Jump-start Your Job Search: Tesla’s digital product management head

Alum Parag Vaish gives career advice

September 26, 2018
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In our series “Jump-start Your Job Search,” BU Today brings you short interviews with BU alums who are leaders in their fields, such as banking, advertising, tech start-ups, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.

They talk about how they got to be where they are and what they’ve learned from their mistakes. They tell us what they look for when hiring and offer advice for those just embarking on a career.

This week our featured alum is Parag Vaish (Questrom’03), head of digital product management, content and design, for fast-growing electric carmaker Tesla. With an emphasis on quantitative analysis, Vaish leads the company’s efforts in mobile commerce, as well as product design and vision.

Vaish joined Tesla last year after stints as an executive with companies like Epocrates, Inc., StubHub, MSNBC, Disney, and Microsoft. If you’re curious, he drives a Tesla Model S.

He earned a bachelor’s in business administration from California State University, Northridge, and an MBA, with a focus on business administration and management, from BU.

  1. BU Today: Your job description says that at Tesla you “help ease the world’s transition to sustainable energy through the development of digital products.” What does this mean?

    Vaish: We create a lot of the technologies that a customer interacts with when they are considering Tesla products. If you’re going to buy a car, you might go in a retail store and use some of the digital tools to get familiar. If you go on the website, you can build the car that way.

  2. How did you land your job at Tesla?

    Micro answer: I was working with the CEO of StubHub and he was good friends with the president of Tesla, who was looking for someone with the set of skills that I have. Once we met, it was clear that what I have to offer and what I enjoy doing is directly aligned to what Tesla needs.

    Macro answer: I’ve worked in a lot of different industries, so I have a good sense of the drivers of different business models. As technology changes, business models can adapt, so having a good sense of what drives industries like travel, entertainment, advertising, commerce, and healthcare have been great at Tesla. We have a unique business, and we approach problem-solving from a first principles approach, which has us questioning why things have been the way they have always been. The cross section of experiences that I’ve had, along with the willingness to look at problems through a fresh pair of eyes, is a large part of the reason why I am at Tesla.

  3. When you were a student at BU, did you have any idea what you wanted to do for a career?

    I knew I wanted to be in technology—that’s why I went into Questrom’s MS/MBA program. I felt like that would be a launching pad to help me become a technology leader. I didn’t set my sights on any one company, and I didn’t have a full grasp of what product management meant. I’m not a software engineer, not a coder, not a graphic designer, not a quality assurance type person. I’m product management—asking, what problem are we going to solve? Then finding the right people to help solve that problem.

  4. How competitive is the field for new college graduates?

    I think it’s quite competitive. You take the person graduating today from business school and ask what makes them spectacular, relative to their classmates. That is a hard thing to evaluate. I think it’s competitive, but it’s also correlative to how the market is. The market is excellent right now for candidates. High-caliber candidates will get multiple offers. And your career trajectory is often defined by your starting point.

  5. What are the qualities you look for in the people you hire?

    Intellectual curiosity, because it exposes other attributes that are inherent in the person’s behavior. If they are intellectually curious, they start to exhibit attributes of passion. It means the person is interested in investigating well beyond face value.

    In the work world, generally speaking, days shouldn’t be repetitive. You want people who can handle anything. When they exhibit traits of intellectual curiosity, you know you can put any problem in front of them, and they will use data to triangulate. They will have interest in digging in to find out what’s really going on. They’re not waiting for someone to tell them to do this.

    They continue to peel the onion on their own, and they learn and understand the real depths of what’s taking place, and they can now speak from a position of knowledge instead of repeating what someone else has to say. If you have that, everything else can follow. You can teach the mechanics of the jobs, the tools. Intellectual curiosity you can’t.

  6. When you’re interviewing job candidates, are there deal breakers, things a person says or does that makes you think they’re not right for the job?

    Absence of team approach. If there is an over-referencing on “I did this, I did that.” Taking credit for something they couldn’t have possibly have had a positive impact on. I was interviewing a candidate who worked for Facebook Messenger for one year. Their résumé said they grew the user base by 36 percent. The one year was 2016-2017. Facebook Messenger has been around probably since 2010. So you’re telling me this one person was the reason why this product grew 36 percent in the last 12 months?

    You’ll notice that when you ask me a question, I repeat it so that I answer your exact question. What really turns me off is when people deviate too much from the question. Those who are redundant, verbose, don’t understand their audience, those are incredible turnoffs.

    My other turnoff is when people use filler words. The “ums,” “kind ofs,” “maybes,” that give you less certainty than what you should be speaking with. Those turn me off because they show a lack of polish and focus.

  7. So if you’re a student who hasn’t done many interviews before, what’s the best way to avoid using those filler words?

    Face your fears. A lot of people fear public speaking. Videotape yourself during a practice interview. Then offer to be a speaker on a panel. Then eventually you’ll be asked to be the keynote speaker, and you need to come up with a 45-minute speech. Then you get invited to be on live television. I was on Fox Business News when the Apple Watch was launched, and I was talking about StubHub’s Apple Watch app, and the interviewer started talking to me about the Floyd Mayweather fight that was coming up. I am not a fan of boxing, and I was on live television. You come up with ways to position yourself, sound credible, and get yourself out of the question. Those are incredibly valuable lessons to learn, and you only get those through experience.

  8. What kinds of questions do you ask during an interview?

    What are you most proud of? I don’t focus on it in terms of career, and I like when someone says something outside of their job, because it shows they are well rounded.

    In marketing and product management type roles, I want them to be able to sell something. If you say you love sailing, I’ll say, ‘Convince me of why I should try sailing.’ What I’m looking for is passion, for them to get fired up. That’s the moment when you see them change their position in their chair. Maybe they jump up to the whiteboard, they come to life. If they don’t have that, they might be really boring to work with.

    I’ll also ask a question which forces them to use the whiteboard to illustrate a point back to me. I’ll say to them, ‘What if you had 100 things you wanted to change in the OpenTable app to make it better, but you only have the capacity to build 7? How would you decide amongst those 100 which to build?’ I’m looking for a structured approach. What I’m looking for is a visual representation to a response back that would allow me to understand their thought process. Not a lot of people have the ability to do that.

  9. What advice would you give an employee for the first day on the job?

    Spend a little more time observing rather than speaking, because there is often more than meets the eye to what’s taking place. You might have a theoretically simple solution to something, but odds are someone in the room has already thought of that and found it not to be viable. You run the risk of looking like you know all the answers. Especially worse, what gets layered on top of it, are demeaning words that don’t mean to come across as demeaning. For example, the sentence, “Why don’t you just put the button over here?” The word “just” is quite demeaning in that phrase.

    Similarly, if you can diffuse the situation and offer praise, it brings people’s guard down, and they’re not on the defensive. You’re probably better off saying, “Wow, this looks incredible. You guys have done a really great job.” And then later on ask other questions.

  10. Are there mistakes you’ve made during your career, and if so, what lessons have you learned from them?

    Everything I’m sharing with you comes from a position of having made mistakes. Filler words, I used to be there. Trying to poke holes in things as they were being presented, I used to be there. You could invert every answer I’ve given thus far and say those are lessons learned, or things I’ve changed about my behavior.

    In terms of mistakes, I think there is the standard suite of things. Early in your career you pursue upward mobility. It’s the way the world teaches you: if you’re not director or vice president, you’re not moving up fast enough. People develop at different times and in different ways, so there’s a common belief that you should become a people manager. You need to know how to be a good people manager before you can move up. A lot of people believe they can do it without having demonstrated experience. I think the mistake I’ve made is that I’ve pursued that upward movement either before I was ready, or not realized that it’s actually harmful to move up from the position you’re in too soon. You need to have the ability to fine-tune your skills in an environment that is sustained for a period of time. I think the risk is you move up and you don’t actually know how to do that job.

  11. Who has had the greatest influence on your career—teacher, colleague, boss, family member—and what did you learn from that person?

    About 90 percent of my managers have been really good and have taught me. There’s my manager at StubHub, who was awesome because he challenged me to be just a bit better than wherever I was. If a manager is always giving you positive praise, you coast.

    I often take the opportunity, when people are at the moment when they learn something new, to let them know that I’d like to see them apply it and be better. There is now a clear relationship, and they know I’ll be watching. It’s not a fluff job. They are going to have to up their game. You have a lot to learn. Kind of like a football coach. I’m hearing myself speak, and there’s kind of a toughness that a football coach offers.

Are you an alum who would like to be interviewed for BU Today’s “Jump-start Your Job Search” series? Email John O’Rourke at orourkej@bu.edu.

Read other stories in our “Jump-start Your Job Search” series here.

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Jump-start Your Job Search: Tesla’s digital product management head

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