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 Director 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.

This edition of Name Dropping features Meena Vembusubramanian, Senior Product Manager at Amazon Web Services.

You’re currently a Senior Product Manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS). What’s one particularly exciting challenge you’re working on right now?

At AWS, I work on developer- and IT professional-facing products that our customers use to build the applications and tools you and I are familiar with. I really enjoy working closely with builders, and getting to see how different trends in the industry are shaping how products are built ⁠ —  whether it’s a personal finance app you use at home, or a ride sharing app you use on the go, or something entirely B2B, like software that powers hospitals.

If you think about the cloud adoption journey ten/fifteen years ago, we were at a point where everyone owned and operated infrastructure within their own premises. As cloud technologies evolved, we saw a lot of movement into the cloud. Today, that landscape has evolved to enable adoption that wasn’t possible before, but also to make some of this migration a bit tricker. Developments in technology and scale have enabled large or latency-sensitive applications to securely move into the cloud in a way that wasn’t readily possible before, and the trickiness comes in the form of new legal requirements around localization and handling of consumer data.

With all of these changes, now we’re seeing some novel and hybrid approaches to architecture where builders are being thoughtful about where resources live, rather than adopting defaults. This general space and seeing how the customers in different industries are thinking about evolving their own architectures and products is super exciting for me. I love getting to see this evolution across multiple different industry contexts.

Who do you think has helped you become a great leader, either as an inspiration or a mentor?

fullsizeoutput_42For me, it’s a combination of people in my personal and professional life.

One formative experience that will always be dear to me is my time at Olin College. Olin is very unique, particularly as an engineering institution, in that the student body is largely gender-balanced. Getting to learn with and from an awesome set of female classmates, continuing to stay in touch with them and seeing their careers progress in different directions, has been really motivating and inspiring for me. Particularly when I’m dealing with challenges, or decisions ⁠ —  if I’m unsure on whether I should go for that next promotion or next job, for example ⁠ —  seeing people I relate to navigating similar decisions successfully, or learning from those situations and sharing their wisdom, has proved salient to me in both my career and my life.

Workwise, I’ve been lucky to cross paths with a number of inspiring female colleagues and mentors in a few different organizations, be it at my previous job at Veo Robotics or currently on my team at AWS.

The other person I’ll add to the list is my sister, who is my ultimate source of Real Talk: she’s my harshest critic, but also strongest supporter. I’m very grateful to have her as a sounding board, no matter the topic.

What advice do you have for other product managers when it comes to scaling high-performing teams?

Table stakes for successful product management is understanding your customers and having real clarity on what problem you’re solving for them. Being genuinely interested in and passionate about the space you’re working in really helps with both of those.

Beyond that, one thing I’ve come to realize in the past few years is how important it is to thoughtfully set up the people and process aspects of a team to be able to deliver on a product vision. Getting questions like “how do we make decisions?” and “what data do we look at?” right in the beginning is critical to being able to scale yourself to be more effective and to help the team be more effective once you are making more decisions and higher impact decisions. Unless you have that alignment up front, you’ll walk into every single meeting without a compass, and find yourself having to set the stage all over again. This makes it very difficult to work through all those pieces to make decisions or drive execution.

This is not something I appreciated quite as much earlier in my career, but I have since gained a lot of appreciation for how challenging this can be, especially when you’re trying to do it from scratch at a start-up.

How do you stay connected to user and customer feedback?

I love taking every chance I get to talk to customers! I also make sure I spend time talking to people who are working with customers: sales, team solutions, architecture teams, etc. And it’s important to hang out on the internet where your customers hang out ⁠ —  where are your customers looking to get information? Find insight on what’s difficult to use about your product in commonly asked questions on Stack Overflow, for example, or through industry news outlets.

Then, the important part is bringing that into how your team makes decisions and prioritizes things. If you’re considering a launch or a feature change, you need to get into the habit of asking “How will customers react to this? How is this going to affect customers?” rather than just “If we make this change, how does it affect our development roadmap?” And then, so you’re not just over-indexing on a small sample size of use cases, reference these questions back to one or two marquee customer use cases in your mind.

You were a mentor for Girls Who Code. What would you say to women pursuing STEM careers?

Mentoring for Girls Who Code was such a fun experience. It was incredible to get to work with one student over a semester and see her confidence and her comfort in her skill set go way up over the course of the twelve weeks, and to see all the questions she would ask.

In terms of advice, I would say that early on your career, you should focus on improving your technical skills and building out a broad toolkit. The cost of not taking those risks gets higher and higher the longer you wait. Even ten years into your career, it’s a little bit harder to completely switch tracks. The skills you need to make that jump are at a very different bar at five or ten years in, than if you’re trying to do that one year, two years into your career.

The other challenge I’ve been working on is that sometimes when I’m working on a team, and I see people having a hard time with a particular area, I feel a need to help. Women especially, I think, are sometimes more inclined to give in to this impulse. So one thing I’m trying to do is to separate this category of things that I don’t necessarily own but feel the need to help with from the ones that I actually own and I’m responsible for delivering and getting across the finish line, to make sure I split my time accordingly. At the end of the day, you need to balance your time and energy. When you’re in this reactive mode, trying to troubleshoot or unravel a situation you don’t own, it’s hard to still have the energy and focus to execute on a problem that you do own and are responsible for the delivery of.

What’s your greatest career achievement to date?

In a nutshell, it’s being able to say I was part of launching products, taking them from zero to one in a couple of different contexts. One product that comes to mind is one we’ve worked on at AWS, where we launched an event-driven compute product, Lambda@Edge. I got another chance to launch a product again at Veo, really from ground up as part of a small team.

Who’s one woman in technology you’d like to name drop and why?

I’m going to name drop Molly McCarthy, who is the head of sales and business development at Veo Robotics. She has this incredible way of parsing and processing complex data to narrow it down to the pieces that really matter to the customer, or are actually imminent decision points. She is just awesome to watch in action and work with!

I also really appreciated the chance to see up close a model of how a high-achiever maintains balance: She has a rich personal life, but balances this with a discipline and focus on her career. Both she and her partner have challenging jobs, and seeing an example of a couple who’s very real about getting it to work, but also very real about the sacrifices that you sometimes need to make, was inspiring.

Favorite show you’re currently streaming?

We’ve been watching a lot of Man Like Mobeen, which is on Netflix right now. It’s a very, very funny but also very real take on being brown in the West. It really gets to the point on race and class, but it’s also some of the funniest writing I’ve seen in awhile, and it’s from a different voice and perspective than you see a lot of shows typically come up from. Guz Khan, who’s the director, as well as a writer on the show, is hilarious.

Know another woman whose name we should drop? Tweet us at @HubSpotDev with ideas.

This article originally appeared on Medium.


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