Hi! I’m Koren and I’ve been a product manager at Facebook for five years. Unlike a lot of PMs, I started my career in a completely different industry, in a different place, and had a very non-traditional path to product. As such, this story will focus on finding your path (in your career or otherwise).
My official career story…
Here’s my un-editorialized career path until now:
- I practiced law for several years as a litigator handling multidistrict litigation. I was admitted to practice in the United States Supreme Court. I was named a Top 100 Trial Lawyer. And I managed teams working on complex litigations. The last trial I worked on resulted in a $9 billion verdict, which apparently was the 7th largest punitive verdict in U.S. history.
- I spent the last two years of my legal practice learning to code. I quit my job in 2014 and attended Flatiron School, a coding bootcamp in New York City, where I learned Rails. I went rogue on the curriculum and instead started building apps early.
- I had three front end dev offers within two weeks of graduating from Flatiron, and accepted a position as a front end engineer at J.Crew, where I coded professionally for about a year. I rebuilt an internal email tool and served as the quasi product owner for that product. I won an award for Most Impactful Hack at our annual Hackathon for personalizing the J.Crew home page.
- My first product role was at Dollar Shave Club, which was acquired by Unilever for $1 billion a year after I was hired. I was promoted to senior product manager soon after.
- I’ve been a PM at Facebook for five years, currently in the Communities Product Group. Previously, I spent a year and a half in Central Privacy, and two and a half years in Product Foundation. I was promoted on both of my prior teams.
This may seem like a smooth and linear transition from law into tech. It may seem like I woke up one day, decided to change careers, and — poof! — I became a PM. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
A behind the scenes look…
I decided to go to law school when I was a junior in college. I was a psychology and criminology major and really wanted to work for the government. I enjoyed law school, graduated with honors, and was offered a position as an Assistant District Attorney in my home state of Massachusetts. I felt proud of myself, as I had accomplished what I’d set out to do.
Unfortunately, my feelings of success were derailed when I realized I had six figures in student loan debt and was making very little money as an ADA. I liked my job, but the financial stress was overwhelming, and I began interviewing at law firms. I was young and impatient and, despite interviewing at firms of all sizes, took a role at a small firm. A year and a half later, I made a vertical move to a larger firm, but they laid off their entire incoming class in 2008 during the recession. After that, I moved to New York and joined another small firm.
This unexpected change in path was difficult for me. Although I worked with wonderful people over the years, I never intended to work at a law firm. I felt as though I was coasting through my career, never making deliberate decisions about what was best for me. I felt no connection to my work, and the constant travel, long hours, and high stress level started to eat at me. I wasn’t happy. But even worse, I didn’t feel I was living up to my potential, and this made me feel like a failure.
I wondered what else I might do, but had no idea where to begin. I read books about life after the law, and about finding your life purpose, but I continued to struggle. It was a confusing and dark time, and I felt lost.
The last year of my legal practice was by far the most stressful. In an effort to improve things, I switched firms and spent a year prepping for a single trial. I experienced every nightmare you’ve ever heard about working at a law firm, and am fairly sure I slept in my office a few times. While awful, this experience gave me the push I needed to make a major change, and for that I’m grateful.
- Listen to your gut — even if you don’t know what message it’s sending
- Really hard times often result in the most personal growth
I did enjoy writing legal briefs (this is a Ninth Circuit Appellate Brief). In my early Facebook days, I often received constructive feedback about improving brevity. 🙂
UNEXPECTED PIVOTAL MOMENTS
In 2012, I missed having a creative outlet, and loved to travel, so I started a blog about travel and life in New York City (still online today as I’m too emotionally attached to it to stop paying for the URL!). I had been trying to customize the search box on WordPress, went into the CSS files, found the hex code, and turned the box pink. I realize this is only CSS, but it was a pivotal moment, and it sparked an interest to learn more. To this day, changing that hex code is a defining moment in my life.
The second pivotal moment happened in 2013. I remember being up one night at 4am working on a website for someone, and had to force myself to go to sleep to get enough rest for my job the next day. Suddenly, I had a light bulb moment — I think people get paid to do this! At the time, coding bootcamps were a new thing, and there was very little information about their track record. I applied to a few, and chose to attend Flatiron School, which I felt was the best program in New York. In 2014, I said goodbye to my legal career.
- Do something — anything
- You may have skills or strengths that are not obvious
Flatiron School was very difficult. Not only was learning Rails difficult, but I was surrounded by people who were younger and less established in their careers but seemed to pick up the material faster. I found the labs and homework to be challenging, and even thought about quitting.
Working as a software engineer was hard work and I remember feeling crippling stress when senior engineers were impatient with me, or when I struggled to make something work. I found it overwhelming to work within such a large codebase. I wondered, almost daily, whether I’d made some massive mistake. I left a decent legal career, took a huge pay cut, moved in with friends after living alone for years, and there was no guaranty any of this was going to work out. Despite putting in so much effort to make such a major change, I still felt lost.
I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t the art of coding that I loved, but the process of bringing an idea to life, which is what drew me to product. I was also driven to product as it seemed to combine the things I loved about litigation (defining an issue, leveraging evidence and caselaw to create a framework for thinking through that issue, and applying that framework to craft a compelling narrative) with the creativity and empathy required to design and build something.
- Careers and learning are not linear – stop expecting them to be
- Your ego is not your friend
J.Crew was located in 770 Broadway at the time, the same building as Facebook. I snuck into FBNY on my last day at J.Crew and signed The Wall.
When I started applying for product jobs, I faced a ton of rejection. Recruiters wouldn’t speak to me because I didn’t have “product manager” on my resume. Cold applications went unanswered or were rejected. I had a referral to Microsoft Yammer, passed the homework assignment and initial interviews, and was flown out to San Francisco for the final loop. Two weeks later, I was told they hired someone with more experience. Another FAANG company would not interview me for a product role, even with a referral, and insisted I interview for an engineering position. I felt like I was climbing an insurmountable mountain, waiting for someone to give me a chance.
Soon after, that chance came. The VP of Product at Dollar Shave Club thought my background was interesting, and agreed to a call. In 2015, I moved from New York to Los Angeles, and started my new life. After so many years of uncertainty, and so much hard work, it finally felt like things were coming together. I learned so much at DSC, had amazing mentors, and experienced a unicorn exit at my first startup. But most of all, I loved being a PM. As a PM, I was able to leverage all of the skills I’d developed as a litigator, but in a workflow and environment focused on creativity, authenticity, and collaboration.
Two years later, I received an exciting email from Facebook, and somehow made it through the screening interviews to the on-site. I was interviewed by someone who would end up being my first manager at Facebook. I remember he asked me what my proudest career moment was, and I told him it was sitting there, interviewing at Facebook. Not because it was Facebook, or because my ultimate goal was to work there, but because I had taken a massive risk in my life, and after so much struggling, I finally felt like it was paying off. He asked me what gave me the conviction to make such a change, and I believe I told him that I didn’t want to look back on my life later, know that I’d been unhappy, and regret not doing something to change it.
My time at Facebook hasn’t always been easy, but it’s the best job I’ve had, and it’s made the difficult journey to get here worthwhile. I learned many lessons on my road to Facebook, and I’ve made it a point to live by these lessons as a PM here.
- You are who you project yourself to be
- No one knows what they’re doing all the time — uncertainty, failure, and rejection are part of the human experience
The PM-Emmys were a lot more fun before Covid. Special shoutout to LON for going to happy hour beforehand. Truly the best entertainment.
As I mentioned, I learned many lessons on my journey, and most of those lessons have continued to guide me throughout my PM career at Facebook:
Careers and learning are not linear – stop expecting them to be: This is a bit cliche, but it’s also the absolute truth. Sometimes you need to stay focused on your goal, even when it seems like you’re taking a step back. Your career is a long-game. Had I not been willing to take a non-linear path, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The same is true for learning – learning something new can feel really painful and often happens via a series of incremental breakthroughs.
Your ego is not your friend: On a similar note, your ego is not your friend. After practicing law for several years, I started as an entry-level software engineer, and then as a newly minted PM. I came to Facebook two levels lower than I am now — I had under two years PM experience, and they simply wouldn’t let me negotiate. Although I felt under-leveled, I chose to work hard and believe that my hard work and impact would be recognized.
Listen to your gut — even if you don’t know what message it’s sending: Your gut is that internal voice that tells you when something feels right or wrong. If there’s a nagging feeling that you’re not in the right place, not doing the right thing, not living up to your potential, or simply not happy – listen to it – because your circumstances won’t change without doing so. You don’t need to know how to respond in order to recognize that something isn’t right.
Do something — anything: When I set out to make changes, I had no idea where to begin. I knew in my gut something felt wrong, but I had no idea what was right. When I started my blog, I had no intention of being a travel blogger or of becoming a full-time writer. I just needed a creative outlet. Little did I know, that blog changed my life. I may never have changed that hex code, and my life may be in a completely different place today. If you’re feeling stagnant, or unsure how to address the feeling in your gut, just get out there and do something (even something small). That something may lead you someplace unexpected.
You may have skills or strengths that are not obvious: People ask me a lot how I made the move to product, since practicing law is “so different.” As I mentioned above, being a litigator requires a very similar thought process to a PM — but the medium is very different. My role as a lawyer was to look at a set of circumstances, evidence, and testimony, determine what the narrative should be, provide a framework for others to understand, and get buy-in from a judge or jury. As a PM, I still leverage data and research to craft a narrative, create frameworks to solve difficult problems, and get buy-in from leadership and hopefully from our users. Except I get to do this in a much more creative way. If you’re struggling to figure out what skills might be transferable, or how you can best leverage your experience to do something new, try to think outside the box to uncover parallels that may not be obvious.
You are who you project yourself to be: Often, when we’re trying to make changes, we feel like an imposter, and we aren’t willing to hold ourselves out as the person we want to be. Making real change requires changing this mindset. You must stop thinking of yourself as trying to be someone else, and start thinking of yourself as the person you want to be, and then hold yourself out to others as this person. You are your own best advocate, and if you don’t believe in yourself, it will be that much harder for others to believe in you.
Really hard times often result in the most personal growth: When I look back on my journey, there were several difficult periods, especially that last year of my legal practice. But it also forced me to imagine a different life, and gave me the push I needed to move forward, and I’m much happier as a result. Try to keep perspective when times are tough, and use that as fuel to make a change. Adversity is one of the best change agents.
No one knows what they’re doing all the time — uncertainty, failure, and rejection are part of the human experience: People often assume my journey was intentional or easy. They don’t know about the struggle I experienced for years, or the insecurity I felt at various points in my career, including while at Facebook. Often, the people you perceive as successful have experienced periods of uncertainty, failure, and rejection. This is part of the process — we all face it, it shouldn’t discourage you, and it’s rarely an indicator of future success. What’s important is how you respond to it.
Thanks to the people who helped me along the way <3
- PM Career Story - April 28, 2022
- How to Transition into Product Management - December 26, 2017
- What I’ve Learned in My First Few Months as a Product Manager - October 14, 2015