Montana State University – B.S., Community Health Education
If you’ve ever worked with a business and thought, “I just wish they understood me,” then Cece Harris would be your dream collaborator.
With a love for client experience that feels right out of the playbooks of Disney and Nordstrom, Cece takes her role as customer and client advocate very seriously. In fact, she takes it so seriously that it was her passion for “The Wisetail Way” that first sparked her interest in the learning management systems company. After hearing Wisetail’s CEO, Justin Bigart, speak at an event, Cece went up to him, introducing herself and her effusive passion for putting the customer first – always and at all costs. It was this attitude that caught Justin’s eye and a handful of months later, Cece was proud to call the company her professional home.
Wisetail, which considers itself a learning ecosystem, brings in the components of e-learning missing from many traditional learning management systems. “We focus on culture and connection,” Cece says, “Our platform does really, really well in the restaurant and hospitality industry for those companies looking to build a consistent brand experience across a large geographic region. We take those users from all over the country and put them into one system. So, with our software, restaurant locations, for example, can now share ideas, send one another birthday or recognition messages and comment on one another’s great numbers. We bridge that gap between very formal learning and company culture. It’s amazing.”
And Wisetail’s clients must agree. With a roster including Shake Shack, Einstein Bros Bagels and The Cheesecake Factory, innovative companies with culture at the core of their values are aligning with Wisetail’s product. And based on the enthusiasm in Cece’s interview we’d say she, too, agrees with this equation: Culture + People First = Success.
You don’t get what you don’t ask for. I have no problem being the person who puts herself out there for rejection.
What was your first job out of college?
I worked throughout all of my undergraduate studies, so I never really had that big “first job” out of college. After leaving the University of Utah, I moved back to Bozeman, Montana. I had actually left my Master’s program after feeling a crisis of identity, which I feel most women have at some point in their life.
I’m such a people person. I’m so passionate about providing great service. I had worked mostly in the hospitality industry in my previous jobs – at a hotel in Bozeman for about seven years, as well as in a catering sales manager role for the same hotel. In that job I handled event coordination and conference service manager logistics, which was right in my wheel house. I was in that position for about a year and a half and then received an opportunity to change directions and work in human resources.
After working in the same industry for 8+ years, I wanted to diversify my experiences and try something new. Moving into HR at LC Staffing, also in Bozeman, was an interesting transition, and was the biggest education I ever received in people skills – even more so than the hospitality industry. I learned quickly that my reputation and my word was really only as good as that of the person on the other side of the table. Why? Because it was on them to show up and do what they said they were going to do. This was a challenge for me, because I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with letting someone else’s actions speak to my character.
Around the same time I got involved with TEDx Bozeman as a volunteer. After attending the event I fell madly in love with everything they were doing and went up to workers at the end of the event and asked how I could be involved. They brought me on as the sponsorship assistant to help secure funding for the event. I’m now the sponsorship coordinator for the whole event!
While volunteering for TEDx Bozeman is something I do to give back, the opportunity also opened up a ton of doors in growing my personal and professional networks. Through my connections volunteering, an opportunity to work at Montana State University helping run an entrepreneurship program called the Blackstone LaunchPad developed. I consider this job my first “real” job out of college.
Working for a university versus a private entity is a completely different animal. The pace at which entrepreneurship moves is not often aligned with the same pace at which universities move. I had to learn to adapt and work through that.
The director of the Blackstone LaunchPad program at the time, Rob Irizarry, was absolutely an incredible mentor of mine. (And I’m lucky he still is to this day!) Rob gave me a ton of freedom in terms of how I wanted to structure the program and introduced me to a network of people that I never could have imagined. Between Rob and my mother I think they know everybody in the world – at least that's kind of how it feels.
What is the culture like at Wisetail?
It’s your atypical software company. Justin very much believes in an office where people are inspired to bring their best to work. If that means you need to take a couple of days to go recharge your mental batteries in the woods with no cell phone and no computers, that’s okay. On paper we have an unlimited vacation policy, so if you need a mental break, you take a mental break.
The culture also is very service-oriented, which is why I was so drawn to working here. Justin really values the ideals of companies like Four Seasons and Nordstrom where the customer comes first – always – and going above and beyond is simply what you do. If you look at our service model and platform compared with a traditional software vendor like Oracle, although we are in a similar space, it’s kind of like we might as well be selling apples and oranges.
Wisetail is a small company of about 15 very team-oriented people. Our office is in downtown Bozeman, so we often all go and get lunch together, or we’ll grill and barbeque during the week. It’s a great company to work for, because we know that we’re all adults here and we are responsible for ourselves. There’s not a lot of micromanagement, but instead there is the kind of trust that you will get things done, and if you don’t, it’s your responsibility to fall on your own sword. We take ownership of that, and so there’s a tremendous amount of respect and admiration within the organization. We work really hard and we play really hard.
How do you organize a typical day?
I try hard to avoid checking my email until I get into the office. I’ll check my email before I go to bed, but in the morning I like to have my personal time to drink my coffee, take my dog for a walk outside and get ready for the day.
Once I get into work, I make coffee for the office. We drink a lot of coffee. Once I get settled in I dive right into my email. As a software company, email is our primary mechanism of communication with our clients. Then I open our internal project management software, Asana, and help with outstanding tasks, including bugs, services and engineering development.
At Wisetail we really believe in a service mentality. Once our clients are onboarded that doesn’t mean we stop communication with them, so I have a ton of scheduled meetings that are recurring every other week, which is a large part of my day. They’re 30-minute meetings where the clients and I hop on a video call and discuss our work together. We talk about things like: What are they struggling with? What are they excited about? What are some questions they have? It helps me create a positive relationship with whoever I’m on the phone with, and it’s awesome.
After my meetings I settle in with other projects I’m working on for the company. Every fall we host a user conference for our clients. We invite them from all over the country to come to Bozeman for three days for a quintessential Montana experience. During the conference we talk about successes and failures, eat really well and drink a lot. Right now I’m planning that event from the ground up, which takes a lot of time.
Before I leave the office at the end of the day, I make a punch list of things that have to be done the next day. I try to keep this list to five things or less. A list would include things like sending a certain email, writing an implementation schedule, etc. Whatever it is, I write it on a piece of paper dated with the next day’s date, and when I get time the next day I start with the first item on the list first, and so on.
What are key responsibilities that fall underneath you?
Maintaining that service relationship between existing clients and Wisetail, as well as serving as the liaison between the development team and our client base is my responsibility. I also help with the implementation of new Wisetail systems, so I also would include onboarding clients to the Wisetail culture and guiding them through a very structured project management piece. I also help manage emergencies, provide service for bugs or anything else that comes to me first from clients.
I’m that first line of contact. And, while I have a certain line of clients, because of our open structure I do help serve all of our clients. It’s like that whole “hit by a bus” analogy. If I ever get hit by a bus, there’s someone on the team who can pick up the project and tackle it exactly where I left off.
What part of your job makes you the most excited to walk into the office every day?
I love helping clients strategize ways to engage their users in our system.
Do you feel like you have more of a work/life balance or work/life integration?
It’s much more of an integration as my professional life feeds my social life. I mentioned my work with TEDx, and the founder of TEDx Bozeman has become one of my very best friends. Although we do a great deal of work together in the professional space, we also are close on a personal level. Montana is a small state. The group of movers, shakers and doers is very small, so we overlap.
I’m single. I don’t have kids. I am very, very independent. My professional life is my foundation right now. That said, I have learned that it’s OK to say ‘no’ and the experience to do so came up for one of the first times a couple of weeks ago. I went to an event, and of course I introduced myself and said I’d love to help. I met with the event coordinator for coffee, and during that meeting she asked me to be on a committee to help plan next year’s event. I was more than happy to do that, but I had to say, “These are the things I’m okay doing. This is the amount of time I can give you.” For the first time I thought, “Wow, I had to say that, and I did it.” It was a liberating experience to know that I’m so aware of what my boundaries are, my skill set and what my priorities are now.
What is an accomplishment you're proud of?
I honestly don't spend a lot of time reflecting on that. I feel like I’ve been taught and brought up with the expectation that you just do what you feel needs to be done. I'm engaged in my community, and I do it not because I feel like I have to, but that's just who I am. That said, one story that comes to mind is how I got my job with Wisetail.
Last year I was at the Montana Programmer’s Conference as a registration volunteer. I saw Justin, Wisetail’s CEO, during a session where he talked about “The Wisetail Way,” which was a presentation on the Wisetail culture. He didn’t mention the product at all – only the culture. I remember leaving his appearance with this feeling of, “Oh my gosh, this is a company I want to support with my time and energy. If I could get paid doing it that would be awesome.”
I went up to Justin at the end of his talk and said, “Hi, my name is Cece, and I am so in alignment with you in terms of what your hospitality and service values are. As you grow your company, I would love to be a part of it.” He said it was awesome I came up to him and that we should talk over the summer. We never did. Then, about four months later he called me and said, “Hey, we’re ready to interview. Would you like to come work or us?”
It was proof that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. I have no problem being the person who puts herself out there for rejection. I enjoy saying, “Hey, I’m really interested in helping. Do you need anything? I’d love to work for you.” I’ll take a “yes” at any capacity, and if the answer is “no” then that’s okay, too.
Build a network around you so that even if a “no” comes along, you still have other contacts who can step in and give you diversification. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket, but also don’t have any problem putting yourself out there.
What’s a project you're working on that you're really passionate about?
About 80 to 90 percent of my volunteer time goes toward helping organize TEDx events in Bozeman. I had an incredibly emotional response to the first TEDx Bozeman that I went to as an attendee. I literally was sitting in the audience in tears after. The quality of speakers we have around Bozeman and Montana is incredible.
TED is a huge organization that puts on something like 80,000 TEDx events around the world. Last year TEDx Bozeman was featured on TED.com as one of three feature events – in the world! It was this unbelievable moment because the world was standing up and taking notice of what our team in Bozeman was doing. And it is absolutely a team effort. There is no way an event of that caliber could ever be pulled off without a whole team coming together. On the day of the event we had more than 60 volunteers, from executive directors and videographers to marketers. That undertaking takes about 10 months of my year, and I love it.
What advice do you have for someone else who wants a job just like yours?
It goes back to what I said above: You don’t get what you don’t ask for. Put yourself out there and don’t be afraid of someone telling you ‘no.’ Something I still struggle with – and I think other women struggle with it, too – is that we have no idea how good we are. Whether we’re talking skiing, motherhood or work, it’s sometimes hard to believe how talented and capable we are. Finding an environment that nurtures that within ourselves is so huge.