Natalie Mitchell On Building Trust Across Timezones
As a senior product manager in Mavenlink’s growing Salt Lake City offices, Natalie has gotten creative finding ways to stay connected to collaborators in San Francisco and Canada. Let’s just say, GIFs help.
Tell us about what brought you to Mavenlink.
When Mavenlink contacted me, I was working at a startup that builds software for schoolteachers, which is also based in Salt Lake. I was immediately attracted to Mavenlink’s culture and how interested the team was in my career growth. Every conversation I had with them centered around my plans and goals.
I told them that, having been a product manager for six years, I was ready to expand my skillset. The leaders at Mavenlink gave me the option of growing in either of two directions I hadn’t previously considered. As a director, I could focus on coaching and mentoring a product team, or, as a lead product manager, I’d oversee a suite of related products.
Shortly after I started work at Mavenlink, my coach helped me discover I was more drawn to mentorship. Once I was clear I wanted to move in that direction, my coach provided all the support I needed to move into that role. I’m currently in the final stages of hiring my first direct report.
What are you working on at the moment?
One of the areas I’ve been interested in is working with our support teams to build out our Help Center and making sure it’s sustainable in the long term. This will help improve customers’ experience by giving them a self-service option in addition to contacting the support team. In order to make the Help Center successful, I suggested adding a technical writer, who will sit in the product team and report to me. That’s the direct report we are in the process of hiring.
I’m also still an active product manager. The first development team I worked with was based in San Francisco. Now I’m working with a team in Salt Lake building our asset proofing solution, as well as a team anchored by a colleague in Canada, which focuses on ongoing tech enhancements and fixes.
Having a personal relationship with your team is essential to success.
It sounds like you’re working a lot with teams in other locations. Does that present challenges?
Totally. Having a personal relationship with your team is essential to success, and that can be difficult to maintain when you work in separate locations. There are so many things you take for granted when you work on site, like turning around in your chair to get a coworker’s help, or just to talk. Even though a lot of our processes are highly collaborative — pair programming, extreme programming, QA testing and writing stories — I found I needed to do a little extra work to develop the necessary trust between a development team and a product manager.
At first, I found myself reaching out to the team only when it was absolutely necessary. That was the first thing I had to change. I started by just goofing off, posting GIFs in the team Slack channel to show I have a sense of humor that might not come out in work interactions. The impact that had on my relationships was almost overnight. When an engineer had questions, they’d started to hear from me on a more regular basis and were more likely to come to me with questions, rather than going to their previous product manager, who is on site.
I also started having video meetings so we could look each other in the eye. Now, when a question comes up on Slack that requires more than a simple answer, I turn it into a more significant interaction. Face-to face conversations, even virtual ones, go a long way toward building trust.
One final challenge: we rotate development team members every couple of months to avoid knowledge siloing. Each time we make that transition, I have to make an effort to get to know each new team by practicing the methods I developed with the first.
I appreciate that my team leaders really encouraged me to take ownership of my collaboration process and to share any solutions.
Is this level of remote collaboration unique to the Salt Lake City office?
Working with remote teams is not new to Mavenlink. We’ve always had business and sales in Southern California and engineering in Northern California. But the Salt Lake City team has created the first situation where engineers in different locations are working on the same product, and product managers or QA are not always co-located. I appreciate that my team leaders really encouraged me to take ownership of my collaboration process and to share any solutions. So I’ve tried to be diligent about documenting what I’ve learned so it can help improve the way all remote teams work together.
Mavenlink’s engineers pair program most of the time. Does that have an impact your work?
I initially assumed pairing wouldn’t affect me much. As a product manager, I try to stay out of the code base because part of my job is focusing on the user’s experience rather than how elegantly the code is written. Despite that, the effect of pairing was immediately apparent. In almost an entire year, I’ve had to be involved with only one critical bug that needed an immediate fix. Everywhere else I’ve worked, we had those regularly. It’s hard to deny that two people working together to write code improves quality.
The pairing process has also started bleeding into my own activities. I generally prefer to write alone and then get feedback, but I’m more likely to write stories in a pair now. I’ve seen first-hand how it improves product development by helping me see holes in the process earlier.
As much as I believe in the benefits of pairing, it also presents challenges. I consider myself fairly introverted, so pairing frequently can be exhausting. I’ve learned to balance that intense interaction time with alone time at lunch or by taking more breaks. It’s helped me understand my own introversion better, and I can manage it more effectively now.
I’ve seen first-hand how pairing improves product development by helping me see holes in the process earlier.
How is Mavenlink different from other places you’ve worked?
Mavenlink is the only company I’ve worked for that truly practices what they preach. I’ve always worked with some version of agile, but I’d call it “agile lite.” That’s not the case at Mavenlink — we actually do extreme programming. I love that the company is committed to that methodology. We’re dedicated to sticking with tested processes, because we know it’s better for the company. We understand some of the trade-offs might be challenging in the moment but will pay off in big ways down the road.
This also means we’ve passed on intelligent, talented developers who would rather put on headphones and write code alone. That’s not to say they’re not good or they wouldn’t be valuable, but it’s not how we work. That’s one thing we’re not willing to compromise on.
What are you most excited about in your work at Mavenlink right now?
I’m excited about the impact our development will have on Mavenlink’s ongoing success. In the project management world, the unsolvable problem has been resource planning — how do you ensure all of the projects you’re committed to are fully staffed? And staffed with the right people? On top of that, you have to solve for varying project deadlines, hiring plans, and resource allocation.
Our product and business development teams have spent a lot of time researching this problem. We’ve been talking to our customers about what does and doesn’t work, and we’re setting ourselves up to solve the problem more effectively than anyone else has before. Nothing is going to happen overnight, but I feel like we’re attacking the problem from a new perspective that the market will find valuable.
Why is now a good time to join Mavenlink?
The Salt Lake City office is in a unique position. I was hire number five at this location, and I’ve had opportunities to lead that I wouldn’t have at almost any other company this age and size. Our office is poised to give those same opportunities to new hires. Of course, Mavenlink is still a startup, and there is still some risk, but we’re well-established, and I believe we’ll be successful — internally and in the marketplace.
Interested in joining the team?
Check out Mavenlink’s Product Development openings at https://www.mavenlink.com/careers.
This story was created in conjunction with Job Portraits, a San Francisco based employer brand agency that helps startups hire at scale.