Alicia Villarreal is Watermark’s Senior Director of Client Services, leading a team of training and support professionals who help Watermark’s clients get the most from their software. Like many Watermark employees, Alicia started her career at the front of the classroom. This experience gives her a unique perspective and deep understanding of the nuances of higher education. Here’s a little more about Alicia, in her own words.
Tell us about your career before joining Watermark.
I had no idea that this is what I would be when I grew up! I started as a high school French teacher right out of college (making me three years older than some of my students, which was really weird). I taught for 11 years, and it was important to me that if I ever started to feel myself disconnect from teaching, that I would do something different. I feel really strongly about education, as it’s made a really big impact on my life and allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do.
I got my Master’s in curriculum and instruction and thought I would move out of the classroom but still work in education. But a curriculum writing job never materialized for me. I went on the Texas State website (which is where I had gotten my Master’s) to see if they had career counseling for their graduates. Instead, what I saw was a Tk20 logo on the Education department page. I actually had to buy Tk20 as an education student and had totally forgotten about it (used it once, for one assignment). I started looking into the company and kind of fell down the rabbit hole.
The job posting was for a product consultant position. I knew it was software, but I didn’t have any background in coding or anything. What spoke to me about the position was how they described their products. They talked about how they would aggregate assessment data so that you could really have meaningful insights into what your students were learning and could monitor and make changes. Just the way the company talked about the assessment cycle in general got me excited. I felt like, “Where has this been? I wish I’d had something like this as an instructor, where I could have aggregated all these data points.” In my interview I talked about my belief that assessment is good and we should be looking at what we’re doing, what we’re teaching, how students are learning, so we can continually improve and make decisions based on data, and not just based on our feelings of how we’re doing that day. The rest is history.
What was it like making the transition to a technology role?
I started by implementing Tk20 and training all of our clients, whether they were new or had been around for a while. My background in education really helped because I understood a lot of the nuances of field experience. I had gone through it myself as both a student and as a mentor, and I had worked with three or four different institutions, so I knew a lot about what other schools were doing which helped my clients.
It’s so easy for me now, but I definitely had a learning curve. In the early days, I kept a notebook of acronyms, technical terms, and vocabulary words related to higher education. To be honest, I didn’t even know what a server was.
One of my coworkers said, “Try to break Tk20. After you break it, you need to fix it or find someone to help you figure it out.” This is what really moved me forward in my understanding of the underlying technology. Users are always just clicking around trying to do things, and I wanted to know what they’re going to run into so that I could help get them out of it. So I spent whatever downtime I had just trying to break the system, and when I did, I would go talk to engineers and developers to describe what I did and what was happening. That gave me an introduction into that world and a lot of vocabulary that I wouldn’t have had if I had just gone through the manual.
In the beginning, everyone seemed so confident and knew what they were doing and just projected this image of knowing everything. I hated that I didn’t know everything, so I spent more time trying to learn. I would spend so much time trying to figure things out before I would ask for help, and trying to fix my own mistakes.
How has your career evolved since joining Watermark?
Managing and supporting a team came really easy to me. I had a lot of experience in how to teach someone to do their job every day - whether that’s being a high school student and learning French, or being a product consultant and learning how to teach our clients how to use our tools - and do that job while you’re in crisis. I’m a pretty empathetic leader, and I think a lot of that comes from having taught high school (I’m also pretty patient and can do a lot of things at one time). I’m a good time manager, too. I know exactly how long 90 minutes is without looking at the clock, so I'm able to start and end things on time and make sure all of the content gets delivered.
Coming from teaching, you always want to know how you can reach the most people and give them the best content and the best training. We can’t reach out individually to everyone, so we need to make sure we have content people can take advantage of in small groups and things people can use on their own. We all learn differently - some people just want to read that quick guide, they don’t want to watch a video or sit through a course. Some want to have one-on-one training (which we always have available), and some want a small group session where they can learn from each other and take advantage of others asking the questions we might be too scared to ask.
This philosophy has led us to create different learning modalities so we can reach as many people with as many unique experiences as we can, so that people can learn the most about our tools and be successful. And we’ll continue to assess how things are going and make improvements to make our training more effective, based on internal and external feedback.
I’m happy to have come from education, it’s very near and dear to me. I’m not in front of students every day, and there are times when I miss that, but I still feel like I get to be part of it. What we do here actually helps. We are giving people the data they need to improve, and that’s pretty awesome.
What advice do you have for women pursuing a career in STEM?
It goes back to that advice I got when I first joined Tk20. There’s so much you can learn by not taking the easy path. Regardless of what you’re studying, any training program will show you how to get from point A to point B - the happy path. What you have to find out for yourself is, what are the unhappy paths? And after you get stuck in the muck and the mire, how do you get out? That teaches you problem solving, patience, and resiliency. So, I say: Break it.
Our Watermark Scholars program offers scholarships to support women pursuing an education and career in STEM. Learn more about the program here.