Name Dropping is a Q&A series that aims to elevate the stories of women and nonbinary people leading in the tech space. The idea came from Angela DeFranco, a former VP of Product at HubSpot, who said one way to be better allies is to name drop more women and nonbinary people in discussions of achievement, inspiration, and disruptors in tech, instead of referencing, time and again, the same set of (often male) leaders.
After years holding leadership roles in the tech industry, you're now a Senior Lecturer at Technological University Dublin, and Program Chair of their MSc in Product Management. What inspired you to make the switch to teaching?
I spent the first half of my career working in the tech sector in telecoms hardware, software, and services companies. After University, I started work as a product manager at British Telecom’s International division in London and later gained a promotion to the role of deputy director of international relations with BT in Paris. After that, I moved to Dublin as VP of Sales for Business Services at AT&T, and subsequently returned to mainland Europe to work as product director for an AT&T joint venture in Amsterdam. I then moved back to Ireland to take up a global business development role. At that point I thought, “It'd be great to get off the road for a while.” Because in addition to having moved countries five times in 14 years, I also traveled a lot, flying back and forth to headquarters, to customer meetings, partner meetings, to conferences, etc.
So even though I love to travel, I wanted to find a new challenge, one which would allow me to leverage all the experience I had built up while keeping a more predictable, more ‘grounded’ schedule.
While working in the Netherlands, I was involved in rolling out a game-changing new platform with a fantastically talented team. Our route-to-market was exclusively through indirect channels, mainly telcos across Europe. And we quickly saw the need to build a training program to support our sales and marketing channels while developing and scaling the product. And so, I got a taste for program design, and also delivery. The delivery was fun, because the product had terrific traction and we were working with partners from different companies and cultures.
Before leaving the Netherlands, I had completed a dual Master's in Business Administration and Informatics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. On returning to Ireland, I learned by sheer coincidence that that qualified me to work as an adjunct lecturer. So, the love of classroom engagement and a penchant for program design inspired me to make a change. The twin desire to invest more time in education and less in travel took shape. Ireland’s status as a burgeoning technology hub combined with our commitment to disciplined innovation continues to qualify that direction.
As an award-winning educator and program designer, what's the most rewarding part of being in the classroom (virtual or live)?
In a word, it’s “engagement”. When you’re physically in the classroom, that’s more fun — there's more of a spark, but it can work really well in the virtual environment also.
A classroom without active engagement isn't one I'd want to be in, either as a student or as a lecturer. Much of my work is with post-graduate, post-experience students where we draw on the professional experience and specializations of the participants. We are each other’s teachers and learners.
Taking our Product Management cohort as an example, you've got someone from the pharma sector, someone from FinTech, from Marine Tech, and someone from eCommerce, and everyone's looking at the same challenge through their respective lenses. That mix promotes informed debate and well-reasoned argument while leveraging emerging research, seminal theories, and frameworks.
For most of my classes, and for the modules and programs I design, I look to incorporate live case studies, largely co-authored with leadership teams across small and large-scale enterprises. Having partnered with an award-winning experiential technology company on a live case study for an MBA technology management module, myself and a colleague re-deployed that case on our newly developed scaling module on the Product Management program. The marriage of theory and practice builds critical fluency and clearly, University-enterprise partnerships pay dividends for all the parties involved.
When you think about the best product managers you’ve ever worked with (or taught), what characteristics did they embody?
Listening, observing, experimenting, learning, remaining curious. Having worked with over 300 product managers in recent years, I would say that curiosity is key. Curiosity Quotient (CQ) is not as well studied as IQ and EQ but it embodies a tolerance for complexity and an ability to deal with ambiguity — both characteristic of the PM context.
Product management is a highly leveraged role. The outdated notion that PMs should consider themselves the CEO of the product has yielded to the more prevalent characterization of “responsibility without authority.” PMs have huge influence over the prospects of the product, as well as over other people's jobs, whether that be Product Marketing, development teams, engineering, sales, customer success, what have you. One of my favorite expressions — I can't attribute it to anybody — is you can't whistle a symphony. Product managers need to be excellent communicators and be able to build trusted relationships, a coalition of the willing to create, deliver, and capture value for the customer and the company.
What advice do you have for people pursuing careers in the tech industry who come from non-traditional skill backgrounds (i.e. not having a degree in their chosen field, or coming from another industry)
The first piece of advice I have is to embrace your difference, in terms of equality, diversity, and your disciplinary knowledge. Beyond gender, or where we're from, or our cultural background — it's about diverse mindsets and different ways of thinking. That's what challenges and stretches us and spurs creative thinking.
Back to product management, particularly, there are so many different perspectives, because there are so many different specialities within product management: it is a function, not a role. That said, it is important to strive for alignment — whether that be at the level of shared vocabulary, shared vision, or strategic aspiration. Life gets busy, it can become very tactical, and the temptation to surrender to the organization’s dominant logic invites us to “just get on with it.” Let's do what we've been asked to do, and not ask too many awkward questions.
Of course it’s important to learn the ground rules, master the tenets of good product management and knit them with practice — all part and parcel of our programs. The perennial question of whether functional or domain expertise should win-out is heavily dependent on the organizational context including the lifecycle stage of the company and the product.
Our program, the first Masters in Product Management worldwide, was born out of a close industry-educational partnership, and I’ll admit to some evangelism on my part — rooted in my early ‘sink or swim’ experience on the job, allied to my passion for the function. Learning is facilitated and embedded through a combination of theoretical rigor and application to practice. Participants invest significantly in applying their knowledge within their organizations, thus building context-specific best and next practice. Over a decade later, it’s great to see the vast array of accredited and open programs that have come on-stream. That’s in addition to the rich array of resources available; books, training programs, workshops, blogs, tutorials and conferences. People who come from different disciplines and experiences can layer their unique perspective with qualified resources. Standardizing, unifying and systematizing, all have their place. But you also need to celebrate your differences within that.
Which book do you think every product leader should read and why?
At the risk of upsetting many of the excellent authors I’ve had the privilege of interacting with over the years (Steven Haines, Rich Mironov, Barry O’Reilly, Ken Singer, Teresa Torres, Melissa Perri and so many others), product leaders might start with Empowered by Marty Cagan (with Chris Jones). Cagan (SVPG) is a compelling communicator on the topic.
More broadly, I see Product Management and Innovation as two sides of the same coin. Some classics are the Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen — anything by the late Clayton Christensen) and Hal Gregerson's Questions are the Answer.
What advice would you give your 22-year-old self?
A bit like a good product manager, ask the right questions of others but also of yourself. Focus on what matters personally and professionally, trust your instincts, and get enough sleep!
Who’s one woman or nonbinary person in technology you’d like to name drop and why?
Martha Lane Fox, the celebrated co-founder of Lastminute.com is a favorite on this side of the Atlantic. She has enjoyed long-running success in a range of industries, all leveraging technology. She now combines that with philanthropy and public service. She is a champion for digital inclusion, a fairer internet, responsible technology, wellbeing, and sustainability.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve eaten in the past year? It could be something you cooked, it could be takeout from a favorite restaurant — anything.
Like many of us during lockdown, cooking provided a great escape.
Know another woman or nonbinary person whose name we should drop? Tweet us at @HubSpotDev with ideas.
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