Ms. Start-up Product Manager is an Associate Product Manager at Pocket Gems, a tech start-up committed to building the next generation of fun-to-play, exciting mobile games. She talks about the importance of finding an area of work that you are passionate about so you wake up every morning energized by the prospect of what you’re doing! Read about how she found her current role and her belief in the value of interpersonal skills.
ZD: Describe your current job; a normal day.
A: I’m an Associate Product Manager at Pocket Gems, a mobile games startup. We make games for Android and iOS and have so far published 22 games that have been downloaded over 90 million times. Two of our games were the #1 and #4 overall grossing apps in the iTunes App Store in 2011. I manage a team of engineers, game designers, testers, and artists for one of our games. Currently I’m working on a new game that hasn’t been launched as yet. In addition to managing the team, I am responsible for setting the roadmap for our game and doing all of the analyses related to it. My job is a great mix of analytical and creative skills; I use SQL and Excel to pull and analyze our user data, and I design features for our game, working with my team to implement them. On any given day, you’ll find me doing some mix of these things.
ZD: What was your major in college?
A: I majored in History and Science, an interdisciplinary concentration at Harvard focused on the impact of science on society and vice versa. Within History and Science, I completed the Neurobiology track. I also minored in History of Art and Architecture.
ZD: When you were in college, what did you think you would be doing when you finished? What was your actual career path? How did you find yourself on this path?
A: I didn’t know what I wanted to do my first couple of years in college. I initially thought I wanted to go into law, but a couple of summer internships made me realize that I was very interested in business. By my junior year, I had decided on Consulting for my first job so that I could build a strong analytical skill set and get exposure to a variety of industries. I interned for Monitor Group the summer before my senior year and returned for a full-time job after I graduated. While working on a project on emerging trends in digital and social media, I realized that I was very passionate about technology. So, after a little under two years at Monitor, I decided to pursue this interest further. Specifically, I wanted to find a relatively small tech start-up because I believed that working at a small company would enable me to take on more responsibility and ownership early on in my career than working at a big one.
Finding small start-ups isn’t easy, but I emailed all of my friends and asked them if they knew of any start-ups looking to hire someone with my background in analytical skills. I also read tech blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable everyday to learn about interesting start-ups that I could look up. I either applied for jobs from their Career pages or emailed them directly if I didn’t see an opening specifically suited to my background. A friend put me in touch with someone I had gone to college with who lived in San Francisco and ran her own start-up. They weren’t hiring, but she put me in touch with a classmate of hers from business school who turned out to be my first manager at Pocket Gems!
ZD: Where do you see yourself 5 years from now? How do you plan to get there?
A: I will be attending business school starting in Fall 2013 (so I will have worked a total of 4 years before: two at Monitor and two at Pocket Gems). Once I graduate in 2015, I want to launch my own product / company or work at a start-up that is at an even smaller stage than Pocket Gems was when I joined it, so that I can help build the company at an earlier stage. I want to work on consumer-facing technology, like I am currently. My plan is to stay tapped into the technology world while I am at school by staying up-to-date on the interesting products and start-ups launching; build relationships with people who I might want to work with; and potentially work part-time with interesting start-ups.
ZD: What did you think was the most important thing you learned while in college? Did that help you in your career? What do you wish you had studied or studied more of in college?
A: My coursework covered a big range of topics – from neurobiology and other sciences, to history courses on the impact of science on society and vice versa, to art history courses. In addition, I was heavily involved with my college newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, as its Design Chair. From all of this, I learned to become comfortable with thinking critically and analytically when it came to any situation or problem, and to express my thoughts clearly and cohesively. Also, my time on The Crimson taught me a lot about managing and leading teams, and interacting with people who have different working styles. I think that’s key because at work – no matter where you work – you’re going to encounter so many different types of projects, colleagues, and managers.
I’m very happy with what I studied, but if I could go back to college, I would take some classes in Computer Science. In my job today, I interact with a lot of engineers; I myself don’t have a technical background, although I am learning bits and pieces here and there. But ideally, if I had the time, I would sign up for Computer Science courses to learn the basics of programming.
ZD: Looking at where you were back in college and where you are now, what is the biggest surprise you encountered in the work world?
A: When I graduated college, I had a “plan” – I was going to work at Monitor for 2-3 years to develop my analytical skills and learn about a variety of industries, and then I was going to go to business school, and after that work in the “industry of my dreams.” The biggest thing I learned after college in the working world is that plans change – and that it’s okay, and probably better, that they do!
Until you start working, every step you take is very clear and the biggest decision you might make is what major you study in college – which does not even really matter in a liberal arts program because any course of study should teach you the most important skills of learning how to analyze, think critically, and convey your thoughts cogently. But when you start working, there are no clear next steps; you might go to grad school in 2 years, 4 years, 6 years, longer than that, or not at all. You might even go to more than one grad school! You might realize that your initial career path is not for you – as I did, when I realized that I didn’t want to keep doing consulting after I had found a topic I was very passionate about.
You should feel comfortable changing your plans because your ultimate goal should be finding an area of work that you are passionate about and working with people you care about so you wake up every morning energized by the prospect of what you’re doing – and finding this takes a fair amount of fine-tuning in your career choices!
ZD: What do you feel is an important quality to do well in your field?
A: Strong interpersonal skills. At my job, I am interacting with people in various roles – game designers, engineers, artists, testers, and sometimes external companies we partner with. Each person I work with has a unique working style and method of communication, and is motivated by different things. It’s my job to make sure we work efficiently to produce the best game that we can, and that everyone is happy on my team. My teams have worked best when everyone feels that their input matters and that I understand where they are coming from. So for me, having strong interpersonal skills to interact with different people and keep them motivated and performing at their maximum potential is very important.
ZD: Do you have one piece of advice for college students interested in pursuing a career in your field? What worked? What you would have done differently?
A: My advice would be to feel confident in your opinions. At both Monitor and Pocket Gems, I have found that my managers and company leaders are always eager to hear my opinions on the work we are doing and respect my thoughts a lot. It takes some getting used to because as a recent college graduate, you might feel shy about stepping over your role and want to simply go with what your manager believes. But sometimes, the person who knows best is the person closest to the work – which will likely be you! So if you have a thought or opinion or suggestion to share about how something should be done, share it! Particularly at small companies like Pocket Gems, there is very little hierarchical structure, and everyone is encouraged to shape the direction of a project.
ZD: What is the best piece of advice someone has given you in your workplace?
A: During a review after a project in which I had done all of the work assigned to me perfectly, a former manager at Monitor once told me that to move to the next level, I should always be thinking about what more I could be doing. This advice has been invaluable so far in my career. If you can think critically about the next steps in your project and what else you could be doing to take work off your manager’s plate, your manager will thoroughly appreciate your presence on his / her team and you will continue to gain the respect of your teammates and project leaders. From my personal experience, I have found that I gain a huge amount of responsibility and trust from my project leaders when I think critically like this and try to stay one step ahead.
ZD: What do you do in your spare time? Do you have a hobby? What book did you last read?
A: One of the best parts of working is that you almost always have evenings and weekends free to pursue your interests. I enjoy cooking, exploring outdoor activities around San Francisco, going out to restaurants, watching movies, and more.
ZD: If you have experience recruiting, can you name one or two essential qualities you look for in an entry level candidate?
A: In any job, I think the most important quality a candidate can exhibit is a desire to learn. At Monitor, we were interviewing college seniors and juniors for full-time positions and internships, and at Pocket Gems, we interview recent graduates who have strong analytical skills but who may have never done product management before. In both cases, we are interviewing people who do not have all of the skills and experience for the job for which they are interviewing. One of the qualities that most sets apart those we hire are people who exhibit a strong desire to learn what they don’t know and improve their abilities. At start-ups especially, the people we hire matter so much because our company is very small. We also look for people with strong work ethics who are excited to dive into projects and give it their all, as opposed to people who might not be passionate about work. And finally, we look for people who we think could make good teammates that we would want to work with.