Future Leaders: Aislinn McGurk, Senior Product Manager
‘Future Leaders’ is a series of blog posts by the Financial Times in which we interview our team members and ask them how they got into technology, what they are working on and what they want to do in the future. Everyone has a different perspective, story and experience to share. This series will feature colleagues working in our Product & Technology teams. You can also connect with us on Twitter at @lifeatFT.
Hi Aislinn, what is your current role at the FT and what do you spend most of your time doing at work?
My current role is Senior Product Manager in the Customer Products team. My team focus on subscriptions and anything related to a user going from an anonymous reader to a subscriber onsite, as well as retaining subscribers and enabling users to manage their subscriptions. It’s the whole customer lifecycle from anonymous to converting to retaining across our individual and B2B business.
Pretty much every day starts with a cup of coffee… actually I start the day by checking my emails and slack to make sure there is nothing urgent and give myself some time to think about the day ahead. It makes my journey in less stressful as I feel I have already got a kick start on the day, which is a plus and drawback of having access to work 24/7, however I have made a conscious effort to not check work in the evenings. We have a daily stand-up at 10.15am, we’ll review our work and see what was done yesterday and what needs to be done today, agree the priority and also discuss at anything new that’s come in.
My day can be quite varied, I’m a Product Manager and I say that means I can ‘do nothing’, so I’m completely reliant on all the specialists within my team and the teams that we work with. Generally my role is looking at the future, a few months ahead as well as the day to day. I could also be working with our UX and Product Designers to look at the current work that’s in play to discuss, review and feedback or working with developers to get some information for projects that are on the horizon. A lot of what I do is connecting the dots between people and who they should be talking to so it’s a case of “yeah, that’s good but you need to check with these people on this team”, to make sure we’re covering our bases, I try to make sure everyone is moving beyond their individual area.
That is a snippet of what I do in terms of the team but a lot of what a product manager does is about communication so I could be having conversations with our Customer Care team about something we’re releasing and making sure they have the right training materials but I could also talk to board members about strategic plans and how we can better prioritise the work and explain what we’re currently working on, as well as what we’re planning on working on.
Wow, that’s a busy role! How did you get into the technology industry?
I started my career in marketing, and in one of my first jobs at ODEON cinemas there was a very clear definition between the Brand team and the Digital team. The Brand team were a bit more glamourous, they got to go to bigger meetings, big events and premiere’s, and were planning big campaigns. Then the digital team was a little more… scrappy, less glamorous and it seemed, a less interesting place to be. But I got the best career advice at that time from a digital marketing manager, she said, “You have to be on the digital side, that’s where the future is” I think it took someone saying it to me for me to realise, ‘Oh yeah, that makes total sense!’.
I took an opportunity to move from the Brand team to the Digital team, when the role of social media manager opened up which gave a really good background introduction into the digital space. I then moved to the FT as a CRM Manager and a lot of what I did in CRM was actually really technology based, you’re working with HTML emails, you’re segmenting and using data.
I was involved in a project working closely with the product manager and engineering teams who were rebuilding our email platform, so I got to work and understand what they did when it came to building actual products. I really enjoyed that project and I hadn’t really started thinking about moving over to the technology team until someone showed me the job description of the current job I’m in at the moment and everything on the job spec chimed with me and I was like, ‘I would love to do that!’. Luckily the hiring manager, Pooja, took a chance on someone with a non-product background and the rest is history.
Did being at the FT influence you to go into product or was it a mixture of your experiences that led to you taking on a more digital focussed, tech role?
I think the best thing about working at the FT is that if you want to take on a new opportunity and you put the work in, there’s really no obstacles of what you can do or change.
Before I moved to FT Technology, Next (the newest version of FT.com) was being built and it felt like there was such a buzz in the Product & Technology team. I had experience within the FT of doing a secondments in another team, I had spent 6 months working on the FT Editorial Audience Engagement team, I was aware of the fact that moving around was a possibility and luckily the role that came up was very much aligned to the skills I already had.
It was a mixture of wanting to work in FT Tech but also thinking, again it’s like the same progression of moving from offline to digital marketing to product management, it’s the ever-evolving ‘go where the future is’.
What is the project you’ve worked on at the FT that you are most proud of?
The current projects I’m working on at the moment are the ones I’m most proud of.
A data science project where we’re productionising data science models to look at how can better acquire subscribers and offer people the right package at the right time, rather than showing them all the options. It’s an interesting project that’s at the very beginning stages.
The other project we’re working on is to better allow our customers to self-serve their subscriptions, so adding the ability to transition to different products online so they don’t have to call Customer Care and the ability to cancel their subscription online which we don’t offer and it’s our number one most complained about issue across Customer Care. It’s very nuanced and complicated to present all the information to the user on the front end so it’s a tricky project, it’s also very big and multi-faceted but as it’s addressing a massive customer pain point it’s really important and motivating.
The other project I’m most proud of from the FT is establishing the Mental Health network. At the FT we have various employee networks and about a year and a half ago we established a fifth employee network with a focus on supporting and establishing more awareness, communication and support for mental health issues across the business.
What made you want to start the Mental Health network?
I was very much unaware of experiencing any mental ill health, I always thought it affected other people not until I had experience with anxiety and stress that I understood that it’s such an easy thing for any of us to experience. I was trained as a mental health first aider through the FT and after we had mental health awareness week it was clear we needed to establish more support and visibility throughout the year and not just for one week or one day. I became very aware that we didn’t have that kind of support network and a few of us got together and decided to establish something more permanent and I was nominated to be the lead of that group. It’s been a really inspiring, motivating element of my work life at the FT and as part of the work of the network I posted a blog post about my experiences, the reaction and feedback I get when I talk about the importance and help you can get to better deal with your mental health shows how important it is to continue to break the stigma.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in recent years?
As product managers we’re told that it’s ok to fail, however sometimes it doesn’t feel like that’s the case. There’s a quote that, ‘if a team fails it’s the product manager’s fault but if the team succeeds it’s the entire team’s effort’, it can feel like that sometimes! But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it is ok to fail — that is when you learn the most.
It is just as important to make sure you’re communicating what you’re doing with your manager, wider team and throughout the business but understand if a project doesn’t go as smoothly, it’s not all on you, we’re all working towards the same goal.
You’ve had a range of roles whilst you’ve been at the FT and moved from marketing to social media to CRM to product. What would you like to do in the future?
When I was in university there was no Facebook. Six years ago mobile wasn’t as important as it is now. I do not know what’s in the future and I’ve no idea what type of roles will exist and will become relevant. Social media managers didn’t exist when I was at university, how would you know that that’s something you’d want to do?
So I tend not to focus on the specifics of what I want to do, I just know I want to keep changing and adapting because if you’re scared of change and you want to keep things the way they are then you’re bound to be unhappy and the times will move on without you. I want to continue to take every opportunity that presents itself and I personally find that the more that I adapt, learn and take on new challenges, the happier I am and more fulfilled I am in my career.