Employee Spotlight: Kelly Barber’s Journey to Become a Product Manager

In our Employee Spotlight series, we chat with a Pathrise team member each month about their career journey, expertise and experiences. This month, we’re excited to sit down with Pathrise’s Senior Product Manager, Kelly Barber and talk about her journey to become a product manager.  

About Kelly

Full Name: Kelly Barber

Current Role: Senior Product Manager

Location: Fort Collins, CO

Time at Pathrise: 5.5 years  

Questions   

The 411: What is it like to be a product manager at Pathrise? What does your day-to-day schedule look like?

My day-to-day schedule depends on where we’re at in the product cycle. But my product management work usually breaks into one of two categories: planning initiatives and executing initiatives. When I’m planning out initiatives for the quarter, I define key features, success metrics, and strategic aspects. I work to set up the direction for design and engineering.      

Once initiatives are planned, almost all my time is spent executing them. Of course, every product manager job description includes working cross functionally. I work closely with Hilary, our designer, to ensure designs translate into a good user experience. I also coordinate with the engineering team on timelines, QA testing, and any other cross-functional collaboration that may be necessary.

Why did you become a product manager?

It might seem unusual to become a product manager with no experience in PM. But before I became Senior product manager, I had already been working at Pathrise for 4 years, doing product management work in other roles. In Q4 of 2022, my work as Pathrise Chief of Staff began to involve cross-functional collaboration with our product and engineering team as we rebuilt a lot of the trial and early customer experience from the ground up. Through this initiative, I was building  some of the most critical product manager skills without realizing it. This experience made me confident that I could  become a product manager at Pathrise to further develop product strategy. 

I realized that I had already been doing a lot of big-picture product strategy work in my role as Chief of Staff. I was a product manager in everything except my job title. I realized that moving into an official product manager role would be the next step to gain more experience with the day-to-day work of building a product.

What appealed to you about product management compared to other roles?

Product management appealed to me because I’m very heavily motivated by impact. In my previous roles, I found leverage to help the company grow and improve by solving problems related to people and processes. Becoming a product manager gave me a new avenue for impact by solving problems through technology. This new landscape was really exciting for me and has provided me with a lot of opportunities to learn. I’ve also really enjoyed the fact that product management often feels more narrowly scoped and focused than some of the operations and strategy roles I’ve had in the past. 

What surprised you about becoming a product manager??

Product manager is a very instinct-driven role. People talk a lot about product frameworks but the reality is that product management is more of an art than a science and you have to trust your gut. 

How do you balance instinct with Pathrise’s emphasis on being data-driven?

The bridge between data and instinct is critical thinking. You need to thoughtfully define your hypotheses and challenge assumptions. Employing rigorous first principles thinking helps you find a middle ground between intuition and data.

What’s the most exciting part of your day work as a product manager, or the most exciting thing you’ve worked on recently?

We’re currently working on launching our newest version of Career Connect, a Chrome extension for automating job search outreach. It’s been exciting to see how focusing on saving people time in the job search has had massive results in terms of customer satisfaction. We launched fairly recently but I’m very excited to see how Career Connect will increase interview rates for our job seekers. 

Tell me about your career journey – I see you’ve made several pivots from education to Chief of Staff. How did you become a product manager with no experience in tech?

My career to become a product manager has been winding. But the through line in my career has been joining organizations that value autonomy and a self-starter mentality where I could learn by doing. I began my career journey doing a lot of scrappy, innovative founder-esque work at several educational nonprofits. My earlier career was centered around learning how to be a really excellent operational executor.  As my career progressed, I transitioned into more strategic leadership roles, such as my previous role as Chief of Staff. These management and leadership skills, coupled with my extensive experience with Pathrise itself, helped me become a product manager with no experience in PM. Remember that before becoming a product manager, I’d already worked at Pathrise for 4 years. I had a more thorough understanding of our product offering than almost anyone. My diverse experience with so many different roles at Pathrise made me succeed as a product manager.

Which pivot would you say has been the most revelatory (unexpected, meaningful, impactful) for you?

My first role at Pathrise was scaling all of our operational teams, with a primary focus on admissions and sales. A couple of years into my tenure at Pathrise, we promoted new internal leaders to take over managing the sales team and my attention shifted to customer support and people operations. These were very important departments, but weren’t my favorite domain. I felt my motivation drop as I didn’t have the level of excitement and spark for my work that I wanted. I was able to “give away my legos” and hire fantastic new leaders to take over these departments. But this was a valuable learning experience for me in learning what kind of work I don’t enjoy and ultimately helping me realize that I wanted to grow my career outside of operations. It helped inspire me to explore new options. 

Moving into the Chief of Staff role was a defining position for me. I learned so much about the inner workings of the company. A Chief of Staff role is like being in a rotational program at a company. You get to see many teams and styles of working and gain really unique insight into the leader you’re supporting. It gave me an entirely different vantage point on the business. I definitely recommend taking on opportunities that may feel out of left field compared to what you’ve done in the past so that you can be exposed to entirely new ways of thinking and working. 

Seeing Pathrise grow over five and a half years, what has that experience been like?

It’s been such a rewarding journey from day one up until today. You can grow a lot in your career by job hopping, but there’s such a benefit to seeing something through over a longer time span because you’re not missing any stages of development. I went from Head of Operations to Chief of Staff to Senior Product Manager–it felt like growing with the company. Another advantage is that you get to see the full evolution of a company. The experiences at a company of 10 employees can be dramatically different from the experiences at that same company when they have 100 employees. The challenges are completely different. Getting to see the company grow has been so rewarding. I’m grateful that I was able to join so early. 

I’ve always had a close relationship with Kevin and Derrick, which has been really helpful because it means I usually have a pretty good understanding of how they’re feeling or what  they’re thinking. It’s one thing to understand company strategy but it’s another thing to really know the inner experience of the people leading the company. Of course, it’s not easy to provide that experience to everyone as the company scales. But I’m really grateful for how much support I’ve received and how much I’ve learned from both of them. It’s been really incredible. 

Pathrise team circa 2019

Throwback to the Pathrise team circa 2019

What made you join Pathrise in the first place?

When I interviewed at Pathrise,I had no experience in tech. But I could see similarities between my past experience and Pathrise’s mission and the role they were hiring for so it seemed like a good fit. 

Interviewing with no experience in tech or at small startups was intimidating. I remember coming out of my interview process thinking, wow, I do not know if I’m going to get this job. I was kept on my toes – Derrick put me through the wringer with the interview process. But that honestly was what made me want to join. I knew this was going to challenge me and help me grow. It was a really exciting opportunity to be the third employee and work directly from the house Kevin and Derrick were living in – it was the classic startup experience. I truly believed in the product and the business model, which helped give me the drive to succeed. People needed this program so I was proud to help build it.

You seem to gravitate towards challenges for growth. Is this a theme in your personal life as well?

Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting to see how that has evolved over time. When I was in my twenties, my schedule was basically the San Francisco tech employee stereotype: get up at 5am to do a CrossFit workout, journal, grueling work day, etc. Over the years, I’ve gained a deeper and more meaningful approach to personal development. I’m super into meditation right now and I’m learning Sanskrit. There’s no limit to how you can get to know yourself better as a person and continue to grow. 

How do you balance and maintain your wellness while you’re working so hard as Senior Product Manager? Has meditation helped with that?

People in tech are often obsessed with optimizing their limited time. That has its place but I think identifying and overcoming your own personal insecurities is more impactful than life hacks. Are you operating and making decisions from a place of fear or anxiety? Do you believe in yourself and what you can accomplish? Are you worried about making enough money to do XYZ, etc? If you’re operating from those places, even if you’re doing the right healthy activities, it’s going to be a struggle. When you do enough work on yourself to ensure that you’re driven by your values rather than your fears, then everything feels a lot lower stakes and you can have more fun with everything you do. Meditation can help with this process but I honestly think it’s more about the self work you put in throughout the rest of your day-to-day life. 

​​My last question for you is something I’m really curious about! One of your employee fun facts is that you have an oddly high number of circus skills, including flying trapeze and making balloon animals. Tell us about that. 

My childhood was pretty unique. Growing up, my parents were both teachers so they had summers off but not a lot of money to prioritize travel. My dad is a scrappy artistic type, so he would always find unique ways to make money like face painting and drawing caricatures. He even bought an entertainment company that ran kids’ birthday parties and other events. So my first job ever was making balloon animals and doing magic shows for my Dad. One of the best perks was that resorts would let in visiting artists and their families for free, so we stayed free at some very memorable places like the Dominican Republic, which is where I learned flying trapeze. I had a very lucky childhood!

What’s next for you? Career or otherwise?

As Senior Product Manager, I’ve found the role I want to do and build on in my career. I’m excited to continue to grow as a product manager in the future. I hope I’ll continue to gain exposure to different products and teams as I hone my skills to become an even better product manager! 

 

Erica Holloway

Erica Holloway is a recruiter with close to a decade of talent acquisition experience in the ed-tech and startup space. She currently leads Pathrise's recruiting efforts, touching on roles in career coaching, operations, engineering, sales, marketing and more. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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