Sometimes your career milestones are clear as crystal, and sometimes they only become clear in retrospect.
Shanelle Mullin has had an exciting path, from writer at CXL to Experimentation & Analysis Lead at Shopify. At each juncture, she’s followed intriguing people and her own innate curiosity.
Shanelle and I worked together in the trenches as writers at CXL. She took time to catch up with me about the worlds of content and experimentation, and how creativity and professional work can diverge and collide in interesting ways.
Recognizing big opportunities
As humans, we take life day by day. But occasionally, you become acutely aware that momentous change is within reach.
When you identify opportunities that could represent a major career milestone, it’s important to reach out and take them.
That’s how Shanelle Mullin felt when she interviewed for a position at CXL in 2015.
She had decided she wanted to work with CXL founder Peep Laja, and contacted the company.
“I’m not sure that I’ve ever come across another opportunity that I’ve been as sure of from the very beginning of, this will be something big,” she said.
Sometimes, following people works out just as well as searching for a specific job description.
Similarly, Shanelle’s career move from CXL to Shopify happened because she had an unexpected conversation over a beer with Cassandra Campbell, a member of Shopify’s experimentation team.
To avoid recognizing big career moments only in retrospect, Shanelle has started journaling more so that she can capture bigger picture moments.
Write in order to learn
There’s no question that writing is a process of discovery.
Writing is a process of synthesis and exploration. Shanelle and I wrote constantly at CXL, and she still does freelance writing work today.
Then and now, Shanelle’s goal when writing is to bring everything she researches and reads together into a new, cohesive whole.
“I often felt like I was learning something, and then the next week I would write an article on it,” she said. “I think a couple of times since working at CXL people have come to me and said, ‘It’s so great that you had all of this knowledge that you’re sharing with us!’ I was like no, I just got that. And then I wrote about it in the way that I wished was accessible to me.”
She had free reign while at CXL to follow her curiosity, exploring new topics and pulling together different threads into new arguments and insights.
This innate curiosity coupled with a talent for good research made her current work in experimentation at Shopify a natural fit.
Find open space to play
When Shanelle joined Shopify, the first weeks had a refreshing surprise in store. The focus wasn’t put immediately on work. Instead, there was time to learn, connect, and breathe.
“What initially drew me to Shopify was that wide open space. It’s a bigger company now than when I started, but when I started, it was the biggest company I had ever worked for. And I was excited that they didn’t prescribe what you should be doing,” she said.
During her first two weeks, she was told that there were zero projects or deadlines on her to-do list. Instead, she was told to focus on meeting people and figuring out what she was interested in.
While she’s been at Shopify for close to five years now, she feels lucky that that energy is still alive today.
She’s being challenged in healthy ways by taking on new leadership responsibilities and interesting projects, underscored by a supportive team and leadership group.
The importance of leadership buy-in
When you want to see true success in your professional life, it’s important to have leadership that both sets a high bar and has your back every step of the way.
At Shopify, the experimentation program’s focus is on gaining true insights, not just chasing quick wins.
“Regardless of who the leadership team has been, it’s always seemed like there’s been buy-in for the insights that come out of experimentation. Which is great, because I think that the alternative is that people are very focused on the wins, and we all know that most tests lose,” Shanelle said.
Most tests aren’t designed in a way that you will learn something regardless of the outcome, which Shanelle sees as a common mistake.
When the focus is on learning and growing, it’s a whole different ball game.
“It’s been really delightful getting to work in a company where people care about what we’re learning, and we’re looking to build a body of insights and a body of knowledge, not just looking at the velocity and the win rate and going from each individual experiment,” she said.
As Shopify has evolved, Shanelle’s team has turned into what’s known as a center of excellence. This means lots of educating is required so that various teams can strategize and succeed.
“It’s more moving into an embedding model, where we’ll work really closely with some of the growth teams and we are more hands-on with them. And we show them the process. We talk to them about the strategy behind the process,” she said.
An emphasis on learning means that teams can help take ownership and understand what’s making the whole process tick.
Formal education vs. learn-as-you-go
Shanelle never received any formal schooling for her CRO or experimentation work.
This means she’s accustomed to learning on the fly.
Learning as you go has its advantages. It means that Shanelle can recognize when and how to explain things in layman’s terms.
“I picked up what I needed to from courses and books, and data scientists at Shopify adopting me and teaching me after work how to do certain things. And so I think I had to learn things in a very simplistic way. I don’t think I learned them in the formal theoretical way. I learned them very applicably,” she said.
These days whenever she writes an article, she always tries to think of how I wish someone had explained it to her from the beginning.
Whenever she’s tripped up by industry-specific jargon or terminology, she immediately recognizes that readers might be tripped up as well.
Don’t monetize your hobbies
When you live a busy and consuming professional life, it’s important to save some hobbies and activities that are purely for yourself.
For Shanelle, this helps her stave off burnout and keep her flame of curiosity alive.
While it would be easy to give up all her free time to money-making activities like additional freelance work, she makes a conscious effort to hold herself back.
“I’m trying very hard to maintain hobbies that are not monetized, which is very difficult for me because I just can’t stop thinking like, ‘I could be making money. People do this and they get money for it. Why would I not be doing that?’” she said.
But that’s the ultimate recipe for burnout.
These days, Shanelle is excited and curious about the next professional challenge: management.
While she wasn’t expecting to take on management duties, she feels there is no doubt it’s one of those moments of great change in action.