Meet the Aries Team: Charles O’Connor, Lead Product Manager

Tell us a little about yourself – how long have you been working for Aries? What did you do before joining Aries?

I’ve worked at Aries for seven years now. I got into scholarly publishing right out of college, taking a job as an indexer for Biological Abstracts. I have a degree in biology and originally thought I’d go into research, but watching post-docs stuffing rolls into their pockets at department gatherings convinced me there were better ways to make a living. Since then, I’ve had many jobs, from bike messenger to marketing copy writer, but scholarly publishing has always called me back.

What have your roles at Aries been?

I started at Aries in November 2016 as a Business Analyst working on the LiXuid Manuscript project, having led the effort to build a similar XML-based workflow at a previous company. As our product strategy evolved over the years, so has my role and our team structure, which has led to my current role as Lead Product Manager. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I like the people-management aspect of the job. Helping people to overcome blockers to their work or to develop in their career is gratifying in a way I did not expect.

How have your previous roles helped you in your current position?

I have held many roles in scholarly production – indexer, writer, proofreader, copyeditor, production editor – as well as roles in publication technology. My first role in publication technology was in configuring pre-copyedit software to fix errors, structure references, and enforce journal style. I quickly moved into production workflow automation more generally. In devising technological solutions, I draw heavily from my experience doing the jobs I’m now building the tools for.

How do you stay up to date with customer needs and industry trends?

Like many of us, I read articles and press releases, and attend and speak at industry conferences and events. Almost always, the best conversations happen after a session is over, but these conversations have been a bit harder to have during virtual conferences. Some online conferences, like Balisage: The Markup Conference, do a great job creating space for questions and conversation. At the last Balisage, quite a few people stayed online hours after the official end of the conference to discuss the presentations.

I keep in touch with the document markup community and am a member of NISO’s Information Creation and Curation Committee. Our committee oversees efforts to maintain information standards important to our industry, such as JATS, CRediT, and MECA. Most recently, the CP/LD standard for scholarly article content, which solves some of the problems inherent in XML, was approved by NISO. 

Of course, the best way to keep up to date with customer needs is by talking with customers, and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to do that. An interesting aspect of getting a few years under your belt here at Aries is seeing how customer needs evolve. Although the goals of publishers remain fairly consistent over time, new challenges and new solutions are constantly emerging.

Tell me about your department and the people you work most closely with.

I work in Aries’ Product Management department. Our role is to identify which new features will add the most value for our customers and then gather and refine the requirements that must be met to make that feature work well. To do that we talk with customers, ask how we can best meet their needs, and determine a course of action based on that discovery to try and make it reality. Of course, because Aries serves large publishers and small, from commercial to societies and beyond, we can get a rather wide range of opinions. Our job is to balance these perspectives and design a feature that is useful across publishers and organizations. Once we have the requirements down, we organize them and put them into language that the developers can translate into code.

How do you collaborate with other departments within Aries?

When I first came to Aries, our departments were very siloed. Engineers talked to other engineers and product managers talked to other product managers. The product managers would write long, complex specifications where we would try to think of everything, all in one go, and then throw it over the wall to the engineers. The engineers would code to the specification and then throw it over the wall to the QA team. Now we all work together on multidisciplinary teams, which is not only faster, but it leads to better outcomes. I cannot tell you how many times I thought I had an idea all buttoned up, brought it to the team expecting them to say little more than “that’s terrific, let’s do it,” only to have them pick it apart, look at it from angles I did not think of, and help me put it back together, better than it was. I would rather take partial credit for a great idea rather than get full credit for a merely good one. Our spirit of collaboration is for the better of our customers and our processes.

Describe your typical workday.

I make a pot of coffee and start early to respond to overseas colleagues and customers and get an idea of the issues that need to be addressed during the day. I have learned not to hit “Send” on any early morning emails before I see the bottom of the cup! Then I take an hour for exercise, which not only gets my energy levels up, but also helps all those issues gel into an approach to the day. I am back online at 9am for what is often a meeting-heavy morning. I emerge from my office around noon to make some lunch and, in winter, tend to the wood stove. Afternoons are dedicated to more focused work, where it helps to have a few hours uninterrupted.

What do you most enjoy about your job? What do you enjoy most about working for Aries?

On a day-to-day basis, I enjoy working with other creative people to devise and implement solutions that help our users. On a larger scale, I enjoy serving the scholarly community in its mission to expand the scope of human knowledge. Sure, we’re just the engineers, plumbers, and electricians that build and maintain the infrastructure — the researchers are the ones pushing those boundaries — but we make the platforms that evaluate, improve, and spread that research around the world so that it can do good.

What are you currently reading, listening to, or watching?

Lately I’ve been reading a fair amount of Jane Austen, who is wicked, and Shirley Jackson, who is a severely underrated writer. For music, I’ve developed a small obsession with an Acadian musician, P’tit Belliveau, who mixes folk, bluegrass, hip hop, disco, country, and rock in wonderfully human and humorous songs about rural, blue-collar life. Having grown up with a French-speaking mother, I absolutely love the exuberant creativity of Acadian French. The best television show I’ve seen lately is Deadlough, a comedic murder mystery from Australia.

Tell me about some of your hobbies/interests outside of work.

Right now, I’m working on writing some songs with my son, who is in his first year of college. I’ve always been a big analog head — I have hundreds of LPs and an ancient reel-to-reel multitrack recorder — but I must admit that modern digital gear makes it super easy to rough out song parts and share files while he’s away. It’s winter in Vermont, so I’m poring over seed catalogs, looking forward to spring, and I would be XC skiing if we ever got some consistent snow.