Small Company Life

By Thalia Baumgarten

Hi! I’m Thalia, Cultivate Labs’ Customer Engagement Manager. I started working at Cultivate in February, just a few weeks before COVID-19 took over our daily lives. Luckily I live in the DC area so my work location hasn’t changed a bit - I was going to be working from home anyway since Cultivate is based in Chicago. Here I’ll talk a little about my experiences leaving technical roles in the corporate world for a new position at Cultivate Labs, and why I’ve been happy with my move. If you’re considering a similar career shift, these experiences might enlighten you.

Prior to joining Cultivate, I held technical positions at MITRE and Booz Allen. There are many advantages to working at larger organizations, especially for employees in technical domains. They have huge pools of people to network with and meet and learn from, and you could find someone with subject matter expertise in just about anything, and take a class on practically any technical topic. There are also so many different roles, teams, and clients - I always knew that if I didn’t love my project, I could switch. Or I could be on two or three teams at once! The opportunities seemed endless.

Then I started thinking about joining Cultivate, a company which at that point had five other people. Five! That was about 0.06% of the size of my last company. I had my doubts about whether it would be a good fit. What if I didn’t like what I was doing, or wasn’t advancing my technical skills? What if it was tough to connect with my colleagues because I was in Maryland while they were working from Chicago? What if I, dare I say it, got bored of crowd forecasting? I couldn’t just find another team, switch managers or tasks, move around the company. I had always been a small fish in a very big pond, and I was used to that.

I quickly realized that working at a small shop like Cultivate allowed me to be integral in building projects from the ground up. In the past, I typically worked on one or two small, specific tasks within a greater effort, which was much larger than the scope of my work. Cultivate was different. Soon after I joined, we built Covid Impacts from scratch to forecast on trends relating to the COVID-19 crisis because we felt there was a need for such a capability. I recruited forecasters, developed and managed forecast questions, brainstormed statistical analyses, and helped develop the direction of the site. Being a big part of a smaller team who facilitated the project from the beginning made this possible and allowed me to truly take part in the bigger picture.

I am also settling into my new role as a technical program manager at Cultivate. In previous jobs, I focused on specific, hands-on technical tasks, like developing interfaces for scientists to interact with custom algorithms and assessing the use of blockchain technology for a client’s needs. I thought this was what I had to be doing to keep up my technical skills: start with a technical problem, find and implement a solution, and move on to the next problem, which was often unrelated to the others I had worked on. At Cultivate, I am now able to leverage my analytical skills to develop, research, and steer technical projects. Program management is new to me, and there is definitely a learning curve, but I’m enjoying this challenge and change of pace. More importantly, I think this type of experience will serve my career well going forward. I can now approach technical projects from another vantage point, to balance out my more focused experiences as an engineer and data scientist. I look forward to helping our projects evolve over time, while using my technical knowledge to create custom analytical capabilities so our clients can optimize their experiences with our platforms.

In addition to my new role, I enjoy working with my new team at Cultivate. While Cultivate is smaller than the other places I have worked at, we have someone who is in charge of every moving part, ready to help and collaborate. We might not have subject matter experts on every topic under the sun, but we can do everything relating to whatever we are building and cultivating, from platform development, site design, forecast question development, and everything in between. And each of my new teammates is just a Slack message away, since that’s our office these days.

I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I joined Cultivate. Small company? Program management, instead of my usual focused problem-solving? Doing a little bit of everything, but all in the name of crowd forecasting? I’ve found that, yes, there are advantages to working at big organizations with a seemingly-endless variety of people and projects. But I’ve really started to appreciate the small company life, where I can work on a wide variety of day-to-day tasks within the bigger picture of crowd forecasting, and where my voice can be heard every day because the teammate I work with most is the CEO of the company!