Product Management and The Liberal Arts Degree

I’m in the job-search phase once again. It’s full of excitement, anxiety, elation and disappointment and sometimes all at the same time. With interviews expected in the upcoming weeks for entry level product manager positions, I’ve been reflecting on the skills I learnt over my summer internship.

1. Influence without authority

PMs manage the product, not the people building it. As a PM intern, I had even less authority. I had to learn to convincingly make my case for every major design decision. People did not adopt them because they had to, but because I presented a strong argument.

2. Product design, wire-framing and design review

At the beginning of my internship, I had little to no design/UX experience. But I ended up doing a lot of front-end design work and wire-framing for the tool I worked on. I also conducted design reviews for my own tool and observed reviews for other work.

3. Developing v1: Prioritizing

In about 12 weeks of time, my fellow software intern and I had to create version1 of a tool from scratch. I worked on gathering requirements, creating design and writing specifications and then co-ordinating with the SWE team while they were building. With so much to do and so little time, we had cut and slash our long list of great ideas to decide on a minimal viable product. I really learnt to prioritize based on requirements,resources and time.

4. Making decisions in uncertainty

There was a lot of data and feedback I wish I had had, but it simply did not exist. So I had to make several design decisions when I had incomplete knowledge of the situation. I became more comfortable making these mini-bets in the face of uncertainty.

5. Communication

Talking about new ideas is difficult. When you’re devising a new framework, the vocabulary to discuss it does not exist. Even when you’re using the same words, you and your teammates may not be referring to the same thing. So it’s important to establish a common base and be aware of these difficulties throughout the discussions.

What’s interesting is that my Philosophy degree, which is exemplary of degrees which don’t get you jobs, actually teaches me three of those core skills involved in being a product manager.

  1. Communication: Philosophy is often abstract and is presented with the same obstacles that I observed in my PM internship. Every discussion in class, every paper I write in Philosophy requires this kind of communication.
  2. Deciding in uncertainty: Ask any question in Philosophy and every imaginable answer has been seriously proposed and explored by someone. These answers cannot be tested empirically, and the best one can get is a convincing argument.  I learn to consider several compelling answers and yet not be paralyzed in my decisions. It is always a choice between great and great, and I’m learning to make my calculated bets.
  3. Influence without authority: The most important part of this is to make compelling arguments which take all positions into account, and I don’t think I need to explain how Philosophy teaches this.

So here we go, I have found a job where my liberal arts degree is undeniably useful!

Last (?) Homecoming

This weekend was homecoming at Cornell. Everywhere on campus and in collegetown seemed full of alums. After freshman year, I didn’t go to the homecoming games or events. It’s easy to feel too busy for that. But this time, one of my friends who graduated this past summer came back to visit, so I went to the game with her and I’m glad I did!

Say hello to Touchdown, the bear

Say hello to Touchdown, the bear

There was a homecoming fair, with some food, drinks, face paint stations and even a ferris wheel. All current students got free homecoming tshirts and I thought the senior shirt was very clever.

At the stadium

For the first time, it did not rain during the game. Cornell played against Yale and we won. Much of American football still doesn’t make sense to me. But it was fun to cheer for Cornell in a sea of Red at Schoellkopf Stadium! As we were leaving the stadium, I had the bittersweet realization that this had been my homecoming as a student. Bitter because over the last three years, I have grown to love Cornell and truly feel at home here. And sweet because I can always “come home” as an alumna.

They set up nice photo locations! :D

They set up nice photo locations! :D

Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich at Cornell

Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature is this year’s Bartels’ World Affairs Fellow at Cornell. On Monday, she gave this year’s Bartels lecture, followed by a book signing at Statler Auditorium. She spoke in Russian and the English translation was supertitled on a screen beside her. In her lecture, she spoke about her books Secondhand Time, Chernobyl Prayer, War’s Unwomanly Face and Boys in Zinc.

Svetlana Alexievich

She explained her very unique genre, of writing from the perspective of witnesses. Several of her books are about war, from the experience of common people who risk (and even sacrifice) their lives or families for a greater cause. In historical accounts of war, we are told about the great causes and the leaders, but never the people whose reality it was. This is what, from my observation, Alexeivich set out to do and has accomplished in her career. Her stories are about the little men and women embroiled in the big causes.

Earlier this year, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”. It was the first time I read an account of the frontlines of war in the first person. It was the first time that I had encountered soldiers not characterized as brave heroes but as powerless young men, or even boys. In Slaughterhouse Five, pain, suffering and the futility of war took precedence over patriotism, victory, glory and ideology.

Then last month, I read Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans”, a family history spanning nearly all of the 20th century. The personal narratives in it are inextricably tangled with the political history of China. For the majority of the book, it’s a heartbreaking account of a family that believed in and lived the ideals that Communism embodied, but was engulfed in the horrors of the paranoid, dogmatic religion that Communism became.

With many questions, doubts and dialogues motivated by these books still fresh in my mind, Alexievich’s lecture and her books were even more relevant and moving. What I was reading in these books is not a matter of history and literature, it is reality for millions of people around the world right now. Alexievich explained that it was not her intention to overwhelm readers with the horrors of war and political strife. Even in these accounts, she occasionally finds beauty. She hopes that her writing arouses deep thought in her readers. I haven’t read any of Alexievich’s works yet, but hope to do so soon.

Although I greatly respect and admire the author, I was uneasy about a few things. First, when the author talked about her book War’s Unwomanly Face, she observed that publicly, women tend to mimic men’s language for war. In this language, serving in war is a call from the motherland; it dwells on duty, bravery and heroism. There is no room for the individual, the ordinary or the human experience. But after she had established trust with women who had served in the war, they told her about the suffering, the ordinary, the beautiful, the moving and the terrifying experiences of being a human at the front line. Alexievich classifies this as the woman’s experience and language of war.

I found this line between women’s and men’s experiences of war hard to accept. Surely, even the men serving in the armies also learnt the “men’s language of war”; it couldn’t be innate to them. Social constructs of masculinity may prevent them for sharing their most vulnerable experiences and force them to adopt the language that Alexievich deems manly. Slaughterhouse Five, written by a man, is a counterexample to this classification. It is full of glimpses into the human soul and fiercely critical of glorifying war and soldiers. Perhaps I will better understand what Alexievich meant after reading her works.

After the lecture, Alexievich took questions from the audience and many of the questions focused on her political views about the Soviet Union and modern day Russia. After a brilliant lecture on her literary works, this was a let down as it underlined the political agenda of the Nobel Prizes. It is not a novel observation on my behalf that a Nobel Prize in Literature is also a medium to make a global political point. But the nature of our questions after the lecture somewhat impaired the integrity of our celebration of a phenomenal writer and her deeply impactful work. As though, we were also just pushing a global political agenda.

Career Fair Perspectives


Last week was career fair week at Cornell. From Tuesday to Friday, companies across all industries were on campus to recruit Cornellians. I interned at Microsoft this past summer and received a full time offer to return to Microsoft after graduation. Having a good offer in hand completely changed my approach to career fair. In years past, I would go to the fair and hand out my resume to any company which seemed even remotely interested (or just had nice freebies). But this year, I knew exactly what kind of full time roles and companies I’m interested in.

I interned as a Product Manager intern at Microsoft and really enjoyed the role. The product manager is an interface between the customer and the engineering team. Since Microsoft is a large company, direct interaction with the customer was limited. So I want to explore start-ups and small companies where I can have direct customer interaction and also learn about the broader business. Essentially, I want to wear different hats and learn a wider range of skills than I can learn as a developer. To that end, I applied to Start @ A Start-Up, a conference to connect students on the East Coast to top start-ups. The conference is scheduled in the 2nd week of October. By the end of October, I should be fairly certain about where I will be headed after graduation. *Holding my breath until then*