Chris Coffman ’01 is senior director of product at Rosetta Stone, where he leads the product management, project management, and user experience teams for its global language business. He majored in English at Dartmouth, where he was a DJ on WDCR and a member of Amarna Undergraduate Society.
Was there a professor at Dartmouth who especially helped prepare you for your career in product and project management?
Tom Cormen. I came to Dartmouth planning to major in computer science, and took several CS classes with Professor Cormen, which were fabulous. But it was when I questioned whether CS was the right major for me that Professor Cormen’s mentorship was most valuable. I decided in my sophomore year that my passion was in seeing and communicating the potential impact of technology, not in developing it. I ended up switching my major to English. It wasn’t an easy decision, but Professor Cormen helped guide me through it, and didn’t look down on that decision. He placed a high value on all of the liberal arts. Software product management requires both technical aptitude and the ability to communicate clearly with different audiences. My background has served me very well, and I’m grateful that Dartmouth offered me that flexibility.
You’re on the board for Washington MESA, a nonprofit organization that is committed to building diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields. Why is this work important to you?
I grew up in the Silicon Valley, and my dad is a research scientist. I was very privileged to have the academic, financial, and social support to pursue my own interest in technology. Ensuring equitable access to STEM fields requires us to support underrepresented students in all of those areas, which is what Washington MESA does. The students we serve are so talented and driven. Hopefully I’ll be working for one of them some day!
Your work with Rosetta Stone ultimately helps people learn languages and makes the world a little smaller. If you could magically become fluent in any language overnight, what would it be?
Cantonese. It’s my mother-in-law’s native language, and it’s a tonal language, which research in second-language acquisition shows to be particularly difficult for native speakers of non-tonal languages like English. At Rosetta Stone we work to make it fun and engaging to learn languages, but it still takes hundreds to thousands of hours of study to become proficient in a language. It would be great to be able to snap my fingers and have a conversation with my mother-in-law in her native language tomorrow!