How a Software Engineering Career Started the Journey to Fintech Product Management

Here’s what strategic partner PayPal did to bring scaled product management to life for this startup-oriented software engineer

Ashwin Rao, software engineer to product manager career

Computer software engineer Ashwin Rao was already well on his way to becoming a successful product development professional in India’s startup e-commerce community when he concluded that, to really succeed in the field, he needed to strengthen his business skills in product management as well.

He expected to get what he needed from Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Science in Product Management (MSPM) program. What he didn’t expect was that the program ultimately would send him on a promising product management journey with PayPal, one of fintech’s most prominent Silicon Valley-based powerhouses.

It turns out that PayPal, which is focused on democratizing access to financial services, serves as a strategic partner to the MSPM program, providing training, internships, and job opportunities. Rao was among the first graduate students in the program to benefit from the partnership.

“When you’re in a master’s program, it’s a good time to explore other options and potentially work in a completely new domain,” Rao said of his opportunity to work with PayPal, first as an intern and later as part of a product management team.

“Most of my experience has been with startups, so I wanted to work for a large company and see how that is different from a startup experience,” he said. “Fintech has been growing very fast over the last few years, and I wanted to work on a product at scale and also learn how really large organizations manage product management. I felt PayPal would be a great choice.”

“Is there a better way to do it?”

Rao’s transformative career journey began in Mumbai, India, where he spent three years in product management roles for startup Parity Cube, which develops e-commerce content monetization tools to help web-based publishers manage native advertising and affiliate marketing. Rao helped drive product strategy and develop new computer tools.

“I was a software engineer, so I was learning a lot of things on the go and on the job,” said Rao of his early-stage product management roles at Parity Cube and other startups. “Sometimes, I used to feel like, is this the right way to do it, or is there a better way to do it? Those were my questions. Then I would look up a lot of things online to find some frameworks to use.”

“I was really interested in and wanted to stay in product management,” he added, “so I felt that, okay, this is the time when I have to pause and learn, and then go forward.”

Solving problems with MBAs, design thinking, and innovation

Fast forward to Carnegie Mellon’s MSPM program, which Rao said provides a welcome combination of business education, product design frameworks, and technical development.

“One of the most valuable things that the program was aligned around was working in groups and teams from different backgrounds,” he said. “We had classes with MBA students, and we had classes in the design school, and classes like service innovation and service design.

“One of the main things about product management is that, most of the time, when you’re working on a new problem, it’s open-ended. So how do you structure your thoughts and still work when there’s a lot of ambiguity. Those were the things that the Design Thinking classes taught us.”

Expanding his knowledge portfolio

Rao credits that diversity of the MSPM program experience for helping him adapt more readily to his PayPal internship, which introduced him to the realm of data science.

“I interned with PayPal’s Global Data Science team, and I didn’t have a data science background,” Rao said. “The closest I’ve worked with data was when I was a software developer, and I worked a little bit with a database and data. It wasn’t really data science, but more on the analytics side of things. When I interned there, I felt that I really needed to learn a little bit of that because my team was completely working on machine learning, AI, and the fast-paced side of things. So, I wanted to learn something along those lines as well.”

And he did, taking a technical elective at Carnegie Mellon in applied machine learning.

“It wasn’t a very technical machine learning course, where you’re learning how to build machine learning models, but it was about how to apply different machine learning tactics, models and approaches with a focus on real-world experiences. That has been super helpful — once I came back to PayPal, I had worked with data scientists and machine learning projects a lot,” Rao said. 

Rao’s contribution to CMU’s PayPal partnership

Rao said he was the first product management intern to join PayPal’s Global Data Science team, which allowed him to help define both the internship and his contribution to a real-world product development project.

“The data science project I was assigned to needed an early-stage look at it from an opportunity sizing and business standpoint to see if it made sense before we started building a data science model,” Rao explained. “Typically building modules takes around six months of time and a lot of data science effort. So that was the goal of the project itself.”

As such, Rao said he then spent two days creating a project plan and shared it with his manager, Loga Vinayagam, a director of product management at PayPal. “That created a good first impression and gave me a great opportunity because they said, ‘okay, this looks perfect.’ We just tweaked some things around in the plan, and they said, ‘now you can use this plan for your internship.’”

During the following weeks of the internship, and “inspired” by the design thinking courses he took at CMU, Rao said he first tried to understand the problem statements and then worked to narrow them down to the “most important problem within them” before trying to come up with a business-viable solution that made sense to build into a model. “That’s how we approached the framework,” he explained. 

From internship project to product management job

Rao acknowledges he was able to turn this internship project into a full-time product management job at PayPal, thanks largely to the business case he made for a new product as part of his internship.

“My manager was super clear that this was a mainstream project that was on the radar for the next year, and it was really about someone looking at this opportunity and making a clear business case for it,” Rao said. “Interestingly, it turned into a project, and when I joined PayPal as an employee, I actually built that product out. We launched it in January 2021.”

The product: “It’s called a VIP experience for users,” Rao said. “We have very different types of customers at PayPal. Some of them are super engaged. Some of them are in the early stage, onboarding, etc. This particular product, aligned around machine learning, predicts which account holders are good users, which is critically important in the face of rising online fraud.

The new product then helps PayPal work more effectively with those users in the event of a transaction decline, for whatever reason, to encourage continued use of PayPal.

“When I started the internship, it was completely aligned as a B2B product,” Rao said, “but we saw a lot of value in creating this for the VIP users on PayPal. So now, it’s more of a consumer-centric product that we have launched.”

A CMU-PayPal Perk

These days, Rao isn’t alone at PayPal, thanks to PayPal’s long relationship with Carnegie Mellon University. Today, a growing number of CMU alumni have formed their own support community, connected by the instant messaging program, Slack, and periodic get-togethers.

“It’s very interesting,” Rao says of the community, which totals more than 30 alumni. “It’s a good networking opportunity where you get to meet people from different teams and from leadership. And you learn a lot from peers because some of them have been with PayPal for a very long time.”

CMU’s Master of Science in Product Management program works with corporate partners like PayPal and other top brands to build internships and capstone projects for MSPM students. In addition to helping our students accelerate their careers, these partnerships and sponsoring capstone projects provide cost-effective ways for companies to explore new product innovations and gain access to top product management talent before their competitors do. 
Ashwin Rao is a 2019 graduate of the Master of Science in Product Management program at Carnegie Mellon University. His undergraduate degree is in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he continues to combine his software engineering background with a passion for creating viable business solutions and design thinking to build new products for PayPal.