Women in Tech – Story of Product Manager turned Entrepreneur making 100x easier to build applications

Becoming an Entrepreneur

I’m Ellen Chisa, the CEO and Co-founder of Dark. We want to make it possible for engineers to build a complete scalable app in an afternoon. We’ll make it 100x easier to build applications and bring the ability to write software to a billion people. My day to day involves writing code in Dark, working with the product team, managing and hiring employees, and talking to customers, potential partners, and investors.

How was your University time?

When I was in University, I was in a new, experimental engineering school, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. I studied Electrical & Computer Engineering. I new I didn’t want to design circuit boards for a living, and I also knew I didn’t want to be in a cubicle working alone.
Olin focused on project based learning, and most of the projects were interdisciplinary. Projects tended to have a strong design component, and a sometimes a substantial humanities component. The school required at least one entrepreneurship class, and I did an entrepreneurship capstone too (including auditing Founder’s Journey at MIT). I did a lot of projects on my own too. I’ll never forget my first Git + Ruby + Rails + Heroku experience (we made a virtual gum ball machine).
In University I spent a lot of time leading teams and coordinating projects. That led me first into a career as a Product Manager before branching out on my own as a CEO/Cofounder.

Product Manager turned Entrepreneur

I originally wanted to be an engineer because I was curious about the mindset. I think there’s something interesting about breaking a problem into pieces and figuring out how to solve it.
While I was doing that, I learned that I love to be a generalist and see the problem holistically. I’m curious and I like to talk to other people about their work. Being a CEO/Founder is one of the most general jobs you can have – you get to work with everyone on the team. I might be hiring and talking to recruiters, I might be talking about engineering challenges, and and I might be thinking about partnerships.
I also like to work autonomously. Being a founder gives you a lot of latitude to solve problems in the way you think will be most effective.

How I became a Product Manager

I doubt I’d be a PM now if I hadn’t gone to engineering school. (This is a reflection on myself: not on you. You can still be a PM even if you didn’t go to engineering school. My younger brother actually went to business school, did a summer program in graphic design, did a Product Management internship at a Startup, and then ended up a PM at Microsoft.)I didn’t really want to go to engineering school, but my dad said “well, I think you should go to engineering school. It’s harder to get into engineering school later, so you might as well just go and if you hate it you can always transfer out.” So I did.

Most people at Engineering school actually want to be engineers. I went in saying I wanted to “think like an engineer, but not be one.” When I got to Olin, I wanted to try everything. I couldn’t make a decision about a major, or what I was going to do after Olin (no joke: MD-PhD-MBA was on my list of options). Being at engineering school, but not wanting to “be an engineer” meant I was constantly searching for new, interesting things to do. I’m not exaggerating: I joined 11 committees.

There is one major downside to having lots of cool opportunities. I did many things badly instead of one thing well. As a result, I’m not a particularly good “Electrical and Computer Engineer” the way many of my classmates are. I often wish I had a technical specialization. But, trying many different activities and not spending as much time on the technical side of the degree allowed me to develop a few important PM skills early on:

  • Prioritization — I did too many things. One should not join 11 committees. I never had enough time to do everything. But there was an upside to that: I got really great at picking between multiple things and prioritizing what’s most important. I always knew what could be a bit late, and what would below over if it never got done.This was my personal version of what happens in Software Engineering: companies have a lot more work than they can ever do. The PM helps pick the most important things to get done. The PM decides what can wait a little while, and what needs to get fixed right away.
  • Synthesis — All of this work also helped me to build my synthesis skills. Many of the committees I was on were things like “Curriculum Advisory Student Team (CAST).” We had to go through all of the student course feedback and figure out ways to aggregate and make improvements to the process.This sort of work is also similar to being a PM: having a problem area that already has tools, doing research on what exists, and what works and doesn’t, and proposing a new directional strategy.
  • Driving to Consensus — All of the committees and projects I did were with other people. Lots of people had ideas on “what we should do” — but that didn’t always mean they were right, or that other team members would be on board. Even after I’d prioritized or synthesized, I never had any official authority. I’d have to come up with good reasons it would appeal to that team of people. You know, just like being a PM.

Picking up these skills from committees and projects during my first semester built on itself. Since I already had some of the skills, I kept playing a specific role during other team projects in my first two years.

My main role was always helping make sure we knew everything we had to get done, who was doing it, and that no one was blocked. I helped define what was “important” to the project, and what we should present. Playing that role in teams helped me get better at these skills, which led to more projects in which I used them. I can think of over a dozen team projects that reinforced my skills, but it all goes back to my early start as a generalist and trying lots of different things.

After two years of developing skills through classroom projects, I had three experiences that made my skills much more valuable in the “work” world.

  • Alight Learning — After attending Olin for two years, five of my friends and I decided to take a year off and have a startup. We weren’t really sure what we wanted to do, but we all agreed that we’d quit school and go live in a house in Waltham together to work on it.Alight Learning was the first time I actually used my skills in a “Product” context. We did user interviews, market analysis, and business analysis of what we were building. We prioritized feature lists, and made hard design decisions about what to make and what to cut.There’s a big difference between doing a project for a few weeks in class, and actually trying to get a business off the ground. Alight was the time where in addition to using Product skills, I worked on a real Product.Because of Alight, when I interviewed for Product roles, I had much more substantial “real world” examples and experiences than I would have otherwise.

 

  • Microsoft PowerPoint Internship — This is a pretty obvious one. My last summer before graduating, I ended up at Microsoft for a PM internship.The reason I bothered to list it is to call out that I doubt I would have taken the internship if it hadn’t been for PowerPoint. Alight Learning was focused on education, and PowerPoints are a big (problematic) part of education.Even in the Summer of 2009, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a PM. I’d developed lots of skills, and I liked doing the work at my startup. I didn’t necessarily believe there was a “canon” of being a PM. I thought of it more as a skill set I’d use to do my own things.The PM internship at Microsoft taught me there was a lot I didn’t know about it. How do you convince people you work for instead of your peers? How do you deal with internationalization? Localization? Accessibility? How do you deal with non-web products when you can’t fix things all the time? On top of giving me more real world Product experience, my internship at Microsoft intrigued me: What really was the “full time job” version of being a PM?

 

  • SCOPE PM — After I concluded my internship, I returned to Olin. Olin has a Senior Capstone program in which a company sponsors a team of 5–7 students to work on a non-trivial project one day per week.I was chosen by our team to be the Project Manager, meaning I was on the line for organizing the team. I took the role very seriously: it was the first priority out of all of my classes. Two other students were also interested in the role, and we planned to rotate midway through the year.When it came time to rotate, the team decided to let me keep the role. Their confidence in me was what gave me confidence that being a PM was something I could do well, and that wanted to continue doing.

So, throughout my college experiences, I spent most of my time developing the skills necessary to be a Product Manager. In my later years of college, I specifically spent time doing “Product / PM roles.” My diploma says “Electrical & Computer Engineering” — but it should probably just say “PM!”

When people say “Wow! It must have been really challenging to get a PM job right away!” they aren’t entirely correct. “Getting a job” as a PM was challenging for me, but the same way all job interviews are.

What was genuinely hard was becoming a Product Manager. It required developing a specific skill set, and working on it for a period of years.

How did you start Dark?

The first one is finding a cofounder. In this case I was lucky because my cofounder, Paul, found me. Like many other interviews it’s not about “convincing” someone, so much as finding the right fit. We talked a lot about what we wanted to build company-wise and product-wise, and how we wanted our relationship to be. We also knew what experiences we’d each wanted our cofounders to have before.
Another form of that is pitching investors. It’s always best to build relationships before you’re in the position to raise money. Once you’re at the point of wanting to raise, it’s most important to figure out what story you’re trying to tell. Then I’d look at some of the resources to see what’s required for a pitch meeting. A big piece is demonstrating the scale a business can be at – venture returns are created by home run companies! Once you feel good about the story and the facts, I’d find someone you’re comfortable with on the investment side to talk to and get feedback.
After that you’re basically selling every single employee, and those interviews go both ways, too.
 Paul and I spent a fair amount of time together, and it’s actually very light for a typical cofounder process. Most people choose to start a company with a former coworker or close friend. Paul and I hadn’t met before we decided to work together, so we wanted to de-risk as much as we could in a short period of time.
For our “initial interview” we’d meant to spend one hour but ended up spending three. The first hour we had coffee and talked about the product and company, the second hour we talked about ourselves personally, and the third hour we talked about a mix of both. After that we both answered a series of founder dating questions, and spent another two hours talking about the answers.
After that we spent ~5 days working together – like a very intense onsite. We did reference check and talked to people we’d work with together before. That was the point at which we decided to work together.
Then there were still a few months before anything was official that allowed us to de-risk. Since we didn’t have capital, we were just working together, and dissolution of the relationship would have been easy.

Books that helped you?

I used books more at the beginning of my career. A lot of the books I read about being a PM are listed here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/1952043?shelf=pm but in particular I enjoyed Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun, and Just Enough Research by Erika Hall. As an entrepreneur I still try to read as much as possible. Right now I’m reading Camille Fournier’s book “The Manager’s Path” on engineering management.

How to become Entrepreneur?

To become an entrepreneur the best thing you can do is start building things and demonstrating value. It’s been shown that it doesn’t necessarily matter where you went to school or worked, so much as your individual contributions.
Those contributions don’t even necessarily need to be in one field: we’ve seen great founders who were salespeople, and great founders who were engineers. I’ve found my PM background to be extremely helpful. It’s also good to have deep expertise in something. It could be a specific skillset, or it could be deep knowledge in the area you want to start a company in.

Lessons from jobs that you couldn’t get.

I’ve been lucky to get to do the work I’ve wanted to do for most of my career (at Microsoft, Kickstarter, Lola, and now at Dark). That said, I’ve had some specific lessons from interviews, which are covered in depth here: https://blog.ellenchisa.com/stuff-ive-messed-up-while-interviewing-1adeb2b0cce6

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