Cool Job: I’m Wikipedia’s Lead Product Manager

5 minutes

A key part of any Product Manager’s role is managing the expectations of various stakeholders — from the internal leadership team to the product’s end users.

As the Lead Product Manager for the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia, Olga Vasileva has hundreds of thousands of stakeholders to consider. “Our main stakeholder and collaborator is our community,” she says, referring to the die-hard Wikipedians who regularly contribute to and maintain the free online encyclopedia.

Olga, who’s worked at the Wikimedia Foundation since 2016, specifically leads the “Readers/Web” team at Wikipedia, which focuses on the way that Wikipedia readers (as opposed to editors) interact with and perceive the product. “Basically, we’re ensuring that all of our interfaces are welcoming, they’re easy for readers to use globally, and that everyone can access the knowledge in a way that is accessible for them, depending on what their needs are,” she says.

Product management is a “jack-of-all-trades” field, because you touch so many aspects of the business, Olga says. Most recently, Olga spearheaded the first redesign of Wikipedia’s desktop product in 10 years, which involved thorough UX research. With an average of 2 billion monthly unique devices visiting Wikipedia each month, Wikipedia has “very important real estate on the internet,” Olga says. Even the smallest tweaks to the product can have a colossal impact on its community.

Curious what it takes to become a Product Manager for a site as ubiquitous as Wikipedia? Here’s how Olga went from robotics to product management, the coding skills you really need to be a successful PM, and advice for Wikipedians who want to contribute code or get involved.

What got me interested in the job

“The main thing that drew me to Wikipedia is this idea that knowledge is a human right and people have to be able to access knowledge to be able to function and have opportunities. Something that really excites me about this position, in particular, is how much we work towards that mission. When everyone is aligned with the mission, I think it makes for a much less competitive environment.

Most of the people that I’m talking to on a daily basis are outside of the immediate Wikimedia Foundation team, and are super passionate about what they’re doing. Our community is excited about Wikipedia; they want to edit, and they’re invested in this project. It creates a driven environment where we’re all actually making a change that feels really good. It’s a lot more rewarding than other tech or even open-source organizations that I’ve worked with in the past.”

How I got in the door

“It was always really important for me to have my work align strongly with my values. I started my career in healthcare tech, working across a number of different startups, as well as government organizations. I initially started as a Data Analyst, but I was quickly drawn to product instead and was given the opportunity to start as the Product Owner of a small team. I loved it and continued focusing on product throughout different positions across a couple of different organizations.  

I was always interested in Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation; I had edited Wikipedia for a little while in college and loved the project and the impact it had. I found myself checking the careers page on the Wikimedia Foundation website quite frequently until I came across an open position that fit my interests and skill set.

The interview process was quite straightforward: I had a screening with the recruiter, then an interview with my future manager, one of the Directors of Product Management. Following that was a take-home task focused on a specific problem within Wikimedia. These tasks are fairly open-ended and designed to see how a candidate thinks and what their approach to problem-solving is. After that, I had some interviews with the team I would be working with: the engineers and designers, as well as with other fellow Product Managers.”

What I actually do every day

“Product management is a jack-of-all-trades sort of situation, and I mean that in the best possible way. You get to think deeply and empathetically about the user, but you also get to put on different hats during the day.

In the beginning, my role at Wikimedia was very much working with the team of engineers and designers on a day-to-day basis in a pretty straightforward product development cycle. As Wikimedia’s products have gotten more sophisticated, so has our relationship with our communities.

These days, I find myself thinking a lot more about the product ecosystem itself. How does the product relate to the nonprofit side of the organization, policy, and advocacy? How do these things all combine into what Wikipedia becomes? What does it really mean to have a more inclusive way to develop products? What does it really mean to build something with a group of thousands of people that are decentralized, and might have a lot of opinions about what you’re doing?”

Here’s what you need to get started

Although Olga isn’t writing code on a daily basis at Wikipedia, she says it’s important for Product Managers to know how to read code written by someone else and how to communicate effectively with engineers. Olga has experience with Python and MATLAB.

“Even though they’re not necessarily required to code in their job description, Product Managers tend to think a lot about code architecture and structure, and need to be able to adopt best practices from different places,” Olga says. For example, she might need to identify what’s causing a problem with someone’s code and edit it.

Wikimedia projects use a range of programming languages — for example, MediaWiki, the open-source software used to build Wikipedia, incorporates PHP and JavaScript. Every organization is different, but here are the best programming languages for Product Managers to learn.

Whether you’re a passionate dev who aspires to get a job at the Wikimedia Foundation, or you’d rather contribute code as a volunteer developer, there are lots of ways to lend your coding skills to further Wikipedia’s mission, Olga says. “You really can have that best of both worlds situation where you get to work in technology, but you also get to work for a mission that you believe in,” she says.

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