We sat down with Crystal to hear directly about all that she has accomplished and built
In our latest installment of Fractional Focus, we have the pleasure of spotlighting Crystal Bray, a seasoned expert in Product & Technology Operations. Crystal's fascinating journey from a trained physicist to a fractional Chief Operating Officer (COO) offers a unique blend of technical mastery and business acumen. With a rich tapestry of experiences ranging from antimatter trapping at CERN to leading pivotal technology operations at Uber, Crystal's insights are a treasure trove for anyone navigating the complex world of products and technology. Join us as we delve deep into her experiences, lessons, and tactical advice.
Fractional Focus with Crystal Bray
What is your speciality and how did you gain mastery over it?
Let me share my journey with you, which has shaped my expertise in Product & Technology Operations. I’m a trained physicist and I started my academic career with an engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Following that, I pursued a Ph.D. in Applied Physics at Stanford, where I dived into the world of electron dynamics in semiconductor materials.
I then ventured into the world of consulting, working first at a Scientific & Engineering Consulting firm and later at Boston Consulting Group. During this phase, I honed my skills in problem solving, finding solutions, and thinking innovatively. However, my time at BCG made me realize that I craved more than just solving puzzles. It was satisfying to provide answers, but the real magic happened when those solutions were put into action by the team.
The turning point came when I joined Tailored Brands as a Data Scientist, focusing on Strategy and Analytics for Marketing. Here, I had the opportunity to see the whole implementation process from start to finish. This included discovering effective processes, creating prototypes, and successfully rolling them out. Notably, I revamped a Marketing Attribution model to track the impact of our advertising spend and figure out where it was most effective.
My journey progressed further as I took on the role of a Product & Technology Operations leader at Uber, specifically within the Freight team. In this role, I led a group of over Product Operation Specialists, and we were all about continuous learning and process improvement to boost product adoption. I managed two teams—one that focused on Marketplace Dynamics, which is all about connecting shippers and drivers, and another focused on Carrier Experience which is about improving the experience for our truck drivers using the carrier app.
From these experiences and more, I've learned valuable lessons in process improvement, change management, and operational optimization. When we talk about Product & Technology Operations (PTO), I'm essentially pulling all these elements together. As a fractional Chief Operating Officer (COO), my goal is to help businesses strategize, optimize, and smoothly integrate product and technology into their daily operations. I'm here to make things work seamlessly, so businesses can thrive and grow.
What was the most successful thing you personally built or have worked on?
That's quite a question, one that leads me down a memory lane filled with projects across various industries that I hold close to my heart. I'll give you a shortlist of some of my most successful and, in many ways, favorite endeavors.
- Antimatter trapping at the Center for European Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland
- Transformed database architecture for Men’s retailer, from on-premise to cloud
- Multi-touch marketing attribution modeling with some of my favorite statisticians and data science friends
- Digitizing a donations platform in the pandemic as a volunteer with a great team of mentors and peers
- Creating a framework for training and developing operations team members into Product Operational Specialist
Now, let's dive into one that has left a lasting impression on me - the digitization of a donations platform.
I serve as a volunteer on a team specializing in the core architecture of our organization. A while back, my team lead and mentor approached me with a unique challenge: to digitize our donations platform while also streamlining team scheduling, communication, and emergency facilitation. This project landed on my plate in December 2019, with a planned rollout over several months starting around June 2020, gradually integrating the online interface for our community members.
However, life had other plans. When the pandemic swept across the globe, and all our in-person operations ground to a halt, we found ourselves facing an urgent situation. It was March 2020, and the world was in the midst of a global shutdown. In a matter of days, I was tasked with transforming the way we operated.
This project wasn't just about launching a new system; it encompassed everything from documentation to training materials, website development, vendor evaluations, and stakeholder management. The list seemed never-ending.
The real essence of implementing new products and technologies into an existing team, business, or organization goes beyond the technical aspects. It's about understanding the processes that need to change, keeping stakeholders informed, considering the consequences upstream and downstream, and crafting a plan that ensures holistic and sustainable transformation. It was during this project, guided by my invaluable mentor, that I truly grasped the significance of Product & Technology Operations.
What made this project so special was witnessing how it brought our entire community together, bridging gaps across generations and functions. The experience underscored the profound impact of doing Product & Technology Operations right - a lesson that has since become a cornerstone of my work in this field.
What was a mistake you have made along the way?
Have more patience. When I was newer as a scientist and even in my career, I was hurrying to get somewhere. I was hurrying to climb the ladder, to see the business world from the top, and it burnt me out. One of the most humbling experiences is to have your friends and family support the broken version of you, the version of you that just needs a lot of love and care. In particular after my second consulting role, I needed a break and to see what kind of life I could have outside of work.
In a coincidental way, it’s when I put better boundaries and focus blocks on my work life that I actually implemented two of my largest projects. One was the marketing attribution revamp and the other was an on-premise to cloud database transformation. Both of which happened with me living a healthy physical, healthy mental, and healthy spiritual life.
What tactical advice in your field of expertise do you have for someone?
When it comes to offering tactical advice in my field of expertise, I reflect on my journey, which was shaped by a series of collective experiences, with a pivotal moment being the implementation of the digitization project. Looking back, I can distill my development into a trio of core processes: learning, applying, and experiencing.
Over the years, I have found that learning and becoming good at something happens in stages. My experience has been that normally I start with learning from others; this could be by reading books, taking a course, or even training under experts in the field. This phase of learning just helps get your mind wrapped around the new space.
Next up is the application. This is the learning how to walk phase, this is when you take those newly learned skills and apply them to your current projects, a volunteer project, or even after switching into a new role. The application phase is the awkward phase that takes two pivotal things, psychological safety and trust. Being in a good environment where you can safely practice a new skill, fail at it, and receive constructive and empowering feedback is vital. Of course you can practice a new skill without some of these things, but I’ve learned the best when I have mentors, colleagues or friends that not only support me, but can give me the necessary feedback to grow.
Lastly, it’s compounding experiences. Over time you will start to see the bigger picture, connect disparate dots, and become more skilled. Your newfound expertise is the result of combining your experiences with past knowledge in an environment that supports continuous learning and growth. Mastery in your field comes from this cycle of learning, applying, and evolving.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to build out a team/product/service in your fractional function?
Building a team, product, or service in the field of Product & Technology Operations (PTO) is all about combining business operations, product and technology consulting, strategy, process improvement, and change management. These skills work in harmony to ensure that businesses operate as efficiently as possible by effectively integrating the right products and technologies into streamlined processes.
At its core, PTO is about how a business leverages products and technologies in its day-to-day operations. Anyone, whether it's an individual, a team, or a function, working in this capacity marks the beginning of your PTO function.
To assist teams, businesses, and individuals in establishing or enhancing this function, I'm in the process of creating an online course that consolidates all the essential components of Product & Technology Operations. PTO might not be as well-known as some other fields, and it can be challenging to find all the necessary information in one place. My goal is to bridge that gap and provide a comprehensive resource for anyone looking to excel in this domain.
Tactical Takeaways from Crystal's Insights
- Embrace Continuous Learning: Mastery is a result of a cycle of learning, applying, and evolving. Continuous education and adaptation are key.
- Understand the Importance of Environment: Ensure a work environment that promotes psychological safety, trust, and constructive feedback to maximize learning and application.
- Balance Passion and Patience: Don't rush the process. Healthy boundaries and a well-rounded life can enhance productivity and creativity.
- PTO is Holistic: Effective Product & Technology Operations is a blend of business operations, strategy, process improvement, and change management.
- Start Small and Scale: Begin by understanding how your business leverages products and technologies daily, then expand and refine the process.
Crystal Bray's journey and insights underscore the intricate dance between products, technology, and operations.
As businesses require seamless product, technology and operations, experts like Crystal play a pivotal role in building and optimizing these critical functions. If you want to empower your company towards operational excellence and work with someone like Crystal, please reach out to us at Go Fractional.