Community Spotlight: Cathy Huang, Avela

Your product should be inspired by an understanding of human behavior.

For Cathy Huang, product lead at Avela, the human experience is everything. Avela is answering a tough but essential question: how can we make K-12 education more equitable? When families apply for a seat at a school, the Avela product ensures they have a fair shot—and Cathy continues her mission of solving the world’s problems through product.

Erica Irish: What first attracted you to a career in product management? 

Cathy Huang: I had been in project management and scrum master roles before. The curiosity of why we were building something, and trying to understand why that made any impact, led me to start questioning: why are we doing this? I think wherever product people come from, it’s often that shared curiosity that leads them to the field.

EI: What motivated you to work at a company like Avela? What lessons did you gain throughout your career that are serving you well now? 

CH: I think the main thing that drove me there is I wanted to work somewhere where I could see measurable impact in equity. It came from a lot of personal reflection on what impact meant to me and what I wanted to spend my time on. There’s a lot of great products out there, and every one is going to help people do something or make it easier for someone to do something.

Education is an equalizer; it’s not the only equalizer, but it’s one of the best tools people have for that. So I think putting choice and intention behind how someone wants to get that education is really important, and we get to provide more opportunities for them at Avela.

EI: Speaking more to your role at Avela, what does your day-to-day look like as a product lead? What are some problems you’re trying to solve or goals that are driving your work? 

CH: A lot of it is about learning the market, and talking to partners and prospective and current customers so we can understand what their pain points are and what their workflows look like. We’re currently working on a unified enrollment suite, and because of that, there are a lot of workflows we have to pay attention to—between applications, statuses, and family questions, there’s a lot of nuance and detail to what makes the workflows complex. We have to find ways to simplify them.

My other favorite part of it is getting to talk to families and parents who will be going through the application process and understanding their perspectives. We want to be transparent and let them know what’s happening along the way because getting your child into a school can be a stressful experience.

(Avela is hiring, too! https://avela.org/careers)

EI: In addition to your work at Avela, you consult startups in your spare time. What have those interactions taught you about product? What advice do you have for any startup founders who read this? 

CH: Test early and often. And it’s about all sorts of testing, right? It’s testing the idea and the value that your customers will get from it. It’s testing the usability and getting a really clear sense of where your risks may be.

EI: Shifting back to the product management industry at large: what’s a skill product managers should be learning to excel in their discipline?

CH: I think for me personally, it’s always about improving communication skills. So I think there are a lot of skills you can learn, as far as technical skills, UI design skills, etc. A lot of those you can learn, and depending on the industry you’re in, you should take the time to go learn those things. But for me, communication skills—like listening, reflecting back, asking for feedback, and then speaking with each stakeholder or customer at the level that makes sense for them—are really important.

EI: What do you think is a missed opportunity or under-discussed topic in product management? 

CH: I feel like product managers are always juggling so much. It’s not that I think there’s a lack of realization of a missed opportunity, so much as the need for product managers to balance their day-to-day. We need to figure out product details while exploring the vision and strategy —and everything in between.

I think what tends to happen, because you’re juggling so much, is that one thing keeps on getting de-prioritized. So you have to find balance to make sure you’re hitting everything in the product spectrum.

EI: What advice would you offer to anyone just starting their career in product? 

CH: Try to incorporate product practices in what you do every day and in projects you can use. One of the things I did early on is I founded a project group with a friend of mine, and we worked through it to gain experience. Nothing really came out of the project, but I think that’s fine.

It taught me you can do product anywhere. You can find problems everywhere that people want solved. You can sharpen your analytical skills significantly. And so having your eye open to what those opportunities are and documenting what your process is can get you into the product practice.

EI: What about professionals who are transitioning into a career in product from somewhere else? Would you recommend they pursue any certifications? 

CH: Transitioning into product can be really daunting. A lot of people are worried because they might hear, “you don’t have product manager on your resume.” You need to find opportunities where your background adds to the team even if you haven’t formally done product before. Take a look at what you’ve really excelled at and see where you might be able to plug into an organization. Join product management organizations like this one and figure out where the opportunities might be via networking is super helpful!

EI: Where do you go to stay inspired?

CH: Getting to know human behavior better is huge; that’s a core goal in product. For me, that comes down to reading a lot of psychology, economics, and business books. Right now, I’m reading Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and that’s not very product-related, but it is related to human behavior because it walks through all the different emotions.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, too, including Guy Raz’s How I Built This and Wisdom from the Top, which is about leaders and their experiences. I also really love Dax Shephard’s Armchair Expert. He’s really good at going deep by asking good questions, and he’s hilarious.

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