Aspire to Tech: A Career as a Product Manager

Date: June 30, 2017
Category: BC Tech Blog

We had the pleasure of interviewing Ailsa Leen, a product manager at Microsoft's development centre in Vancouver. Ailsa was a part of our #aspiretotech campaign and we wanted to learn more about her and why she chose a career in tech. Here's what she had to say: 

BC Tech: Tell us a bit about your early years and where you come from...

Ailsa: I grew up in Edinburgh, United Kingdom (which everyone should visit!). I was pretty shy and terrible at sports but loved reading and writing all types of stories. My parents are both doctors, and I was given a toy stethoscope and doctor’s kit when I was little, but at some point, while watching medical dramas on TV, I decided that it wasn’t for me...

Tell us about your career path and how it led to tech...

Ailsa: I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to study at university but did Engineering because it was practical and I knew I was quite good at Maths and Science. I knew I wanted something practical that set out to solve problems, rather than deeply exploring a research area that ‘might’ solve problems. For getting into tech specifically, it was something I’d never thought about, as I hadn’t learned much about computers or programming in high school. I did a couple of summer internships at a telecoms software company which was an opportunity to learn some coding but didn’t find the sector particularly interesting. I remember Microsoft being at the careers fair at university and I dropped off my CV on a whim simply because I had some copies going spare!. They called me for an interview, and I found the questions really interesting, and that was that! Before the interview, I really don’t think I had considered technology as a career and wasn’t aware of any of the non-coding opportunities available such as UX design or product management.


BC Tech: Tell us about some of the bigger roadblocks and struggles that you’ve had to overcome in your career...

Ailsa: I’ve been fortunate to have not yet experienced any great challenges while working in tech so far. Microsoft has been a very supportive environment to start my career and grow. My personal challenges have been some small things—getting better at communicating, being confident enough to speak out, take some risks and not have everything ‘perfect’ before kicking off a new project. I would never suggest that there are no challenges in the tech industry, especially as a young woman, and that I will not encounter any obstacles or biases in future, but I have had a wonderful experience so far.


BC Tech: Walk us through your work and what you’re working on now...

Ailsa: I work as a Product Manager on Microsoft OneNote. I’m currently working on two different areas: making our apps more accessible to people with disabilities, and improving our online integrations, such as integrating OneNote with Microsoft Teams. My job involves understanding what our users want to be able to do and what will make the experience better for them, and making sure that we make it happen. I do this by speaking to customers, conducting user research and looking at data of how people already use our products.


BC Tech: What does a normal day look like for you?

Ailsa: My usual days consist of a mixture of collaborating with others in the team and (hopefully) some thinking/planning time. When I’m working with others, we’ll likely be reviewing a feature when it is in the design or prototype stage, or figuring out how to get around a problem. Otherwise, I’ll be doing some planning for the future—looking through feedback channels (Twitter, in-app feedback, customer forums) to see if there are any interesting discussions/requests from customers. Another way to learn what our customers might want or are struggling is by looking at the data of how they are currently using our products, and by looking at competitors. Throughout the week, I’ll have at least one or two phone calls with customers to understand more about their experiences, and occasionally go to conferences or visit customers directly. I’ve had the opportunity to travel around North America and to Australia, Kenya, and Rwanda for customer visits. My aim for each day is to both get a better understanding of how our customers use our products and what they want and work with my team to build that for them.


BC Tech: What are the biggest motivators in your work? What drives you?

Ailsa: The thing that motivates me most is the impact that technology can have on people. Not just in making life more efficient or convenient, but by being able to remove obstacles that were there before. In particular, that’s why I love working on accessibility, because by making our apps more accessible (something all products should be!), users with visual, mobility or cognitive impairments can literally use apps and software that they couldn’t before. This can unlock a whole host of opportunities that they were previously excluded from.  Meeting these users are what drives me. I feel driven to keep improving at work and keep developing the skills that I need in understanding people and systems. I want to be able to work in any area of tech that I choose, to solve the biggest most exciting problems with the smartest and most passionate people. 

BC Tech: How do you feel about the state of tech in 2017, what excites you?

Ailsa: Tech feels more engaging now than it did when I first started working in the sector (a whole 2.5 years ago!). I think we have just passed peak app saturation and so instead of creating many slightly different solutions for small problems (another way to swipe right on people’s faces, or get your laundry delivered), people are starting to think about how to create the best experiences holistically (through more integrations, or physical touchpoints). Solutions are becoming bigger and more impactful, as we find new, harder problems to tackle and are able to use smarter tech like machine learning. Big tech companies are starting to become more human-centred in their approach as they realize the impact that small tweaks to their algorithms or interfaces can make. Things that excite me in tech in particular: smart cities, human-centred/inclusive design, this watch that could help people with Parkinson’s write again.


BC Tech: What advice would you have for young women/ young people who are really hoping to get into tech but just don’t know where to start?

Ailsa: There is a place for everyone in tech! Tech solutions are for all types of people, and so working in the sector is too. There are so many options, and so you should really choose what you are already interested in. There are companies working at the intersection of tech and so many industries now (media, education, sport, art, food, music, etc.), and all sorts of roles (data analysis, user research, engineer, graphic designer, customer support, the list goes on). Reading up on what’s happening in the sector through tech news is a good way to start finding your fit. If you really don’t know where to start, Product Manager is not a bad option.The role is for anyone that is passionate about what can be done with tech, and who wants to do the absolute best thing for their users. 

Want to learn more about what it's like to work in tech? check out our #aspiretotech page.