS Interactive for a while too. How did you get from there to Twitter?

It’s all who you know. The CBS Interactive role was through friendly connections. I play a lot of Ultimate Frisbee and it was an Ultimate Frisbee connection for CBS Interactive. For Twitter, it was somebody who I had met at CBS Interactive through my husband’s softball team, who jumped ship from CBS to Twitter. Once I heard about that I was like ‘Oh, are there any jobs at Twitter?’. So that was the original referral, then I just had to get through the interviews. 

And what is that interview process like? 

It’s a little bit daunting. I’m not sure if it’s the same for all the teams but I had maybe five 45-minute to one-hour interviews, back to back, and you’re just kind of locked in for the day. They’ll feed you and be really nice to you, but even when you’re eating you’re still with somebody who’s chaperoning you around, so you’re still trying to perform. It’s quite an exhausting day. 

So I guess it’s a case of ‘next minute you’re the head of global growth operations’, right?

Well this is a case of ‘if you don’t ask you won’t get it’.

There was a fantastic woman who came into the company through an acquisition and I’d got to work with a lot of her team. We were doing a lot of Cricket World Cup work, and I think, just through the connection with her, I was like ‘Wow, she is just really a smart cookie and I love what she’s doing’.

She started to hone in on our international market work as part of this acquisition, and I thought ‘I love this international stuff’. Working on the Cricket World Cup experience was really fun for me because it was highly relevant to my family and friends back home in New Zealand. So, as I got interested in this outward-looking focus, I just pitched her: ‘Valerie, I want to be on your team. Do you think we could make that happen?’

She was totally open to it and we went into brainstorming. What time frame? What could the role be? We came up with about three different ideas and, over the course of two months, we honed in on one.  I told my manager ‘this is going to happen’ and I switched teams.

So what are the most important skills you use day to day?

I would say it’s the soft skills that are most important. The most successful outcome is one where the team dynamic is successful. If you’re not working well together you’re not usually accomplishing that much and you’re potentially spinning your wheels, working against each other’s interest. So I focus a lot on the team dynamic, whether it’s how well our team is working together. Because we’re all over the globe, you have to work hard to understand what’s going on for them – are there communication breakdowns going on? How is our team perceived? How are other teams interacting with us? We’re big enough at Twitter and, with my team, disparate enough, that those communication issues can be a challenge. 

What are the big lessons you’ve learned in your role? 

I’ve learned that the only constant is change. To cope with that change you have to be a very flexible person. The thing that remains, no matter how chaotic is gets and even if you’re in a bit of a panic, is that relationships come first. That’s how you’ll get what you need.

I think sometimes the rate of change actually bonds people together. You’re all in it together and you’re all doing what you can to make the most of any situation. I really value those relationships. And you’re not going to piss people off if you’re constantly nice to them. 

Is this a stressful job?

Well there are two types of stress. There’s the ‘I feel totally unsupported and everyone hates me, and I’ve got something to prove’, and then there’s ‘I just have such a volume of work that I don’t know how to cope’. And if you’ve got both of things, you just want to die. 

I have a huge volume of work, however, I’m totally in love with what I do, I’m totally supported, and I get to do really exciting stuff, so I think I’m very lucky. I think that’s a much more preferable version of stress. 

And what do you do when you’re not at the office? Raising that baby, I suppose?

Yeah. I just stare at this new-born like it’s new-born TV.