Daniel Thomason’s Journey From Central Bank Economist to Escape Room Owner to Google Product Manager

Article written by Jake Rosenberg.

When asked about the path that led from being an economist at a central bank to managing products at Google, particularly in the field of contactless payments, I find the common thread in my career is a passion for solving significant problems, thinking innovatively, and expanding my understanding of real-world issues. This was the driving force behind my decision to study economics, as it provided robust tools for analyzing and addressing real-world challenges. Initially, I was thrilled to work as an economist at a central bank, serving the Australian public, but soon discovered that the role was slower and more monotonous than I had anticipated.

After recognizing this, I founded an escape room company in Sydney. It was a small team—just myself, my girlfriend (now my wife), and a business partner. This venture required me to wear many hats: I created the website, handled marketing, designed the rooms, sourced furniture, and more. While the experience was exhilarating, it was also exhausting, as the business’s growth depended entirely on our relentless efforts. A friend, noticing how much I enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the business, suggested I consider a career in tech as a product manager, offering a similar thrill of bringing new ideas to life but at a larger scale.

My product management career began in Berlin, which added an extra layer of challenge with a new continent and language. I experimented with various industries to find my niche, ultimately landing in fintech due to its complex problems that aligned well with my product skills and economics background. Working on different aspects of payments—growth, compliance, partnerships—provided invaluable insights, as real progress in this space requires a comprehensive understanding of all moving parts.

When Google approached me with the opportunity to enhance Google Wallet and elevate their contactless payments product, I couldn’t resist. The chance to apply my fintech and payments expertise on a global scale was too good to pass up. It has been incredibly rewarding to leverage my startup experiences and apply them within the vast reach of a company like Google.

Evolving Role of a Product Manager Across Company Sizes

Having been a PM in both startups and large companies, I can attest to the significant differences in the role based on company size and stage. At a fledgling startup, the focus is on rapidly iterating to achieve product-market fit. My days were filled with customer calls, user visits, brainstorming with designers and engineers, and planning future developments with the CEO. It was hectic but immensely enjoyable, especially being part of a tight-knit team.

In growth-stage companies, the focus shifted to experimentation and optimization. My approach involved running A/B tests to validate hypotheses and improve key metrics, working closely with data analytics teams to enhance our understanding of customer behavior and needs.

Now, at a company as large as Google, my role involves much more coordination, pulling together insights and support from various experts to build global-scale features and products. While staying close to users and partners remains crucial, the methods have evolved—from direct customer visits to collaborating with Customer Support and Business Development teams to gather feedback. The goal has shifted from quickly shipping MVPs to ensuring scalability and robustness from the outset.

Attraction to Contactless Payments

Reflecting on my career, I’ve progressively tackled more universal problems. Moving from niche industries to a neobank expanded my scope significantly, and transitioning to international money movements at Wise broadened my audience to a global scale. Now, working on contactless payments represents another leap, with users worldwide relying on the product daily. It’s a privilege to work on something so integral to people’s lives and to make small but meaningful improvements for millions of users. The payments industry offers the unique combination of challenging problems and the opportunity to create tangible benefits on a massive scale, providing a strong motivation to excel in my role.

Key Differences Between Startups and Established Companies

A major difference between being a PM at a startup versus an established company like Google is the focus on speed and experimentation at startups, where the primary goal is finding product-market fit before funding runs out. This environment favors a scrappy, ‘get it done’ approach. In contrast, established companies prioritize calculated bets, risk mitigation, and making a significant impact at scale. Here, the challenge lies in balancing the ambition of new features with the need to protect and enhance the existing value.

Impact of Anti-Financial Crime Work on Product Management Approach

My experience as an AML product manager at Wise, working on machine learning models to combat financial crime, profoundly influenced my approach to product management. It underscored the importance of weighing the costs and benefits of new features, understanding the trade-offs involved, and considering the broader implications of product decisions. This experience instilled a mindset of always considering the hidden costs and potential risks of new developments, a valuable perspective in my current role.

Advice for Aspiring PMs from Non-Traditional Paths

For those looking to transition into product management from non-traditional backgrounds, gaining some experience in your current role or applying for positions where your existing skills and knowledge are valuable is crucial. Volunteering for projects or rotations can provide hands-on experience, while targeting roles that leverage your industry expertise can reduce the perceived risk for hiring managers.

Future of Product Management in Contactless Payments

Looking ahead, I see product management evolving back to its general management roots, particularly in the payments industry. With a focus on end-to-end product success, PMs will increasingly work cross-functionally, integrating closely with marketing, business development, and other teams to drive holistic growth and sustainability. This broader scope aligns with the original vision of product management and is essential for creating significant value in the tech industry.