How to prepare for a product career while still in school

Interview with the founder of the podcast "Now What" — Gabriele Zennaro. A podcast that aims to help students and recent grads to navigate their way into the tech industry. As a student and aspiring product manager, Gabriele’s podcast features conversations with veterans in the industry, such as Ish Verduzco, Jonathan Tesser, and Amy Miller to name a few. Inspired by his spirit and focus, I had the pleasure to pick his brain on how to grow a community as an undergraduate.

Gabriele Zennaro is the founder of Now What? A podcast that aims to help students and recent grads to navigate their way into the tech industry. As a student and aspiring product manager, Gabriele’s podcast features conversations with veterans in the industry, such as Ish Verduzco, Jonathan Tesser, and Amy Miller to name a few.

Young and ambitious, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation with Gabriele. The following are a few of the highlights from our conversation.

Below are snippets of our conversation which I found particularly interesting (edited for brevity).

Ivan: If you had to identify with a person holding a certain kind of food, who would you be and what would the item be?

Gabriele: I don’t identify with him, but I would love to — the first person who comes to mind is Elon Musk holding an apple.

Ivan: Okay, why Elon Musk? Which part of him do you identify with or look up to the most?

Gabriele: The capability of diving into your dreams and taking humanity a step forward — it’s what I want to do. I want to tackle the world’s biggest problems without heeding naysayers. As for the fruit — it’s an apple because I like to eat healthy and I’m into health and wellness, it doesn’t have a particularly deep meaning [laughs].

Ivan: Interesting. Where do you think this drive comes from? Do you think it’s something you developed in an earlier stage of life or is it something more recent?

Gabriele: I think it’s more of the latter. I came from a little town in Italy but I always knew that I wanted to do big things. I started listening to podcasts (specifically the Tim Ferriss Show) and loved being able to hear from people that made a difference in the world. That started the journey in making me seriously consider how I can make a difference in the world.

Along the way, I read a lot of books which helped shape my thinking. One of the books was Stealing the Fire by Stefan Kotler. It was an interesting book which talks about how we can maximize the potential of our brain and what kind of tools we can use to do that kind of stuff.

But to go back to your question, I would definitely consider this as a recent development. These aspirations weren’t really fully formed when I went to the States by myself, and I’m still on the road to discovering them!

Ivan: Nice. Do you think your worldview has solidified into something which you’ll be able to continue to do for the next five years? Or are you still in the process of encapsulating what exactly you want to do?

Gabriele: Definitely the latter. Thank you for these questions by the way. They definitely are very interesting and make me think. I haven’t quite had a conversation like this before. But yes — I definitely think I’m still at an early stage trying to learn and connect with the best. I’m just 23 at the moment, and the Now What? podcast is only one of the ways I think I can help others alongside myself. But once I am ready, I will give back even more!

[…]

Ivan: You mentioned in your podcast that you wanted to help humanity move on to the next step. I was a little surprised at that given how young you are. I’m 32 right now but I’m quite sure that I don’t really understand what humanity is about [laughs]. I mean I think that while I’m pretty confident when it comes to solving problems at work when it comes to my inner circle (like my family) solving problems seems like something else entirely.

Was there something in your life that happened which made you think “I think humanity needs help”?

Gabriele: Sometimes I feel like it’s easier to help a thousand people with some issue rather than to ‘elevate’ the person next to me, so I get what you’re saying. I think history is full of examples of people that are great for society, but not so much for their families and the circle that is close to them. This is an interesting thought.

But to your second point, I believe humanity goes through progress all the time. I don’t know if ‘humanity’ as a whole needs help, although there are certain areas that can be improved. But because I see that we’re progressing, I want to contribute to that progress — that evolution. I think that if we contribute to the progress, tackling issues and bringing value for groups of people — large or small — at a time, it will contribute to our race as a whole.

Ivan: Right, I agree. I think there is a similarity in what you said in being a PM as well.

The straightforward answer to what a PM should do to bring value is obviously in the form of a well-made product, right? But often the path there is a little less straightforward than that. Purely product-driven PMs often encounter resistance in their teams because people’s personal agendas rarely align to the benefit of creating the ‘best’ product.

So the mindset of trying to help everyone becomes even more important. I think in my experience, the ability to align people’s personal interests to the ‘progress’ of the product is almost as important as the PM-specific knowledge I have.

Recently I’ve been enjoying the work of Jordan Peterson, particularly on the section of his work which talks about helping people and what needs to be done. And I think that it’s extremely relevant in being a PM as well, i.e. understanding something more holistically to understand the real problem in any situation, even if it’s beyond the scope of just a product, before building the solution.

[…]

Ivan: So you’re an engineering student?

Gabriele: Yes, computer engineer.

Ivan: Right, so you must have the mind of an engineer. Humor me, are there any algorithms or frameworks you use to help you navigate your life? Maybe just in one aspect, like your career?

Gabriele: You are asking if I have a programmatic way to evaluate my possibilities and decisions?

Ivan: Yes, exactly.

Gabriele: No, sorry I don’t. [Laughs] I mean I do evaluate the pros and cons of the opportunities that come into my life, but I also rely on my instinct, on what I feel is right for me at that moment. I trust myself — or I’m learning to trust myself because I am starting to see that every time I make a decision that I later come to view as ‘wrong’ it’s like… I knew that going into it. I knew it and I took it anyway because of factors like money or stuff like that.

On the other hand, I also know when something is right for me. For example, There was a conference in my school for cryptocurrency and one of the speakers was the CEO of a cryptocurrency company. At the time, I didn’t really have a good reason to go; cryptocurrency wasn’t something I was really interested in, I didn’t really have the time, etc. But for some reason, I felt like I had to go. I didn’t know why, but I followed my gut and went anyway.

Now that CEO is my employer. I struck up a chat with him and I’m doing an internship in data science in his cryptocurrency company.

So I think that sometimes when you have the feeling, you just have to do it. And this sense of trust in yourself is developed by doing this.

I think when I’m older, perhaps I’ll have even more possibilities and opportunities open to me. So much so that I’ll need a framework to work out which ones I should go for. But right now I think that I just have to go with my gut with what’s in front of me. Does that make sense?

Ivan: It does. That’s really interesting because I do see myself as someone who trusts in myself, but also in the sense that I trust myself to doubt my initial reaction. Let me rephrase that: I think I trust in my ability to see myself as an outsider.

Sometimes when I’m watching motivational speakers on YouTube or something, they’ll tell you to ‘trust your instinct’, but I’ve always thought, y’know, ‘Where do these instincts come from?’ And there’s this doubt that I have because how can I trust my gut instinct when I cannot anticipate the result at all?

As I said, I’m confident in my abilities. You can throw me into any situation, and I’ll be able to make it. But this idea on how to embrace your gut feeling you mentioned is very interesting.

Perhaps the idea of practicing and developing this ability to trust your gut is something like how an athlete practices his sport. Sort of like how shooting a ball into the goal becomes muscle memory, so too is the practice of trusting your gut especially when it comes to important decisions.

I think young people these days have the luxury of opting out of hardship, but this is a blessing and a curse because people are opting out of the pain which is necessary for them to undergo a transformation. They’re opting out on the chance to practice distilling action from the gut feeling you’re talking about.

Gabriele: 100%. I believe it’s a pain point in society right now. When I went to the United States, I did so because I wanted to renounce my ‘privileges’ — the comforts of my house, a home, people I knew, food, and so on.

I chose to get away from all of that and go to the other side of the world where I wouldn’t be guaranteed help because I knew I needed to figure things out for myself. I sort of saw it as training, like going to the gym for getting into the practice of relying on myself, trusting myself, knowing myself. Because if you don’t know yourself and you don’t trust yourself, who can you trust?

Even for you, you’re saying that even now you’re experiencing things and figuring things out. That you trust your abilities but doubt your instinct. But you have 32 years of experience, and your brain knows all that information even if you’re not consciously aware of it all the time. You know yourself better than anybody else. So if you have a feeling that something’s not right for you, then it’s probably not right for you, just that your consciousness isn’t able to give you a fully logical reason yet. Our brain has a trained algorithm that actually knows us better than we’re aware of.

I think there are some studies that say that our personality is developed quite strongly by age 5. But people aren’t giving up on the privileges or comforts that they have, and that impedes their development on their true self or their best self.

If I could give advice to people that were younger than me, or anyone who is feeling doubtful about their current path because they don’t trust themselves, I think that it would be very revealing if they renounced what they have (or as much as they are comfortable with) and start from zero. When you start from zero, you have to trust yourself because you’re the only person that you can trust, and you need to take ownership of your choices.

For me, this changed my life completely. I developed the feeling that I want to help the world. I want to help humanity and contribute to the beautiful things that are right for the world. I want to end wars, bring peace, end hunger. It sounds radical, but it stems from this growing confidence I have which is that I know I can take on some complex challenge and solve it. And I want to do right by humanity because I think we are all living through the same human experience but through different bodies, so in a way, if we elevate ourselves, I think we also in a way elevate the entire species, not just as an individual.

Ivan: I love the way you’re thinking about this. I can feel that you’re young and humble, but at the same time, you’re learning by really getting on the ground, with your hunger and ambition. I think one of the key things you mentioned was the idea of holding yourself accountable, which is essential to success.

I used to think that we know ourselves very well, but I’ve been working for over a decade and one of the things I’ve come to actually realize is that a vast majority of people don’t actually really understand who they are.

In my experience, I’ve worked with people who relied on their credentials and past experience too much. They’ve worked with the Googles and Amazons of their field, and they think that’s the way things are done everywhere, or should be done. They take on too much of that large company’s persona rather than react as an individual within their new environment. To bring back an earlier point, I think PMs should always assess their situations holistically to create the best solution and process to the best product.

Gabriele: That’s a great point. I agree that more people need to make a conscious effort to understand themselves. I do believe there is a need for structure though, and that big companies are probably the best ones to learn from. It’s like a complicated process where you get trained by the company, understand its structures, and then eventually learn to exceed it.

Ivan: That’s very true. It’s something I’ve noticed with smaller companies too — the fact that they generally have weaker systems and processes. Bureaucracies get a bad rap, but systems are a way to encapsulate knowledge without the need for someone there physically to guide you. So you’re right, we need a certain system to be in place for people who don’t yet have a fundamental understanding of where they stand. Ideally, systems help disseminate wisdom — and I do mean wisdom, not merely knowledge. You can reinvent the wheel after you understand why the system is there in the first place.

I think there are a lot of younger people these days who want to be their own boss. So we see younger companies, younger CEOs, etc. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but it does remind of that famous speech by Jack Ma, the owner of Alibaba, who said that “In your 20’s, work in a big company, learn what they know and get their knowledge. You can always decide what you want to do with that knowledge afterward.” But to go back to your point on getting trained in systems and exceeding them, I do think that the best leaders and trailblazers have been on both sides of the new system they’re creating.

Gabriele: Yes, I think to really understand what is out there, you need to contrast it with something. So for me, the reason why I want to work at companies like Microsoft or Google is not because of the t-shirt or benefits, but because I want to know why they’re so successful. But it’s stupid for me to do new things now because I don’t know how to do stuff.

Robert Greene calls it the apprenticeship. You need to put in the hours as an apprentice, following a master, in order to eventually grow beyond that. I think that has been humanity’s stories for centuries.

It was a long conversation, and I have to reiterate that it was refreshing to talk to such a young and ambitious soul.

For me, some of the points that jumped were:

  1. Learn the foundations before reinventing the wheel
  2. Don’t take things for granted: self-reflection is the key to improvement
  3. Trust your guts, just do it

How about you? Let me know your thoughts below in a comment or a PM!

Credits

Guest: Gabriele Zennaro

Editor: Karen Ling

Interviewer: Ivan Oung

Medium publication - Product Coalition

This story was featured on Product Coalition on Aug 6, 2020.