Not many people can say that they had a first job like “corn cop,” but that’s exactly where Fitbit‘s Tracy Giest got her start. Now, the manager of R&D operations at the fitness tracking company, Giest is basically a total boss—she’s also a literal boss, overseeing a team of people whose job it is to make Fitbit the best it can possibly be. We chatted about her unorthodox career path (she also worked for Teach for America and a railroad company), the management advice she thinks you need, and how she finds the time to take care of herself (hint: it helps to work for a company like Fitbit).
What was your first job, and how did you land it?
My first job was at a corn maze in south central Pennsylvania when I was 14. My mother knew the woman who owned the maze, and I’ll never forget her driving me to the farm to speak with her for my first ever interview. I was given the title of “Corn Cop,” which was displayed prominently across the back of our uniform shirts. I worked the cash register and gave groups of visitors instructions on how to go through the maze and signal for help if they got lost. In addition to being a blast, it was my first real exposure to female leadership and ownership in business, which I was really fortunate to have at such a young age.
You previously worked as a teacher with Teach for America and as an industrial biomechanical consultant at a railroad. How did these experiences prepare you for your job at Fitbit?
Both [of] these experiences were crucial to developing my skills as a presenter and communicator. A room full of middle school students will let you know quite quickly if you are boring or confusing them. In both roles, I realized that knowing my audience, understanding what motivates them, and incorporating check points for understanding and alignment were key for engagement and productivity. Developing the ability to cater my message to various audiences has definitely set me up to work more effectively with different groups across the Fitbit organization.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m a bit of an early bird, so I get up around 5am to run or walk with my dog, make coffee, and then head into the office. Every day looks different at Fitbit. In my role, I lead the team that owns human research and data collection in the research department, including accuracy testing of Fitbit devices and clinical evaluation. My day could range from being at my computer doing vigorous documentation and analysis, [to] working with internal and external stakeholders to plan and prioritize current and future work, to being in our Human Research lab. The lab is our in-house facility where we collect human data to continually improve on our existing wearable features, assess new idea feasibility, and develop next generation technologies and algorithms.
You oversee a team at Fitbit. What sort of advice would you give someone who finds themselves overseeing a team at work for the very first time?
Clearly define expectations and make sure the team is empowered to develop and own any process changes or improvements. Be open and honest with your team when you make a mistake, and set the expectations early that feedback should be transparent, timely, and go both ways.
What was it like to join a company like Fitbit?
Something that really pulled me from academia into a public company was the desire to see my research quickly translate into something tangible and usable for people. When I first joined Fitbit, I was initially surprised by just how much impact I could have on what users see and experience. It’s really invigorating and exciting to work [on a] project that will impact millions of users.
How do you find the time to make time for and take care of yourself?
Fortunately, health and wellness is part of the company culture at Fitbit, so it’s perfectly acceptable to do walking meetings or go for a run at lunch. I also wake up early to get more done during the week so I can minimize work on the weekends.
As a scientist, I’m also drawn to quantitative metrics of my health, so I monitor my resting heart rate plots for insights into how my levels of stress and my workouts (or lack thereof…) are impacting me physiologically. Generally, my resting heart rate is in the low 50s, so when I see it trend upward into the 60s, that’s a good indicator for me that I need to make time to care for myself.
If you could give your fresh-out-of-college self some advice, what would it be?
Max out your retirement.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I used to get anxious before meetings without a clear agenda—always fearing I had made a mistake that was about to be unveiled. If my manager said something ambiguous like, “Can we meet tomorrow to talk?,” I would get nervous. One day I mentioned this to a colleague, and she advised me to think about all these past occurrences in my life, and asked, “Has there ever been a meeting or conversation where you weren’t able to somehow handle the ask, topic, or outcome?” The answer was no. Sure, sometimes I had made mistakes and sometimes they took time to work through, but I’ve always been able to handle them one way or another and be better as a result. So I guess the advice was: don’t stress, just know you’ll handle it.
What’s next for you?
I’m really excited about a lot of the more clinical use cases for Fitbit and wearables in general, and am looking forward to spending more time in the lab on early development work.
Tracy Geist is The Everygirl…
Go-to coffee order: Large almond milk latte
Dream vacation: I recently went on an impromptu weekend trip with girlfriends to Mexico City. One of my friends is a native Spanish speaker so we had the privilege of a unique and immersive experience in the city. I would love to visit Japan with a native speaker to get more immersed in the culture.
Ideal weekend: Whenever I’m able to check everything off on my to-do list — whether it’s going to the dog park or fixing the sprinkler system — I’m a pretty happy camper.
Favorite book to recommend: Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. I’ve been reading a lot of management books in the last year, and this one provides a good set of tools to navigate difficult discussions.