From Teach For America to Design Lead at IDEO to VP of Business Operations and Strategy at Astranis. I'm Miki Heller.Featured
Hi everyone! I'm Miki Heller, and I'm the VP of Business Operations and Strategy at Astranis. We're building low-cost internet satellites to get the developing world online. I studied aerospace engineering at Cal Poly. Afterward, I joined Teach For America (TFA) as a middle school math teacher. I learned from the experience that I loved education, but wanted to approach it from outside the classroom, so I went on to Harvard for a joint degree in business and public policy. Then I went back to TFA as a Director of Strategy, launching a new program focusing on after school programs. After that, I founded a non-profit to mentor students in the college application process. These diverse experiences led me to become a business designer at IDEO. I knew nothing about design going into the job, but I knew how to spot an opportunity and not waste something valuable. After more than 10 years of focusing on business and strategy, I had the chance to get back to my aerospace roots and build out the business side of Astranis. At the time, we were a tiny company operating out of an apartment loft. Since then, we’ve grown the team to 70 people, moved into a 13,000 square foot manufacturing facility in San Francisco, launched our first demo satellite, and are currently working on building our first commercial satellite, which will bring internet to Alaska, where about a third of people in the state don’t have access to reliable internet. In my role, I oversee our recruiting/hiring, people operations, supply chain and vendor management, finance, legal, facilities, IT — everything that supports the engineering work it takes to build satellites! Also, I just had a baby! He is four weeks old and adorable, and I am currently on maternity leave. Ask me anything about business design and operations, taking maternity leave as a VP of a startup, non-linear career paths, or something else!
Thanks so much for joining us during your maternity leave, Miki! 😍Hi everyone, Miki will be answering your questions before the end of the week. Please note that she may not have time to answer all your questions, so be sure to upvote the ones you most want her to answer with emojis.
Thank you for sharing your story, Miki! I am inspired by your non-linear path as I am finding myself at a crossroads of choices. Did you know where you were heading before going back to school at Harvard? Was that choice to go back to school influenced by your desire for the director position at TFA?
No idea! In fact, I had never heard of IDEO before I went to grad school, and Astranis was still years away from existing. I mention this in an answer above — I have never tried to plan more than one step at a time in my career for this very reason. In my experience, the best way to open yourself up to the best opportunities is to *not* plan things out so far in advance, because if you have your sights set on some opportunity way down the road then you overlook other possibly better opportunities along the way.
Wow Miki! SO inspired by your story! Echoing Leslie - I'm especially inspired by the non-linear nature of your career. Learning, expanding, then going back to your roots, following your curiosity -- all are essential and it sounds like you've navigated beautifully. I have question for your Business Design side:You mentioned you were great at spotting opportunities. How do you know when a business might not actually be going anywhere? I work at a (reasonably well-funded) startup, but we haven't made too many strides in the revenue department. We have money and runway, but aren't really making much traction. What would be some warning signs that a business might not make it? How long do you suggest waiting before seeing if something will take off? I think our idea is great, just not certain of our execution or growth trajectory. Anyway - IDEO is a dream company and it sounds like you've had a dream career (I'm sure there were ups and downs though). Would also love any pointers on how to transition into the human-centered design world!!! :) :) :) Congrats on the birth of your son and I'm inspired to see that you're still giving back to the world even when I'm sure you definitely have your hands full! Elpha power :)
In hindsight, it’s easy to paint a clear picture of how each piece of my career fits together. But the reality is that at each step of the way, I had no idea how my next job was going to open up future doors. Instead, I’ve relied on a pretty simple rule of thumb: I pursue what I think is the most interesting opportunity at that moment in time. I try not to worry about what each opportunity does for my career prospects, and I never try to think more than one step ahead in my career. When I joined IDEO, Astranis didn’t even exist yet! The world is changing so fast, I don’t think it’s possible (or desirable) to chart out a career the way that people used to do. I think it’s possible to work at a company struggling with revenue and traction and still get a ton out of it. If there’s interesting work to be done, and in particular if the work is especially interesting *because* the company is struggling, then that could be a reason to stick around rather than to look elsewhere. Even if the company fails, you’ll learn a ton through the process — much more than if you worked somewhere safe. But to answer your question much more directly, I like the advice that Y Combinator gives, which is also very much in line with the way we think about things at IDEO: Make something people want. It seems obvious, but so many companies are making things that sound cool or revolutionary or innovative, but that no one wants. The best piece of evidence that people want what you’re making is that they are buying it (or using it, or interacting with it in some meaningful way). If that’s not happening, then it’s almost always time for a pivot.
Thanks so much for all your insights! I really appreciate you taking the time. Yes - totally agree. How can we chart our careers when so many roles and orgs that we might work for in the future don't yet exist? And yes - being somewhere that's struggling is certainly a learning opportunity. My fear is that I'm learning bad habits. My assumption is that we learn more under a good leader than a poor leader, but I suppose you can learn quite a bit from both. And yes - make something people want. The challenge is, the people that would "want" it aren't necessarily the ones funding it. The other challenge is that while the concept is great, our founder seems reluctant to pivot or assess what's not working. He's fallen in love with his solution instead of falling in love with the problem and trying to consistently solve it. Anyway - truly appreciate your insights. Thanks again!!
Congrats on becoming a new mom!I love Astranis's mission! I honestly had no idea that nearly a third of Alaska didn't have access to reliable internet. Curious to know what other geographic regions you are targeting?On a separate note, working in operations can be quite ambiguous. What are your methods/ feedback for bringing clarity to it all?
Thanks, parenthood is definitely an exciting new challenge for me!There are a ton of places on earth that face similar challenges to Alaska — geographically disbursed, difficult terrain, less access to capital. In the early days of Astranis, we were targeting some of the more obvious ones: Western Africa, Southeast Asia, parts of South America. We eventually realized the market is ever bigger than we thought, even including parts of the United States. We are planning on launching dozens of satellites in the coming years, and we plan to serve all these markets. :)One technique I learned from my Teach For America days is the concept of “backwards planning” — knowing what the end goal is, then working backwards to figure out step-by-step how you can achieve that goal. I use this to navigate all the ambiguity that my role brings. My plans don’t ever end up working out exactly as I intended, but they give me the confidence I need to get started among a high amount of uncertainty.
Hi Miki - congrats on your newborn and thank you for taking time to do an AMA!In slowly transitioning from engineering to business ops, did the move feel natural or did you struggle to leave traditional engineering until receiving formal education in business?
Personally, I learn best by doing (in fact, “Learn by doing” is the motto of Cal Poly, my alma mater), so not having formal education in something was never a blocker for me. There are actually a lot of things that I learned in business school that I didn’t *really* understand until I got to experience them first-hand in my jobs after I graduated. Depending on the specifics, I often think that if someone wants to make a career switch into something more business-oriented, they are better off taking a business-oriented job where they will struggle for two years before they feel like they know what they’re doing than they are going to business school and learning in a formal setting.
I'd love to hear how to manage a function that you've never managed / worked at before. At Astranis, you oversee so many departments – Have you had experience working at all of them before you join the company? If not, how did you ramp up and be a leader of a department?
I am definitely not an expert in much of what I manage. I rely a lot on mentors and advisors to guide me when there’s a subject matter question I am uncertain about, and have no shame in saying there’s something I don’t know and need to pull in an expert to help me. And as my team has grown, I’ve hired people who know more than me and I provide them with trust and autonomy.
Hi Miki, 1. When you look back what skills, experiences and connections mattered the most for you & employers to get positions you had no prior background in? 2. Have you had a vision of what you wanted to do in a long-term or were you mostly listening to opportunities and responding to them? Would love to hear your thoughts on planning as well as rapid career shifts3. Would you say that Harvard degree became one of the key leverages for your career development?Thank you!
1. I have found that most candidates for a particular job all look the same, and I’ve been able to stand out by demonstrating how my non-obvious past will help with my desired role. I think I was a much better teacher, for example, because I studied aerospace engineering rather than education — I thought about things in a completely different way, and it allowed me to succeed where others were all doing things the traditional way and failing. The fact that I had an engineering and education and business background made me a much more interesting candidate to IDEO than the many people who had graduated from design school. 2. Nope, not at all! I’ve answered this in the questions above so hopefully the responses there are helpful.3. I think getting a degree from a fancy school or working at an impressive company that everyone has heard of is a good way to get a job interview, but that’s as far as it’ll get you. I am super grateful that I got to go to Harvard, and it’s helped me in many ways since I’ve graduated, but I think people put too much focus on brand name.