Jiayi: Hi, I'm Jiayi Ying and I am the international product manager at Scholastic.
Suzanne: Scholastic is a warm and fuzzy kind of feeling, and Clifford is in the lobby. It's exactly what you think it will be when you come to this building.
Jiayi: There are many Clifford around in this building, and he's big, and just lying around everywhere.
Suzanne: How old is Clifford?
Jiayi: I don't actually know how old Clifford is. The company itself is turning 100 in two years, so that's the next big milestone, if you will, that we're trying to hit.
Suzanne: That's so exciting. We'll come back to Scholastic in a moment. I wanna kick us off by talking about beginnings. You began your career at a place called Undercurrent, and some of our listeners will know Undercurrent and some won't, but it was kind of a big deal here in New York for a while. Can you tell us what you were doing at Undercurrent and why was Undercurrent a big deal?
Jiayi: Yeah, so I was a strategist at Undercurrent, and I didn't really know going in that Undercurrent was a big deal. I knew that it was doing great work with great clients, but I hadn't been exposed to the agency world before that. I remember when I went in for my interview, leaving I was like, people work in spaces like this and people do work like this. It was very much like my world was shifted in some way after that interview.
Suzanne: Was it because the environment itself looked different than what you imagined a workplace would be or what was that impression?
Jiayi: It was the environment very much so. Before Undercurrent, a couple of jobs before, I worked at General Assembly in London. I was studying abroad and wanted an internship and cold emailed the campus, and they were like, okay yeah. Sure. We need someone to help. So I showed up on the first day and it was just empty floor, one table in the corner, two guys sitting there, and they're like, oh hi. Yeah, you can just put your computer somewhere here. Pull a chair and that's it. But then after General Assembly, that’s when I came back to New York, I wanted a sense of ... I was like how do people work in traditional offices? What does that even mean? And I went complete 180 and worked at McKinsey for a little bit, and that was very much a big corporate office. I bought a blazer for my interview, which I returned after the interview, and so they were very opposite ends of a working experience, and then when I walked into Undercurrent, it felt very much like ... it was an office but people were very themselves in a lot of ways.
Suzanne: Was there a ping pong table? Some of the signs of a modern environment?
Jiayi: There was no ping pong table but there was a neon light.
Suzanne: Cool. And so you were a strategist there.
Suzanne: What does that even mean to be a strategist, by the way?
Jiayi: I don't really know.
Suzanne: Still to this day after doing that role.
Jiayi: To this day. I think I've always struggled with what titles even mean. Even before Undercurrent, at McKinsey and at different jobs, it was just I'm doing everything that comes to me that doesn't necessarily fit into this job title or what I would read about to be this job title. When I was at Undercurrent, I worked on ... we were on different client projects, and every client is different, every project is different. The time I worked there, we were also just completely changing, pivoting the company's offering from digital marketing to this future of work, new way of working thing. No one really knew what it was about, but we had this hunch of things are fundamentally changing the work that we ... digital marketing strategies and the deck stats a lot of great strategists before me created.
They weren't really being implemented and what's the reason for that? And then going really to the root source for, well maybe people are working in not the right ways to be able to take on this work. So I think the time I joined, I wasn't exposed that much to the digital marketing era of the company. We were thinking very much about new ways of working, and coaching, and team facilitation, and just figuring it out as we were going. Part of the mantra, if you will, at the time was build the plane in midair, and we talked a little about ... you were saying that oh, it sounds like part of the way you figured out your job and your careers have been through just learning by doing, and what was also very much an ethos there.
Suzanne: Right, build the plane in midair.
Suzanne: The story of Undercurrent is kind of like the sad, cautionary tale. For our listeners, if you Google Undercurrent NYC, I think the last remaining article online talks about how it was kind of once New York's darling and then just sort of went away almost overnight. Did it go away overnight for you? Were you there when the company just ceased to be? Did you get an email and it was like, by the way, we're done?
Jiayi: Yes, I don't think it was that explicitly said. I was also very much out of it. I was not very aware of, again, the reputation of the company and also the reputation of the company that we joined, Quirky. I know that when the merger was announced, I was a little surprised, and a couple people were kind of like, why are we doing this, and I didn't necessarily understand. I was like, okay, yeah. Well, I've heard of Quirky and they're a successful startup, all the money they've raised. But there were a lot of people concerned and I didn't truly understand why, and I was just going along with it. There was a little bit of, so what are we doing here and our work isn't really changing but we're just put into a different environment. And I think everybody saw it coming, but no one could give you a definitive answer because there was no definitive answer. And the day that everything went down, we received an email. They were like, oh, 2:00, all hands meeting, and I was like, okay. Well, I know what this is going to be about.
Suzanne: It wasn't the most celebratory of all of the historic all hands meetings, I guess.
Jiayi: No, it was not. I think there was a bit of a somber mood, and there was something beautiful about it. I think the team ... we weren't integrated as much with our team but their team was very much a family, and then when they were passing around flowers, and people were wearing yellow flowers in their hair that one of the team members had brought and was giving to people, and it was watching that also. This is something special for another group of people and they're losing that. For me, it was a weird situation to be in. I can't quite explain it. It was just kind of-
Suzanne: Well, just watching people have this kind of deep attachment to an experience that, like you said before, you were sort of a little bit outside of it. It's like you were doing this job, first significant job out of school, post some internships and small things, but you didn't have that same deep emotional connection to it, it sounds like.
Jiayi: Yes, I think we also didn't have a deep emotional connection to Quirky as a parent company, and that was also ... I think there was a bit of maybe even ... I don't know if it's as strong as resentment but it's just kind of like why. We were successful and even when it went down we had, I think our best month ever, so it was a confusing situation to be in to be like, okay, well we're doing well, but our fate is tied to this other company that we haven't really worked with and that we don't really know about, so that was kind of a confusing moment to be in. But I would say, looking back now, as tough as a time that was for any people I think it was, I'm also grateful for that time and for the things that I've learned from it, and that experience has made me discover new things, and kind of really take a moment to think about what it is that I really wanted to do.
Suzanne: Well, I think why it's relevant is that that experience applies to certainly a lot of people listening to our show, right? In this kind of startup era, startup landscape, a lot of people go and take a chance on a new company, and you ride the waves when the company is doing well, and those companies can kind of come crashing down, and then that can be jarring when you're just sort of setting out in your career as you were just sort of setting out. It's like one minute, I'm part of this really exciting new thing and then the next minute, it kind of hits a wall. What did you do after that?
Jiayi: I talk about this train trip I went on after it and friends that I talk to are like, oh, yeah. Your eat, pray, love period. And I'm like, okay, sure. It wasn't that planned. It was actually kind of awkward. A couple team members and I had applied to go to XOXO that year in Portland, and I think around the time the company went down, I found out I got in, and I was like okay. Should I get the money back or should I just go? I've always wanted to go to Portland. I had this kind of sense of okay. Maybe there's something out there on the west coast. I've never been and I hear great things about Portland, so I was like I'll go. And it felt silly to buy a plane ticket because I had all this time, and I'd always wanted to take a train trip across the country. I talked to friends about it but it was always kind of like, oh, yeah. Well, if we could do those things, that would be amazing.
And suddenly I found myself with this time and this destination, if you will, to the west. And I'm like okay, I'll just book a train ticket. Going in, I didn't have any idea of what it is I wanted to do on a train or what I wanted to get out of it. I was just kind of like I wanted to do this and then I brought a couple of books that I didn't read just because there's too much outside the window that I was just staring at. I didn't realize it then, but I think in that time, it was just kind of all the things that I always wanted to do in some way but didn't feel like I could or didn't make the time to do.
Suzanne: Like what?
Jiayi: Like writing and just scribbles even. Sitting there and being and seeing what comes to me rather than being like, okay. I need to do this in order to buff up my resume, or I need to do this in order to do this thing that leads to the next thing. Just being in the moment, if you will, as cheesy as that sounds. I think every job that I took before, every internship I took before, there was always some sense of curiosity, but it was never really ... this is really what I wanted to do. I think when I was in college, I was like I wanna work in magazines, and I wanna work in fashion. And then I went to couple interviews at magazines. I was like, I don't know. It's still also an office and you're also just sending emails every day, and that's different world, but also the same work. I'm rambling a little bit.
Suzanne: It's a nice ramble. I think you're talking about the experiences that we're faced with. A question that's coming up in my mind and maybe I'll ask it is have you always been in New York?
Jiayi: I moved to New York for college ...
Jiayi: ... so it's been almost eight years now.
Suzanne: Because the experience that you're describing a little bit about giving yourself space to breath, space to think, permission to do things like writing that aren't necessarily linked to what's next in the career. I grew up on the east coast, and there is very much an energy, certainly in New York of hustle. Hustle, hustle, hustle, so it sounds like part of this journey was about detaching lovingly from the need to hustle. What opened up for you? Where did you go after your eat, pray, love period?
Jiayi: I still find it weird to call it my eat, pray, love period. It wasn't really an eat, pray, love period. I think to your point, I was very much caught in the hustle in some way. My first internship in college my freshman year, I worked at a startup,Of a Kind, they had just started. They taught me everything I know basically, and the two founders are a big influence in how I develop my sense of being in a workspace, or just even out in the world in general.
And when Undercurrent went down, it was a slowing down in a lot of ways. I wasn't really excited about any job and I was like I don't know if I'd enjoy working in the corporate environment, and at that time I'd worked in so many offices already that I was kind of jaded by it all in some way. But I also saw it as I need to do this in order to be able to support myself and to live in our society today.
Thinking about what I enjoyed at Undercurrent and in my jobs, it was always working with different people, and I had worked jobs before where it was very specific functions. I was creating emails. I worked at NYU press, and it was a digital marketing role, and it was a lot of emailing authors, and asking them to write blog posts, and then creating email blasts, and it was a very specific role, and I enjoyed that, but I also couldn't see myself doing that constantly. I wanted more variety from a job, and I think what I enjoyed at Undercurrent was the sense of variety in terms of working with the different clients, or working on something that would feed into our new offering, different tools, different processes.
And out of the jobs that I've been exposed to and was aware of, product management seemed to be that, and it seemed to be a good blending of my experiences to date at that point. I had been around the development world in some way. I understood the parts that fed into it, but I had never really fully been in the product world, and so that's kind of what I gravitated towards. I got really lucky because I have a friend who I worked with many years ago. We were waiting for an event, for the elevator at General Assembly in New York actually, and she turned around.
She's like, Jiayi. I was like, yeah. Hi, you remember me. She was working in product management at Ann Taylor and after I got back from New York, I was like I think product managing is something I wanna pursue, and will you just have dinner and I'd love to hear what your job is about. She had just gone to the Children's Place, got this opportunity to lead digital transformation there and that's how I ended up at the Children's Place, which was my first project management job.
Suzanne: So she was like, oh, it's so great that you're inquiring about product management because I actually need to hire someone, so come and be that product manager with me?
Jiayi: Yeah. At the end of our conversation, she's like, "Well, I'm actually hiring, trying to build up a team. Are you interested?" And she didn't really know about Undercurrent but there's something about Undercurrent where if you tell people about the work you're doing, they don't quite understand it, but they're intrigued by it.
Suzanne: I think that was the whole offering. It's like if we just make it sound really cool, but also inaccessible, people will pay a lot of money for it because they're like I've gotta have that.
Jiayi: There you go.
Suzanne: If you're listening in, that's a good strategy as any if you're building a compelling services business.
Jiayi: All the budding management and consultancies out there. Listen.
Suzanne: So the Children's Place is a children's clothing store. You were brought onboard to help manage digital transformation. What did that practically entail in terms of what you were working on during that time?
Jiayi: A lot of chaos. Honestly, I was there for about a year, and I wrote a lot of user stories in JIRA but also, it was just kind of throwing things at the wall in a lot of ways, and that was kind of what everyone was doing in some way. My boss was very much thinking about process and no one had even been exposed to JIRA before so it was kind of defining the workflow, and this is what the backend developer should be doing, this is what UI should be doing, and that was a big part of the focus. And when I joined even, I don't think the work was fully ready yet to hit the ground. It was still very much with kind of ... there was a big consultancy that was managing also so there was a lot of discussions with the CEO, and discussions with upper leadership, and things were spinning in that phase still.
Yeah, it was a lot of chaos. It was kind of, again, just standing there and watching people in a lot of ways, and being like, okay, so this is what's going on, and this would implicate this team, and this is what I would be responsible for. Many of the things that have made my current job in some way ... successful feels too strong a word, but that have been helpful, if you will, in my current job, happen from that observation period while at the Children's Place. Tactically, in terms of the work, I did exposure to JIRA. That was my first exposure. I had been working with Trello before, which is not quite the same thing.
There is a use for Trello I think, but there is also ... I think some people try to use Trello as JIRA and it's like that doesn't really work. And I was one of those people who was like, do we really need JIRA? We can just get on Trello. It's easy and everybody gets access to it. And they're like, no, no, no. You don't understand, so that was good exposure to it also. But I also felt very much at certain times like a bottleneck in the team because I was the only product manager on the ground, and any story that needed to be created, they'd be like, oh, well, it needs to go through you. And I'm like, well, that doesn't make sense.
If it's a developer story, I can't be creating that. That's a waste of my time and a waste of developer's time for me to sit down and try to understand what they're working on when they could just be creating it. So that sort of exposure, those are kind of things that I think you can't really read about or find in any sort of book or any sort of reading. Those have been helpful to me, for me in terms of learning how to engage with different people, and trying to keep teams on track.
Suzanne: Yeah, there's so much inside of that. The reflection about observing and questioning what am I supposed to be doing, what's my contribution within this chaos, is really in so many ways probably the best project management education you could've asked for. I teach project management to individuals and to teams, and one of the things that I like to say is a lot of the times, being a product manager is equivalent to kind of stepping out onto an empty field and then being responsible for putting together the scaffolding that's gonna turn it into an even that everyone is gonna come and participate in, and that's hard because really, what that means is nobody is there to tell you what systems do we need, where to we need to be investing our time, what is the right thing to focus on. You have to decide that, and the having to decide that, especially if you haven't been exposed to it, if it's your first time in the role, that's the part that's foreign.
That's the part that's challenging because you're, perhaps, used to coming to environments where someone has already marked out what the job is, like that email marketing role that you spoke about earlier. So stepping into product management is also stepping into some personal power. People talk about or debate really how much power we actually have as product managers, but I think there's a personal power and a personal sense of organization that you have to connect with in any role, and then once you go to a different environment, all of the rules change again. All of the processes that worked at the last place don't work for an entirely different set of reasons, so thanks to the CHildren's Place for putting you where you are in so many ways, I suppose.
Jiayi: Yeah. I think part of power is also knowing when to give away power. A couple of days ago, I was working with one of our developers, and he's a lead developer so he needs to know exactly what's going on, the project number, the project this, but we don't really have ... that's where a lot of JIRA, Trello differences are. I created a bunch of stories in JIRA and I was like, okay, so this is what's coming up and we can groom this, and then we can put it in planning in a couple weeks. And he was like, wait. Hang on. What? Can we just put this all into Trello and try to figure it out?
And it felt a little bit like, okay, well if you were here, we would all be on the same page. It wasn't blaming him, but I was just, okay. There's something missing where we need to document something. And as we were going through, I think we had differences in how to label something, or how to categorize something. I wanted things to be much more specific and he was lumping three things together. And he was like, "Well, something I learned from my wife is that you're always right. I'll go with what you say." And I was like, "Well, no, no, no, no. That's not true." That's what you should be doing with your wife.
I was like, in this situation that's not true because I think we also need to meet up, both of us. It can't just be what works for me, or what makes sense for me, because ultimately that won't make sense for you, and kind of finding that middle ground in some way with a person, or even not even middle ground. Maybe 75% his way. That's something that is also part of power, but it's giving away power. It's realizing that it's a give and take that makes any sort of relationship you have with a person, working relationship, any relationship really, it makes it more flexible, and dynamic, and less rigid, and less just that one strict lane that you're walking on. It's kind of, oh, maybe the path goes this way and we can figure it out together.
Suzanne: It's very telling about how you lead as a product manager, and really a perfect articulation in my opinion of when we talk as we often do on this show about aligning stakeholders, when we talk about good stakeholder relations or persuasion, we don't always crack into it with such specificity. And that example that you give is a great one, where it's not about my way. It's actually about getting to shared understanding, and sometimes you gotta kind of grind your way through that, but the results on the other side are better.
So you're here at Scholastic. I talked about Clifford and I realized there may be some people listening who don't know about Scholastic even though it's coming up on it's 100th birthday, so why don't you tell us who is Scholastic? What do you all do here?
Jiayi: A lot of people actually don't know about Scholastic because I work in the international department, I was in Mexico. Scholastic as a whole has different business divisions and the biggest part is the US book clubs and book fairs, which if you grew up in the US, went to school in the US, elementary, middle school probably you're familiar with it. It's like we're-
Suzanne: And in Canada actually.
Jiayi: And in Canada. I think now even in France and other ... India I think is starting up with the book fairs and book clubs. Publishing books, getting books out to schools, distributing them through that, that's the main business. But then there's also ... the crux of the team is focused on selling books in international, non-US markets, anywhere in the world but the US. Our team manages that. But then we also have a couple of assessment products, literacy products, software that is also sold alongside that, and I manage that with my boss. A lot of people don't know about Scholastic. One thing that I realized was that I was on a school ... we do school visits and last May, I was in Mexico City going with our sales rep visiting schools, and we were driving up to this private school in Mexico City, and they were school buses parked outside, and the buses say Scholastica on them. And I was like, oh. That's very similar to Scholastic. Do you get a lot of confusion around this? And our sales rep, Vivianna was like, yeah, yeah, all the time. Whenever I go in I'm like, hi, I'm from Scholastic. They're like, oh, the bus company? No, no, books.
Suzanne: Right. What is the landscape like for books in this day and age? You talk about the book club and for me it brings up so many memories. Scholastic was a really big identity in my childhood. Clifford was a really big character at that day and age, so being here in present day in 2018, it's a little bit hard for me to imagine that that's still alive and well. How has digital transformation become a part of this company kind of staying relevant?
Jiayi: I don't know if there's a digital transformation project ongoing. There might be. We have a big development team on the US side, but I think what keeps kids excited these days are Harry Potter and Captain Underpants. Geronimo Stilton is very big in India. But we also have software products to supplement that reading, and also a lot of schools don't have ... for international, a lot of schools don't have access to these books, so we have a eBook library that easily provides that access. When I was at the Children's Place, digital transformation was very much kind of going through the core of the company in some way, and that's where a lot of the chaos came in because the business was fundamentally brick and mortar, and then e-commerce was always kind of like a second thought.
The website was built by different vendors, so bringing that expertise in was very confusing for a lot of people. When we were thinking about technology even, a lot of people were like, oh, the scanners in the store. And it's like, no, that's a whole different world. But everything fell under IT, so it was kind of still like technology is different from IT, and we don't really have a clear understanding of that. And I think that's ... I don't know fully but my sense of it is that that's also the case here where technology is a very small part. The big focus is still on printed books, and publishing, and the apps that we have. It's still kind of, I described, international as the underdog of the company in some way, but then software even is an underdog within that, which is fun sometimes.
It has its drawbacks but it also has its really fun places where you're just kind of like okay. Well, there's a lot of freedom, if you will, and a lot of room to experiment, and to not feel like there's a lot of oversights, if that makes sense. I was talking to someone actually the other day. They're asking me in Canada, what's your favorite part of working here? And I was like, well, it gives you that space to just do anything, experience. It gives you a personal sense of autonomy and a personal sense of responsibility, because the buck stops here, if you will. Anything that goes around the program, I am responsible for, and so I want whatever we create to be as best as we can. I have worked in places before where that just wasn't possible, where copy had to go up to the CEO for approval, and an Oxford comma could not be used because the CEO didn't like it, that sort of thing. So it's good to have that sort of breathing room, if you will.
Suzanne: And so you talk about being the underdog. What's the structure of your team? Do you have other product managers that you're working alongside? Is it just you in the bigger vortex of Scholastic?
Jiayi: It's just me on my team with my boss, but on the ground level it's really me. There are different aspects of building the program, so that's kind of where the line is drawn in terms of content. We're trying to hire someone to take that piece on. We had a team member who left so someone else is ... I'm like, I don't know anything about content and uploading e-books. I will not be able to do a good job at this. So I do most of the product management for all the programs that we have and-
Suzanne: The digital programs?
Jiayi: The digital programs. Yeah, so I work with our developers. Most of the team is spread out in different parts of the world. Our publisher's in Singapore. Our editorial teams are in Australia. We have editorial teams in Philippines also and our development team is in India. But then for another project that we're working on with the US, I work with the US development team, so it's different people. I'm juggling lots of different balls, and different projects, and people all the time.
Suzanne: So with so much team switching, you're the constant, and then there's a team for this and a team for that, so you have to kind of go between different teams. Is everybody operating from the same processes or do you have to bring that negotiation that you were speaking about a little bit earlier? Do you have to kind of find that different negotiation every time you plug into a different developer team for a specific project?
Jiayi: I have to find it every time. I think when I first started, because the team has so much history already, the team in India, they've built all of our programs, which started four years ago from scratch, and so they know everything that's going on there, and for me to come in and be like, no. We're gonna have to change this up. I didn't really understand what they were ... it's kind of like a doctor being like, oh, you're coughing. Okay, great. Go buy some Halls and your fine. I think that maybe that's not what's actually the root problem, the root cause. So it took me about eight or nine months, maybe to really figure out how to best communicate with that team, because we're all so completely different time zones and we interact mainly through JIRA tickets, and then lately it's also been more Skype, so more verbal communication, which is great. I've slowly introduced different things, and I'm like when I talk to them, this is working and what do you like about it?
Is this good or is this not and it's been successful in terms of just making the JIRA stories much more granular, and being much more specific, and having the stories be UX driven, so there's something to see and be like, okay. So this is what I'm building versus ... for backend developers, I think it's really hard because if you don't have the UI there, they're like what am I building and how does this tie into ... it's invisible work. And it's like providing that clarity, I take that as my responsibility for them. But for the US team I'm working with, that's also a different thing where it's just like they work in completely different ways and they have their rhythm also, and me coming in like ... I don't think they fully understood my role even because they don't have a concept of product managers there.
So for a while they were like, okay, well you're kind of the business owner for this because this is your platform that we're integrating a platform with them. And so I was in meetings with them but I didn't really feel like I was contributing, and I'm looking at all these stories. I'm like, okay. I can help you understand how this works on the platform, what this needs to be, but I didn't feel like I was leading in any single way. I was kind of supporting, which was fine, but I also felt like they weren't fully understanding what needed to be done. So after a couple of those meetings where it was kind of like, what's actually really going on. I didn't really feel like I had a grip on the projects. I'm like, okay, well, actually let me create these stories. I can go and take screenshots, provide it for you, mark it up, all of that, and slowly they're like getting into a process that I think is working for them.
Suzanne: A topic has come up a couple times on this show is this notion of disrupting yourself, and it's often in the context of getting too comfortable as a product manager. So for me, I work consultatively and the inherent benefit of that is I get to touch a lot of different types of businesses, and solve a lot of different types of problems, and I work on those to varying degrees of depth for a period of time, and then I move onto other things. And one of the challenges when you're working in house of any organization is you're just kind of doing it one way in one path, and it sounds like this context switching that we're describing of working with one team, and then working with a different one, and sort of constantly having to reset around process and expectations is actually a benefit for keeping you sharp and malleable to the extent that we can be sharp and malleable. But malleable to different ways of doing because even when you spoke before about Trello versus JIRA, there isn't one right way to do this. That's another core theme of this show. There's not one right way to do this. Nobody knows it exactly. It's all about finding your way. It's all about negotiation.
Jiayi: Yeah, there isn't a right way to ... I think one of the biggest things I learned is that there's no right way to do anything. And we were talking a little about the head versus heart thing that I've been thinking about, and I think you get very caught up in your head if you're thinking the right way to do it is this way because then you don't allow room for, well, maybe there is something better, or maybe there is something that I don't know yet, because thinking that something is right is like i know this, and there's nothing more to learn. And I actually hit this kind of moment a couple weeks ago where it's like I feel like I'm kind of stagnating, and it came very abruptly. I felt like I was learning and I was doing things that I enjoyed.
And then suddenly I was just kind of like, okay, but it's kind of all the same now where I'm working on different products, but still just creating the stories, and working with the same team, and just kind of the same cycle over and over again. What has helped actually, is working in a different office twice a week also. The context switching in terms of the actual work being done, but then also in terms of the environment, and different energies, and different people, and kind of seeing how different people think.
And that's been really rewarding also where so much of my work is so far away with our development team in India, with our publishers everywhere in the world. Everything is through email and you lose that sense of a person's personality, and what makes a person a person. I've been to India and worked closely with our dev team there. That's a whole different working experience than just being on a phone with them every day and emailing them every day. It's like there is a warmth, and there's so much that you lose out on by not being in the same room with someone, and so going to the ... we have a office in Chelsea where the US developers sit. Spending two days with them is like that's a different way of working for me where I'm more in the trenches with them and I'm shooting the shit with them, which is more fun than just kind of like, okay, being very formal, like hi. Can you please do this? Thanks. Cheers, Jiayi. That sort of thing.
So that context switching is also really important and I think that's also important for just the product management profession in general, if you will, because you will have to work with different people all the time, and being able to disrupt yourself, to break out of any sort of notion that you have about how to work with someone, or how to work with a team, or any notion that you've become comfortable with. That's what keeps you sharp and that's really important also in order to feel like you can do work that you feel... I'm responsible for this and I want this to be the best thing there is. It might not be the best thing in the world, but it's the best thing that I can deliver with the people that are around me.
And there are also surprises, like there are things, like I drew up a wire frame the other day for ... we're changing the filters in some way. And I'm like this is just a suggestion but also when we do this, can we have a little bit of an animated drop, that sort of thing? And I didn't really know if when I was explaining to the UI developer if he really got it, but then the next day one of his team members was like, "Oh, hey. Can I show you what I built?" And I'm like this is better than i thought possible, and that sort of surprise is also ... as silly as it sounds, I was excited about it. The next day even, I was showing my boss and I was like even on a demo, I was telling her I was very excited about this, and this is better than what I imagine that anything that I could've built, and that sort of proximity, that sort of communication, and willingness to be like, here. This is what I thought but you do your thing. That's also part of the fun of the job.
Suzanne: Yeah. Yeah, it really is. The co-creation?
Suzanne: We do a segment on this show called Get the Job, Learn the Job, Love the Job, and given the experience that you shared about your journey, I'm curious if you could offer to someone listening advice if it all comes crashing down. You take an awesome job. You're at a startup. It ends. You wanna continue in your career. What would you say to that person? What would you say to Jiayi all those years ago if you could kind of go back and offer some advice?
Jiayi: Sometimes I think back to previous versions of me and I'm like wow. I'm in awe of a previous version of me, which sounds self conceited but it was like, there were things that I did at 22 that I'm like, I don't know if I would've had the guts to do this now. In some way I think I'd built an identity in school and New York through working. I learned about a lot of things. I met a lot of people in that way, and every job I was at was very much in that time period kind of like when I was in London. General Assemblies, that was kind of my life. That was the reason I was there.
I stayed the summer after I studied abroad and worked there full time so that was like 8:00 in the morning, 9:00 at night. All the classes needed to run, I was there. And so I got into the ... whenever I got on a call with someone, I was like, hi. This is Jiayi from General Assembly or even at previous jobs, I was like, hi, this is Jiayi from Of a Kind. Even after that, you still get caught up in like, hi, this is Jiayi from ... oh, wait. Oh. And I was just like, oh, I'm just me, if you will. I think I rarely introduce myself where I'm like, hi, this is Jiayi from Scholastic, although I did just before this interview.
Suzanne: In fairness, I asked you to do that.
Jiayi: But I think it's just not being caught, and this goes back maybe to head and heart, and image, and all that, not being caught in one specific identity. There is no one product manager. There is no one right way to be a product manager. There is no, this is what you should do to be ... a checklist of things to be successful, and it's just kind of doing what makes ... following your curiosity in some way, and standing by that because that's what makes you you, and that's what ultimately will make you successful. Again, successful is not really the right word, but makes you ... it makes it more rewarding, and it makes you thrive in some way just generally in your life, outside of work and inside of work, all of that.
Suzanne: I think that's fantastic advice for past Jiayi or anyone listening in. Don't be too attached to a specific identity and don't be too obsessed with how everybody else is doing it, and operate within your moral code, which you didn't expressly say, but I've been inferring from the way that you've been speaking about collaborating with people and leading with the heart as you talk about.
Jiayi: Yeah, you do you, as they say.
Suzanne: What about just challenges? Just straight up, if you were gonna say to somebody about product management, here’s where I learned the hard way, or here’s a mistake that I'd love to share with you now so that you hopefully don't ever have to go through it.
Jiayi: I think the most embarrassing thing I can think of was ... this was not even in product management. This was when I was working at the academic press. I emailed a professor. He wrote a book for us, but I was in charge of the blog, and so any sort of current news that would tie well with something that our authors can say, I would reach out to them, and I had addressed this professor by the wrong name. I think his name was ... I confused Hernandez with Martinez or ... it was that, and I sent the email out and I realized it. And I was like, oh no. That's terrible. And I emailed him again. I was like, oh, sorry. I realized I just did something. Sorry.
And he responded but he completely ignored that part, and I've done that again recently actually with someone. It was a email chain and someone wanted me to proofread something, and I addressed the wrong person, and I was just like, sorry Steve, I addressed the wrong person, but the first time I did that I was so kind of like oh, God. Okay, well I have to own up to this and explain it. But I think any mistake that you make, if you own up to it and you... pushing yourself to get outside of that comfort zone or that embarrassment, if you will, to be like, okay well, sorry. I'm human. I make mistakes, and being able to give yourself that sort of room to be like, yeah, I make mistakes.
Everybody makes mistakes, but if you own up to it and you're aware of it, you can move past that and grow from that.
Suzanne: Cool, so your advice really is make as many mistakes as you want, own them, and let them go so that you can move forward.
Jiayi: Yes, thank you.
Suzanne: What do you love about product management? Why stick around in this?
Jiayi: I like being able to work with different people. A person's personality comes through in his or her work through every job, but I think for me, what I found is that product allows me to do that and allows me to engage and interact with people in ways that I find. One of our QA team members when I was in India was teaching me Hindu, and when I got back I was saying that on Skype with her, and she's like, "I can't believe you're saying this," and she was making fun of me. That sort of interaction and that sort of fun, I feel like I can have with the teams I have around me, if that makes sense. I like the interaction with people and being able to think in different ways in terms of design in one day, and then maybe thinking about what the user flow is, and thinking about how does this impact the user, but then also how does this impact the team and how do we make decisions based on what the team is capable of doing, and what they have capacity to do, and time to do, and what is really important for a customer.
It is compromised in some way and it's also a sense of not being tied to one thing. We need to have this thing, because otherwise the world's gonna end, and it's like world's not gonna end if this button is not there. We can have something that is an MVP, if you will, and really just kind of drilling that home. Managing those expectations with different teams is also a challenge so I learn through that. I think product, what I like about it or where I've gotten myself to be in this job currently is that I can engage in different interests and different ways of how I am and who I am with different people, and bring that to the teams I work with, and that sort of collaboration. I think that's really the thing that I enjoy.
Suzanne: Cool. What about recommended resources to add to our growing list, books, blogs, podcasts, anything that's been influential to you? Doesn't have to be product management specific.
Jiayi: I have a teacher who was telling us to read ... it's on the McNally Jackson tables. I think it's the Hidden Meaning of Trees and she was saying that trees communicate with each other in very subtle ways, and humans communicate with each other in very subtle ways. We think communication is words, and I think in our work life, communication is words. Most of our lives today is words. You have Twitter. You email. You Instagram, I guess. You have images but captions. Whatever.
Everything is words, but like we were talking about earlier, there's so much lost or energy that cannot be conveyed through words, and I think product in some ways is that also, sensing how different people think, and how different people work, and how they engage with the world, how they interact with people, and what has kind of shaped their beliefs, if you will, like our tech lead who was like, "Well, I've learned from my wife that you're always right. You're the boss. You're always right." I was like, well. That's how he operates in some way, but then being able to recognize that, and being able to work with him on that and like in this project, we have to meet up somewhere. I haven't read it yet, so this is a potentially empty recommendation, but I think there's something beautiful about that that I think can be helpful. I would like to read it so-
Suzanne: Yeah, I wanna read it too. You positioned it beautifully and we'll give you the opportunity to ... we can always update the interview transcript and say, update. In an earlier post ...
Jiayi: Not endorsed.
Suzanne: ... Jiayi said that this was gonna be good book and then determined that it wasn't, so don't read it. All right, last question for you. I feel like you've been speaking in mantras and evocations this whole time.
Jiayi: Oh, God.
Suzanne: But no, in a beautiful way. It's been so great, but is there a sound byte, a side of the mug quote, some sort of philosophy that you use to kind of guide who you are in the world, whether personally, professionally, or both?
Jiayi: I would say probably just you do you. Even in my own life, I grew up in different places. I was born in China. I grew up in Belgium and then went to high school in New Haven, Connecticut, and I say I'm from New York now, but I lived in New York the longest out of any place but I'm like, okay. Well, I'm not really from New York but sure. So I think that kind of also feeds into the whole, there is no one way to be. There is no, oh, I'm from the east coast so I must be like this. I don't have that. I can't have that. I couldn't have that. And so I think part of that also translates into who I am and how I carry myself, but then also in any sort of work situation ... I don't have an image of I am a consultant and I wanna be a consultant.
This is who I am. This is what I'm working towards, where I'm a product manager and I wanna be a product manager.this is what a product manager should be like, and it's like words are just abstractions and titles ... doesn't really capture anything. You were talking about this. A product manager here means something, but a project manager in other places means something completely different. And so even if you have 10 years of product managing experience, going into a different environment, you're starting from scratch again and you can't have that image necessarily and so you do you.
Suzanne: You do you. Jiayi Ying, thank you so much for being a part of our show. It's great having you.
Jiayi: Thank you.