Michael Barry, Senior Product Manager, Amazon
KU Degree: BA, English (2007)
Why he’s a Hawk to Watch:
Michael is one of those humanities graduates who’s put his skills to use in the technological world. He uses his KU English degree every day at Amazon. When he proposes a new product, or updates executives on the status of an initiative, he writes a paper. So to all you English students turning in your theses thinking “wow, this is the last paper I’ll ever have to write…,” think again.
What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?
Professionally, I am really proud of the mobile app product I launched last year, for people who sell on Amazon. We find that people who sell on Amazon increasingly conduct business away from their desk. I led an initiative to give sellers pricing, restocking, and new product recommendations on a mobile app, in a way that makes it ridiculously easy for them to act any time.
I ran the project all the way from defining the UI (what sellers see) to working through innovations with our developers to evaluating product success once we launched. In December, Fortune.com actually did a story about our mobile recommendations, and we’re rolling out the second iteration right now. It has been very exciting to watch my idea come to life and help people run small businesses on Amazon.
What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?
I was let go from my second job after undergrad. At my first job with the publisher Macmillan, I realized I loved using data to solve problems — something I dabbled with in the KU biology labs. So I tried out a role as a data analyst with a small consulting firm. Unfortunately that role wasn’t a good fit for a host of reasons, and when I was asked to leave, I felt embarrassed.
When I told my friends and colleagues, I found out getting let go is common, even among successful professionals. Mentors whose careers I admired told me they had been let go, some more than once. I realized that taking on that data analyst role taught me an exceptional amount about quantitative analysis that I never would have learned if I had stayed in my comfort zone at the publishing house. And I learned what kinds of responsibilities and teams I thrive on, which has served me well ever since.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
Courtside when the Jayhawks win the Men’s Basketball NCAA Championship 2026!
But also I think two places. First, I want to share my passion for great business technology with more people. I think I can accomplish that as a product manager, by working on more complex products and guiding other product managers on how to create exceptional products.
Second, I hope in 10 years I serve as more of a bridge between technology and literature. My senior thesis was in part a study of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Mark Twain’s novel about a society reacting to disruptive technology. I think George Saunders and Jennifer Egan beautifully convey how technology influences the American experience, and I wish insightful literary voices like theirs were a more common part of our collective conversation.
What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?
The #1 thing to live up in college is the intellectual freedom – use it to try new things. Many people’s success is dictated by the extent to which they tolerate being uncomfortable. Stay up late and read the extra books, sit in on a club that advocates for something you think you disagree with, or take a challenging course outside of your expertise.
What’s your best career pro-tip?
Many careers function like a series of apprenticeships. Try to learn one thing from everyone you work with, and find a couple of people you want to emulate and work for them.
What do you do after you’ve clocked out?
I’m active with the young adults group at my local Episcopal church – I just finished helping plan a retreat for our group. I also volunteer with SeattleWorks, a young professional volunteer organization. On my own I like to run, cook, and play guitar.
What is a fun fact about you that no one knows?
When I was at KU I was in a rock band called Paddington that played at the Bottleneck. Had we been more successful, that would be a more widely known “fun fact!”