Side Project: The Product Management Bridge with Alum Jason Zhao

Are side projects good for anything? Can side projects benefit your Product Management job search? Let’s look at it from a practical perspective: with a real-life example.

It is always great to hear stories from Product School students. Alumnus Jason Zhao recently joined Rally Health as an Associate Product Manager. He obtained the Software Product Management certificate in Autumn 2017 and has been working in the tech scene for some years now. He began in Business Development for BYD to later join Shopify as a Software Engineer. He spent a couple of years there, where he won an internal award and became Shopify’s Github top contributor.

What was distinctive about Jason’s path is his dedication to his own side-project: Rica Recycling. Well, calling the company a mere side-project almost sounds like an insult. The fact is that Jason began working on it between his BYD and Shopify experiences, and has remained attached to it ever since. The firm focuses on recycling raw materials and e-waste.

Let’s hear more about Rica Recycling from Jason, plus his thoughts on traditional education, bootcamps, working at Shopify and his current Product Management role.

First question, and I think it will say a lot about yourself, what makes a company founder? What led you to create Rica Recycling?

In order to create a company, you first need an idea, solid unit economics, and a lot of iterations. The idea for Rica started when I was visiting home from college. I grew up spending a lot of time in my father’s e-recycling warehouse, but it wasn’t until one summer that I realized the electronics we were shredding were fully functional.

After doing some research, it became obvious that these electronics could be sold through online platforms. I convinced my parents to let me work on this project, converted some of the warehouse to office space, and hired a couple of my friends to get started. We began refurbishing and selling these electronics on eBay. One of the weirdest items we’ve sold was one of those airport security X-ray machines!

Today, the company has ten dedicated full-time employees. I don’t manage the operations anymore, but I still help out occasionally through an advisory role.

What do you think about traditional universities, like UCLA, with regards to the tech sector? Do you think their programmes are fit for the present and future of digital work?

In regards to finding a job in the tech sector, I think it really depends on your major and the programs the university offers. Many universities are now offering a wide array of courses related to tech, from computer science to product design. As a part of my Business Economics curriculum at UCLA, I had the opportunity to take a startup entrepreneurship class, where I helped nonprofits write business plans to become social enterprises. These classes taught important startup concepts, such as lean design, MVP, and Porter’s Five Forces Framework. I also have a handful of friends who majored in Computer Science and now work in large tech companies as software engineers.

Although, I don’t believe that it’s necessary to go the traditional route, I do believe in the value of attending a traditional university and feel grateful for the learning experience. Through UCLA, I was able to grow my professional and personal network. Plus, without it, I would have never met my fiance, Eunice Choi.

What was your experience with bootcamps like?

Before attending Product School, I had attended Dev Bootcamp to become a software engineer. Dev Bootcamp was a three month program during which I learned to build web application using the Ruby on Rails framework. It was a very intense, but rewarding experience. I think the best way to describe is to imagine college finals week, but 10 weeks in a row back-to-back.

The program didn’t just teach coding skills. We had these “Engineering Empathy” courses, where we learned about communication techniques, growth mindset principles and startup culture. Having those courses really help you develop both the soft skills and technical chops necessary to become a well-rounded engineer. It was through DBC that I was first introduced to meditation, which is great for reducing stress and increasing focus.

At a high level, Dev Bootcamp was an extremely unique experience because you had this group of 30 people who committed thousands of dollars and quit their jobs to become a programmer. It was kind of like this all-or-nothing, “backs against the wall” feeling, which I loved.

In what way is Product School similar to those two experiences? In what way is it different?

One thing in common is that they all had exceptional teachers. My instructor, Jeremy Glassenberg, has over a decade of product experience, dabbles in angel investing, and advises startup accelerators. He shared plenty of insightful real-world examples during class discussions, which shed light on the nuances of being a product manager. I was always impressed with how he made himself available for his students even with his busy schedule.

Product School also has built a strong community, similar to UCLA and DBC. There is an active slack channel, a useful place for you to find a practice interview buddy, keep up with product news, and network. You can also attend the weekly meetups and gain insight from product manager speakers of top tech companies. There are a ton of resources you can leverage to help advance your product career.

The biggest difference was probably the length of the program. While UCLA took four years and DBC took 3 months, Product School took 10 weeks part-time. Having the part-time option was a huge bonus in allowing me to transition into product management without quitting my job.

What about your experience in Shopify? What’s it like to work at a leading digital solutions company?

I joined Shopify as a software engineer on their Billing Infrastructure Team. It was an eye opening experience, since this was the first tech company that I had worked for. Shopify has an amazing work culture, a strong mission, and a great product team. As an online store owner, I was naturally fascinated to be developing and writing software for an ecommerce platform.

Shopify’s success is the result of the hard work put in to build a strong company culture. Working there felt like you were just going to hang out with your colleagues. Their employees are given a huge amount of trust and autonomy to “get shit done” (one of the company values). So many people were being hired and there was a crazy amount of projects being worked on. It’s insane to imagine that the company grew from a couple hundred employees to several thousand over a couple years.

You are currently an Associate Product Manager at Rally Health. What are your responsibilities in this position?

Rally Health is a healthcare platform under the UnitedHealth Group umbrella. Rally provides users with a range of products that help you understand your coverage, find the right provider, or keep you on track of your health goals. I’m currently on the core team, which is responsible for building out the platform for these different healthcare products to share data and interact with one another.

As an associate product manager, a lot of the work involves gathering product requirements, writing user stories, and coordinating with stakeholders. I’m working with a senior product manager to drive out product forward. Typically, associate product managers own small features of a mature product, instead of working on the product itself.

Who are your top Product Management leaders, books, blogs or podcasts?

Some of my favorite books include “The Design of Everyday Things”, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”, and “Cracking The PM Interview”.

For Blogs: I read articles from Product School, PMHQ, and morning newsletters from The Hustle.

Last question: What would be your advice for someone starting a Product Management course at Product School?

My advice would be to take advantage of all the resources that Product School offers.

Network with your cohort. Your classmates are future product managers and great colleagues to have in the industry.

Reach out to your instructors. Buy them coffee and ask questions! They are a great library of product knowledge. I met with Jeremy a couple weeks ago for advice on how to properly write a PRD.

Talk to Carlos. He’s more than happy to help you with your resume and has a strong network in SF and can connect you to anyone.

And last, be involved in the community. Some ways to do so include being active in the Product School slack channel as well as attending Product School meetups, which are free for alumni!

Are you part of the Product School alumni community and would you like to share your experiences? Contact us at gaby[at]productschool.com

Enjoyed the article? You may like this too: