Podcast Episode #9

Kelly Hiser
Product Manager at Zoobean
Former CEO at Rabble

Ryan Blakeley, Interviewer

Listen on Spotify

Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the Working PhDs podcast.

Ryan Blakeley: Welcome to the Working PhDs Podcast. My name is Ryan Blakeley and I’m a PhD in Musicology candidate at the Eastman School of Music. I’m joined today by Dr. Kelly Hiser, who holds a PhD in Musicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Towards the end of her doctorate, Kelly co-founded the company Rabble, whose MUSICat platform provides public libraries with music streaming services that support local musicians.

After several years, as Rabble CEO, Kelly took on a new position as product manager at Zoobean, a platform that promotes reading. So, thank you for joining us, Kelly.

Dr. Kelly Hiser: Thanks for having me.

RB: I’m really looking forward to our conversation today, and just to start things off, I was hoping you could provide just a quick overview of how you got to where you are now—in other words, how you made that transition from being an academic to an entrepreneur and a product manager.

KH: So that transition started for me while I was still in grad school. I was really fortunate to get a fellowship through the UW Madison Center for the Humanities. I was funded by Mellon; it was their first go at doing a public humanities fellowship.

So, I was one of a cohort of five or six folks placed at different organizations all around Madison, and in Wisconsin. And I worked at Madison Public Library as a digital publishing researcher for a year. And part of that job had me helping the library, launch a digital local music collection with a local startup.

And Rabble came out of that work. I knew kind of early on in getting my PhD that I probably would not stay in academia. And so when I was approached by some of the folks in the startup that I’d work with about founding a startup, I was like, “Sure, I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m done.” So, I ended up writing my dissertation and CEO-ing a startup for about two years, which was intense, but…

RB: That’s a lot to juggle at the same time.

KH: It was.

RB: And then from there you’ve moved on to Zoobean. What was that transition like?

KH: Around the time I hit about five years with Rabble, I was just getting kind of burnt out. Being the CEO of a small startup is super stressful and I was just ready for something new. I felt like I had kind of done what I could at Rabble. I was ready to hand the reins to my co-founders.

And as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I came across product management. And I didn’t even know what it was, but I read about it and realized this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been doing for five years as a CEO at a tiny startup. And it’s exactly the kind of stuff that I like to do: figuring out difficult problems, solving problems for users, working really closely with a bunch of different kinds of people.

So, I got excited about product management. I was job hunting and I just ended up being really fortunate to come across Zoobean. They were in the public library market where I had experience and their whole product team was based in Pittsburgh where I am, so I’d met a couple of them. And I actually ended up reaching out to them initially, and that led to me landing this role as their first product manager.

RB: That’s really great. It seems like it kind of followed a fairly natural timeline from the dissertation into these different positions. And to back up a little bit, thinking about that PhD and the dissertation, your dissertation was on the reception histories of early electronic instruments. Like the theremin and the Hammond organ. It strikes me that the world of music history does seem very distinct from the world of something like a tech startup.

And so I was wondering, are there any skills from that kind of dissertation writing that you were able to kind of then apply to your role as like a CEO of a company?

KH: Yeah. I think a lot of the skills that I developed in grad school have stood me in good stead. That’s not to say that I would’ve come out of grad school, like, fully ready to be a product manager somewhere. That’s definitely not the case, but I think a few things that are really important for me: you mentioned writing, for sure. Just being able to write well, write succinctly, that’s a skill that’s viable anywhere.

So writing is one thing, critical thinking is another, I think probably cliched thing, but it is true that the more you deal with complex ideas and arguments, I think the more you’re able to. Think critically about problems or question statements that maybe aren’t backed up by research or anything concrete. And so, I think just in my ability to push harder on really getting to the bottom of any particular matter is there.

And then another one is I think some of my experience in seminars and having conversations among folks who are arguing, discussing texts, whatever, has made me pretty good at running meetings. And I run a lot of meetings as a product manager. So those three things for sure have come through from grad school with me into tech.

RB: And thinking about the flip side of things. Are there any skills looking back that you really wish that you had developed or cultivated during grad school?

KH: I think the skills that I needed to become a product manager, I developed along the way as the CEO of this tiny startup. But things like data analysis, understanding technical architectures—I did a lot of coding as a CEO. That’s made me able to kind of speak with technical folks in a way that is maybe a level or two deeper than I could if I hadn’t done that.

But I think it’s sort of the more industry specific skills that are harder, and I think where the maybe disconnect between grad humanities students interested in alt act. I think it’s foolish to think that we can just easily jump into any profession and that a humanities D will, like, get us there, ready to go. You know, every industry has its things.

RB: And while you were developing some of those skills, like things on the more technical side, the coding, was that something that you had to teach yourself, or did you kind of go to other places to learn those skills?

KH: I made everything up as I went along for sure. Lots of imposter syndrome along the way, but yeah, I mean, everything I learned about running a business and tech, I was teaching myself as I was doing it, just out of necessity. So, learning by doing is, is how I’ve been functioning for the last half a decade or so.

RB: I imagine it was probably a pretty, like, steep learning curve, just entering this relatively unfamiliar world. And so I was wondering, as you were kind of making that, if there were like any things that you did to make that transition easier on yourself.

KH: One of the things I learned early on was to just always ask when I didn’t understand what people were talking about, and that pretending like I knew what people were talking about was not going get me anywhere good. And I think that can be really scary, especially in tech where the things are complicated and the developers say a lot of words that you’ve never heard of. And it can be very tempting, I think, to just be quiet and not ask questions and not really try to wrap your head around how things are working.

But for me, I think just embracing that I don’t know, and that actually having someone non-technical asking questions of technical people about how things work is valuable for them and valuable for other people, that I can then go communicate those things to, because I then understand them. So that’s been something I think, more than anything else has helped me learn quickly, adapt quickly: just asking when I didn’t know.

RB: I was hoping you could talk a little bit more actually about the jobs that you’ve done in a little bit more detail. And I figured just working chronologically, we could start with Rabble as a CEO and just generally kind of what your responsibilities were as the CEO, what your day to day work looked like?

KH: Yeah, a lot of the time I was at Rabble, it was three folks total—sometimes more, sometimes a little less than that. And the other folks were always just developers for the most part. So that meant that I did all the other things. And then I also did some of the programming as well.

So, all the other things look like I was our marketing team. I’m not skilled at marketing at all, but that means making the website, keeping the Twitter and Facebook accounts up to date, writing blogposts, planning conferences, those kinds of things. I did all of our sales, so lots of demos, sales calls, the whole sales pipeline I owned pretty much—with help too, from co-founders and the developers—all of our budgets, all of our taxes, all of our employee things like providing healthcare when we could for folks.

And in addition to that, I think I really was sort of, people will say that at startups, your first product manager is really the CEO. So you’re going out and talking to users and doing user research and trying to drive the direction of whatever the product is that you’re building. So I did a lot of that without realizing that that was all sort of product management type stuff.

And then at some point, a few years in, I was like, “I am tired of this business stuff. I’m getting bored. I want start writing code.” And my co-founders were like, “Okay, cool. We’ll help you.” So they helped me get spun up in our code base. I learned a lot by just reading code and copying and pasting things in different places and finding what worked and what didn’t.

So I was never an awesome, amazing programmer and really just kind of self-taught in the code base that we had. But yeah, I mean the day to day was pretty varied and really just whatever needed to be done, I was doing it.

RB: And then from there you moved as we said to Zoobean as product manager. And what was the work like there? What are you doing as product manager at Zoobean?

KH: Still a lot of different things, which is good though, because I like doing lots of different things. But I get to focus more exclusively on making sure our product is awesome. And so I’m the only product manager at our company right now, which means I am sort of in charge of a lot of different layers of product.

So, that means both helping set our strategy at a really high level and setting our product, but also helping with new product development. Once we’ve decided to build something, I’m the first person usually going out and talking to our users and working with our designer to start coming up with solutions to whatever problem we’ve decided to tackle.

I also do increasingly a lot of data analysis so that we can understand what’s working and what isn’t working. Sometimes people refer to me as “glue.” So I’m often the sort of point person for product across the company. I work really closely with marketing, with sales, with our client success teams, because those things all interact with our product and depend on our product and support the product.

And so I am really, really closely working alongside all those different teams to be gathering insights from them, figuring out what they need, making sure we’re supporting their processes as much as we can. So I have still a little bit of that, like, smorgasbord of things happening, but for the bulk of my time, I’m really focused in on the product.

So like today, for example, I was answering questions on Slack from the Help Desk when they didn’t know how to answer a question, and in meetings. So, it’s a mix of short term, quick things and also getting to work on kind of longer term, bigger projects.

RB: Sounds like lots to keep you interested, lots going on.

KH: Yes.

RB: Nice. So it seems like both the work that you did with Rabble as well as the work in Zoobean are very much about promoting public ideas and getting more engagement out of, whether that’s, like, citizens or students. Is that something that like drew you to this job, just kind of that ability to connect with the public?

KH: Yeah, for sure. I care a lot about our public institutions and especially right now, it’s been kind of awful to watch libraries and schools increasingly come under attack. And for sure, moving to a company that shared my values, that was in the public library market, and moving into the education market was super appealing for me so that I could kind of continue working at the intersection of tech and public good type work.

RB: So looking back now, what kind of advice would you give your former university, or universities in general, to help graduate students find alternate career paths? Are there any things that you can think of that universities could or should be doing to promote those different careers?

KH: Yeah, I think, honestly, being really open about what the academic job market looks like from the beginning, I think, is the one single most important thing people can do. So I came into my PhD right as the recession was happening, around 2009, so kind of on the tail end of it. And I was just very aware that what was required of me if I wanted to get a tenure track job, which was moving to anywhere, having to move around a lot. And I was not willing to do that, even not really having a great idea of what my chances were of getting a job.

But I think just being really honest about the fact that, like, it is a tough market and it is in many ways one based on luck, and one in which most people are not going to get what they want or life-sustaining work out of it. And I think then if we start with that honesty, then that can open up space for more conversations and for more support.

And I think programs like the public humanities one at UW Madison where I was are awesome for sure. I mean, that was the thing that got me kind of started on this path and without it, you know, who knows where I would be right now. So programs like that, that are immersive, I think, and that also build networks are to me—I mean, it’s what I know. It seems to me like the most natural kind of idea, because I don’t think that you’re going to get anything you can put on a resume that looks appealing to a prospective employer in like, a workshop or a month.

So I think the ability to go into an actual real workplace, meet real people, form connections, prove to people like, “Hey, I am a really quick learner. I do have skills that can translate into this industry,” is kind of where it’s at. But, you know, that’s expensive and not necessarily easy to implement, but for me it worked for sure.

RB: Yeah, it’s great that they were able to offer that program. And it sounds like just between like the openness and honesty of the universities, as well as kind of offering these programs would be kind of a good way forward in the future.

And then on the other side of that, thinking about what advice you might have for students who are questioning whether or not they want to stay in academia, whether they’re searching for other jobs. Do you have any advice for those students?

KH: Yeah, again, I think networking can be key. I think it’s important to try to figure out, like, what direction you want to go in. Like, leaving academia is for sure a choice, but it’s not a place to go to; it’s just leaving.

So I think you have to figure out where you want to go to, or for me, I was lucky. Like, I applied to this fellowship. I knew I wanted the role I applied to. It was awesome. I was excited about it. It sort of fell into my lap in a way. And if you don’t have something like that, I think it makes it a lot harder.

But I think you’ve got to figure out some kind of direction or somebody that you can talk to help you get one. And then from there, it’s going to be different for every industry. So I think anything you can do to get experience in the industry, you want to move into, whether that’s some kind of continuing education—I personally think like boots-on-the-ground type work, internships, whatever it is, it’s like way more valuable than necessarily going to a boot camp or something like that.

But yeah, I think a lot of it is about making a plan and being really realistic about the fact that it’s not really necessarily going to work for everybody just to kind of polish up your resume. And maybe you will have to go find an entry-level job somewhere and just be really strategic about how you want to move through an industry.

But again, I was just, I was really, really lucky to fall into the path I had, even though I spent, you know, five years with Rabble making very little money. And it was not easy at all, but it’s landed me in a really good place right now.

And I think I also had family and things to fall back on where I could do a startup where I was going to make, you know, $18,000 a year sometimes. And I knew I would ultimately be okay. I had folks I knew who would take care of me. If you don’t have that safety net, I think it makes all of this a lot more difficult and scary.

RB: Yeah, just being strategic, planning ahead. All the usual stuff.

KH: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I worry sometimes in the alt-ac conversations that we think that polishing up a resume, going to a couple workshops and just, like, presenting yourself the right way is enough. I think maybe if you’re lucky and you have the right connections, maybe for some people, sure that’s enough, but I think for most people it won’t be enough. I don’t think it would’ve been enough for me to get where I’ve gotten.

RB: Right. So being comfortable with the idea of maybe you do have to do an entry-level job. Maybe you do have to kind of put the work in at that level.

KH: Yeah, which can suck if you’ve spent six or seven years working on a dissertation in a degree that you’re super proud of and you have been trained up for a career and then you’re back to square one. That’s hard. I don’t think that’s a nice thing to hear.

And I don’t think that that’s what I hear out of most alt-ac conversations. I think there’s a little bit of hubris about, “Well, we’re so great. We’re such great critical thinkers and we have all these skills and we can go do anything.” And it’s like, well, all those other professions also have training and professional skills and you can’t just go be awesome at other stuff. And those industries have their problems too.

So, approaching it with a kind of humbleness is really important too, that you know you are not prepared for everything. Sure, you’re going to be great at some things, but you’re not going to know a lot of things about any given random profession that you decide you want to switch to.

RB: Right. And that’s like a refreshingly realistic kind of take on the way things are a lot of the time.

KH: Yeah. Hopefully not too depressing of one, but yeah, that’s my spiel.

RB: Yeah. Well, it’s been really great talking to you. I really appreciate you taking the time to discuss these things. Thanks again.

KH: Thanks for having me. It was fun!

PC: This episode was produced by Pallas Catenella and Suraj Saifullah. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as a link to our website. In the description of each episode, our Working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor, the University of Rochester Humanities Center, and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.