Career Stories

How Being a Team Player Helped This Retired Athlete Pivot Into Product Management

person with long curly hair standing on a balcony overlooking the street
Rachel Williams, a senior product manager at Medium.
| Courtesy of Medium

For any college athlete, making it professionally is a dream come true—but what happens next? In Rachel Williams’ case, joining the startup world after retiring from playing pro volleyball in Romania helped her discover her passion for product management.

After moving back to the Bay Area, she took a position in content operations at the edtech company Newsela. “Watching teammates work inefficiently made my heart hurt,” says Williams. “When you’re working at a small startup, everyone has to pitch in. So not only was I figuring out where we needed to improve our tools, systems, and processes, but also how we were going to do it.”

Four years later, Williams had gained enough product-related experience to land her first official PM role as a senior product manager at Medium, a media platform that helps readers find compelling ideas and perspectives from a variety of voices. “They were looking for a PM to run an editorial tools team, and it just seemed like a perfect fit,” she says. “The size of Medium’s network was certainly attractive, and I knew I would be faced with a new set of challenges.”

Here, Williams shares what it takes to become a successful product manager, the exciting projects she’s working on, and advice for anyone thinking about a career as a PM.

What attracted you to work as a product manager, and specifically at Medium?

Prior to joining Medium, product management was just a third of my responsibilities. It was a means to an end, and primarily focused on a small set of stakeholders. So not only was I excited to join the product organization at Medium because of the people—who are all extremely talented and come from a wide variety of industries—but also because I would have the opportunity to focus solely on building up my product chops. And based on my experience at Newsela, I was thrilled to be joining another company that sits at the intersection of journalism/content and tech.

Tell us about the Creator Success team and the cross-functional work you and your team are doing.

My team is made up of engineers, designers, data scientists, and a user researcher. Our mission is to build a home for writers to sustainably share unique perspectives and foster community around their ideas. We want them to share their thoughts, participate in communities, and exchange ideas on a regular basis. We also want to make it easy for them to earn money for their work, if that’s their goal.

Our projects are mostly focused on helping writers get better distribution, build an audience, get feedback, and connect with their readers. We work very closely with folks in editorial, recommendations and machine learning, audience development, data science, and other product teams. And it is truly a cross-functional effort. For example, though my team is not responsible for our recommendations services, we collaborate with that team since getting distribution is critical to a writer’s success on the platform.

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

So many things! We are regularly working on improving distribution. We know we can do better at helping writers find their audience, and we’ve seen that when writers are able to grow an audience and connect with their readers, they have more confidence and motivation, and share more often. 

And at the end of last year, we launched new profiles for our users. Along with a total makeover, we gave users the tools to customize their profile. This was just the first step in a long-term strategy to give writers more control and ownership over their home on Medium. We want a writer’s Medium to truly feel like their own.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced since you’ve been at Medium?

When I first joined Medium, we were still figuring out where we wanted to place our bets on how to best serve writers and editors on the platform. It was harder than I expected to get alignment on where we should focus our attention and energy. And these conversations were happening as I was still getting up to speed on Medium’s product and gathering as much institutional knowledge as I could about things like user types, content types, and legacy decisions, which was a challenge. Sometimes it can be hard to know which way is up, especially when you’re thinking of how to really push a product forward.

What do you like best about the company culture at Medium?

We laugh a lot, and people care for each other deeply. The passion for building a strong, vibrant, and healthy platform is palpable in every conversation I have, and people aren’t afraid to ask questions and challenge each other. And there’s trust, both within teams and across teams.

What skills and traits are necessary to succeed as a product manager?

Communication skills are a must. As a product manager, you are often talking to people all across the company and need to be able to translate for various stakeholders. The words I use with engineers are different than the ones I use with editors. You want to help provide clarity for people, and that requires distilling information into something digestible, which varies based on who you’re talking to.

Confidence in public speaking also helps. You present a lot as a PM: to your peers, to executives, the whole company.

Ask lots of questions. I found that when I first started joining product meetings at Newsela, I was afraid to interrupt because I assumed everyone knew everything that I didn’t. Over time, I gained confidence, but also just needed to get some answers to do my job, so I started asking more questions. I found that more often than not, someone else was wondering the same thing. And this is advice I’d give to anyone, not just PMs: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It can make you feel vulnerable, but it’s an important skill to have, and ultimately leads to a greater shared understanding across any group.

Empathy. You have to be able to put yourself in your users’ shoes to make good decisions.

Get comfortable with ambiguity and create clarity. Especially in startups, strategies and tactics can change often, new problems can escalate in priority quickly, and you can have a lot thrown at you. Strong product managers are able to take poorly defined problems and fuzzy visions and turn them into clear roadmaps. They can cut out the noise and give their teammates clear goals to go after.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career as a product manager?

PM roles can be hard to find. So if you’re struggling on that front, look for opportunities in your current role to apply some of the methodologies and thinking that are expected of product managers. Find ways to contribute to product development in your organization.

If you’re in ops, great—you probably know how the company works, its strengths and weaknesses more intimately than most of your colleagues. Leverage that: Build connections with the product managers at your company, offer ideas, ask questions where you see there are gaps, and find ways to help fill those gaps. If you’re in customer service, you hear firsthand the pain points that your users are struggling with every day. Make sure those issues are making it to the ears of your colleagues in product (even better if you have an idea of a small fix that would make life better for your customers). To those in sales, you know how to tell a story. That is a skill product managers need to hone to get buy-in on new ideas or initiatives.

And lastly, I’d suggest that you start paying closer attention to the products you use every day. What do you love about them, what’s confusing to you, what do you not like? Form your own opinions of how you’d improve it, or maybe an experiment you’d want to run. At Medium, we make decisions based on data and intuition. It’s important to know how you feel and why.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

When I was first back from playing volleyball in Romania, I was set on joining a large, successful Silicon Valley company. But a family friend said to me: “If you join any of the big guys, you won’t get to contribute anywhere near the amount you can at a small company. Go get your hands dirty. Learn everything you can. The big companies you’re looking at will still be around. Come back later when you’ve had the chance to really build something.”

I am so, so thankful that I listened to him. I have had the opportunity to work for two companies whose missions I care about wholeheartedly. And at both, I’ve been able to see a direct line between the work I do every day and the company’s progress towards achieving its mission, which is extremely rewarding.