Helen Huang is an earth scientist turned product manager turned startup founder. After leaving her mark at companies such as Zynga, Microsoft, and Github, she’s gone on to co-found Co.Lab, a platform for technologists to upskill through cross-functional, project-based learning. Helen is especially passionate about thought diversity, the power of learning by doing, and cute cats.
In our conversation, we talk about indirect paths to tech, entrepreneurship, and Co.Lab.
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[00:01:15] The non-linear path from nursing and earth sciences.
[00:03:08] Helen’s ‘Felicity’ experience.
[00:04:37] Narrowing the choice to earth sciences with a business minor.
[00:06:45] The path to tech.
[00:07:01] Change driven by romantic pursuits.
[00:07:20] Waterloo’s co-op program.
[00:08:09] Motivated to find work in the US.
[00:08:30] Working in tech offers relocation opportunities.
[00:09:45] The introduction to tech project and program management roles.
[00:11:14] Ramping up knowledge of these new roles on the job.
[00:12:06] A personal realisation about having agency.
[00:12:31] The initial overwhelm of what she needed to learn.
[00:13:56] The isolation of not having a support network in the space.
[00:14:48] A lack of experience can make it difficult to know how to start asking for help.
[00:15:40] Adjusting to a new environment where you do need, and are encouraged, to take initiative.
[00:16:14] The transition from program to product management.
[00:18:04] Learning what isn’t her passion.
[00:19:26] Co.Lab and the You Belong in Tech Community.
[00:20:24] The challenge of getting a foot in the door without experience.
[00:22:11] A need for a space for those with non-traditional backgrounds who wanted to get into tech.
[00:22:45] A need for cross-team collaborative experiences.
[00:23:38] Providing practical experience that can be used in job applications.
[00:24:53] The growing need for having a broader understanding of the scope of the work.
[00:26:58] Tailoring for the broad range of backgrounds.
[00:28:24] Setting a minimum bar.
[00:29:10] The participants drive their own outcomes.
[00:29:44] Supported by industry mentors.
[00:30:04] The mentoring system.
[00:31:41] Guide without being prescriptive, like real life.
[00:32:47] How to manage the intensive upskilling over a 5 week period.
[00:33:51] You’ll never feel perfectly ready.
[00:34:39] It’s a springboard to help people make the leap.
[00:35:27] The tangible results of the program.
[00:36:56] No attrition yet!
[00:37:56] Helen’s prior experience and skills informing her new venture.
[00:38:49] A PM mindset.
[00:39:40] Communicating and translating the needs of your wider team.
[00:40:14] Diversity of thinking to pull teams together.
[00:42:26] Helen’s support on her own journey.
[00:43:40] Getting perspective on your perspective.
[00:44:29] The importance of ‘soft skills’.
[00:45:21] Making the leap from side-hustle to primary enterprise.
[00:45:56] The beginnings of Co.Lab.
[00:47:01] Helen’s previous thoughts on direction.
[00:47:57] The first cohort in September 2020.
[00:49:18] Making Co.Lab a full-time venture.
[00:50:19] Realising they were making a difference.
[00:51:01] Reflecting on this being their own springboard.
[00:51:39] On choosing your path.
[00:53:13] The importance of hearing from others’ thought processes when making their own decisions.
[00:54:34] Reconciling the financial concerns heading into entrepreneurship.
[00:54:52] Helen’s background.
[00:56:28] The psychological barrier of financial stability.
[00:57:05] Which choice will I regret more?
[00:57:29] Comparisons are irrational. But they factor in anyway.
[00:58:59] Juggling can lead to burnout.
[01:00:00] The mental load of context switching.
[01:01:34] Comparison to Startup Weekend and Hackathons
[01:03:18] Bonus Question 1: What hobby or interest do you have that is most unrelated to your field of work?
[01:03:24] Helen’s love of dance.
[01:04:42] Bonus Question 2: Which childhood book holds the strongest memories for you?
[01:06:05] Bonus Question 3: What advice you would give someone who wants to do what you do? Or what advice should they ignore?
[01:09:29] Finding out more about Helen and Co.Lab.
- University of Waterloo
- Felicity (1998) (wiki) (IMDB)
- Waterloo Co-op Programs
- Sefunmi Osinaike (LinkedIn) (Twitter: @SefunmiOshy)
- Startup Weekend
- Hackathon (wiki)
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