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Dr. Masha V Petrova of Altium: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

This is crucial. On my team, our machine consists of Slack (main communication tool for the team), Asana (for project management) — all connected to G-Suite and Zoom. Our meetings are run off of Asana and a process is set up in Asana for reviewing and approving our deliverables (creative, copy, etc).

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Masha V. Petrova.

Dr. Masha V. Petrova brings a unique perspective to marketing, harnessing her background in aerospace engineering and software development to create and execute customer-centric B2B marketing strategies and go-to-market campaigns for highly technical markets.

Masha thrives on working with engineers and scientists, building and leading multi-disciplinary, global teams towards successful results. Her passion for serving customers is reflected in her work as the Vice President of Brand Marketing at Altium, LLC, as well as her service on the UC Irvine Customer Experience Advisory Board. Masha is committed to developing education initiatives and serves as Board Member and Marketing Chair for the Parentis Foundation.

Masha holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of California, San Diego, and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Delaware. She lives in Southern California.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

As VP of Brand Marketing at an engineering software company, my role involves helping to define how we, as a company, present ourselves to our customers, to our partners and to the rest of the world.

I grew up in Moscow, Russia, before the Soviet Union broke apart, in a family of scientists and engineers. My grandfather was an aerospace engineer during the space race between Russia and the US, and he was in charge of doing the calculations for the orbit for Sputnik — the first satellite in space. So conversations about aerospace engineering and science were always around me, and I was really into science fiction — the Soviet Union had really great science fiction authors — and I was just addicted to reading it.

When I was six, I decided that I was going to be an astronaut. In high school, I researched what it would take for me to become an astronaut — and it looked like I’d either have to get a PhD in science/engineering or become a fighter pilot:) Because I asked “why?” way too much, it became pretty clear that military training was not in the cards. So I went on to get a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from University of Delaware and then a PhD from University of California, San Diego in aerospace engineering.

While in graduate school, I grew my family, had a couple of kids, and realized that I was not interested in giving up comforts of Earth or leaving my children for any extended amount of time. So I went to work for a software company as a research engineer. That lasted for exactly a year until my ENTJ nature took over and I got sucked into the dark side of sales and marketing and never looked back.

I get a lot of questions from engineers who say things to me like, “Wow — you could have been a real engineer…what happened to you?” After 15 years of leading marketing teams, developing marketing strategies, and bringing new products and services to market, I honestly find marketing to be more challenging!

Marketing to me is a series of exciting experiments — you’re always testing things to see what works and what doesn’t — what images work, what colors work, what words work to get a response you need from your audience. But, unlike engineering, you’re not working in a controlled environment. Your test bench is people, and unlike a lab test bench, people are constantly changing, so it’s a great challenge.

As a very extroverted engineer, marketing gives me the ability to constantly experiment in a very dynamic environment. I love what I do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Well, in the last 15 years I’ve worked as a developer, a sales engineer, a founder/CEO, the head of engineering, global marketing, and now finally brand marketing. I’ve worked in five start-ups, including my own, in a PE-owned company, a VC-backed company, and a few global public companies. I’ve built new teams and had to turn around a few existing ones…there are too many interesting stories to pick just one!

But, since the subject of diversity is a very relevant one at the moment, here’s one of the more adversarial stories. Maybe it can offer some encouragement and hope to your readers.

In my first quarter as a grad student at UCSD, I was taking a course taught by the Chair of the mechanical and aerospace department. It was a challenging class with about 100 students. Before accepting the UCSD research position, I was also being recruited by UCSB and Princeton; As soon as I joined the UCSD program, I immediately started my thesis research, which was atypical for a first-year grad student.

So when I completely bombed the first exam in the class taught by the department chair — I wasn’t worried. Most of the class did poorly and the professor advised anyone with a grade below 50% (I really did bomb that test) to come see him during his office hours. Figuring the professor would recommend some books for me to read and suggest additional practice problems, I gladly went off to meet with him.

That was not at all the meeting I was about to have.

“How are you in this program?” was the first question from the professor. I was a bit taken aback. “Eeerrr…I applied and was selected,” I said, rather confused. What followed was 30 mins of the chair of the department telling me that I was completely unprepared for the program. In fact, I was clearly not smart enough to come anywhere close to the program. I still remember his exact words “Your advisor is an excellent researcher and professor. How are you working with him?”

About 10 mins into this strange interrogation I just lost it and started crying. Not offering me so much as a tissue, the Chair continued to tell me that I was too stupid to be in the graduate program. He concluded by instructing me to go to the graduate advisor and change ALL of my courses to undergrad classes. His final words were “Oh, and let’s not tell anyone about this conversation. Just go ahead and drop all your grad classes.”

My face still covered in tears, I ran to the graduate advisor’s office. Of course, I told her what just happened. Her response? “Oh yeah! He is known not to like women or anyone who is not white. Last year he actually managed to push a girl out of the program.”

This was 2001 at a prominent California university.

“How in the world can he get away with that?” I said in shock. The graduate advisor’s response was “He is the Chair of the department. What can you possibly do?” I went on to defend my thesis and this became an interesting story to share as inspiration to others being pushed to quit:)

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Vision without execution is just hallucination,” by Thomas Edison and “Words are cheap and deeds are dear” from Jeffrey Fox’s book How to become a CEO. I find that most people have all kinds of great ideas and plans and opinions, and they love to talk about them — especially in our social media-obsessed culture. Most often those ideas and plans do not go beyond Instagram comments or water-cooler gossip.

Few people actually “do”. Even fewer can flawlessly execute a plan to get to the result they want. In the field of marketing, the practice of what I can only describe as “word vomit” — using convoluted combinations of generalizations, idioms, and jargon to describe grand visions and promises — seems to be especially pervasive.

When hiring for a team, or looking for collaborators, I am always searching for people who have a history of solid execution, who can describe specific details of their actions, projects, etc. This is a strong indicator that they are operational and will help to move things forward.

I have a litmus test that I use within the first 5 -10 minutes of a first conversation, to help me identify those rare gems of people who can execute.

If a person is using too many general descriptive objectives and vague cliches when describing a project or idea, they are probably used to filling up time with words, rather than actions. To test that theory, I will probe for specifics about what the person is describing — asking the who, when, where, how, what questions: “Who worked on that with you?”; “When did you set up that campaign exactly? How long did it run?”, and so on. If, after asking for specific details 2–3 times during the conversation, the person continues to answer with generalizations, I know it’s someone I will avoid working with at all costs.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am very conscious of the fact that everything I’ve achieved is due to the help of many, many amazing people along the way. My parents and grandparents taught me the value of “doing” and the importance of education.

Every summer and winter between my undergraduate semesters, I did an internship in a different lab and had so many supportive and brilliant advisors who made me want to keep going with my studies. This is something I recommend for every student — find internships in your area of interest. Do as many as you can during your time at school. It will open up your eyes to so many opportunities.

I do not have a naturally analytical brain and am actually terrible at math. I have a very hard time remembering numbers and rules, following directions, or reading maps. But because I got to work on so many interesting projects during my internships — from doing experiments in a materials lab in Georgia Tech, to testing astrophysics theories, to studying effects of microgravity on radishes at NASA — I saw how exciting work can be if I just forced my brain to comply. Which I did, largely because of so many wonderful professors who gave me the opportunities to grow and see what’s possible.

In my professional work, there is an army of advisors, mentors, coaches, and colleagues who provide advice and guidance, who help me grow, build amazing teams, and work on some really cool projects.

I am not a typical executive in a world of highly technical B2B software. As a single mother of three in a very male-dominated industry (the number of women in executive roles in the “engineering software” industry is very low), I am well aware of the very thick glass ceiling. But I keep on moving forward, and it’s not a path I could have carved out on my own. I am beyond grateful to many, many people who continue to help me on this journey.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Of course, meeting face to face, even if it’s every few months, is crucial. It helps avoid miscommunications and clears up any built-up frustrations. When we meet in person we can read body language in a way that Zoom is not yet capable of helping us do. Our senses of sight and hearing are not distorted by an electronic device, and we gain an additional sense of smell to help us assess and read social situations. If you’re meeting over lunch or coffee, you’re also evoking a sense to taste that adds to the experience of connecting with another human being.

When we meet in person, especially as a team, it helps us to see each other as humans with feelings and emotions as opposed to another “to-do” task.

Although I do feel that meeting face-to-face cannot yet be replicated with technology, I think that my team has come up with some pretty cool ways to stay connected, empathetic, and supportive while working remotely.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

To be quite honest, I have not found many challenges. I tend to focus on results and am not a big micromanager in terms of how my team delivers. If a team member delivers the result that reaches or exceeds expectations — I don’t care if it took him/her five minutes, or five days to get it done.

I don’t care if he/she did it sitting on the beach in Maui, or at 12 AM over a glass of wine. This style of management lends itself well to remote work. As long as we have the right tools and systems in place, and I communicate goals clearly — my teams, historically, tend to be even more productive remotely.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Spend time building out communication systems!

This is crucial. On my team, our machine consists of Slack (main communication tool for the team), Asana (for project management) — all connected to G-Suite and Zoom. Our meetings are run off of Asana and a process is set up in Asana for reviewing and approving our deliverables (creative, copy, etc).

For these tools to actually be useful and not to just add to the administrative burden, it is really important to establish ground rules for the team (e.g., “Always use the “reply” option in Slack when responding to someone in a channel”).

We weekly clean out Asana — and it’s a team effort. Everyone is responsible for keeping the machine well-greased because we can all see the benefit of organization and transparency that this system brings to all of us.

2. Be clear about how you work, and how you communicate.

I am very direct about my expectations with my teams. Most people really appreciate it, some get offended. But one thing’s for sure — no one has to wonder where they stand, or what I think.

I feel that that this management style tends to work very well with remote teams, especially in times of uncertainty. Overall, it seems to reduce stress and increase productivity for the team as a whole.

My team actually grew quite a bit during the pandemic. We inherited new team members from other areas of the company. So during one of our weekly team meetings, I shared some slides on ”Here’s how to work with me”. I then pinned that presentation to our team Slack channel.

Formally share any expectations you might have (e.g., “I don’t like surprises — please share your work with me, even as FYI, before sharing outside the team.”) and your communication style (e.g., “My email inbox is a nightmare. If you need me to do something, please Slack instead.”)

With remote communications your team members are already making a ton of assumptions — after all, our number of senses is greatly limited. Don’t give your teams more things they have to guess and assume. Be clear about how you work.

3. Who you’re communicating with is just as important as what you’re saying.

Be very picky about who you’re cc-ing on emails. Because our senses are limited in remote communications, that creates more chances for miscommunication and productivity barriers.

I spend a lot of time deciding who to cc on my emails and Slack chats. My team knows that if they’re “cced” in one of my emails, it’s an “FYI” for them and “an action” for whoever is in the “to” section. But that might not be the case for others in the company.

How many times have you sent an email ccing everyone and their mom — for people to only read your “FYI” as a call to action, creating confusion and wasted hours of work you did not actually mean for them to do?

How about when you cc over a dozen people in an email just to make sure everyone is “in the loop”, but because not everyone is, you get a slew of responses from “How is this related to A, B, and C?” (it’s not) to “We’re working on this already, why are you involved?” (they’re working on something completely different, but misread the two words in your email that clarified that). And so you end up with 20 follow-ups on the follow-up emails, hours of productivity wasted. All this could have been avoided with a few extra minutes spent on sending a few separate emails.

4. Be consistent whenever possible.

Especially in times of uncertainty and especially with remote teams, it’s so important to stay consistent whenever you possibly can. When your team members have to guess everything from “Is that person shopping on Amazon while pretending to listen to me on Zoom? “ to “Who will homeschool my kids if I end up in a hospital with COVID?” — don’t give them more things to be anxious about.

I try my best to keep the same days/times for weekly team meetings and one-on-ones, whenever possible. We try to keep to a similar format in our meetings, keep a similar way we process outside project requests, and so on. It’s not always possible when so much is outside of your control — but I recommend staying consistent at any opportunity. It’s the kind thing to do.

5. Remember that feelings are a thing.

When we rush from project to project, from deliverables to the never-ending task list, it is so much easier to forget that you’re working with complex beings, guided by complex feelings and emotions. Especially when working remotely. We all know that it’s much easier to dismiss a Slack chat, than a person standing in your office.

I found that it helps to have separate one-on-one meetings to discuss things like feelings. Your team members can tell you what might be bothering them in their personal lives, you can share some of your struggles. That tends to help both of you to press “pause” and see each other as human beings and not just to-do tasks. I do think it helps to set the expectation at the very beginning of the meeting — decide if it’s a meeting where we need to get stuff done or a meeting where we try to learn more about each other.

Finally, I highly recommend planning out remote team-building activities. Personally, I am very much against unstructured “virtual happy hours”. Because you’re essentially trapped on the screen with a group of people — you can’t break off to catch up with the people you really want to talk to. Plus, there will always be a few especially boisterous people who will tend to dominate the entire conversation. That does nothing but create frustration and sets precedence for unproductive behavior.

Well-structured activities, however, can really help build comradery and improve morale. One of our recent zoom happy hours involved getting to know another marketing team in the company. Everyone got exactly two minutes to introduce themselves and their interests, then we played a family-feud style game where everyone on the Zoom was asked random questions about what people shared during their two minutes. Members who paid the most attention won fun prizes. We all had a blast and accomplished something important in just an hour, we all saw each other as a bit more human.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

I think how the transition was handled really depended on specific managers and team leads. Some teams that relied on face-to-face communication and spending a lot of time in the office to get projects done did not fare well at all.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

I truly feel that my team built a winning combination with Slack/Asana/G-Suite/Zoom (Adobe Suite for creatives and Vimeo when we’re editing video content). I am very grateful that our company is not in the Microsoft ecosystem. If I had to manage a remote team in an MS suite, I think the frustration from that alone would have killed me.

As a marketing team we have to write and edit things as a team a LOT. I know this is not a surprise to anyone — but I don’t know how we’d be able to edit so many pieces of content quickly, with multiple reviewers, without Google docs. Slack/Asana/G-Suite/Zoom all work well on phones, so we’re not chained to a computer.

Because Asana, Zoom, and Gsuite all integrate with Slack — it just makes for a smooth user experience.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

Between, Asana, Slack, G-Suite and Zoom, I feel that we have a pretty robust system. There is not much I would like to improve — my Asana notifications for tasks I need to complete, or things I need to review — come to me over Slack, which instantly shows on all of my laptops and phone. Things to review are usually in G-suit or Adobe, which I can also open on any device.

The one thing that is missing and I’d love to add for our global team members is some kind of built-in time-zone conversation “sticky” that can be visible with all those applications.

For our team specifically, since we track brand sentiment and conversations about our company on the web with Meltwater, would be interesting to have a “sticky” connected to Slack and Asana somehow that can give us snapshots of conversation on the web related to whatever we’re tracking at the moment (corporate brand, specific product brand, etc) and overall sentiment for the day.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

I think the technology is moving in that direction already, and the pandemic just sped up the process. I already use Slack as a texting app on my phone, for example.

The one interesting issue to consider: some people might purposefully keep separate modes of communication to help us separate work and personal life. I try to keep my work communications in Slack and Google Hangouts, and keep my phone SMS reserved for family/friends.

This helps me with work-life balance but also reduces the probability of sending things to unintended recipients. Have you ever sent a text meant for a close friend, to your boss? I have. It’s not fun.

I am not sure how Unified Communications would help address these benefits of having separate modes of communication.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

Not at the moment. Despite my background, I tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to new technologies.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

Absolutely. It feels creepy. I just keep picturing the VR Room scene from “Minority Report” and the human dystopia ship from Disney’s “Wall-E”.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

Our technical support has shifted more to using a chat, instead of having customers call us or creating online support tickets.

Our Russian sales team has also built out a pretty good-sized community on Telegram and VK in the last six months and they seem to be having quite a bit of success engaging customers that way.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

I am probably not the best person to give that advice, simply because my feedback format is fairly consistent — whether remote or in person, it’s pretty straightforward.

If you sense that something seems to be off with a key team member, and it’s clear that they’re not willing to share what’s bothering them over Zoom, I recommend two things.

First, if you’re always using Zoom for your meetings, try the phone. I could not believe how much that changes the tone of the conversation and what’s being shared when I tried it. And vice versa, if you’re always calling or texting, switch it up and schedule a video meeting.

Second, if that doesn’t seem to work, or you sense that you just need to do something else to figure out what’s going on — a face-to-face meeting sometimes is still the only way to get through the communication block. Ask to meet over lunch, drinks or a socially distanced picnic.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

I think that doing whatever you can to reduce uncertainty and ambiguity every day for your team, will naturally help to build comradery and cohesion.

As described above, build out your system and technology stack. Be proactive about using it yourself and hold your team accountable for it. Be clear about your expectations. Stay consistent with the use of your system and with your expectations. Make space and time for discussing feelings and emotions.

When your team doesn’t have to guess what you’re feeling or thinking, when everyone on the team knows where they stand with you and with each other, when there is a shared sense of purpose and transparency with projects (Asana has been instrumental to us for this) — people naturally feel safe and don’t feel like they have to protect their turf or form cliques. The camaraderie and bonding occurs naturally, and productivity exponentially increases.

BUT, there is a very big caveat to the above — all that works only assuming that you have the right people on your team. One bad apple, if left unmanaged, will throw off the entire team dynamic and everything you’ve worked so hard to build. So it is extremely important, especially for remote managers, to be judicious about screening out and neutralizing bullies, emotional vampires, or simply people who are just not fit for their role.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

To me, education is everything. It’s the light that will guide you out of the darkness. I was raised with the idea that you can survive owning only one pair of shoes, very little food, and no hot running water — all in outside temperatures of 15 degrees F. But you can’t survive without education.

Obviously things are quite different in the USA, but if I could inspire a movement, it would be to completely revamp the US education system. I’d get rid of those awful Common Core math worksheets and ridiculous word problems, ensure that kids are able to type starting in kindergarten, push for a lot more funding to classes that will help children develop creativity , and make First Robotics and Science Olympiad type projects a part of the curricula.

I’d also implement language immersion programs in public schools starting from kindergarten. It is so easy for children to learn multiple languages. Why immersion programs are not a requirement in the US elementary schools is beyond me.

I would also advocate for a way for children to study psychology starting in elementary school to learn to understand themselves and others better. Our children need to be a lot more self-aware than we were taught to be.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

www.linkedin.com/in/mashavpetrova/

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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David Liu

David Liu

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David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication