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May 1, 2020

Flight Crew Series: Shawn Wong on Building User-Centric Products

Welcome to The Flight Crew Series where we sit down with our team members around the world to get to know them better. We talk about the careers that led them to TripActions, what their roles look like on a daily basis, why they believe in their teams, and even their favorite travel memory. The participants were selected by their peers for the incredible work, team spirit, and how they embody TripActions values. Read more from the series here.

This week we connected with Shawn Wong who is currently the product manager for the TripActions flight products. He looks after the flight booking experience as well as the airline inventory that goes into our platform.

A Global Perspective

Shawn started at TripActions nearly two years ago as an international product manager when the company was just starting to scale the product for Europe.

“It became clear that there were a lot of opportunities for growth,” says Shawn who started working on strategic product initiatives for European travelers. Within the first year of joining, he played an integral role in leading an overhaul of the flights product by bringing the airline industry’s first Next-Generation Storefront (NGS) to life in partnership with American, Delta, United and industry association ATPCO, an unprecedented step for TMCs. He has since continued to evolve the TripActions product to better integrate directly with airlines and more.

“I had a lot of fun building the Next-Generation Storefront. It was a very collaborative process and was incredible to see the company rally around a common goal,” he explains.

Through that experience, he found his zone of genius working on the flights products and became the company’s first product manager dedicated to the flight experience. The TripActions flights product is at the heart of our software and has seen tremendous growth and innovation throughout the past year.

“There's a ton of innovation and creativity that we are able to foster within the team. While many of us are novices to the travel space, we, of course, have many industry experts that we lean on to understand how things work, so we are able to offer a fresh but educated perspective that expands the limits of what we can do for our users. Bringing new solutions to our users is a collaborative process that involves working with our partners and development teams, receiving feedback from our users, field teams, and operations teams, and looking for creative solutions through co-design,” says Shawn.

Shawn’s previous experience as a strategy consultant helped him develop the skills needed to excel in a young startup. After graduating from Boston College, Shawn continued to pursue his interest in technology and found tech consulting at Deloitte to be the best place to gain skills and work experience.

“It was a really interesting experience to join that part of the corporate world, which is really exciting right out of university. You travel every week and work on interesting and new projects regularly - and all that coming out of school is lots of fun,” explains Shawn. “There’s so much change and you’re always on a new project so it was a ton of learning very quickly that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Through these learnings, I felt ready to work at a tech company in the startup space.”

Shawn then made the jump to the tech industry by joining Uber as an analyst focusing on the marketplace to understand and optimize the health of supply and demand in the Uber ecosystem. To scale his insights, he ultimately built a global program to support international markets in implementing localized strategies to configure their marketplaces more efficiently.

“Through some of the analytics that we were doing, we found new ways to optimize marketplace dynamics and we created a global program to optimize supply and demand. As we visited local teams in markets across the globe to share and implement these best practices, it became obvious that localized insights were critical in determining how to implement optimization strategies. This experience really demonstrated the importance of in-person connections to move people, ideas and businesses forward,” explains Shawn.

He then discovered TripActions in 2018 as the company was scaling quickly and joined to tackle novel challenges with the relevant technical expertise he cultivated at Uber. “I felt there was great product-market fit and a great opportunity to take on new critical challenges. Having been a business traveler before, I knew there were opportunities to improve the traveler experience. I also found a lot of like-minded people working here,” he says.

The Role of a Product Manager

A product manager role means something different at each company, but core to the responsibilities of a product manager are to listen, learn, and make informed decisions with humility and empathy. Product managers are often stepping into spaces where they may not have the hands-on experience or knowledge, so they have to be able to recognize that they need to learn from and rely on users (experts of the experience) and their teammates (experts of the business). With their support, product managers are able to identify the most critical opportunities and envision a strategy that not only focuses on the most important problems, but also addresses the users’ needs.

“I don’t have an engineering background, but I sit with our development team everyday to understand problems. Empathy is a really important part of it. I think where a product manager can add value is by deeply understanding the complexity of challenging problems and helping to find creative solutions by bringing in new perspectives,” explains Shawn.

Identifying current and future opportunities is just one part of being a product manager. Execution is just as important. Because product managers do not actually manage developers or designers directly, they strive to become a leader of ideas -- whether that is a product concept or roadmap strategy. They serve as a rallying point to engage the people around the ideas by involving them early, appealing to their interests and values, and cultivating conviction.

To build the foundational relationships required, especially if you function in a virtual team across different departments, offices, and time zones, product managers at TripActions aim to foster a culture of curiosity and innovation. By encouraging all ideas to thrive and by garnering the right input, they must show that they value everyone’s contributions and that they trust each other to guide the product in the best and most creative direction. In the end, product managers cannot build a product by themselves, it’s their job to know how to listen and collaborate with others.

It's important for product managers to say, “I understand it's complex. Let’s collaborate to figure this out.”

Life at HQ

Shawn, a San Francisco resident, commutes 2 hours a day to the TripActions headquarters in Palo Alto, CA. But many of his teammates scattered across the Bay Area make even longer treks to HQ to be able to work together as efficiently and as closely as possible -- a testament to the commitment and enthusiasm for TripActions’ vision.

“What makes TripActions unique is a willingness across teams to take ownership of problems. There are a lot of companies that, at first sight of a problem, the first reaction is generally to ask, ‘Whose fault is it?’ The difference here that I have seen is that there's a sense of collaboration and willingness to take ownership of solutions,” explains Shawn. “There is an openness to identify problems early on and a willingness from everyone to step up and solve it as a team. That’s something really powerful throughout the culture that I’ve seen.”

He also found the open culture that enables everyone to discuss issues as they arise refreshing

“In-person connections really matter at HQ. Being there is really critical and important to be part of the culture. I think it's definitely one where everyone is very open. Everyone's very ready to help out and work with each other. It's very refreshing and it definitely speeds up the pace a lot.”

Although our teams are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, that same sense of ownership, availability and communication persists. Each team sat down to figure out how they could make it work best for everyone.

“What's been fantastic about working for TripActions is just the amount of opportunity that exists. If you want to challenge yourself and make an impact somewhere, this is a place where you can, because you are given the space and opportunity to do so.”

The breadth of opportunity and the appetite to take them is what makes TripActions unique.

Culture is an integral part of what makes TripActions and allows us to work together to innovate quickly for our customers and users. To learn about how we’re supporting travel managers, finance leaders, and HR professionals during this unprecedented time, see here.

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