Claire Vo is the SVP of Product Management at Optimizely, the world’s leader in digital experience optimization. Previously, she was the CEO and co-founder of Experiment Engine which was acquired by Optimizely in 2017. Claire is an expert in high-velocity experimentation programs, product strategy and user experience, and a passionate advocate for women in technology. In this interview, we’ve discussed such important questions as women in management, creating new opportunities and balancing motherhood with the senior position.
Listen to this interview and learn how to stop underplaying your own abilities.
By Katsiaryna Drozhzha on November 22, 2018
K: Hi Claire, can you please take 30 seconds to introduce yourself?
C: I’m Claire Vo and I’m the S.V.P. of product at Optimizely. We are the world’s best and greatest experimentation platform. We help enterprises stop guessing and start knowing what works across their marketing and product. I run all of Optimizely’s product strategy, our product development as well as our product design team.
K: Not so long ago, your company Experiment Engine was acquired by Optimizely. How did your role change and what are your current responsibilities at the company?
C: I was CEO and co-founder of Experiment Engine and I ran that company just about three years to the dot. As a CEO, I was really responsible not just for product strategy but for the entire company: fundraising, hiring, sales, customer success, everything was my responsibility as of the CEO of Experiment Engine. Optimizely acquired that company in April of 2017 and I came on to run Optimizely’s product organization. I had to give up a little bit of the work that I did as a CEO. I actually have my team now from Experiment Engine that reports to other functions inside of Optimizely. I focus most of my time on my product management, design teams and product strategy. That being said because of my background as a CEO, I’ve been able to continue to have more of an end-to-end business impact at Optimizely and have been really excited about our ability to give me exposure to the things that I think are interesting. These things are not just product management, but everything across the business.
K: You’ve had a fast career growth in a short time. What has helped you to achieve those amazing results and get to where you are right now?
C: The thing that created the most change in my career and allowed me to grow was I asked for growth. I didn’t wait for somebody to give it to me. I took it. When I saw that I had the opportunity to have a larger impact on an organization, when I knew I could take on more responsibility, when I knew I was ready to manage people, when I knew I was ready to manage a lot of people, when I was ready to start a business, I didn’t wait for somebody to tell me: “Now is the time, we’re going to give you this promotion.” I didn’t wait for somebody to tell me that. I went ahead and created those opportunities for myself. It might have been easier if people had really proactively provided me those opportunities. But I think that any person going through their career, particularly women, should be more proactive asking/demanding for more responsibility and scope. More impact is something that is really helpful to do what you’re trying to get your career.
K: I have some statistics here that show that 57% of men after graduating from college negotiate for better salaries and better conditions, while only 7% of women do the same. Do you think that women underestimate their own abilities and they don’t want to negotiate for better workplace and better conditions?
C: I certainly don’t think it’s a flaw in women. A lot of times this sort of statistics will be positioned as: “Oh, women should be more aggressive. Women should be more assertive.” In fact, the research has shown that in case when women that do negotiate for higher money and more control, their roles are actually punished in the workplace. So you’re really in a tough spot as a woman trying to grow your career. You can kind of make the choice between negotiating, not being liked, and then being sort of pushed down in your career because you’re seen as too aggressive. Or, you could not negotiate, be really well liked, but not see the career growth that your male peers would see. So that’s it. It’s absolutely a tricky balance. But on the whole, I think women would be better served to negotiate. Now I think they would see better results if we had more women in leadership that were the recipients of that negotiation. Because I think the bias would be less there. It’s something that’s really hard to manage. And as women I don’t think it’s wholly our responsibility to correct for the bias against us. I do think though we have to live in the world we live in and that means doing things that might make us uncomfortable or not well liked or like negotiating.
K: What about finding the balance between being a mother and being a leader. There is an opinion that women are actually blocking themselves psychologically to look for promotion once they start thinking about creating family. They think that after getting pregnant they’ll have to stay home with their kids, so there is no point of actually looking for promotion because they will be leaving anyways. How was it in your case?
C: In my case it wasn’t like that. I worked through being in labor. I was working while I was in labor, I worked till the second I had my kid. That was different for me because I was running a company and I had a lot of responsibilities. You can’t really take leave the same way that you can with a company that’s not yours. Now, that being said, even though we were a really small startup, we had good maternal leave policies. But when you’re the CEO and you’re trying to do a whole bunch of stuff, then it’s harder to take leave. I certainly did not take my foot off the gas when it came to my career and being pregnant. I continued to work really hard. I continued to negotiate this acquisition that was in flight when I was seven/eight/nine months pregnant.
But what I would say is even more than women of blocking themselves from promotions. I think they get blocked.
I would say that organizations and leaders tend to view women of childbearing age as risks and they are benevolently or malevolently, whether they’re meeting in a nice way or meeting it in a mean way, get blocked from opportunities. So you either get: “She’s got a six month old, she’s super busy, I don’t want to overwhelm her. So like let’s give him this project.” It’s either that version or you get: “She’s obsessed with her kid and she doesn’t have any time for work, so why would we give her work when she is not going to be around.” You get stuck in between those two things. I think that it’s more of a organisational and societal issue than it is an issue with women themselves. Every woman that I know that has had a baby has been extremely ambitious and completely dedicated to their career. Excited to return to their career after an appropriate amount of leave, but also not really well supported in the transition back to work. I think there are a lot of issues at play, the least of which is women’s own ambitions.
K: How do you, as a team leader, invest in the talents of your female employees?
C: I try to be at least an ally to the sisterhood. I mentor and promote women around me. In my career, I haven’t had a lot of women as my peers. I haven’t had a lot of women as my mentors. And anything I can do to promote the talents of women, I try to do. There have been small things: for more junior women, just pushing them to see their own abilities, pushing them to brag a little bit more, pushing them to not take the half step but the whole step. Not be “I just want a little more recognition”, but “I want the promotion.” I am trying to give them the confidence that I’m at least supportive of those bigger moves. In terms of my peers, there are several VP women at Optimizely, I make sure that we are really well aligned and that we have each other’s backs. In meetings, oftentimes we are making sure to promote the work and speak well of each other’s teams. And so we’re seen as aligned, we are seen as effective. I think there’s this myth that women who become leaders get really catty and fight with each other for power. I hate that there’s that perception out there. People try to push women into those conflicts that I don’t think are actually natural. I align myself with other women leaders in a way that feels not competitive and really feels collaborative, like we’re all partners. It’s hard enough being a woman in technology. It’s even harder when you feel like you have to fight with everybody so that you can be the only woman in technology. I think it’s super important to show both junior people and a leadership team that women play nicely together and they get stuff done and there’s no problem having a lot of female leaders at the top of the company
K: A lot of women are still reporting that they still end up being the only women in the meeting room of the same age men in their 40s who share the same opinion. I believe that men do have the power to bring the change. How do you motivate them, first of all, to fight for equal rights?
C: I’m one of the three women in my team. I haven’t done a lot of hiring since I joined Optimizely, I inherited a team that is largely skewed male. That’s been a challenge that I faced with. When I did the acquisition, I said: “Look, I don’t want to go from running my own female-led company to an organization where I’m the only woman in the product organization.” Optimizely has a high commitment to diversity and inclusion. They have a diversity inclusion group, it’s a top level executive priority to make sure that we have female leaders and that we have good diversity in our customer base. The way that I try to have this conversation with the same men as a group is it is just better for business to have diversity. It’s better for the quality of our product to have diversity. The specific reason why that is so is our team should reflect the diversity of our customers. If our customers are using our products and our customers are male and female of all colors of different verticals of everything, we should have people that are building those products that come from those backgrounds because they bring a new point of view. They also bring a specific point of view and they’re able to empathize with customers in a way a more homogenous organization could not. And so for me it is a matter of principle. As a feminist, as somebody who really believes in equality, I want more women in the team.
But as a practical business person, it is bad for business to not have your team reflect your customer base. The closer we can get to reflect on the diversity of our customer base, the better our products are going to be.
K: You have a three months experience of being a product management instructor in Hong Kong. Did you notice there any challenges that women faced with in product professions?
C: I taught product management for General Assembly at their Hong Kong campus in 2013. I’ve mentored quite a few junior product managers into the role. I think there’s a couple of challenges for women entering product. One is that product tends to be very tightly aligned with engineering at most organizations. Engineering organizations have historically not had large proportions of women. It’s really challenging to be the only woman in product and engineering. Just because of the composition of those teams it can be difficult to have networks in those teams, to actually get the introductions. It can be difficult to interview on those teams and they can be really difficult to integrate with because you’re not quite like everybody else. I think there is that challenge simply because product is really tightly aligned with engineering. The other thing is we just see very few female product leaders. The organizations that I’ve seen change the most and have the most diversity in their employee base in terms of product, are the ones where female leaders were brought in and they made the commitment to diversify. It’s actually not that hard to do if you care about it. I would love to see more female product leaders at the V.P. level or at least to the hiring manager level that have a commitment to more diverse teams because then that’s what makes a change. I think that there are the two things. I think it’s really hard in a team that’s historically been mostly male to diversify and be the first, and then I think we don’t see a lot of female leaders. The leadership has to be committed to it in a way where they really make it a priority. I’ve seen female leaders do that more than others.
K: Do you see any difference of reporting to a female manager or to a male manager?
C: I have never in my life had a female manager. But I have been the first female manager for many people. So I’m helping that way. I’ve actually never worked for a female leader and it actually gets harder as you become VP level and higher, because then you’re essentially trying to find female CEOs to work for. And there are very few of those. So I don’t know the difference. I think it could be great.
K: What was the hardest product that you had to manage?
C: The hardest problem I had to manage was the one that I built at my company. Experiment Engine was my company and was also my product. It is a product that helps teams manage experimentation at scale. If you’re a very large organization and you want to run tens of thousands of experiments, it’s SAAS software will help you do that. That’s what the idea was. That was the most difficult one to manage. One, because as the CEO you have a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of pressure from the sales side. And then as an early stage startup, you don’t have years and years to figure out the right thing, and you’re in fact starting from scratch. The pressure is really hard and the timeline is very compressed. You have to be ruthless with prioritization, you make mistakes and they feel very expensive because you have limited capital and a small number of customers to validate your ideas off. And because it’s your own company, you have to get out of your own emotional space about your product where you think it should be, and really build what your customers want. I would say that it is the most educational and challenging product that I’ve built in my life. I felt a deep sense of responsibility around that product. Plus, it was a new market. It’s much easier to work out a product that already exists that you’re just trying to make better than a completely new thing they are bringing to the market.
K: What about managing personal and professional life, especially when having a family with a child?
C: That’s a question that I get asked a lot. Some women say that they will never answer that question because a man doesn’t get answered or asked that same question. They think it’s highly offensive. From my perspective, I actually think men and women need to hear this answer from executives across the board. And I think they need to hear this answer in a truthful way. Balancing life executive career where with a child is exceptionally hard and expensive. Even more challenging is that I think this impacts women executives more than it does men. We are two career households. My husband also has a senior leadership position as do I. And we have a kid that we like spending time with. There’s a couple of things you have to do. You have to draw a very hard boundaries around your life and your job. I will not travel, sometimes, I cannot do meetings earlier than 8:30 in the morning because I have to get my kid to school. There are just some things that I will not do or will not move. A good example of that is when I was in a board meeting when I made it very clear: “I’m walking out of the door of this board meeting at 5 o’clock on the dot.” I don’t care if any of the investors are still talking. I don’t care if there are questions I have to answer. I have to leave at 5 o’clock because no one else can pick up my child. You have to do that and you have to be very straightforward and unapologetic about that because otherwise you will crumble under the pressure from both home and at work. The other thing is that we pay a lot for our daycare, we pay somebody to help us around the house. We have to outsource a lot because after a full day of work, coming home, I want to spend time with my kid. I don’t want to do my laundry and I have to make that choice of whether I spend the money or I just do it. I know many women outsource a lot of stuff particularly when they’re part of two household family and then have a really great partner. So he and I are truly partners and we share all the work in the house. It ebbs and flows depending on what’s happening with our work. But I am not the only parent. The mom is not the only parent in this house. My husband is an excellent father, an excellent partner and cooks probably 90% of the meals. You have to have a good partner if you really want to make it work.
K: And the last word. What advice would you give to women who want to become product managers?
C: I will share advice that was shared with me and that I wish all women would hear which is: be more entitled! Be like those guys coming out of college and say: “I don’t want this entry level job. I want this big job and I think I should be paid for it.” Because what I find is that women just so dramatically underplay their own abilities and wait for permission to enter a field. They wait until they check off 110% of the requirements before asking. As someone once told me: “Claire, be more entitled. You are incredibly talented. You are capable and you will never ask for more than your worth. Even if you try to.” Just really show up with a bigger sense of confidence in that you deserve your success, because there are boys out there that certainly think they deserve their success and that’s who you’re in competition with. Be nice and certainly be nice to the other women in your life because they will help you through a lot. Having a sense of entitlement is kind of an annoying word but it’s the right one. “I deserve this” — is really important.
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