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Apr 16, 2021 · 10 min read

Timothy Ma's headshot 

Introduction

Timothy Ma is a Senior Tech Business Development and Product Manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS), with many years of expertise in Cloud and Data Center. He has a master degree in electrical engineering at University of Michigan, and an MBA at University of Pennsylvania. Before joining AWS, he also worked in Cisco as engineer sales, technical marketing engineer and product manager. Being a product manager, Timothy enjoys the process of translating his vision in technology into clear execution plans and seeing the actual product in customer’s hands.

Q&A

Q: Can you share a little bit about yourself?

A: Sure! I grew up in Taiwan, then came to the US for college. I studied at Ohio State, then later on I got my master’s at the University of Michigan. Throughout my student career, I mostly focused on electrical engineering and computer science. When I graduated and actually started my career, it was 2008. It was a time of financial crisis, so it was pretty hard to find a job. I had to do a complete pivot from what I was studying, and I actually started my first job in sales, focusing on networking. I joined Cisco System, one of the leading vendors for networking, and I was in a part of the sales associate program. That’s where I started my career in the tech industry.

I did a couple of years of sales, then pivoted to a more technical role as a technical marketing engineer (TME). The interesting part of a sales engineer is that we go very broad but pretty shallow in each area. There were so many interesting areas in technology, like security, data center, cloud, and I wanted to pick one area to really dive deep into. That’s why I became a TME, and I chose to focus on data center.

After I did that for a couple of years as well, I realized that I'm really interested in the business side. As a technical person, a lot of the time I wouldn’t get involved with how customers make decisions or how we take the product to the customer. The technical folks would usually come in after the sale was made. That’s where I really got interested, so I switched from a technical role to the product manager (PM) role, which is more focused on business.

In a nutshell, the product manager is like a mini-CEO. A CEO owns the company strategy execution and the result. Similarly, I will be responsible for pretty much everything about a product or product line within the group. That includes initial steps like identifying market opportunities and finding where the product market fit is. How do we build an MVP (minimum viable product)? Where will we be able to get the MVP version to the customer? What are some of the future features that we should make? How do we scale from the MVP to more like a V1, V2? How do we bring this product to the overall market; not just the pilot customer, but for the larger enterprises out there? I’ve focused my career mostly on the B-to-B, the business to business, not so much the product from business to consumer.

I worked as a product manager for a couple of years. Then I joined AWS about four years ago, because I’m really from a data center perspective. Cloud is the future; everybody is moving to it. [After joining AWS,] I’ve been doing similar things as a product manager, but blended with some of the sales skills I had in the past. It’s a blended role of developing a product with the engineering team and working with the sales team to bring it to market and ramp up the revenue.

Q: Can you talk more about what your specific role is as a product manager in AWS?

A:A unique feature of being a product manager at AWS is that we own what we call product definition. This is asking the question of what we want to build. The product manager gets that initial idea through market research or getting feedback from existing customers. If they recommend we build something, and we see enough traction on the same request, then we know it is something we should invest in and build.

Once we get a sense of what the customer wants, we go back with the engineering team. We, as the product manager, specifically write a document called PR-FAQ (press release frequently asked questions), which basically defines what the product is, hence product definition. Other organizations might call it PRD, which stands for product requirements documents. The very important thing that product managers do is understanding the prioritization. The customers will always ask for maybe 10 features they want to have, but we have to work with them to understand their ranking from one to ten. A lot of the time we don’t have the resources or time to build all ten, so we have to prioritize. We use the term P0 to describe features [or items with the highest priority], meaning that we cannot launch the products without it. So out of the ten features, how many are P0 functionalities? What’s the cost of building them? It’s critical for the product manager to figure this out, so we can help the engineers build the correct MVP with the initial customer traction. In the next iteration, like the V1 and V2, we can build beyond P0 to P1, P2, and P3, the later priority features.

The product manager also has to work with the sales team. First we have to educate the sales team about what we’re building: what it does, how it benefits the customer, and the outcome they can expect to have. Actually, a lot of the time it’s the product manager who’s selling the product to the pilot customers. We show the benefit to the customer, they’ll test it, and if they like it, they’ll adopt the feature or product. After the product launch, we need to figure out how to scale the product. As a single product manager, I can’t talk to all the customers. I have to enable our [sales] team to act like me and to be able to sell the product. We also need to think about our strategy for scaling the product. We could go to the sales team, the partners, and maybe even other channels. There’s a lot of thinking about business strategy and how to grow revenue. We work with the engineering team to build the product and with the sales and marketing team to scale the product. We’re responsible for its success or failure overall; if it does well, we get the glory, but if it fails, we get all the blame too.

Q: What motivates you to continue working as a product manager?

A: [People in AWS share a unique mentality. Although] we’re not at the same level as a lot of startups, we often operate like a startup, meaning that we’re early vision. We have the early vision of the new product or service we should be building, or a major enhancement for an existing service or feature to make for our customer. I have the vision of where the product market fit will be, then I execute it, and the customers adopt the product. Not only will we be able to bring in revenue, but the customer overall satisfaction with AWS increases. Being able to visualize and translate what was just in my head into execution is typically what motivates me the most. A product manager is essentially a builder, and you have to enjoy building things up from scratch.

Q: What made you switch from engineering to product managing? What interested you about it, compared to engineering?

A:Product managers and engineers share some similar characteristics; they identify and solve a problem by design or implementation. However, product managers have the additional consideration of the business side. If you look at a lot of the tech industry, the product that’s really successful at the end might not have the best tech from an engineering point of view, but it’s the best in combining the engineering and business sides. What a product manager considers is, “how do I find a market fit where I can build a good enough engineering product?” Once I have the initial customer and can scale, I can continue to refine my product and make it better.

It’s a different mindset from an engineer, where we always want to build the best: the best code, the best hardware, or the best car. But from a product manager perspective, there’s a trade-off between time and what we build. What I’m interested in is finding the right balance between a good enough product and getting enough initial customers.

Q: I noticed that you also work with Amazon Sage Maker. Can you share your experience on that as well?

A:Machine learning (ML) is kind of a buzzword. Most startups today will tag themselves with machine learning or AI to some degree, but machine learning is still in its infancy stage, meaning there’s a lot of open source things out there. A lot of customers can stitch it together to make it work, in a DIY style, and there are many different standards across companies on how they do AI-ML. This is where we think Amazon Sage Maker can help. Like how AWS was popular among enterprises, the value proposition for Cloud is to help offload undifferentiated work so you don’t have to manage the server. You don’t have to own the data center, or pay for power and cooling; we manage all that for you. We provide the infrastructure or data center to the customer where they can dynamically adjust it based on their business need.

Similar benefits apply to Sage Maker. Customers are interested in building the model, validating it, then using the model they’ve validated to forecast fraud detections and increase their business value. But to achieve that stage, the customer has to build a lot of things themselves today, which are undifferentiated. They have to build their own machine learning platform and standardize on their own best practice, which can create a lot of silo. Silo means that every department within that organization has a different practice. What Sage Maker is offering is a managed platform, meaning anything you don’t need to deal with. We manage all that in the cloud infrastructure, just like how we give you the benefits from the cloud as well. It really allows customers to just focus on spending their time and resources on building the model and algorithm, which is specific for their application.

Q: What advice would you give to college students, particularly STEM majors, in pursuing product management?

A: Most technical majors, statistics, or math majors definitely give you a very good base and all the necessary skills to do analysis and troubleshooting. What’s most important is developing ways to learn new things. Everyone is different, and you have to have your own methodology. This is especially important in the tech industry, where you will continuously need to learn something new. For example, I needed to learn Cloud, then Kubernetes, then AIML, and there’s always more on the horizon to learn. You also need to be able to do this outside of a classroom setting. In school, there’s always an agenda, a syllabus, or a professor with you, but you have to be able to develop the skills to really grasp and master new ideas on your own. In the tech industry or any other STEM major, you can’t just rely on the knowledge of your major, but you’ll have to have the framework to learn outside of it.

Another way to prepare is to be broad in what GEC courses you take. A lot of the time people will just focus on their major, but I highly encourage taking courses outside of that. The product manager is a hybrid role; it is technical and business. We work with basically all the different aspects of the enterprise or organization, so taking some of the marketing or business courses will be essential to knowing these other functions. Understanding what other people do and having some of that background will certainly help a STEM student's success as a product manager in the future.

Q: It sounds like it’s very important to have that engineering mindset, but not so much the school mindset. For college students in general, what was your experience studying at Ohio State University? How did your undergraduate degree help you later on in your career?

The number one thing college gave me is a framework to learn different things. I focused on my major as an electrical and computer engineer, but I also took a lot of different GEC. I had interest in courses like psychology, statistics, and even some of the languages, like Japanese. It really expanded my horizon and helped me develop that methodology to learn new things, which helps me in my work environment today.

College also gave me confidence. My undergraduate journey was different from a lot of folks here. When I came to the US for college, I didn’t speak English, so there was definitely a steep learning curve for me. As a non-native speaker, overcoming the language barrier showed me that language shouldn’t be a blocker for me in school or in the workplace. That confidence continues to help me refine how I present, communicate, and connect with people.

Q: How did you overcome that language barrier?

A: Back in college I was a member of the crew team. We would train everyday, so I spent maybe two hours a day with native speakers. I gradually picked up what they were saying, and even started to be able to read between the lines. That exposure to native speakers outside of the classroom really helped me to pick up the language. But even after I graduated, there was still a gap for me when I presented myself in English. For me, joining Toastmaster was a purposeful effort into polishing those skills. The pressure of working also helped me improve. If I can’t convince others in a sale, then it’s hard for me to keep my job. These ways really helped me overcome that barrier, especially being on the crew team; immersing myself on a daily basis definitely helped me get a jump start.

I will also encourage STEM students to join a club, even if it doesn’t relate to your major. You’ll learn something that’s unexpected, and that could help your career down the road.

Q: What was your experience pursuing an MBA, after working in engineering, sales, and product management for several years?

A: So there are two avenues for an MBA. Typically people do an MBA after graduating; the golden timing is about three to five years afterwards. They might do consulting, investment banking, or financial services before then, but they’ve identified their career path and they want to go relatively quickly. Some folks want to be a product manager, so within those 3-5 years, they’ll apply to MBA. Most product managers in the enterprise world have an MBA, and while it’s not required, having it is definitely a big plus.

The other route is for people who work for longer, like me. I worked for almost 10 years before pursuing my MBA, and I pursued that degree because I needed to know how to perform my daily job. Coming from an engineering and sales background, I didn’t have the training for pricing, modeling, or forecasting. A lot of folks that pursue an MBA much later in their career come from degrees unrelated to business, like engineering, law, or medicine. After working for a while, they’ll gradually switch to an executive or more business-oriented role, where they’ll learn the business discipline and new skills through the MBA.

Q: Can you share your perspective or advice for college students who are not sure about their future directions?

A: Data scientists and business analysts are pretty hot right now. There are thousands of these job postings, and it’s definitely a great way to get into the tech workspace. But I also encourage you to rotate around in your first couple of years. People can give you their feedback and experience, but it’s really up to you to experience it for yourself. It’ll take some time for you to really find where you want to launch your career.

I didn’t find the product manager role until almost five years after I started working, and it took some trial and error. I tried sales and I liked it, but I knew I didn’t want my whole career to be sales. I tried technical marketing engineering, but again, that’s not something I feel like I will build my entire career upon. Then I tried product management, and I really liked it; it was something I could establish myself and launch my career upon. Some people may have a very direct mapping after they start a career, and that’s great. But I think the majority of folks need that trial and error to really find their right career path. Just because data science is hot doesn’t mean it’s for everybody, right?

Tips for Looking for First Job

course

My path was pretty direct; I just went to school career services. Typically most companies, including Amazon, will have a preferred education institution they work with. Every year, there will be an internship, then a full time job will come. You’ll need to be familiar with what your school offers regarding career services and what company typically works with your school.

Another path is mentorship. I didn’t do it when I started my career, but I wish I could have. If you kind of know what you want to do in your future, a platform like CCE will connect you with a mentor who will be able to point you to those industry specific events, groups, or LinkedIn to join. You’ll get the exposure to see if you want to launch that career and what you need to do. For example, what certification do you need to have? What kind of courses do you need to take?

Besides, note that certification is actually more important than a lot of people think. One of the reasons I was able to land my job at Cisco is because I happened to have a certification in networking, and that really helped me differentiate myself from all the other newly grads at the time. We all focus on our GPA in school, but we don’t spend much time tackling industry certification, right? That can be a pretty significant differentiation, especially in the first job or internship, since there’s no prior work experience to judge applicants by. Having certification will make your resume stand out pretty easily.

Also, interviewing skills are amazingly useful. Any customer-facing role requires the skill to help the customer, but most importantly to extract the main idea. It’s not taught at school a lot of the time and the importance of this skill is often overlooked.

Tips for High School Students

Taking AP courses in high school is one thing you can do. Computer science was harder for me in college because I never did coding in high school. We were taught all the theory when I grew up in Taiwan, but we never actually implemented coding. Getting hands-on experience at the high school level will be really helpful for college. I saw my peers understand what the professor wanted right away while I was still scratching my head, and it turns out they had AP computer science back in high school. If it’s an interest or major they want to pursue, trying out classes in high school will definitely give a much faster start in college.

certification

Tips for International Students

They’re very fortunate in the current time to have so many online courses to take, like Coursera. Every online course has a different target audience, so do some research to see which ones are good for you. I recommend focusing on entry level and going with a brand name in terms of e-learning educators. When I came here from Taiwan, we didn’t have any of those resources. I just kept going to office hours and tried to figure things out; I think my TA really didn’t like me because I visited so often. The language and the computer science barrier was pretty hard. But international students in the 21st century have way more options, it’s just up to them to spend time and research. Maybe you only need to take a couple courses, or even just a couple of bootcamps, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the language and computer skills needed.

Career Advice for Students

For folks interning in the tech industry, there are definitely different ways to be involved in it; you don’t really need to be in computer science. For every tech company, there’s a need for finance, marketing, sales, and engineering. At the early career stage, go broad. The only way to go broader is to try different roles in an organization or company. That will really help you find something you like, and then be able to build upon it over the course of the year.

The worst case scenario is being stuck in a role you don’t enjoy, but you’re depending on that job as your career is moving forward. Something I always tell people is, you want to do something you like. It could be a lot of pressure, it could be a lot of stress. But at the end of the day that has to be something that motivates you and that you enjoy doing. If it is just an 8-to-5 job, that's not going to be something you feel satisfied with. As your career extends, the pay isn’t going to be the major motivation, but really the fulfilment. The accomplishment will really be where the job satisfaction comes from.