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What is your favorite restaurant & where is it (City, State)?

For years, I went to Thai Pilin, a tiny hole-in-the-wall in Tysons Corner, VA every week to have their Spicy Crispy Catfish. It had just the perfect amount of heat, flavor, and breading! I went there so often, every time I called, they’d answer “Same thing?” before I even got a word out. Unfortunately, they suddenly closed a few years ago, but I ran into their nephew 6 months ago and found out that they recently opened a new restaurant! It’s too far out of the way for me to go every week, but it is now my favorite restaurant Khun Yai Thai in Arlington. I still get their Spicy Crispy Catfish every time I go!

What skills are necessary to succeed in your role?

There are so many things I can say here, but if I were to focus on one thing, it would be to have a healthy combination of humility and confidence. Without confidence, product managers can’t efficiently make decisions nor take responsibility for decisions. At the same time, we need the humility to realize, as quickly as possible, when our ideas aren’t good, and be ready to promote (but not take credit!) others’ ideas. Software development is such a collaborative exercise, and to produce the best outcomes, it’s so important to create an environment where the best idea wins, not “my idea” wins. We truly must care about the product’s success more than our own success.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

I don’t have any kids, so I don’t know if the following analogy is true, but I like to think that seeing a product you worked on solve a customer’s problem is a little like seeing your child grow up to be a productive member of society. I’m not trying to say those things are equivalent, raising a child is so much more important than shipping a product, but I imagine it’s the same kind of satisfaction, feeling like you did your part to leave the world a little bit better than you found it.

You are passionate about fostering spaces for creative expression both inside the office and in your personal life. Tell us a little about this.

I’m a soccer nut. I’ve been playing it since the first grade. What I love is that soccer is such an expressive sport with so many styles of play and so many possible decisions to make at every single moment. It’s so fun to see all the different ideas players come up with to manipulate the ball or beat an opponent. When I make a pass that nobody else sees to another player who somehow is on the same page, I feel like a jazz musician improvising a solo with the rest of the band improvising alongside me. There’s something special about being able to make a connection with another human being and creating something new without even speaking a word.

Speaking of music, my mom was a music teacher, and I grew up playing the piano and the flute. In college I picked up DJ-ing, and very quickly got into scratch DJ-ing/trick mixing. What I loved about scratch DJ-ing over traditional DJ-ing is the creative freedom to manipulate records to make new sounds and patterns. It’s the same thrill I get in soccer from making a pass that nobody anticipates, looking at the same thing that everyone else is looking at but seeing it in a slightly different way, and sharing that with the world.

So connecting all of that back to work… whether it’s making a soccer play, creating a scratch DJ routine, or delivering a product, it all comes back to the same impulse of finding a solution to a problem, seeing the problem from a different angle, and creating something out of nothing. It’s so much more satisfying when you can create that with other people.

What advice would you give to someone looking to facilitate more room for creative expression in their work?

Finding ways to be creative in a team environment can get tricky. I recently got my US Soccer D License for coaching, and one thing that was emphasized in the course was to design sessions that present game situations to players and giving them the time and freedom to experiment instead of telling them what to do. I think the same principle applies when we’re working on a team at work. If we’re deliberate about presenting problems, not solutions, to our teams, and then ask the team to come up with different solutions, it fosters a more creative environment. It’s also important that everyone on the team feels like they can take risks without being punished for failure. Creative ideas come from having the room to just try stuff. That also means that we have to be willing to let go of control and be comfortable with some level of ambiguity. We never know when a great idea is going to come, and the idea may not even come from you!   
Whatever we’re working on, I think it’s a good habit to force ourselves to try to come up with multiple solutions to a problem, multiple ways to get something done. It’s amazing what our human minds can come up with if we just let it! To get into that habit, it’s important to avoid the trap of falling in love with the first idea we come up with. It’s the most natural thing to want to rush forward with a great idea, but if we give ourselves the time to brainstorm other ideas to solve the same problem, sometimes we can come up with some really creative stuff.

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