Humans of Crafty: Meet Nick Vakili, Associate Product Manager out of Crafty Chicago
Follow Nick as he goes from working on the Crafty Chicago operations team to a brand new role on Crafty's tech team in just five years with no formal training.
Today, we're chatting with Associate Product Manager Nick Vakili, whose journey from a music-obsessed high schooler to a product manager is its own unique composition.
In terms of school, Nick chose the road less traveled. Electing not to finish high school, he earned his GED and headed to the University of Iowa for a few years to study audio engineering. But Nick quickly realized he preferred building and applying skills outside the classroom.
A lifelong Chicagoan (growing up at 73rd St. & Ashland Ave. for most of his childhood), he decided to return home and happily worked in music studios and as a bartender until he became a dad. Fatherhood and the desire to spend as much time as possible with daughter Annabella (AB for short) made him hungry for a job that allowed him to connect with interesting people, food & beverage skills, and a desire to learn in real-time with traditional 9-5 hours.
So how does a person who swears their only skill at the time was the ability to make a killer Old Fashion land a job on Crafty's Tech Team? Read on.
What attracted you to Crafty?
I originally came across a post on Craigslist. Crafty was looking for a Food & Beverage Specialist. I found out later that tech companies don't usually post job listings on Craigslist, which shows they were open to people with different skill levels and backgrounds. The first thing that attracted me to the job was that the post itself was funny. Not corporate funny, but actually funny. I knew the position would call for stocking and merchandising snacks and drinks in corporate offices, but I didn't fully understand the breadth of what Crafty did.
I showed up to the interview, on a scorching hot day in August, in a full suit and tie. I felt ridiculous when I walked in. Everyone in the office was dressed in what I now understand to be "startup casual," i.e., whatever they felt most comfortable wearing. I thought, "I'll never hear from these people again." But apparently, I did something right because they offered me the job!
Can you walk us through your Crafty career journey?
I started as a Food & Beverage Specialist. I worked at client office kitchens and went in daily to stock and take inventory. After about six months, I was promoted to a senior-level position. After that, I was promoted to what's now called a Flex Food & Beverage Coordinator, meaning I filled in at client sites where we needed coverage and did some project work at the Crafty Chicago office.
From there, I started thinking about what my next move should be. I loved interacting with clients and set my sights on moving to the Client Services Team. I applied for an Account Coordinator position, and soon after, I was promoted to Account Manager. I quickly realized that I loved being part of the process of building tools for our clients. I was invested in every step, from learning what would help make our clients' lives easier to put in requests. That is how I stumbled into the world of product management.
So you jumped from doing operations work to joining the Tech Team as an Associate Product Manager. How were you able to make that move?
Before Crafty, I didn't even know what a product manager did. I learned what the role entails through my interactions with our tech team, and those conversations made me think I'd be a good fit. With the support of my incredible manager, Monica Diaz, I reached out to our CTO, Jimmy Paul, and told him I was interested in product management.
He provided me with a bunch of educational materials, and I got to work. I studied, asked a million questions, and talked to people in the Product Management world. The more I learned, the more I was excited about the move.
Later, a position opened up for an Associate Product Manager, and I applied, interviewed, and got the job. If you'd asked me 5 or 6 years ago, if I saw myself working on tech, I'd laugh and ask you what you were talking about. Now, because of the incredible generosity of my coworkers, who were willing to share their time, knowledge, and resources, I'm in a career I never imagined.
What are your Crafty job responsibilities?
My responsibilities now include helping to create a roadmap to what we're building as a tech team to serve our users better. I focus on what we're building next, develop timelines with our engineers on how long something takes to make, help with design, and bring in stakeholders from every team that will use the food service technology we're building to ensure we optimize for their needs. The Product Management Team helps move things along and ensure we adhere to our planned roadmap. It's a great way of getting involved with building new technology and not needing a software developer's skills or traditional education.
What do you love most about your job?
Learning. I came to Crafty with knowledge of music and how to make an incredible old-fashioned. Those are excellent skills, but they get little use here. Because I have always worked hard and applied myself to whatever I do, I have earned Crafty's good faith that I am dedicated and agile enough to learn on the job. I don't have much to compare it to, but from what I hear from others, being able to learn on the job and having a company invest in a person rather than a specific skill set or educational background is an incredibly rare scenario outside of Crafty's walls.
Many companies won't let you in the front door without a formal education. Crafty has never made that stipulation. Plenty of people are employed here who have non-traditional journeys to their current positions. It's a great mix of brilliant people to learn from!
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job now is competitive analysis. No one is doing what Crafty is doing with technology within our industry. Our corporate food delivery competitors have little to no technology to offer their clients. So it can be challenging because what we're building is entirely new. Knowing what to do next can be tricky when it’s never been done before.
Luckily, we have excellent communication with our clients, partners, and internal users. They are vocal, helpful, and thoughtful, and always important to keep our users at the forefront for feedback and ideas around creating and enhancing our technology. We can weigh priorities based on what they need, which helps alleviate the challenge.
Tell us about your kid and what it’s like being a father at Crafty.
My daughter turns 12 in July and is such a cool human. She's currently over social media, which is all a father could ask for. She is also almost as tall as me and can wear all my clothes. She and her friends are into '90s grunge-era clothing, baggy pants, and hoodies. She's starting 7th grade soon.
It's funny because up until three years ago, I was one of the few parents at Crafty, and now we have so many parents here. It's great.
However, the message has been the same since I've been here. Your child comes first. If AB is at the nurse's office and needs me to pick her up, or if I have to sign off early to take her to a soccer game, no one bats an eyelash. We are trusted to manage our schedules and our kid's schedules, and even if something unexpected comes up, everyone finds ways to support you so that you can take care of your family first.
What kind of office snacks and beverages do you depend on to make it through the workday?
I am addicted to Aspire energy drinks. Apparently, they’re healthy energy drinks. I don’t know how that works, but I don’t drink coffee, so they have a very light amount of caffeine, and that’s all I need to get moving.
What do you like most about the hybrid workplace environment?
The flexibility. Sometimes, AB stays home sick or needs to get picked up from school early. When AB got covid, she needed to stay out of school for two weeks, so I could easily work from home for those two weeks.
Also, I appreciate going into the office too and enjoy that we have free food. It's nice not to worry about feeding myself during the day. We all need a break from that sometimes.
Let’s get personal! What does a perfect day off look like for you?
I would wake up on the later side, like 10 am. I wouldn't eat breakfast because it's the worst meal of the day. I'd get in some morning yoga or some calisthenics. I'd leisurely make lunch at home and spend quality time with my dog Shoshanna. Then, I'd head over to 31st Street Beach, where I'd lay out and listen to music or a podcast. Then I'd journey home and spend some quality time with AB. We'd probably watch our favorite show, Modern Family. I'd meet up with friends for dinner and drinks in Pilsen, then catch some live music at Thalia Hall. Then, I'd get settled on the couch with the dog, watch a movie, and fall asleep as soon as the credits rolled.
⚡Now for the lightning round!⚡
What is the last TV show you watched?
All 38 seasons of The Challenge. I started watching the reality show last year and since then, I've forced myself to watch every pains1taking episode.
What is the last book you read?
Range by David Epstein
What is the last song you listened to?
West Savannah by Isiah Rashad
What is the emoji that best encompasses your vibe?
Who is a famous person you’d like to hang out with?
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Topanga from Boy Meets World
Crafty would like to extend a huge thank you to Nick for generously sharing his time and insights with us and allowing us to write about him. Thank you so much for all you do for Crafty. We are endlessly grateful to have you on our team.
Our mission is to have a positive impact on everyone we work with from our clients, partners, community, and especially our employees.
We have a diverse, high-powered team, and our way of working is dynamic, fast-paced, and just plain fun.