Dr Ailish McLaughlin | Flexa
The journey into tech when you are in the midst of a career change can be a little like an assault course and a maze and an imposing mountain...all rolled into one. It is littered with obstacles, there can be some dead ends and can leave you feeling exhausted. So you need determination, endurance and it's vital that you prepare.
So when Dr. Ailish McLaughlin went from completing a PhD in exercise physiology, competing internationally at three different sports and coaching in strength training, to Product Manager at Flexa...you could say she already had the athlete mindset to compete in the journey - she just needed someone to see it.
This story is truly inspirational and is a must-read for anyone who is at the beginning of a similar journey or even in the middle of it and they are losing sight of the finish line...
Ready, set, go...
I WAS SO INTRIGUED BY YOUR BACKGROUND, PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY AND HOW YOU GOT INTO TECH?
Yeah, it’s certainly been quite an eclectic path! I did a PhD in exercise physiology because I’ve always been into sports and exercise, having competed internationally in three different sports myself. This gave me an opportunity to get paid to study the physiological demands of elite sport. About halfway through my PhD though, I realised that the typical career paths post PhD, academia and working in elite sport, were not something I wanted to pursue.
During this time, to bolster my income and out of general interest, I was also doing some personal training as well as coaching the strength training for some of the athletes I worked with. I noticed a gap in the market for helping people with pain that was not quite an injury but needed something more specific than yoga. As I was wrapping up my PhD, I started to explore this as a business idea by delivering in-person classes to help people move better.
And then lockdown happened. As an effort to bring some solace to people stuck at home, I decided to offer some of these online classes for free. Very quickly, I realised the power of technology for scaling a business; whereas previously I was able to deliver these classes to people in east London at set times, I was now able to deliver them to anyone anywhere in the world at any time of day. Instead of helping 50 people a week, I was now helping 500 plus. And so my love for tech began….
I spent the next 18 months trying to scale my business taking it from it’s infancy as ButtahBody to it’s current form The Body School, including building a platform to host the live and on-demand classes, joining forces with my former business partner Lenny, setting up a bespoke filming studio and generally learning how to run a tech business. It was a WILD ride and I learned so much but eventually, I got to the point where I felt like I was no longer learning and that the business wasn’t going to get to where I wanted it to go. Ultimately, I decided that it was time to step away and pursue something new and there was zero doubt in my mind that tech was the place for me.
After a long hard look at my skill set and the things I enjoyed during my career so far, I decided product management was the perfect direction for me. And so began my lengthy struggle to break into product.
Over the course of 9 months, I applied to hundreds of jobs and interviewed at dozens of companies and was largely met with one of the same two rhetorics: either I wasn’t experienced enough for a more senior product role or I was too experienced for the less serious roles. It was an extremely frustrating time but truthfully, each pushback made my stubborn self more determined.
About 5 months into the struggle I decided to try an alternative tactic; I had had regular feedback that I didn’t have experience working with developers. So I decided, if no one would give me a chance to gain some experience working with them, I’d take matters into my own hands and become one myself! I took the General Assembly 3 month software engineering bootcamp while continuing to apply and interview for roles. An invaluable course, I learned so much about how technology works.
Ironically, a week after finishing the course, I had lunch with my brother who mentioned that an old school friend of his was a founder at a tech company in London and they were on the lookout for a product manager. He suggested I reach out and see if they were up for a chat. I had actually just gone through a horrifically painful break up and his words “you’ve got nothing to lose, just go and convince them how great you could be” rang in my head as I met Molly and Maurice in the east London container that constitutes Flexa’s offices on a super hot August day.
We had a really great informal chat where I was brutally honest about my struggles to find a role but also about what I felt I could add to a product team. They mentioned that there were at least 3 months of organisational, and project management work to do before any real product work could start so I jumped at the opportunity and asked them to give me a chance to at least do that. Luckily, they agreed and offered me a short-term contract but just a few weeks in, they offered me a full-time role. And I haven’t looked back since!
I AM WELL AWARE OF THE BARRIERS IN TECHNOLOGY FOR FOLK WHO ARE CAREER-CHANGING AND NOT GOING THROUGH THE TRADITIONAL STEM ROUTE. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE LOOKING TO GET THEIR FIRST ROLE IN THE TECH INDUSTRY?
Hmmmm, yeah it’s so tough. I’ve actually had lots of conversations recently with people in a similar boat and they are tearing their hair out trying to get their breakthrough. Frustratingly, I think my advice would be, first and foremost, to have patience. It’s a bit like dating; you’re going to have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a company who can see through what you might not have on paper to the value you can bring as a person and your potential for growth.
After that, I would say to ask for feedback at every opportunity; if you hear the same thing more than twice, it’s probably something you need to do something about. Maybe that’s changing how you answer an interview question or upskilling yourself in a certain area; often just showing how willing you are to learn and grow by yourself can be enough for an interviewer to give you a chance.
And finally, network, network, network. An intro will always give you a foot up the ladder. Go to meetups, tech events, networking drinks etc. If you’re an introvert like me, it will be a struggle but I used to set myself a goal of just speaking to one single person and exchanging LinkedIn details and then I could go home. Almost all of my applications that went to the 1st interview stage and beyond came from referrals of some kind; it may not be fair but it works. Sometimes you just have to play the game!
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE TO DATE?
The biggest challenge for me was finding the job; it took so much resilience and perseverance. But in my current role, I would say the biggest challenge has been building a product strategy from the ground up. Having not been in a traditional product environment before, I’ve had to teach myself what a product strategy actually is in the first place and then how to create one from scratch. Luckily, I work with amazing colleagues and have some incredible external mentors who have helped and guided me through this process. I’m feeling really good about it now and seeing it pay dividends to our roadmap and product delivery process makes all the times of extreme frustration totally worth it!
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BIGGEST THING TECH COMPANIES COULD DO TO ATTRACT MORE DIVERSE TALENT? AND I GUESS IF IT WAS YOU LOOKING – WHAT WOULD ATTRACT YOU TO A COMPANY?
I mean, I work for Flexa so it’s clear to me that flexible working is a key contributor to attracting diverse talent as inclusivity and flexibility go hand in hand. Interestingly, a lot of bigger tech companies actually offer good flexibility options but they often don’t shout about them as they mistakenly believe if they are not fully remote then they are not flexible at all. So I think shouting about how they work is a good place to start (and Flexa is a great place to, ahem, do that!). But additional to that, I think there is an important piece around being open to different backgrounds and experiences. There is always a ramping up phase for anyone at a new company, it’s possible that they can also learn elements of a new role and/or industry at this time with the right support (which should be even more accessible in larger companies). I actually spoke to a friend of a friend recently who was previously a graphic designer before having kids and now wants to return to work in the product design space. She’s done a tonne of additional training in UX but is having a nightmare finding a role; she just needs a couple months in a good team and she would be a total rockstar but hiring managers are not seeing that in interviews; super frustrating.
And for me personally, I would want to see evidence that there is autonomy in the role, room to grow in a range of directions and that there is some flexibility in how I get my work done.
WHY IS DIVERSITY IN TECH AND MORE SO PRODUCT MANAGEMENT SO IMPORTANT?
Product managers are the voice of the user. Users of tech products are women as much as they are men. They are from ethnic minorities as much as they are from ethnic majorities. They are LGBTQ+ as much as they are heterosexual. They have disabilities as much as they don’t. To accurately represent the voice of a user, to build something that will delight and engage a diverse user base and ultimately achieve business outcomes, you have to have representation of that diversity in the team.
YOUR LINKEDIN BIO SAYS. ‘ I GET OUT OF BED EVERY DAY TO GET A LITTLE BIT BETTER THAN THE DAY BEFORE.’ WHAT DO YOU DO TO CONTINUE TO LEARN AND I’M SURE YOU HAVE SOME AWESOME BOOK OR PODCAST RECOMMENDATIONS FOR US. CAN YOU GIVE US SOME GREAT RECCO’S TO GET STUCK INTO?
That’s hilarious, I must have written that quite a while ago. But it’s very much still true today! To me, getting better each day is about reflecting on the day before and finding ways in which I can do a little better the next day. I’m very self-analytical (read: over thinker) so I try to utilise that in a constructive way to make sure I’m learning from things that didn’t go well.
This is usually the catalyst for my learning; when I am frustrated with or stuck on something, I’ll chuck myself down rabbit holes to try and figure it out. From a product perspective, I have found the Hustle Badger articles by Ed Biden super useful recently and enjoy Lenny’s podcast by Lenny Rachitsky .
But I also have quite an eclectic range of interests so read and listen to a relatively random variety of things! I am currently enjoying the Femtech Insider and ByteByteGo newsletters and reading a book about the opiate epidemic in the US (Dreamland by Sam Quinones). I am also a podcast queen, some of my current favourite shows include: Modern Wisdom, Where should we begin (by Esther Perel), Freakonomics Radio, Possible (an GPT inspired show). And for comedy I lovvvve Berning in Hell and My Therapist Ghosted Me.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE QUOTE OR MANTRA YOU LIVE BY?
“This is it”
I often find myself getting caught up in all the things I want to do and achieve and have. And all the ways in which I have not yet got there; beating myself up for my past mistakes and feeling like I can only enjoy myself when I have achieved a moving goalpost list of things.. Subsequently, I forget that this moment right here is all we really have. So these three words remind me to try and stay present. They remind me that the highs and lows, the frustrations, the disappointments, the failures, the wins, the sadness, the stress; that these things are actually the living. That striving for goals is fine but it is in the striving that life happens.
ARE YOU UP TO ANYTHING COOL IN THE SUMMER?
Nothing major, actually. Typically, I love London in the summer (although the weather has failed me miserably this year) so I like to stick around for most of it. I am thinking of planning an extended trip to Costa Rica in the winter though, so I'm looking forward to that!
Thanks Ailish, you rock 🤘
Interview by Alicia Teagle