Lead(H)er: Devra Prywes, Chief Product Officer at Applicaster
In the first week of Devra Prywes’ internship at video game company 3DO, she watched the lead developers of a new game play it against C-suite execs as everyone else cheered them on. She sat next to an animator, worked for a producer, and made friends with the testers. CEO Trip Hawkins would have literal soapbox meetings every Friday, in which he’d stand on a soapbox in the middle of the room and share the latest news.
“It was a festive atmosphere,” Prywes said. “When I went back to college I declared a computer science major because I just knew I wanted to be involved in some way.”
Back at Northwestern, she declared a computer science major and found that she was often the only woman in her classes. It was like learning a new language and culture, and Prywes dedicated herself to figuring it all out. One thing she quickly realized, though, was that coding wasn’t really her thing.
“I liked what coding could accomplish, but I didn’t love that my code wouldn’t work because I missed a semicolon on line 200,” she said.
Prywes switched into cognitive science, where she studied artificial intelligence and learning science in the hopes of designing educational software that would individualize the learning experience for students. When most entry-level jobs in that field preferred applicants with more coding experience, Prywes made her final career switch into brand and product management.
At Acclaim Entertainment, she developed packaging and marketing strategies for the Mary-Kate and Ashley line of videos and games, then went into home entertainment and acquisitions. She spent the next nine years of her career at New Video, where she developed franchises, managed brands, and created channel strategy. Much of her work revolved around figuring out how to sell box sets of shows people had already seen for free on TV, like Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman or World Series games. She went straight to the source and asked fans in chat rooms what special features they wanted to see on those DVDs, then worked to make it happen. She also developed product scopes for best-of, single-disc collections; collectors’ boxed sets; and other types of accounts.
“It helped cement my user focus, and when you go into product, you really need to find a way to serve and delight your users,” Prywes said.
VHS tapes died out and DVDs emerged victorious from the format wars. Then, digital entertainment completely remodeled the market. Through it all, Prywes realized just how much she enjoyed working through the transition.
“It’s a theme that really grabs me,” she said. “I love guiding companies through these changes and bring the research and analysis to understand where we’ve been, where we’re going, how we got to where we are, and how this will inform the future.”
As the video industry changed dramatically, Prywes decided to seek new challenges in a growth industry and found her next role at Unruly, an ad tech startup that allowed her to combine her tech and video experience as she built its marketing efforts.
Going from working with brand-name products to a smaller company was a leap of faith, but being surrounded by passionate people who were committed to doing something new helped push her out of her comfort zone. Prywes felt like she was making an impact every day, until suddenly, she wasn’t.
“I looked around, and the company was built,” she said. “I wasn’t solving new problems because we had shifted into maintenance and growth mode.”
That’s when Applicaster reached out and offered her the opportunity to use her skills to make a difference again. Grateful for her time at Unruly and all that it taught her, Prywes said goodbye and became Applicaster’s Chief Product Officer.
Most of her time is spent communicating with general managers, clients, production assistants, and developers to understand their needs, their customers’ needs, and the user experience with Applicaster’s platform. She wants to know what clients need to successfully use Applicaster’s app development platform in their businesses, then presents that information to the developers and product team to help them understand what problems exist and need to be solved, while ensuring those teams have access to whatever resources they need to make it happen.
Applicaster’s Zapp platform can be used to build and manage media apps using plugins. This makes it possible for customers to scale across multiple mobile and OTT platforms to reach the maximum number of users. Prywes is looking forward to expanding these platforms while increasing the partner plugins and other functionality available in the Zapp Marketplace to make apps a truly accessible source of information and learning.
“Having an app suddenly means that wherever you are in the world, geography is not a factor in terms of access to information, entertainment, or education,” she said. “I see the work we’re doing now being able to help break down these borders to help people connect with content and form communities.”
Quick Q(uestions) & A(dvice)
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to be with my family. I have two boys, so I’m usually spending time with them and my husband. I love to cook and so do my kids, so we’re always experimenting in the kitchen. An ideal night is to come home and watch Survivor with my kids in my pajamas. The kids also have soccer games and baseball games, which is a great opportunity to be outside as the weather gets nicer. Dinner with friends is also nice. It’s the homey things that make me happy.
How do you manage feeling stressed?
I try to work out every morning and get up early so that I can get my body in motion. I try to get up before my kids do so that I have a little bit of quiet time. If it’s stress that’s self-imposed or avoidable, I try to think about how to do better in those situations in the future. Mostly I just try to get started. If I have a lot of things to do or a big project, the best way to get out of my head is to dive in and start doing something actionable.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
It depends on how you even define a cup of coffee because really, a serving size is usually a tiny little thing. For me, it’s four or sometimes five human-sized cups.
What’s one of your favorite places in the New York area?
I love Fire Island. It’s this little strip of beach a quarter mile wide by 30 miles long, and it’s on the south shore of Long Island. It’s just amazing. There are no cars, so you pull your beach chairs and things around in wagons. A day there feels like a week or relaxation. It’s like another world.
What do you consider one of your proudest accomplishments so far?
I think it would be learning to get comfortable with discomfort. It’s not to say that I don’t experience stress or fear or things like that, but I’ve learned that I can survive, power through, and make it out okay on the other side. I made a pact with myself to never let fear get in the way of something that could be really amazing. I’ll take a look at the situation and try to figure out what’s driving that discomfort, and that’s the first step to getting around it and doing something new.
Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
I never thought that I would end up heading up a product team. And 10 years ago, apps barely existed. My older son was born in 2009, and we have a tradition of collecting newspapers on the day that our kids were born. All the headlines that day were about this new iPhone thing. He’s almost 12 now, so that kind of shows all of the change that has happened in such a short period of time. I don’t think even working at a startup was something that I would have considered, but I love it. I love the culture, and I love working with smart and passionate people. Taking all my skills and bringing them to new platforms has been amazing, so I’m glad I took that plunge.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
Open the door when opportunity knocks. A lot of the recent college graduates who have been on my teams now and in the past seem to be very focused and have a plan, but I want to dissuade people from sticking too strictly to that plan. You have no idea what the future holds, so instead, I think it’s important to identify when there’s an opportunity and be willing to open that door to that surprise.