Demystifying Career Coaching: A Conversation with Catalina Peña

January 18, 2023

The task of finding a fulfilling career can seem daunting––even impossible. Whether you’re entering the tech recruiting cycle for the first time or you’re a professional who’s been working in the industry for years, the thought can present itself at any time: What if I'm stuck where I am forever? A career coach can provide guidance in these situations, but it’s often difficult to know when to ask for help, especially if you haven’t done so before. To demystify the process, I sat down with Catalina Peña, founder of Catalyst Creation, for a virtual chat about all things career coaching: what it is, when to seek it out, and why it can be an invaluable resource for many job seekers.

For context, Catalina is no stranger when it comes to turning people’s dreams into realities. Since 2019, her company has helped 5,000 job seekers and generated over 2.5 million in salary raises. As an AfroLatina woman and a former recruiter at some of the tech industry’s largest companies, Catalina has a deep passion for equipping Black and Latinx computer science students with the tools they need to succeed. She partnered with ColorStack last fall and currently offers individualized coaching sessions for ColorStack members.

Catalina defines career coaching as a “space to explore yourself fully… and the reasons behind your choices”, so that when the time comes to make a career shift, you can stand by your decisions. In contrast to mentorship spaces facilitated by family members, friends, or even school career centers, individual career coaching gives clients the opportunity to talk to someone who is completely unbiased. “I don't care whether you go to a small company or big company,” she says. “I just want you to do what you want.”

She describes the ideal career coaching candidate as someone who knows they want to make a change in their career but might not know how to go about it. “If you're feeling stuck, and you're like, I just don't know what to do. That's the perfect time to come to career coaching. Because then we can figure out what it is you're trying to change.” In Catalina’s experience, her clients generally fall into the following five categories:

  1. I’m looking for a job, but I don’t know what my ideal role looks like.
  2. I know what kind of job I want, but I’m nervous or don’t know how to reach out to employers.
  3. I’ve received job interviews, but I’m having trouble getting past that stage. 
  4. I have multiple offers, but I don’t know which one to choose.
  5. I’ve been at my job for a while, but I don’t know how to advance my position.

To this end, career coaching can constitute a space of self-exploration, but it can also be a place where clients learn how to craft LinkedIn messages, access interview prep resources, weigh the pros and cons of different offers, create a long term career plan, and celebrate their successes.

Catalina emphasizes that career coaching is less about solving a client’s problem in one fell swoop than it is about breaking that problem down into manageable bits. “You are going to know what step to take next… if your issue requires more than one step, that's where career coaching really comes in handy because it helps you create a career plan for you.” 

In addition to helping people develop tactical skills, career coaching can also help clients break psychological patterns of negativity and self doubt that hinder their job searches. For instance, Catalina conducts an exercise called “Hater and Homie” to help people combat imposter syndrome. In this exercise, she asks clients to identify their haters (usually themselves) and their homies or those who make them feel loved and supported. She finds that the labels “Hater” and “Homie” give clients a way to name positive and negative thoughts, be mindful of their feelings, and ultimately advocate for themselves.  “You can definitely… be like, I don't want to be in my own hater today. I'd rather be my homie.” 

At the end of our interview, I ask Catalina what her parting message would be to those who are weighed down by that overwhelming feeling of being stuck. Her answer was twofold: (1) “you are better than you give yourself credit for because if you found ColorStack, if you found computer science, and if you found the resources to even be listening to or reading this, you are well on your way,” and (2) “Success takes time, and just because you don't know what your final step is, doesn't mean you don't know what your next step could be.” 

For ColorStack members interested in scheduling a time to talk to Catalina, please check out her Calendly. Catalina will also serve as a keynote speaker for ColorStack’s upcoming Stacked Up Summit which will run from January 19th-20th. See this page for registration info.