Rebecca Varnhagen found a career in product management through a windy path.
There was her pre-med major, where she quickly realized she got “really queasy around medical stuff” and switched from biological engineering to operations research.
There was her engineering internship at a large tech company, where she was placed on a data-oriented team, felt lost in a sea of Computer Science majors, vowed that the “big fish, small pond” was the better model for her, and decided to look at smaller startup companies after graduation.
“I cared most about finding a role I could give my all and excel at, on a team I wanted to work with every day, and figured a startup would give me that opportunity.”
Rebecca’s transition to a smaller tech company started with a role in client solutions, which quickly grew into a product role.
When it came time to switch companies to pursue stronger growth opportunities, she took a role in product management at SeatGeek.
Now, five years later, Rebecca works as the ticketing platform’s Group Product Manager. She’s taken on people management and strategic product management responsibilities, and is confident she’s found a company that will support and enable the next phase of her career growth.
We sat down with Rebecca to hear more about her career journey—especially about how she’s found the transition from individual contributor to manager, and what advice she has for other professionals looking to do the same.
The Importance of Translation
Rebecca’s first product-adjacent job was when she worked in client solutions. Her role was to understand how clients wanted to use her company’s platform, then communicate that to the engineers who worked on it.
“It was part strategy, part technical, where I found myself having to translate between business and technical teams by connecting the business reasoning to the product change,” she says. “Like I get that you want that button to be pink—but why?”
A major responsibility of hers was figuring out which changes could or should be “one-offs” and which should be built into the platform as a whole. Demonstrating her capability to make those types of decisions led to Rebeca getting an offer to join the product team, where she found natural affinities with her experience doing operations research as an undergrad.
“I’ve always loved solving problems,” she says. “Switching over to the product side was about solving problems agnostic of any one of our clients, and thinking more broadly about the target market and the addressable client base.”
Even now, problem solving is a key part of her job—and one of the skills she is excited to pass on to her direct reports and mentees.
Finding a New Problem Space
When it came time to leave her last company, Rebecca knew she wanted three things:
- A new problem to solve and a new product she felt connected to
- A larger product management and technology team, so she could learn from others and start teaching them, too
- A collaborative, friendly culture
She was connected to a hiring manager at SeatGeek and immediately found all of those things.
“I had a connection with our product, which helps get people off their phones and couches, to experience the magic of live events with other people,” she says. “And when I met the people at SeatGeek in interviews, I could tell that it would be really easy to work together, and that I could really learn and grow here.”
So that’s two of her three criteria met. But as she found out her first week on the job, she was bought in on the SeatGeek community, too.
Rebecca attended what was then the in-person Friday happy hour for the product team. Here’s how she remembers it:
“My first time there, the room had people sitting on all of the chairs but also standing up against the walls. It was clear that this team used to be small enough to sit at a single table, yet it had grown to ‘standing room’ and I loved that. It still felt like everyone knew each other and actually wanted to stick around the office at 5 p.m. on a Friday to have a drink with their team. That was when I knew I could see myself there for a while.”
Growing in Scope—And Learning Along the Way
After Rebecca’s first few years on the job, she started thinking about how to grow her team to support the increasing scope of the product.
“I had to push myself to think about the longer term. Instead of just planning the next few sprints or the next quarter, how do I think about what I want this product to be in a few years and what kind of team I need to support that growth?” she says.
That was a useful skill to apply in the early days of the pandemic, when the future of a ticketing platform for in-person events was up in the air. Now that we’re beginning to imagine a post-COVID—or a coexisting-alongside-COVID world, says Rebecca—those strategic decisions have become even more important.
“For instance, do we build an integration with health pass providers, so you could sign in and link your COVID test results to your profile? Or does that only make sense for the next six months and not long-term?” she asks.
While navigating those changes, Rebecca’s team kept growing. She moved from the senior product manager level, where she was mentoring an associate PM (APM), to becoming that APM’s official manager. When that went well, and the demands on her team increased, she added more people to the team, and now manages several APMs across her group.
And she’s still learning how to do it well, Rebecca says.
“My biggest concern [when I became a manager] was that I would be bad at it, but then I realized a lot of the job is just genuinely caring about your direct reports’ growth and development, and putting in the time to help them. Then you’re doing everything that you can,” she says.
8 Tips for New Managers
Once she overcame the fear of failure as a manager, says Rebecca, she got excited about learning new ways to grow in the position. And for anyone else who finds themselves eager, but unsure how to manage others effectively and with care, she has a few tips to share:
- Management doesn’t only happen in one-on-ones. “It’s time spent outside of one-on-ones where you’re thinking about how you can give them opportunities for growth—with guardrails, so that they’re failing safely and not impacting the goals for your team—and when you’re advocating for them, and making sure their work is well-recognized even when they are not in the room,” she explains.
- Always consider context. “Broadcast the context that you want people to have when making decisions, whether that’s top-level company priorities or a product vision. Remember we’re all running a million miles a minute and people absorb information in different ways, so it’s important to reinforce the direction through repetition,” she says.
- Hiring is a complex problem. It’s not just knowing when you need to hire someone, says Rebecca. Hiring well also requires team design thinking—identifying what the team needs, matching complementary skill sets, and managing different personalities.
- First performance review cycle? Lean on what you learned doing peer reviews. “Recognizing the skillsets of others, what they’re doing well and what they need to develop, is a critical skill as a manager,” she says. “From day one, you’re expected to be giving your direct reports feedback and coaching. Use the time before you hire your first team member to hone this skill through peer reviews.”
- Be patient! “Managing is an entirely different job, and you’re doing it for the first time…while you’re probably doing your old job, too!” says Rebecca. “You need to give yourself some time to get used to it, and then be good at it.”
- When managing your replacement, give them space. “They’re not going to necessarily do things the way that you did. Focus on setting expectations for outcomes, then figuring out how that person likes to work and how you can coach them within their own working style,” she explains.
- If you tend to be hard on yourself, make sure you remember to celebrate your team’s accomplishments. “It wasn’t natural for me to celebrate my own contributions, so it didn’t come naturally to recognize those of my direct reports. But it’s incredibly important to do so,” she says. “Positive reinforcement shows your team members they’re valued and helps them recognize that their work is having an impact.”
- When managing PMs specifically, it’s important to convey that they’ll never check every box. “That’s just not how product management works,” says Rebecca. “You’re never going to be great at everything. So you need to help your direct reports get to that realization themselves and hone their superpowers.”
💎 Want to work at Aurora Solar? Take a peek into the company and learn about their engineering team! Watch the video until the end to check all the open positions!
📼 The Aurora Solar company relies on passionate people who care about what they build and about each other. In this video, you'll meet Thusha Agampodi, Director of Engineering at Aurora Solar. Thusha will reveal a bit about the engineering team and what they do every day to create an environment where everyone can share their diverse perspectives.
📼 Aurora Solar company has a ton of roles open in their engineering organization right now, like front and backend engineers, QA engineers, UX designers, and product managers. And the list keeps growing!
📼 At Aurora Solar, the engineering organization is broken into small teams called “pods” that collaborate with other teams within the company. Building good relationships between team members has never been more crucial because most people work remotely. Thusha thinks it’s necessary to be intentional about taking time to build trust with each other within a team. So they have a lot of groups in Slack for shared interests to talk about things outside of work and get to know each other. Thusha loves seeing her teammates’ children and pets drop in on video calls!
Inside Aurora Solar Company - Career Growth
Thusha believes understanding the next steps in your career is really important. As for her personal experience, she didn't always have the clarity required to get to the next step in her career. At Aurora Solar, they’ve spent a lot of effort creating career ladders for every role in the company with clear guidance as to what's required to get to the next steps. As Thusha points out, these are not easy conversations to have. So they want to make them accessible to everyone by providing training to managers and individual contributors so that everybody can have a clear view of career progression.
🧑💼 The engineering team at Aurora Solar is growing! Make sure you don't miss any of their open positions. To apply, click here.
More About Aurora Solar
At Aurora Solar, they are building a digital platform that powers the solar industry. Their platform helps solar companies streamline complex and costly manual processes, so they can focus on what matters – driving solar adoption at scale. They are a collaborative team of sustainable energy enthusiasts who love what they do. Join them on their mission to drop the costs of solar for everyone, everywhere. They are venture-backed and have won several engineering grants from the US Department of Energy and Stanford University. If you care about applying your talents towards building something that truly makes a difference, Aurora Solar would love to hear from you!
Unlocking Cross-Functional Solutions to Sell More and Sell Better: Insight from Def Method’s Jennifer Imamura
When Jennifer Imamura joined software consultancy Def Method as Director of Business Development last year, the first thing on her agenda wasn't building a sales pipeline.
It was meeting people.
Meeting everyone, in fact.
"I met with every single person at Def Method," says Jennifer, who adds that the agenda for those conversations with her new coworkers included their passions, what kinds of projects they wanted to work on, and what their goals were. "Getting to know people like that lets them—and me—show some vulnerability. And it builds trust. It allows people to understand that I'm in this for you."
Being able to connect well with people is one of Jennifer's superpowers, and knowing how to connect those people to projects and strategic initiatives is another. Together, they allow her to develop cross-functional solutions—that is, to solve client problems with a combination of engineering, product management, and design resources.
We sat down with Jennifer to hear more about her career path into sales (including why she initially swore sales wasn't for her), as well as the advice she has for engineering and sales teams looking to collaborate in order to serve clients, build pipelines, and find solutions.
"Do the right thing"
Jennifer grew up in doctors' offices.
Not because she was sick, but because her mom worked as a manager of several private practice physician's offices in Beverly Hills. Jennifer's first job was filing charts, and she worked as a receptionist and in the back office of doctors' offices throughout high school, undergrad, and her MBA program.
Then her boss, the head physician at the private practice she was managing, told her she needed to leave.
"He gave me the best advice. He said, 'You have to keep moving. You've worked your butt off to get this MBA, go get a corporate job and move up in this world,'" she recalls.
Jennifer took his advice and took a role in the back office of a multinational corporation, even though it required taking a pay cut at first. She made up for it with regular promotions and transfers, moving to operations and then strategy and eventually sales.
"Ironically, I never wanted to go into sales or business development," says Jennifer. "I didn't want to have to get in front of people. But my boss at that organization said that I had the charisma, the energy, what it takes...and even though he was right, it was important for me to take those steps of learning how a business operates, because that's what set me up for greater success as a sales leader."
And now, after years of sales success—at that corporation, then at a Chicago-based software development shop, and now at Def Method—Jennifer still manages her career with the values she learned in those doctors' offices.
"Physicians are supposed to do the right thing for their patients. I learned very early on that you've got to do the right thing for your client, and that stuck with me," she says.
Redefining What Success Looks Like by Developing a New Approach
Doing the right thing for her client is sometimes at odds with closing the biggest deal possible. Jennifer still sticks with the former.
"Having integrity in business, and a good moral compass, speaks volumes. Salespeople looking for the big win and the big payout are usually miserable," she says. "If a client sees that I'm actually working a good deal for them and their company, they're going to come back."
Her commitment to actually solving client problems in a way that looks out for their bottom line is what helped Jennifer see the value in cross-functional solutions.
Here's how she explains them: "They're complex offerings that include different departments or teams from my side, making sure we work together to create the optimal service for our client. While including the different teams on their side, too."
In action, that might look like working with a client who wants a custom app built. They know they need engineering, because they have a great product vision. But if they don't have a plan and roadmap for how to actually build it, they may need product management resources, too. And if they want it to look good? Well, Jennifer would bring in her design team to make it visually appealing.
"Cross-functional selling is much more efficient and effective than just selling the shiny box or saying, 'Hmm, Mr. Client, you need all of this and you need all of that because it's the deluxe package,'" says Jennifer. "It's more thorough, it's more thoughtful, and from my perspective, it's the right thing to do."
Three Common Challenges—And Three Ways to Address Them
Selling cross-functionally requires getting a lot of people in the same boat rowing in the same direction, and that's not always easy. Jennifer shared some of the common pitfalls to this kind of collaboration, as well as advice for overcoming them:
- Finding alignment with other teams or departments. It can be hard to get on the same page with people whose goals or metrics for success are different than yours. What has worked for Jennifer is creating opportunities for teams to interact more regularly and share their goals, including a biweekly internal meeting with her engineers to check on their job satisfaction and morale.
- Trusting your team. "I have to trust my team to be able to help me build the solution. If I don't trust them, if I don't believe that they are experts also, it can't happen," says Jennifer. Her initial meeting circuit helped build that foundation, and regular check-ins help push it farther. "Every day I have to see these people. I want them to go and start their day with, 'Yes, this is a good project, I'm happy to do this,' not 'Ugh, I'm ready to rip it off,'" she says.
- Knowing the product and service. You can't sell what you don't understand, and custom software solutions can be especially difficult to understand. "It's not a box, or a bundle, or 'choose option A, B, or C,'" says Jennifer. "You start from scratch in every single conversation. You have to really listen, pay attention, and do the research." Jennifer got caught up by reading books on project management, taking classes on coding and project methodologies, and using Def Method's generous learning and development budget and time allowance to attend webinars and conferences to keep pushing her understanding.
Working through those challenges is more than worth it, says Jennifer. "Being able to work with people from different teams, people who think differently, it helps me sell better. It helps me see from their perspective the value in what we're doing."
How This Product Manager Prototypes Her Own Career: Insight from Teachers Pay Teachers’ Brooke Henderer
Prototypes are to product managers what decks are to consultants.
They're a way to showcase one vision of the future—to give people an opportunity to experience it and to decide whether to pursue it.
As a senior product manager at education marketplace Teachers Pay Teachers, Brooke Henderer is quite familiar with the practice. She's made dozens of prototypes for different work projects over the years.
Recently, she's started to think about her own life as a series of prototypes, of different future options that she's explored and that have taught her what it is she really wants to pursue.
We sat down with Brooke to hear about how she got into product management, how she's applied her PM skillset to understanding what it is she wants to do with her life, and what advice she has for people who are looking to do some self-discovery and self-prototyping of their own.
A three-part framework
Brooke tried a lot of things in college. "I was definitely one of those people who did not know what they wanted to do," she says. "I had such broad interests that it was really hard for me to narrow them down."
She took classes that interested her, from chemistry to economics, and applied the same approach to her extracurricular activities, exploring everything from jobs in retail and customer service to internships in sales. "I really enjoyed getting to work with customers and helping people in some capacity," she says. She was particularly interested in tech—"It felt very future-proof," she notes—but realized that tech sales wasn't for her. "I didn't love the repetitive nature of being on the phone all day," she says. Becoming super-specialized wasn't appealing, either.
"I didn't want to be a craft developer because I don't know how to code. I'm not going to be a designer because I don't know how to design," she says. "I got really lucky stumbling upon product management, because it has the aspects of the customer-facing side of things I enjoy, and sales, but is also a mix of more creative and strategic work on different levels, and gets me exposure to a lot of different kinds of work throughout the day."
After getting her first PM job with Intuit from a career fair, Brooke stayed with that company for a while before looking for something new. When she set out to look for her next challenge, she had a clear framework in mind. Brooke was looking for:
- A mission she could connect to. "During my time at Intuit, I discovered that what ultimately motivates me and drives me is creating something for someone else and ideally creating a positive change for them. It was really important for me to know that whatever I was building or doing, it was something good for someone else," says Brooke.
- A smaller company. Brooke knew she wanted to work somewhere that wasn't so big that she wouldn't be able to be in the mix with different tasks each day. "There's something about doing something different every day and not having a lot of repetition that I really enjoy," she says. "And I'm comfortable with the rapid change and quick adaptation of smaller companies, because we're always building new products and we stay flexible to changes."
- A product roadmap that interested her. "I just knew that if it wasn't exciting on the surface, it probably wasn't gonna keep me there for long," says Brooke.
Teachers Pay Teachers met all of her criteria, and Brooke realized it was the place for her from her very first interview. "It really stuck out to me how clear the mission and strategy was, and how much love every single employee and leader had for educators," she says. "It was genuine."
She felt particularly drawn to TPT's mission. "Our strategy has to do with unlocking funds for educators so they don't have to reach into their own pockets to get the resources and tools they need. It's a really unique opportunity to work somewhere where the business goals align with doing something really good for customers," says Brooke.
Stepping back from a job to consider a life
After Brooke got her first product management role, she expected her questions about her career to abate. They didn't.
"Getting that first job was this big thing. Then you realize, 'Oh, this can grow, this can change, this doesn't have to be the single thing I do for the rest of my life.' So how do I make sure I'm still in a career I like, and that I'm figuring out how to hone in on my interests over time?" she reflects.
She started applying her product manager skill set to her own life.
A book called Designing Your Life helped, she says, by teaching her how to ask herself what she wanted out of life beyond her job. It led to her realizing that she really enjoyed building tangible things, so she decided to explore content creation.
After taking a film class and producing a short documentary, Brooke realized she wanted to stay in product, and credits her exploration with her renewed sense of commitment to and peace with her career decision.
"Going through that process, taking the film class, doing those things really proved to myself, 'Oh, there's actually not a whole lot of other things that really fit what I want,'" says Brooke.
"Because I was able to prototype those things and try them out, it helped me feel better about doubling down on staying in product. It made me feel more secure in the path I was choosing," says Brooke. "I learned other things I might like, but that might be better as hobbies for me."
6 tips for self-discovery at work and beyond
If you've wondered if you should blow up your life and start all over—and if you should, how exactly you're to begin that process—Brooke has some perspective for you. Spoiler alert: it's a gradual approach.
- First, recognize that there's no single right path for you. "There are many possible futures you can have, and they're all great," says Brooke. "The best thing you can do is just not to be afraid. Don't feel like you're stuck and can't try anything new."
- Try a "good time" journal. Keep an activity log of all of the things you do in a given day and note how much energy you get from them. "You could do it for a week or for a day," says Brooke. "I think you'll be surprised at what you learn about what fills you up. What type of things were you doing? What types of people were there? What role were you in? What sorts of things were there—computers, sticky notes, whiteboards?"
- Be more conscious of your schedule. Once you know what kinds of things drain you, Brooke suggests adjusting your schedule to better absorb them. For example, if she has a long day of draining meetings, she'll schedule some time to talk to a customer right afterwards, since those chats always give her energy. "Not everything in work is going to be perfect," says Brooke. "But as much as you can fill your bucket up with those things that give you energy, you can use that as a guide to help you figure out where you want to go."
- Carve out enough time for deep work. Even if meetings do bring you energy, too many of them will make you feel like you're unable to make progress on any longer-term goals or even to think about what your personal goals are. Make sure you're getting at least a few hours a week for heads-down work, notes Brooke.
- Set boundaries, including around breaks. To avoid the constant interruptions of Slack messages and emails, Brooke responds to them at certain times of day. She also has scheduled small breaks that she sticks to. "It's about actually standing up and stepping away from your computer," she says.
- Ask if you can shift enough within where you are to meet your needs, or if a bigger shift is needed. Sometimes it's enough to adjust smaller parts of your life, whether that's what your schedule looks like or even the company you work for, in order to feel more aligned with the things and activities that bring you energy. But sometimes it's not. "Long term, you need to think about changes you want to make," says Brooke. In that case, the same advice applies, just starting with a bigger scale. "Everything might not be clear just yet, but you'll figure it out as you go."