Interview with Catherine Shyu (FullContact)
In this interview, we speak to Catherine Shyu, a product manager at FullContact. Catherine offers fantastic insights from her PM journey and her experiences in various PM roles.
What is your current role?
I’m a product manager at FullContact, a company that specializes in customer insights. Essentially, if you are a marketer trying to learn more about your customers, it’s really easy to query us with an email address, Twitter handle, or phone number of a customer and we will tell you that person’s demographic information like gender, job title, location data, social media profiles etc. We really help companies tailor their experiences to their customers.
I’ve been here almost two years now. I started off launching our Android app (we have a couple consumer apps that let you get all your contacts in order across your phone, work email, personal email, etc.). Most recently, I’ve been managing our web app as well as a product called FullContact for Teams that we just launched.
When did you first become interested in product management?
I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad. During my senior year, I took a new course called “Product Design.” It was in the engineering department at the time, so not a lot of business students had been exposed to it. Nowadays the topic is so popular that there’s an entire course thread dedicated to human-centered design. We learned IDEO’s design thinking principles for customer development and product discovery, and how you can take an idea for a product and walk it through different stages of discovery: exploring with potential customers, writing requirements, creating a prototype, and testing it out. We had group projects and my group designed a smart refrigerator. Nowadays all of us know this is a classic solution looking for a problem, but at the time we had a lot of fun with it. I particularly enjoyed the discovery phase and thinking through, “how can food data actually make a person’s life better and healthier?” and then going out and testing it with potential customers.
That’s when I realized I like doing this. I wondered, “is there a job out there that would let me do this whole process?” Luckily, afterwards I got an internship at LivingSocial on their strategy and research team- my first tech industry job. I was doing projects for the product team, so I gained a lot of exposure there and realized that was the role I wanted to eventually end up in.
What did you study in school, and how have you found that it relates to your current role?
I was a double major in economics and media studies. Throughout college, I spent the majority of my time thinking I wanted to go into advertising or marketing. Then I actually interned at an ad agency and realized I wanted to focus on building products.
That said, I think product managers usually have some sort of specialization. A lot used to be former engineers who moved into product. A lot will specialize in design and come from that background. A lot also come from a business background. Product is interesting in that it’s one of the few disciplines where having a broad set of experiences is an advantage. The marketing and economics background really helped me in terms of understanding a business and what types of product would actually sell, in addition to how to build a product, package it, and put it out in a marketplace. The go-to-market side is easy for me and it’s really helpful when designing a product because you can think of it from the point of view of someone evaluating the product. They’re trying to decide whether or not they want to buy it, and we need to figure out how to get it there.
You’ve spent a lot of time at smaller or growing companies. What attracts you to this environment?
My whole philosophy is to put myself in places I learn as fast as possible. There is a finite time in our lives where we don’t have anything tying us down and we can pour our entire selves into our careers. For the past couple years I’ve decided to work as hard as I can, learn as much as I can, and do as much as I can. At a large company, you can’t learn as much because there are so many other roles and processes in place that the piece that you ultimately own is a lot smaller.
What aspect of your role brings you the most enjoyment?
My favorite part of product management is the initial phase of ambiguity, when you find there is an opening in the market or a customer problem, but you don’t know the answer or what to build yet. It’s an opportunity to go into that discovery/research phase to find a way to solve a problem for the customer. For a new product, that would be the customer development phase, prototyping, usability testing, and more with customers. I’m naturally curious and enjoy digging into the motivations behind human actions/desires, so this part of the product process where there’s a lot of ambiguity really gets me excited.
What advice do you have for a student beginning to learn about product management?
Internships are the absolute best way to get direct experience, and can be helpful in deciding what size company you want to join or learning the difference between PM roles at different companies. That being said, you can definitely still get indirect experience right on campus. One of the things I did while I was at Berkeley were case competitions. Examples of prompts for these could be that a company has a business problem that needs a solution, or is interested in evaluating whether or not they should enter a new market. The deliverables from these cases are direct experiences that you can put on your resume. We also had consulting groups on campus that would do pro bono projects for companies in the area, so I think that’s one of the best places to start learning regardless of background. You learn how to work with clients (aka stakeholders), how to propose projects (aka get buy-in for your roadmap), and how to solve problems that clients give you (digging in with customers). In general, there are many indirect ways to test the waters without the PM title.
Where would you recommend that a student find their first product internship? Does a large company or a small company make the most sense?
Personally, I think your paths would converge either way. It’s just dependent on what you want to prioritize at that point in your life. A lot of my friends chose to join a large company first, because it’s akin to having a name-brand school on your resume. Other friends joined smaller startups where they could wear a lot of hats. I would absolutely recommend getting out to Silicon Valley if you want to be in tech. When I think back to my years in San Francisco, every conversation you had could teach you a lesson that was applicable to what you were working on. The collective knowledge drove people to be smarter and iterate faster.
Anything else to add?
Product Management as a discipline is in an exciting phase, where it’s still being defined and shaped. This means it’s a great opportunity to gain responsibility, experience, and push yourself early in your career. If you’re thinking about entering this space, it’s going to be a wild ride!
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