Alumni Profiles Series: Kevin Woodcock
Kevin Woodcock is a Senior Product Manager at GuideSpark in Silicon Valley, where he works on combining technology and content to build employee communication software. He received his BA in Economics and Political Science from Guilford College before completing an MA in Liberal Studies at Duke in 2011. Before his role at GuideSpark, he worked for Duke University Press and HighWire Press out of Stanford University.
You studied Economics in your undergraduate career. How did you come to study English at Duke as graduate student?
I ended up at Duke after I worked for a little while in New York in finance. I had majored in economics, but I was also really interested in literature. I felt like I missed that aspect of my [undergraduate] education. My mother was a professor in English at one point, and I always had this really burning interest to explore that world. I ended up coming back home and enrolling in the Masters of Liberal Studies program. For me, that was a really good opportunity to get a foundation in graduate-level work in the humanities and also get a taste of whether this was something I wanted to pursue further. My tentative plan was to go on to get a PhD and become an English professor. The first take-away from that experience is that I loved it. I was so happy in graduate school. I took as many courses as I could in the English department. It was a huge change going from economics to literature, but I loved the experience, loved the practice and loved spending my time in classes, reading and writing papers.
How did you go from graduate education to a career in industry?
At the end of my time at Duke, I was thinking about next steps. I had some very good conversations with my advisor and others at Duke. The prospects of English graduate students in terms of pursuing a career, even with the best possible pedigree and best economic times, are really tough. If funding is cut, humanities is the first. There is a nice healthy dose of realism that my advisor gave me. He said: “You should really read The Chronicle of Higher Education. You should talk to people and see what it’s like for them after they graduate with their PhD. Go into it with your eyes wide open.” And I’m really glad he did that. It is tough out there. I loved literature. I loved reading literature. I loved writing papers about it. But there is a whole other dynamic to professorship—having to publish a lot, having to be ready to move wherever there is a job—that’s not something I was willing to do.
I found Duke University Press, an organization that specializes in publishing research, mainly in the humanities. They worked at the intersection of technology, marketing and reader experience. They were grappling with all these existential questions like: What is publishing in the digital age? What new opportunities are there for publishers? What do publishers still need to figure out? I found that fascinating. Part of my capstone paper was centered on technology and narrative. That was a good stepping stone for me into a non-academic professional career. It was still familiar turf but it was a first step to something not academic.
From there, I started down the route to where I am now. When I was at Duke Press I managed the online web ecosystem for over 50 journals. Duke Press was partnered with an organization out of Stanford that provided software to facilitate academic publishing and dissemination of information in the academic world. It’s this crazy world that no one really knows about, but a huge portion of the world’s research goes through this organization called High Wire Press. In my role at Duke, I worked with them a lot. They eventually hired me, so I moved out here and worked with them for a year. Kind of unpredictably, they spun off from Stanford University to be a standalone company. During that time, I had a colleague leave and join a company called Guidespark, which provides technology and content products to other companies to help them communicate and engage with their employees around important things like benefits. She convinced me to join her, and I’ve been there ever since.
What has been the most surprising thing about your current job?
The extent to which people come to the table with different viewpoints never ceases to surprise me. The Senior Product Manager sits at the nexus of so many different teams. You have marketing, engineering, executives, board members, sales, delivery teams, external partners. It’s amazing how everyone can have such vastly different viewpoints and strong beliefs about a particular situation or product. Part of my job is to distill all of that and try to come up with the best route forward. A big part of what I need to do so that we move in the right direction is to make sure there is an alignment, to get people to a place of agreement and negotiate tradeoffs.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
I think the best career advice I ever received was to think about the things that I wanted to do and then to go talk to the people who were already doing them. As someone coming out of a humanities graduate program, the term “networking” was a little scary for me. It can have that negative connotation of promoting self-interest. But the reality is, you can learn so much so quickly from other people. It can save you so much time, grief and effort by just reaching out to people, even if you have a tenuous connection to them. It is so valuable to find out what it’s like in their life, what they do every day, how they got there, what they like about it and what they don’t like about it.
You get so focused in your world and are working so hard to do the thing that’s in front of you, but when you’re working towards something, it’s really important to make sure that that thing is right for you. That’s something I can’t emphasize enough—talk to as many people as you can. Talk to smart and accomplished people who have done something that you value. The reality is, it’s likely that people have done the thing that you’re trying to do and they are eager to share what they know. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Do you have any other advice you want to share with current graduate students at Duke?
There will be so many things that you won’t be able to predict that will come up and they may be great opportunities. And they may require you to change which is seldom easy, but it can be very rewarding. So I would recommend to just be open and never assume that your path is set in stone. There are opportunities outside what you may be focused on right now that are hard to see. For people who have the opportunity to look outside their academic domain, I would say it’s worth doing.
What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?
I really loved my first class. It was on Dante’s Divine Comedy. That’s all we read. I just remember that at the beginning of the course, I didn’t know if I could really get into it, but I loved it by the end of it. I was so happy during that time and remember that period at Duke very fondly. If I could pick two, I would also say that Duke Grad Rugby was a wonderful experience. It was a great social outlet and I made a lot of great friends outside of my academic area.
Ph.D. student, Environmental Engineering
Nadrat Chowdhury is a 2nd year Ph.D student in Environmental Engineering. She studies the interactions between extracellular genetic material and environmentally relevant nanoparticles in natural systems.