July 24, 2020 Getting to Know the Topcoder Admins – Meet Ariel aka acshields

We are excited to introduce you officially to Ariel on the Product Development team. Ariel is a joy to work with across the board at Topcoder and are grateful to have her on the team.

Tell me a little bit about your background and how your Topcoder story began
I grew up in California (warm & sunny!) and Minnesota (cold & snowy!), and have lived in London, Arizona, and Connecticut as well. At the start of my career, I worked as a counselor helping victims of violence in their recovery process. However, after a while I felt the need to mix things up, so I entered the corporate world. This is how I was introduced to the world of technology product management and is what I have now been doing for the past seven years. I joined Topcoder two years ago when I was looking for an opportunity to become a fully remote product manager and was instantly hooked by this company’s mission, passion, and overall culture!

What’s your role at Topcoder and what do you like the most about it?
I am the product manager for customer experience on the Topcoder platform – this means that I am responsible for setting the strategy on must-have features for all current and future customer applications. The mission statement: Make it so easy for customers to get what they need and work with the Community that crowdsourcing becomes their preferred way of getting things done and they keep coming back for more! While this is a lot of responsibility, especially when I am trying to meet the needs of a lot of different users, the freedom it allows to find creative solutions to meet those needs is always my favorite part of this job.

What feature/project that you helped develop are you most proud of?
My favorite project is the one I am currently working on! We are in the process of replacing our work management applications with new ones – which means reimagining the most efficient and fastest ways to get a customer’s needs turned into challenges that are launched out to the Community! It is my goal that this effort will make the delivery experience delightfully easy for customers, and as a result our demand goes up even more (i.e. more challenges are launched!)

What’s the most challenging thing you have to do in your job?
A big part of my job is prioritization. I need to identify the most important features that will generate the greatest benefit for all users. This can be challenging at times because I constantly hear great ideas or pain points from a lot of different users, and I can’t make everyone happy at once (even though I want to). 

Do you enjoy working remotely versus onsite in an office? How do you take advantage of this? Travel, work late/early hours, etc.
I love the flexibility that comes with working remotely. Before Topcoder, when I worked in offices, things like commuting or the time in-office made it difficult to do things that either made me happy (like, doing yoga or taking a run) or getting life-stuff done (like taking my cat to the vet) vastly more difficult. I also love that I can easily visit my friends and family that live in other states, because I can just take my work with me!

What are your interests besides Topcoder? (hobbies or maybe other things you’re working at)
I love gardening, reading, exercising (especially yoga – I used to teach yoga!), baking, and trying new things (the more strange/unusual the activity, the more I want to try it!) More than anything though, I like spending quality time with my friends and family. I am also currently in the middle of finishing a master’s degree in technology at the University of Minnesota – while I wouldn’t consider this a “hobby,” it definitely takes up a lot of my time right now!

What is the funniest thing that has happened to you during your time at Topcoder? Either with community, customers or the Topcoder team
Oh my, it’s hard to count the number of funny, great memories I have from my time at Topcoder. However, one of my favorites has to be the personal F2F competitions that DaraK and I started between ourselves. It started off at an Italian restaurant when DaraK yelled over to me, “Ariel! I challenge you to a F2F!” and it went from there. We’ve had F2F competitions on everything from who can drink their glass of wine faster, to who can race to their TCO hotel room first. It is always a lot of fun 🙂 (and p.s. I am still the overall leader in our F2F competitions! lol.)

As a product manager of Connect, you must get a lot of requests for features. How do you prioritize which one is the most important to attack and brings the best ROI?
As a product development team, our north star is constantly seeking ways to increase Community member payments. For the customer experience, that means I need to be constantly evaluating the ways we can drive the velocity of a sale through to work getting launched out to the Community, while giving customers a fantastic, easy experience so they keep wanting to come back.

How can I make it easy for customers to find and buy what they need?

How can I make it easy for customers and delivery teams to boil down the requirements of a full solution, so that work is ready to launch faster?

How can I make the process of launching that work even easier?

Constantly finding ways to answer those questions and drive towards our north star is my mission. To achieve that mission, I take input from a lot of different sources – What are our users saying? What is the data saying? What are our competitors doing? – and then prioritize features by examining what aligns to that north star and provides the biggest net benefit to my users. It’s a constant evaluation process.

How do you build consensus among different stakeholders?
Ha! This is the million dollar question, when there are a lot of different stakeholders with different needs, priorities, ideas and pain points. Solving them all at once is not possible. However, there are things that I do consistently to build consensus and keep people on track with what we are doing in our customer applications:

  • Acknowledge the stakeholders’ feedback. Document it and if it is valid/aligns with the goals for the customer applications, add it to our backlog for prioritization.
  • Clearly communicate my prioritized roadmap, regularly. Moreover, I highlight why features are prioritized (the net benefit, user feedback, data, etc.) so people understand the purpose behind the decision.

How has life/ work changed during Covid-19?
Oof! In what ways has it not changed for us all? I know for me, while it was great that I did not need to adjust to working from home, there is still a lot that has changed. Obviously, trips to see family and friends are not as frequent and the things that I used to enjoy going out to do – take a yoga class, eat a restaurant or meet friends at a brewery – are not possible either. However, there is still some good even in this difficult time. I have been using my free time to explore new hobbies (like painting) or pick back up old hobbies (like writing, or baking – I’ve baked two cakes since quarantine has started!) that makes life feel more full. I’ve also started volunteering (virtually) with local youth – something which I used to do, but hadn’t done in some time because I was always too “busy.”

Imagine there’s no Covid-19 virus and you can travel anywhere  – which two Topcoder members would you choose to visit and where are they located?
I would start off by visiting my friends DaraK in Romania and PereViki in Hungary, and do a tour of eastern Europe! I’ve traveled to many western European countries (England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, France and Italy) but I have never been to eastern Europe and would love to explore it with them and we could invite our buddies Mahestro, Ravi, and many others to join in!


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