Raya majored in electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley. She has done two internships of Microsoft has also interned at Google and is now an Associate Product Manager (APM) at Schmidt futures.
Raya’s background and how she learned about product management
She started coding in high school and the summer after her junior year in high school she went to a woman in technology program at MIT and where she learned to code.
She also took computer science in high school senior year and started to really enjoy it.
When it was time for her college application, she applied to computer science majors and Berkeley she applied to EECS because she wanted to be in the college of engineering rather than other sciences.
Her first internship was at Microsoft in the explorer program which was half software engineering and half product management. It was through that internship that she found out she enjoyed product management more and liked the kind of problems you think about as a product manager. As a result of that internship, she started leaning more towards PM internships and applied more to them.
When doing her abroad studies in Taiwan she got a PM internship at the Microsoft Taiwan office. Her next internship was then as an Associate Product Manager (APM) intern at the Google Mountain View office. And now she is an APM at Schmidt Futures.
Choosing between PM and coding.
When comparing product management and coding, the former is more thinking more about who are the users? Will they want to use this product?
How should we design the product so that we know that it’s working and that it’s actually useful for whoever wants to use it?
This is PM process Raya says she enjoyed more. And she also realized she didn’t like software engineering. She mentions how corporate software engineering is a lot different from coding in schools. In schools, you learn more about algorithms making you feel like you’re solving puzzles.
She recalls her first internship at Microsoft where she spent more learning how to use languages such as C#, figuring out how to use libraries and integrating that. For her, that wasn’t as exciting as thinking about the higher level.
How she prepared for her interviews
When it comes to the dreaded product management interviews, reading and interview practice was key in Raya’s experience.
She mentions reading the book “Cracking the PM interview” and doing a lot of practice questions.
The book Cracking the PM Interview breaks the interview questions into 4 different categories. She would record herself answering those questions and write the answers on her mirror as a whiteboard. She would then watch those videos and look at places where she could improve or things she should have said or not said and then just work from there.
In-person interviews with friends who were also applying for PM roles was also another strategy she used. When that wasn’t enough, she mainly did those interviews herself or she would find somebody who was already a product manager and ask them to practice with her.
Getting interviews and standing out
She continues to narrate that product management is a role where it’s easy to get a second one once you have gotten the first role. What helped her to stand out was doing a variety of things outside just computer classes. With Raya this meant working as a teaching assistant at data 8 classes at Berkeley, being involved in other clubs and extra-curricular which shows that she had interests outside just computer science.
And finally, trying to keep up to date on tech news and areas where she was interested in was essential in getting an edge in the interviews.
What Google APM Internship (Associate Product Manager) was like
Reading the book winners take all in college changed the way she viewed technology work. She was contrasting between building a better world or just making more money for someone somewhere. That’s when she went looking for something that had that social good component in it where she could feel confident in the product she was releasing to the world.
Looking back at her situation then she says:
“But honestly those opportunities don’t exist a lot and that is something Schmidt Futures is trying to address. So, Schmidt futures came with this unique opportunity I decided to try it because I wanted to be part of something that was trying to change the world for the better.”
Schmidt Futures is trying to build talent around the world and specifically, their APM program is pairing recent college graduates with projects that are using computer science for social good.
Raya’s project is PlantVillage, a project that is based at Penn State where they are using machine learning and computer vision to help smallholder farmers in Kenya identify crop diseases using a smartphone.
She describes Schmidt Futures as working a little bit like VCs giving out funding to teams but trying to be more than VCs through providing talent, expertise, guidance, and networks which is something that a lot of these smaller non-profit’s organizations lack.
When asked about how she fits in as a product manager within her team she answers:
“Before I joined the team there was never one person that was just thinking about the product, the vision, what we want to accomplish and will we know we are on our way to accomplishing these things. So, a lot of what I have been doing is sort of creating that unifying vision of visiting the team in Kenya and seeing sort of how are things working right now. Do we have metrics tracking how things are being used?
If they are successful, are farmers actually taking the advice that we are giving them and then I created OKRs, objectives and key results and a plan to help the team accomplish these objectives and key results.
Before this, it was a lot like we are just going to churn out things and improve the algorithm, add more features to the app or add a bunch of things without really knowing for sure if it’s getting us to our goal of like helping farmers reach food security. So, I’m hopefully providing that overall vision and direction.”
Final words of advice
Raya’s first advice she says is to women or minorities who want to apply to PM roles but have this fear of “I’m letting down community if I switch to other things” because they look at statistics of women dropping out of CS. These women think “Oh, If I do PM it means I’m less technical, I’m less competent” and feel like they have to stay to prove that underrepresented minorities can succeed in this field.
Her advice to them is that it’s not on you as a women or minority to prove that you can succeed as software engineers. If PM is something you are truly passionate about you should feel free to pursue it and just crush it and excel at that. And if that is the way that you can bring most contributions and that’s what makes you the happiest when you don’t have to feel this pressure.
Raya then compares being a product manager to being in many ways just as challenging as being a software engineer as you’re thinking about different problems.
Her second advice is to just be really honest with yourself about what you enjoy, what your skill sets are and what type of role would fit you the best. You don’t have to feel like you have to make one decision and that will be determined for the rest of my career.
Thirdly she adds that even if your project is not something you love, there skills that you can learn.
“There are things that I’ve taken from my previous internships which I apply to my job now. And it’s really helpful because I really care about my product now but then if those previous projects had not been there, I wouldn’t be able to do as a good job as I’m doing now” she says reflecting at her own experience.
As a final advice, Raya shares with us that it’s OK to do things that are outside of your major, for example, she mentions working with a nutritional non-profit and taking public health classes. Pursuing what you’re interested in can give you a direction about want you want rather than following the track everyone is following.