Ava: The Vocal Introvert
Ava checks off all the boxes. Not only is she smart, she’s astute and articulate, and her go-getter attitude inspires. Her resume is not shy of numerous accomplishments, yet she remains humble and hungry (Ava’s worked at McKinsey, Google, Birchbox and now, she’s a Senior Product Manager at Pinterest!)
We were fortunate to have the chance to chat to Ava about how she got to where she is today and how she’s succeeded, while being a strong introvert.
Q: What’s your background?
I grew up in Dubai. From an early age, I was very interested in technology. I like to say I was a little indecisive in college - I joined a dual degree program in Management and Technology at UPenn, because I just couldn’t decide between my passions! During college, I did a few internships as a product manager (“PM”) at Microsoft but by graduation, got swayed by the allure of consulting. I started off at McKinsey as a Business Analyst then finally made my way back to tech at Google, Birchbox and finally, Pinterest.
Q: What fascinated you about computer science at a young age?
I gravitated towards subjects like math and sciences because of the preciseness. There is one right answer. I like numbers, I like precision and I also like building things. I get to do this a lot in my role in product – there’s an invigorating sense of accomplishment when you get to bring an idea to life.
Q: Did you notice early on that you were one of the fewer girls interested in this more technical path?
To be honest, I didn’t. When I was younger, it was more “I just really love this; I’m going to do it” and I didn’t think about gender very much. In a way, this blindness helped me feel less intimidated or outnumbered - I bypassed some of that stereotype threat and imposter syndrome. Today, it’s harder to ignore, and tackling it head on is more helpful. I hear from a lot of other women in tech as we share our struggles.
Q: In your role as a product manager, is wearing multiple hats normal? How do you have that voice to say “I want to work on this”?
Wearing multiple hats is one of the key virtues of a product manager. PMs will often describe themselves as the “glue” - the connector that brings the team together, and also fills in the gaps as needed for the team. At Birchbox, I was particularly passionate about mobile app development and really wanted to work in that area, so I asked. In smaller companies, there’s more work to do, than people to do the work. A lot of the times, your manager may not even know what areas you’re interested in, so you just have to ask.
Q: What do you look for in a product manager?
Ah, this is a polarizing question! You’ll get very different opinions on this subject. Many larger companies will place an engineering requirement, while smaller ones don’t. I personally don’t think an engineering degree is a prerequisite - one of the best PMs I worked with was a political science major. If you don’t have an engineering background, you just have to prove that you have an interest and aptitude in tech. It can be an uphill battle to earn the respect of your engineering team without an engineering background; sadly an even more uphill battle as a woman.
When I am looking to hire a PM, I do look for that technical curiosity at the very least. But I’m more interested in: good communication skills, strong product instincts and a data-driven approach to understanding your customer.
Q: Is working at Pinterest as cool as it sounds?
YES! It’s a lot of fun. I’ve found that the company’s culture reflects the product in many ways - it’s infused with creativity and collaboration. One of our company values is knitting: the idea that different disciplines working together can create something magical. It’s also exciting to work on a product that so many people deeply LOVE. One of my favorite moments was at an immigration checkpoint in Canada, where an officer stopped me when she heard that I worked at Pinterest - they were so excited to talk about it! When you work at a company that evokes such an emotional response from people, you realize you’ve got something pretty special.
Q: What compelled you to move from Birchbox in New York to Pinterest in San Francisco?
I really loved working at Birchbox. It’s another example of a company that I admire, and I use the product a lot. My decision to move came down to my seeking greater personal development as a PM. San Francisco is the hub of the tech industry, and I’d have the opportunity to learn from some of the best PMs in the country... and do it at a company that I love.
Also, one driver of women’s empowerment that no one really talks about is the support of spouses! I am really lucky to have a husband that was supportive of us moving across the country to pursue my dreams, even if it meant making sacrifices in his career.
Q: At Birchbox, how did your male product manager colleagues relate to a female-founded company and female-majority customer base?
For male PMs working at a company that has large female customer base, it’s important to find someone who is willing to truly understand the customer, not to put too much of their own personal biases and intuition on top of what they are building. I remember one session at Birchbox with some of our male PMs where we they tried on and demo-ed different beauty products, just to get into the customer mindset. They were so open to learning and understanding what “toner” was! The trap that some PMs fall into (regardless of gender) is assuming that they are the customer, without looking at the data, talking to users or understanding the product.
Q: The common thread we notice from talking to you is that you’re open and comfortable asking for what you want. How do you go about that and encouraging junior team members to do the same thing?
If you think about it, a lot of the decisions about your career happen in rooms that you’re not in. The people making those decisions, defending you, deciding what you work on, they need to be armed with this information or they won’t be able to get you what you want. Asking for a promotion, asking to change teams or to work on something you’re excited about may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
On the flip side, managers should constantly be creating this channel of communication their team members. But you can’t assume your manager will always do that. It’s best to ask. The worst that can happen is that you don’t get what you want. But this will happen by default if you don’t ask.
Q: Do you have mentors that you turn to?
I have many mentors, but I’ve never been a fan of formal mentorship. Instead I try to maintain relationships with people who I respect, and who’ve been in my corner. My first boss at McKinsey is always a great ally and champion, partly because he understands my weaknesses and blind spots. There are so many people along the way (peers, bosses) that I reach out to when I need advice. What’s important is to make those relationships two-way and cultivate them.
Q: What advice would you want to share?
It’s got to be my mantra around “asking for what you want”. I don’t claim to be the loudest person in any room. In fact, I am a very introverted person, and so I understand how these conversations might seem hard and scary. Hopefully I can serve as an example that you can have them in a way that’s authentic to who you are.
The second piece of advice is striving for new challenges. I could have stayed in my old job and been comfortable, but I knew I wasn’t being stretched. However, there is a fine balance between stretched and burning out so be careful about not crossing that line.
Q: What outlets do you have to manage stress?
Having supportive people outside of work to talk to helps. Especially when your job feels all-consuming and challenging, it’s good to have that outside perspective. I also think setting personal boundaries is important. For example, I aim to get home and have dinner with my husband every evening (even if it’s late!), and try to not check emails from 7 pm to 10 pm. Being a product manager means I am in meetings pretty much back-to-back, all day. At the same time, being a strong introvert, I need to block off time during the day for a break between meetings, or to take one day a month to work from home. I need that to recharge.
Q: How do you set boundaries in a new job?
I think early in a job is the best time actually to set those boundaries. It sets a clear precedent with your team and manager about what’s important to you.
Q: Did you ever think about getting an MBA?
Every year when application season comes around, I’ll consider it. But at the end of the day, I’m enjoying what I’m doing, and I want to work more. I’ve never thought it be to necessary for career advancement as a PM.
Q: If you could tell your high school self one thing about the real world, what would it be?
There’s a Baz Luhrmann song I love, that goes, “the race is long, and in the end it’s only with yourself.” Younger me would always obsess over every career decision I made. I obsessed over going into product management vs. McKinsey at graduation. I was so worried about making a wrong decision. I’ve learnt that it’s a longer journey than it seems, and wrong decisions are not the end of the world, and often reversible. I ended up in the same place regardless of the decision to join McKinsey - I eventually found my way back to product management!
Q: San Francisco or New York?
I’m still a New Yorker at heart. The energy is so exciting and fast-paced! I love that San Francisco is laid-back and outdoorsy but in my heart, I’m more of a city person.
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Ava!