How Udemy’s Culture of Curiosity Drives Fulfilling Career Growth
In the story of Ben Lathrop’s life, his arrival at Udemy was a serendipitous plot twist.
It was a classic gray San Franciscan evening in 2014 when Lathrop arrived for his late-night shift at Trader Joe’s. Lathrop, then a crew member for the eclectic grocery chain, couldn’t have imagined the career in tech that lay ahead of him as he made his way past fragrant flowers, stacks of glass bottles and technicolor chalkboards onto the squeaky freight elevator in the back of the store.
On the elevator, his friend and co-worker delivered unexpected news: He had landed a job at an up-and-coming tech startup, Udemy.
“You should apply,” he told Lathrop.
Lathrop dismissed the suggestion, thinking, “I’m secure here.”
But Lathrop’s friend was persistent. When Lathrop eventually earned an interview at the emerging online learning company, Udemy hiring manager Alex Mozes asked him a question that he wasn’t expecting.
“How did you write up your bread order at Trader Joe’s?” asked Mozes. “How did you do it differently?”
Lathrop detailed his systems for donations, the cadence of checking for spoils, how he arranged the shelves to put top sellers in the best sight lines. In Lathrop’s processes, Mozes saw grit, customer service chops and a lot of potential. Lathrop got the job: a customer support role at Udemy’s San Francisco office.
“What struck me from the interview was that the hiring manager really dug into my experience and saw the whole picture of my work life,” Lathrop said. “I didn’t expect them to try to find that potential in me.”
Udemy is known for this hiring practice: the team ensures it looks at diversity of experience and tangible skills rather than basing hiring decisions strictly on the companies, roles and college degrees a person has on their resume.
“I’ll also add that I took a Udemy course on how to interview,” Lathrop noted, grinning. Eight years later, Lathrop is a senior training operations manager for a worldwide team of over 100 customer support agents.
Emily King, a people partner and five-year member of the Udemy team, shares Lathrop’s sentiments on Udemy’s illuminating interview techniques.
“They weren’t just asking about my background in support — they were trying to understand how I interact with people,” King said.
Instead of her usual interview experience, where the interviewer tries to suss out if she’s cool enough to fit in with the office vibe, King’s interview at Udemy felt like an exploration of her experience, skills and mindset.
“It was very much a conversation about how we could work together,” she said.
Rachel Ernst, senior director of employee experience, attributes the mutual exchange of culture and ideas to one of Udemy’s crowning pillars: curiosity.
This ubiquitous curiosity drives learning and sparks healthy debate, Ernst added. It was what drew her to Udemy in the first place.
One of the ways Udemy enacts its curiosity pillar — described as, “We challenge each other to explore new ideas and keep an open, growth-oriented mind” — is via UDays. On a periodic basis, Udemy employees are treated to a full day in which they can explore something interesting to them. Free of meetings, calls, and Slack messages, Udemates can read a book, attend a conference, take a Udemy course (always free of charge), grab lunch with a mentor or even spend the time in quiet ideation mode — all the learning and developing things that are difficult to do when day-to-day work gets in the way. “There’s no rules, just the space to do things to grow yourself,” Ernst said. Lathrop feels that the seeds of much of his growth have been planted on UDays. “I’ve explored courses like active listening or data recording, and I don’t think I would have if there wasn’t a designated day,” Lathrop shared.
For King, Udemy’s always-learning culture opened the door to a mid-career pivot. At a six-week growth workshop covered by her ULearn budget, King had an unplanned epiphany: After over a decade of customer support work, she was ready for change.
“I was able to strategize with peers in an external workshop and think about what it looks like to pivot in my career,” King said, outlining her journey of using external resources as well as Udemy’s courses and learning paths to carve out a new career in HR. “I also worked with my manager at the time and connected with other internal People team leaders to understand how my skills could align to other roles within Udemy.”
“As a customer support manager, I was focused on supporting and growing my team — now I help support a 700-plus-person side of the business,” King added. “It’s really nice to be challenged and to keep learning new skills.”
“Our philosophy as an organization is to provide resources and opportunities to unlock skills and experiences,” Ernst told Built In. A few of these resources and opportunities the company provides include:
- “LevelSet” conversations between managers and individual contributors
- ERG-led activities
- ULearn budget
- Unlimited Udemy Courses
- Career development goals
- MentorU program
- Dedicated learning paths
Beyond career-altering pivots, King revels in the simple pleasure of learning about other aspects of the business via coffee chats among peers.
“There’s always a way to work with people who do something entirely different than you,” she said.
As another avenue for connection, Udemy hosted a “Fireside Chat” this year — which highlighted the individual journeys of its team members. The unifying event is part of a broader, intentionally crafted program, NavigateU, Ernst explained.
“The intention is to help Udemates understand the different ways they can grow their skills, knowledge and careers within the organization,” she said. “In addition to workshops, we felt the most resonant thing would be to hear from their peers across the company.”
For Lathrop, headlining the recent Fireside Chat afforded him the space to reflect on his growth at Udemy from new hire to leader — and the chance to flex his public-speaking chops, which he recently fine-tuned in a Udemy course.
King, who was once Lathrop’s manager, beamed with pride at the full-circle moment.
“I arrived at Udemy thinking I ‘just’ did support, but that team does so much more: Ben is empowering agents all over the world to improve lives through learning. They support our customers, and others are working closely with instructors to make sure they are growing and having an impact on our platform,” King said. “It’s incredible to see these roles come to life so far beyond answering emails.”
“People might start here not always knowing what they want to be when they ‘grow up,’ but Udemy is a special ground for learning and growing into the right role.”
Lathrop is one of the Udemates who arrived not knowing what he wanted to be, and he pays forward his self-discovery by sharing the story of who he’s become.
On the day of Udemy’s Fireside Chat, Udemy’s new Chief People Officer Karen Fascenda served as the moderator. Fascenda’s voice chirped brightly over the live cast: “Ben, can you tell us a little bit about your journey?”
“Absolutely,” Lathrop said, taking a deep breath and leaning into the camera. “Way back in 2014, my first role here was a frontline support associate.”
“Prior to that, I had actually worked at a Trader Joe’s grocery store,” he continued. “But I consider Udemy the start of my professional life …”
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