- Jennifer Van Dam, 29, is a human connections product manager for Grammarly.
- She analyzes data around perception and tone to help users write clearly and accurately online.
- Here’s how she broke into this role and what it’s like, as told to Perri Ormont Blumberg.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Jennifer Van Dam, a 29-year-old human connections product manager at Grammarly from Vancouver, Canada, about her career path. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I’ve always been fascinated by human interactions, primarily how we communicate with each other online.
I studied social psychology during my undergrad education and got my master’s in economic and consumer psychology. My thesis was on emotions in online communication.
After I completed my graduate degree in 2016, I worked as a product manager at a startup called Islands
For three years, I helped build a social-media app to connect people in a particular geographic area. Our ultimate goal was to find new communities and connections online and encourage in-person meetups.
Islands was acquired by WeWork in 2019. I worked on the WeWork app’s messaging and community features that allowed users to find people to work and connect with in person — until the pandemic hit and changed the space drastically.
The interview process at Grammarly focused on evaluating my competencies in product and technical acumen, as well as my creativity and proficiency working with metrics and analytics. I was fascinated by Grammarly’s ambitious mission to improve lives by improving communication.
I joined in August 2020 and helped create the human connections team. The team’s focus was — and still is — to build empathetic writing suggestions for more than 30 million daily active Grammarly users that inject compassion into digital communication and help people communicate in ways that intentionally nurture relationships.
My day-to-day involves extensively researching questions
Since tone in communication is so nuanced, we spend a lot of time gathering extensive “judgments” — or inputs — on how messages are perceived. We collect this from writing experts, Grammarly users, and people with diverse backgrounds.
My day also includes building user experiences that connect with users on an emotional level. The difference in designing other products like grammatical corrections is we keep subjectivities and nuances in mind. It’s our intent to help our users get their message across as they intended. For example, our tone suggestions feature can help users write friendlier when they’re unintentionally being too harsh.
Working remotely and communicating online is not just about exchanging information. It’s also about focusing on those small moments that help build emotional bonds with each other. At the end of the day, we’re more productive when working with people we like and appreciate.
I enjoy finding solutions for challenges I personally experience, either professionally or personally
We’ve been finding ways to introduce suggestions that can help make users’ writing more conscientious. Gendered phrases like “you guys” and “chairman” isolated people like myself, especially in the new remote world that feels even more depersonalized. For instance, Grammarly may suggest you change “chairman” to “chairperson.” Suggestions like these can ultimately foster more inclusivity inside and outside the workplace.
In the wake of the pandemic, we wanted to help our users use the appropriate terms for COVID-19 in response to the ongoing violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. We developed suggestions that offered empathetic alternatives to xenophobic references to the virus.
When we analyzed this data over time, we noticed that the writing of harmful terms like “Chinese virus” decreased by 90% from April 2020 to April 2021. This data underscores that words matter and people want to communicate with compassion.
If you have a background in psychology and want to launch a career in tech, my biggest advice is to lean into your strengths and expertise
My master’s thesis was very applicable to my work with Grammarly’s tone detector. For example, if you’re a psychologist that specializes in mental health, you might be a great fit to work as a product manager for a mental-health app.