Two years ago I joined Tito as Customer Experience Manager after having been a Tito customer myself for several years.
At the start of 2020, I moved into a brand new role (for me and for the company): Chief Product Officer.
While this may seem like an odd jump, the transition felt pretty natural as I’ve been working closely with our product for years now. However, any product manager will know that a role like this requires more than just excellent product knowledge. Being brand new to such a role myself, I was keen to seek inspiration and guidance from others.
With this in mind, I decided to pick up a copy of Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love, as I’d seen it lauded as a must-read for product managers. It’s an excellent book, but this post isn’t a review or even a summary. In fact, I only bring it up because of something mentioned on page 48, under a section titled “Product Manager Profiles”.
The author introduces six individuals as examples of successful product managers working for big hitters like Google, Adobe, BBC, Microsoft, Netflix and Apple.
As I looked down the list and started to read each of these individual’s profiles later in the book, I noted that they were all women. Men typically outnumber women leadership roles (though research has shown that “the bigger the company, the more diverse its leadership”), so I must admit I was a little surprised!
Seeing a list of six successful women in a similar role to myself (albeit at a much, much larger scale) made me curious to research them all to find out about their journeys and achievements. I’ve found it really inspiring to read about them, so I wanted to share their stories here in the hopes that it might inspire some other new or aspiring product manager.
Jane Manning — Google
Jane may refer to herself “a minor cog in the search machine”, but as Technical Program Manager for Core Search at Google for the last four years, she’s responsible for leading the development of a product that almost every single one of us uses multiple times a day. So much so that the product name has become the de facto verb for searching online!
Prior to this role, she initiated development on and successfully launched Class2Go (now part of edX), an open source MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) platform for Stanford University. As Director of Platforms, not only did she build up and guide the engineering team and own the strategy including prioritising feature development, she also took on more unexpected tasks like working with the University’s lawyers to work out the website’s terms of service, and writing a detailed user manual for the professors who’d be using the platform.
But Jane had previously worked at Google even before joining Stanford, serving as Product Manager for the introduction of what would turn out to be a hugely successful product in Google AdWords (now Google Ads). She managed the entire product development process from writing the product specification to the launch in 2000.
One of Jane’s achievements I particularly admire is how she successfully communicated and got buy-in from the Sales team, who initially felt threatened by a new product that they believed might have the potential to replace them. Proof that the role of product manager is more than solely about the product.
Lea Hickman — Adobe
For over 10 years, Lea was an influential product leader at Adobe, notably guiding Adobe’s Creative Suite through a transition from a license-based to a subscription-based model after realising that the market was being disrupted by new players and seeing that customers were making a move towards creating across multiple devices.
Speaking about the scale of this project, which involved literally hundreds of people, Lea said:
“Consistent and repetitive communication was absolutely critical, both verbally and written. I can’t emphasize that enough. A product manager has to be obsessive about getting their story out and repeating it. Never assume that just because you already told someone, they’re going to remember what the story is, or the why behind making a pivot.”
On paper, it almost seemed as if there were more reasons not to make the change than to make it, but thanks in part to Lea’s strong vision and efforts to communicate and get the whole team on the same page, the project went ahead and was an unmitigated commercial success.
Lea has since moved on from Adobe and is now a partner at Silicon Valley Product Group, an organisation set up to share lessons and best practice for creating tech products, and the folks behind the Inspired book itself. Considering Lea got her start consulting for IBM before working at Netscape and AOL, she is well-versed in the challenges of building world-class tech products!
Alex Pressland — BBC
Alex’s impressive career spans more than 15 years of building teams and launching products at well-known media and publishing companies including The Guardian, Refinery29, Bauer, and Bloomberg. But it’s the six years she spent at the BBC that the book focuses on.
As Senior Product Manager, Alex saw an opportunity to use IP-based syndicated content technology to reach new audiences, with broadcasts tailored to the device, audience, venue and context. Being the early 2000s, this was a radical suggestion at the time.
After leading a number of experiments to validate the idea, Alex launched BBC’s Out of Home digital product, which helped trigger a shift in how the organisation as a whole approached content distribution. Alongside this, she successfully launched the BBC’s first APIs for news text and video.
Following her time at the BBC, Alex went on to help launch the first paid-for newspaper app in the UK for The Guardian, lead the responsive relaunch of bloomberg.com, and work on an innovative project as Product Lead at Storyful to integrate with Slack to deliver verified news content to their clients.
Martina Lauchengco — Microsoft
During the three years Martina spent working at Microsoft (from 1993-1996), she was responsible for the full range of marketing for Microsoft Office products, during their growth from less than 50% market share to more than 85% market share and a $3.1 billion business.
In those days, Windows was still king while Apple was more niche. But when Microsoft first launched a version for Mac, customers felt that not enough effort had been put into the release. There were a ton of performance issues, which resulted in accusations that Microsoft had made it bad on purpose in a bid to kill the competition. In the face of so much backlash, Microsoft needed to own the situation if they hoped to turn it around.
Within several months they had released an update to the software which addressed the performance issues. But more importantly, they also sent out apology letters to all affected customers, signed by Martina in her role as Product Manager.
It was a bold move, and I can only imagine how vulnerable she must have felt at the time, being so visible to so many angry customers! But it seemed to do the trick and the tide turned. More than two decades later, Microsoft’s products are still world leading and this blip is but a distant memory.
These days, Martina is a partner at Silicon Valley Product Group (alongside Lea Hickman), a marketing lecturer at UC Berkeley, and she started Seat@theTable to help “more women reach more seats at more tables in tech”.
Kate Arnold — Netflix
After playing a key role in the launch of one of the first pay-to-download music services at CDnow, Kate joined Netflix in 1999 as their first ever Product Manager. In this role, she had overall responsibility for product strategy and development, and this began with defining and launching their DVD subscription service.
Prior to this, Netflix had operated a Blockbuster-style pay-per-rental model, but they found their growth started to stagnate as a result. So, under Kate’s leadership, Netflix launched an innovative “flat fee per month for unlimited rentals” model unlike anything customers were used to before.
The approach unsurprisingly proved extremely popular, though not without its pitfalls, and the team had to think on their feet to implement the mechanisms and infrastructure to ensure they could control and meet the demand. This resulted in innovative technical solutions like a watch queue, rating system, and recommendations engine.
It sounds like it was both a stressful and exciting time to be working on the product, but the outcome was an undeniable success, and served them well until they moved to a streaming model years later, by which time Kate had moved on from Netflix.
Kate has had various product leadership roles including Product Owner Global Growth at Shutterstock and now consults on Product Management. Her clients include American Express, for whom she redesigned their online statement, resulting in American Express receiving the sole Gold Status rating in the industry from Credit Card Monitor.
Camille Hearst — Apple
The final person the book profiles is Camille, whose career is frankly incredible with highlights including leading on YouTube’s product marketing and on the Google Cultural Institute product marketing, being VP of Product Management at Hailo, and co-founding a startup called Kit which was acquired by Patreon, where Camille now works as Head of Product for Merch.
But Camille got her start as one of the first Product Managers for Apple’s iTunes, where she worked from 2005-2010, collaborating closely with Steve Jobs and Jony Ive.
The book outlines how this was a critical time for iTunes as they spotted an opportunity to reach a much larger audience by capitalising on the American Idol craze and selling the contestants’ music to the masses. But they realised that their current design, which showcased trending music, had the potential to interfere with the voting element of the show by accidentally revealing who was the most popular before it was officially announced.
Camille led her team in implementing changes to iTunes’ product to address this and other challenges they faced, as well as working on feature development for the iTunes store.
Being the daughter of a musician and coming from a creative family, I imagine this must have felt like an amazing project to work on, especially as Camille was unable to afford a Mac growing up, so she would help her dad build PCs for the music studio they had at home.
In 2018 Camille was honoured in Vanity Fair as one of 26 Women of Colour Diversifying Entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.
Banner artwork: Adapted from this image of Camille Hearst