As part of the Meet the Courserians blog series, we caught up with Janani Subramanian, Product Manager at Coursera. Before her role as a PM, Janani studied neuroscience and spent two and a half years on the Coursera Teaching and Learning team.
What initially sparked your interested in neuroscience?
Two influential books: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Phantoms in the Brain by Blakeslee and Ramachandran. I’ve always had this need to understand how the brain works and how people think. I did research with fruit flies, then butterflies, then monkeys, then at an Indian education nonprofit with children, and here at Coursera with adult learners. I’ve worked with the whole animal spectrum if you will. It’s always been interesting to think about how animals understand the world, with memory, mental maps, emotions. Initially I was naively in pursuit of truth through idealized experiments. Now, I’m still in pursuit of truth, but am much more comfortable with the fact that it’s more of a heuristic truth rather than a “pure one.”
What was your path to Coursera?
I was studying neuroscience, but eventually I wanted to do something more applied. I moved back to India and began working for a science education nonprofit. That was a very formative experience for me: taking research and then applying it to a real world setting. I became interested in how education interacts with societies. During my masters in education policy at Stanford I was introduced to somebody on the newly created Course Success team [today the Teaching and Learning team] and began interning with them and eventually joined them full-time. My work had to do with taking learnings that we gathered and figuring out how to apply it to product, specifically with the FLEX team. I became increasingly interested in product management and eventually transitioned to become a PM.
What’s something you’re passionate about?
I’m interested in and passionate about cognition and how the brain works. Education is one of those natural fields where you have to think about cognition, but we still haven’t really figured out how people learn. It’s a very interesting problem space because all of us learn, it’s just the way human beings work, and we still haven’t figured it out. Thinking about the tools used to observe behavior and understand what’s happening inside the brain have always been fascinating to me. As a product manager I interact with many different people who have different ways of working. Much of the time I’m trying to understand each person’s motivation, how they work successfully with others, and just how they interact with the world. And then there’s the fact that Coursera has a very broad goal it’s trying to scale. I enjoy figuring out the basic commonalities among that broad demographic we’re trying to reach.
What is challenging about your job here?
I’ve been working with the same teams and product managers for the past two years, but it’s different working with product managers as it is to be a product manager. It’s been a steep learning curve. Every day is a new challenge. You have to constantly reprioritize things, whereas before I would slowly build interest in a random idea and hope that it would be heard. Now I help determine which ideas we choose to execute on in a much more conscious process. That’s a growth area for me. Then, there’s the challenge of juggling many different tasks. Before making the leap to product managing, I got the chance to work with three different product teams, so that helped prepare me for the multitasking required to be a product manager. Another challenge is that as a company there are so many smart people and so many good ideas, but balancing those ideas with company strategy is a challenge, granted not one unique to Coursera.
What is fulfilling about working at Coursera?
I’m a morbidly curious person. I like thinking about problems that aren’t easy to think about. In my role as a product manager I get to work with designers, engineers, other PMs, analysts, and each of them have a different way of looking at a problem. Collaboratively we come up with a solution to satisfy the need. Getting to either observe or participate in that is extremely satisfying intellectually. The variety of projects and new questions is certainly challenging, but in a good way. It’s rewarding.
Interested in becoming part of the Coursera team? Check out our Careers Page to learn more about available positions, company values, and perks and benefits of working at Coursera.1