Getting Candid with Yuying Chen-Wynn

It was an absolute pleasure to interview Yuying Chen-Wynn, Chief Product Officer at Barnes and Noble Education, Inc.

Having completed a Master of Engineering in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yuying eventually pivoted her career towards Product Management and she has since then helped EdTech companies transform learning using AI-first, data-driven product strategies so that they can reach more learners and effectively leverage global strategic partnerships to rapidly scale.

In this interview, Yuying talks about her shift to Product Management, her ideas of the skills a Product Manager should possess, her strategies and ideas as a CPO and her interests outside of work.

How did you know Product was your calling, and how did you carve your professional journey towards it?

Interestingly enough, when I started in software, product management wasn’t really even a discipline. At the time, you didn’t know what it was. The only thing I knew coming out of college with a CS degree was that I really wasn’t cut out to code for life. I did my internships in coding, I initially worked in roles involving coding, but I knew I did not want to code for life. Around the time, there was a job opening in the career office with Microsoft in product management, the only thing I understood about it was that you didn’t have to code in that role. Once I was in it, it was kind of a perfect fit for me because I gravitated a lot more towards system design — designing the overall larger systems.

I like a lot of new ideas. And so product management was a perfect fit for me. Even though at the time, no one really knew what it was and everyone defined it as it went along. And that was kind of my other favourite thing — there were no set boundaries and you could ideate and work and push it until someone said no.

What are the most strategic and crucial decisions you have to take for the Product and your company as a CPO?

So every time I come into a new role, I have to define whether the direction we’re in is the right one, or if we should take a new one. You always have to pick a direction first, and then hone the specifics of what you do as it goes. So firstly, pick the direction and then the biggest key I always start with is the right hires. Your people shape what you can actually build, you have an idea, but it’s never specific until people build it. The type of people you hire determines what you get out of it. If you can get those two things right, you can’t go too far wrong from the rest.

What is your idea of approaching new ideas or strategizing new features from the business and product standpoint?

My preference is to go top-down. I truly believe that at a high level you need to be aligned with what’s going on in the world, the megatrends. The megatrends don’t have anything to do necessarily with the industry or product, you go from there on down and then you find a passion point, you can’t make a difference unless you truly care about it yourself and the executive team cares about it too. And then between the executive team, you find your passion points — what do you really care about and what you’re willing to go through to achieve it. I call it blood, guts and tears to get to the right thing. And no one’s going to do that unless they actually care as a group about something.

What do you believe are the essential skills and qualities an individual should possess to excel in the field of Product?

Every time I go into a product organization, I meet with every product manager and the question I always ask them is, when you’re not in the room, how do you want other people to talk about you as a product manager? What do you want them to say, (in terms of the type of product) when they want to build a product you’re the top-of-the-mind product manager because you are going to build the right thing for that.

Product Managers and their skillsets can vary wildly. I’ve known product managers with PhDs, I’ve known product managers who can code in their sleep and then I’ve known product managers who can’t read code at all. But the successful ones found the type of product that they’re passionate about.

When I ask this to product managers early in their career, or even mid-career, it takes them a bit to think through to understand the type of product manager they want to be. Once you have that, the rest comes far easier, you’ll reach for the right opportunities and you’ll work on the skills that you need to build your product. It comes through because when you like doing what you are doing, you’ll keep reading about it, studying it and looking at others who are doing it well.

What is the one activity you involve yourself in outside of work?

I really enjoy competitive ballroom dancing. Like all the little girls, I had dance class growing up. In college, I got introduced to competitive ballroom and then competed with the collegiate team. I discovered that this form of dancing is one of the few ones that you can continue when you’re an adult or older. Like my mom, she is in her 70s and she is competing still. Also since it’s a partner dance, you always have someone to motivate you to go do it, when you’re on your own, it’s very easy to skip because you think you’re too tired or don’t have enough time, but when there’s a partner the social commitment keeps you going.

Being in an industry that is ever-evolving, how do you make sure you are always learning and are up to date with all that is happening around the world?

There are a couple of newsletters that I keep track of, it’s a matter of finding two or three such sources that summarize things well and keep the focus on some specific topics because there’s too much to track in general. Within my company, there’s this great internal core communication that actually literally summarizes everyday top headlines for industries across retail, education and tech.

I do have both Medium and I have The Morning Brew to track some more topics or just the world news. Every now and then I’ll wander into a few AI newsletters to look through the top AI technologies.

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Shruti Mittal | Getting Candid Official Website |LinkedIn | Instagram




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Shruti Mittal

Carnegie Mellon University | Getting Candid with Influential Leaders | IIT Guwahati