The Curiosity-Driven Career: An Interview with Yasmin Nozari of MakeSpace

Illustration by Michele Rosenthal

For every person in the startup world with a computer science or electrical engineering degree, there are many more who came from further-flung disciplines in the sciences and social sciences. Yasmin Nozari, VP of Product at MakeSpace, is one of those “tech-transfers,” and in this interview she shares her career journey and how she’s found her niche in product management.

Learning with games

Yasmin is used to hearing that her resume looks like it’s “all over the place”, but she says that’s one reason she loves product management.“Lots of people who come to it have very different backgrounds.” Some come to product management from computer science or engineering backgrounds, some were designers, but then others (like her) found a different way to jump in.

After Yasmin graduated with a liberal arts degree, she was unsure about what career she wanted to pursue and struggled to find work in a flagging economy. So she signed up for the Teach for America program out of an urge to give back and work in low-income schools, where there’s a great need for qualified teachers.

She quickly noticed that while her middle-school students were absorbed by video games, they struggled to connect with their schoolwork, so she started making learning games to help them become more engaged with the content.

Creating digital flash cards for her students and troubleshooting those games with online tutorials unearthed a previously unknown passion for software. “I built different games where kids could practice math problems. There are actually a lot of learning games on iPad, so I started reading about developing for that, and was like, ‘Wow, how can I do this as a job?’”

Curiosity leads to a new career

From there, she did even more research, reading blog posts and talking to different people within the industry who had broken into tech themselves.

“That’s how I got into software product management — through being curious, wanting to learn more, and slowly gaining experience.”

“I love reading interviews about people and how they create their careers, I read ‘The Corner Office’ column in the Sunday New York Times, featuring interviews with CEOs and executives — my parents used to send them to me. I’m naturally curious about other people, so I’d just start reading about different careers, how people got started and how they figured these things out. I even love reading job postings and reading about companies. If I read about a company in Fast Company, I’d go look at their job postings and try to understand how the company works internally.”

Having great managers along the way has helped. One of her managers identified Yasmin’s great ability to organize and execute, and suggested she look into product management because of those traits combined with her curiosity about the business strategies that go behind product decisions.

Finding her place at MakeSpace

Yasmin was drawn to MakeSpace because of its innovative business concept. MakeSpace is a storage company that makes an effort to stand out from traditional storage companies — they deliver and pick up your belongings, provide free bins to keep you organized, never increase their rates, and even provide an app that lets you schedule pickups as well as view and manage what’s in your storage unit.

Yasmin was also drawn to the company culture. “What attracted me to the company and continues to keep me here are the people I met in the interview process and the opportunity for learning and working on really exciting projects. There are challenges I’m confronted with daily, and I learn a lot from the people I work with.”

Her typical day as a product manager involves working across nearly all the teams in the organization, to gather information and synthesize data that will help guide product decisions.

“Depending on what’s on our road map or what problems we’re researching, or what we need to dig into more from a strategic point of view, I work with a lot of different people. I’ll work with the customer support team, the sales team, marketing, or the operations team quite a lot to understand what’s going on with them.”

When it comes to how Yasmin works with her team, she often relies on documentation to keep everyone on the same page. She takes notes (by hand, since she finds computers distracting) during meetings and also likes to have her team members document what was discussed after a meeting, whether in Slack or in Clubhouse. “It might be a process requirements doc, or a spec doc that explains the problem — as long as it’s somewhere that we can go back to it and remember what happened and what the action items are.”

Even though they’re all at the same office, Yasmin’s team does have to work with other distributed teams. “Not everyone that uses our internal tools works in our office, and they’re not on the computer all the time; so the challenge is communicating changes to them and getting their feedback on things. We make sure to communicate all changes and updates across multiple locations, so that it’s easier to stay up to date.”

She and other MakeSpace employees are encouraged to carve out their own roles, and they problem solve collaboratively. The combination of freedom, engaging work, and supportive coworkers makes for a very motivating environment at MakeSpace.

Making the move to tech wasn’t an overnight switch, but it was exactly the move that Yasmin was looking for. Others can follow her lead by seeking out ways to stretch their skills, experimenting with new technologies, and looking for examples of other people who have made a switch from their industry to the kind of tech role they’re looking for.

Have you transitioned to tech from another career? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments or on Twitter. And in the meantime, if you need a way to communicate, collaborate, and move projects along faster, check out Clubhouse!