From Intern To Chief Of Staff In Five Years: Atlassian’s Helen Xue Shares Her Three Pillars For Professional Development

From Intern To Chief Of Staff In Five Years: Atlassian’s Helen Xue Shares Her Three Pillars For Professional Development

You could say that Helen Xue has experienced a rapid career trajectory, although that might be somewhat of an understatement. In the space of five years, she successfully progressed from an Intern at Atlassian to the Chief of Staff for Platform and Enterprise (which included a move from Sydney across the Pacific to San Francisco).

Speaking with B&T, she puts her professional development down to three main pillars; curiosity, relationships and saying ‘yes’. 

“I feel that possessing an insatiable appetite to learn is imperative for any type of success. I am an extremely nosy person, to the point of being annoying at times. I want to know how things work and I will ask you a million questions to make sure I fully understand. This has enabled me to successfully transition to different industries, different teams, and different roles,” she says, in reference to her genuine sense of curiosity.

As for building relationships, Xue points to the role of mentors and sponsors in supporting her along the way and instilling her with belief.

“Networking sometimes attracts a negative connotation, but it’s so important to develop great relationships at work. A huge career accelerant for me personally is that I have had mentors and sponsors along every step of the way. People who believe in me more than I believed in myself,” she says.

Finally, she highlights the opportunity she had to take on another product in her second year at Atlassian as an example of the power of ‘yes’.

“You don’t have the luxury of turning down opportunities to learn when you’re starting out. Embrace the challenges people give you. In my case, I was pushed to take on another product in a new domain. I really didn’t want to because I truly loved my team and the project I was already assigned to, but my manager knew that I’d learn more if I switched out,” she explains.

It is worth noting that these three pillars do not sit in isolation. Rather, each one helps with the next and can generate professional opportunities moving forward. 

“Being curious is going to help you uncover new opportunities and connect with more people. This will unlock greater opportunities to say yes to new projects, which will help you meet even more people, and so on. It’s a virtuous cycle of high-velocity learning,” Xue says.

Life experience vs employment and education

Reflecting on her own experience, Xue feels grateful that she has not faced the biases which are sometimes reported in the technology space, such as gender, ageism and tenure.

Of course, these issues are still present in the industry. In fact, the Dice Diversity and Inclusion Report from 2018 found that 76 per cent of respondents believe ageism is an issue for technology globally. To address this, Xue suggests businesses look at how they go about hiring.

“I do worry that rather than evaluating candidates as individuals, many companies resort to checking-the-box for the position. This tends to happen to younger folks, with less work experience,” she says.  

“For example, when hiring for entry level Product Managers – don’t just look for folks who went to a certain university, studied computer science, and then Interned at a big tech company or a startup. Look at the life experiences and skills they’re bringing to the table. 

“You’ll miss out on having extremely curious, ambitious and diverse people if you set arbitrary constraints on who you’re looking for. There are many skills that can be taught on the job, technical aptitude being one of them.”

Creating value

While the business case for diversity has been established – McKinsey last year revealed companies with greater gender diversity outperformed the rest by 25 per cent – Xue believes a more inclusive recruitment approach and rethinking ‘what’ value is to your business is important. 

“When you genuinely believe that outside-in, diverse perspectives can add outsized value to your organization, you’re going to work extremely hard at making sure a broad representation of  candidates make it through your recruitment pipeline, and succeed on your team,” she says.

“And this ‘value’ doesn’t just manifest itself in business metrics. Developing a more holistic understanding of your customer and their problems are almost guaranteed to net you more revenue, but the value gained by empowering diversity shows up everywhere,” she says.

“Maybe it’s a manager whose extraordinary empathy rallies an entire organization. Maybe it’s a young immigrant who uncovers a large new foreign market opportunity. 

“Maybe it’s the introverted grad who changes the way meetings are run so more of her teammates share their ideas. These behaviours compound and spread throughout your organization, and when you personally feel the positive impact, you’re going to work hard to sustain and support women in tech.”

Developing leadership qualities

Going from an Intern to Chief of Staff in a relatively short period of time has meant Xue has needed to develop leadership qualities quickly.

She reflects on her early experience in taking ownership of projects as a critical step in her own learnings about leadership.

“Nothing can prepare you for a leadership role – believe me, I’ve read a book or two on this subject,” she says. 

“Only when you’re confronted with a launch date, or a chaotic project fraught with dependencies, while you have disgruntled customers at the end of the phone line, do you start getting a feel for becoming a leader.”

So what makes the ideal leader?

Xue points to her boss, Atlassian VP of Product Anu Bharadwaj as someone who demonstrates many of the qualities.

“To me, great leaders need to be visionary but execution focused at the same time. Great leaders have a vision – they make right calls more than wrong calls, most of the time.They are also a doer – they have both the EQ and execution prowess to deliver on this vision. Great leaders optimize for long-term strategy but are also able to ruthlessly prioritize and deliver with urgency,” she says.

“They also need to be courageous, fair and honest. That’s a lot to ask for in any single person, and that’s what makes great leaders so rare!”

Finding values that fit

As much as Xue’s exceptional career growth is a reflection of her own skills and leadership ability, an alignment of her own personal values and Atlassian’s values has also played a role.

“I think I can only be truly happy at a company where the values align with my own, somewhere that I can bring my full authentic self to work. I feel so incredibly lucky that I started my career at Atlassian. It’s such a repeated cliche but Atlassians truly live and breathe the company values,” she says.

“Our founders, Mike and Scott, take a liberal and explicit stance on a lot of political issues. They are constantly challenging the status quo for a better future, and it creates a safe and inclusive culture at work. I am empowered to not only have a voice, but I feel that they’re rooting for myself and other women to succeed here.”


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