From Engineering to FinTech: a Journey Into Product Management
MSPM Grad Advises ‘Know Your Why’
When Tanuja Vallabhaneni (MSPM 2020) learned of Carnegie Mellon’s Master of Science in Product Management (MSPM) program, a joint collaboration between the Tepper School of Business and the School of Computer Science, she was at a career crossroads.
“I was a good engineer, but I realized I do not enjoy it as much as I do product management,” she admitted, reflecting on her six-year tenure as a software engineer at Standard & Poor (S&P) Global Market Intelligence.
When considering her transition from engineering to product management, Vallabhaneni said, “I was always more interested in 'What's the problem we're trying to solve? Why is it important to the customer, to the business?’ than ‘How do I build this?’”
Know Your ‘Why’
The MSPM program and its efficient one-year format held strong appeal for Vallabhaneni when evaluating her options. She advised others considering a career in product management to first know their ‘why.’
“Don’t become a product manager because it’s the next cool thing, or because you don’t like something you’re doing right now,” she explained.
“For some people, it could be about the impact to the business or solving customer problems. Some might realize they can become good product managers as they develop core competencies like stakeholder management, emotional intelligence, or user empathy. Whatever your reason, make sure it’s strong. Improving your skill set should be your guiding principle,” she said.
“The MSPM program sounded perfect for my aspirations. Run by the Tepper School of Business and the School of Computer Science, it has a very strong design background as well, so it had all the elements I needed. I think,” she added, “these are the three skill sets you want to have in your bag and putting that all together in a one-year program with an internship is an awesome opportunity for aspiring product managers.”
Make That First Step
When she joined the MSPM program in 2020, Vallabhaneni had recently moved to the U.S.
"It was brutal and unexpected but I had to stay away from my son for that entire year. He was with my mom in India and due to the pandemic, I couldn't travel to bring him to the U.S. until I graduated in December of 2020. It all worked out in the end; he really likes it here in Maryland, is learning so much, and loves school. But it was hard."
When the pandemic hit and classes went remote, she was fortunate to live with her brother and sister-in-law near Philadelphia. Today, as a single mother to her seven-year-old son, Vallabhaneni says it isn’t easy juggling family, career, and a personal life.
“My family always said, ‘Just take one step at a time. You don’t need to figure out everything at once.’ We only get there if we take that first step and I’m glad I took mine with MSPM.”
Assessments Go Both Ways
Earning her degree during the pandemic was challenging, but Vallabhaneni landed a job as a Product Manager at PayPal after graduation and was promoted to Senior Product Manager in August 2022. With sympathy for those facing today’s company downsizings and layoffs, she says the Tepper School’s alumni and its extended professional community is an important tool.
“We’re all from Carnegie Mellon and are here to help one another. If you can keep your head up and keep trying, you’ll find amazing opportunities and eventually land something you like.”
She says job seekers should view interviews as a two-way road and be patient.
“You’re trying to impress the company, but it’s equally important to evaluate if the role and company are a good fit for you. If you join for the wrong reasons, you might not perform well, which could have professional and personal implications.”
Nearly half of Carnegie Mellon’s MSPM students are women, which Vallabhaneni attributes to school leadership’s strong commitment to diversity.
“And, not just in terms of gender, but every diverse community is represented. It’s not a fluke: There’s deliberate effort to make sure there is diversity.”
Asked to choose a favorite female historical figure or mentor, Vallabhaneni said her celebrity choice would be Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“My son and I read books about her and it’s so inspiring. She had done such amazing things at a time when women were not allowed to: She had to fight for it and she not only fought for herself, but also for the women who followed in her footsteps,” she said.
“A lot of people have mentored me or supported me through my journey — my family, my brother, my mentor. There was a time when I didn’t think about going to business school because of all that I was going through personally. I was getting used to the idea of being a single mom. I was like, ‘There’s no way I can navigate all of this’,” she recalled.
“I see a lot of inspiration in my mom,” Vallabhaneni continued, noting the demands of navigating multiple facets of life while keeping your standards high.
“I don’t know how she is that strong pillar for everyone around her while she’s dealing with so much herself. A great mindset to bring into work, school, anywhere, is ‘I’m sure everyone is fighting their own battles. I don’t have to be the person adding to their difficulties’.”
Fintech for the Global Village
With the world changing at an increasingly rapid pace, Vallabhaneni says fintech companies like PayPal are democratizing financial services. When she lived in India, cash was the only way to transact business with most local street vendors; now most accept fintech apps.
“The world is a global village. Fintech helps create opportunities to build inclusive and accessible financial services for people from diverse backgrounds. I am proud to be working for PayPal and in the fintech industry at this unique time,” she said.