Coffee with Anna Marie Clifton
Welcome to the next post in my “Coffee with” series, where I meet fellow women in product, learn about their story, thoughts on product management, and current challenges over coffee.
How did you get into product management?
I got into product management really intentionally. I was in New York, managing an art gallery — a dream job by any standards. But I found the art market couldn’t really support my desire to learn, it’s driven by whom you know, not what you know. I was really attracted to the idea of working in an industry that was about what you know and what you can do.
I was connected to Ellen Chisa — she told me about product management and I was like “oh yeah, that sounds interesting!” Definitely a career that would supply intellectual challenges for years to come.
At first, I was applying for roles in tech, not necessarily in product management. I couldn’t find anything in New York that people would interview me for. They would see my resume and the gallery and assume that I “did art” but I didn’t “do art”, I did shipping and logistics, staffing and organization — completely disassociated from the art itself.
Being told no, you learn to disassociate the rejection from your ego which allows you to move forward, even after you’ve failed.
It was really difficult to get interviews, so I thought the best way to get into tech would be to start my own startup. I started a company called UpNext Adventures and quickly found out that I knew absolutely nothing about startups or tech. It was a total flop, I had no competitive advantage, and everyone thought I was insane. I probably was, but I didn’t know that I needed to know those things until I started the company. I realize now that I started UpNext Adventures in the interest of figuring out what I need to learn in order to start a company.
Fast forward 18 months, and I had a few other steps of smaller startups along the way, then I sent a cold email to Jackie Bavaro at Asana. I sent her a thoughtful note with my resume. She emailed me back the same day, we grabbed coffee, and that turned into my internship at Asana.
I firmly believe that people who are successful are not, on average, more successful than they fail, they just try more things because they’re not afraid of those failures.
How did you discover the techniques you used to negotiate your salary at Yammer, and how do you use them today?
- Being comfortable in silence
I learned about being comfortable in silence from my coach — a close friend I speak with weekly. He encouraged me, at any time possible, to try and not say anything.
- Wringing out excess energy
I did a lot of theater growing up; when you’re preparing to go on stage, one of the exercises you do is wring out your excess energy. Emotion exists in your body physically so the more that you can take control of your body, the more you can control your emotions. If you can release that energy in some way — jumping around, making grand gestures — it won’t be tensed up inside you and cause your voice to do strange things or your words to spill out in a strange way.
- Taking up time and space
I attended a full-day event on how to take control over your “presence” in the workplace. One of the big takeaways from that was that “powerful people take up time and space” — it’s a very strange concept but the slower you speak, the shorter your sentences, and the more time you give people to think about your words, the more powerful you’ll be or at least be perceived as being.
How do you maintain a positive, resilient mindset?
- Counting positive thoughts
When things are really grim, I count my positive thoughts using this clicker (left). I’ll have it in my pocket and whenever I have a positive thought, such as “It’s nice outside”, “I love this coffee”, or “I’m doing well today”, I click it. I’ve found that no matter how rough the day or week (or month!) — I can now get out of a negative rut within 30 seconds. Focusing on the positive is a virtuous cycle, and the clicker is a physical reminder to do so.
- Building an internal reality
We experience dramatic psychological effects when we have good thoughts. I realized at a young age that those thoughts don’t have to be about real things. I practice filling out a fantasy world — starting from this moment, I’ll fill out a whole narrative, which usually ends with me on the Daily Show talking about my successes. Whenever I go for a run, or am killing time in a long line, my mind will inadvertently slip into building one of these narratives. Make believe success gives you tons of physiological benefits and even helps you see that no matter where you’re at right now, you can achieve great things.
- Being goofy in public
I’ll purposefully be goofy in public, like walking into an elevator and standing facing the back (this makes people so uncomfortable!), or dancing like wild on the sidewalk. There’s so much pressure to conform to cultural norms; I like to step outside of that every now and then to remind myself that there’s so much more life than we usually live. I learned this in drama class as well — it does wonders for your creativity!
When you build an internal reality of being successful, you get the psychological benefits as if you are.
What do you consider the traits of a great PM?
- Curiosity — product curiosity, specifically
Be curious about the world, how it works, the models that we have, and how your models match the world. Expand your curiosity with products, download the latest apps and think about how they’re working — what are the navigation patterns here, why? What product opinion does this change indicate, why?
- The ability to see outside yourself
People talk about this as “empathy” but I think that term is too loaded now to carry much specific meaning. To some empathy means being kind or caring, giving hugs or saying ‘I’m sorry for that.’ What I’m talking about is very specific and has nothing to do with ‘being nice.’ PM’s have to fully see outside themselves. They have to understand that other people have valid & unique mindsets born from their equally valid & unique experiences. This skill allows PM’s to build for people who are not like them, an incredibly difficult thing to do if you can’t see from outside yourself. It also helps you get things done within the org, where you’re working with people across the company that have different incentives and don’t report to you.
- Structured thinking
The ability to look at an interface and see paradigms, not pixels. The inclination to build decision-making frameworks based on patterns you observe. The desire to make sense of things. When you can start seeing the world this way, you can move faster with your paradigms as shortcuts, you can communicate effectively with your engineers (who almost always think this way), and you can build better products upon these deeper realities.
What books do you recommend to PM’s?
- Decisive — on how to make better decisions
- Inspired — on how to make products
- The Inmates Are Running the Asylum — on understanding that we’re designing a world for users that aren’t like us
- Creative Confidence — on how to achieve more confidence in your creative abilities
- Cracking the PM Interview — on understanding how to do well in an interview and what it means to be a PM
A challenge for this week
I left coffee with Anna Marie excited to practice her techniques — particularly counting my positive thoughts, taking up time and space, and (because it’s scary!) being goofy in public.
Thanks for grabbing coffee, Anna Marie :)
Hungry for more? Find more “Coffee with” interviews here.