Name Dropping is a Q&A series that aims to elevate the stories of women 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 in discussions of achievement, inspiration, and disruptors in tech, instead of referencing, time and again, the same set of (often male) leaders.
When did you realize you loved product management?
I was designing and creating products before I was even in an official product management role. For example, my first “product” role was out of undergrad, for the US Government’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). They asked me to build HealthData.gov, which opens access to the thousands of datasets owned by HHS divisions the CDC, FDA, and NIH. Throughout the process of designing this website and data repository, I fell in love with delighting the customers who, in this case, were large research hospitals and academics — who had never had access to this much healthcare data at their fingertips.
Since then, I’ve found my interactions with customers (whether people or enterprises) to be the most fulfilling part of being a PM. And it’s what drives me to go deeper into whichever industry I serve, whether networking (Google), data protection (Rubrik), or cloud storage infrastructure (AWS).
You’re head of Product and Engineering at Amazon Web Services. How do you balance data protection and new functionality when it comes to the data services you build for your customers?
Always focus on the customer. While it might seem cool to explore technically interesting challenges, it's a no-go if it's not what the customer wants.
As I help lead the vision of next-gen cloud data protection, I also try to predict where the market moves. Successful PMs, I’ve found, are right a lot when it comes to predicting how customer preferences or requirements will change. As a result, they anticipate change when developing roadmaps.
You’re Founder and CEO of the organization Advancing Women in Product. Tell us about AWIP’s mission and what inspired you to create it.
Advancing Women in Product (AWIP), was founded to bridge the gap that I and others saw in tech leadership. There are many great initiatives to bridge the entry-level pipeline gap like Girls in Tech or Girls Who Code. Those organizations encourage young girls and college students to pursue careers in STEM. However, I believe we should do more to promote diversity in rising leadership levels, such as early directors and vice presidents. The dearth of women and other diverse people in these positions results in very few qualified candidates with such backgrounds ready for promotion to the C-suite. At Google, while my female colleagues and I had many supportive male managers, we also sought more women leaders and role models. So what started out as a living room gathering in my San Francisco apartment grew into an international NGO with over 15,000 members and six international chapters (San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York City, Paris, and Chennai). We provide skills-based training and executive mentorship via our Ambassador program, made up of product and engineering leaders in each technology vertical.
You believe what you see. And since even male-dominated C-suites and boards of directors complain that there are too few diverse candidates for the highest levels of technical leadership — CTOs, CPO, COOs, and CEOs — organizations like AWIP provide skills and mentorship for women to succeed.
In addition to your leadership roles, you’re a freelance technology writer for Forbes, focusing on women in leadership and women of color in tech. What are some of the most interesting stories or trends you’ve covered?
I’m fortunate to share my perspective on women in leadership and women of color in technology via Forbes. One of my favorite pieces is AWIP’s coverage of the 2019 Obama Foundation Summit.The Obamas discussed education equality and career success among social-economic groups and women. Their increased attention toward these topics shed a light on the importance of mentorship in someone’s career.
One of my most popular pieces was the one contrasting mentorship with sponsorship, an increasingly important distinction for companies who want to change the status quo by pairing protégés with sponsors to accelerate the career growth of underrepresented groups. I’d love to follow up with another article on the evolution of these programs along with data on how the type and involvement of sponsors influenced the protégés’ career achievement.
Who do you think has helped you become a great leader, either as an inspiration or a mentor?
A pivotal sponsor in my life is Tatyana Mamut, who helped me obtain my current role with AWS. Like me, she immigrated to the United States. She has been a product executive at many top companies, including IDEO, Salesforce, Amazon Web Services, and, most recently, Nextdoor. She’s always unabashedly herself, and it’s that energy and drive that I aspire to every day.
A recent sponsor is Wayne Duso, a Vice President at Amazon Web Services. Like me, Wayne grew up disadvantaged and dedicated himself to academic excellence. Through tireless effort, he became one of the most senior leaders at AWS. Moreover, he is authentic enough to care and give back to organizations that aim to foster more diversity and inclusion like AWIP.
What is one quality that you think every leader should have to generate impact and lead effectively?
Leadership is a combination of many different things: empathy, work ethic, and vision. If I had to rank these, empathy would be top of the list. The ability to connect with everyone on their team (regardless of race, seniority, or gender) enables leaders to make decisions that, while not universally popular, take into consideration how others may feel. This leads to long-term cohesion and trust, and top-performing teams.
When you think about the best product managers you’ve ever worked with, what characteristics did they embody?
Passion for delighting the customer. As long as this is their north star, other exemplary qualities like work ethic and ability to dive deep will follow.
What’s your greatest career achievement to date?
My greatest career achievements are impacting and influencing other people’s careers. In that sense, building and boot-strapping AWIP and watching it grow into an international organization is one of my proudest achievements.
What book do you think every product leader should read and why?
Inspired by Marty Cagan. It walks leaders through a framework on how to think about staffing and lead a product organization in the best way.
Others examples in this book guided me as I built my product (and engineering) organization.
Who’s one woman in technology you’d like to name drop and why?
Praveena Vajja, VP of Product at Oracle and AWIP’s SF Chapter Lead. Not only is her career journey super inspirational (she rose through the ranks at Oracle from a software engineer to a Vice President of Product), but she also finds the time to lead one of our biggest chapter teams along with family commitments. I’m constantly in awe of her dedication to the AWIP mission.
What’s your go-to song to get yourself pumped up before a big presentation or event?
A classic! Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
Know another woman whose name we should drop? Tweet us at @HubSpotDev with ideas.