This past weekend at the top of the massive ferris wheel at the intersection of Daisy Lane and Rainbow Road, I had a lot of time to reflect on my life. To be honest I also had a lot of time while I queued up, but that time was mainly spent making friends with the previously-strangers around me.
I was at Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), a 3-night electronic music and art festival in Vegas. The 6pm-6am affair was massive, and while I had mentally prepared for its daily 150,000 attendee count, seeing it in person was simply a whole other experience.
Anyhow, I had traveled to Vegas and gone with a group of 35 others. Most were friends in tech from Seattle, working at places like Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google, but there were a few in our crew that were from other coastal places (Palantir, Snapchat, HootSuite), as well as two of my friends from Toronto. They sort of stood out as the only two people who weren’t at a large “big-name” tech company. Before you go denouncing me as the girl-who-refers-to-people-by-their-jobs-and-companies, this is somewhat relevant so just bear with me here…
Since I’ve been working (and sort of slacking on) this side project with my friend Sefunmi, being at EDC came with a small niggle at the back of my mind, almost like a buzzing fly of a responsibility I had to swat aside with my hand (sorry Sef). So while sitting on this ferris wheel alone (yeah I had lost allll my friends, all 35+ of them), surrounded by music and the excited shouts of thousands of not-so-sober festival-goers, what better topic could have popped into my head?
Right now I’m a Program Manager at Microsoft. I’ve been here since graduating from University of Waterloo in late 2017, where I was an earth science major (with a business minor). Prior to this, I had about a years worth of product management experience from all my internships and whatnot.
As someone with a “non-technical” degree, aka not in Engineering or Computer Science, it’s always interesting to see people’s reactions. “Oh woah, you studied earth science but now you’re in engineering? What even is earth science?” Nothing rude about it or anything like that; I genuinely find it funny because I would have the exact same reactions. How did I make it to where I am? Am I … successful? Am I “technical enough”? Did I struggle with algo and coding questions during interviews? Has no HR manager called this out? (The answer is yes, they have.) Am I capable of working closely with developers? How did I even land interviews in the first place?
I can’t answer all these questions in this one article and I don’t plan to even try, but on the ferris wheel I did try to map my life back to define three moments that ultimately changed my career path altogether and landed me to where I am now.
Moment #1: Long distance relationships, and telling Riot Games that “I’m a fast learner and can read up on how to use Agile”
I was a 2nd year student in 2015. For those that are unaware, Waterloo programs require you to follow a four month study, four month internship routine, and you repeat that for a total of five years. At this same time, I was dating a dude named Chris (hi Chris if you’re reading this). He was located in LA, and the 2000 odd miles between us was tough to handle, so when internship job searching came around, I was committed to finding a job closer to him.
Up until then, I had only been in “Business Analyst” roles at two Canadian banks (CIBC and Scotiabank). I only had exposure working in the financial industry — where there was no wifi to connect your personal devices to, everyone wore button downs and shift dresses, where almost everything required sign-offs from management. So I started with searching for similar jobs in the US… and unfortunately quickly realized that finance was not a major focus on the west coast, and most places were not willing to sponsor an international intern for such a role.
Honestly at this point I didn’t even know what the “tech industry” was. All my friends at school were in my program, and we (or was it just me???) only knew about finance or getting into the sciences (which after two years I had realized there was no way I wanted to do academia so this was OUT!). Luckily for me, this was the time when I was obsessed with League of Legends. So naturally, Riot Games was a dream company to work for… and it was appropriately located in LA, where Chris was! This was the first or second year that they had an internship program, and only one title jumped out at me as fitting responsibilities I knew I could take on: “Project Management Intern”. So I went for it and applied directly on their website.
I landed one phone screen. My guess is that they read my bomb-ass cover letter and decided I had a lot of “personality”, which I’m sure you can also gather from this article right now. ;)
During interviews I was used to questions like “What is your proficiency with using Excel VBA?”. So when I was asked “What is your experience with agile?” I was stupefied. Honestly you all… I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW WHAT AGILE WAS. I had never even heard of the word. Now it sort of feels like…w-w-what? How did I not know? But I digress. So I responded with your classic “turn-a-weakness-into-a-strength” answer of, “well, none really, but I’m a fast learner and can do sufficient research into how to use Agile™.” Because yes, I seriously thought Agile was the name of a piece of software… So yeah, I landed one phone screen and it did not go any further than that.
I did not get any other interviews in the US in 2015. But it did introduce me to this “project management” role.
Moment #2: The power of friendship and memorization
What I’m about to write here, very very very few people know. Because it’s not something you’d want to admit. You want folks to have the perception that you had it together from the very beginning… unfortunately this was not the case.
So, remember up there how I said I had two friends fly from Toronto to EDC? Liz is one of them. She’s been my friend since the very first group project we had together in university. She’s also a passionate marketer and currently works as a Demand Generation Manager at a Toronto-based startup. When I was sitting up there on the ferris wheel by myself, it’s cause I had gotten separated from Liz and co. Sad sad sad.
Anyhow, so that same 2015 year since I had no more luck finding internships in the US, I turned my sights back to where I was locally, in Toronto. As part of the Waterloo co-op program, we also had an internal job board. So this time, along with applying to my classic finance/data analyst jobs, I also searched for “project manager”. Zero results. However, there was a hit for “product manager”. Product Manager at Zynga, for their Toronto branch.
Once again, I landed the interview. ~personality~
I didn’t know how to prepare. Why my failed interview attempt at Riot Games had not taught me more, I do not know. But that’s where Liz came in.
She had also applied for the same job via our online portal and landed an interview. Hers was first. Mine was last. And the kicker is this…
… she told me every single question that she was asked by the interviewer. With the extra time I had I googled (bing’d?) every single unknown term and advice on how to answer said questions. (What are success metrics? What is MAU? What are some user conversion strategies I should know of?) I memorized these crowdsourced answers. I went in to do my interview. I was asked the exact same questions. I regurgitated said memorized responses. I killed my interview. I got the job.
What types of thoughts are going through your head at this point? “Wow, what kind of easy interview was this?” “Wow you seriously fudged your way into this role didn’t you?” I’ve definitely had the same thoughts. It is just absolutely crazy sometimes how luck and opportunity can be so intertwined and what can come out of it when you leverage them correctly.
Liz — thank you so much! Your help to me that day has genuinely changed the course of my career and my life. That was all you.
The struggles I had during the actual internship itself? The tears and yelling and stress? The self doubt and epic imposter syndrome? The successes I had? The work I put in over the course of 4 months pulling a mobile app back up to 4+ stars across 6 SKUs following a flop of a rebranding? That was all me.
Moment #3: Just do the damn thing!!!
I’m a fan of the Bachelorette. If you are too, you probably recognize that phrase from the show. Sure, EDC weekend for most overlapped with the finale of Game of Thrones, but for me, it also coincided with Bachelorette 2019, Episode 2. Anyhow…
The third career-mapping moment for me came as a just do it moment.
Midnight was the deadline to get all your job applications in. I was this close to talking myself out of applying for Microsoft. I barely had any experience in tech. The words “Must know how to code.” was written in bold under job requirements. (Spoiler: I didn’t and still don’t know how.) But in the end I just decided to go for it cause why not?
That interview process went way better. I discovered helpful resources (Cracking the PM Interview remains one of my holy grails for interview prep). I had friends and mentors in the industry. It wasn’t an uncontrollable firehose of new information and learning like it was the first time. It was a fair bit more manageable.
In October of 2017, eight months of interning at two different teams at Microsoft, two final school semesters, and four glorious months of solo travel later, I moved from Toronto to Seattle and started as a full-time employee.
Just doing the damn thing is something I have to constantly remind myself to do. It’s not always going to be easy. The days leading up to the event, I was getting really nervous about going to EDC altogether. I thought I’d leave early and exhausted, and in reality ended up catching the sunrise sets all three days (favourite one was 4B B2B SAYMYNAME on Day 3 where I was dressed as a corn, see below!!!). I didn’t know if sharing a villa with so many people would be a great idea as a self-proclaimed introvert. It worked out perfectly and I strengthened so many friendships. (Of course not everything is always going to go right, but just let me continue my #goodvibesonly train in this one article OK?)
You just have to take the first step, because who knows where you can end up?
Some may think otherwise, but ending up at the top of a ferris wheel alone at 4:30 AM on a Monday seemed as good a place as any.
So how was that? My first Medium article! I’m a published author now right?!? *jumps for joy*
Anyhow, Sefunmi and I are two friends working on a side project: to consolidate resources for folks jumping into the technology product/program management space from outside the industry. I definitely fit into that bucket right? Right now we’re gathering a bunch of stories, such as Mark Rabo’s decades long journey from a mechanical engineer to a PM. We’ve also started a podcast of behind-the-scenes work we do to get this all together. If you want to hear us ramble, please subscribe and listen now on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, TuneIn or Stitcher. You can also like our facebook page and connect with us on there!
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’d like to hear more on my struggles at my first internship, how I landed interviews in the first place with no experience, my thoughts on my role now, or other weird thoughts I had while at EDC Las Vegas!