Coffee with Bo Ren

This week, we’re getting coffee with Bo Ren. Bo is a PM at Tumblr and writer (Bo Ren). You may have seen (and loved!) Bo’s recent piece: “Diversity is a broken product in tech. FIX IT.”

How did you get into product management?

I graduated in 2010 — around the time of the economic crisis — and started working for a nonprofit called ACLU. I thought I wanted to go into nonprofit consulting and law, but after interning at the ACLU I realized there’s really no market for the type of nonprofit law I wanted to practice. I grew frustrated by how inefficient the nonprofit space is. I decided to defer law school admission and instead joined a startup called Sunrun.

It was very serendipitous, I had come to San Francisco to pick up a visa to go to China. While I was in SF, I happened to go to a friend’s happy hour at this solar company. It was my first time meeting young, intelligent, and vivacious people working at a startup. The energy was exciting and I wanted in. I took the first job I could get at Sunrun — on the customer service team.

Our customer service team was a small group of five people with a simple mission: operationalizing love! We were the ones on the front line — answering the phones and getting to know our customers. When I noticed we were making bad solar deals to our customers, I started relaying feedback to our product and engineer teams. Acting as the feedback loop between the customers and our product team introduced me to the world of product management.

From there, I knew I wanted to do product but I didn’t have the “technical background” so I thought about how I could approximate into it. I went from customer service to technical project management with the aim of getting as much exposure to the software as possible.

I decided to get even closer to the software side by joining a company called Opower, as a technical project manager. There, I tried to transition into a PM but the new VP of Product was like “We’re CS degree or MBA only” so that didn’t work out. Then a startup called SigFig reached out, they were recruiting for a PM and partnerships person. It was very different from anything I’d worked on before but I saw it as a great opportunity to get closer to product so I went there as my first PM role.

I don’t believe an MBA or CS major is necessary nor sufficient to become a PM.

How did you deal with the “We’re CS degree or MBA only” feedback at the time?

I don’t believe an MBA or CS major is necessary nor sufficient to become a PM. It was a way of checking boxes at the time — “Oh, you’re technical enough” or “You can think in this type of problem solving framework”.

For me, it was about not letting those 2 requirements, which seemed pretty arbitrary, deter me. I focused on understanding what hard skills I needed to acquire to prove that I am qualified. I did that by talking to PMs at other companies and teasing out the profile of a PM. I then did everything I could to acquire those hard skills.

At early stage companies, everyone is thinking like a PM — the product is everywhere so you’re probably being a PM or doing product related work long before you become a PM.

My evolution as a PM started as a humble student and generalist — being open to doing whatever — then becoming more focused when I found projects that I became attached to and passionate about.

How have you developed as a PM?

I started out very much as a generalist. After working at 3 startups, you become very diversified — you become whatever the company needs you to be. I found I was lacking mentorship and general stewardship — someone with experience who was able to say “Hey, this is what’s wrong”.

I joined Facebook telling myself that this is a “product school” and I’m going to optimize for learning. I went through a rotational program where we worked on 3 different teams, and after each rotation we were assessed on our strengths and weaknesses. It became a very well-rounded, holistic training ground where there was no way I could grow crooked. Facebook molded me into a well-rounded PM; I had to be data oriented, design oriented, really good with research, and other miscellaneous skills for each team. Along the way I had found my convictions as a PM.

I think there’s a right of passage that every PM goes through and I happened to write about it.

When did you start writing and how has that developed?

I started writing at SigFig where I published my first piece on my first 30 days as a PM. I really struggled as a first time PM; I went through a lot of doubt, insecurities, and realizing that I wasn’t being set up for success. Writing was my way of channeling my lessons and frustrations — processing the things that went wrong and the things that went right.

I think there’s a right of passage that every PM goes through and I happened to write about it. I realized there was a content-audience fit by virtue of me being very raw and candid about my lessons. My first piece really catapulted my Medium presence because it was a very honest piece — a lot of people reached out to me, which made me feel less alone. There was an audience for my writing.

I was writing for myself and then realized “Hey, I’m actually taking my own personal stories and jumping off to generalizing lessons and overarching philosophies”. That has been the overarching thread in my writing — they’re not just personal essays — I always try to expand the scope beyond just me.

When you find yourself being hard on yourself, think of all the small wins you made along the way.

You’ve written about Imposter Syndrome. Have you developed any strategies to keep your imposter at bay?

People say “Be more confident!” and I wish it was that easy. If you have been negged your entire life — being told that you’re not good enough because you don’t fit into a mold — these narratives penetrate deep into your psyche causing impostor syndrome.

For me, overcoming impostor syndrome has been a a process of acceptance, rewiring my brain to think differently, being kind to myself and looking at it as incremental change.

Acceptance is acknowledging the impostor in you and turning it into an empowering asset. If you’re someone who is cognizant as well as self-critical, you’re going to be surveying to make things better for others. Welcome your imposter and consider: how can I harness it for the better?

Your brain is wired to think a certain way — the more you reinforce it, the stronger it will get. It’s about conditioning yourself to not think negatively — every time you have those thoughts, consider: how do you swing 180 to the positive?

When I’m super stressed or feeling down, I will keep a 5 minute journal. You start with affirmations — all the things you are, the truths — then list the things that went right today and your intentions. It’s a great way to tally up all the positive things that have happened. When you find yourself being hard on yourself, think of all the small wins you made along the way.

Ultimately, it’s a gradual build up. People say “Fake it ‘til you make it”, but you’ll probably have to continue faking “it” for longer than you anticipate so it’s more like “Fake it ‘til you become it”.

What do you consider the traits of a great PM?

  1. Empathy. Empathy is the hardest to cultivate — and so often overlooked — you either need to be born with it or to have gone through hardships. You’re able to understand problems deeply and see things through the lens of other people.
  2. Being an analytical problem-solver. You’re able to see the cracks of any situation.
  3. Being a skeptical, critical, and fastidious thinker. You walk through every edge case in your mind and are able to anticipate problems.
  4. Being creative. This isn’t emphasized enough for a lot of PM roles. The best PM’s can think expansively and divergently. You’re able to think across multiple disciplines and extract patterns.
  5. A willingness to learn, and curiosity. If you’re growing as a PM, you will never be 100% knowledgable about what you’re building. If you’re 100% knowledgable about what you’re building then you’re working on the wrong product. You’re going to have to lean on the engineers, designers and people who are smarter and more knowledgeable in that field.
  6. Humility. Carry a humble confidence — “I have strong convictions, loosely held”. You have your gut instincts but also a willingness to be proven wrong. If someone comes up with facts that disproves the argument you had, you are willing to go the other way.

What books do you recommend to PM’s?

  • “Nudge” — this is about all the different anchoring, decision-making, and cognitive sciences concepts you can take and apply into your everyday life.
  • “Hatching Twitter” — this is a great story about how intertwined your personal and professional life are when you found and work at a company. This has helped me gain acceptance to the human variables at play in the startup hardships I’ve experienced.
  • “Cracking the PM Interview” — I read this to prepare for my PM interviews.
  • StrengthsFinder 2.0 — this book helped me to identify and harness my strengths rather than fixating on my weaknesses. It’s easy to focus on what you’re missing vs. what you have. I’ll periodically check in and see how my strengths have evolved.

I read articles more than books — I love Ken Norton, Ellen Chisa and Hunter Walk’s writing.

I left coffee with Bo with a new perspective on Imposter Syndrome. I’m inspired and excited to harness my imposter and monitor the effect. Thanks for grabbing coffee, Bo!

I started this series to learn from badass women and share those learnings with you. If you enjoyed this interview, please share it with others that might too :)