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6 career hacks from Apple VP Kate Bergeron

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Kate Bergeron was unemployed, uninsured, and pregnant when she first interviewed at Apple — a situation that might not suggest the most intentional of careers.

Yet 17 years later, Bergeron is a vice president of hardware engineering, currently heading up Apple’s expanding footprint in audio. Along the way, she worked on some of the brand’s most iconic products.

As part of MIT Sloan’s Innovative Leadership Series, Bergeron recently shared some career insights with students, including her circuitous route to Apple engineer.

“I started at MIT as an undergrad. I thought I would probably go to medical school and get an MD-PhD,” she said, “but then I realized that I liked skiing more than I liked studying, so I changed majors a couple of times.”

She graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering; earned a master’s from University of Colorado Boulder; and was later awarded an executive MBA from MIT Sloan.

Here are her takeaways on navigating a successful career in Silicon Valley and beyond:

1. Think less ‘career path’ and more ‘Chutes and Ladders’

Bergeron shared a timeline of Apple product releases, her various job titles, and the names and birthdates of her two daughters — in essence, the trajectory of her nearly two decades at Apple.

Apple VP Kate Bergeron turned down an offer to lead a new project three times before finally saying yes.

“I often share this with our summer interns to show them that a career path is not a linear line,” she said.

“The first product that I shipped was a 17-inch PowerBook, which was monumentally complex for Apple at the time,” Bergeron said. From there, she moved on to G4 iBooks, the Mac Mini, second-generation MacBooks, the iMac, and MacBook Pros.

Then, a dozen years into her Apple career, Bergeron pivoted. Management wanted to consolidate the development of all of its accessory products into one team — led by Bergeron, if she was willing to leave the Macintosh unit. The decision wasn’t easy — “it was pretty hard to walk away from the allegiances and friendships, the team I’d grown in Mac for more than a decade” — but she said yes.

And just three years later, another opportunity came up that gave her a bump up in management and responsibility for all of Apple Audio. “When you reflect on making a change like that, a lot of career choices are like a game of Chutes and Ladders. You don't always get to just walk up the ladder. Sometimes you have to move horizontally or even go down a little to an opportunity that eventually will lead you to the next ladder,” Bergeron reflected.

2. Want kids? Go for it

Bergeron took maternity leave just six months into her new gig at Apple. “I jumped in, started my job, and a couple months later told my boss that I was pregnant and I was going out on leave,” she said. When she returned to Apple, Bergeron and her husband, MIT alum Mike Gull, alternated schedules — he’d work in the morning and be home with their daughter in the afternoon, when Bergeron would head into the office. “It actually worked out pretty well because a bunch of my team was in Asia at the time. I would be on the phone with them, and making changes in the CAD files, from say 2 p.m. till 9 p.m., and then send them over.”

In 2005, Bergeron was asked to help run development of the first Mac Mini, just as she discovered she was pregnant with her second child. “We announced that product in January, and literally on the drive in from the keynote, I told my manager I was pregnant. He said, ‘We'll figure it out. Take as much time as you need, but let’s do [the project] quick.’”

When Bergeron wanted to return to MIT for her executive MBA, her husband took a job where he could work from home and, once she enrolled, scaled back to 20 hours a week. “It was a lot to accomplish — 20 months through an MBA program while working full time with two kids in elementary school,” Bergeron recalled. “Only by making those sorts of holistic family changes were we able to pull it off.”

3. Trust your managers when they trust you

Early in her career at Apple, Bergeron was feeling the need to take a step back and regroup. “I said, ‘I need to figure out how to manage having a one-year-old while working on these crazy projects.’"

A manager on the product development team had other ideas. He wanted her to lead the team developing the G4 iBooks.

“I literally said three times, ‘Nope. I'm not taking that job,’” Bergeron said. “The [PowerBook] project had been incredibly hard. And knowing that made me think at that point in my life, ‘I really don't know if I can take this on,’” she said. “It took a lot of cajoling and a lot of convincing from my manager that I could actually step into this integral role at Apple and be successful, which now I have to thank him for.”

Five years later, Bergeron had another moment of reckoning. She was a senior manager in the Macintosh mechanical engineering organization. “It’s probably one of the hardest times in probably any technical manager's career — you’re sprinting full out, you’re just below being a junior executive so you still need two salaries to make ends meet.”

She wondered if reverting to an engineering position might yield more of a 9-to-5 working environment, and took her concerns to her manager.

“I sat down and really talked with him about these tradeoffs and aspirations. And he turned out to be both a great sponsor and a mentor who really coached me over that hurdle, which could have been a huge change in direction for my career,” Bergeron said.

4. Build your team, then let them lead

At the time of her second daughter’s birth, Bergeron was leading a group of some 40 people, yet she was able to take a full 12 weeks of maternity leave and “really decompress.” The reason? She’d built a solid team and was able to delegate decision-making to them.

“It was a great opportunity for me to really delegate. How do you figure out how to parse work out to people? It was a great growing experience for the team and for the managers who were able to step up while I was out,” Bergeron said.

Similarly, Bergeron was able to make the leap to accessories in part because she had such confidence in the team she’d built working on Mac products. “I had to trust that this next generation of leaders that I had grown would be successful, that they had the tools they needed to do their job so I could make a [career] choice for myself."

In general, “the only way you can grow to the next level is to figure out how to grow leaders,” Bergeron advised. “You have to have a leadership team underneath you. You have to train them, and you have to learn how to trust them.”

5. Management is a mindset

Bergeron was intentional about her decision to pursue a management track. “I could have been a pretty good engineer at Apple, but the thing I figured out along the way is I'm a much better leader and manager of people.”

That said, she tells aspiring managers on her team that they need to be able to let go of a personal sense of ownership on projects. “If it's all about you, stay an engineer. You solved a hard problem. You can take that personal level of satisfaction when the product ships.” Managers, on the other hand, need to be able to draw true satisfaction from the success of others.

“If the team succeeds, I feel great on their behalf,” Bergeron said. “If they're super-stoked, then I go home happy. You definitely have to be on that side of the coin.”

6. Make diversity happen

Bergeron is part of an effort designed to create platforms for women in engineering to showcase their technical contributions, and she helps guide Apple’s focus on women and leadership more broadly. Diversity, she cautioned, isn’t something you can assume is “just going to happen.”

“I spend not a small amount of my time poking and prodding at the system to make sure that both for women and underrepresented minorities, we're trying to get them a bigger foothold in tech, that they have that opportunity.”

And it’s not just women, Bergeron said. “We have to make tech overall a more inclusive environment, and we have to do that every single day.”

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