Rafah Ali: The MVP Doesn’t Actually Know Sh*t

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guestpost / Wednesday

Rafah is without a doubt one of the smartest people I know at Northwestern. She is one of those people you can always reach out for advice because it seems that they have an answer to every life problem! So I am lucky to have her talk a bit about her experience at Salesforce this summer. Let’s dive into it. 


Hi! I’m Rafah, one of Sid’s friends and classmates. I’m currently in Boston working a Technical Program Manager (or TPM) Internship at Salesforce.

I’ve worked in various industries and roles, and I was struggling with what I wanted to share about this summer, because compared to all my other experiences, I feel as though I have the least tangible contributions in this one.

Throughout the summer, people, namely engineers who couldn’t fathom why I wanted to do anything but contribute directly to the product we were building, consistently ask me what I do. See, the job of a TPM – the real value prop – is simply knowing everyone’s strengths, having good enough relationships that people trust you with their time, and being able to identify the support people really need. If a TPM (any project manager, really) is doing a good job, you probably won’t know what they did, because they removed all the roadblocks in your way before you got there, and they secured support for you so naturally that you didn’t notice it was there.

This is fundamentally against how we, as college students, have learned to see the world. The interesting thing about school is that it teaches you how to become an individual contributor. We focus on a subject, and we complete assignments individually, take our own notes at lectures, and get a single degree. Group projects are the collective bane of our existences, and even when we have them, we delegate the work and rarely talk again. And that’s fine; this is how most of us will start our careers. We’ll learn how to become great analysts, engineers, marketers, designers, etc. But there’s a huge coordination piece that we all often overlook.

Here’s my hot take: sometimes, the MVP is just the person who brings the important people together. A lot of the time, the MVP doesn’t actually know shit.

I know – that sounds crazy. But let me tell you a story.

My friend’s dad (let’s call him George) worked in the energy industry for many years. His friend (let’s call her Sara) came to him every year, begging him to join a company she was starting. She promised she had found a dream team of seven people – the only seven people she trusted to do the job. She came to George every two years with the idea, saying he was the last missing piece, and that she refused to do the venture without him. Finally, years later, he agreed. The venture took off, they sold the company within two years, and they’re all retired millionaires now.

Now of course, Sara had to be enough of a subject matter expert to know when someone knows their stuff. I’m not saying that the connector knows nothing – nobody likes someone they have to explain everything to. Nor am I suggesting that you shouldn’t act until you have every piece right. But I am challenging the idea that individual contributions reign above all.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this summer, it’s the value of being able to look at a problem, and not necessarily solve it – but know exactly who needs to be in the room to solve it. If the people who need to be in the room like you, or, at the very least, trust that you’ve done your research and pre-work to get the most of their time and insight, they’ll be there. And when they’re there, you can sit back and watch magic happen. Best of all? You get to orchestrated the solution and make everyone feel appreciated.

Of course, there are more hands-on ways of doing that, too. You can come up with a list of solutions and the limitations of each, based on your knowledge. Even if they are incomplete solutions, they start and lead the conversation in a series of finite directions that you chose, fleshing out into real solutions based on others’ expertise. People love this. It makes them feel like you’ve done the grunt work of defining the problem and establishing baseline solutions, and that everything they say is an insight that only they could have provided. That’s what valuing time looks like. Again, you get to share your ideas, steer the conversation, spearhead an awesome idea, and you’re the problem solver.  

Don’t get me wrong. The world needs engineers. The world needs designers. The world needs people who know their shit.

But sometimes, the people who don’t know their shit ask the interesting questions. So all I’m saying is that if you don’t think you’re one of those people who knows their shit, or you don’t want to be, just find out who is, and make the magic happen.

Thank you Rafah – this was an amazing post and has made me think of other ideas for future posts. It pushes against our traditional ideas of what work looks like. My biggest takeaway was that PMs are basically like ninjas – if you see their work, they’re not a good PM! I also loved Rafah’s candid writing style


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