December 14, 2023

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On the nature of teamwork, with Senior Program Manager Rebecca Chung

Work doesn’t always happen spontaneously, with products coming into existence fully formed in ideally and discreetly organized units of work. Big projects need organization and planning to execute, and that’s what OSOM’s Rebecca Chung delivers. Whether you know what a Program Manager does or not, it’s thanks to people like her that we can enjoy many of the products we use and love — and, without her, most of those things would take twice as much time, work, and resources to build. 

Are you ready, Rebecca? 

I will admit that, in classic PM fashion, I did prep some notes on what PMs do. 

That’s usually the first thing I ask, sort of Office Space — “so what would you say you do here?” [Laughs.]

A Program Manager at OSOM (and elsewhere) is one of those titles that anyone in Silicon Valley immediately recognizes, but it’s a role that we can sometimes struggle to explain to people outside the industry. We see analogs in plenty of other places, and “project manager” is probably the most common term you’ll hear. We’re people who herd cats. We bring the plans together and try to get people on the same page and going in the same direction. We track where we need to be and when, and try to make sure that we deliver things as expected and on schedule. It requires us to sort of be team parents. 

Engineers are hardly as cute as cats, but you’re basically the adults in the room, making sure to reel folk like Nick in when he goes a little too far on a tangent. 

Exactly. He’s interested and invested in so many things! But it’s not just Nick who has five things on his plate at any given time; everyone else does too. What we do is make sure that things don’t get dropped on the floor, our priorities are in the right place, and we get everyone the resources they need to be empowered. That means connecting teams, informing stakeholders, and — in keeping with the team mom concept — it’s also our job to worry. We anticipate what can go wrong, taking stock of our risks up front and as they evolve to mitigate them. Sometimes, it’s our job to be the pessimists in the room when everyone else is super go-go-go.

And this has been your career for years. 

For a long time, yes. It’s been fun seeing the variety of organizational structures across tech companies, from the big ones to the small ones. You’ll see the type of ownership you have change. I’ve been in places where the role is much more defined by working with product — where you have to satisfy the team, but also the company. And I’ve been in more operationally focused roles, away from implementation and concentrating on everyone’s feedback to tune the system itself for efficiency and happiness.

At a bottom-line level, a super-corporate type would say that I facilitate the use of our resources as efficiently as possible. But on a personal level, I’m invested in keeping people happy and motivated.

I consider my first true “tech job” to be when I worked in TV and media at Ericsson on a TV delivery platform. I was responsible for specific components but didn’t have ownership of features across the whole tech stack. It was part product management, part project management, and there is a distinction in the nature of work there, which I found highly influential in my career — the work that goes into defining the direction as well as running the mechanics of how the metaphorical sausage gets made, with all the interactions between people and systems and processes. Being responsible for both of those aspects — both of the common expansions of the “PM” acronym, if you will — helped me to see what kind of work spoke most to me.

After that, I moved on to Facebook, and my role there was very different. It’s a huge company. My work there was also entirely on the infrastructure side, and it was one of my more operational roles as well, so I was not directly involved with product. But it was also my first exposure to hardware development, giving me a baseline that has been helpful at Essential and OSOM, and how that development cycle is so much more linear — and how that sort of cycle can clash with the more iterative software development cycle. 

That brings me to my next question. Like a lot of folks at OSOM, you come here partly courtesy of your time at Essential, our prior incarnation. What was it like there?

It was a blast, and it was a very different kind of blast. I remember it most in terms of the dynamics — there was a different kind of ownership for me because of the size of the company. The things that I worked on were a smaller portion of the end result. I was program managing camera end-to-end with a team that was nearly the size of OSOM’s entire software team. There was more hierarchy, which made things easier in some ways, but bigger teams can also move more slowly. OSOM runs lean, and it runs fast. My job, getting the most out of people, changes a lot between those environments.

I know you value our culture and the things that make our team unique here at OSOM as much as I do. On the heels of all those big names you’ve mentioned, and as one of the people who works so hard to help optimize the way that we do our work, what do you think about working at OSOM? What’s it like being Nick’s work mom? 

To start, it’s nice not to be the only PM! It’s pretty amazing to be able to share the load, especially at OSOM’s current size. It’s unusual to have multiple PMs at this stage. But it’s important, especially since we’re working remotely — in a physical office, we’d all be able to overhear what’s happening at each other’s desks and spontaneously join conversations. Since we’re mostly not physically together, we can’t do that, so having people act as glue for the company matters so much more.

OSOM is the smallest company I’ve worked at, and as a result, the landscape is the simplest I’ve experienced. You know who is responsible for what and who is an expert on what, so it’s rarely, if ever, difficult to know where to go or who to direct questions to. Being small, you might feel like you are particularly resource-constrained, but I know from experience that happens even in a large company. Size doesn’t equate to infinite money, and there is always more work to do than you want to get done. But being small means there’s more need to make your priorities outrageously clear so you don’t waste anyone’s time. When you have a single face to turn to, it makes you much more aware of what happens if you don’t pay attention to that. You can’t let your single resource burn out.

I know we like to highlight Nick as the poster child for this, pulling him back from the edge of overwork, but it’s a common problem when people push themselves too hard. 

It’s a double-edged sword here. We have this passionate crew of thoughtful, hard-working, deeply opinionated people. And they are sometimes too willing to go too far to answer big questions or crank out code as bedtime flies by. We all have to be mindful of avoiding putting ourselves, as a team, in a position where we ever have to push so hard. Our mental health is a priority for me.

But that drive — I love the energy around this company. It really is one of the coolest things about being here. Even remotely, over Slack and video, the energy is palpable. It inspires and motivates you to do more and contribute wherever you can. Being remote can help a lot with work/life balance, but everyone has to be mindful; just because you can work any time of day doesn’t mean you should work all day. 

I suspect I know the answer to this because I know which team you did the most work for, but what is your favorite feature on Saga? 

Most of my life on Saga has been spent on the camera, pushing substantial improvements and changes. And at Essential, most of my work was on camera as well. Having that particular lens into our special and unique work is a point of pride for me and the team. I got to help make that happen. 

I love this question because it really highlights our individual passions and priorities: If you could work on any sort of project or product for any reason, what would you most want to work on? 

That is so tough for me because, in general, I value the working dynamic more than the content of the work — I’m a PM; it’s who I am professionally. I love the way that we work here at OSOM. Working with people who are so deeply driven, thoughtful, and self-motivating is rewarding in itself. Many engineers just take in what they need to do in terms of discrete tasks, like tickets from a ticketing system. Everyone here cares far beyond what’s written in the ticket, asking questions about the broader context of their work so they can execute better. That’s what makes the difference between good and great engineering — and it makes my job easier!

That’s something I really like about OSOM. The conversations we have in our company chats are just like the conversations I used to have at my old job: We have engineers poring over the news, its implications, and the big-picture impact of tiny technical changes the same way my newsroom of journalists used to do. We don’t have code and CAD mechanics, we have a team of deeply deliberate technical philosophers who think about the future. 

It’s especially critical at such a small company. We don’t have a large team of product managers that specifically own product definition, so everyone’s investment in the broader landscape is crucial. Everyone has to contribute that kind of thinking here and there, and it adds up. It allows us all to experience bits and pieces of ownership in the end result that go beyond our written job descriptions. 

That’s sort of the startup vibe, right? Going beyond the job description. And trying to help guide people through the ways they can do that based on their interests, skills, and experience is a big part of your work. 

I once heard the job of a Program Manager described as being the person who is in the middle of everyone to help — who allows the engineers to be really good at engineering, to allow the leaders to provide the leadership that they need. It can be a system of siloed work, and PMs keep bearings greased. But here, I get to break some of those walls so every member of the team can take pride in owning their work, collectively and individually.

Thanks for speaking with me Rebecca. I know you’re very busy. 

[Laughs.] How good can I be at scheduling if I can’t make time for a good chat?