What it's like to bring foreign language lessons to the masses at Duolingo
In our Working Girl Diaries series, accomplished women with fascinating careers give us a peek into three days of their lives.
We know we’re not the only ones who love squeezing in a fun and interactive foreign language lesson when we’re hopping between the different apps on our phones, and that’s because Duolingo has proven itself to be one of the most collaborative, accessible, and effective ways to learn that language you’ve always wished you could speak — or that you need to learn to speak. In fact, Duolingo is the most popular language-learning platform worldwide, with over 200 million learners.
The company’s mission is to make education free and accessible to everyone, and for our latest Working Girl Diaries column, you’ll get to know Duolingo’s Global Head of Community, Laura Nestler.
Laura leads the team that engages with Duolingo’s user community, which consists of learners, teachers, and course contributors. Considering that Duolingo is used in over 300,000 classrooms and that most of its ~80 foreign language courses were created by volunteer contributors, Laura’s role leading the Community Team is an important one.
Before joining Duolingo in 2016, Laura spent nine years at Yelp (she lived abroad in the U.K. and Australia for six of those years to help expand the company’s online communities internationally). Now Laura lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons, where she works remotely when she isn’t flying out to visit the Duolingo headquarters in Pittsburgh.
Here are three days in Laura’s life as a leader at work, at home, and beyond.
5:30 a.m.: I wake up and tiptoe past the kids’ rooms en route to my Peloton exercise bike. Exactly 20 minutes go by before I hear Theo (my 18-month-old) wake up, but luckily he falls back asleep and I’m able to finish my 45 minute workout. Mornings are caffeine-fueled chaos on days like today — when it’s my turn to get our two boys up and out the door — but I always check Slack to see if there is anything urgent I need to tackle. All clear today!
8:15ish a.m.: I arrive at my WeWork in Seattle and open Duolingo for my daily Spanish lesson. I’m a true believer in producing – not consuming – first thing in the morning, so rather than checking email or Slack (cough, or Instagram, cough), I always tick something off of my to-do list first.
8:55 a.m.: I join our weekly all-hands meeting via video, and since I’m early, I get a few minutes to catch up with the other “remotes” already logged in, Brady Bunch-style. Duolingo is based in Pittsburgh, but we have employees all over the world! Our company meeting is a chance for every team to give a brief update, so I make our team’s announcement: We’ve began building new language lessons in the incubator (currently working on Arabic for English speakers), and Duolingo Events just launched in our 240th city and 60th country.
9:30 a.m.: Email blitz. Rather than answer emails immediately, I carve out specific times throughout the day to answer emails so that I can focus on a specific task the rest of the time. The entire Duolingo team eats a chef-prepared lunch together at 12:30 EST sharp (a bell rings, it’s a whole thing), so when I’m not at HQ, I use this quiet time as my first email catch-up session.
10:30 a.m.: I begin a spree of 1:1 video calls – I hold one with each manager who oversees a Duolingo community (aka Duolingo Global Ambassadors). We spend an hour catching up and covering their 3FPs (forward progress, future plans, f’ing problems) and I keep a list of any obstacles I can remove for them in the week ahead. Global Ambassadors are volunteers who help support our mission of bringing free language education to the world. It is a wide-reaching and passionate group made up of Contributors (who create and maintain all of our language courses), Hosts (who hold offline language events in cities around the world), Moderators (who answer language questions and keep our online forums safe), and Educators (who use Duolingo in their classrooms).
2:00 p.m.: I have my weekly 1:1 with David, our team’s developer. Today, he demos the cool new tools he built for our moderators to quash spam more efficiently and we brainstorm how we can integrate Duolingo Events within the Duolingo product. Specifically, we are figuring out a way to let users know that there is an event near them when they reach a certain level in their language course.
3:30 p.m.: It’s dinner time on the east coast, so everyday at this time, I choose a project and dive in for an hour or two of focused work. Today I spend time creating a playbook for how we have built and scaled Duolingo Events in the six months since we launched in Duolingo Labs (over 900 events in 240 cities and 60 countries!). I map out three growth strategies to share with the executive team at the end of the quarter.
5:00 p.m.: I pick up Ozzie (my 4-year-old) from Montessori and head home, hoping that my HelloFresh box was delivered because my Trader Joe’s goals after work were clearly not based in reality. (Delivery success! Figgy Balsamic Pork for everyone!)
8:30 p.m.: With dinner, baths, and bedtime stories done, I hop back online for my final emailing session. This time, I pair it with a delicious glass of red wine. I check my calendar for tomorrow (it’s pleasantly open!), prepare a few updates that need to go out first thing in the morning, and start reading this book about branding that I’m loving.
6:30 a.m.: Today I’m working from home and it’s my husband’s turn for the morning children-olympics, so I fill my percolator with Coava beans and head to my downstairs office. In sweatpants, naturally.
6:45 a.m.: I hit send on three updates that I prepped last night: weekly priorities for my boss and two separate updates about Events project and Community Storytellers project (working titles for projects I’m leading). I am focusing most of my day on the Storytellers project.
7:00 a.m.: I hop on a video call with Ahmad, a Duolingo user in Gaziantep, Turkey, where it is already 5:00 p.m. He shares his inspirational story about growing up in Aleppo, Syria (which is only two hours from where he lives now) and his five-year journey gaining Turkish citizenship for his wife and five children after the Syrian conflict began. He speaks both English and Arabic, and is using Duolingo to learn Turkish to integrate into his new community. His kids have already picked up Turkish, so they are using Duolingo to learn English. His little boy waltzes into the room BBC-style when he hears us speaking English. I run upstairs to get Ozzie who hasn’t left for school yet, and the two of them have an enthralling 4-year-old conversation in English. I cry. It’s fine.
[Ahmad asked that we not publicly share his screen, so here’s a shot of what it looked like from our side!]
8:00 a.m.: I have an impromptu Slack conversation with my Turkish colleague and arrange for him to join the upcoming trip we have planned to Turkey. He’ll be joining a photojournalist and documentarian to capture stories from the Duolingo community throughout the country.
8:15 a.m.: Emails. (Another email fun-fact: I try to only touch an email once. I either respond and archive, delegate it and archive, or — if it’s something that will take significant effort — I create a meeting in my calendar to do it, and, you guessed it, archive. I achieve zen at inbox zero.)
9:00 a.m.: I have my weekly meeting with Sam, our head of PR. Among other updates, I relay the morning’s events. He shares that the Norwegian Refugee Council has recently been in touch with us to share how Duolingo is being used in refugee camps in the Middle East. Wow.
9:30 a.m.: I need to think, so I take a walk to my local coffee shop (it’s Seattle, so this doesn’t take long). I spend the next few hours scouring the internet for Duolingo users who have shared inspirational stories; I personally reach out when I find them. I then draft a vision statement to frame the project:
(Still needs work, but it’s getting there.)
12:30 p.m.: I call the photojournalist I’m working with, and fill him in on my progress. He has a contact who can likely get him into the refugee camp. We spend the next hour on the phone together researching what credentials and legal documentation we’ll need to travel and film in these sensitive locations.
2:00 p.m.: Weekly 1:1 with my boss, Luis, who is the CEO and co-founder of Duolingo. I run down my list of updates and we discuss a few of them. Most of our meeting revolves around the community storytelling project. He spurred the original idea and connected me with the photojournalist, so he’s happy to hear about our progress — and even more so, he’s happy to hear that we are standing up in support of these individuals. Luis doesn’t shy away from social causes, like gender equality or immigration, and this is one of the many reasons I love coming to work every day.
2:30 p.m.: I interview a finalist for our Customer Support Manager position, and after acing the interview and brilliantly responding to my trademark “tough and revealing interview question,” we subsequently fanned over Wendy’s social media presence. (Spoiler: she got the job! The person I interviewed, that is. Not Wendy. Sorry, Wendy.)
3:00 p.m.: I meet with Duolingo’s senior designer to discuss the creative direction of our Community project. We need to come up with a content distribution plan, an official name, and, well, everything in between. He and I will be working together quite a bit over the next month to bring these community stories to life, but he is so damn good at what he does that I somehow leave the meeting totally energized by the exhausting amount of work in store for us.
4:00 p.m.: I have a bunch of administrative tasks to check off my list, so I get to it: I approve the design and budget for new swag, I plan upcoming trips to Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Istanbul (both with work and family), I bug our lawyers about International Usage Rights forms and shut my computer for the time being.
4:30 p.m.: I call one of my former colleagues to get her opinion on an idea I have for empowering and motivating volunteers. (I have a braintrust of exceptional community marketing people I’ve worked with in the past, and we summon one another whenever there’s a challenge we’re working through). She suggests some tweaks to my original plan that I scribble down.
6:00 p.m.: Fajitas for dinner tonight! It’s still light after dinner, so my husband, children, and I all walk to the park until the sun goes down. I’m traveling for the next few days, so I squeeze in every drop of these tiny humans who give me so much perspective.
9:00 p.m.: I catch a red-eye to Pittsburgh (via Boston. No direct flights between Seattle and Pittsburgh until September 6th, 2018. At 8:20 a.m. But who’s counting…) I have a window seat and a glass of red wine (or two), so I’ll see you all tomo- …
5:30 a.m.: I land in Boston only to learn that my connecting flight has been canceled and I’ve been rebooked on the 1pm, which won’t do. I switch airlines and snag an 8:30am that will have me in the office before my first meeting at 11am – thank goodness I followed my road warrior golden rule: never. check. bags.
6:00 a.m.: While washing my face and jabbing on some requisite mascara, I realize that I have time to grab a quick breakfast and a hug from a dear friend (and fellow early riser), Evie, who lives in Fort Point – a five minute Uber from the airport. She confirms almost instantly and I’m en route by 6:15 a.m.
6:29 a.m.: We are the first customers inside Flour Bakery. Evie heads up the entire design team at New Balance, so an hour with her is like a shot of straight creative inspiration. She rambles off some macro trends in art, culture, fashion, tech, and active, and how she’s used these trends to help build out the creative direction and graphics that will come to life in each category of the 2019 line. She acts like it’s no big deal, and I hang onto every word. And onto every crumb – these sticky buns I ordered are the business.
7:30 a.m.: Charged with caffeine, it’s time to head back to the airport. On the drive, we gush about how wonderful it is to have a support network of dynamic women who are deeply passionate about their jobs and also deeply passionate about their families; these things are not mutually exclusive.
7:50 a.m.: Back at the airport, I arrive at the gate just as boarding for my group begins (which is my ideal travel timeline). I send Evie a gif of Lucille Bluth to let her know I made my flight, then listen to The Daily podcast by The New York Times while downloading a few Duolingo lessons — entonces puedo practicar mi español en modo avión.
8:45 a.m.: Who am I kidding? Of course I pay for airplane internet. I send my team the agenda for our weekly meeting, clear my inbox, and prepare a few notes for today’s community webinar.
10:10 a.m.: I land in Pittsburgh (early!) and catch a Lyft to The Ace Hotel. About 40 minutes later, I drop my bag in my hotel room and walk the 100 steps to the Duolingo office.
11:00 a.m.: In our first meeting, we finalize how many new languages and how many new course directions (from existing languages) we can launch in the coming year. Even though our courses are developed and maintained by our volunteer community, it still takes a significant amount of staff resources to execute a successful launch and sustain a course.
12:00 pm: About 3-5 times each week, I onboard newly accepted Event Hosts by video meeting. Today, I have an international crowd of potential hosts from Mexico City, Berlin, Chicago, Lagos, Nigeria, and Saint Petersburg, Russia in a meeting. This is effectively the final interview before they begin holding events in their cities; I make sure they are all engaged in the discussion to judge if they can carry a room of eager language learners!
12:30 p.m.: Remember that chef-prepared lunch at the Duolingo offices I mentioned? Today I indulge. The best part about this ritual is getting to interact with colleagues I don’t normally see in person, and learning about cool things they do both inside and outside of work. The Duolingo team is an incredibly passionate bunch!
1:30 p.m.: Time for our weekly Community Team meeting, which we always usher in with a relevant music video from the late ’80s/early ’90s. (Today’s music video is Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step,” if you must know.) Our agenda consists of design updates and a review of how each Global Ambassador branch is performing with users.
2:30 p.m.: I’d planned to get back to emails, but then Chef Rick emailed letting us know that he put out hot churros and chocolate sauce for everyone… so…
3:00 p.m.: Webinar time! We hold Q&A webinars for all Global Ambassadors whenever we are going to reveal a new feature on the app. And while I can’t publicly share what this webinar was about, I can say a major perk of being a Global Ambassador is getting early insight into whatever we are building.
3:30 p.m.: It’s a beautiful day, so Bob (our Vice President of Business) and I decide to go on a walk while we have our meeting. He and I started our Duolingo careers on the same day, both have two boys, both lived in the Bay Area, and both spent nearly a decade at a well known tech company before coming here — so finding conversation is never a challenge. Today we spend most of our meeting discussing the different strategies of connection-first social media (Twitter, Linkedin) vs. content-first social media (Instagram, Pinterest). Have I mentioned how much I love my colleagues?
4:00 p.m.: I actually answer emails this time…
4:30 p.m.: I sneak away with a few colleagues for happy hour before the Duolingo Spanish Event later tonight, then head back to my hotel room and sit. I don’t do anything for 30 minutes except sit. It’s fantastic. Then I shower and get ready for…
7:00 p.m.: Duolingo Spanish Event! I’m meeting Nick and Erin, our Pittsburgh Spanish hosts, with a bag full of Duolingo swag and materials for tonight’s activity. It’s a big turnout and the feedback from everyone is excellent.
9:30 p.m.: I grab a solo dinner back at the Whitfield, which is the restaurant at the Ace Hotel. (I say this often: Pittsburgh is the new Portland. I love it here. You should come before Pittsburghia becomes a thing.) Of course my laptop is open and I’m prepping for another busy day in the office tomorrow.
11:00 p.m.: I read a bedtime story to my little guys via Facetime – its only 8 p.m. in Seattle – then I drift off to sleep myself. It isn’t often that you work 15+ hours one day and still look forward to doing it again the next. I am immensely humbled to have had a career filled with purpose, autonomy, and growth opportunities, but even more so to have been continuously surrounded by people smarter, funnier, and more passionate than me. (Good thing they’re qualities are highly contagious.)
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