From Behrend to Silicon Valley

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By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

When Olga Vanieva graduated from Penn State Behrend in 2004 with a degree in Marketing and minor in Psychology, she never would have guessed she would find herself working for a tech company in Silicon Valley. And not just any tech company, but Yahoo Inc., where Vanieva is a senior product manager of customer experience.

There were, however, a few clues during her time at Behrend.

“I worked in the computer lab, and I just loved it,” she said. “I was probably the least technical person employed there, but I really enjoyed working with the engineering students. They taught me a lot.”

She was also part of the college’s initial foray into engineering-business collaboration. She was a student in the Small Product Realization class that was a precursor to future engineering-business partnerships and the Interdisciplinary Business with Engineering Studies degree program.

“Olga was clearly interested in the business-engineering interface, and my recollection is that she was quite a good student,” said Chancellor Ralph Ford, who was one of the engineering professors teaching the Small Product Realization class when Vanieva was at Behrend.

We recently chatted with Vanieva by phone from her office in Sunnyvale, California, to learn more about her life after college and what it’s like to work for an internet giant.

What do you do as a senior product manager of customer experience at Yahoo?

At Yahoo, product managers work on either user-facing products such as Yahoo Mail or internal business tools, consumers of which are Yahoo employees. I work on the internal side of things as a link between the needs of the user (Yahoo employees) and the engineers who build the program or tools to meet those needs.

Prior to this position, you were a project manager?

Yes. I started as a project manager at GE Consumer Finance and continued at Yahoo on the Customer Experience team. I had a chance to work on various teams covering social support and call center operations, as well as teams managing customer support tools and systems.

Why did you want to switch to internal projects?

As a project manager, you facilitate the project, but you don’t own it. In my current role, I get to take an idea from start to finish and work with the engineers to develop it. It’s more satisfying for me. My very first project was a mobile help site.

Products seem to be developed quickly in tech companies. Is that true or does it just seem that way to outside viewers?

Yahoo uses the Agile method of development, and we are on a two-week cycle. So every two weeks, you roll out a new product or improvement or feature.

In the Agile style, development teams — engineers, designers, project managers, and product managers – work on the project simultaneously, constantly communicating and adapting to finish it quickly. It’s a very agile (hence the name) way of developing products, particularly compared to the traditional Waterfall method in which a product is developed just one step at a time. More on Agile versus Waterfall styles here.

Which style of development do you prefer?

Definitely Agile because it allows us to constantly adapt and change. Nothing is ever really a failure because you learn from it and use that to improve the next product or project.

What do you enjoy about your job?

The people, for sure. I work with really humble, but very smart people who have a good work-life balance. We work hard, but we enjoy what we do. I’m surrounded by smart people, and it’s inspiring.

What’s it like at Yahoo headquarters in California? You once described it as a “college campus meets Willy Wonka factory.”

It’s laid out like a college campus with a quad in the middle and different buildings jutting out from there. We have a canteen, and there are ten different types of cuisines offered across campus. It’s all free, too. That’s actually pretty common in Silicon Valley, though. Most people working here expect those kinds of perks.

What are some of the best or most unique perks at Yahoo?

There are a lot of training events, speakers, book signings, lectures, coding seminars, etc. If you’re interested in growing or learning, there are opportunities everywhere. Every Friday, we have a happy hour FYI event where our CEO, Marissa Mayer, and her staff get on stage and answer questions from employees. There’s an online moderator, so people from other offices can ask questions, too. It’s fun, and it helps us to be aware of what’s happening in the company. Sometimes, we can be so focused on our projects that we don’t see the big picture, but you can get a wider view and learn about the company strategy there.

What would people be surprised to know about Yahoo?

The transparency and how approachable our leadership is. We have over 10,000 employees and any one of them could walk up to our CEO and Yahoo leadership team and chat with them.

On the user end of things, I think people think of Yahoo as a portal and email site, but we are doing well in online content production and delivery, too. Our online media sites, such as YahooStyle, YahooSports and YahooNews, are doing well on their own.

You’re a native of Russia. How did you end up at Behrend? I grew up in Moscow, and originally started college at the University of Maryland in Germany. But I thought, if I’m going to study the American educational system, I may as well live there, so I applied to Penn State University. I was attracted to Behrend because of its size. I just couldn’t see myself at a massive school, and I loved Behrend when I visited. It was definitely the right decision.

At the end of your college career, you moved to Ireland?

Yes. I was working for GE in Dublin in my senior year. I worked for them for about three years and completed a graduate management program where I did six-month rotations at their offices in London, Moscow, and Dublin.

Why did you leave GE?

I was working in a consumer finance branch at GE and the financial crisis in 2007 was causing things to sort of fall apart. At that time, the opportunity at Yahoo came up, and I decided to move on.

Having lived all over the world, what has been your favorite place so far?

I liked living in Erie and going to Presque Isle and, believe it or not, I do miss the snow. Remember, I grew up in Moscow! But the climate in California is fabulous. Silicon Valley has a great music scene and lots of things to do, too. It is expensive to live here, though. I don’t miss the rainy weather in the U.K. and Ireland.

Any advice for students who might want to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t be afraid of geographic change! I was nervous every time I moved, too, but it became second nature after a while. Moving out of your comfort zone (literally), even if only for a year or two, will help you grow tremendously and develop new perspectives.

What’s in the future for you?

I think everyone who works in the technical field considers their own startup. It would be cool to do something on my own someday.


Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, left, and Olga

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