The ‘Stick-Shift’ Method of Career Development

Nancy Flagg Issue 11 - May/June 2014, Legal 1 Comment

Akamai Technologies General Counsel Melanie Haratunian didn’t get to where she is by driving her career like an automatic: She got there by driving it like a manual — shifting gears.

By Nancy Flagg

Melanie Haratunian describes her career trajectory as being a series of  “happy accidents,” where unplanned circumstances have yielded good results. The positive outcomes came about not because of luck, but rather Haratunian’s penchant for making the most of opportunities that present themselves.

melanie_haratunian_headshotWelcoming the Unexpected

When Haratunian was at Georgetown Law School, she needed to take a writing class before she could graduate. As a full-time student with three jobs, only a Communications Law class fit her tight schedule. She enrolled in the course covering media and telecommunications law, even though it was not in the area of law she planned to practice. Not content to simply take the required class, she embraced the subject and ended up being recommended by her professor for an internship at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

When Haratunian arrived at the FCC for her interview, she learned that the position had already been filled, but after chatting with the interviewer she was offered an internship with the FCC Chairman, which eventually led to a job offer to work at the FCC after she graduated from law school. Deciding whether to accept the offer was a tough decision because her plan had been to enter into private practice after graduation. Instead, she found herself with an offer for a government position with low pay and long hours in a field that had “not been on the radar.” With her trademark open-mindedness, she realized that all the “luminaries in communication law” had worked at the FCC at some point in their career and that the job itself would give her a chance to engage in her interests of policy, law and new technology.

Haratunian next took a position in the FCC Policy Division, where by “happy accident” she shared an office with a lawyer heading the Bell Operating Co. deregulation proceedings. Again, she took advantage of the opportunity before her and volunteered to summarize arguments and research discrete issues for the lawyer. Before long, she was asked to become one of the proceeding’s core authors and to design its nonstructural safeguard regulations, most notably those governing customer privacy. Her expertise in this area was expanded when those regulations were used as the model for the customer privacy portions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

melanie_haratunian_quoteShifting Career Gears

After a few years at the FCC, Haratunian achieved her goal of working in private practice, specializing in telecommunications law at two Washington, D.C., law firms, the second as a partner. It appeared that her future was set, but when Haratunian’s husband was offered a “dream-of-a-lifetime” job in Boston, she shifted career gears again. Since the practice of federal telecommunications law largely was limited to the nation’s capital, she had to “re-tool” to find a new career in Boston. She found the experience “surprisingly liberating” because she was able to start fresh and reconsider what she liked to do in the context of the opportunities available in Boston. This opened up a set of options for her that was much broader than if she had remained in D.C.

Haratunian became General Counsel for HarvardNet, a private company providing Web hosting and DSL technology, where she created its first Legal Department and saw the company through virtually its entire life cycle. She stayed on board when the company was later acquired by Allegiance Telecom.

She later joined Akamai Technologies, a leading global cloud platform, where she is now Executive Vice President (EVP) and has been the General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for the past decade.

Haratunian’s career path has been vastly different from what she had imagined, but gratifying. “Shifting gears is never easy,” she said, “but ultimately a lot more rewarding.”

melanie_haratunian_sidebarLeveling Up the Team

When Haratunian joined Akamai, the company had just experienced significant staff reductions following the “dot-com bubble burst.” Her legal team was down to seven senior lawyers and no junior staff. Today, the team consists of 35 legal professionals organized in a more traditional pyramid array of senior and junior staff. The steps taken during Haratunian’s tenure to strengthen the team and its contributions to the company included conducting a “leveling exercise,” establishing practice groups and creating a business partner model.

In the “leveling exercise,” a framework was created that identified common skill attributes needed at different job levels—from the most junior support personnel to the General Counsel. The framework provides a tool for managers and employees to have common visibility to the particular business and legal skills needed before an employee could “level up” to the next higher position and beyond.

Haratunian also established practice groups around specialty areas, such as contracts, technology, patent and employee law. Before the practice groups were formed, lawyers were generalists with loosely defined areas of expertise. Once lawyers became associated with a practice group, they were able to formally specialize and were no longer expected to be “all things to all people,” Haratunian said. The transition to the new model was difficult in the beginning, but eventually it created a department better able to scale as the company grew and diversified; it also, according to Haratunian, allowed the legal staff to gain more job satisfaction by becoming experts in discrete areas.

Another step she oversaw to strengthen the team was the development of a business partner model. The goal of the model was to align practice groups with specific business units of the company so that lawyers could become valuable advisors in the units. For example, customer contract lawyers were organized by geographic region to better support the international sales force while product lawyers became connected with specific business divisions. The close affiliations helped each lawyer better understand their business units and thus provide strategic advice to leaders as an “honest broker who doesn’t have a dog in the fight,” Haratunian explained.

Haratunian recommends that young professionals aspiring to higher-level positions take the time to understand the technology and business they are in. The road to success at a senior level comes from being a trusted business advisor and not just a legal expert. “When seeking to solve business problems,” she said, “legal expertise is just one arrow in your quiver.”

melanie_haratunian_forefun_Q&ARemaining Flexible

For college students and young professionals making career decisions, Haratunian recommends making an effort to gain real-world exposure to their intended field so that they are able to make informed decisions about the direction to take their career. As a college undergraduate, Haratunian majored in Political Science and was headed for a career in politics. She sought out chances to experience politics firsthand by interning for Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in his Boston office and for Senator S.I. Hayakawa (R-CA) on Capitol Hill. Her exposure to politics helped her discern that her real interest lied in policy and strategic issues, causing her to shift her focus and enroll in law school.

Whether just starting out in a career or finding oneself deep in the middle of one, Haratunian advises being alert to opportunities and flexible enough to consider them. Keep “charging forward,” she said, “but have broad, peripheral vision so you can see opportunities as they present themselves.”

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.


Nancy Flagg

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

Comments 1

  1. Alex W Gibbons

    I’ve worked with Melanie Haratunian for ~10 years at Akamai. Her humility is rivalled only by her excellence. As a business asset she has way more to offer than merely being General Counsel. Great to see this article highlighting what many of us know, but more should know.

Comments, thoughts, feedback?