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How these teammates created a social impact web app and all they learnt along the way
Rachel and Alex pivoted to tech for similar reasons. While working at their previous jobs, they noticed trends that indicated that they could make a more significant impact if they pivoted.
Alex was a network and systems administrator working for a small managed-services provider. “As I was implementing new or updated software and systems for clients, I observed that applications and systems were transitioning to web applications and cloud infrastructure. This and the increasing need for developers as well as the potential for a better work-life balance convinced me to become a developer”.
Rachel worked as an engagement marketer with Turo, a company described as “the Airbnb for cars.” In her interaction with customers, she noticed that, more often than not, customer feedback was product related. At the time, she felt powerless to address their complaints and imagined what it would feel like to have sway in a business to change these products.
In her research into what this looked like for her, she came across a Co.Lab newsletter and her interest was piqued by the tag line “You Belong in Tech”. “I’ve always been interested in tech accessibility, and I know how daunting it is to get in, especially without a tech background.” The newsletter demystified tech and explained what it meant to be a Product Manager. Rachel decided that was what she needed.
“I also loved the cause. Co.Lab brought people in the industry to mentor students, and everyone seemed accessible. The fact that the founders are also from a non-traditional background gives you validation that it could also happen for you.”
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
At about the same time, she came across Community Fridges Toronto (CFTO), a community-run network of fridges and pantries across Toronto supporting communities to find sustainable feeding post-Covid.
She found the idea inspiring but had concerns about its accessibility. Access to the community was entirely through Instagram, whose demographic tends to be younger and not entirely representative of the Greater Toronto Community. She feared that this made it difficult for those outside of the app to know about the work CFTO was doing and that the org might not be reaching its ideal demographic.
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Rachel pitched the idea to her team, and that’s how they decided to build a web app for CFTO. The team was made up of herself as the Product Manager, Alexander Calia as the Software Engineer and Judy Li as the Designer.
The team was excited about the idea. They saw the issues and were keen to solve them. According to Alex, the developer, there’s only so much information in an Instagram post. With a website, CFO would have more organized information on their activities and how interested persons could get involved and generally reach out to other demographics that didn't utilize Instagram.
Rachel was the team’s Product Manager. Her job was to get stakeholder management input and advocate for the user. She kept up communication between the team and the external stakeholders, updating them along the way and ensuring that the website aligned with their needs.
She was also responsible for keeping the team on track, supporting them and setting deadlines. Before Co.Lab, she had never worked with the technical side of stakeholders; neither did she know a lot about building a website or UI design. These were all things that she learned during the Co.Lab Product Management Training Program. The fact that she was working on something that had the potential to make a real impact kept her motivated.
Alex was the Software Engineer. “It was my job to determine the technology stack for the website and then create it based on the designs provided”. He used a software development tool that allowed CFTO members add and change content through a content management system. Without the need for a developer, the website would automatically deploy a new version of the app when things such as pictures or blog posts were added.
Working on one project from start to finish was an important goal for Alex coming into Co.Lab. “I had difficulty sticking to a project idea and started a new project every couple of weeks. Co.Lab gave me some direction on a project to work on that would enhance the skills I learnt in Bootcamp as well as an opportunity to learn and use some new technologies I had an interest in.”
Judy’s role as the designer meant creating the mockups and then making adjustments to prioritize the three user groups determined by the team. “Initially, the team grouped the information relevant to community members, volunteers and small businesses under one category but after usability testing, they separated it so that each user group would have access easily and instantly.” With the help of her design mentor- Jacqueline Chow, a Senior Product Design Manager, she learnt to break down complex design processes and create a functional, easy to use website.
The team carried out their user research and based their designs on market validation. As they worked on CFTO, the question they kept at the forefront at all times was: “What does the user actually need?” Their project was unique from those of the other teams because they weren’t making a broad product that could serve multiple people. They had a specific client, so their job was to build a product that met the exact needs. Each member of the team kept an open mind, allowing them to work in harmony towards their goal.
For both Alex and Rachel, Co.Lab was their first experience working on an Agile team. Rachel says, “Agile methodology was super helpful to taking an iterative approach with this product. Knowing that our first iteration wasn’t the be all end all and that there was room for improvement and room to keep going until the problem was solved, made me more resilient in dealing with issues even after Co.Lab.”
Alex's work as a Software Engineer on the team is very similar to the work he does in his current position as an Intermediate Software Engineer at LoyaltyOne. Like Rachael, he learned what it was like to work alongside a UX team. “I receive designs similar to those I worked with in CFTO. The entire experience was a huge confidence booster, which ultimately helped me land my first position as a developer.”
Working on the team’s product allowed Alex to hone his skills as a developer. The program made him realize his capabilities. He became more comfortable during job interviews “because I knew that if I could create a website from scratch, learning new frameworks and technologies along the way and implementing them in a short amount of time, I'm capable of whatever a company can throw at me.”
Rachel learnt not to be afraid to rely on others for their skill set. Ideally, in a team, everyone brings something to the table and embraces the various points of view, then working together to find the solution is the magic of teamwork. There are more perspectives available to you than if one was working on their own, and trusting everyone to bring their expertise and do their job is a more efficient and better way to get the job done.
The Product Management program taught her a lot of transferable skills, which was important because she did not intend to leave her position at Turo just yet. She learned the value of communication for early stakeholder management and confidence, which she needed as she advanced in her career. Dealing with stakeholders and resolving disputes taught her to be proactive in situations where she would ordinarily have shyly backed away.
The Co.Lab program gave her a framework for operations which she was able to take to her job. She’s found herself to be more organized, collaborative, and understanding of all the moving pieces that go into creating a product. “Creating a product is quite complex, but the program did a great job distilling it to make it more understandable. You can go on to tack the lessons on to any project that involves putting users at the center or organizing moving pieces and timelines.”
To those who are interested in working on a team at Co.Lab, Rachel’s advice is to take advantage of all the resources available to you at Co.Lab because it goes by quickly! The program is a unique opportunity to be amongst so many people with so many different skill sets and experiences in one place, and the community is so positive and inclusive. Make the most out of the experience and just take advantage of it by getting to know people.
Rachel’s favorite part was doing other teams' user testings. It was an excellent way to see what others had come up with and perhaps how you can influence other people’s products because we're all users at the end of the day. “I may have returned to my previous job, but I feel like the door is always open for me when I decide that I want to be a Product Manager.”