Molly Flynn: Tell me about yourself.
Molly Baab: I grew up in Virginia and I’m the oldest of 7 children. I skipped my senior year of high school and went straight to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Since I was thrown into college very suddenly, I ended up buying into the myth that you should just pick a major immediately since it will look better than being undecided. I’ve come to learn that notion is false. I randomly picked nursing, but in the meantime I took a political science course to fulfill credit requirements and loved it. I switched my major to political science with very little idea of what I would actually do with it. After I graduated, for lack of a better idea, I applied to grad schools. I attended Rutgers University for Political Science.
F: Like many students, you didn’t know what you wanted your career to be. Why do you think that is?
B: I have this theory that there are only a small number of jobs that you ever get to hear about as a child. Teachers, doctors, nurses, and maybe the things your parents did. There’s this whole other world of careers out there that you’re never really exposed to. It would be great if kids were given a chance to learn about their possibilities.
F: What would you be doing if you weren’t a product manager?
B: For a summer in grad school I took kids that were going into college on outdoor adventure trips. If I could make that into a profitable career that would be amazing.
F: When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
B: I wanted to be a fighter pilot.
B: I love airplanes…I’m actually a true nerd at my core. A couple years ago I went to the Blue Angels show at an air force base. I met a woman, my age, who was a fighter pilot. I almost cried as hard then as I did in the 7th grade when I found out that, at the time, women couldn’t fly the cool planes. It’s really a dream that’s never completely died.
F: Describe your career trajectory. How did you end up as a Product Manager at Rue La La?
B: It’s a winding path. After grad school I got kind of stuck. I didn’t know a whole lot about the world outside of academia. I think that probably happens to a lot of new college grads. Your whole life is structured by formal education, then you have to figure out how to translate it to real life. My first real job was as an editorial assistant at Rutgers University Press. It was slow paced, and wasn’t for me. Then I got a job as an editor at a commercial publishing company. That’s when I met my boss, a product manager. He actually quit about 3 months later and that was my turning point. I asked if I could transition into the product manager role, and they let me. I still feel eternally grateful to that boss who gave me a chance. I think everyone gets a few chances in their careers to take a risk, and take on a role that they’re not completely qualified for. You absolutely have to ask for it. No one is going to give it to you out of the blue. I quickly moved up the ranks in the company and ended up as Director of Product. Then I moved from New Jersey to Boston to get into a new industry with Trip Advisor at Smarter Travel Media. At that point I actually took a step down from Director to Senior Product Manager. I had to prove myself again, but it was a great career move for me because now I’m here at Rue La La.
F: Describe your job to someone who has no idea what a Product Manager does.
B: I like to say that a product manager is a businessperson who likes to hang out with engineers. Product Managers sit in the middle of 3 key components: what does the business need in order to grow revenue or engagement, what does the customer need, and what is technically feasible.
One of the most important skills a product manager should have is to be able to talk to different kinds of people in their language from engineers, to CEO’s, to the sales team. Product managers have to be able to understand all aspects of the business well so that we can break down barriers, and build something effective. Project Managers build all sorts of products whether they are digital or physical. I’ve never worked on a physical product; I happen to specialize in consumer oriented websites, but for instance, your iPhone has a product manager.
F: Do you need to know any coding for your job?
B: Some great product managers can be coders, but I’ve never used coding. I’m more on the business side. I partner with an engineer to take the job from concept to completion.
F: What is an entry-level position that could lead to a product management role?
B: If you’re in a junior level marketing position, a business analyst, or in the case of Rue La La we have something called an ‘Event Producer.’ If they’ve proved themselves in terms of building enhancements for the business then they can also pursue product management. Typically the most junior role in Product Management is an ‘Associate Product Manager’. They work closely with the senior team and learn the ropes that way. Over time they’ll get promoted to product manager, senior product manager, and then director of product management. There’s typically a nice career ladder within the product management realm.
F: What do you consider one of your favorite successes in your career?
B: When I came to Boston and started working for Smarter Travel, they had an idea for a new website. They didn’t quite know what it was going to be, but I was able to take their vision from concept to launch. The website was called SniqueAway, now known as Jetsetter. It launched in just 6 months and ended up being profitable very quickly. It was kind of my baby. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity, but I ran with it and built it. Meeting that goal so effectively was really rewarding.
F: What is a mistake that you see young people making in the workplace?
B: I see young people wanting too much too soon. They come in and want to be promoted within the first year without laying down the groundwork. I would council a little more patience. There’s a balance between pushing for what you want, and proving yourself by growing your skill set and experiences.
F: Can you think of a mistake you made as a young professional? How did you fix it?
B: I think my greatest mistake had to do with waiting. I was uncertain about what I wanted, so I waited in grad school for 3 years. I still got value out of that time, but because I was uncertain I didn’t push myself to do something more. Once I did push myself it ended up working out. Of course the first thing I tried wasn’t what I wanted my career to be, but it led to stepping-stones. There’s rarely a direct path to what you ultimately want to achieve in your career.
F: What is your advice to young women just starting out in their careers?
B: Talk to other women, and find mentors. Read blogs like this. Do your research. Never allow yourself to be stagnant. Decide what you want, and don’t hold back from trying to achieve that goal. Don’t wait, just go for it.