Today at the OneHaas Podcast, we have the pleasure to chat with Eric Alessi, EWMBA class of 2020 and a member of the Blue cohort. Eric recently transitioned from Pinterest to Masterclass as an Insights Manager.
Eric grew up in New York but spent some time in Italy, originally where his father was from. He studied History and Legal Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
In this episode, Eric shares his career experiences from being a contractor at Facebook, an Ops Specialist and Insights Lead at Pinterest, and now an Insights Manager at Masterclass. He tells us some fascinating details about being part of the insights team and what it’s like to be on the other side of the table.
Eric also talks about what led him to get an MBA, what he’s excited about in his new role in Masterclass, and his favorite masterclasses.
His decision to get an MBA
“My primary motivation for starting the part-time MBA program was really around knowledge. I’d never really taken a marketing class or a strategy class, obviously, our core to an MBA. I just felt like those were huge gaps in knowledge myself. And it actually ended up being very helpful for transitioning on the insight side and move into a more business-focused role.”
How does an Insights Team utilize data?
“We try to do a kind of a broad read of an audience or a topic to really find different insights that would be relevant to different industries. And so, that’s more of an open-ended process. It takes a lot of time because you need to start with tons of unfiltered data and insights, and when you’re really trying to look for those meaningful nuggets of information that are insights and not just random pieces of data, but things that tie together, things that illustrate a larger trend, are statistically significant, you get very excited when you find those and they’re really compelling, but it takes a lot of time.”
What’s exciting about his new role at Masterclass
“What really got me excited about this role was that, in just talking to people at the company, using it myself, there was such strong overlap between what I enjoyed about Pinterest of like people using the service to explore their passions and having a positive feeling about what they’re doing.
It’s entertaining, but you’re learning something new. You’re exploring something that you’re interested in. I find that very much like a compelling value proposition.”
- Gordon Ramsay Teaches Cooking
- Chris Voss Teaches the Art of Negotiation
- Werner Herzog Teaches Filmmaking
- Jimmy Chin Teaches Adventure Photography
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas alumni podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today we’re joined by Eric Alessi. Eric is a fellow EWMBA class of 2020. You were in the blue cohort, right?
Eric: Yeah, the Monday-Wednesday blue cohort.
Sean: That’s right. The serious one.
Sean: And also, you are the Marketing Insights Lead at Pinterest. And as you just told me before the call, you’re about to transition to Masterclass, which we can talk about later. But before we get into all of that, I really want to hear about your background; where you grew up, your origin story.
Eric: Yeah, thanks. I grew up on the east coast actually, in New York. My father is Italian, was in Italy. So, my family grown up would spend a lot of time there.
Italy has also been an important part of my background. I grew up in New York, went to undergrad at Wash University in St. Louis where I actually studied history and legal studies, and made my way out west to San Francisco, about eight or nine years ago.
Sean: Before that I have to ask what part of Italy?
Eric: Oh, my family is from the Northeast, near Venice. A small town called Grampa, but some of those, it’s like a region famous for making grampa, which is this Italian liquor that is very popular. They’re not, kind of a controversial tasting alcohol.
Sean: Why so?
Eric: It’s like a more flavorful vodka, I would say it’s very, very strong. Oftentimes, Italians put it in coffee or sort of like other things. But it’s very, very strong. It’s like, people have likened it to jet fuel.
Sean: Well, I definitely have to try that.
Eric: Yeah. They have some good flavored ones actually, lemon flavored or other interesting things they infuse it with.
Sean: Like Italian sodas.
Eric: Yeah, but it’s not for everyone. I would say.
Sean: Got it. And why’d your dad come over to the US?
Eric: He has usually story, actually. He owned a jewelry manufacturing company. So, they made jewelry in Italy and he did that, his dad did that. Italy, you know, is known for it, luxury products, in addition to food and all of that. This region in particular has a lot of smaller family-owned jewelry companies where they make necklaces, bracelets. He always did that. He met my mom. She was also in the jewelry business, worked in, she made her own custom jewelry, is more on the artist side. They made it. Jewelry trade show or something anyway, so they kind of lived back and forth. Like my mom, she lived in Italy for about 10 years when we were very young. And then moved my family back to New York when my brother and I were starting elementary school. My dad he would just go back and forth.
Eric: He was running his business from New York, but also going back to Italy and I would say he’s primarily like an Italian, speaks Italian as the first language and then has learned English as well.
Sean: Got it. You studied arts, history, and legal studies at WashU. Seems like you didn’t follow in the family footsteps of jewelry.
Eric: No, I did not. It’s funny though, I actually, as this side project, when I was doing Haas, my brother and I actually did start this small accessories, apparel company selling like Italian, especially belts, leather belt, tilde, Brenta, so all, I’ll use that as an opportunity to get that out there. It went through a very tough time. You can imagine during like the financial crisis, so first of all, the price of gold and silver was sky high because of all the economic uncertainty. And people were just not spending disposable income on luxury products. And at the same time, Italy changed to the Euro, which kind of changed the monetary dynamics of being a manufacturer, cause he works in manufacturing.
Eric: So, that was like the tough time. And then my brother became a photographer, I was thinking about doing law school when I was an undergrad. So yeah, we did not carry on tradition.
Sean: Did you go from studying arts history and legal studies coming to Silicon Valley?
Eric: Basically, my wife, at the time girlfriend, was starting law school actually at Stanford. And we were living together in New York. This is pretty close after undergrad. We both graduated and we decided to move out there and I was looking for roles in the bay area and was able to find a position at Facebook, is actually a contract.
Eric: So, it’s kind of like a way to get into tech, in user operations.You hear at the time it tech in a lot of these services, we’re growing a lot. It seems like a very exciting space
Sean: Being a contractor at Facebook, can you share a little bit more about that?
Eric: There’s a lot of roles where it’s like a fixed term role. Often, it’s around a specific type of project or, you know, something that they need particular help on but don’t have full time person working on it.
Sean: Is the recruiting process a little bit easier because I know, you know, with Facebook, Google, with all these things, it’s pretty hard to land a job. And never even knew about this contractor out. This is actually kind of,
Eric: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of roles that are by their nature contract, like a creative role where it’s like, you’re just doing something for a creator, your project and sort of, always sort of contract based.
Eric: But yeah, I do think it is kind of a good way. I mean, especially for somebody like earlier on in their career, also later too if you’re trying to pivot, I think it gets you exposure to what you do at that company. Some roles are like contract to hire basically like it would be almost expected that you would get the option to convert to full time. Other ones are not really. If you’re trying to move into something new and want to gain experience, I think it can be valuable. I think for me, I was doing that. And then at the time this teammate of mine left to go to Pinterest. She was there for a bit. Let me know, like a role that opened up, doing sort of similar work at Pinterest. They were sort of going through a lot of the phases that Facebook had gone through like early on, yeah, growing pains having to like deal with user support issues, whole world of building a technology company that it’s probably not always like prioritized at the initial part.
Eric: Yeah. And so, then I switched over to Pinterest that, you know, I got relevant experience and that’s somebody who ended up being just even a good friend now. And was able to help me find another role. So, I think from that, perspective, it can be valuable.
Sean: So, I noticed, you know, you were an ops specialist starting at Pinterest and you worked in intellectual property, IP and spam and safety operations. That sounds absolutely fascinating, especially in context of social media environment. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Eric: Yeah. Again, given it was a very interesting opportunity and something that I think actually was kind of nice about like joining like a smaller company also, because, if you look at like a Facebook or, and now Pinterest, they have entire teams dedicated to intellectual property, entire teams of people dedicated to spam, misinformation now is sort of like a big topic, but honestly, back in the day when it was like much smaller company, you had two ops people and they were sort of trying to figure out like all these different issues and working with engineers to build out different tools to take down cover the content that was requested to be removed by the content owner, spam content, all these things. And had to do a little bit of both and then started building out like policies and a framework for doing that. And that’s actually how I got started eventually on the policy team at Pinterest was sort of like moving more into the conceptual role of like building out like our decision-making frameworks for different types of issues and setting out those guidelines.
Eric: But now it’s taken on such relevance, with all like the political issues, 2016 and the election, and of course now with COVID right with health misinformation, all these different issues. I think a lot of that kind of blew up in a way after I stopped working out policy or like maybe early on, think now it’s a lot trickier. And I think it’s actually a very interesting role, the sort of policy operations role, especially the operations teams at tech companies are a bit of unsung heroes, if you will, of those companies.
Eric: There’s so much work that is done to, and obviously you never a hundred percent perfect, but a lot of work has done, operationally to try to remove or block harassment or things like that, that people just, you know, you don’t really think about especially with service like Pinterest or something, you wouldn’t think about that. Yeah, it’s not always the highest visibility org, but incredibly important.
Sean: Since you’ve worked in this field and for our listeners who may not know, I mean, we’re talking about when you were doing this, this is back in 2012, 2013, this almost 10 years ago. Crazy to think about, definitely. I don’t think a lot of these things were top of mind for many of us as we were just trying to figure out social media, right. And just excitement around it. But I’m curious to ask you, of looking back in hindsight, what could we have done differently or do you have any ideas as to there’s a big order to ask, but how we could fix some of this stuff. Right?
Sean: Because on one hand you do have freedom of speech and freedom of expression. On the other hand, it’s the wild west out there it feels like.
Eric: Yeah. It’s a difficult thing to navigate. And I think typically, you know, people, especially in these roles are trying to do the best jobs they can. In the past, I think these issues were perhaps underfunded and under-resourced sometimes, at larger companies.
Eric: I don’t work in this field anymore, but my perception is a lot of companies are hiring many more people, investing a lot more resources because I think it’s talked about a lot more openly and there’s a lot more debate over it and, frankly, probably more scrutiny from the government as well.
Eric: My sense at some point is that like there might be the need for some sort of regulation, I would just be for myself, personal opinion here, but, with certain topics, for example, in like advertising, there’s very set guidelines what companies should do or allow. And then there’s really not anything like that for other types of contents, and not much direction legally. So, I think probably some sort of regulation would make sense, so that it’s not each company making up their own decisions.
Now it’s so much more top of mind again. In politics amongst people generally, this is something that nobody I would say was talking about 10 years ago.
Sean: I definitely have an interest in this area because there’s always this debate around, again, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, but also the rights of a private enterprise. But you know, at a certain point, something becomes so ubiquitous that it’s becomes a utility. I don’t think we’ve had this level of access to information since I think the invention of the printing press, which was kind of like the last thing whether it was a huge technological shift that allowed for just wide dissemination information.
Sean: So, we’re in interesting times for sure.
Eric: Yeah, I feel like this. Loaded after 2016, you know, in like the election. At that point I was, I think I like just moved out of policy. And so, it was looking at all this stuff from afar a little bit. But I think it’s a good thing. It’s an important thing, I think, for there to be dialogue about. It’s important thing to talk about.
Sean: Speaking of which, you know, at Pinterest, you moved from policy to the insights team. And before we talk about the insights team, I’m just really curious to hear what made you decide to go to the MBA? Because when you change positions, that was around the same time that you started the MBA.
Eric: Yeah. They were both motivated from the same place. I think at this point in my career, I’d actually been working a bit more on some of our advertising and like organic business issues at Pinterest.
Eric: So, like ad policies, account verification for celebrities and other notable accounts. It made me realize that I enjoyed the business side of it a bit more, marketing, you know, for us and like the implications for advertising. It was just like that I was naturally interested in.
Eric: My primary motivation for starting of the part-time MBA program was really like around just knowledge and I had studied history and humanities in undergrad and I’d never really taken like a marketing class or a strategy class, anything like that.
Eric: Obviously our core to an MBA. I just felt like those were huge gaps in knowledge myself. And it actually ended up being very helpful for transitioning I would say on the insight side, like really the way that I got that role was that in my career at Pinterest, I’d always worked with data, just accessing data with our internal tools and systems.
Eric: And I was doing sort of levels of behavioral insights already. And that helped me be qualified to do partner insights where it’s basically looking at user behavior, making recommendations to advertisers based on trends and other factors. So, that was how I got my foot in the door, but like in my interviewing that role, internally I was literally using concepts from the marketing class that I was taking.
Eric: And it was so helpful for me just to move into, again, that more like business focused role. The larger third thing, which is entrepreneurship. And it was something that I had always been interested in, certainly, you know, you don’t need to get an MBA to, to be an entrepreneur, but I thought it would help get exposure to that. And also I’ve been doing some like side projects, I think. It taught me a bit more about the skill sets I think that you do need in entrepreneurship.
Sean: Wait, when did you do that belt company? Was that during the MBA?
Eric: The initial concept was during the entrepreneurship class where I was trying to put some of those concepts practice. I think it was good to learn running ads for somebody that you have. For me was very valuable, like using some of the tools, the advertising tools that I talk about in my day job, from the other
Eric: Exactly. Yeah. Like know, I ran like Pinterest ads it taught me a lot and I do feel like I got like better understanding of those tools and how advertisers approach digital platforms.
Sean: Speaking of which, I mean, since you are on the side of the table where you are providing the insights, right, or figuring out what insights provide, you know, what are some really important insights that you’ve seen or come across over the years?
Eric: At a very high level, the things that I think advertisers marketers really find the most compelling or sort of just like human truths or fundamental changes and shopper’s behavior. And so, one example, I think, where we were seeing the most probably drastic changes was during COVID-19. Pinterest, for example, is like a sort of a future planning platform. It’s something that people use to plan a home remodel or a wedding, and people were sort of like changing their usage where they’re going a lot more focused, everyday meals, cause people were spending more time at home, like home office set ups. And there was so much certainty at the time, in the advertising world, I think of just what consumers were thinking about what would people are trying to figure out like what the mindset of consumers is in the fluctuation period, as things are starting to open up, but still somewhat of an issue.
Sean: What is, I don’t know if you’re allowed to share this, but what is the consumer insight now, now that we’re in this kind of flux stage?
Eric: Recently we were seeing a return to things that were put on hold. So, wedding planning categories, beauty and apparel, coming back in a pretty big way. That was maybe as of a month ago, I haven’t looked at the most recent data, but I would imagine there is a bit more uncertainty now with the Delta variant we were seeing, again, like very drastic return to normalcy signals.
Eric: And I think it’ll be interesting to see how much of that continues or doesn’t. There’s also a good amount regional variation and, in some places, things were not shut down and other places that were more shut down.
Sean: Let me ask this, pre COVID, did you notice any overarching trends over the years as you’ve worked in insights?
Eric: I don’t know about like over-arching. A lot of what we were doing was actually looking at trends within different verticals so the way Pinterest is organized is like, we support sales teams in different verticals. So, you’d have CPG, sales teams, and then, retail and financial services.
Eric: So, the way where your first insights would, we’d be looking sort of at the lens. running studies in a certain vertical and exploring different things that were top of mind in those verticals.
Sean: Were you in a specific vertical?
Eric: Yeah, so I’ve worked on a lot of different ones, but I was particularly focused for a while on telco. So, like telecom companies, AT&T and Verizon, and then also like tech companies, Samsung or Apple. Also travel.
Sean: What’s telco advertising on Pinterest? I’m really curious how are they advertising on Pinterest?
Eric: I think it’s a lot based on life moments and also on entertainment, I think entertainment in the telco industry was a huge priority for a long time. You think of like Verizon and AT&T, we’re getting more into like the entertainment. We’re old. And so, I think there was a lot of focus on usage of interest for entertainment of, you know, like, TV watching and also for the sort of life moments or seasonal moments where people reevaluate what their service providers are. So, like, can you identify people who are likely to be in market for a new cell phone plan based on any signals or, you know, based on like device type, or something along those lines. Just as an example, in the summertime, a lot of people move and so they might be rethinking their internet provider. Leveraging those key sales opportunities, that at least was our recommendation to focus was try to contextualize things like that in the context of how people actually use Pinterest, which is, planning for a move, planning for a new home. So, like that being somewhat of a natural fit with things you’ll need, when you move.
Sean: I mean, as part of the insights team, I’m really curious now, what percentage of your work is you guys coming up and trying to figure out what the data says, and then going to the companies that sell them and say, we have these insights versus the companies coming to you and saying, this is what we want to advertise and market to you, you guys figure out how do they actually reach the audience?
Eric: That’s a very good question. It really might be like, 50/50. So, there’s a whole process called RFP thing or RFP process. Where is a major advertiser would say, Hey, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, we’re considering a campaign on gen Z apparel shoppers, do you have insights around this topic? And then our sales team would basically, try to look through all of our internal tools, are, widely available reports, to share like relevant information, and then the other half is more like especially when I was working on these sales vertical, We set like a annual learning agenda for that vertical, where we would identify different key, like themes that we wanted to explore, in those verticals. We would get input from the salespeople who work with these companies to better understand what some of their priorities are.
Eric: And honestly, it was kind of interesting that a lot of times salespeople are using like earnings calls and things like that to get that context. I mean, obviously also conversations with the companies themselves, but they actually kind of have like an interesting, like strategic job of trying to understand what the priority of a major corporation is and like what they’re investing in.
Eric: So, that gets filtered back to us. And we would use those as hypotheses or recommendations of certain topics to look into. And then we try to do a kind of a broad read of like an audience or a topic, to really find like different insights that would be relevant to different industries.
Eric: And so that’s more of an open-ended process and it takes a lot of time because you need to start with tons of unfiltered data and insights and when you’re really trying to look for those meaningful nuggets of information, right, that are insights and not just like random pieces of data, but things that tie together, things that illustrate a larger trend, are, you know, statistically significant.
Eric: So, it’s always like you know, you get very excited when you find those and they’re really compelling but you know, it takes a lot of time.
Sean: That’s good to hear. I mean, we are as a startup right now, we’re trying to find, you know, meaningful metrics to track, right. Because there’s so much data, but like which ones we focused on, which ones are Vandy metrics, which ones are actually meaningful. It’s taken us quite a lot of time.
Eric: Yeah, no, definitely. And bit of a challenge with data analysis and working in data is that just setting it up just accessing the data, it can be very challenging.
Sean: Yeah. Well lastly, yeah. You’re moving to Masterclass. Soon, this is like you said, hot off the press. Congratulations.
Eric: Thank you.
Sean: What prompted move?
Eric: I’ve been at Pinterest for a very long time. I felt like I needed a bit more exposure to different type of company.
Eric: To do something a bit newer. It also on the actually specifically insight side to do different types of insights because as I was describing a lot of the insights that I am doing is very much to support our marketing efforts or advertising team.
Eric: And what I’m sort of excited about. So, in MasterCard, I’ll be doing a bit more understanding, brand tracking, I think it will still be useful for external marketing, but I’m a little bit more of like an internal focus as well. Yeah. Like what content, how people use Masterclass, what they find really valuable.
Eric: What really got me excited about this role was that, and just talking to people at the company using it myself, there was such strong overlap between like what I really enjoyed about Pinterest of people using the service to explore their passions and having like a positive feeling about what doing.
Eric: I’ve probably been there where you like binge a Netflix show or like a new TV show and spend like hours and hours watching it. And then you’re kind of like felt like you just kind of wasted time and while I’m sure it’s true also of classes, I do think there’s an element of entertaining, but it’s also you’re learning something new, you’re exploring something that you’re interested in.
Eric: I find that like very much like a compelling value proposition, that’s what really excited me about this role is like to stay in that world, but also, it’s a different business model. It’s subscription-based, it’s actually not advertising based. So, that I think is going to be like a good experience that’s exciting.
Sean: So, to wrap up the interview, I do have to ask, do you have any favorite Masterclass sessions?
Eric: I was really nerding out to a, I think it was Gordon Ramsey, cooking one. As I was going through it, and there was tips on selecting better vegetables and like the way that you cut herbs. I enjoy cooking my wife and I eat.
Eric: We’re also fans of top chefs and like the cooking role, the bit, it’s all, it’s making all these notes like different things to consider when like prepping vegetables, like cooking, different types of dishes. So, I would say that one for myself was sort of a personal favorite.
Eric: And then I had also started an interesting one on, looking at sales more generally than just selling somebody something, but ways to sort of use persuasion, I guess, in different parts of your life you know, even if you’re not in a sales role.
Eric: Looking back at my experience with entrepreneurship on the side, I think. Even if you’re not trying to actually sell a thing, it’s like, you’re trying to persuade people about a concept or really showcase the value of something. And I think that’s really like an important skill in life.
Sean: I’ll have to look it up. I’m fan of Masterclass and so share my three favorites. I’ll tell you actually, the first one that got me into Masterclass actually was a Werner Herzog Masterclass on filmmaking, but I subscribed to it because I actually wanted to learn about storytelling. Obviously, a huge part of filmmaking is storytelling.
Sean: Next one I watched I remember was the art of the negotiation he had wrote, you know, never split the difference around the same time. Actually, I was taking negotiations in Haas as my last class. And so, I thought it was a very interesting supplement. They don’t really recommend, but I just want him to see why academia was so kind of against Chris Voss’s FBI negotiation style.
And then the third one, I’d say this is by far my favorite is Jimmy Chin’s adventure photography.
Eric: Oh, awesome. Oh yeah. He’s a guy who does the rock climbing.
Sean: he, shot I’ll copy time.
Eric: Yes. Free solo.
Sean: Free solo. Yeah.
Sean: Aside from obviously learning some things in the Masterclass, it was just so cinematically beautiful just to watch class Masterclass. It was just amazing.
Eric: I have to check that out. Yeah. He’s an amazing director and for things like that. Yeah. Great to just learn more about these things that you really enjoy and get that exposure in an entertaining way. I’ll have to check out those classes.
Sean: Yeah. Well, Thank you. so much, Eric, for taking the time to come on the podcast today. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Eric: Yeah. Thank you. You as well. And have a great rest of the day.