Profile: Alexis Charles
Learning Program Manager, Facebook
PhD in Modern Thought and Literature, Stanford University, 2015
Alexis Charles is an introvert. At least, that’s what she used to tell people. COVID-19-induced self-isolation has her thinking about things differently now. In the months since the pandemic hit the United States, many of us, like Alexis, have been redefining our relationship with our social networks, seeking out missing connections, wondering whether we really are introverts after all. Yet, though we’re tapping into our networks for support, most of us still probably wouldn’t say we like––or even engage in––networking. And this is where, if we look at Alexis as an example, we’re missing out.
“I hated the idea of networking,” she laughs, “prior to understanding how important it actually is. But there’s informal networking that we don’t even think of that’s just, like, having conversations and grabbing coffee with people. Putting our best foot forward in every interaction is a form of networking, because then that person remembers you. Networking isn’t only going to mixers or open houses: it’s more making connections and keeping up with them.”
Alexis is talking to me from her kitchen in Washington, D.C., where she works as a Learning Program Manager at Facebook. This is a new role for her: previously, she was Blended Learning Manager at the Obama Foundation, a position that she learned about through a former colleague, who referred her. Though Alexis already boasted a strong track record of expertise in instructional design and education, the referral was the key factor that allowed her resume to grab the hiring manager’s attention, affirming the importance of networking for any job-seeker.
This was not the only moment during Alexis’ professional life in which her network helped her succeed. Before joining the Obama Foundation, she spent a year and a half as Education Lead at LeanIn.Org, an initiative of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, a position she learned about through connections she had built up during her time working at the Stanford Women’s Community Center. Such a fruitful professional network did not come about easily, however. Rather, it was the result of years of intentional hard work beyond the frame of her PhD. Alongside her work at the Women’s Community Center, Alexis also worked at the Clayman Institute throughout her time at Stanford, which she credits with equipping her with many of the skills, such as program development, that she deploys in her professional life today. Her advice? Don’t be afraid to try new things outside the scope of your academic work, even if it seems time-consuming or challenging.
“It is always a good idea, especially now, to look into part-time, even online things that you could do that could give you some sort of experience if you’re thinking about leaving academia. I decided to work full time on the Communications team at Code for America while finishing my dissertation. I always recommend that no one does that.” She smiles wryly. “But I knew I was going to leave academia at this point and really wanted to get more work experience under my belt and just––get out there. It was a lot of late nights and early mornings and weekends spent writing, but it was worth it, because I was able to get out and get the professional experience that I wanted and not delay it. My advice is always to dip your toe into something else.”
Alexis has followed her own advice over the last six months. From 2017, a year after graduating with a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford, until late 2020, she spent her professional life managing the Community Leadership Corps program at the Obama Foundation, which trains young adults to address issues within their local communities. As the pandemic took hold, Alexis oversaw the pivot from in-person to online programming, even beginning to think about how global programming might shift as a result. It was at this point that she realized that she had been working in non-profits since leaving academia, and wanted to learn more about how educational opportunities and learning journeys function in different environments. This took her to Facebook, where she manages the technical training content for the six-week bootcamp that new engineers undergo on joining the company. Like trainee scientists rotating between different labs, new engineers at Facebook are often not hired to a specific team, meaning that the initial weeks of bootcamp are dedicated to learning about what engineering at Facebook means more generally. In their last three weeks, they choose a specialization based on what team they want to work on and desired role. Alexis works with a group of twelve engineers who develop the specialized technical curriculum for these final three weeks, ensuring that the content, even as it is produced by a range of very different people, supports the specific learning objectives that underpin the bootcamp program.
The focus on learning objectives as a key part of program design feels, for Alexis, like a return to the pedagogical practices that she honed at Stanford. Even though the content she works with at Facebook is exclusively technical, her humanities education has been invaluable in guiding her through structuring classes and explaining the importance of teaching design and learning objectives to her colleagues, so that their contributions come together to create a larger, coherent whole.
Like Stanford, Facebook is a simultaneously demanding and enriching environment that provides its community with a vast array of learning opportunities. When describing a typical work week, Alexis mentions that “almost every day, there is an opportunity for employees to attend a talk on something of interest to them.” The week that we speak to each other, she’s already attended a session on intersectionality and women of color in tech, and she mentions other talks on women and imposter syndrome, as well as senior tech workers presenting on their new ideas, reminding me of the endless selection of Stanford departmental, VPGE and Stanford Career Education events on similarly relevant issues and upcoming research. The rest of Alexis’ week is typically filled with different kinds of meetings, ranging from 1:1s with her team members and small check-ins with the engineering managers who design curriculum and content for the bootcamp, to larger cross-functional workstream meetings that allow employees from different areas to collectively brainstorm around big ideas, like community building or technical content. As she’s on the East Coast and her team is on Pacific Time, Alexis tries to make the most of her quieter mornings to strategize around class and curriculum design, much like those of us who sneak in a few hours of concentrated dissertation writing time before classes and meetings kick in for the day.
Though Alexis is certainly in her element as a learning design expert at Facebook, she still feels like she’s learning a new language now that she works so closely with engineers, describing the liaising between engineers and managers in non-technical roles as a kind of translation process: both groups are often talking about the same things, just in different words. It’s exciting to hear her talk about the unsteadiness and challenge of this new career track, as it mirrors my own mingled fear and enthusiasm about what lies beyond the PhD.
Alexis’ advice is simple. Develop resilience, defined less as the belief that everything will be fine, and more as a set of strategies and self-care methods for when things get tough. And, crucially, stay open to the opportunities that present themselves, even if they don’t match exactly what you’re looking for.
“It’s scary to wonder, ‘What if this doesn’t work out? What if I don’t like it?’ But then at least the worst that happens is that it doesn’t work out and you don’t like it and you do something else. You don’t know that something catastrophic will happen. We don’t know that.” She exhales. “So it’s worth giving it a try.”
For Alexis, being brave right now looks like something very specific and perhaps surprising. “I recently signed up for yoga teacher training,” she grins, but this is not a pandemic-induced whim. “I’ve always loved yoga. I think I put being a yoga teacher on my Odyssey plan in 2012 or 2013.” Alexis is referring to the multiple five-year life plans that anyone taking the Designing the Professional course at Stanford or reading Designing Your Life is prompted to draw up. She holds up the book on camera. “It was a good reminder that this has always been a big area of passion for me. I knew that ten years ago, so this––“ she refers here to the life design framework of both the book and the Stanford class–– “is great for reawakening those passions and helping people get outside of their limiting beliefs. You have to get creative enough to think of a ton of different possibilities and then test them. Being given the permission to tap into your wildest dreams and actually think about how that could become your reality is very exciting.”
It’s impossible to speak to Alexis and not feel the latent sense of possibility that hovers below the surface of everything she talks about. Taking risks, staying connected, and being open are key tenets of her professional path. These things often feel hard in a moment of global panic, but they’re crucial to being able to find joy and freedom. Which is exactly how Alexis talks about her upcoming teacher training: her excitement is palpable. “It’s a lot of yoga, but it’s very joyful.” And finding joy, especially right now, is nothing less than a victory.
Profile written by Chiara Giovanni, PhD ’23, Comparative Literature. Interview conducted in August, 2020.