There's a phrase in her native Polish that Monika Wąż reminds herself of each day: "If you don't learn, you're just going backward."
The Associate Product Manager at legal and compliance technology company Relativity says she would believe in a growth-centered approach to work even if she wasn't in the tech field, but that it's especially important because she is.
"Technology is changing all the time; there are more and more people learning new skills each day, and you need to keep up," she says.
Yes, that can sound overwhelming. But if you're Monika, it also sounds incredibly motivating.
"Continuing to learn at work is important to me because my job is something I really enjoy and I don't feel that my work is just about finishing tasks in a day," she says. "I don't want to spend eight, nine hours a day doing something I don't like and that's never been the case while I've worked at Relativity."
We sat down with Monika to hear more about how she built her confidence, how that confidence helped her find her dream career, and how she's paying it forward now.
Getting comfortable being uncomfortable
Monika's first role at Relativity was in technical support.
She'd come into tech indirectly, having completed a master's in economics and working in a few administrative roles where she interfaced with tech companies when licensing their software. Early in her career, she says she was always the "Go-to IT person who helped with Outlook or Word" and that it was those earlier experiences that showed her she was really interested in how technology worked.
So, after doing some postgrad studies in SQL and database management, she took a job in technical support at Relativity because she thought they had the best product and culture of all the companies that had extended offers to her. "I felt that they really cared, I wasn't just another resume to them," she says. "Even in the interview, they took the time to show me how they worked, and I quickly felt like part of the company."
But even though she was qualified for the role, Monika initially struggled with her confidence.
"When I joined, I had a lot of doubts about myself, my knowledge, if I was the right person," she says. "At first, I wasn't confident taking customer calls. I wanted to provide the best support possible to clients, but I worried that I may not have all the right answers. Thanks to my awesome manager back then, I realized that I had time and space to learn, and that Relativity would support me."
That support included English lessons and trips to Relativity's Chicago headquarters for in-depth training and teambuilding. "At the beginning, it was really hard for me to speak up, especially in bigger meetings when you have a lot of people, mostly who were native English speakers," she says.
That changed as she started taking the language lessons and saw how her coworkers embraced everything she brought to the table. She focused on one thing at a time, and eventually grew comfortable taking phone calls with customers and talking in big meetings.
"At Relativity, I found that if they didn't understand something I said, they always asked and tried to make sure that I felt comfortable, that I know my English is not a problem here, that we are all here to serve our clients and try to do everything to support everyone," says Monika.
"No one is reading your mind"
A couple years into her Relativity career, Monika had a realization.
Her favorite part of her support role was problem-solving. But all of the fixes she was creating for clients were short-term – she wanted to create a lasting impact and solve longer-term problems.
"I started thinking, 'How can we continue to make improvements to make the product the best it can be?'" she says.
Initially, she felt a bit of fear come back when thinking about taking on a new challenge, but Monika squashed it and decided to talk to her manager and to Relativity's product team about roles in product. She also took online courses on product management.
A few months after she'd started talking to the product team—with the approval of her then-manager, who fully supported her transition to a new role—Monika interviewed for a job as an Associate Product Manager, which she got. "They saw potential in me, and they saw that my knowledge from support about the product would be really useful on the product team as well," she says.
Now, Monika speaks with customers regularly, but on more strategic product improvements to make Relativity's offerings more intuitive, more relevant and more helpful to their needs.
"I'm an example of how Relativity gives you space to grow in your career," reflects Monika, who hopes other people will follow suit. "If you're interested in something, just ask! Ask for advice, show you want to move somewhere, because no one is reading your mind, and you won't move forward if you don't try!"
One golden rule for your career
Monika's advice for people considering big career changes is fairly straightforward: don't be afraid to ask, don't be afraid to try, and make sure you listen, not just talk, as you navigate your different options.
All of that boils down to her own golden rule: be the type of coworker that you'd like to have.
Whether that means answering questions from a coworker who's curious about your team, volunteering on a new project to help someone out, or giving advice to new hires, Monika stresses how a good company culture that supports growth and learning requires each individual to make time to help others, even when they don't feel like experts themselves.
And solidifying her own confidence in her work has allowed Monika to reach out to help others, too, whether in support, product, or other parts of the company.
"In general, people want to help," she says. "Sometimes people think they can be mentors to others only when they know everything. But there's always someone with less experience, someone younger, someone newer on the job, and we can teach them how to do their job better or give them advice! Pay forward your knowledge to help others succeed and achieve their career goals."
Tips from SeatGeek's Anuja Chavan
When Anuja Chavan turns on a fan in her house in Jersey City, she can't help but think about how every piece of it works.
"There are an extensive amount of things that have to go perfectly at the same time," says the former engineer (and current product manager at live event ticketing platform SeatGeek).
It was that interest in understanding how things actually worked that drove Anuja to study engineering—first electrical, during her undergrad in India, and then computer science, during her master's program in the U.S.
"I was always intrigued by the fact that with [software], you don't have to have a hundred people, or invest in a bunch of hardware that is costly, [but] you can still get things done and create things," she says.
We sat down with Anuja to hear more about her career, from her start as an engineer working in the banking sector to her current role as a PM at a fast-growing startup. She unpacked what it's been like to jump from the super-analytical side of things to the product management side—and gave us her best tips for PMs looking to connect with their teams (and vice versa!). Read on for her hard-earned wisdom.
From engineer to product management: the best of both worlds
Anuja's first job in tech was as a software engineer at a big bank, where she worked on solving technical problems and dealing with all of the bureaucratic red tape that came along with creating high risk tools while working in the securities lending department.
Four years and a couple of promotions in, she realized that her favorite part of any given project was the beginning, when she was scoping requirements. "I liked working to understand the business needs much more than I actually enjoyed developing technical solutions," she says.
When Anuja shared that realization with her friends in tech, they helped her see that product management might be the perfect fit for her, with its mix of analytical thinking and user focus. She took a ten-week PM course, but then faced the age-old chicken-and-egg problem when it comes to switching jobs or industries: how to get the experience needed for the jobs she wanted when all of the jobs she was seeing required that she already had experience?
A friend of Anuja's invited her to a SeatGeek event PowerToFly was hosting in New York City. Anuja went, loved the panel presentation (where SeatGeek engineers showed what they were really working on—a far cry from the closed-door siloed projects Anuja had come across in banking!), and hit it off with the recruiter. She applied for a PM role, was interviewed by a slate of people she was impressed by (including SeatGeek's CEO and CTO!), and accepted the offer when it came.
"The people I met were very, very smart, and it was such an inviting experience," she says. Now, after such a trying year, Anuja has become even more impressed by SeatGeek's culture: "They're so open about global awareness, about how you should treat employees, how employees should treat each other. They're walking the talk. It's not something that's put out and forgotten about; they're constantly working to empower and uplift those who identify with underrepresented groups." (You can learn more about this work here.)
Now, a few years into being a full-fledged product manager, Anuja is grateful for having started her career in engineering.
"Coming from that background fosters that mutual understanding of how things work. You speak the engineers' language," explains Anuja.
And that's just the beginning of the synergies.
5 things PMs should do when working with engineers
When Anuja asks her engineering team to add a new feature to a product, she knows that she's actually asking them to do a specific amount of technical work, which comes with tradeoffs and costs.
Her goal, then, is to help them understand why that work is important and let them know that she recognizes the effort required to do it well. And she does all of that in the 2-3 hours per day that she spends with her team in real-time, since most of SeatGeek's enterprise engineers (SeatGeek's business is broken down into two major units: their secondary marketplace and their enterprise business, where Anuja works, in which they build and sell a box office solution directly to clients like sports teams, venues, and theaters) are based in Israel and only overlap briefly with New York working hours.
Here are some other things Anuja does to create trust and respect between her and her team:
1. Keep engineers shielded from noise, not strategy.
Anuja spends a lot of time—up to 50-60% of her workweek, she says—in meetings. That's okay: it's her job to interface with the finance, marketing, and client experience teams that her engineering team's work serves, and meetings are part of that. Her team, however, doesn't need to have their days eaten up by endless syncs.
But that doesn't mean that Anuja keeps them firewalled away from the rest of the business. Just the reverse, in fact—she makes sure to plan several touchpoints where her engineers can get a good sense of the business strategy behind their workstreams. "You're not discussing just features, you're discussing why that feature," explains Anuja of the holistic meetings between various project stakeholders and engineers.
She also does regular stepbacks on the business's larger 3-, 6-, 9-, and 12-month roadmaps so that engineers' voices can be heard in the business planning process. "There are things that product may not be best positioned to foresee that engineering brings up, like scalability and system stability limitations," she says of their value-add. "Getting engineers involved early in the game doesn't hamper your progress but rather aids with them being in your story with you."
2. Use technical understanding to predict problems.
"There's this weird theory— a joke, really—of PMs being the dumbest person in a room full of experts, but I don't see that as being true, since you've got to ask the right questions at the right time to drive conversations between those experts," says Anuja. Not all PMs will have been former engineers, she recognizes, but a few technical skills go a long way. "Knowing the impact one team can cause on the other comes from engineer thinking abilities about problem solving, understanding issues before they actually become issues," she says. "Having that grasp on fundamentals lets you see prioritization problems quickly."
And beyond that, Anuja has had success leaning on her engineering background to build a relationship with her engineers of mutual affinity. "Having technical understanding in your back pocket creates overall trust from the engineer's perspective that you'll do what's right when push comes to shove," she says:
3. Unstick problems with other PMs before they impact engineers.
With 450 employees spread across consumer and enterprise teams, there are plenty of other PMs for Anuja to stay in touch with, and she prioritizes doing so a couple of times a week to discuss problems, talk blue-sky new ideas, and help coordinate workstreams before issues arise. "We have to be up to speed with what's going on in their world," explains Anuja. "If there's a need for something on a different team, it's helpful to be aware of it, whether you aid, assist with resolving blockers, or just stay informed."
4. Communicate visually.
"As a PM, communication is one of the best tools at your disposal," explains Anuja. "What most people may not realize is that visual communication has a much more profound impact on how strongly you can communicate to a broad, skill-set varied group of stakeholders, especially as a Product Manager."
Anuja uses systems diagrams, object diagrams, and component diagrams, among other forms of visual communication, to help get her team in sync. "Having some sort of pictorial representation of what's being discussed helps people make sure they're talking about the same thing, looking at the same vision," she says.
5. Ask engineers what their preferred choice of interruption is.
There are always going to be different types of engineers. Some may not appreciate interruptions with constant pings and Slack chats, while others might prefer real-time updates instead of having to wait for a scheduled call. "What I've been doing with my teams is just being open to asking them, 'What [interruptions] are you comfortable with? What are times that you're comfortable with?'" she says.
2 ways for engineers to collaborate better with their PMs
If the above section didn't apply because you're on the engineering side of the equation, don't worry—Anuja has advice for you, too!
1. Think of the big picture, and communicate that you understand it.
"It gives a product manager a lot of confidence if an engineer can think holistically," says Anuja. "When given a problem, try to ask about the edge case scenarios, the exceptions—that will get you into deeper discussions about how those things work."
Another great way to show that you're following is to repeat the requirement and confirm your understanding in engineering terms. "There are some tactical things you can do to improve your communication, and that's one of them," says Anuja.
2. Be open to explaining engineering concepts to your PMs.
"Don't assume your PM will never be interested in deeper details," explains Anuja, who suggests unpacking problems slowly so that both parties can be better informed the next time an issue crops up.
When it works, it really works
A few months ago, Anuja was working on one of SeatGeek's biggest projects to date: supporting the launch of schedule releases for several high-performing NFL teams. The project required that people across the entire global organization worked together to make the experience absolutely seamless so that fans could buy tickets, and so that our clients could achieve their desired revenue and fan experience goals.
"It was completely flawless—groundbreaking!" says Anuja. "Being able to see so many different streams work together and function properly was really fulfilling."
Insight from YouGov's Victoria Ganusceac
Victoria Ganusceac knew she wanted to be a product manager, but the HR manager at the company where she was working at the time wasn't on board.
Not immediately, anyways.
"I pestered them for three months," says Victoria. "I spoke to every single product manager [in the company] and found out what kind of people they were looking for and what it took to be a good product manager." Insights from those conversations included understanding common PM frameworks and the importance of empathetic communication.
And eventually, Victoria's perseverance paid off. Her first few roles in product management set her up well for her current role as Senior Product Manager of SaaS Products at research, data, and analytics company YouGov. In non-pandemic times, Victoria works out of YouGov's London headquarters.
Her role is complicated enough that her family isn't exactly sure what she does—"Explaining it to my grandma is pretty hard, because I do so many different things!" jokes Victoria—but we sat down with Victoria and had her explain how she found her current role, what her responsibilities entail, and how she successfully manages cross-functional projects.
Learning how to move quickly
Victoria started her career in marketing, but quickly realized she wanted to be more tech-focused. Right after finishing her undergraduate degree, she got into an enterprise hub to work on a fashion app, where she did business development, then moved over to Camelot, which runs the national UK lottery, for a role in strategy.
"It was great to come up with ideas in strategy, but I really wanted to get something into users' hands," says Victoria. When her three-month campaign landed her a PM role, she leaned into the world of product management at Camelot before moving over to an influencer marketing startup where she could be even more hands-on. "I knew I had to go somewhere a bit smaller so I could really ramp up the learning curve," she explains.
When that startup failed, it hit her hard. "I took it personally for quite a while," says Victoria. But that experience helped her recognize what she was looking for in her next role: a PM job in a fast-paced environment that encouraged innovation and had the resources to support it.
"YouGov attracted me because they were a 'scale-up,' and they still are. Even though they're public. The role I interviewed for was creating a product from scratch, setting up a team from scratch, but within the safety of a funded company: the best of both worlds," she says.
Since coming over to the data analysis firm, Victoria has led several products and features through ideation, prototyping, creation, and deployment. Her first product was Audience Explorer,helping marketers understand their audiences in more detail. A recent favorite was a feature with a goal to increase conversion rates for YouGov's freemium product.
"It was a really great collaboration," says Victoria. "We worked together with marketing, the design side, the product side, and engineering to really quickly embed our data within the business website, and as a result, we increased lead generation by 300% in just a few months."
The 9 principles of PMing
Victoria's favorite part of her job is how much she learns by constantly collaborating with peers across the business. "It can feel like there's a lot going on because there's so many moving parts, but when you really start to understand how it works, there's a lot of opportunity to have impact," she says. "And YouGov really gives you opportunities to grow and get exposed to lots of different things."
To make the most of those opportunities, Victoria has a set of hard-learned lessons and best practices for successfully managing products with a diverse range of stakeholders that she applies time and time again, and that we're excited to share here.
1. Bring people together as early as possible.
Silos impede collaboration, says Victoria, so a process that is a series of direct handoffs—product requirements handed to the design team, designs handed to the development team—means "[the team] never gets a chance to really discuss it and make sure that they're solving the right problem."
Instead, she makes sure to involve her stakeholders, including engineering and design, but also sales, marketing, and client service teams to get their input on a new problem or solution as early as possible.
2. Define the problem.
"Make sure you're solving the right one," she says.
For YouGov, explains Victoria, the product vision comes from the business's five-year objectives. "We want to make sure we're aligned with the whole company," she says. "We have to ask how we achieve those big, overarching goals while also making sure that what we build is what our customers want."
3. Make room for creative ideas.
"How can we get the best ideas and get the best out of people?" That's the question Victoria asks herself before she takes on any new initiative. A good first step is asking for insight from people who are customer-facing and thus have more exposure to how customers are using the product.
And a vital approach is being curious and humble about what the best idea really is. "We all come with our own ideas and we're really keen on them, but spending a lot of time actively listening helps tremendously," she says. "Don't come with an agenda to get your idea done."
4. Don't be afraid to challenge authority.
If something doesn't make sense to Victoria, she doesn't demure and defer—she asks about it.
"If you're at the beginning of your career or lack confidence, there's a way of challenging authority without being too abrupt," she says. "The best way I've found to challenge an idea is to ask questions." Unpacking assumptions and ideas either gets everyone on the same page or leads to a better final idea, she says.
5. Use meetings sparingly.
50%. That's how much of her time Victoria spends in meetings. That's reasonable for a senior product manager, she notes, but that wouldn't be reasonable for other roles, which is why her team has recently started restructuring the meetings they run.
"We're having a think about different types of communications and flows. If there's an information meeting, can we just record it and send it out? We did a dev summit recently and it was pre-recorded with live Q&A, and that worked," she says.
6. Embrace deep work.
Victoria takes meetings on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, but her Thursdays and Fridays are bare beyond a quick stand-up. That's because she saves that time for uninterrupted problem solving and creative work.
"I try to get at least a day and a half where I have solid blocks of three, four hours to really get my head down and get things done," she says.
7. Keep learning.
There are plenty of product management frameworks, tools, and software out there, says Victoria, so don't be afraid to keep looking up new ones to try. She's a particular fan of Miro, an online collaboration tool, and the ICE—impact, confidence, ease for prioritization—framework, along with standard product tools for prototyping and remote user testing like Marvel.
8. Learn how to say no.
"Cross-functionality is the heart of everything, which means we get so many different ideas. And we have to translate them into decisions, into what goes in and what doesn't. There's a lot of expectations, deadlines, and challenges. You have to be comfortable with saying no," she says.
9. "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it."
Victoria's final piece of advice for product managers? If you want to get into or stay in the field, don't give up.
"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it because at the end of the day, the landscape has changed in what an engineer looks like, or maybe acts like, or what a product manager looks or acts like; it's very different now," says Victoria. That means there's room for plenty of interpretation of what a great PM really is—though Victoria's example is certainly a great one to start with.
"It's the most
wonderful stressful time of the year…."
All jokes aside, we're certainly feeling the end-of-year stress here at PowerToFly, and we're sure many of you are in the same boat: scrambling to wrap up professional tasks, make socially distanced holiday plans, and keep your personal life afloat all at the same time.
It's not easy juggling so many priorities and 2020 has only made it more difficult.
So, as we wrap up what has been an extremely trying year, we're excited to share a few self-care tips from Cherry Mangat, Wellness Lead at global legal and compliance tech company Relativity. As Cherry says, before we can take care of our communities, "it is vital that we take care of ourselves."
A product manager for most of her career, Cherry learned about mindfulness a few years ago and has since become a passionate mental health advocate. Relativity encouraged and empowered her to launch and lead a company-wide wellness program.
As Cherry explains, "Mindfulness is about keeping your awareness in the present moment. Many of us tend to ruminate in the past or worry about the future. And it's all about coming back to the present moment." A self-professed "control freak," Cherry admits that she's found staying in the present challenging, but the benefits are clear, and she's working on a whole host of initiatives to help her fellow Relativians pursue better physical, mental, and emotional health.
Check out the video below to learn more about how she pivoted careers, and read on for the three things Cherry believes everyone needs in order to practice self-care and stay well:
1. An Unshakeable Foundation
When Cherry talks about an unshakeable foundation, she's referring to the things in life that give you a sense of stability. It may be work, family, spirituality, a hobby, or something else altogether.
But the key is thinking of what anchors you specifically. It will be different for everyone, but these are the things that no matter where you are or what you're doing, you turn to when you feel overwhelmed.
When you start to feel stressed, Cherry recommends pausing and thinking about your foundation: "Keep that foundation front and center…Maybe incorporate it into a daily ritual so that it's ingrained in your mind even more."
2. An Evolved Support System
This goes hand-in-hand with your foundation.
As Cherry says, "Take inventory of, and frequently turn to, your support system. Pre-pandemic, this network may have been different—made up of people you frequently spent time with in-person. Now, it may look different based on the circumstances of your living situation."
Identify who is a part of your support system and, Cherry says, ask yourself how you are connecting with them in meaningful ways. The ways in which you connect will almost certainly look different, but the key is that you find ways to connect that best energize you. Maybe you love Zoom hangouts, or perhaps you're more partial to phone calls or socially distanced walks. Identify what—and who—fills your cup and focus your time on those activities and people.
3. A Daily Act of Self-Compassion
Last but not least, Cherry recommends building an act of self-compassion into your daily routine. "Every morning at 8:00 a.m., a notification appears on my phone to remind me to practice self-compassion. I take 30 seconds to pause, reflect on how I'm feeling, and to think about what I need in order to have a good day. It allows me to have more awareness of my own state, rather than charging into the day on autopilot."
Starting your day off with this time to reflect can be the difference between scrambling all day long and feeling focused and engaged.
This doesn't mean, however, that you need to be "on" every single day, Cherry notes. "Every day is unique and we need different things at different times to help us through. One day, it may binge watching a favorite TV show. Another day, it may be a socially distanced visit with family. Let that flow be okay, don't judge yourself, and don't expect that every day has to look the same. We must give that kindness and compassion to ourselves first before we can extend it to others."
Interested in learning more? Check out the rest of Cherry's advice in her original blog post here. And if you're looking for a company where you can put your well-being first, check out Relativity's open roles here.