The Learning Guild released their Thirty Under 30 in Learning selection for 2020, containing some of the top minds in the industry. These people are changemakers, and to celebrate that we took some time to interview these talented individuals to hear, in their own words, what it takes to be a leader in learning.

Valerie Chan is a Talent Development Specialist working at Datadog, a company dedicated to providing essential monitoring and security for cloud apps. While Datadog works hard to keep their clients’ apps secure, Valerie focuses on addressing the learning needs of their workforce through initiatives that enhance employees’ career development, manager development, and new hire onboarding. Valerie had lots of insights for us, so let’s dive in.

Tell us about your company and your role within it?

I started my role at Datadog fairly recently in January 2021. My early priorities are to develop a framework for onboarding that would be scalable as Datadog grows and to lead their manager development program. However, there have already been opportunities to propose new projects and ideas. For example, I will soon be launching an internal podcast to encourage our people to invest in their development.

I use the word invest because oftentimes, learning and development can feel like something that takes away from an employee’s productivity in the moment. Why spend time on training when I can use that time to finish a project or take a call with a client? What I try to help our people realize is that spending that time on developing a new skill will help them be more effective in their role in the future.

Tell me about some of the things you’re doing to stay current in the world of learning? Any people or companies you’re watching in the industry?

I would be remiss if I did not mention those in my Thirty Under 30 cohort. They’re all such ambitious and creative learning professionals who motivate me to do my best work. However, as a practitioner in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, my first instinct when faced with a problem is to understand the research and proven practices. There are tons of trends based in pop psychology and myths out there; it’s difficult to know what to pay attention to.

However, once I know what science has to say, I find it’s essential to sense-check it with other learning professionals—understand what is realistic and practical to form the bridge between science and practice. So, in addition to research, discussions (and sometimes debates) with those in my network are just as important.
Depending on what you’re looking for, there are so many people and companies doing great work to push the learning industry forward. A few of my favorites for research are the White Papers from Center for Creative Leadership and the Research Library on the Learning Guild’s website. What I like about these sources is that they typically write in a way that is not overly academic. In addition to expanding our networks, this is another way we bridge the scientist-practitioner gap: by making the research accessible.

What do you find most rewarding about working in the learning industry?

I think most people in learning and development or talent development would say that helping people feel confident and building self-efficacy in their work is the most rewarding thing, and I would agree. However, the connections I’ve built in this field have been fulfilling for my professional life, as well.

What makes a good learning experience? How do you evaluate a good learning experience?

The first answer that comes to mind is, “it depends”. What is “good” will depend on the training topic, who your learners are, what the learning culture is like, and so on.

My best answer is that the experience needs to fit the objectives of the training. Think about what you are trying to accomplish and what approaches and activities will help your learners get there. For evaluation, I always think about it in terms of the four levels of evaluation according to the Kirkpatrick Model—reaction, learning, behavior, and results (ROI).

What KPIs/metrics matter when it comes to good learning? What are the metrics you track or wish you could? How do you know that you’ve met those characteristics/qualities in your own work?

The KPIs and metrics that matter most to learning professionals should be the same as the ones that matter to the business. This may sound blunt, but someone once told me that leaders don’t care about learning, they care about results. If the knowledge imparted to the workforce isn’t translating to a tangible, measurable impact, it’s not good learning.

The big challenge with connecting learning outcomes to business outcomes is that there are usually several other variables that also impact the metric you’re measuring. Everyone who sat through a statistics class will remember that “correlation does not equal causation”. However, in the same way that marketing professionals are expected to report back on the ROI of their campaigns, learning professionals need to do their best to accurately track metrics tied to the learning objectives of their training, and collaborate with analytics teams to make firm conclusions about the business impact.

So, in short, KPIs depend on the project—you won’t know what to track unless you have an idea of what you’re trying to change.

Tell me about your favorite learning projects you’ve ever worked on? What were the most successful parts of them? Why?

I started at Datadog fairly recently, so many of my big projects are still in the works. I’ll say though, that the Talent Development team has given me so much autonomy and trust to drive initiatives forward, and it has been incredible working with the team so far.

My favorite learning project with another team, however, was building out a set of six leadership development workshops for directors and VPs at my former organization. I worked very closely with global stakeholders to develop and facilitate sessions that combine leadership theories like servant leadership, transformational leadership, and the DAC model with practical application in their roles. Having that experience as an associate-level employee just over one year into my career helped me build a great deal of confidence.

On a scale of 1-10, how important are the visual design and overall aesthetic of learning content (10 is high)? Why?

Generally, visual design needs to complement the content by making it more engaging, making the concepts more clear, and aligning the aesthetic with internal branding so that learners feel like the training they’re attending is polished and tailored for them.

Personally, I’d rate the importance of content above visual design and aesthetic. However, I fully recognize the power of design. Going back to my point on learning myths, content that is not rooted in evidence-based psychology can gain popularity because of the way it’s presented, and the aesthetic and marketing around it. Examples of this are the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram. These personality frameworks are fun and can start interesting discussions between teammates. However, they become dangerous when organizations try to use it for real decisions like hiring and promotions. So, I use that example to illustrate how both visual design and content are important.

Where do you see the learning industry going in a post-covid world?

Regardless of covid, I think that where the industry will be five years from now will be impacted by what new technologies are available and how receptive workers are to change. This goes hand-in-hand with the trend of learning in the flow of work, which is not a new idea in 2021, but I imagine it becoming even more prominent as companies take a more dynamic approach to their learning strategies. Right now, I’ve seen more organizations discuss this as a concept than really committing to it as a practice.

What excites you about the future of learning? What’s missing in the learning industry today?

It excites me to see more learning leaders having a seat at the table. For a long time, and still today, learning and development has been thought of as a “nice to have”, but I think business leaders are seeing the value of investing in their workforce beyond onboarding and basic technical training.

What I believe is missing is a standard practice of evaluation. I believe that learning and development professionals are inclined to assume that if training takes a lot of time and effort to build and deliver, it will yield positive results. We, as an industry, should be careful about making assumptions. Being able to measure the effectiveness of training is what will take our programs from good to great.

It’s also important to think critically about what behavior we want our people to learn. People will come to us and say, “Can I get training material on this?” and sometimes the truth is training will not solve the problem. Maybe it’s a change management issue, or maybe something in the employee’s role is preventing them from taking the desired action. Our role as learning professionals is to consult stakeholders on what training can and cannot do, and ideally propose a more appropriate solution to the problem they are facing.

Bottom line? Training can’t be the hammer for every single nail.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to companies when it comes to learning?

Too many times I see organizations wanting to develop their people to enhance performance, lower attrition rates, and so on; then when it comes time to “put their money where their mouth is” by adding headcount or investing in learning technology it isn’t in the budget. Make learning a priority and listen to your workforce, and especially to your leaders on the ground who see the learning needs and skill gaps firsthand. By doing so, you are showing your people that your company is a place where they can continue to grow and will be supported through their career.


We hope you found this interview as inspirational as we did!  Want to keep in touch with Valerie? Find her on LinkedIn (and make sure to include a brief note on why you’re hoping to get in touch!). Looking for more Thirty Under 30 inspiration? Check out our interviews with Dalia Abbas and Michael Wildman.

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