From Actuarial Science to Product Management
Co.Lab Alumna Biyanka shares first hand her experience at Co.Lab and the specific ways it has contributed to her work as a Product Manager
I graduated with a degree in statistics and computer science and all the internships I had whilst in school were in actuarial science related jobs –mostly in insurance and reinsurance consulting. After graduation, I started doing this full time and I realized quite early on that I didn’t enjoy the job but it wasn’t until the pandemic and its life threatening characteristic of forcing you to think deeply about what you actually want from your life, that I summoned the courage to make active steps towards leaving.
When I started exploring other options and talking to my friends about it, quite a number of them suggested Product Management because apparently I was “so clearly a Product Manager”. I started looking into Product Management more seriously and reached out to PMs that I knew, one of whom is the Co-founder of Co.Lab. I was especially interested in speaking to her because I knew that she had a non-traditional tech background and had gotten a job as a Product Manager in Microsoft so her experience was relevant to me.
I found out about Co.Lab through her of course, but refreshingly, she did not spend the entire time trying to sell me on Co.Lab. She explained the importance of resources and experience to the job application process as well as unique challenges I might encounter as a non-traditional entrant to tech but most importantly, she reassured me and gave me the confidence to know that I could successfully make the transition.
After discussing with her, I applied to Co.Lab but I also started networking with people on LinkedIn trying to get the nitty-gritty details of what Product Management entailed. I really enjoyed what I was hearing and fortunately, at about the same time, I was accepted into Co.Lab. I was very glad that Co.Lab admitted me because in my research, it had become obvious to me that Product Managers hardly ever work by themselves and of all the options I considered, Co.Lab was the only program that integrated me into a system of working with others from the jump.
While building in Co.Lab, I was still working my full time job and so I was under a tremendous amount of pressure. However, it was still the most relevant and fulfilling experience because the things Co.Lab taught me are things that currently have significant impact on my work.
First, is getting that real life, hands-on experience. By real-life, I mean Co.Lab provided me with documentation guides that are your bread and butter as a product manager and I still use the Co.Lab product requirement template at work today because it’s the industry standard.
I think the biggest selling point of Co.Lab is that it got my mind thinking like a Product Manager and that was really important when I was interviewing. I began interviewing for Product Manager roles a few weeks into Co.Lab and during the interviews I used specific examples from my experience at Co.Lab to show my product decision making skills. For example, when questions came up relating to how I, as a Product Manager would deal with constraints because of time or lack of engineering capacity or even how I was able to build an MVP, I was able to point to actual scenarios when these issues or similar issues had arisen in Co.Lab and how I navigated them. Co.Lab gave me real examples to use so I did not have to tailor my experience to fit the jobs, I actually had relevant experience.
I got a job offer from every interview that I went through and while I put in the work, I know that a big part of the reason why is Co.Lab. It is almost impossible to ignore a candidate without a tech background with such wealth of relevant experience.
The second highly significant thing I received from Co.Lab is mentorship. The project mentor for my team, Anastasia, allowed us to run any questions that we had about our program by her. My favorite part of her mentorship is that she never just supplied us with the answer, which she could easily have done. Instead, she guided us towards the answer in a way that forced us to think and arrive at it ourselves. That kind of mentorship really sticks with you as you go on.
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My team worked on a project called ‘My Time’. It is a product that helps users plan their day without having to plan. Essentially, a smart calendar. I’m not sure if I got lucky or if Co.Lab just has a great group of people but my team was a pleasure to work with. What I loved most about working with the team was that we came up with lots of ideas but we also knew when to scale it. We explored the ideas and then selected the one with the most action. The biggest lesson I learnt from working on that team is that your audience is different types of people. There are designers and developers and while the information that you’re communicating to them might be the same, the way you communicate that is vastly different and that’s something I now see every day at my job.
Working with a team was an interesting experience but working with the designers specifically was quite new to me. As a Computer Studies minor, I was more in tune with the work the developers were doing but the designers were a new ball game entirely. As a Product Manager, you’re thinking of the user but the designers, they’re really thinking about the user. Talking to the designer, there were lots of questions she’d ask me about the user experience that I didn’t really think of off the bat. They think about the entire experience and I was influenced to start thinking even more deeply about the users and how best the product would solve all possible pain points.
Additionally, the Co.Lab community was extremely helpful. At the meetings, our mentors created the type of environment where we could speak to them about any concerns we had. David Vuong for example, helped me critique my resume and when I had interviews coming up, offered me tips for preparation and told me what red flags to look out for. So I went into interviews confident because I knew just the kind of company I wanted to work for and I knew what I was not going to settle for. I also had not only an idea of what the job looked like but what it actually entailed. I avoided a lot of red flags in the process and it was then I understood that the Co.Lab experience was unparalleled because you can go to a boot camp and learn how to be a good product manager but to understand what a good product team and a good company look like, that’s something only Co.Lab teaches you.
In fact, that’s how I chose the company I now work for. It is a B2B SaaS company that helps contractors streamline their business. During the interview process, I learnt about the problem that they were solving and I realized that the team was passionate about their work and that was very important to me going into product – to work with a team that was passionate about what they were doing. It’s a decently sized start-up and I’ve learned a lot about Product Management here. I have the right amount of mentorship and support and they’ve helped me grow in the direction I want and that’s also something I was looking for.
Co.Lab was the crux of making the pivot quick and painless for me. At my job, I’m more user-centric or problem-centric because that’s something Co.Lab really makes you do. It was always emphasized that we should not think of the solution first but instead to really focus on the problem and figure out what we were trying to solve. This has come in handy in my job especially because I work at a startup and there are many moving parts and priorities keep changing so focusing on the problem and using that as a building block makes the problem solvable. I’m now able to see the bigger problem and break it into smaller chunks to grow what is needed for my MVP. These are things I don’t think I’d have been able to do without Co.Lab.
Currently, I handle a lot of discovery calls at work and my first experience dealing with these calls was at Co.Lab. That’s where I was taught how to formulate the right questions to draw out a customer’s exact pain points and not to go into those calls with a pre-set mind so that you can really listen and allow the customer to give you their problems. That way, you build a product that suits your customer’s needs. I know that this is not the way I would have handled those calls if I had not had Co.Lab experience.
Something unusual that I appreciated were the reflection pieces that we had to submit each week. I found that reflecting on what I had achieved that week and having a visual reminder of the progress I was making was reinforcing for me. I find guided reflection very useful and don’t know of many other places where it’s implemented.
My entire experience experience highlighted above, is why I summarize my Co.Lab experience as being life-changing, resourceful and enriching. With Co.Lab, you’re always a step ahead. Working as a Product Manager in Co.Lab was very validating for me as it made me realize that this is what I was meant for – my friends were right after all.
For anyone participating or interested in participating in Co.Lab, my advice would be to ask all the questions you have while you’re there. At Co.Lab there are no stupid questions and there’s so much information available to you about Product Management, tech, even what city you should go work in. It is helpful when interviewing and provides a holistic picture of what you want to do.