On this episode of OneHaas Undergrad series, we chat with Yifei Ding, a product manager at Instagram. She officially started her career at Deloitte and then transitioned to Facebook.
Yifei shares why she’s passionate about product development and narrates her experience and the support system at a company like Facebook, the challenges of having multiple roles, and how to navigate and work with different teams.
[00:00:12] Ellen: Welcome to the OneHaas podcast undergrad series. I’m your host, Ellen. And, today we’re joined by our co-host Sean Li and our guest Yifei. Yifei is a product manager at Instagram. She officially started her career at Deloitte and then transitioned to Facebook for the RPN program. Yifei, how are you today?
[00:00:31] Yifei Ding: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:00:34] Sean: Let’s uh, talk about where you’re from and why you pursued a business degree at Haas?
[00:00:44] Yifei Ding: Yeah. I’m from the Bay area. I grew up in Fremont, pretty local. When I got to Berkeley, I actually wasn’t intending on pursuing a business degree. Like many people, I had no idea what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to do. And, I think a business degree is really great for that. It is just a very multifaceted degree that kind of covers a broad range of interests.
[00:01:08] I knew really broadly that I wanted to build things and just had a very entrepreneurial spirit. But other than that, wasn’t sure like what industry I wanted to go into, what jobs I wanted to pursue. And so, it felt broadly aligned with my interests.
[00:01:22] Sean: How’d you learn about the Haas undergrad program?
[00:01:26] Yifei Ding: I heard about it when I was in high school. It was one of the best business programs in the area in California and across the country. I didn’t actually know anyone who had gone through the program but upon coming to Berkeley, it’s one of the first things that you learn of. I was part of quite a few businesses or pre-business organizations early on freshman year that introduced me to Haas and the whole process of applying. I got really interested from there on out.
[00:01:54] Sean: How did you come to the decision to go into consulting?
[00:01:58] Yifei Ding: I didn’t know initially that I wanted to do consulting. So, to be really honest, I wanted to go into tech. I really wanted to focus on building things. This was a hard career to break into without a tech background or any sort of a CS degree. So, I thought that consulting was a good option because it offered me a really high learning trajectory, got to work on a broad range of projects, and learn about different industries and roles. And, just seemed like a great job with a lot of exit opportunities for someone that wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
[00:02:36] Sean: Thanks for sharing that. That makes a lot of sense. And, we see that through your career switches along the way the past few years that you ultimately did end up in tech, right?
[00:02:47] Yifei Ding: When I was in Haas, I did both of my internships in tech or startups. I worked at Cisco in a business internship. That was really interesting. Exposed me to the whole internet of things, trend, and definitely learned a lot more about how companies think about marketing their products, how they try to find product-market fit.
[00:03:11] Right before graduation, I worked at Uber while it was going through its period of rapid growth. And, I did a finance internship at that time. I definitely learned that I did not want to go into finance afterward but that was also a great experience. I worked more in finance operations. So, I focused on sourcing a lot of really helpful software tools for Uber at the time. They were looking into different product road mapping tools. I remember helping them analyze that.
[00:03:47] Ellen: Awesome. Were there any classes at Haas that you took that you thought would be relevant for students who would be interested in the finance and operations role?
[00:03:58] Yifei Ding: Yeah, there were definitely like the classic classes you’re required to take. There’s like corporate finance, modeling classes. Those are definitely helpful.
[00:04:08] Ellen: And then at Deloitte, were you mostly covering tech companies as well?
[00:04:13] Yifei Ding: I primarily worked in the TMT industry. I dabbled a little bit in biotech and consumer products but in general, I had a really great experience working in consulting. I was in the strategy and operations group at Deloitte so worked on a lot of really short product strategy and go to market projects, pretty fast turnaround time.
[00:04:36] I felt like in general, the types of projects that I worked on were purely strategy but I didn’t know whether or not they would get implemented. That’s one of the biggest things that bothered me about consulting is like you work really hard on something and you just don’t know if it goes anywhere.
[00:04:54] So, it felt like there was a gap missing which is why I wanted to go back into building products and really carrying out the like end to end vision of something.
[00:05:03] Sean: Is there like an area that you’re really passionate about in terms of product development?
[00:05:08] Yifei Ding: I’m really passionate about consumer products. Generally, the way I think about products is actually problem spaces. So, I think right now I’m really interested in like creation products, in messaging products, in commerce, and AR VR.
[00:05:25] Sean: What’d you say you have the most experience in?
[00:05:27] Yifei Ding: Right now, I’m working on like purely creation products for Instagram camera.
[00:05:32] Yifei Ding: So Instagram camera has a lot of different products that allow you to create, think about formats like boomerang or formats like superzoom. So, we have over 500,000 effects that are built by not only our inhouse art team but third-party creators as well.
[00:05:53] Sean: For someone who didn’t come from a CS degree, right, did you find it intimidating to enter this field when you were applying for these jobs?
[00:06:01] Yifei Ding: I did. I thought a lot of these jobs weren’t marketed particularly well to people with business degrees. It’s a really hard field to get into just because there’s only so many companies that offer these types of programs. When I was looking broadly across the industry, companies like Google won’t even consider you if you don’t have a technical background.
[00:06:21] And so coming into this program, it was really refreshing to see other people like me who had come from consulting or banking or had previously been artists. I feel like at the end of the day, you don’t need a technical background. You need to have a really strong product sense and intuition. Be able to execute really well.
[00:06:41] And a lot of those skills are transferable across different industries like consulting or finance.
[00:06:47] Sean: Can you share with our listeners what product sense means?
[00:06:51] Yifei Ding: Yeah. I think it’s in general just understanding people, problems, being able to decompose a problem into many parts, understand like what motivates someone to use a product, what their pain points are, how you might solve for those, how you might design a product to make it easily usable, easily discoverable, and then really execute on all of those things and create the components of our product. Design it, carry out all of that.
[00:07:20] Sean: I’m still curious about how PMs really execute on the discovery process. Do you have a preferred methodology in learning about the customer? Because what we’ve been taught is that, you know, surveys don’t really tell much. That behavioral interviews, sometimes even if it’s the sample size is small, it tells a lot more than having a huge sample size of surveys. What have you found in your line of work in terms of how to better understand customers and get that product sense?
[00:07:54] Yifei Ding: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of ways to go about it. And certainly, different product managers have different styles. One way is to like go through user research. The general standing in the industry is that most things are informed by feedback and by research. But the reality is that user research takes a really long time.
[00:08:13] Sometimes it can take months. It’s not always a good sample. There’s a lot of biased opinions. And the title, the people who are doing these surveys can really bias your product. I think what people do more often in the industry is look at data for things that might signal to you. That there’s a pain point here. We look at past products we’ve built to benchmark. And then product managers who have been in the field for a long time who have a really strong understanding of a certain type of product. They just have built up this muscle over time. So, they have a really strong product sense and intuition.
[00:08:50] I know that I’m using that term a lot but at some point, it does become intuitive.
[00:08:55] Sean: What is something that you know now that you wish you knew at graduation? And I’m asking this question because a lot of new graduates are entering uncertain times and I think it’d be helpful to hear what someone in their shoes, three, four, five years down the line, would have wished they knew or done differently at graduation.
[00:09:20] Yifei Ding: Yeah, I definitely didn’t do this but I think a really good piece of advice for people to follow is to take a lot of risks really early on in your career. Definitely, when I was in Haas, one of the things that I was so focused on was just finding a really stable job. And, as someone who has always dreamt about working in a startup or starting my own business like that, I never considered that that was an option for me. Maybe it’s because of the background I came from but I was just very risk-averse. I felt like I wasn’t afforded that opportunity because of my own mindset. And so, I would just encourage people to take a lot of risks really early on in your life. Like the best way to grow is to compound yourself, try to learn a lot, put yourself in a position where you can do that.
[00:10:10] And that’s not always necessarily in like the traditional roles that you look at coming out of Haas. A lot of people heading to consulting, banking, finance roles. I don’t know if that’s changing today but it was not very popular to even go into tech.
[00:10:27] Ellen: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true.
[00:10:29] what do you see as your, startup dream?
[00:10:35] Yifei Ding: At the end of the day, I think there’s like a lot of really interesting things that I could go into. There’s like a lot of ideas. But to me, like I think the thing that’s stopping me right now is I want to stay at Facebook and Instagram for a few more years and really understand how different people think about starting and building new products.
[00:10:55] I’m trying to work on more zero to one product that focuses on defining problems in ambiguous space and focusing on problems that are really innovative with more of a long-term vision. So, big bets like AR VR, e-commerce, things like that. And, until I have a really good sense of that and feel like I have a strong tool kit to take with me, I don’t think I’m ready to go into a startup.
[00:11:25] Sean: You must have dreamed of something like, what are some things that you… could be ideas that you didn’t execute on, but are there any ideas that you had before?
[00:11:37] Yifei Ding: Yeah, so one problem space that’s really interesting to me is just elderly care. I think the really great thing about COVID is that it’s accelerating a lot of telehealth companies and more than ever now, you see a lot of communities rallying together to help elderly communities.
[00:11:56] This problem really hits close to home for me because my grandmother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I feel like a lot of people in those vulnerable communities don’t have support systems. And so, whether it’s relying on their community or focusing on services that we can bring to them, I think it’s one of the most undersaturated industries that’s being worked on right now.
[00:12:23] Sean: Do you have any thoughts or ideas in this space as to what portion you would like to tackle, whether it’s mental health or the actual physical care?
[00:12:32] Yifei Ding: Yeah, I’m thinking more about tackling the physical support services. As you get older, it becomes really hard to use tech products. For example, even something as simple as automating your monthly prescriptions or getting your prescriptions delivered to you is really hard as an 80-year-old if you don’t know what products to use, where to access those services. So, making those things more accessible, more usable, definitely something I’m interested in.
[00:13:03] Ellen: Is there something that you’ve been doing or reading about that might be slowly getting you there?
[00:13:12] Yifei Ding: One thing I think is great is being in a smaller team within Facebook, you do learn how to be more scrappy.
[00:13:18] One of the like conceptions is that out of a large company, there’s just unlimited resources.
[00:13:25] PMs are really under-resourced now more than ever, especially with COVID and all of the projects that we’re working on. So, it’s been fun to like, you know, fill in some of those gaps. I imagine that at a startup, PM’s are also data scientists. They’re also product marketing managers.
[00:13:43] They’re also engineers maybe, but just having to fill out all of those roles make me understand that it’s not that easy to transition into a startup. You have to really be prepared to sacrifice a lot in your life professionally and personally.
[00:14:01] Sean: Right. I mean, to that respect as a PM now, is there a lot of on the job training or is there a lot of things that you have to learn by yourself? Like in the areas of data science or research and things like that?
[00:14:18] Yifei Ding: I think there’s definitely a lot that you’ve learned just like specific to the company. Like for example, you definitely learn how to run an experiment, how to set it up, how to evaluate the results, how quickly to iterate in between experiments, and when to make the decision to launch something. It just all comes with time.
[00:14:38] I think learning on the job is the best thing you can do. And, a lot of people try to optimize for this in their degrees and their years during college. I just don’t think that there is a perfect way to do that.
[00:14:53] Ellen: How is the support system at a company like Facebook to let you try new things and play different roles? I’m sure it was your first time at multiple roles. So, we’ll have to hear about that as well.
[00:15:07] Yifei Ding: Yeah, it’s been really great. One of the things that I love about my program is that you do rotate every six months. And so, you are ramping up and down really quickly. You don’t ever get too comfortable in one space. And just when you think you’ve learned enough to feel comfortable, it’s time to move on.
[00:15:26] So, it’s the great thing is that you’re always getting thrown into a new space. On each rotation, you definitely have people to help you out. You have an OPM to support you day to day along with mentorship circles. There’s a lot of resources to lean back on for sure.
[00:15:45] Sean: Does your entire team change as well then when you rotate?
[00:15:47] Yifei Ding: Yeah, definitely. So, I can talk a little bit about the teams that I’ve been on but they’re all very different from each other.
[00:15:57] Sean: How challenging is that to navigate, working with different teams, and different dynamics of people?
[00:16:04] Yifei Ding: I think the only caveat is that if you need to work really cohesively in a team in an environment that requires a lot of collaboration and everyone being in the same time zone and place, then it becomes really hard. In tech, it’s really flexible. I don’t imagine it’s like that for all industries.
[00:16:25] Sean: That’s great.
[00:16:26] Sean: We’ll wrap this up with Ellen’s signature fire round of questions.
[00:16:32] Ellen: Yeah, let me start with another seasonal question which is what are you doing to keep yourself sane during this quarantine?
[00:16:43] Yifei Ding: That’s so funny. So, to be honest, in the first four weeks I was pretty excited to be working from home. I was like, Oh, I can revive all of my hobbies and like my backburner list of things that I’ve always wanted to do. And so, I went through a whole bunch of things like I started running more.
[00:17:01] I was taking a bunch of masterclasses. I started playing the guitar again. I signed up for a lot of things that are not long-term hobbies. And then within a few weeks, I burned myself out and I was getting tired of them. In general, I’m still running and cooking a lot more.
[00:17:22] Oh, one interesting thing I’m doing, I bought an Apple pencil last week and I got Procreate. I’ve always wanted to get into digital art. And so, I’ve been doing that and it’s really fun.
[00:17:35] Sean: What were you watching on Master Class?
[00:17:39] Yifei Ding: I was watching the cooking classes, so like Gordon Ramsay. I was watching a wine-tasting class. The negotiation one of Chris Voss. All really great.
[00:17:51] Sean: That one is really good. What are you reading?
[00:17:54] Yifei Ding: Ooh. Um, right now I’m reading the book Sapiens. It’s very interesting. Like for example, I think one of the things that they talked about, why humans gossip so much and how it’s like actually a survival mechanism. I would have never thought of that.
[00:18:14] Sean: Or, that did humans domesticate wheat or did wheat domesticate humans but then you have to read Homo Deus. Homo Deus is the follow-up and it’s really, really good.
[00:18:29] Ellen: Are there any shows that you’re watching?
[00:18:33] Yifei Ding: I’ve been really interested in all of the like Joe Rogan podcasts lately. I’m pretty late to the bandwagon. Like I watched the two Elon Musk ones recently and it just got me thinking long-term about the human race and like the likelihood of our civilization surviving once AI comes. It was probably not the best thing to do during the pandemic but really interesting podcasts.
[00:19:02] Sean: Uh, last question. What is your best productivity hack?
[00:19:08] Yifei Ding: Hm. So, recently I have read this book called Atomic Habits. One thing that I learned from the book is like you should stack your habits. You should make things ridiculously easy to do. I’m trying to do that more. I think like day to day having a lot of meetings from home is really bad.
[00:19:27] And, so to the extent that I can, I block out chunks of time during the day and I spend those hours really intentionally thinking or just working on one thing at a time.
[00:19:39] Like my ability to multitask when working from home has just declined. And so, I feel like focusing on one thing at a time really helps.
[00:19:48] Sean: That’s wonderful.
[00:19:49] Ellen: Awesome. Thank you, Yifei, that was very insightful. And, I hope our listeners find it enjoyable as well.
[00:19:56] Sean: Thanks.
[00:19:57] Yifei Ding: Yeah, thanks for having me.
[00:19:59] Ellen: Thank you for listening to this episode of the OneHaas podcast, the undergrad series. If you’d like our content, please like and subscribe to our channel and give us a review. You can also check out more episodes and hear from past and current Haas students on Spotify, Apple podcasts, and on onehaas.org. Until next time. Go bears.