From Large Company to Start-up by Ellen Chisa '10

My name may sound familiar to you- I
talked to Ari Chae ('15
) in a post
last fall about being at Microsoft, and why so many Oliners head there after
graduation. Then I talked a bit out some extracurricular things I've been doing
on the Grand Challenges (in addition to my day job) in
a later post.  

 

Since I had those conversations,
I've jumped ship from Microsoft and headed over to
Kickstarter in New York City.  Kickstarter is a way for someone to obtain
funding for a creative project (or discover creative projects you might want to
support!) While many people have heard of some of the huge Kickstarter
projects, like OUYA and Double FIne, 78% of our projects are by individuals
looking to raise less than $10,000. Last year, Kickstarter processed over $300
million in pledges by over 2 million people. You can find out more about what's
been going on from our
"Best of Kickstarter 2012."

 

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Dual dev stance...

While you might not consider
Kickstarter and our 50ish person team a "start-up" at this point,
it's still very different from big companies like Microsoft. Here are a few of
the key differences I thought you might find interesting:

 

Balancing user needs - In my first job out of college, I wanted to see how a
large organization worked. I was working on Office for Windows Phone 8, and
that meant balancing the needs of: Windows Phone, Office, SkyDrive, and
SharePoint (SharePoint is technically in the Office team, but is different
because it's a services product). When I was making a decision about the
product, there was very rarely one "right" answer. Instead, I
was balancing a lot of different teams needs based on their particular user set
and business. It's basically - make a product for "everyone" instead
of for one specific set of people. I'm very glad I had the experience of
balancing these needs (my negotiation skills definitely improved!). 

 

On the other hand, at Kickstarter we
only have 50 people, and we have the same shared goal of helping people to fund
their creative projects. It's much clearer who we're trying to help - and this
makes product decisions a bit easier. It reminds me much more of working on a
project at Olin, where we had a specific user group that we focused on.

 

Depth vs. Breadth - I mentioned before that one of the things about Microsoft is
you have tons of people, all with different specialties. At Microsoft, I could
find many people following the Program Management (PM) career path, and learn
from their experiences. Everyone had something to share with me. The flip side
of having so many fantastic mentors in one specialty, is that you end up
focusing almost entirely on that specialty. I didn't have as much time to
dabble in how other disciplines (HR, Marketing, etc) worked, because they were
all heads-down, building great things, too.

 

At Kickstarter, we still have
specialized roles. We have engineers, PMs, designers, and so forth. It's just a
much fuzzier line. I'm more apt to ask my developer's opinions on the product
design, and likewise someone from the Customer Support team is more likely to
ask me a good way to answer someone who writes in for help (and pass along the
feedback directly to me to inform my future product decisions). We work much
more closely together because there are fewer people working on any given
project. I even got to run a Kickstarter Meet-Up in Seattle last weekend,
something that would usually be more of an outreach/events role.


Kickstarter2.jpg

Having fun on the job- Yum! 


How many people use my Product?  One of the big
reasons people go to Microsoft, and an even bigger reason that they stay, is because
Microsoft is definitely a "change the world or go home" kind of
place.  Every product you make is going
out to millions of users. As much as people discuss whether Windows Phone is
performing well enough or not, the products I made are being used by millions
of people, every day. 

 

One of the reasons I decided to go
to Kickstarter (instead of another startup or company) is I feel like it has
this same world-changing impact. Millions of people are pledging on
Kickstarter, and becoming comfortable with helping to fund the creation
process. Projects are happening that likely wouldn't have happened without
Kickstarter. I still feel like I'm making an impact on lots of people, so I'd
say that's a really good thing that has stayed the same.

 

What I actually DO at work - The other big similarity is that I'm still a PM. While my
title is now "Product Manager" instead of "Program
Manager," I do a lot of the same things. I use our product, and keep an
eye out for things I think could be better. I analyze data about how other
people use our products, to see what's working and what isn't. I talk to users,
to see what they like and don't like. I do what Oliners would call
"HFID" - Human Factors in Interface Design, and create mockups for
potential products and features. I talk to designers and developers, and make
sure our projects stay on track. I think of these as being the "core"
of being a PM- things that don't change, no matter where you go.

 

Finally...  When
deciding on a job, think carefully about what is important to you.  When I was leaving Olin, I really wanted to
learn how to be a great PM, and nail down the specific skills (like spec
writing) that I thought would matter. Microsoft was a great place to get better
at that.   Now, I'm much more interested in having the
flexibility to pursue different ideas that come up, and having more control
over the overall product direction. 

 

For me, the
biggest change in coming to Kickstarter has been the culture. In my first week
at Microsoft, I went to three different "new hire" trainings all
about being a great PM, met my team, and started working on my first
specification document. At my first week at Kickstarter, nothing seemed to make
any sense together - I learned how to make espresso, baked vodka pie crust,
went to lunch with a guy wearing a "Griz coat" and wrote my first SQL
queries.  And I'm having a blast!  Although I will admit
Microsoft had an awesome culture too, 
it's just different, here, more like a startup.   So I'd have to say that is another one of
those things you want to think about, and check out carefully at each place
you're looking.

Let me know if I can help you talk
through your options, whether you're considering coming to Olin, or considering
paths after. 

Ellen.Chisa@alumni.olin.edu


Kickstarter1.jpg

Ellen with her new friends at Kickstarter- she TOLD you it was different...

Posted in: Alumni Speak, Learning about Design, Olin Employers