Episode 02: Simon Chen's journey from Executive Assistant to Program Management
Welcome to Flux's Mobility Spotlight where we share stories of people who have made successful job transitions and the companies with cultures that encouraged them to do so. Our goal is to highlight these transitions and understand what drove them, experience and working-style overlaps that might not be obvious, and to share advice for others considering a similar move.
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In this episode we're speaking with Simon Chen who is a Technical Program Manager at Facebook. Out of undergrad Simon started as an Executive Assistant to the CEO and later transitioning to a Business Analyst function at an e-commerce start-up. After taking a Data Science course he made the leap to Facebook as a Product Specialist and then transitioned further into a product-driven function in Technical Program Management. In this discussion we cover:
🎤 Advice to college grads on how to find your path
🧐 Identifying & seizing opportunity around you
🦄 The benefits of starting your career at a start-up
Nick (Flux): Simon, thanks for making the time. I've been looking forward to catching up with you and doing this mobility interview. As background for people listening or reading, Simon and I worked together at a company called Joyus and he's now at Facebook and we'll have him talk a little bit about what he's doing there. But I think Simon's got a super creative path going from basically a chief of staff role within a very small rapidly changing startup into more of a business analyst role doing forecasting and inventory planning and these types of things with a merchandising team. This was at an e-commerce company, and then moved to Facebook doing product specialist work and now technical program management.
So I think this is a super cool path you've taken. Maybe we can break different pieces of it down as we talk through it. Let’s start by sharing a little bit about your current role. What's it called? What are you doing? And let's let's start there.
Simon (Facebook): Yeah, absolutely. I’m Simon, I work as a technical program manager at Facebook, and I work with a team of engineers, designers, product marketing, to build internal solutions. Facebook is a big company, and there's a high demand for folks within Facebook to debug issues. We build tools that help sales and support groups.
Nick (Flux): And that's not what you started as at Facebook. So what did you move into when you joined Facebook? And then how did you transition into program management?
Simon (Facebook): I started as a product specialist on ads delivery. Support works kind of like a funnel where you have your frontline agents and I'm basically the layer right before it gets to an engineer. So you really understand the ins and outs of the product. You really try to demystify the misunderstandings, if the salesperson I have as a client has an extremely complex sale, they contact support. So usually if this is not this is expected, you flag it to engineering. And that's just the support the operational piece of it, the key is to aggregate those insights, the pain points, and then you surface it up to product boards and say, hey, this quarter we have this many issues regarding this aspect of the product. And so hopefully that needs to add some positive improvements there. So that's my role. That was my role as a product specialist and how I transition to TPMS Facebook is like in support, you also use a bunch of tools and you look for opportunities for automation based on support issues and comments. I'm thinking about this stuff can be automated, instead of relying on someone to respond manually every single time.
So you work with the engineering team, you develop relationships, and it's very informal at first and then it gradually became formalized. Then a full-time head became needed. So it wasn't necessarily like “here's an opening and apply” it was more like here is the project in itself. And then gradually, the scope expanded to a point where there's a headcount that we have for you to jump into.
Nick (Flux): That's great. So it was literally as things go, even in a company the size of Facebook, you had the opportunity to transition into a role that was being created. And they had the foresight to kind of look inside first for people who could fulfill that. And it sounds likethe program management role you're doing now, we've seen this in a lot of companies, I feel like program management is always a skill set that a lot of functions need. And program management, in some companies is like uber project management. And in others, it's almost this combo of project and product management, which it sounds like you're doing, some product management for internal tools that you were servicing before in the specialist role.
Simon (Facebook): Yeah. So in a traditional program management role, you might not working closely with engineers. But the TPM role, you're the person who's driving the product strategy, you're interacting with the end stakeholders, you're aggregating it all back. And you're runnin sprints every week. And you not only have to be responsible for the vision, but you also have to be able to dig into the details and actually tell the engineers “Okay, here's how you solve this.” So it's a pretty broad role, you wear multiple hats depending on the need at that time of day.
Nick (Flux): Yeah, that's awesome. So in the Facebook experience, where you've transitioned between this product specialist and technical program manager, what kind of skills or experience gaps did you need to close? You knew a lot of the product stuff but what did you need to learn to feel like you were starting to master what you're doing now?
Simon (Facebook): I think you have to get out of the operator operational mindset to a more long term vision, mindset and be able to think about issues before they arise. But the product specialist experience is just, you know, supporting cases and also trying to look at the insights, day in day out. It was really helpful. And then for that there isn't this soft skills and hard skills, the hard skills, become more data and be able to tell a story, like every thing that Facebook revolves around. You have an opinion, they can back up their opinion data then it's much easier to convince someone else. Back in 2017 I taught myself SQL basic Python. At Joyus I was able take a part time course at General Assembly. So that really helped me brush up a lot of the data analytics piece for me to get that product specialist skills.
Nick (Flux): Data and critical thinking sound like a pretty common thread for you. And you've been building stuff up. So let's let's shift gears like a little bit to even like before Facebook. I met you at a Joyus and you were definitely the Swiss Army knife in a 60 person start-up. I don't know what the right title was at this point like EA to the CEO, like Chief of Staff, basically helping run the physical office and doing this myriad of tasks that were anything from inventory planning and those types of exercises to just whatever was needed. Hands on with product things. And I'd say that probably towards the end I don't remember what your title was at that point. But I know you had moved into a data role. It was very much kind of inventory forecasting and planning and strategic scenarios, which came out of bolstering some of that data work. You had the raw skills going into that.
This was your first job coming out of college. For a lot of people they really don't know what they're doing in college. And it takes that first couple of years where you actually try to find your ground. Yeah, so to talk a little bit about that, because I think one of the beauties of a startup environment amidst all the chaos that can exist is you do get to wear a lot of hats and if you're hungry, which I mean you were hungry and you were able to pick up a lot of things. Try a lot of things that sometimes in bigger companies it's a big risk to go do those things. And there's a big commitment. So talk a little bit about where you started at Joyus, and then how that evolved to your end role there was before transitioning to Facebook.
Simon (Facebook): I graduated from Cal in 2014, I didn't know I was going to do. So I saw a job opening for EA to the CEO. And at first I was kind of hesitant because, you know, the role didn't really sound intellectually stimulating. I mean, you're just managing calendar and running the office. But then I looked at who it was reporting into so you know, I kind of figured that it's a good learning experience to report under a founder, and then be able to really see how someone's able to run a company. So look past the daily job responsibilities. I think of it as like when you're new you're given a problem to solve, and then if you solve that, it earns you the right to solve the next one. So, the way I see it is like once I jumped into Joyus, I managed a calendar for two execs. And then I started to be able to do more. Initially it was helping finance sort out invoices. And then we had an influx of customer service needs in the fall and so I did that processing returns. You can go in with the mindset of that's not my role, but the startup, the beauty of it, is hey, here is a critical need. They need hands right now I'm gonna jump in. So that was perfect. I was able to get exposure starting from running the office to running the execs’ calendars, to getting exposure to customer service, all aspects of IT operations, to how fulfillment works. It was a learning opportunity that exceeded my expectations coming out of college.
And then in 2015 I jumped into merchandise planning. So it's the concept of you do one thing, you solve the next problem, and then you do the next thing. And so with merchandise planning that's when I started being really comfortable. Of course, along the way, there were people who totally told me how to do things as well - I don't have a merchandising background, but try to leverage that as my strength in terms of trying to see things with a new lens. And then I got exposure to more data and an analytics role and then ultimately led to my career at Facebook.
Nick (Flux): That's awesome. I think title sometimes is a proxy for things, and sometimes in startups, they're just not reflective of the role. And I think the other thing is as startups grow, the role you're in ends up growing too, which is what makes leveling and some of these things so hard sometimes when things are just so malleable. I feel like you've got this crash course in literally every part of the business, which then I think gives you a level of empathy and understanding that you're able to carry into any task that you're taking on. And when we talked about the data class, you're already doing all this planning, if you want to put some more tools in the tool belt the company is going to benefit from that. And I remember you coming out of that, and we started doing a lot of forecasting and all kinds of cool stuff. So you know, I think you definitely were one of these people that just totally excel in an environment like that.
Obviously going from an environment like that into something like Facebook, let's talk about first how did you find the product specialist role? And what did you need to kind of overcome skill or experience wise to get into that? Or did you have most of what you needed?
Simon (Facebook): Yeah, I was referred to Facebook by another Joyus employee who was there. But then the skills and onboarding at Facebook was like drinking from a firehose, but then you're used to that kind of environment startup anyway, so that wasn't that big of a challenge. So you're used to a lot of information overload but then the skills, the hard skills I don't think in retrospect, it wasn't like that hard to fill the gap. I think it was like after the data stuff I joined and felt really, really comfortable. And then it gives me the foundation to learn from others. It's like, okay, I see some complicated SQL, right? I didn't get that exposure at Joyus, but then I can get the fundamentals down to the point where I know exactly what they're doing. I can interpret this query. And then over time, I've gotten more comfortable. So that's like the hard skill that it wasn't that hard to fill the gap for. I think the challenge was the soft skills. We interact with way more people in the company. But then again, it's kind of like dig deep into that startup experience and I wore multiple hats before. I'm wearing one hat right now. And it's already like a lot of different directions. So I'm already used to that. So it was a pretty smooth transition.
Nick (Flux): Shifting gears for what you're doing now in technical program management. What attribute do you think is most important in your new role that people don't typically associate with it? So it might not be a bullet point on job description, but it's absolutely something that's critical to being good at this role.
Simon (Facebook): Yeah, the ability to adapt and learn is, and I think it makes it like a little bit of curiosity and just the mindset of questioning the status quo. I don't think you can put that on the resume, but I think that's what it takes to succeed in any of those. Like, you really, really have to be curious about something about why something works the way it is, and see how it can be better. And I think that's the secret ingredient. Otherwise, you know, you need that kind of mindset in order to have a vision for what things should be. And then you even though you don't have the resources today or tomorrow, even, it's something that happens in a couple of years. So, but then you really have to have that mindset of being curious about things. So I'm always curious about how others do their jobs and about other product managers solve problems. So in getting visibility into that, it's extremely helpful.
Nick (Flux): The kind of intuition you have to have as someone who builds things. Really understanding how those things work, how someone does their job and kind of the empathy around where the pain and kind of opportunity is with it. If you were hiring somebody for your role, what would you look for?
Simon (Facebook): I would actually look for their ability to question why? If you're curious about something, then you're always questioning things, how it works and you're bringing new perspectives you definitely don't want to hire someone and tell them here's the job and do it. You want them to bring new ideas to the table, and ultimately make the product better. And I would definitely hire someone who's smarter than me. I think the best people are the ones who are very excited about solving that problem.
Nick (Flux): I think I've noticed too with people who just really have a knack for product, there's almost a humbleness in just knowing that you don't know the answer yet. And the curiosity is a big part of finding it. Because you go in thinking you know, you're not going to arrive at the right answer.
Simon (Facebook): Now, even today, with the product that we manage, there's always pain points to it. It's not perfect. I think you see successes here. But ultimately you have to test, iterate, and go back out there on the field. So building the empathy for the customer and for the end user is really important. And I think leveraging that experience in customer support, and just being hands like get your hands dirty, and really helps you develop that empathy the end user.
Nick (Flux): Agreed. Last question. Let's break this into two parts because I feel like you've got such a cool path into what you've been doing. And I'm super proud of the path you're on right now on Facebook. It's awesome. Let's start with the advice you would give to someone in more of like a customer oriented role that's wanting to move into a similar move into something that's more kind of program product related? What advice would you give to someone wanting to kind of make that specific transition?
Simon (Facebook): Yeah. You have a lot of advantages speaking to clients every day or you have that you have that empathy. So this, this is where if you if you're in a customer service oriented role, it really helps you gain empathy for the user. So when you're building products, you understand how do you tackle those pain points? Like, if I'm a customer service, hey, I would resolve with clients based on this. Okay, then now, can I build a product? Can I build a solution? Can I automate it? That's the next step in building great products.
Nick (Flux): And then for anyone who's about to graduate, or has graduated and is just getting started and doesn't know what they want to do. What advice would you give them?
Simon (Facebook): I would tell them, don't join a big company. Because you're more restricted. I'm having fun now, but then I think back to my days at Joyus, there was a lot of freedom. Working at a startup, you're never mentally kind of exhausted if the right environment is there. At the end of the day you're physically exhausted but then you get some sleep, and then you're very excited to go back to work the next day. And that's how I felt. So I would highly advise a new graduates to explore. Don’t chase the title. Don't chase the name ,don't chase the big company names. There's nothing wrong with that. But I think you'll be really well rounded if you get that initial startup experience and just get your hands dirty, wear multiple hats, solve problems. The roles at big companies will always be there.
Nick (Flux): Yeah, I think that's super insightful. I think people get so hung up on the immediate career ladder, they're climbing when like, what if you pick the wrong ladder? You're not getting any head start if you pick the wrong ladder. I've definitely found in my career, like the my first seven, eight years, were kind of figuring out what I didn't want to do. And luckily, I think similar to you, I just leaned on being as technical as possible and trusting the rest would get figured out in the right environments and startups can definitely provide that.I don't know how this is at Facebook, but the ability to even just try things on the side - changing a job, is such a big leap that if you can get exposure just doing that extra five hours to help a team out or something that you're curious with. I feel like most places people need a hand no matter what even if it's informal. And it's a great way to kind of get to test something without totally committing a big chunk of your life to it.
Simon (Facebook): We do pretty well here Facebook, but again, it’s such a big company, there is some structure to it. So it's not like a startup where it's like, Hey, do you need help? Okay today, I'll just spend half my time and handle that influx of volume of tickets like that's coming in. You don’t always get to do that at a big company.
Nick (Flux): This was great, man. I really appreciate the time. Thanks for the insight and we'll talk again soon.