Q&A

4 Ways Being a Product Manager at CZI is Different

Jun 8, 2020

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Simran Krishna, is a product manager on the Education team at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Photo courtesy of Simran Krishna.
Simran Krishna, is a product manager on the Education team at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Photo courtesy of Simran Krishna.

If you’ve spent some time working in tech, there’s a lot about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) that will feel familiar. While we’re a philanthropy, a lot of us here build technology products — which means you’ll find plenty of engineers, designers, and scientists among our ranks. CZI is also a young organization. Our work is scaling rapidly, and there’s a lot of room to take on new roles and responsibilities.

That said, there’s also a lot that sets us apart from other tech-focused organizations — from the problems we choose to solve, to the communities we work with, to the roles we believe technology can (and cannot!) play in our solutions. And to Simran Krishna, a product manager here at CZI, it’s that unique blend of ideas from inside and outside the tech sector that make our organization not only a great place to work, but a powerful partner for the communities we serve.

And Simran would know. As a Silicon Valley veteran, she began her career as a product manager at Zynga, then Square. In 2015, she launched her own startup. And today, she works on CZI’s Education team, which is working to provide teachers with the tools and resources to ensure that each student stays challenged and supported at just the right level — and can reach their full potential, both within the classroom and beyond.

In an interview, Simran shared what that experience is like — and four ways working at CZI has been unlike any technology company she’s ever been a part of.

Reason #1: We’re committed to solving deep, systemic problems in society.

Tell us a little bit about what you do at CZI.

I work on CZI’s Education team. Our overarching goal is to make sure that every child can get an education that reflects the best in the science of learning and development, and that’s built around their individual needs.

There are a lot of ways we’re going about that work, but one of them is by supporting the Summit Learning program, which is used in more than 300 schools nationwide. Students in Summit classrooms learn through projects, cultivate lifelong learning skills, and build really deep relationships with their teachers. At CZI, we work with our partners at TLP to build the technology that makes that kind of learning possible, and empowers teachers to do what they do best.

I lead a product management group on the CZI Education team. That means it’s my responsibility to help guide an incredibly talented team of designers, engineers, user researchers, and scientists toward a common and coherent vision — and ensure we’re serving teachers in the best way possible.

How did you first get involved in this work?

I started my career by working in social gaming, and then transitioned to working on the Square credit card reader. I really enjoyed both experiences; I liked working in that lean, fast-moving, innovative startup environment. But at some point, I had this moment where I asked myself: “What do you want to look back on your life and say that you did?” And I realized that I wanted to do work that felt more impactful, and that ultimately changes our world for the better.

That’s why I decided to come to CZI. Here, I can keep working in an environment that is fast-paced and innovative. My work has a real impact: I’m creating tools that will help teachers build deeper relationships with their students, and put those students on the path to a lifetime of success. There are very few places in Silicon Valley where you can feel such a strong sense of purpose. I know I’ll be able to look back in 40 years and be proud of what I did.

How does CZI compare to other tech organizations that you’ve worked at? 

There are parts that are really similar. At a tech company, you work with a team of designers and engineers. You come up with wire frames, get user feedback, look at data. The company is small, so you always have plenty of work to do and lots of opportunities for growth. All of that is true at CZI, too.

I think what’s different are the kinds of problems we’re choosing to solve. Most companies have the luxury of building a product from scratch. But here, where you’re working on an issue like education, you’re dealing with a system that is more than a hundred years old. There are a lot of different stakeholders. We may have different ideas on what progress could look like. And even when we’re all aligned, actually making progress requires an enormous amount of effort and collaboration. The work is often ambiguous, and always challenging.

The work is also very real. Every single day, students are counting on us to help them get the best possible start in life. And when I think about what’s at stake, I think about my dad, who grew up in India without electricity or running water. Education completely changed the course of his life. And when I see a teacher using the tools I helped develop to empower their students in the same way…that’s really powerful.

Reason #2: We’re focused on building deep relationships with the communities we serve.

Do you get to work closely with students and teachers?

All of the technology we build, we build in direct partnership with educators. They define the challenges they want to address in their classrooms, and we work with them to develop tools that can help. 

Here’s an example of what that looks like. The Summit Learning Program is really focused on mentorship, because students who have a mentor are much more likely to thrive later in life. But early on in our work together, Summit teachers said it was really hard to be a mentor to all the kids in their classroom, because there was just too much to manage. So together — as educators, engineers, and learning experts — we built a software tool to help teachers schedule their mentor check-ins and keep track of those conversations over time. And it made a big difference.

A large part of our work is being out in the field and seeing how our tech is being implemented in classrooms. I think having that level of visibility, that ability to walk into a classroom, is one of my favorite parts of the job. We get to see our products helping teachers to build deeper relationships with their students. And just as important, we get to talk with teachers about what’s not working, so we can make it better.

Reason #3: We know how much we don’t know — which is why we insist on collaboration.

How has your experience at CZI changed how you think about technology and its role in education? 

Whenever I walk into a school, it’s humbling to see that technology is only a small part of what goes on in a classroom. It can be a powerful tool — but it’s also just one tool. It’s not a blanket solution, and it only works when it’s addressing the real needs of students and teachers.

That’s why, when we spend time in a classroom, we ask teachers: “Where are you struggling? Where is this difficult for you? How can we help?” 

It’s also why we approach all of our work with patience and humility. A lot of engineers in Silicon Valley are very confident about what tech can do. But at CZI, we spend a lot of time thinking about the limitations — about what tech cannot do, and the ways it can actually get in the way of the change we hope to see. I think we’re unusually grounded in that way. It’s a real differentiator.

Reason #4: CZI is a place that brings together diverse voices and perspectives.

What’s the work environment like at CZI? How have you found your colleagues?

The people CZI attracts are incredible. The designers that I’ve had the chance to work with here are so strong. Many of the engineers have already had long careers at traditional tech companies, where they’ve built up a really strong set of skills in their craft. The amount that I’ve learned from our leaders at the top is phenomenal.

It’s also a really inclusive community, which I think is unique for Silicon Valley. CZI is committed to bringing together diverse voices and diverse perspectives. It’s at the heart of what we do. There’s also a real sense of belonging that’s cultivated here. We have employee-led resource groups who help advocate for, and create safe and inclusive environments for personal and professional growth for everyone. And that spirit of inclusion is also embedded in the day-to-day culture: in the conversations you have at lunch, the interactions you have with your colleagues. I think that’s really special. 

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