Fung Feature: Youhee Choi, MEng ’18 (IEOR)
On how she pivoted into tech, advice for aspiring PMs, and her tips to beat the stress.
“I’m Youhee Choi, and I was born and raised in Korea. I lived there for 26 years. My background is pretty interesting because I majored in International Studies, worked full-time for three years, and then moved here for my Master’s program in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (IEOR). I just moved to Oakland, CA to begin my career.
It’s an interesting story: I was an exchange student in the States and visited my friend at Northwestern, who let me sit in on his IEOR class. I loved it! It made me think, okay, maybe I want to give engineering a try too. Once I went back to Korea, I figured out that my school was actually pretty famous for IEOR, so by the time I graduated, I managed to squeeze in two or three IEOR classes that laid the foundation for me.
On her career before MEng:
In my first three years, I worked as a Marketing Strategist at a company in Korea in hospitality management. I was still really interested in data analysis, and asked for opportunities to gain exposure to CRM strategy, digital marketing, and broadly speaking, into the tech world.
After working there for a while, I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I really want to do this full-time.’ I did my MBA part-time focusing on Big Data Analytics. Then I quit my job and was preparing to come to the States for grad school. During my year off applying for school, my professor from undergrad got a huge grant for social innovation — which is something I’m hugely passionate about — and asked me to help manage it. I was designing startup competitions, partnerships with McKinsey, and global innovation tours. It was such an amazing experience. Then I ended up here — and out of the three schools I got into, I really loved the location, and the length — it was the perfect amount of time for me.
On her MEng experience:
Berkeley was not that easy for me — classes were certainly not a breeze, but I had a lot of friends who helped me. I had this rule to help me not get stressed — and I told myself that every semester, I would take a class that was fun and helped me take my mind off things. First semester, every MWF from 8–10 am, I took a modern dance class. I also played clarinet and piano at Cal Community Music. Over break, I went to Israel and France. As you can see, I love to have fun and travel. I try to allocate at least 20% of my time to fun — which, truth be told, I need to get better at in my current schedule [laughs]; I’ve been too busy working.
A really good way for me to prioritize is to define the key purpose of whatever I’m doing; this is also a really good tip for PMs as well. So for example, I’m taking this class on Python, to help me better communicate with engineers. I told myself that okay, it might be grueling to learn, but I won’t let myself get stressed on anything beyond the stuff that helps achieve these objectives.
“I love to have fun and travel — I try to allocate at least 20% of my time to fun.”
On Product Management:
After I graduated, I realized I had some experience in strategy, data analytics, marketing, and now, technical expertise thanks to MEng. I thought, “How do I combine all of it?” I asked some of my friends in Berkeley, and they nudged me to consider product management. I realized that I had already gained exposure to the job function as a marketing strategist. I got referred to my current job at Kunai, which is a tech consulting firm. It’s a little bit different — because we have clients mostly in finance and entertainment. We have in-house engineers who help clients build products, and I act as a product and a project manager. I really like my job because I get to work on a bunch of products at the same time, and I find it really rewarding to be involved in client projects as well.
On Advice for Aspiring PMs:
For myself, I prepped by getting a lot of help from the MEng program. Julie McShane, Director of Career Development & Alumni Relations, was really helpful. Other than that, interview books are a great way to prep — the cracking the PM interview book is pretty good. Another thing I think is important is to give the job a trial run. Do you know the term MVP? Minimal Viable Product — it’s like a prototype, or a sample. Get a sample of what this job will entail, and try to be as objective as possible. Build your own app with friends, or help work on a special project and become really detail-oriented. That way, you’ll have relevant experience to talk about in interviews.
It’s also important to talk to other people who are PMs. I think it’s pretty easy to be attracted to the idea of a PM because it’s flashy, but you definitely want to know what you’re getting yourself into. It can seem glorified, being at the helm of a project, but it can be painstaking. Ask your peers, and also ask your interviewer — structure is a huge differentiating factor for PM roles, so make sure to ask about that in the process.
“Networking is super important — I find time to go to events or network in San Francisco at least every other week.”
I think the number one thing for any job, though, is to utilize your resources. Networking is super important — you can pick up soft and hard skills through classes, through events, or through connections. I find time to go to events or network in San Francisco at least every other week. I also recommend talking to engineers a lot, and learning from them. It’ll help you become more sympathetic and in tune with the technical side of each project. Also, find a cause or organization that you really want to work for, so you can suit yourself better to their needs.
On her Love for Social Impact:
I’m really passionate about educational empowerment. I was a Tech for Social Good fellow at CITRIS — and I worked with this school in Oakland every week, called Lighthouse, and helped teach a programming class to 11th graders on how technology can improve their lives. I actually got introduced to it through Wayne Decker [the current Lighthouse president], and I’m so grateful. That’s why even though I’ve graduated, I still come back from time to time to pass it on, and do some peer advising, and be of help to others whenever I can.
I’m interested in “shared value,” an idea created by a Harvard professor on how the private sector can contribute to society. It’s like the next iteration of corporate social responsibility (CSR), where businesses can help societies while still helping themselves. A really good example of this is Walmart — when they rerouted their truck transportation system that cut back on CO2 emissions. Things like that are closely aligned with my personal mission.
On Being a Woman in Tech:
Companies want female engineers, they really do! I feel that there are already fewer woman engineers to begin with, so I think the problem really stems from the fact that young girls aren’t exposed to the idea that they can excel in STEM too. That’s why I’m really passionate about creating more access to education for younger girls. As for me, I think the best thing that current women in tech can do is grow and explore your own interests, and learn a lot. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
What’s Next for Youhee:
I love how I pivoted my career to product management, where MEng helped for sure in opening up my eyes. Both my company and my client are going through some exciting growth stage, and I am happy to be a part of it. Definitely learning much along the way. Best part is that I am still open to new experiences at any time! Maybe in five years, I could be in a different country in a completely different field!
—As told to Anna Liang