On mentorship, breaking into PM, and creating solutions for the unknown with Katie Doran at Facebook Reality LabsFeatured

I spoke with @KatieDoran, people manager and Technical Program Manager at Facebook Reality Labs where she enables teams to realize the future of AR and VR. Katie was previously at Amazon (Alexa and Cloud Drive) and Microsoft (HoloLens) and is a proud PhD dropout. Katie shared tactical advice on finding mentorship, driving career growth, learning to learn, breaking into the PM world, and creating solutions for the unknown. How do you navigate mentorship at large companies?In both finding mentors for myself and in being a mentor, my core approach is that I don’t want to be “the next” or “the second” or “another”. Nor do I want anyone to be “the next/the second/another Katie”. I think there is a tendency to seek out one, be-all mentor and that approach doesn’t best serve a mentee, because fully emulating someone else leaves you with their same weaknesses and blindspots when you could, instead, have those things as strengths!I’m not actually much of a Pokemon player, but my rough understanding of the game is that you collect these little battle creatures and then you go into the arena where you’ll be faced with random opponents. Mentors are like Pokemon. If you pick only one Pokemon, say, a fire creature, and it is big and strong and powerful...but then you get faced with a water creature in the arena, you’re going to lose (I think? Again...not a Pokemon player). Just like Pokemon - your mentors are going to have strengths and weaknesses and their approaches are going to vary on how well they map to your own preferences and experiences. In finding mentors, you want to find people who have strengths that make sense in your own career toolbox. This means you may have one mentor for public speaking, one mentor for conflict resolution, and a third mentor for self-advocacy. This gives you a broader set of tools and techniques so you can face obstacles more effectively in your work arena. As an added benefit, you can often get more traction when you approach a new, potential mentor with a concrete ask (“I think you’re excellent at driving productive meetings, this is something I want to work on - would you be willing to mentor me on this?”) as opposed to a much more vague ask for mentorship in general. When I’m in the mentor role - I make a point to emphasize what my strengths are and the specific areas that I believe I can be helpful. I encourage my mentees to seek out other people to grow in areas where I am not strong. This also enables me to improve in my weaker areas through the growth of my mentees - which is a super cool part of mentorship that people often overlook: yes, mentees, you do help your mentors! What types of qualities do you look for in companies you join? Or is it more team specific/focused?Most of my job changes to date have stemmed, at least in part, from the sense of plateauing in my current environment. Much like in physical domains, where you need a steady increase in challenge (weight lifted, distance run, etc.) to keep growing/progressing, I believe that my career growth is best realized in environments that offer consistent challenge that scales with me - my core hypothesis boils down to challenge = growth, which definitely isn’t always right, but has mostly served me so far!Most companies will have some area where this kind of challenge/growth opportunity exists, but you have to find it. Some commonalities I’ve found are: Small teams targeting large problem spaces - these teams offer more room for scope and ownership because there’s just so much to be ownedRapidly growing teams - few things put as much strain on a team, and the TPM role specifically, as a rapidly growing teamNew, unsolved technical areas - teams that are playing catch up to a well-understood competitor often have well-understood plans and approaches. In new areas, with no generally accepted proof of concept available, everything is being made up as you go and that’s a massive challengeFor me - this has resulted in most of my career being in small, but growing teams focused on AR/VR-related work. I think rapid career growth is basically endless right now in this domain, (i.e. it is easier to keep growing than it is to plateau here) and that’s my priority right now.What is the most impactful project you have worked on and what did you learn from it?I was the Program Manager for the Interaction Language (shipped as: Gaze, Gesture, Voice or GGV) of the Microsoft HoloLens v1. It feels a bit weird and overinflated to say it, but I really am responsible for input and interaction for the first consumer AR device. If there’s one big learning from this - it’s that I can learn and do totally new things. This was actually my first, full-time industry job (I dropped out of my PhD program to join the HoloLens team), so I’d literally never done any part of my job before. On top of that, I had never even heard the term “Interaction Language” before. This was a problem space where I had absolutely no prior knowledge to draw on and it would have been super easy to just get totally stuck. to this really hard, frankly still not solved space of how to interact with an AR HMD. I feel exceptionally fortunate that this was my first role. I never had the opportunity to get into a rut of “this is the kind of problem I know how to solve” and then later be blindsided by a new type of problem. At this point, I actually believe my area of speciality is problems where there is not a known approach to get to a solution and I use the same “what do I know? What do I need to know?” framework to build momentum and make progress. What is your advice for students interested in breaking into program management?Absolute top advice: read Cracking the PM Interview. It is invaluable, I still pull out my copy anytime I’m prepping for an interview, even though I’ve been doing the job awhile now. Build a personal understanding of what program management is (as an example, I like to say Program Managers own “how” work gets done, while Product Managers own “what” work gets done, and Engineers own actually doing the work) and then identify or acquire experiences that support that type of work. Volunteering and undergraduate research projects are great avenues to do this. Look at the type of questions you can expect in a PM interview (again, Cracking the PM Interview is so valuable here!) and see what answers you have available. Unlike other roles, PM interviews will focus significantly on past experience in a retrospective format - so optimizing for the interview here isn’t the same as memorizing a bunch of old-school Google interview brain teasers, it really is going out and getting the experience that will enable you to provide solid, STAR-structured answers about the value you bring as a PM.It seems like program management involves a lot of cross functional work. What have you learned about working across teams?Working cross functionally is super hard and super rewarding. I think the best cross-functional TPMs are able to fully embody the “strong opinions, weakly held” mindset. When you are working across teams, you are not just an advocate for your engineers - you’re the person charged with making sure an entire project, that depends on many contributions from many teams, lands successfully. This means always keeping an eye on that final goal, and adjusting rapidly in the moment to discover compromises and paths forward. TPMs who misstep in cross functional work often do so with good intent, but narrow focus. Two common cases are: (1) TPMs who get so attached to their role of “protecting their engineers” that they struggle to collaborate with a Product Management or Design partner and view every new ask as scope creep that must be destroyed. (2) TPMs who are deep subject matter experts in their domain and push for their own ideas and solutions, rather than embracing their role as one where they own a decision getting made. How did you decide to go into tech rather than stay in academia?I started doing research work in an academic setting as an undergraduate student and, at the time, research was the only place I knew where you could own a sizable project end to end and really be dependent on effective collaboration in a meaningful way (not at all like a group project in a classroom setting). Academia can really narrow your view of the world, though, and I genuinely never considered that the type of work I loved might exist elsewhere without all the elements I hated (publications, grant writing, living off of stipends that put you at or below the poverty line). Then, almost by pure happenstance, I landed an internship at Microsoft Research. My role was basically part Program Management and part Researcher...and I realized that all these things I genuinely love doing, that energize and excite me, they’re actually a job that exists that I could do without a PhD. With that realization, there was no reason for me to stay in academia any longer. My mentor was super supportive and I dedicated part of my internship time to making connections and finding a full-time role. What are you most excited about at Facebook moving forward?This is one where I could ramble for way too long or provide a one line answer, there’s no easy middle ground. So, I’m going to stick with the one line: I genuinely believe that Facebook is tackling AR/VR in the “right way” and that’s something I wasn’t sure could be done in industry and I find endlessly exciting and inspiring. How do you learn outside of the job?I’m endlessly curious - I am a near obsessive Googler of things. Random term I don’t recognize in an article? Google. Fun fact mentioned in a documentary? Google. Item on a menu I haven’t seen before? Google. I’ll end up down a Google rabbit hole getting a crash course in the history of egg tarts (which is FASCINATING, by the way) or some other totally random topic just because it’s new and interesting and I have the technology to know more.I also read a lot, I’m a podcast addict, I’m always picking up random new activities, and I’m 100% bought into the idea that you can learn something from absolutely everyone. That last one, admittedly, comes with the downside of being the annoying person who does the “why do you think that?” and “tell me more about that?” thing at parties...sorry, friends! On career specifically, all of the above absolutely contribute (especially reading) and I have a career coach I’ve worked with for years to help me maintain a focus on my full career, not just the here and now of my current role.
Yay! Thank you so much, @jessicali! Really enjoyed working on this with you.If anyone in our fabulous Elpha community is curious to dig into anything I mention here, please reach out in the comments or send a message!
Great interview! Thanks for sharing @katiedoran 😊
Hello ma'am, how is your day going so far?
Thank you so much, @KatieDoran :)