Charting the Course of an Unexpected Career

If you drew a map of your career path, what would it look like? Straight shot through a line of carefully plotted destinations? Up-and-up trajectory following clear road signs to a long-term goal? No? That’s OK. 

If the map you’ve made looks a little more squiggly, if you’ve taken a few detours and rerouted to try new things, or if life has nudged you back to the start more than once, you’re not alone. The average worker in the U.S. has 12 different jobs over the course of their working life, according to Zippia

The good news: Recent research reflects growing awareness among employers that filling positions today requires broadening the scope of skills and experiences among candidates. More stops along the way can actually offer a company valuable breadth of experience and a powerful variety of skills.  

It’s an approach that Help Scout embraces. Leah Knobler, VP of people, said, “While we always hire folks with relevant experience and skills, we have a progressive understanding of what that actually means and encourage keeping an open mind in the hiring process.”  

That approach starts with a job description that encourages a broad range of candidates to apply for roles at Help Scout and puts the company’s values front and center, which continues through the interview process and all related hiring steps. The result: An inclusive process that attracts folks with a wide variety of expertise and opens the door to varied life and career experiences. 

“Some of the most talented candidates come from surprising backgrounds or different industries other than tech,” Leah said. “What matters is that the skills and experience folks bring to their role at Help Scout are translatable. You don’t have to work in tech to learn adaptability, helpfulness, or collaboration.” 

Building a team from that perspective also has benefits for the business. “Our globally distributed team includes people who have taken really unique paths to Help Scout, and the impact of the diversity of all of those different lived experiences on our culture and our product is pretty powerful.”

In this installment of our ongoing Work+Life series, we’re sharing a look into some of the faces and experiences that reflect that diversity of experience on the Help Scout team. Read on to learn more about one team member whose winding path landed her in exactly the right place.

Sarah Van Pelt

Product Support Analyst — Clarksville, Tennessee

Sarah and kids D.C.

When Sarah Van Pelt describes the joy and tranquility she felt as a pilot, it’s clear how deeply she loved her years behind the controls. “When you're flying, there’s just an incredible sense of freedom,” she said. “Even though you’re managing a lot of information and there’s a lot to think about, it's actually very peaceful up there.”

Sarah initially earned her private pilot’s license while she was in high school and then joined the U.S. Air Force after college. She often spent her work days with her head literally in the clouds, where, she noted, “the weather is always good.” Today, her office looks a little (OK, a lot) different: She spends her days working at home as a product support analyst for Help Scout. 

There’s no question that Sarah’s professional path veered from what she originally imagined, but the diversions and new starts along the way also reveal a throughline of service that shines at the heart of her story — and fuels her work at Help Scout. 

Adapting through unexpected turbulence: From pilot to parent to product support analyst

Like many kids in military families, Sarah moved around a lot throughout her childhood. High school found her in rural Indiana, where, as she puts it: “There really wasn’t a whole lot going on at school — or anywhere.” When her dad suggested she apply to a training program to earn a private pilot’s license through the local university, she jumped on it. Once enrolled, she knew she’d found her future. “Pretty much right away I thought, OK, this is the path that I'm going to take.”

The decision to join the military was a logical next step. “I was third-generation Air Force — both of my grandfathers and both of my parents served — so it was a natural path, especially since I loved flying,” she said, “and service always took precedence in our family.” Sarah earned an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and then attended officer training school before entering into active service. She was soon flying T-37 and T-38 jets. 

Some of the essential skills that pilots have to master surprise people, she said: “There’s so much math involved. Whenever a kid who’s interested in becoming a pilot asks me what they need to study, I always tell them to focus on math. You need to be able to make quick calculations in your head all the time — and remain calm and focused if you need to adapt, which you do a lot.” For Sarah, it was work she loved. “Flying was definitely my happy place.”

Sarah VP pilot pic

While she would have been thrilled to stay airborne, life intervened: A medical issue forced Sarah to separate early from the Air Force and prompted a pivot. Her inclination to be of service again steered her career path — this time toward education. “My mother was a school librarian, and my sister is a teacher, so I gravitated toward that field,” Sarah said. “And, after flying, books are really my other love.” She went back to school and earned a master’s degree in library science, with a plan to become a school librarian. 

When she had her first child, she diverted again. Her next full-time role: parenting. While it’s not a job that makes her LinkedIn profile, Sarah’s aware of how raising three kids has honed her problem-solving skills and her ability to stay calm under pressure. “Those are things I’m doing every day with my kids,” she said, laughing. Of course, the whole gig revolves around being of service, too. 

It was during her years as a stay-at-home parent that, as she described it, she “stumbled into customer support.” Having taken on freelance work managing websites and social media for local small businesses, Sarah found herself providing support on behalf of her clients. When she joined a small startup full time, she took an opportunity to build out the company’s product support function. “I found I really enjoyed the customer support aspect of my work and that it suited a lot of my skills and experience,” she said.

The desire to provide service and problem-solve — and the adaptability to do so in new environments — continued to propel her work. “I think one of my strongest skills is being able to identify where there are opportunities and just run with them, whether I'm familiar with the domain or not. I’m good at finding the right people and resources to solve problems and move things forward.”

Putting it all together at Help Scout

It was while she was working at the startup that Sarah first found Help Scout. “We used Help Scout as a team. I followed the blog and really appreciated everything I learned about the company culture and the customer-centric approach. I was a fan,” Sarah said. When she was unexpectedly laid off, a product support role on the Customers team at Help Scout was the first job she applied for. 

At Help Scout, Sarah has landed in a role that allows her to bring all of her previous professional and personal experiences together. “As a product support analyst, I’m constantly problem-solving,” Sarah said. “I’m often listening to customers’ issues and figuring out how to communicate those to the product and engineering side in a way that provides a solution.” 

She appreciates the opportunity to be of service in her position, often acting as an intermediary and connecting the dots for customers and technical experts. “There can be a disconnect between what the customers are saying they need and what the company's actually building. In my role I can provide a communication pathway between the customer’s perspective and the people who are actually building the product to help make sure we’re offering the most useful solution.”

Alongside the professional fulfillment Sarah has found at Help Scout, she appreciates the variety of skills and experiences she sees in her team and the company more broadly, which mirror her own winding path. “On the Customers team, in particular, people have come from all sorts of different backgrounds, which can be really helpful in understanding our customers and the different industries we support,” she said. “No matter what type of business we’re working with, chances are good that someone on the team has worked in that space, which provides really helpful perspective.”

Touching down and taking stock

“I can’t say there was a lot of planning in my career path,” Sarah said, reflecting on the arc of her professional life to date, “but I’m really happy where I’ve landed.” While some of the zigs and zags have been unexpected, she added, the map of her career reflects who she is as well as where she’s been: “My life — from being raised in a military family to solving problems mid-flight to seeking out solutions for customers and engineers — has always been about adapting and seeking out solutions in the moment. I think those are some of my greatest skills.”

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