Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “Advocate for efficiency, not bureaucracy”, With Robbie Knutson-Ratto SVP at Appetize
Advocate for efficiency, not bureaucracy. I have spent the majority of my career in startups or small company environments and often came into these companies to build a product team and help put some processes in place for product planning and execution. I spent a few years of my career in one large company and found that there were many processes to follow that added little to no value to the goals we were trying to achieve as a team. I always try to ensure that if we are instituting processes, there have to be clear gains from doing so. The process should drive efficiency and aid in predictability, not just be a process for the sake of it.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robbie Knutson-Ratto the Senior Vice President of Product at Appetize responsible for the company’s product management, product roadmap, and development. Ms. Knutson-Ratto is a versatile product executive with more than 20 years of experience leading strategy for industry-recognized products and solutions worldwide. She brings an extensive background in SaaS/cloud, web, and mobile development, working with startups and large companies across multiple industries, including Lavu, Revel ad CA Technologies. Most recently, she was Global VP Product and General Manager for accounting software company Xero. Ms. Knutson-Ratto has a degree from San Francisco State University and recently relocated to Los Angeles from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I really just fell into technology. I started in Accounting/Finance for a software company mostly by chance but knew after a few years that I didn’t want to work in that field as a career. At the time, I was asked by a vendor that knew me and thought I would be a good fit if I wanted to start working in software implementation consulting, and I jumped at the chance. I didn’t know much about it but dove in and had to learn a lot on the job, including how to construct SQL statements, build Access databases, troubleshoot software installations, and write custom reports in various BI tools. These are by no means rocket science for a tech person — but I had a degree in finance. A couple of years later, I was asked to work for a product team at another startup. That is when I knew that I really wanted to continue working in tech.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I would say that it is the ever-present canines in the office as well as an actual Slack channel for ‘Pets of Appetize’ where people actively discuss their pets. I love pets, so seeing dogs in the office each day is nice — but to clients and other visitors, it is often a surprise — so it’s fun to see their reactions. The other day, someone said that when they are having a rough day, they click over to the Pets of Appetize Slack channel because it will always cheer them up.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My story is around my assessment of engineers and begins back when I started working in tech but on the business side of the house (running an accounting department). I didn’t understand engineers and was constantly at odds with them over what I needed from them concerning expenses, arriving at percent complete on projects and various other interactions. I thought they were just difficult because my impression was that they assumed either someone else should provide or they had provided everything I ‘should’ need, and I couldn’t imagine having to work with engineers regularly.
Fast forward a couple of companies to when I was a product manager, and my work life was all about working with engineers. I had a completely different relationship with them, and my views began to change as I grew to understand more about how they think and like to operate. I was better able to put myself in their shoes and understand how they approached things. While I still think they can be challenging at times (we all can be), I have a different perspective and respect for them and and have since had many great working relationships with engineering teams over the years.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think Appetize stands out not just for what we do technologically but also for the industries we are in. Appetize has traditionally been focused on primarily Sports & Entertainment and Travel & Attractions. The company came about as a mobile app and has evolved into a significant player among a crowded POS field, which is a space that very few can actually play in. Staying focused and not trying to be everything to everyone has been key to our success. Having worked in organizations where understanding what they want to be when they grow up has been a challenge, but that hasn’t been the case here. It is also one of the reasons I decided to accept a position with Appetize. That is not to say we won’t expand our footprint, but if and when we do, I am confident we will be very deliberate about doing so.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As the Product SVP of a company that delivers a modern POS experience, my goal is to ensure that each client who implements our technology delivers a fast, seamless, and simple transaction process for their customers. Consumer demand for a frictionless, omnichannel ordering and payment experience and businesses’ concerns over rising labor costs will continue to drive the trend of automation and self-service and change the role of the cashier as early as this year.
I’m excited to be working on some technologies that will both meet consumer needs and help businesses’ bottom line, including incorporating AI into recommendations/suggestions, and big data analysis to make ordering more frictionless for guests and upselling options for companies to improve operational efficiencies.
Another exciting part of my job could be under the theme “there’s no I in team.” The industry is shifting to being less about individual providers and more about the broader ecosystem that brings a complete solution to the market. My team and I are building out Appetize’s role in that larger partner ecosystem. We integrate our POS solution with applications from best-in-class restaurant and retail to seamlessly bring organizations an omnichannel solution (online, mobile ordering, kiosks, etc.). We solve problems like using loyalty points or discounts so the business can gain insights about their guests and use that to then make more targeted suggestions. It’s all about creating a more unified, holistic experience for our business customers and their consumers.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think we’ve made progress in terms of admitting/identifying that there’s a problem. But the lack of change shows both the sheer magnitude of the issue and that perhaps making an effort to hire more women might be a checkbox for some companies. Regardless, it’s a problem that will clearly take a long time to fix.
It’s not just the gap in existing positions. It’s who is coming in to interview for the next round of tech positions. I just did a series of interviews for two Senior Director positions, and not one of them were women. As I was working with the recruiter on sourcing, we also found very few candidates in the larger pool. Why aren’t more women applying?
I do think it takes a more determined personality to ‘stick it out in tech.’ As a woman, you have to be willing to make yourself stand out to some degree. If you don’t, you will be passed over by your male counterparts. I do see this happening, but it’s just not enough.
Also, it is somewhat of a recurring cycle as many hiring managers, right or wrong, hire people that they can relate to. I have been very fortunate as I have been encouraged and promoted by male colleagues/managers throughout my career, which I believe has helped me. If other women don’t have male colleagues who support and advocate for them, then they may feel intimidated and eventually will look for someplace where they too can better relate to the culture.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
There are a few challenges unique to women in tech. Firstly, as I mentioned before, the promotion of STEM jobs at an earlier age. Even before they get their first job, women are challenged with not being introduced to or encouraged to pursue STEM jobs.
Another challenge is establishing your credibility as a woman. And, in part, that could be very much related to holding your own in a male-dominated company. That also needs to start at a much younger age. For example, are you comfortable getting out on a soccer field with a mixture of boys and girls or on a debate team that has more boys than girls? As women, we have to be willing to put ourselves in those types of situations (I’m sure there are many more potential situations where you can choose not to sit out just because it is all male.) If you don’t, it is unlikely you will do that as an adult.
I didn’t stick something out when I found out mostly all males were involved, and to this day, I kick myself for it. I was in my 20s and wanted to do some basketball refereeing at the high school level. I showed up to the initial meeting for the season and walked into a gym full of about 50 or so men, and I believe I was THE only woman. I stayed for the meeting, but I didn’t go to the clinic that was the next step. I regret that, but I also see how then it can be intimidating for some women to work in male-dominated fields.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
You don’t need to have a technical degree to work in technology/product. I have learned a lot about the technical aspects of software development just by asking questions and working alongside engineering teams. I would argue that often in-depth technical knowledge detracts from understanding a customer’s needs. Being able to put yourself in a customer’s shoes is what is essential when working in product and then being able to translate that into requirements that everyone understands. Some of the best product managers I have had in my teams came from consulting and customer support roles, not engineering roles. That does not mean that product people with technical degrees are not good product managers and for very specialized products for things like security, infrastructure, etc. are likely well served by those with technical degrees. I have always been interested in more business ‘functional’ products and have never felt that I was not able to excel in my role because I didn’t have a technical degree.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Lead from the back of the pack. I believe in trying to raise the profile of my team members within the company. They are the ones working closely with customers and the developers, and when they deliver on a solution, I want to make sure the company knows who did so. While I run the team, that doesn’t mean I am the one to get credit for things that I know groups or individuals had the most significant hand in delivering. I had a manager once that took credit for everything her team did, and no one else in the company even knew who was actually behind those deliverables. I want to see the right people given credit for their accomplishments and, at the same time, feel they are accountable for things good or bad. That is how you get great teams.
- Always do your best, even when no one else is watching. I don’t require many kudos for things I do. I am very self-motivated in seeing what needs to happen and then working to make it so. My easiest example of this is my running — no one is out there with me each day when training for a race and getting out the door for a 20 mile run by yourself when it is raining requires much self-motivation. And the only prize at the end of that is knowing it will help me be more prepared for my race.
- See every challenge as an opportunity. This can be hard to do at times and requires that as the leader of the team — whether I agree or disagree with decisions in the company — my job as a senior leader is to a) voice my thoughts/concerns at the appropriate level of the organization and then b) get my team on board with the final decision. I worked at a company where the leadership team was very green, and many choices felt like they were swinging from the hip. This uncertainty caused a lot of context switching for my team, but each time I tried to find the positive aspects to the decision and rally the team to move forward.
- Find your voice and approach. Everyone has their strengths. Listen to and follow yours. I can’t say I have ever looked to anyone to model. I think I look at what others think/do and decide if some take on that would work or supplement what I am thinking of doing. Examples of such are likely people like Marty Cagen (well-known author in the product management space). While I agree with much of what he says, I think culture plays a big part in how you approach your role at any given company, and so adaptation of principles in different ways is critical.
- Advocate for efficiency, not bureaucracy. I have spent the majority of my career in startups or small company environments and often came into these companies to build a product team and help put some processes in place for product planning and execution. I spent a few years of my career in one large company and found that there were many processes to follow that added little to no value to the goals we were trying to achieve as a team. I always try to ensure that if we are instituting processes, there have to be clear gains from doing so. The process should drive efficiency and aid in predictability, not just be a process for the sake of it.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Allow your teams to challenge you. I will always provide my thoughts and guidance, but I am not always right on how we should solve a customer challenge. This goes back to the notion of fostering open communication and allowing ideas to flow from anywhere. I don’t really see myself as an expert in the team when it comes to our software. They are the ones in the trenches each day, working with customers to solve their challenges and defining the products that will help do so. I see my role as the person to remove barriers so that they can deliver on their projects and to support them so that they can grow in their roles and careers.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I believe that the best way to run a company is to encourage open communication with everyone engaged in a common goal. Environments, where you have to know who you have to go through to get anything done, are counterproductive and only benefits those seeking authority. I have always looked for companies that believe, regardless of your position, if you’re the right person to solve a challenge or drive an initiative, you should be allowed to do so. Both big and small companies can have political cultures, but in my experience, smaller companies tend to foster a more collaborative environment and open dialogue, which in turn results in fewer politics.
I think companies that provide easy access to everyone in the company, from C level to entry-level employees, automatically give a sense of open communication. Anyone at Appetize can walk over to senior leaders and have an open conversation or work to solve any challenges that arise. Fostering accountability at all levels of the company requires open communication.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are likely a couple here. The first would be the GM of my division while at CA Technologies who promoted me to the VP of Product Management after they acquired our company and my manager left. He could have easily given the job to someone more experienced, but he trusted both what I knew and my capacity to learn. The second influence in my career was my manager, my CIO Joe Monteil, while in the payments business. He brought me into the company to build and run the product team. I knew almost nothing about payments, but I knew a lot about running product teams. He trusted me explicitly, and we could disagree about something, but we had a considerable amount of respect for each other and always arrived at the best option for the company. He wasn’t afraid to tell me when he disagreed or thought I needed guidance, but at the end of the day, he had my back no matter what.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My husband and I are active contributors and advocates for animal causes. Someday we hope to spend our retirement fostering dogs and cats, and we will continue our monetary contributions.
You are a person of enormous 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. :-)
I would inspire a focus on technology funding that solves more real-world problems and benefit those in need in the US and around the world, such as clean water, food for everyone, and medical technology. We don’t need 25 ways to watch TV or movies, smart refrigerators/appliances — put those funds into technologies that help diagnose and/or cure medical issues, or how to solve environmental challenges. I love what Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have focused their efforts on and would like to see more of those funding technologies to move towards these types of things.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” This is not something I came up with but knew that it applied to me in my running and training for full and half marathons and have drawn on it to motivate me. I later realized this also applies to my professional life because that is how you learn and grow in any job/position.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I can’t think of only one person that enamors me. There are many leaders or public figures that have qualities and strengths which I admire.