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How to Become a Product Manager without a Tech Background: Erika Torres, PhD

In this episode, I spoke with Erika Torres, PhD., a Product Manager and Social Scientist, Marketing Officer at Prospanica Sillicon Valley. Erika has a PhD. in Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University. We spoke about her path to a PhD, her work as a professor and in hospitals, the 100 career discovery interviews she had for breaking into tech, and what would she do differently if she would have to do her career discovery journey all over again.

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  • 01:45 – Welcoming Erica Torres
  • 02:10 – About Erica and her journey in Silicon Valley
DISCOVERING PRODUCT MANAGEMENT Erica is a tracked psychologist fascinated about Tech, people, what inspires them and what gets in their way. She joined the National Institute of Mental Health Program for diverse first generation college students to help her get to Grad school and do an intensive fellowship research at UCSF. Beaten by the system, she started digging into Tech, having her first introduction back at Undergrad school working on an online smoking cessation program, and approaching over 100 people through career discovery interviews, choosing to do Product Management.
  • 06:57 – With a PhD, almost four years as a professor. What was it like?
A PROFESSOR DISCOVERING AREA OF INTEREST Erica was a professor for more than three years, and loved it. It was a job she would do on a side, but unfortunately would not pay her bills. It was through an insight into Psychobiology that she discovered her interest for behavioral medicine and ended up specializing in her postdoc and in hospital settings.
  • 08:43 – From academia to a hospital setting. See patients as a psychologist?
  • 11:57 – Pursuing a PhD, with a job as a professor and job at hospital. Why tech?
WHY TECH? Tech has always been of Erica’s interest, and her exposure began when she met her software engineer husband. After going through career discovery interviews she realized it was the same she had been doing so far, the same skill set, that she wouldn’t have to go back to school to leverage those skills, and found her focus in health.
  • 14:46 – Not going back to school for another degree. Any exposure to data analysis tools? Sql?
  • 16:35 – Curiosity about getting a career in tech. Why Product Manager?
  • 19:31 – The way in which Erica approached people when wanting to do career discovery interviews
  • 26:54 – First opportunity as a Product Manager
FIRST OPPORTUNITY AS A PRODUCT MANAGER Erica was giving a chance to private practice when she got contacted by somebody on LinkedIn looking for a Clinical Product Manager. She was able to do the job as a subject matter expert. It was on a part time basis, and for a whole year testing and experimenting a prototype to see whether she wanted to do the switch or not. “If you want to become a Product Manager, think about what are you a subject matter expert on that is not Tech related. All companies building products for that audience need product managers who can speak that language”
  • 31:58 – What would Erica do differently if she would have to do her career discovery journey all over again  
  • 35:44 – Erica’s last words
Key Takeaways:
  • Three years as a professor >
  • “It was an opportunity to learn more about herself and what she needed to gain more insight about”
  • Doing an insight into psychobiology, helped her discover that she really loved neuroscience and biological basis of behaviour, leading her into behavioral medicine
  • Why tech? >
  • She did career discovery interviews (Informational interviews)to discover what she liked > Before moving into tech, she got to talk with over 100 people in different areas of tech, about their experience and how they got to do what they were doing
  • “It was exactly what I have been doing; same skill set, but different terms” It was something she could do without having to go back to school to leverage skill set
  • “There is an enormous potential in health tech and tech for good”
  • Data analysis tools >
  • SPSS is a friendly user tool
  • Hugo likes Python first because it is very straightforward and has a lot of resources; “Learn how to learn, it is part of the job”
  • Why Product Manager >
  • After career discovery interviews, Erica prepared a spreadsheet with people she talked with and made a theme analysis, picking out common themes she found and writing about them “Mind map of decision making process”
  • “Any path can lead to product management; identifying problems and finding solutions” 
  • “She wanted to make a difference at scale without burning out, preserving her own sanity, keeping true to her own values, and being consistent and stable in her life”
  • Approaching people >
  •  She reached out for people through linkedin, and she searched for them sending concise messages in order to meet them, learn about them, and get new referrals
  • “Network in channels through linkedin to approach people”
  • “It is a small world when coming to latinos in tech, I have made it a point to be more involved in the community through linkedin and slack channels” “If you are in a network, you are inevitably going to find yourself in others”
  • First opportunity as a Product Manager >
  • “Having a supportive spouse and a mission helped her take a significant pay cut and experiment a whole year to see whether she really wanted to do the switch or not
  • Being a subject-matter expert on (expert on something she already knew), helped her become a product manager
  • To listeners > “If you want to become a Product Manager, think about what subject-matter you are an expert on. If you have 10 years experience in public policy, or in secondary education, or transportation or in any particular area or topic not tech related, you are a subject matter expert in that path. All companies building products for that audience need product managers that can speak that language.” “To pivot, you need to leverage the opportunities”
  • “There is  a business and tech component that you need to understand, and a user with whom you need to empathize with”
  • If doing a career discovery journey all over again >
  • “I should have started sooner, there is never a better time than now” 
  • “To pivot in a career, start NOW, do networking, connect with people, learn and take use of resources.”
Who is Hugo Castellanos? Find out about him on linkedin Thanks so much for listening to the show! If you want to know more about this or comment on the show, please join us on LatinosWhoTech or go to Conexiones 

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