Learning to learn: How I transitioned from engineering PhD to Chief Product Officer

Jesse Zhang
Chief Product officer
When we first founded Beacons, I was the Chief Scientific Officer. In reality, I was just wearing tons of hats, doing whatever needed to be done and supporting the team in the best way I could.

Neal, our CEO, led product during the earliest stages of our company. Before a company finds any semblance of traction, figuring out the product is the core problem to be solved. David, our CTO, was focused on implementing the product vision at a lower level of the technical stack. At various points of Beacons' life, I've worked as an engineer, a data scientist, a designer, a user researcher, a growth lead, a social media manager, and a customer success specialist.

I sat in the middle layer between Neal and David. Over time, this middle layer became product, which I took on as Chief Product Officer. Today, I'm leveraging all the skills and context I've acquired to determine what we should build and why. Although I haven't had any professional experience working in a product role prior to Beacons, I was able to grow quickly by allocating 80% of my time to executing and 20% of my time to learning. I was privileged to have access to some incredible resources:

  • My team: Neal and David were in tandem consuming content about building good product. They pushed me to create frameworks and mental models for prioritizing and visualizing different parts of the product roadmap.
  • Reading: In addition to staying generally knowledgeable about the creator space through creator newsletters, Twitter, and users interviews, I subscribed to product newsletters like Lenny's Newsletter and Bring the Donuts.
  • Users: I spent lots of time doing user interviews to develop more authentic user empathy.
  • Friends: I reached out to friends who were product managers and employees at big tech companies and growing startups. I learned from them that product is all about people: aligning stakeholders, communicating the strategy, and making sure everyone feels heard and taken care of.
  • Reflection: I carved out regular time to reflect on what worked and what didn't work.

Building Beacons has been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life. Here are a few key takeaways from this crazy journey:

Prioritize personal growth and wellbeing. Throughout my life but especially since starting Beacons, I've loved building personal processes through

  • journaling
  • making sure I do something positive for my physical and mental health daily
  • reflecting on a set of questions each week to ensure, at a macro level, I'm moving in the direction I want in life

The best thing you can do for the people in your life is make sure you're healthy and present for them. Maintaining these habits even through the busiest times at Beacons is crucial for making me better at work.

Consistency and discipline are the foundation of everything. When building startups, you go through phases where nothing seems to work, especially in the early days. Instead of evaluating yourself solely on longer-term metrics, push yourself to make progress on something each day. Shoot for having a different problem each week. You can start by simply asking yourself and your team: did you have a good day? If you've had enough good days in a row, you're going in the right direction.

Stay organized. Often, the amount of time required to stay a bit more organized can pay dividends down the road. Not only for yourself, but for your team. Personally, I love bringing structure to chaos, and I often reframe tasks as disorder to motivate myself. These tasks can be as diverse as writing product strategy documents, designing product specs in Figma, and refactoring parts of our codebase.

At a startup, you can apply learnings immediately and truly adopt an experimentation oriented mindset to growth. I started off as a pre-med student in college, and then ended up doing my PhD in electrical engineering, and now I'm leading product for a creator economy company. There may not seem to be a pattern to my path, but it all is rooted in a love for learning. When that excitement comes from a deep internal source, I don't lose the passion even through tough times and evolving external conditions.

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