Techies: Bo Ren
Original Interview: http://www.techiesproject.com/bo-ren/
Hi. Hello. Okay. Before we start, are there any particular topics that you want to go deep into for this interview?
I’m pretty interested in cognitive diversity, not just racial or any particular backgrounds, but rather being able to think outside of a very homogenous fashion. I’m also passionate about helping Asian Americans crack the bamboo ceiling.
We’ll dig into that.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I was born in China, and then I came here when I was four, lived in Ann Arbor for like three years through second grade. My dad was a researcher. He came here on a world health fellowship, and stayed to do research in the hearing sciences.
We moved to Portland when I was seven, and stayed there until high school. Portland was fairly white, and homogenous in that sense, so I definitely felt like my childhood was fairly sheltered. As an only child, I was sheltered and given all the resources to succeed, which a luxury. Luckily, my tiger parents were good about giving me room to roam. I went to USC on a full ride scholarship but I just hated college.
I chose USC for a purely rational reason — no debt — but it was the wrong culture for me. I think the general disconnect had to do with the overall the LA/Orange County bubble. I went for the academics, but I also expected a certain life experience and social aspect. I did find my groove eventually, but the first two years were really hard on me. I was different and didn’t really fit in.
“The path to PM was nonlinear and circuitous. My career has been very stochastic full of many detours.”
At USC, I kind of boomeranged around, I started pre-med and then realized I didn’t love advanced chemistry and I actually failed a test for the first time in my life. I had a pre-med counselor who was like, “I think you should find the intersection between what you’re good at and what you enjoy.” He was like, “You have really good interpersonal skills. You should think about something related to that.”
I decided to pursue a joint degree in psych and econ. I discovered an emerging area called Neuroeconomics. I really enjoyed blending sciences and disciplines because I never felt like I was very good at one thing. Growing up I felt proficient in most things, but I wasn’t amazing in one thing. My true forte was blending ideas in an interdisciplinary way where I can bridge information and connect gaps. I identify as a multipotentialite, someone who has many creative pursuits and no one particular calling in life.
So you graduated with psych and econ degrees. Walk me on the path from that to being a PM.
The path to PM was nonlinear and circuitous. My career has been very stochastic full of many detours. I graduated after the big financial crisis in 2008. After college I decided to take a year off and apply to law school. I moved back to Portland and worked for a non-profit called the ACLU, which was an eye-opening experience. Working on the ACLU really opened my eyes in terms of what I wanted in a non-profit. I wanted to go into nonprofit legal consulting and bring a little bit of for-profit efficiency to non-profits. Seeing an organization like the ACLU struggle super hard during the recession and seeing people lose morale was hard. Being in an environment where people join because they were true believers and then become disillusioned by the economics and the inefficiencies was a huge turnoff. My experience at the ACLU made me question if there was a market for nonprofit law.
After I applied to law school, I decided to travel through Asia for a couple of months. I came to SF to pick up my Chinese Visa. Around that time, my very good friend from college and her boyfriend moved here and he started working at Sunrun, a solar startup. One day I went to visit their office and I was really blown away by how young everyone was. At non-profits, usually you’ve been there for a while, but everyone at Sunrun was super young and fun.
Once I got a taste of that environment which was very palpable — smart people having a good time — I knew I had to be part of the action. I just wanted a foot in the door. I applied to every job opening at Sunrun. I slept on a futon for a couple weeks in Berkeley and just interviewed around.
“It took me a while to even understand what product management is because everyone had their own definition. I took every PM out to lunch and coffee and just tried to understand how they got to where they are.”
My first job at Sunrun was a customer service rep job. I remember jumping up and down in a restaurant bathroom when I got the call that I got the job. It paid pennies but it didn’t matter because I wanted that job so badly. Working at Sunrun wasn’t a linear path like law school or med school. I was just going to give it a year to see how it would work out. I was going to defer law school, have a great time in SF, and then go back on the linear safe path.
I worked there while it was under 100 and I was the second girl on our customer support team. I started answering phone calls from really angry customers — just being yelled at by people for a good eight hours a day was pretty character building. I started relaying a lot of their really angry complaints over to our product team, and try to categorize and bucket them into clusters of problems. That was when I realized, wow there’s this domain called product management and they’re all really smart and elite people at Sunrun. But everyone came from a certain pedigree. It was a Stanford, GSB company where mostly Stanford kids were able to do the cool stuff. It was very clear to me I was an underdog from a tier two school, and it would take a great deal to crack into product.
It took me a while to even understand what product management is because everyone had their own definition. I took every PM out to lunch and coffee and just tried to understand how they got to where they are. They were all skeptical, saying “You don’t have a degree in computer science, or you don’t have an MBA.” That was binary. You had to either have one or the other in order to be a PM. And I was like, “Well, if I don’t have any of these, what can I do to win over credibility?”
So I started doing a time share with our Director of Product and convinced our HR team to give me an opportunity where I can do 50% product and 50% customer care and that was the first time anyone had done that. I was basically doing two people’s jobs because it’s never going to be fifty-fifty perfectly. A lot was expected out of me and I was basically compared to someone who had just joined the company with four or five years of product within Solar. It was really hard because I worked hard, but I also didn’t have the right context for things, nor the experience. At the end of that trial period — it was supposed to be three months — I kind of knew I wasn’t going to get an offer. The director expected a lot out of me, rightfully so, but it still hurt because it felt like I tried my hardest but wasn’t good enough. From there, I was like, “Well, if I can’t do product at Sunrun, I can try to approximate into product.” That was when I decided to apply to Opower which was still going to be within the same renewable clean tech space, but I would finally work at a software company. I joined as a technical project manager. I think Opower was a really great move for me in the sense I felt like I got closer to the software and technical side. Opower was great in the sense that for the first time, I got to work with engineers, and they hired me to do a lot of implementation work, integrating their core platform with the utility clients.
The entire Opower product is based off of behavioral science, which I get because that’s what I studied in college. Every product was based off this study by Robert Cialdini where he found out people will consume less power when they’re compared to other people similar to them, so it’s kind of like tapping into the whole keeping up with the Joneses complex. Yeah, I had a great time there, but ultimately I didn’t have the pedigree they wanted for product. A lot of their non-technical folks were able to go into product, but then they hired a VP of product who came from Google, and basically was like we’re switching our entire product org to be like Google. Again I was back in the position where you either you have a computer science degree or an MBA to be a PM. So I basically was like, “Fuck,” I’m in the same boat as I was before even though I’m pretty damn sure I can do the job, because all the work I was doing as a technical project manager was very much like routing feedback over to product. So from there I was like, well, if I can’t make inroads into product within this company, then I should just look externally, and that was when Sigfig reached out to me.
SigFig a financial services startup. They said they needed someone who could do partnerships, project management, and a little bit of product. So in a way I was able to leverage my strengths as a project manager, but also negotiate my way into product too. They hired to me to work on partnerships with AOL and Yahoo Finance. They promised me “After you launch these partnerships, we’ll give you an opportunity to do product.” For me that was the turning point where I had to stop trying to prove to people — like I can do product, give me a chance. Now I finally have the PM title while doing this hybridized role.
I was very much enamored by the fact that I could work at a series A company and finally work as a PM. My degree of naivete really got me to take the plunge without that first assessing the company scrupulously. Do they have the right product market fit? Are they making money? And the answers were no [laughter]. So as a PM there I basically did everything from working on partnerships, to building out a new investment tool product, all the way to operations helping them manually sign up people. It was just a lot of schlepping, and I think that experience made me realize the PM role is so not glamorous. I lost a lot of hair in my first couple of months just from the sheer stress. Working at a company where you don’t know if it’s going to be alive in a year or two from now was terrifying. I think in one day I cried four times once — once in the bathroom, once in the alley outside office, on my home, and then finally at home.
I felt like I was expected to pick up this company and put it together when everything else was collapsing around me. I tried really hard and basically lived at work before realizing it wasn’t going to work out. I think the most harrowing experience wasn’t just the fact that I was set up for failure. It was the fact that I had a friend sabotage me at work.
“I never felt that degree of violation nor mistrust in anyone in my life. I think up until that point I had always thought people had your best interest at heart. I never had a mindset of protecting myself from someone who was the offender. That to me was kind of a huge pop to my ego. And my world view just really changed afterwards — not everyone has your best interest at heart in this world.”
I should have seen this coming, but I didn’t realize that we would have a conflict of interest in the sense, she knew me outside of work. She was doing legal for them. She was also doing HR. She was also doing Ops and she basically knew exactly how much everyone made. And she found out that she was the person paid the least even though she had a law degree. And I noticed over time that she had a sense of bitterness building up. She started sabotaging me at work. She quoted things from Lean In and Sheryl Sandberg saying things like, “I’m just trying to help you. Women have to help each other out.” She told me “no knows what you’re doing at this company. You need to join operations full time and work under me.” She tried to manipulate the CEO into thinking that none of my work was substantial, and I started doing ops work for her because she didn’t know how to automate the customer sign-up process. I found out I was reporting to her, which was really strange. There was huge conflict of interest. Then over time she started stripping away my responsibilities and cutting me out in meetings, and basically just tried to squeeze me slowly. I realized that she was out to get to get me, when one of the other PMs there was like, “She’s not your friend anymore. You need to watch your back.”
That was when I started CC-ing our CEO on every email, and basically making sure that there was one source of truth, instead of her saying, “I talked to the CEO and this is what he wants you to do.” I never felt that degree of violation nor mistrust in anyone in my life. I think up until that point I had always thought people had your best interest at heart. I never had a mindset of protecting myself from someone who was the offender. That to me was kind of a huge pop to my ego. And my world view just really changed afterwards — not everyone has your best interest at heart in this world.
That sense of betrayal was also just a huge loss of innocence for me. I was very bitter after I left the company in the sense it wasn’t just a job that didn’t work out, it also was a friendship that betrayed me. I decided to take time off and figure out what I really wanted to do because I feel like when you go through that degree of relationship trauma as well as work trauma, it makes you question everything. And I started questioning my relationship with SF three years in asking myself, “Is this a place where I want to be long-term? Do I even want to be a PM anymore?” I gave myself a couple months off and lived on my savings. I told myself worst comes to worst, I’ll just move back to Portland to my parents’ house.
During that time, I started reflecting more and writing. I found writing to be very therapeutic for me because I was able to process a lot of the trauma, and stress, and ruminations. The absence of stress in my life was a great way to figure out what was wrong. I think it took my body actually two months to recover from working so hard and going through that traumatic startup experience. I remember hitting people up randomly on Twitter, and connecting with people’s writing, and meeting them in real life — there is no agenda. I wasn’t going to go out and get a job, it was more like I just wanted to talk to smart people and learn from them, and see if my aspiration in becoming a product manager was really grounded and was this the right direction for me. Around that time I just also started applying, interviewing, and talking to start ups as well as larger companies. I remember there was this guy that I’d met a barbeque at Stanford a year ago. He was a grad student who’s going over to work at Facebook. So I asked him, “What’s the PM profile there?”. Because I never thought I would get into Facebook. It was actually going to be a reach for me. I was curious about the PM philosophy there and I wanted to see which company I would align with the best. He had gone through his engineering camp with another girl who went through the RPM program. I remember calling her and she answer and she’s like, “You have a 503 number?!” We bonded over the fact we’re both Oregonians.
“I remember hitting people up randomly on Twitter, and connecting with people’s writing, and meeting them in real life — there is no agenda. I wasn’t going to go out and get a job, it was more like I just wanted to talk to smart people and learn from them, and see if my aspiration in becoming a product manager was really grounded and was this the right direction for me.”
We just hit it off immediately and she had gone through similar experience which she had at a startup and realized all that glitters is not gold. She got into the Facebook RPM program. Which is like a rotational product management program.
So I applied. At that point I felt like I basically had zero fucks to give anymore. It was kind of like I had reached a point where I was like, if San Francisco doesn’t work out, then I will just go back to Portland and figure it out. And it kind of got to a point where because I stopped caring and talked to so many smart people. I started interviewing around without a deliberate attachment to an end outcome, I think I accelerated my own growth and learning around product, and was able to have conversations with people and interviews that felt very organic.
I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s almost like you find your flow to a certain degree. You’re writing about things, you’re reflecting, and you’re also just like — “I just need to spread my luck surface area really thin.” I would go out of my way to tell people about my startup experiences, being very open about what worked, what didn’t work. And around that time I think I started meeting a lot of random people off of Twitter and also off of this CoffeeMe network, which was like Tinder for professionals. I remember meeting this one girl named Cindy Wu who co-founded a science crowdfunding start-up. I told her about what happened and how much betrayal and trauma I had gone through. Surprisingly, she was very not sympathetic. She was like, “So what are you going to do next?” And that moment of her asking “What are you going to do next?” was lightening. I can commiserate, I can complain all I want, I can write about all this, but essentially it’s not going to help me move on.
“I remember meeting this one girl named Cindy Wu who co-founded a science crowdfunding start-up. I told her about what happened and how much betrayal and trauma I had gone through. Surprisingly, she was very not sympathetic. She was like, ‘So what are you going to do next?’ And that moment of her asking ‘What are you going to do next?’ was lightening. I can commiserate, I can complain all I want, I can write about all this, but essentially it’s not going to help me move on.”
And that was really key for me, I started reaching out to companies that I didn’t even think I would have a chance. I felt like I found my flow talking about my story. It seemed very nonsensical — how did you go from pre-law to solar to energy efficiency to fintech but looking back, all these companies had something in common. That was behavioral change, trying to get people to switch from using the utility power to go solar, trying to motivate people to use less power, and trying to encourage the everyday person to invest more. I had subconsciously been attracted to companies that had a certain behavioral change component. I feel like if you tell your narrative enough times you find certain patterns, so around the time that I actually interviewed at Facebook, I literally felt I was so in the flow the interview became a series of organic conversations.
I didn’t think I would get the offer. I also had an offer from another start-up that I had been very interested in, and basically I would have worked as the second PM. I started weighing the cost of benefits if I stay in the startup world or do I go to a larger company and learn from the best. I came to the conclusion I just want to be the best generalists as possible and go to a place where I can learn through osmosis and be with smarter people.
There’s a certain degree of impostor syndrome going into a company like Facebook where I don’t have the pedigree and I don’t have the CS degree or the MBA. I am surrounded by very high achieving people who got this job straight out of college. I felt like every step along the way I had to prove to people that you should give me a chance. I have the potential, maybe not the background. I also felt to a certain degree like a martyr. Every employer had underestimated me, and I had proven them wrong [chuckles], but as long as I don’t underestimate myself, that was the key to me moving forward. I don’t think I intentionally tried to be a job hopper. I think every single company I worked for I wanted to stay for four years. Sunrun was two and a half years and then the Opower and SigFig stints were more brief, but I’ve never intentionally been like, “I need to leave.” I think that circumstances change, and your relationship with your employer is very much a personal relationship too and there are variables out of your control. For me, it’s always been like there needs to be some type of value compromise where I feel cared for so I can give you my all. I think I just have a lower threshold for what is acceptable and know what I deserve.
But in retrospect, you can connect the dots and be like, “Oh, this is why.” And I still live in this kind of optimistic uncertain way, where I don’t know what I’m going to do in six months from now or a year from now. I don’t see a straight linear path, but it’s worked out so far by surprise [chuckles]. I feel like that a lot of people who don’t have the pedigree nor the background, nor the linear path end up taking a harder path like me, but you have a more rich and interesting story.
I started writing because I wanted to reflect on these hardships and figure out what I could extract in order to process the trauma and the emotions. I was writing for relief. I didn’t write for an audience. Writing is a very personal thing. I remember writing about my first 30 days as a PM and how I started losing my hair, which really resonated with people because I didn’t hold back. I admitted how scared I was and shared lessons, trials, and pitfalls. Me putting that out there on the internet was very cathartic, but it also rewarded me for taking a risk. I didn’t know other people were also struggling in the same way as I did. I started creating this reinforcing cycle where as long as I’m open and honest and vulnerable in my writing the internet embraced it. People started reaching out to me and meeting me in person. We connected over shared hardships was really magical. I was like, “Wow! I didn’t know I could meet so-and-so because I thought they were super accomplished and they sound really fancy on the internet.” But I read their work and they read my work and by the time we met, it was like a third or fourth conversation in. There was no small talk. I think that type of virtuous cycle of putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable, but then connecting with someone else unexpected the internet’s secret power.
“I feel like that a lot of people who don’t have the pedigree nor the background, nor the linear path end up taking a harder path like me, but you have a more rich and interesting story.”
As a multipotentialite who has many callings and curiosities, I don’t think I am going to be a PM forever. I enjoy writing far more and I also enjoy connecting with people and meeting them and figuring out what makes them tick, and who can I connect them to help activate their ideas and passions. I don’t really know a job that embodies those aspects (maybe venture?) but in the meantime I want to work on things as close as possible to writing, publishing, and media because I think that’s where my passion is. When I’m passionate about something, work just doesn’t feel like work, right?
So, I’m still trying to find that alignment. I just don’t know where, or when [chuckles].
What have been some of the struggles that you’ve experienced over the years in the industry that have inspired a lot of your writing?
I started out writing about product management in order to establish credibility because I felt like unless I had some way of visibly putting myself out there and saying, “These are the things I learn and these are the things I did,” people wouldn’t give me the benefit of the doubt.
I really felt like I had to overcome a lot of initial bias, and me establishing myself as an expert in product management would be a way to give me instant credibility, and also prove to people that someone with my non-traditional background can still do the job. Writing about product management from a diverse background helped change the industry mold for a PM. Once I got my Facebook offer I wrote about why we should give liberal arts majors a chance. It was partly due to the fact that I felt very different from everyone in the interview process, and I was told, “You’re one of our diversity spots. Like, we need to recruit people who are going to be different, and not have the cookie cutter background.” And that made me think “why did I have to go through so much of those hardships?”
I wrote about why liberal arts actually trains you to be a good PM. And that really helped connect a lot of people to my story, and people who also felt like they couldn’t crack into it because of their non-traditional background. I wanted to prove to people that you can differentiate yourself. In fact, those things that do make you different can add up and help you become a really great PM. When I go into a meeting I don’t think I know everything, and that makes me more inquisitive. The fact that I come from a very diverse background of econ and psych makes me think about problems differently.
I wanted to bring awareness around cognitive diversity. You can come from a different background whether cultural, education, or gender. You can look at the world through a different lens. Point of view is not something we can really measure, but I think you can extract someone’s worldview and perspective through their writing. Through writing I could share about what made me different. All those disadvantages that made me different became strengths over time. And other people could resonate with my differences. And in a way it felt by writing about cognitive diversity and hardships I could over time change the industry norm that a PM had to be a cookie cutter, CS degree major, MBA, or someone who had ivy league degree. Beyond labels you are a patchwork of different identities and experiences, and that’s what makes you really strong at the end of the day.
“I wrote about why liberal arts actually trains you to be a good PM. And that really helped connect a lot of people to my story, and people who also felt like they couldn’t crack into it because of their non-traditional background. I wanted to prove to people that you can differentiate yourself. In fact, those things that do make you different can add up and help you become a really great PM. When I go into a meeting I don’t think I know everything, and that makes me more inquisitive. The fact that I come from a very diverse background of econ and psych makes me think about problems differently.”
Honestly, I think I write very much about personal experiences. As long as I keep going through life trying new things and meeting new people, and experience new things I will continue generating content. But I can’t say I only write x. It’s a mix. There’s pieces of social commentary, there’s pieces of psychology, there’s pieces of tech, and then there’s pieces of my own personal experience. So I don’t really know how to call it, what genre. Maybe the modern human condition? Hopefully one day I will be able to write a book, but I don’t really know what that would be. I did have a friend who just published a memoir, and he’s like twenty-six, twenty-seven I think.
I love that.
So I feel like I should secretly start writing my own memoir until I actually do something of substance, and then have the ability to publish it.
My plan for this year — my resolution — is to start writing a memoir.
Yes, do it.
And just cover the first twenty-eight years.
People don’t want to admit that they’ve been preparing their memoir for awhile. But can you imagine being forty-five and then looking back and being like, what did I do in this world? You actually do need to prepare yourself.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the current state of tech in 2016. What’s exciting to you, what frustrates you?
I definitely have a love-hate relationship with tech as well as with San Francisco. I think part of it is just the fact that I am morbidly afraid of only having one way of looking at things. Every time I get out of San Francisco I’m always so relieved that I’m no longer in this very insulating and myopic space. I think people have been generating successful companies in a very homogeneous, formulaic manner. You need to have gone to certain school or worked at a certain company, and then from there you meet certain people, and then you generate ideas together, and then you get funding. There’s just so much in-bred talent, it’s almost like everyone’s a purebred. And over time purebreds breed with purebreds and there is no hybrid vigor. Ideas just get more and more diluted. A lot of ideas behind products are serving the one percent. When you don’t have an awareness of how other people live then you keep circulating the same ideas. My biggest concern is how homogeneous and monoculture we can become. For example, yesterday I went to Garfield Community Pool. It was kind of like a shitty pool with beat up locker rooms. It was not your nice, posh gym, but everyone there was nice. I had like five people tell me, “have a good swim.” You know? I just felt like, wow, these are the type of people who come to a pool for a sense of community, not to further themselves. I want to be with real people without self-interested motivations.
“When you don’t have an awareness of how other people live then you keep circulating the same ideas.”
I think a lot of what the industry has turned into is like, how can I further myself and be the next unicorn? It’s not about connecting with other people. And I even feel this through networking. Like so and so makes and intro — they want to connect with me and I feel obligated to talk to them because they’re a mutual friend, right? When I was in Tel Aviv people who didn’t know me would like offer to connect me to someone else. There was no notion of a referral system based on social currency. Tel Aviv had a culture of default openness.
When you are driven by motives — and a certain how I should replicate a pattern of success — you stop thinking about new ideas, and you kind of stop innovating, right? So I think right now it’s just like there’s too much homogenous thinking. There’s a certain pattern of success that everyone wants to replicate and be the next blank, and be the next unicorn, right? And there’s not enough awareness of what is going on outside of the Bay area. What’s the rest of the world doing? When I was talking to startups in Tel Aviv, they were like, “Yeah we know the Israeli market is super small. So every product we make we think about building this for the rest of the world.” And I don’t think a lot of companies within the Bay area think about it, because it’s like they’re preoccupied with who’s going to be on TechCrunch, who’s going to be featured on Product Hunt? Do I know the right person? Who’s going to retweet me? And it’s all become like this insular circle jerking community of like, “You recommend me, I recommend you.” I don’t think tech in the Bay Area is as open and authentic anymore. And it makes me sad because I want to be friends with people, not because they work at X, I want to be friends with people because I genuinely appreciate them, and we have something in common, and it’s not just over work or us working in an industry.
I want to meet more people like I did at the community pool. They were just by default very open and nice, and they came to a pool to have a good time and to exercise. It wasn’t in order to meet certain types of people. And I see that with networking too, where people are very motive driven. And it’s like, “What can I do for you? What can you do for me?” And that immediate transactional relationship carries throughout the entire industry now. And I don’t know how to correct it. I don’t want to be friends with people in order to get something out of it. And I think there’s a certain degree of reciprocity in every relationship we have that’s not immediate, right? So I honestly am kind of sad by the current state and I can always tell when some company is going to be the next cool kid, but I know that cool kid title will never be sustained, right?
Everyone plays in the whole like, “Maximize your mentality, I need to be the next big thing, and I need to be super flashy and sexy.” And to a certain degree I don’t think sustainability is top of the mind. For you to be a world class company that really addresses human problems, you have to be sustainable over time too. Right now, I’m just seeing a lot forgiving money getting doled out by virtue of someone having connections or someone having proven themselves once and then working on ideas for the one percent. I also see people just trying to get acquired super fast or trying to make some fast cash. That notion of sustainability of you working on a problem for a very long time and feeling like it’s solving human people problems, not just moving metrics or making a lot of money, is becoming lost.
VCs have to realize a lot of their investments are not going to pan out. In two years from now there’s like a cooling effect, which sounds really bad, but I actually think a cooling effect would be really good, because that’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff. The strong, sustainable companies that are doing it slow and deliberately and focus on solving people problems instead of lifestyle companies or things for the top 1% will last. I think that a cooling down effect will course correct things from the current trajectory, but at this point, it almost feels like the Wolf of Wall Street a little bit.
Let’s do one more question. What are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned, and what advice would you give to people from similar backgrounds? Just like normal people, who aren’t Ivy Leaguers, who have the talent, and the aptitude, and the potential, but there’s kind of system in place that they’re going to have to swim upstream in. What advice would you have for those folks who want to get into tech?
I think a lot of it has to do with your own self-worth, and you not letting defined standards make you feel that you’re not qualified. I think if you can generate something of value and make it visible, and show people I did this then you prove yourself. No one’s going to hire you based off of potential. If you don’t have the right background or pedigree, you’re always going to face a lot of doubt, and the best way to counteract doubt is to have a visible output of your work, right? Whether that be you built something, you wrote something, you shared something with the world that was helpful. If you had enough time, I think you start building your own track record where it’s not about someone looking at your pedigree, but looking at what did you produce. What you generate is way more telling than someone who went to an Ivy or someone who has an MBA. I think in a way you almost have to come up with your own standards and definition for every role that you apply. I think if you do this enough times, there is less and less stigma against you.
“I think a lot of it has to do with your own self-worth, and you not letting defined standards make you feel that you’re not qualified.”
In fact, my my narrative of having worked for, what is it, four companies now? It actually seems really interesting, but when I was going through it it was a shitty experience. I kept thinking “Why can’t I just find a linear path to becoming a PM?” So, I think if you see all those trials and tribulations as growth opportunities then you’ll will have a more interesting story to tell. You have to turn disadvantages into your advantage. I think if you feel like you’re not going to get into a certain job or company because of your pedigree, you should just start doing your own thing. If you do it enough times, that incremental value accumulates over time and it’s going to shift people’s focus on what you don’t have towards what you do have. Which is like, “I produced X.”
I think eventually if enough people do this — you basically debunk the whole system of you need to check these boxes in order to be qualified for something. And I’ve seen this trend in PMs now. A lot of people aren’t hiring for technical backgrounds anymore because there are a lot of strong operators who can build stuff but they don’t validate if it’s the right product. How do you build products that connect with people and build an emotional connection? That’s not something you can learn through coding or through an MBA program. There needs to be a certain degree of empathy and all those soft skills that people don’t measure actually add up. I don’t know how you can exemplify those soft skills without a really compelling narrative. Me talking about how I think in terms of behavioral science and psychology when it comes to product development is very refreshing and different. To a certain degree, tech now has the fundamentals, we have the Internet, and we have the cloud. It’s all about the next layer of human technology we can build. That degree of empathy is something that you have to earn through hardship and through failure. I feel like people who are at a disadvantage, it’s a blessing in disguise. You can’t let it keep you from doing what you want.
“If you see all those trials and tribulations as growth opportunities then you’ll will have a more interesting story to tell.”