The Continuous Learning Path of a Product Manager & The Toll It Can Take On Your Mental Health
Tiffany Chang: "The Awakening I had was that moment of realization, when I realized that continuous learning and taking care of my mental health, were not mutually exclusive. I think especially nowadays, it's extremely easy to default to the rat race narrative of life that the general population has been led to buy into and follow... And being willing to craft a path for yourself, if you see that your vision for yourself cannot be accomplished through traditional path"
product, engineering, feelings, honestly, mental health, journey, important, realized, continuous learning, internship, led, tiffany, life, burnout, people, insights, hear, months, community, study
Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered in our special q&a episodes. That's all at productvoices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.
Hello, Welcome to Product Voices. In product management, we are really on a constant learning journey. We're never really done. We've never learned everything there is we never become absolutely perfect at a skill or a mindset. There's always something we're working on something we're trying to improve upon. And frankly, that can be quite tiring and even difficult on our mental health. So today's episode, it's about that continuous learning path. But it's also about the toll that it can take on the mental health of a product manager. It's not an easy role. So I think this is a really important conversation that we're going to have in this episode. So my guest today is Tiffany Chang, Tiffany leads a newly formed product management team and a b2b supply chain startup based in Toronto, Canada. In her previous life, she was a chemical engineering student and has interned as a stem activity developer, technical writer, Agile coach and Process Engineering specialist, a self described introvert. I love my fellow introverts. She loves reading, writing musical theater, watching Japanese animated works, playing video games and exploring spirituality. Tiffany, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for having me, JJ. It's my pleasure and honor to be on your podcast.
Awesome. I'm looking forward to this conversation. As I said, I think it's an important one. So tell me a bit more about your journey into product management.
If I were to describe my journey into product, I would describe it in one word as nonlinear technically, that's a hyphenated word, but we'll count it as one word. As you said, in your introduction, I did not study a tech related field, I studied chemical engineering, a bit of background and context into that essentially, when I was in high school, I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My parents highly encouraged me because they saw certain industry trends around the world and recommended that I study one of the STEM fields some so to be quite honest, at the time, I really liked science and math.
But I was also always one of those people who really liked and enjoyed applying the knowledge. And I knew for one thing for sure, I did not want to go down the path of academia. So in that sense, I was able to rule out the pure science, the pure sciences and mathematics, technology, I honestly had no idea what that was all about at the time, besides using my personal computer to play games. So I just sort of fell into engineering and my dad, he studied civil engineering back in our home country of Taiwan. So he recommended I go down one of the traditional engineering paths, either civil, mechanical, chemical, or electrical. And again, in high school, I just knew from my physics classes, I do not like dealing with circuits. So electrical engineering was out of the picture. Um, in general, I found I wasn't really strong in physics. So I was also able to eliminate mechanical and civil engineering, which left me with chemical engineering, which I honestly thought was a great idea at the time because I loved chemistry in high school. So I thought, okay, let's perfect, I'm gonna love this program.
And then fast forward to university. After the first day or two, I realized, oh, my gosh, chemical engineering is not at all like what, what I learned in chemistry, it's very different. And I was sort of put in this position where I was a bit too stubborn to go and talk to an academic advisor to learn about what it would take to change engineering programs, so I just sort of stuck it through, pushed past that discomfort and that honest dislike for my program. Thankfully, my engineering school had mandatory internship experiences.
So graduating from my undergraduate program, I ended up with two years of internship experience, which made I think applying to full time jobs much more easier, not just having that experience already with, you know, writing resumes, attending interviews, but also just that idea of what it feels like to be rejected from potentially sending. I think, for my first internship, I sent 150 applications. And I actually got my first internship offer, just from a networking opportunity happened to be in the right place at the right time with a engineering outreach leader who I had volunteered under a couple of times before in my first semester. So that was really, really fun job. And then I realized I want to explore tech a bit more because the pacing was just a lot faster than what I was used to, from my studies in Chem edge. And so I was trying to figure out, okay, there's a lot of different jobs in tech, I don't think I want to be a developer. Like I like writing. So why don't I give tech writing a try. I did that for another two internships. So eight months in total, I realized I'd like to, but I don't want to make this my career for the rest of my life. And then that's when I decided to give my studies another chance. And just really, like validate. One final time is come in for me, do I want to maybe pursue this as a career did that for another four months, I really loved my team loved the company just didn't like the problem space I was working in.
So I thought, Okay, I've validated that command is not the career for me. And so I was like, Okay, I'm back in, back in the mindset of working in tech now. Okay, what do I want to do? And that's when I heard about agile coaching from an upper upper year leader, and he said, you know, you're really empathetic. You seem very curious about people. I think you'd be a great scrum master Agile coach. So why don't you give that a try? So I was like, okay, cool. Sounds cool. I'll give this a try. I really loved it. I did it for another eight months. So tune, two internships worth and again, fall into the same pattern sort of emerged. I love this work. I don't think it's I don't think I'll love it for an entire career. So I was sort of, again, at a bit of a loss when I was in my final year and 2020. I was like, Okay, I guess I can just search for project manager or project coordinator roles. And that's the, that's the job I was offered.
Out of my graduation. Still with the company that hired me right out of 2020. I've been with this company for two years now. And I was initially joined as a project coordinator around I think, my 10 month mark, I was promoted to project manager, I was that probably my coworker slot, I was an annoying Project Coordinator, because I would be the person always asking, like, why are we doing this? And not doing that? Why are we you know, fulfilling this customer's request, but not this other request? So eventually,
I was reminded of the time in university when I didn't hear about product management, I thought, huh, it's that kind of sounds like what I'm doing now. So why don't I pitch myself for this role. And this means that our company clearly means we need someone to really own that strategic alignment piece. And I really like Llosa Perry's model of the strategic work, the tactical work and tying the two together with the operational work. So that is for that operational work is what I'm heavily focused on, and leading my company and team in really building out that muscle which has been lacking, I will admit, working in a company that has been largely driven by a sales lead culture and very happy to say where we've had that Revelation where it's not a very sustainable way of working of operating a business and now we're just on that journey of turning the ship around and learning what it means, and how to go about becoming a product, lead organization.
I love that journey. One of the things I really liked about your story is that how would you were in project management? How the, the, you know, annoying asking the question of why, why, why that that was your first indication, you're gonna be a great product manager. That's, that's really cool.
So, you know, tell me about, like your awakening, that in product management, we're on this continuous journey for learning, and there's no, there's no end in sight. And some sometimes that's invigorating and wonderful that we're continuously learning. And sometimes we get this feeling like, Oh, my God, you know, are we ever going to get there? Is there a there? And are we ever going to stop learning? Tell me about the the, you know, what happened in your career, so far that you had that type of awakening?
Yeah, that's a great point, JJ. I'm just in my conversations with my various teammates who are, have much more specialized skill sets than I do. Being that generalist, you sort of have that interesting perspective, where sometimes you're at that 10, you're trying to maintain that 10,000 foot view, because you know, long term, that is where the company needs you to be focused on. But when it comes to actual day to day execution, sometimes you just have to go into the weeds, and you have to have those conversations, and be willing to engage in sometimes, quite frankly, uncomfortable conversations, especially when you're talking about areas where there's just very high uncertainty, where there's areas you know, there are potentially many, many risks, but sometimes you don't even know what those risks are at the time.
And you really come to appreciate the different skill sets the different domains of knowledge, and everyone's different lived experiences, as they're also at unique points in their own career journeys. And just really appreciating all of those nuances, and differences that you are ultimately responsible for and accountable for, for synthesizing so that as a product team and potentially, like in my case, this is the main line product that we're focused on. So even this entire initiative of relaunching a company unlearning a lot of mindsets and habits, reworking internal systems is involves so many different variables, and just so much different knowledge at different points of conversations are at different levels of nuance and detail.
And it's helped me to realize, I guess, in a way, product development really reflects the different aspects of life that I think I've only come to appreciate more, especially when it comes to diversity, of thought of perspectives of different lived experiences, and just really lean into learning to lean into everyone's unique strengths, and what they bring to the table so that as a whole, we can all increase our chances of success and definitely guarantee a lot of both personal growth and growth as a team are a collective whole.
And I've found that the more I've come to understand about everyone's unique domains of expertise, the more I've realized that how much more there is to know. And in the beginning, I'll admit that was very, at times daunting, and at some times, for lack of a better word very, it could be also in some ways, a bit discouraging because I've definitely had those moments where I thought, you know, I'm never going to understand this, too. 100%. So what's the point of trying to understand it at all, but then over time and in having the conversations, and in exploring some of these domains as well, in my spare time out of just pure curiosity and interest? The more I appreciate the fact that, you know, we're, we're never gonna have all the answers. But the important part isn't necessarily the destination of having all the answers, it's, the value is in the journey of getting there and also bring others along for the ride so that you can all even though one of you might not have all the answers, you can all come to a more holistic and more complete understanding of the full context of the bigger picture.
I think those are amazing insights for someone who's, you know, still fairly new in your career, I give you a lot of credit for the maturity that that shows, I don't know that I can say that I had that insight in that awareness when when I was your age at my at that point in my career. So I think that's really amazing. I give you kudos for that.
You know, one of the things that I admire about your generation, and I sound old when I say that, I hate that. But you and I are different generations. I've been doing this for a little while. Now, one of the things that I admire about your generation, generally speaking, is the focus on mental health and the focus on you know, living life, and you're still a very ambitious generation. And you certainly expect a lot of yourself, but you also expect a lot of your life. And to me, and again, I know I'm generalizing. And not everyone falls into that mold. But But to me, I like that. And I think it's something that's very healthy.
And not only is it going to help individuals, but it's going to help companies. And I've, you know, I think we're all starting to see a little bit more focus on mental health and, and focus on you know, how important that is. And so I want to talk to you and I want to ask you about, you know, in your career so far, what are the things that you've noticed in product management that led to maybe an enlightenment about how important it is to focus on your mental health in this in this profession.
So one of the first things i i noticed, and in some ways I'm grateful for that I experienced while I was in engineering school was a lot of the same sorts of patterns. So for example, especially earlier on in my engineering program, because the syllabus and the course, the mandatory courses were so set in stone, particularly in the first and second years of my undergrad program. And because I didn't like my program, the program to begin with the nature of the content that was covered in it, it honestly made it very hard for me to stay, to stay interested and invested in the program. And that honestly led to feelings of what I've come to call existential dread. So a lot of questioning of why the heck I was cure on this planet, question a lot about my feelings of suffering and going through what seemed to be just hardship after hardship and feeling like there was just no light at the end of the tunnel.
Not to mention, and you mentioned that you teach grad studies at Johns Hopkins, with their engineering faculty, and I'm sure this is such a common common theme for engineering students we work crazy hours I remember working like studying for like 70 to 80 hours of school or being in lectures every week. My program was a year round program in order to accommodate those two years of internship experience crammed into what was essentially a five year program. So we never really got like a full spring break or full winter break or things like that. And especially with engineering being such a competitive field nowadays at the undergrad level.
You You're surround you're constantly surrounded by other fellow high achieving people. So as soon as you see like that one bad grade, you suddenly start to discount everything about yourself for lack of a better word the imposter syndrome really kicks in and you, you honestly just doubt yourself in every, every way possible, you start to ask yourself, How did I get accepted into this university I don't deserve to be here. You know, I was came from high score, my grades were in the mid mid 90s, I've heard my school is even the entrance averages now are even higher than they were before, which honestly just boggles my mind. And a part of me feels very, very I stand in solidarity with public school students in Ontario, just because I can't imagine the pressure and stress that they must be under if engineering program is their undergrad goal.
And yeah, those feelings of just questioning yourself, your skills, your knowledge and questioning your existence leads to very strong feelings of cynicism. And another very common symptom of burnout is just that overall lack of energy, the things you used to like to do no longer are bring you joy just because you're just not in a very healthy state.
And I was very fortunate to have discovered this channel on YouTube in late 2019, called Healthy gamer GG. They're now a mental health startup, which was really cool. Their, their founder has a really, really interesting story about how he went from having a 2.5 GPA. So he was sort of, you know, not that stereotypically smart student. He did, he went to India to study initially wants to become a monk, then he realized he could still there was still a way for him to go into med school. So he actually ended up going to Harvard Medical School. I believe he was teaching there for a while, I think he recently resigned or something along those lines. So definitely discovering that channel and just learning a lot about the feelings that I was feeling. And I'm learning more about a lot of the a lot of the anxious feelings, anxious thoughts, occasional periods of depression, and definitely that high degree of anxiousness just about my own skills and also just how, you know with with inflation, just a lot of conflict in the world. I definitely as a flavored millennial, late millennial, early Gen Z are definitely think like, oh, my gosh, how am I going to, you know, make a living for myself. And if I have a family, how will I provide for them all that fun stuff.
And one of the more recent videos that that channel has released was all about burnout. It's about an hour long, I believe such an interesting video, I'll include it in the show notes for sure for you. And one thing that really stuck out to me in the research into burnout is that actually one of the first things to go when you're in a state of burnout is empathy. And that's when I heard that I just remember feeling like oh my gosh, that's absolutely terrifying to think as a product person, because that's one of our like, main muscles that we need. We need to empathize with our users, with our customers. And we also empathize with, you know, our developers or stakeholders, we have to emphasize empathize with a lot of different people. And that really got me thinking like, oh, my gosh, I really need to, like, manage my mental health. Not like I won't say like, it's a product, but I do need to take care of so that I'm taking care of myself and then that means I can be in a better state so that I can be more successful in my role.
Thank you for sharing that really personal and transparent side of your journey. I think it's really important for people to hear that because I think they can relate I certainly can. I know that that I have had lots of those moments in my life in my career.
And, and yes, I certainly worry about my students at Johns Hopkins. And, you know, the others that I coach about, you know how hard they are on themselves sometimes. And of course, they want to succeed. And they're in a group of high achievers, like you said, and it's so important that we keep an eye on how we're feeling. I love how you ended that as well, it's, it's most important, of course, for our own good for our own health for our own life. But the truth is, you, as a product manager, are impacted by your health and wellness. And if you're your mind, set your mind state is, you know, unhealthy. Most importantly, it's, it's about you, but ultimately, it is going to impact that product manager role. And you as as that person will not ultimately be as successful. And then it's like this vicious cycle, right? You kind of have that impostor syndrome come back. And so I think that's a really interesting and important way that you that you brought that brought that to the forefront there.
So I want to, I want to jump to another question for you. And it's, it's tying into that, but how do you? How do you strike a balance between the continuous learning and taking care of your mental health, because they're, they're both so important in this role that we do in product management.
The Awakening I had was that moment of realization, when I realized that continuous learning and taking care of my mental health, were not mutually exclusive. I think especially nowadays, it's extremely easy to default to the rat race narrative of life that the general population has been led to buy into and follow.
And I feel like this could be a whole other conversation. But to keep it short, for the sake of this one, I think it's really it's very easy to follow, follow the path that has been quote, unquote, walked and tried and attempted before. But at the same time, realize that the outcomes you get out of walking that sort of, quote, unquote, standard path might not be the outcomes that you personally want, as a human being. And while it's fine to, it's fine to try walking it. But except that what you that what comes out on the other side might not have been what you had you had been looking for, as opposed to having a vision for yourself. And being willing to craft a path for yourself, if you see that your vision for yourself cannot be accomplished through traditional path.
And when it comes to crafting that vision for yourself, personally, what helped me the most was really developing that awareness of myself and taking time out of the normal day to day to observe myself, my thoughts and my feelings. And personally, what that looks like for me is journaling. I don't I personally don't follow any specific prompts for journaling, I sort of it's honestly just a stream of consciousness write down might note of how did I feel after certain conversations at work, or even outside of work, things like that.
Um, before the end of the day on Friday, something I started doing as well, was an end of week reflection on the past work week. Another thing I've started trying, I had my first quote unquote, quarterly life retrospective, I think, last Yeah, last weekend, and I just kept it very simple. What am I liking about my life for the past three months, what am I not liking and what will I do to or what actions will I take to either you know, eliminate, try to eliminate what I don't like or try to at least minimize how much of that, for example to Ask I have to do with that I just like so that I can sort of manage how much of that I engage with that at a time.
And over time, you'll have just a lot more data into yourself and a lot more insights, to be able to notice certain patterns about yourself. And for example, I found, especially being a woman, we, you know, we have that hormonal cycle, there's just certain times of the month where I'm more prone to, for example, have those depressive thoughts, and that's totally fine. If I know that time is coming, I'm honestly a lot more mentally prepared for I just know, like, okay, those feelings will come, I'll let myself feel those feelings, but I know that they too shall pass.
And finally, another realization that's personally really helped me is to recognize that, for whatever reason, in today's society, there's just a very, very strong disconnect from spirituality, especially, I think, related to living in capitalistic societies. And when I say spirit, spirituality, I realize a lot of people might immediately think of following a formal religion, but just to level set on definitions. When I say spirituality, it's just that connection with something beyond ourselves. So for some people, it's following a formal religion. For some people, it's meditation. Or it could be also being a part of the community can be volunteering, or even as simple as spending time in nature and getting away from the screens, which I will admit is honestly, easier said than done. But whenever I do go outside, I do always appreciate it.
Especially being a product person or being in a product adjacent role, I think it's really important to join a community of like minded folks who, who have a very high chance of having already experience certain situations or certain thoughts or feelings you're experiencing. And I just want to give a very special shout out to the cofounders of the product mine community, Graham Reid, and Jack's good early for creating this amazing community. I'm so grateful that, you know, we're from all around the world, but psychologically, and spiritually were were with each other, we're standing in solidarity with each other, and we have each other's backs. And folks are always very kind and generous with sharing their perspectives on situations or feelings that members of that community on Slack are going through.
That's wonderful. Yes, I'm a big fan of the Product Mind Community as well, which is, which is new. We'll link to that and to Graham and Jacs as well. So thanks for that shout out. I think that's important for everyone. And again, thanks for kind of that, that, you know, personal transparency and vulnerability that you're showing, because I think it's, again, really important for folks to hear. So final question for you, Tiffany, what are some kind of parting pieces of advice that you would like to leave the audience with in terms of breaking into product continuous learning and focusing on your mental health?
First and foremost, it definitely remind everyone there's no single optimal right way to break into product, every product manager or product leader, I've gotten to chat with one one on one has had such a unique and distinct journey into product. It's honestly incredible, how so many of us from you know, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different different countries, etc, is just amazing how there are certain seemingly common threads that have somehow all channeled us into this one, one road called product management, and it's so so honestly beautiful, and it's very inspiring to hear everyone's unique stories and journeys into a product.
Another thing I'd remind everyone of us is, having that insatiable curiosity and high degree of empathy are two of the most common traits between a successful person IT managers and product leaders I've met and chatted with so far in my life. And both of those requires taking care of yourself, first and foremost as a human being, not just your mental health, but also your physical health. And that spiritual well being no matter how, however, however you so choose to engage with that, that aspect of what it is to be a human being.
Another a couple of things would be play to your strengths, and also give others their opportunity to let their strengths shine, let's face it, like none of us are perfect, we're never going to be perfect. So and this is coming from someone who also has very high perfectionistic tendencies, this is something I'm also striving towards, and just being really, really honest with who I am, who I want to be, and allowing others to join me in that journey. And together was not saying the sum of the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts put together. And last, but not least, I'd like to remind everyone that nobody has as much skin in the game as you do when it comes to taking care of your mental health. However, at the same time, it doesn't mean that you have to take care of your mental health on your own, and you're no less worthy or valuable of a human being as you are, if you need help. Or even outsourcing some of that. Taking care of your mental health, for example, you know, finding a therapist, finding a support group or community that you can really be open and transparent, and vulnerable. And just laying off as much of yourself as you're comfortable with out there. And letting others to help lift you up, especially when you're when you've fallen down. Uh, you could really use a hand and getting yourself back up and picking up.
Such great advice, Tiffany, thank you so much, again, for sharing your journey, sharing your personal feelings and your insights that you've learned. Again, I think that it's going to help so many people listening, and I have loved chatting with you and getting to know you. We met over one of these product communities. And it's one of my favorite things about my job and about what I do is getting to meet folks like you, Tiffany.
So Tiffany Chang, thank you again for joining me and sharing your insights with our listeners.
Thank you so much, JJ, for having me.
And thank you all for joining us on product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Thank you for listening to product voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website productvoices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.
Tiffany’s go-to mental health knowledge resource: HealthyGamerGG YouTube channel
Standout videos for product professionals (aka HealthyGamer starter pack):
Product Mind Slack group, which supports the mental health and wellbeing of people in Product Management. Sign up to be invited via Google Forms.
Ask a Question