Yes We Can
Brenda Chang is currently a Senior Product Manager at Alto Pharmacy building a digital pharmacy that customers can access anytime at their fingertips. She has spent the last 5 years both scaling consumer products at Dropbox and Glassdoor as well as creating new consumer products from 0 to 1 at Lumosity. She comes from a non-traditional, non-tech background and transitioned into Product Management from data analysis. Her diverse experiences have developed strong flexible and adaptable frameworks for product strategy, growth, and monetization. She is most excited and fulfilled when she can lead her team to create elegant, simple solutions for complicated customer and business problems.
Yes We Can is a recurring series presented by Cloudflare Co-founder, President, and COO Michelle Zatlyn, featuring interviews with women entrepreneurs and tech leaders who clearly debunk the myth that there are no women in tech. To watch more episodes of Yes We Can — and submit suggestions for future guests — visit cloudflare.com/yeswecan
Hi, everyone. Welcome back to this week's episode of Yes We Can. I'm super excited to have Brenda Chang on today.
Hi, Brenda. Welcome. Thank you. Glad to be here. Super excited.
We're going to talk about product management and how you got into tech and all the amazing things you've done.
But first, some housekeeping items. For everyone tuning in, thank you.
If you have any recommendations of people you'd love to see on the show, I love getting your emails.
So feel free to email yeswecan at Cloudflare.tv, and I'd love to hear your recommendations.
So with that, and if you have any questions for Brenda, you can put them in and we'll try to get to them.
But Brenda, how's it going?
How's everything? I love your backdrop. It's beautiful. Thank you.
I spent a lot of time googling floor-to-ceiling windows natural light to find something soothing, but it's going well today.
San Francisco's raining, which is a nice, cool, pleasant kind of atmosphere.
Exactly. We were talking about that before we went live, that the rain is welcomed and needed.
I came into the office today.
So I'm in our office in Soma, and I have this yellow backdrop and trying to figure out the lighting in here anyway.
So it's super great. So we can get started.
So you have a degree in psychology from Northwestern, and you started your career in a business rotation program at General Mills.
And I thought you could start by telling us a little bit about your career at General Mills.
Yeah. So I graduated with a double major in economics and psychology because I love behavioral economics.
So being able to quantitatively and qualitatively analyze human behavior in order to understand decision-makings.
I wanted to use this skill and understanding in order to build world-class consumer products that were so valuable that they were ubiquitous.
That led to working at General Mills, a household brand name, a titan that's been around for over 100 years.
And I also thought I wanted to be an executive.
So I joined the leadership program so I would learn from the best on how to create these world-class consumer products.
I love it. And what was it like once you were there?
Is it what you thought it was going to be? It was, yes, kind of, no.
Yes, in the sense that I could clearly see the structure and rigor in how to create this kind of lasting business.
And I learned a lot from the business and the executives.
However, I was surprised by the speed. I knew bigger companies were slower, but it was even slower than my young, excited energy was ready for.
And I really craved innovation, which in these larger companies doesn't come as quickly or as effectively as maybe a tech startup.
I love that.
And so then you were telling me that you said, OK, the pace, the innovation, the growth kind of got you.
So in pursuit of growth and innovation, you decided to switch industries and said, OK, I want to go find that.
And you moved to San Francisco and you found yourself in technology.
And your first role was at Glassdoor.
So can you tell us, tell the audience, how easy was it to get that first role at Glassdoor?
Was it hard to switch industries? And how did you do it? Because I think there's a lot of people who are listening thinking, I might want to switch industries.
And I think you have a lot to share on this regard. Yeah. This first transition, I made many transitions in my career, but this first one was the hardest.
I was coming from a completely different industry, CPG, which has very little overlap, from a different city.
I was in Minneapolis coming to San Francisco.
So I didn't have a network that I could rely on, a network to refer me in, friends who could tell me about what it was like and get insider information.
I had myself in Google, which was, it's better than nothing, but it was still harder.
And I felt like I was going in a little blind. So what I learned was when you're transitioning and you have fewer resources, leverage what you have.
In my case, it was data analysis.
I did a lot of data analysis in my previous job. So I used that as a unique position for myself.
The other one is just the reality of it's going to be a numbers game.
I am not the typical candidate. So I'm waiting for the right recruiter to take a chance on me, which meant I applied to a lot of jobs.
There was a lot of emails, applications, very little response, long response times.
And I think it would have been easier if I expected that this would take longer and require a lot of applications in order to get in.
You had to really work at it. There was a lot of grit.
I think that I love that word. You just kept at it. You didn't get worn down.
I mean, maybe you got a little bit worn down, but you kept working at it.
And what sometimes I think is interesting is once you got the role and now, like you said, you've done so many interesting things, we're going to talk more about it.
You don't have to think about all the times that you heard no.
It was like, you just need one yes. You don't need 100 yeses. You just need one.
So good for you for keeping at it. Thank you. And so, yeah, I wish I had a network for people transitioning in.
If you have a network, leverage somebody within the company you're applying to to refer you in.
If you have even friends in the industry, talking to them to get a better understanding of what the market is looking for and what hiring managers are looking for.
But what did work out is having a unique position, such as data analysis, technical skills I found were more effective than soft skills, because soft skills are really something that come with hiring managers are waiting for with experience.
So having some kind of technical skill really helped.
I love it. You know, your story reminds me of my first job because I was also I mean, I know you did economics and psychology, but I did science and I was trying to get a job in business.
And a lot of people looked at my dream like I don't need a chemistry major here, but it actually seems like looking at data, data analysis.
That was how I got that. That synthesis, that analysis was a skill that's actually very hard to teach.
And so I found a manager who was like, wow, you really good at data analysis.
I'll teach you about the industry.
And that's also how I got my foot in the door, my first job. So I there's a lot of or one of my one of my first jobs.
So I had a very similar experience to you.
OK, so you're at Glassdoor as a business analyst and then you eventually found your way into product management.
Maybe you can tell us a little bit about how how you made that transition, because for you get to build products for for for consumers as a product manager.
We're going to talk more about that.
But how did you go from a business analyst into product management? Yeah, so when I was a product analyst at Glassdoor, I was supporting the entire sales organization with insights for them to close deals and renew deals.
The workload got so overwhelming that I decided to essentially build an internal product to sell so that sales teams could self-serve their own insights and I wouldn't have to work so many hours.
That process was so effective and I created a product so effective for the sales team that somebody actually told me, did you know that this is an actual job and career?
And I was like, this is so fulfilling and so much fun to deeply understand your customer's problem and then build something that doesn't just solve it once, but solve it for solves it for so many other cases.
And over and over again, this product is showing so much value.
So that experience led me into product management, knowing that the experience itself, I found fun.
Data analysis, again, was one of my core skills that I leveraged.
And so a combination of interest in product and emphasis in data analysis led to a growth role, a growth product management role at Dropbox, where I joined pre-IPO in order to work on retention.
So cool. I love that. I love that someone said, you know, you could do this for a living.
You're like, yeah, sign me up, but that's great.
Okay. So since Glassdoor, and we're going to come back to more about your role as a product manager, but before we get to there, since Glassdoor, so you've worked in a variety of companies and industries.
So you've worked at Glassdoor, you talked about Dropbox before they went public, Lumosity, where you helped build a mindfulness app, like a pharmacy.
And as you said, you've now also a product manager.
So when you look back at these, a collection of experiences where you've done so, you've been at early stage companies, later stage companies, different types of industries.
What are some things that you can share about us, like about having this collection of experiences?
Are you happy that you tried all of these different experiences or do you wish you kind of had found some of the things that you love now earlier?
Yeah. Like you said, I tried a lot of different products, company stages, industries, and like anything else, there are pros and cons.
On the pro side, constantly being challenged with different problems and different customers and creating different businesses has rapidly developed my ability to be flexible and resilient.
So no matter what changes are happening, whether it's with the company's organization, the strategy, the roadmap, the market, I can keep my team focused on our customers and creating lasting value for both our customers and our business.
Instead of learning formulas, I have developed a set of frameworks to find solutions that have been tested in many different companies and products and businesses.
For myself, a diverse range of experiences has been irreplaceable in figuring out what kind of work is compelling for me.
What do I find truly interesting and fun and invigorating and where my own unique strengths lie, having so many data points and constantly new projects and different kinds of projects.
So those are the pros. On the more difficult side, I think it is tough to constantly be context switching and not going fully deeper into one particular industry to get to that next level of deeper understanding.
In context switching, I am constantly finding new networks, new people, learning from zero to one again, and that can get tough, but I think that's what I was searching for.
Constantly challenge myself for those learnings in order to see what I'm good at, what I want, and really test my skills.
Wow, I feel like this is the definition of drinking from a fire hose, Brenda.
Drinking from a fire hose for like six years, you're just constantly more and more and more.
Rise to the challenge every single time, good for you. You certainly are not resting on your laurels, I guess.
It's like you're looking in and constantly in search of trying new things.
So I think that I predict that this collection of experiences will end up being a huge superpower of yours in this next chapter of your career, just because you can connect and you've seen so many different things and you've built this network.
It's a lot of work to do, but now I think it'll pay dividends in this next chapter of your career.
So good for you. Thank you. Okay, so today you're a product manager at Ulta Pharmacy.
So why don't we start by telling the audience a little bit more about Ulta Pharmacy, because I think it's a really cool company.
Yeah, so I am a product manager at Ulta right now, and Ulta is a digital pharmacy that offers free same-day delivery.
The ability to chat with a pharmacist, get insurance, help manage your medications at your fingertips.
So instead of having to go to a CVS or Walgreens, you have everything in your phone in order to manage your medications.
Amazing. Okay, and give us a little bit of sense of how big the company is, or how early, like how far along is it in its company lifecycle, and like who are some of your customers?
Yeah, my customers are the patients, and so I'm creating this experience on the app and on the website for patients to be able to experience a digital pharmacy.
Our company is in the growth stage.
We're a little mid to coming up on becoming big, growing very quickly. Our team is still pretty scrappy and lean.
Our development organization is a little less than 200 people, but our organization, because we are an actual pharmacy as well, operation-wise, is huge.
We're in many markets, SF, LA, Denver, Texas, New York, and we're constantly expanding and doubling our growth year over year.
Amazing. Is it, and just one more question, and then we're going to talk about being a product manager there, is it people in their 20s using Alto Pharmacy who don't want to go to the corner store, or is it elderly people that are using it, or is it people who can't get out of their bed?
Like who, or is it single people who like feel like they can't go to the pharmacy?
Like what are some of the pain points that Alto helps solve for your patients?
Yeah, so when Alto first started, and I think this is a common pattern around humans, is that we create products to solve our own problems.
So we had young co-founders who were working in tech in San Francisco, so we wanted to create originally a more convenient experience, not waiting in line.
So we were creating originally for the younger demographic that wanted convenience above all else, of not having to wait in CVS to get their medications.
Over time, as we've gotten to the scale of where we are, we have realized that the real target audience that we can benefit the most with this service are actually chronic condition patients, patients who have a lot of medications, who are going to a pharmacy constantly, and being exposed to a pharmacy, especially in a global pandemic, is a huge pain point for them.
And patients with chronic conditions and a large medication list are typically older and with different kinds of long -term heart conditions and things like that.
Amazing, that's great. Well, I think that there's so many use cases for why this is so important.
So I know it started with convenience, but I love how it's expanded to like, actually, it helps deliver value to a lot of people who can't physically go in person.
Okay, so now you're a product manager at Alto, and you're a consumer product manager.
So this is an ultimate job in technology. I know some of you are like, I want to be a PM, how do I do this?
And as a product manager, you get to design the products for your consumers or your customer, in this case, your patients.
So why don't you share with the audience a little bit of, like, what does a product manager do all day?
Yeah, and so I've been a consumer PM for most of my experience directly with the consumer product.
And in the industry, there are many different kinds of product managers and their day-to-day is different.
But for me, my role as a product manager, my ultimate goal is to amplify the output of my team by figuring out what is the right problem to solve at this moment and enabling my team and their strengths in order to find the best solution.
So I lead engineers, designers, and cross-functional partners to make the products in the app and the website to use our services efficiently, easily, and over and over again.
My day-to-day is very wide -ranged, though. I am sometimes working with leadership in order to create product strategy.
I'm sometimes working with research and support in order to better understand our customers and their problems.
Sometimes I'm working with marketing to find the best positioning for our customers to understand this new business and new concept, or how to position within the market against all these competitors.
Sometimes I'm working with business operations in order to understand how to acquire new types of customers and retain them, such as these older patients, as we've expanded beyond younger demographics in serving their pharmacy needs.
I'm sure that what resonates with someone with a series of chronic illnesses is different than somebody who's like, oh, I'm short on time.
How can you help me? You position it differently.
It might be looking differently. You might find those people in different places.
So that's great. So you do a lot of different things. You're wearing a lot of different hats as a PM, it sounds like.
Very varied, as you said, in pursuit of finding these amazing products to help solve your end customers' problems.
So what are some of your favorite parts of your job as a consumer product manager?
What are some of your favorite things that you love to do as a consumer PM?
Yeah, I have stayed in this career path and really loved it and gravitated towards it because it's so fulfilling to solve a problem for thousands to millions of customers, to create something so beautifully simplistic, solving a complicated problem that, again, thousands to millions of people are using it over and over and telling you how much they appreciate this, they love this, they use it so much that they'll spend money on it, come back to it over and over again.
So I find this very fulfilling to create essentially beautiful solutions for people.
And it's also a lot of fun to assemble a team of incredibly smart, passionate, creative people, almost like assembling your own Avengers team.
You have engineers, designers, marketing, operations, like everyone has their different strengths.
And as a product manager, I get to figure out how to leverage these strengths in order to create something even better than we could have done on our own.
So that is some of the highlights of being consumer product manager.
I love that. I want to like bottle that up and put it on repeat because it's just your passion and your excitement for this comes through.
And I think that it's, I don't think that's well understood what PMs do.
So thanks so much for sharing that with us in the audience today.
What's something that's maybe harder than you thought, or maybe it might not be obvious about, like as your job.
So obviously you love it.
There's so many great things, kind of orchestrating this team to create these amazing simple solutions that really do help thousands of millions of people.
And I think like that scale of impact is hard to understand, except for when you're in it, you're like, wow, this is a big impact.
What's maybe something that is different than you thought, or might be harder or isn't obvious as a PM?
Yeah. Consumer product is difficult. It is very risky and it is, when you succeed, the wins are huge, which is what attracts people of all kinds, including me to this area.
But there is a lot of failure and there's a lot of learning.
So in building consumer product, nobody makes decisions. Humans don't make decisions in a linear way.
There's no one -to-one of, they have this problem, build this, immediately you get a result.
You need to really understand your customer's jobs.
And so one of the pitfalls, or one of my own pet peeves of consumer product managers is the misunderstanding of customer empathy.
I commonly hear feedback when creating products, things like, I don't like that.
I don't enjoy that myself.
So we shouldn't make it for our customers. Customer empathy should be more about deeply understanding the job that your target customer needs to solve.
And sometimes, many times, you are not your customer, or you are not the target audience.
In understanding their job, it's more complex than a single point of experience, but how the whole thing ties together to solve a complicated problem, the logistics that go into it, things that make it challenging right now that are both obvious and not obvious.
And so this customer empathy, I think, is something that is difficult to grasp in consumer product management.
And the other challenge that people might not know about is that it is a lot of learning, and learning comes from a lot of failure.
So creating consumer products is not, I mentioned before, it's not linear.
And so there's a lot of iteration. There's a lot of learning.
And the framework for developing something that works is built on a lot of failure points, where you challenge your assumptions, you develop new hypotheses, and every point, you're learning more about your customers and what they need and how you can do better with your solutions.
Oh, my goodness. I don't know if you have an example off the top of your head where you could give us an example of how you had to fail many times to find the success or the iterations, because I don't think that's well understood.
I think this is a really good point of like, it's not well understood of how you got to keep going at it to find the big aha.
I don't know if you have an example that you can maybe share with us, with the audience.
Oh, for sure. One of the projects I did at Alto was asking a patient to transfer their medications from their previous pharmacy to Alto.
So as the patient is using us, especially for chronic patients, they have medications at their previous pharmacy.
So we wanted to bring them over and so they could fill all their medications with Alto.
And it took a lot of learnings to understand what kind of way to ask the patients for their other medications and where in their life cycle was a good place to ask their medications.
First, we started with obvious points.
We thought it would be straightforward and in a way where we would ask after a successful delivery, you know, a high point in the patient's experience is they just received their medication without having to go to wait in line at a CVS and we include a caramel in the package with which patients love.
So that would be a great time to say, did you enjoy this experience? Fill your, bring your other prescriptions to Alto.
And we found out that patients hated it and we were surprised why.
And over time, we learned that medications and the way that patients are thinking about medications, it's not like DoorDash where you get your, you frequently get your meals and it's kind of this delightful, frequent, common experience.
Medication is very particular to the patient and they only want to think about it when they're, when they need to get their medications.
And so we had to put it in a different place in the journey and asking for patients to transfer their medications in was not something that immediately clicked with them.
We had to ask them in a particular way of showing them that it's not about us wanting to get more of their money of medications, but we were asking, this was convenient for you.
It can be more convenient if our pharmacists can see all the other medications that you have.
So we can recommend a better treatment or better services.
We can make it even easier for you. So you don't have to schedule medications with us and then go to a pharmacy, but how does this benefit the patient?
Took a lot of experiments in order to get there. Yeah. There's some things where I'm like that for sure will work, but you're right.
You never know until sometimes you don't know until you try it.
So thanks for sharing that. That helps put it into context.
Okay. So there's a bunch of people listening or like, okay, Brenda, I want your job.
This is so cool. I want to build experiences, elegant solutions, elegant products that help solve lots of people's problems around the world.
And so if someone's listening and they want to become a product manager and either get into it or switch from another part of it, maybe another role into product management, what advice do you have for them of how to pursue their career as a product manager?
As somebody who switched both industries and product management, I really encourage everyone who's interested to try.
I'm not having any previous experience should not be a barrier.
Product management is a pretty new field and the industry's ethos is all about doing and trying new things that people have not done before, which means there are really no rules.
While there are no rules though, there are general guidelines to the playing field.
And so as somebody new to the industry, there's no rules.
Like you have to be an engineer.
You have to have built something before you have to be from a certain school.
Those you don't have to have anything in order to be a product manager. However, there are guidelines for how hiring managers and recruiters are looking for product managers.
So as somebody transitioning in, I advise quickly learning how to speak like a product manager, whether or not you've had an official title.
And I think as I'm saying it, it sounds a little bit like I'm saying fake it till you make it, which maybe it's kind of like one brand of fake it till you make it.
But essentially when you are able to speak, like you understand the field, you understand this role and what it's trying to do.
You are more able to succeed in the real hurdle of getting your first PM job, which is the interview stage.
In the interview stage, hiring managers, recruiters are looking for certain skills, frameworks, ways of thinking.
And so prioritize learning what they're looking for in interviews, how they're asking you questions, what kind of responses are they looking for?
What kind of strategies, frameworks are they looking for? And that is something that can be learned.
Something that you could read books for, talking to other peers, training in cases, interviewing practices.
These are all within your control to develop the skill and to get into the industry.
I love it. So get the interview and then do a really good job on the interview.
It's almost like a test.
It's like you got to score well on the test. And so just prepare for the test and speak the language and have the lingo and probably have some points of view around the product, what you like and don't like and what you would change if you were a PM and why.
And that's great. And so you mentioned frameworks a couple of times on this segment and reading.
Can you maybe point to these frameworks?
Maybe give us a little bit of insight of what some of those are or if someone's listening and saying, what do you mean by framework?
Can you give us an example or point the audience to a place to go learn more about this and where they can read more about the lingo and how to think like a product manager and any resources you have?
Yeah. So for these frameworks and lingos, there are so many books out there that I think have embedded and are still recommended by product managers across the industry, even for peers who are looking for new jobs.
We use these books like Cracking the PM Interview.
I'm forgetting the one by Lewis Lin, but these books teach you the frameworks.
Yeah. On Decode and Conquer on how to understand these things.
If you go online, there are many blog posts on Medium and other platforms to see other product managers talking about these things.
LinkedIn, you can follow certain product managers in your industry, certain leaders, and see articles that they've written themselves.
I followed Deborah from Facebook on how she leads a product organization and leads as a woman leader in tech.
And so you can find these thought leaders, common industry textbooks to figure out what are these ways of sounding and understanding the playing field of product management.
I love it. There's one of the themes that comes up so much on Yes, We Can is you can learn it.
If you don't know it all today, just go learn it. Curiosity, like the rate at which you learn, curiosity pays dividends in this industry.
And I think that that's what I hear coming. It's like, just pick up the book, read the book, and now all of a sudden, you know a lot more than you did before the book.
And it doesn't need to be any more complicated than that. And if you really want to do it, you can do it.
So I think that there's something, obviously, you have this very can-do attitude, Brenda, which is very contagious for the rest of us.
So it's great. OK, so we have two minutes left. And so my last question that I like to ask everyone who comes on the show is around, you are a woman in technology, you just mentioned it, Deborah, who runs one of the product leader at Facebook.
So you yourself is a woman in technology. And so one of the things I would like to ask everyone who comes on the show is, where is the industry lived up to your expectations?
And where has it fallen short? So I've come from consumer packaged goods, general mills.
I have some perspective from other industries and friends in other industries.
And one of the pros is that tech is most vocal about being progressive and changing things for women.
However, through many jobs at different companies in different stages, I still find myself in leadership meetings where I'm very much the odd one out.
And it's a challenge for me to make my strategy and perspective heard.
I also, in my many jobs, rarely get to be managed or led by a woman.
And being coached by essentially a monolithic culture gets tiring after a while because you're not able to vibe with the kind of energy and perspectives that you have.
You constantly feel like you're being molded into something different that may be not as genuine to your own values.
However, I'm still in the industry.
And so I hope for the industry because my peers are quite diverse.
I think you can see that within the IC or senior PM or even group PMs, it's getting more and more diverse.
And my peers are now becoming these leaders, these directors.
There's fewer of us in the EV stage, but there's more of my diverse peers coming into these leadership positions now.
So I see the changes happening where these peers are coming into higher positions of power and they're supporting each other.
And even in the top higher ranks, allies are sponsoring diversity to succeed and making a proactive effort and not just talking to it.
So while I still feel like it's an uphill battle, there are things changing and support systems that are much more proactive than before.
Brenda, I'm excited to see what you do next.
Thank you so much for being here today. I'm inspired. You're wonderful.
And thank you so much for taking the last 30 minutes with us. Thanks everyone for tuning into this week's episode of Yes, We Can.