My PM Origin Story

July 22, 2014 Tami Reiss

This past week, I was asked to write up my career journey for Inventing Heron, which aims to inspire people to find their ideal career. It was not the first time I’d been asked how I became a Product Manager for Pivotal, but it was the first time I’d written down my story. Here it is:

In college, I was a Physiology (how the body works) major with aspirations of becoming a doctor. When I learned about the time one needs to invest to take the MCAT, I was discouraged and realized I didn’t really want to be a physician that much.

After some consideration of alternative medical fields that would be interesting to me, I decided to become a Physical Therapist. I volunteered with local PTs and met the other requirements for applying to doctoral programs. Even though I had done all of the preparation, during my senior year, I opted to enroll in a Master in Management program instead. In my mind, one day I’d want to open my own practice and would need to know basic business skills.

The oddest thing happened during that year; I didn’t miss Physical Therapy or working with patients. It occurred to me that I could have a greater impact by working for a non-profit that helped thousands of people.

And that’s what I did. After business school I worked for some of the country’s biggest and most well known charities. I ran lunches, galas, walks, runs, and other volunteer events. By my count I’ve raised well over $2M for various non-profit institutions.

But then I got frustrated. I wanted to help non-profits work more efficiently and realized that my efforts at a single chapter would not change enough at the higher level. It seemed that the only people non-profit executives listened to were consultants.

So, I looked into consulting jobs and learned that I didn’t have the experience in quantitative analysis they looked for. I searched for a job where I could learn those skills and finally got hired by an insurance company as a pricing analyst. I was going to learn to do math, the big data sort of math, and it was going to be awesome.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t that good at the math in comparison to my co-workers who were training to be actuaries and I was tapped for a higher purpose. The product development team was looking for someone just like me. They needed someone who could analyze trends, wanted to solve problems, and had a creative edge. That was my first role as a product manager and I loved it!

Well, I loved it right up to the point that I learned that my company used what is referred to as “Waterfall” instead of “Agile”. This meant that not only did I spend countless hours writing specifications, but that those documents didn’t get input from engineers until much later in the process. This caused a lot of wasted time and energy, and I’m all about efficiency.

I left the insurance company and started my own. It was late 2008 and the iPhone App store had recently opened and I had an idea for an app. I wanted to create an option to provide balanced news reporting on Obama’s first 100 days in office. There would be up to the minute articles collected from news sources across the political spectrum. Then, I pivoted slightly and expanded the technology so that would track celebrity gossip as well. The suite had 11 apps and I contracted a local app development shops to make it a reality.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing! It took over a year to get the apps made and approved by Apple, and by then I had no money for marketing. The worst part was that I wasn’t even proud of the apps. They weren’t what I wanted and they were filled with bugs.

It was a HUGE learning experience for me. I realized that: a) I couldn’t do it alone and that b) I needed to learn from others how to be a great product manager.

The opportunity presented itself for me to join a startup that the president of my temple had founded a few years back. Our customers were companies of all sizes with diverse needs. My first VP was a former IBM consultant who taught me how to listen to the companies’ complaints, understand their needs, and communicate our solution with finesse. Though hired as a project manager, soon I was tapped to move to product because of the quality of my integration specs. Over 2 years, I designed dozens of customer integrations and countless screens for an amazing SaaS product.

Our company grew like wildfire and eventually we IPO-ed. It was an awesome experience to have and I learned an incredible amount from my bosses, clients, and teammates. My learning peaked at a point and I was ready for new adventures where I could be exposed to more agile and lean best practices.

A local startup recruited me to be their Product Manager. I jumped at the option to work on a smaller team, have more ownership, and work under an experienced PM. But, as is often the case in startupland, we lost our source of revenue, and within 3 months I was laid off.

I spent the next 3 years piecing together consulting projects across LA and NYC to keep myself occupied and able to pay rent. It was interesting to go into companies of varied sizes and see how similar their problems were. Many of them didn’t know how to prioritize user needs; others didn’t know how to promote the value they delivered; everyone had limited resources. Thanks to some good friends, I learned how to price my services and get paid what I deserved.

As it turns out, finding clients to consult for can be quite exhausting for me. I went looking for a more permanent home, a place where I could leverage my talents and grow new skills. It had to have defined Agile process, encourage Lean values, and have diverse problems to solve.

One day, a friend that I was assisting with her startup introduced me to her friend who worked at one of the top design and development consultancies in the country. As I read more about what the company was about, I realized how much working there was exactly the dream job I had been searching for. Not only did they have a great Agile process, they were hired by clients who wanted to learn how to implement it back at their own companies!!! They had a history of working with great brands and cool technology.

As I went through the interview process, I discovered the best aspect of the job was something I hadn’t put on my wish list. It was what solidified my love for the opportunity, a great boss. He was someone who shared my love for efficiency and was dedicated to helping his employees grow into world class product consultants.

Luckily, they offered me a position and I’ve never looked back. Everyday, I get to apply my prior experience to solving new problems. My teammates are amazingly brilliant, empathetic, and excited to help. Together we transform the way our clients build software.

I couldn’t be happier and I wish everyone could find a work environment as well suited for their needs as I have.

What’s your story?

About the Author


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