On Friday, September 10th, Asia America Innovation Alliance (AAIA) Youth hosted an alumni experience sharing webinar on the topic of “overcoming obstacles toward your dream job”. In this event, guest speakers Haichun Chen (senior director from Airbnb), Yunfei Ma (product manager from Microsoft), Yunqiao Xu (product manager from Microsoft), along with the event moderator Iris Guo (product manager intern from Microsoft) shared their work experience and insights on the career development.

Moderator:How did you find your first job? How did you choose which company to work for?

Haichun: I studied physics during my Ph.D., and I decided to get another degree in computer science before I graduated. My first job was semiconductor-related, and in this job, I was able to combine my strengths in both physics and computer science. I think the most important thing when you are looking for your first job is to find a position that you can apply your strengths, so it boosts your confidence.

Yunfei: I agree. I decided my career as a product manager based on my personality and academic background. The next question I considered was which industry that I want to work in. I researched on the potentials of various industries and the top companies in each of the promising industries. I transferred to a full-time job after I finished my internship.

Yunqiao: As an alumnus from the University of Waterloo, I believe a lot of you have heard of the Co-op program. I was able to get six internships during my undergrad. I did all my internships in tech companies and I was able to try different roles like software developers and project manager. I realized that my personality suits better for positions like project manager. When you are looking for the first job, you want to consider the development potential of the company in the industry but also the development potential of yourself in the company. The size of the company matters too. In smaller companies, you probably need to be responsible for a wide variety of projects and in bigger companies your tasks are usually more focused on a specific field. From a personal career point of view, I suggest new graduates to try bigger companies first before they move on to smaller companies for easier promotion and bigger responsibility.

Moderator: How do you plan for your career development and promotion path?

Haichun: Promotion wasn’t the biggest concern when I first got a full-time job, because my focus was to get a green card. The responsibility of my job was not entirely in the same field of my study, so I just wanted to work without mistakes. When I look back, I missed out on many opportunities during that period. The ability to sniff hidden opportunities is very important for new graduates. You should also arrange a “career conversation” with your manager monthly or quarterly. Mentorship is vital as well. Talking to your mentor is also a great way to explore internal opportunities and to learn from their career path.

Yunfei: I cannot agree with you more. I had a similar experience when I started my career. But more importantly, you should ask yourself three questions before you plan your career development. The first question is if you are suitable for this occupation. The second question is if the industry has a lot of potentials. The third question is if the culture of the company complies with your values. Once I had made my decision, I told my supervisor to push me hard at work because I wanted a promotion. When it comes to your career plan, your supervisor and you should be on the same page.

Oliver: I think before you talk to your supervisor, you should do research and understand the responsibilities for the occupation that you are aiming at. When you talk to you are supervisor, you should show him that you understand the difference between the occupations at different levels. You should also have a concrete and practical plan on how to do tasks of the next level. This is how you “help” your supervisor to recognize a suitable opportunity for you in the future.

Moderator: How did you move from the individual contributor to the team management roles or how do you plan to do so? What is your major challenge from individual contributors to team management?

Haichun: Personally, I have experienced this transition and I can tell you that if you are not a good individual contributor, you can’t be a good team leader either. To make the transition, you should network promptly to find possible opportunities. I was working in a team and I wrote a product plan to show my supervisor, and I also made it clear that teamwork was needed. Eventually, I became the team leader, and the team grew to 25 people in two years. As an individual contributor, you should be tech-focused; but as a team leader, you should be people-focused. How to make the transition in focus? Empathy is the key!

Yunfei: I am an IC now, and I am planning to transform to a management role. In Microsoft, there are three perspectives to consider before the transition is made. The first is your personality, which includes your capabilities, your values, and your influence.

The second is the job content, which means if the project is big enough for an individual team to work on it. The third is the salary, which means if the team have sufficient funding. As a project manager, you should also be able to generate more commercial value based on your project.

Oliver: I think certifications also help a lot in the transition to management roles. For the basic management skills, you can take courses like project management and product management. The college degree I got in PM helped me a lot as a leader.

Moderator: What makes a great product manager and how does your day-to-day look like?

Oliver: For great product managers, there are three aspects to work on. The first is product skills, the second is your EQ, and the third is your company fit. As for product skills, you should know how to conduct an effective customer survey, how to deliver a design script, and how to prioritize different projects (resource management). As for EQ, you should be able to build good relationships with other teams. You should know the weakness and strengths of your team members and manage your team effectively. You should be empathetic to your team members and customers. As for company fit, you should compare the general product goal and try to bring your skills closer to it. The development stage of the company matters too because it will decide your approaches to lead your team. The last tip I have is to be fully prepared before meetings to save time for all. This is a great way to show respect to your team.

Yunfei: There are three must-have skills for PM. The ability to work with people and the organization is a subtle but essential skill. The second skill is the workload plan performance evaluation. The third one is the implementation skills—to deliver a mature product.

Haichun: From the view of an Engineering Manager (EM), PM is a position that is often underestimated. PM enables group action, and PM manages “what” and “why” while EM manages “who” and “how”. Understanding the roles of each other is vital for streamless cooperation.

Moderator: To prepare for the interviews for PM positions, Yunfei prepared an answer bank for possible questions from HR.

Yunfei: I see a job interview as an opportunity to show my competitiveness. I grouped the possible questions into five categories based on the desired PM qualities. For example, when I was told to “tell me a time that you didn’t agree with your manager, but you ended up being right”. My answer would focus on how my decisions are made data-driven instead of blaming others. I would communicate with my manager with respect. An answer like this will show that you are strong in data and statistics. The questions in an interview, in essence, are seeking the same few qualities from different scenarios. When you form your answer, you would want to give a story with your actions and results.

Moderator: How to manage up your boss and how to choose a great boss?

Haichun: About how to choose a good supervisor, your assessment starts at the first interview. You can have a touch of the personality of the supervisor during your interaction. You should choose your boss based on your needs: are you seeking stability or promotion? It’s like marriage—the matching matters. The interview is the proper timing for you to exchange expectations and ask questions about the company strategy and working policies. The purpose of managing up your boss is for better cooperation.

Yunfei: The rule of thumb for me when choosing a boss is to see if he is the character I want to be in the future. As for managing up, for instance, when your work is overloaded and you need to prioritize your tasks, you should remind your boss of the limitation of resources and ask for advice. Communication is the key for managing up.

Oliver: My tip here for managing up is to keep your task list open to your manager so he can set realistic expectations. It is also important to keep a template for the work report to facilitate your communication.

Moderator: How to assess and positively impact team culture?

Haichun: Interview is a great chance to learn about team culture. You can do some research online in advance. If you are prepared with questions, you will be of great advantage. For example, the culture for Google is “don’t be evil”, and for Netflix, it is “freedom and responsibility”. You can ask HR how their values/culture influence their decision-making and execution. Once you are in, the best way to make an impact is to participate and get involved.

Oliver: It is easier to positively impact work culture when the company is smaller. For my first job, I realized on the first day that the office was so silent—the vibe was not active. As a project manager, I took about six months to study the personalities of my coworkers. I made friends with them and 90% of the staff joined my first company party. Then I started more team-bonding activities like “Friday breakfast”. The change in inter-personal atmosphere was significant, and staff in the head office were attracted to join us too.

Yunfei: There is no “good” or “bad” culture. For you, there is only a “suitable” culture. Research on the company culture before you join it and try to blend in when you decide to take the offer, especially if you are in managerial roles. For instance, right after I joined Microsoft, the data department needed a set of data from the privacy department, and the data department was granted access for only 15 days. So, I stepped in and told the data department to start working immediately, while negotiating with the privacy department for extended access. You can always take the initiative and add “negotiation” into your work ethic, especially when you try to merge into the company culture.

Moderator: What advice are you like to give to all the university students in terms of career path and leadership building?

Haichun: I assume that you are hunting for your first job and I have two tips here: 1. For the first 30 days in the new position, ask at least 10 questions to your co-worker for every day; 2. start networking with your alumni. Networking is the first step of leadership and it can be quite hard for you to be a leader without people skills. Good luck!

Yunfei: Before my transition from school to the first job, I evaluated the right occupation, industry, and company for myself. Networking with alumni is very important for job hunting and I was benefited.

Oliver: If you are majored in CS, looking for a COOP, and are interested in PM, you can try to find a PM intern in large tech companies in your senior year. But if you cannot find PM opportunities, coding experience is also very handy for PM—it helps in your communication with software engineers. Personally, I used 5 years to figure out different jobs, and it is ok to give your time to experience and try. The time used for exploration is never a waste. As for leadership building, a hackathon can be a great opportunity and hackathon experience is a plus in your resume.

Q&A session

How do you think about the company culture of Google, Netflix, and Airbnb?

Haichun: Google and Airbnb share many similarities in the company culture. Many managerial roles in Airbnb have previously worked in google. They value talents highly and it is totally possible that your ideas ended up being one of the features in the Google products. There is barely anything like “decision push-down” from the upper level. The Airbnb culture is characterized by “belonging”. It is very inclusive for staff from various backgrounds. As for Netflix, the most important slogan is “freedom and responsibility”. Netflix has high expectations of the staff, and they tend to accept people with senior experiences. Netflix has high freedom on how you want to finish the task, but it has a low tolerance to mistakes.

Yunfei: I have some conclusions to share. When a company is very competitive and grows steadily, the culture will focus more on the staff working experience and investor relationship. This is because the customers are no longer a major concern. This culture can encourage bottom-up innovation. But if the company is still young and it is still expanding territory, the focus is still customer maintenance. The culture can be a bit aggressive.

Oliver: The culture differs between departments in larger companies. I am working in a newly emerged department, cloud gaming. In my department, the pace is fast because there are too many projects and features to be carried out. This is the moment where leadership prioritizes the tasks for the whole team. Individual ideas are still appreciated and valued, but the decision is made at the top tier. In Microsoft, there will be personal care resources like mental care sessions and event souvenirs It is also very easy to ask for a day off.

How to balance work and self-directed learning?

Oliver: In my spare time I used to network with colleagues and read books. Now I am in a fast-paced team and I use 80% of my time for work. For the rest 20% of the time, I tend to do self-reflection.

Yunfei: For me, “self-directed learning” is a source for input, and working is for output. I schedule time blocks for inputs only, like reading and self-reflection. Then I will apply my conclusions during work, and I will evaluate the feedback. This is how I better my cognition and understanding of my work.

Any advice on choosing between US and Chinese companies like TikTok? 

Yunfei: I have worked in Alibaba. For me, I considered the cultural and professional aspects. You want to listen to the positive and negative comments of the company to make a balanced decision. You also want to think about where you prefer to live and your financial status. 

Haichun: Most of the top-tier tech companies in the US are in Silicon Valley. In US companies your career path can be very limited, while in China there can be more possibilities. The working pressure in China is heavier. About whether to join US and Chinese companies, it is not a “one or the other” choice. I have friends who work in companies’ Chinese and US branches and travel back and forth. The time difference is another issue to consider about. 


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