How Product Women Find Success

Key Takeaways & Career Advice from Women in Product

From left to right: Modupe Akinnawonu, Sophia Somin Yoo, Soumya Shukla, Erin Essex, and Randi Eichenbaum.

Product careers can have varying roadmaps. Some have engineering or science backgrounds like myself, while others may be experienced in marketing, journalism, and even history. It's unlikely for anyone to become an expert in all the knowledge required to be a successful product person.

That’s why no two paths to success in product careers look alike.

American mass media company Condé Nast in New York City hosted a special event which included a discussion about the many roads to becoming a product management professional. The panel included five people that hail from startups, midsize and large companies.

These five people are:

Erin Essex, Strategy Specialist and Creative Director at Webonise (now at Shutterstock)

Modupe Akinnawonu, Mobile Product Manager at The New York Times (now at Stanford University Graduate School of Business)

Randi Eichenbaum, Director of Product at Condé Nast (now at Tradesy)

Soumya Shukla, Director of New Business at Voyager Labs (now at Adeptmind)

Sophia Somin Yoo, Associate Product Manager at Architizer (now at Segment)

They came together to share their career experiences, what they do today to stay relevant, and how they strive to keep their career moving in an upward trajectory. Below are the key takeaways from this conversation.

Key Takeaways

Customers have a different perspective on your product. Modupe believes that a truly useful product is one which informs its users, and feedback really matters as she enjoys understanding whether or not their products are useful. “Customers have a very different perspective on your product, so it can be very interesting to hear what they have to say. Often, they will discover things about your product that you and your team didn’t even know about.”

Open collaboration can be inspiring. Erin emphasized on something she is indeed passionate about — open collaboration with her team. “There is this bliss I feel knowing the fact that we can go into a meeting with conflicting ideas, and leave the meeting having come to a great compromise or perhaps an entirely new idea which we all agree on,” She said. “It’s not about your successes, but it’s about what you’re willing to struggle for.”

A journalism background makes for great empathy and research skills. As a Director of Product, with a background in journalism, Randi stressed the fact that information gathering is a crucial part of product management, and journalism really helped her to perfect that skill. “At Condé Nast, our most important stakeholders after our users is our editorial partners. That’s why it’s important to maintain relationships with everyone, be it engineering, design, and, most importantly, editorial.”

“Customers have a very different perspective on your product, so it can be very interesting to hear what they have to say. Often, they will discover things about your product that you and your team didn’t even know about.”
— Modupe Akinnawonu

Make use of hard facts. Soumya shared that she learned on-the-job a technique that works well when working with stakeholders — making use of hard facts. “Stakeholder management can be difficult, and it gets even trickier in a start-up. Teams at startups treat products like their ‘newborn child’ so you must tread gently when talking to them as they can become easily offended once they suspect that you are trying to criticize their ideas.” She persuaded her team to run a demo for a potential customer, and when confronted with hard facts, she and her team concluded together that the results were not satisfactory. Taking notes from this experiment, her team then worked together to improve the product.

Ask a lot of questions. At Architizer, Sophia admits that it was a very humbling experience when she became a product manager. “I asked a lot of questions, and still do,” she admits. She also feels that one should have the motivation to learn new things. The second, is to have a great team with members who are ready to help you and answer any question you might have.

Continuously research the latest technology. A big part of Erin’s day as she explained is spent on conducting research on the latest technology. She believes that it prepares you for the possibility of anything coming up during a meeting with a client, stakeholder, or your team. She points out, “When you know the latest developments in your field, you will be able to fully discuss anything that comes up during such meetings.”

Keep up with innovative companies. Randi does her best to keep up with media and technology news. She explained that while it’s very important to pay attention to your direct competitors and make sure that you are up to date, it’s also important to keep up with other companies that are doing innovative things, regardless if they are competing with you or not. “One can use the inspiration gained from other industries to enhance your own products.”

Confidence is Key

“Do you have any challenges facing you as a female product manager?” a member of the audience asks the panel. Some of them shared their thoughts and feelings on the matter:

Build your confidence. Modupe believes that women tend to be too humble. “If you believe you’ve done something wonderful, then make sure that thing is celebrated. This way, people will recognize your work, and it will have a lasting effect.” She said. “Being confident and standing by your statements can go a long way.”

Speak with confidence. Soumya agreed and echoed her sentiment. “Speaking louder and with confidence, and being more outgoing can help ensure stakeholders take you more seriously.”

“Speaking louder and with confidence, and being more outgoing can help ensure stakeholders take you more seriously.”
— Soumya Shukla

Final Words of Wisdom and Advice

When we concluded, I asked one final question, “If you could speak to your younger self at the start of your career, what advice would you give?”

Know your craft. Randi stressed the importance of knowing what you’re talking about, especially as a woman in a predominantly male field. However, if you need help getting places and building your confidence, it is important that you have mentors.

Ask for help more. Sophia reminisced how she was very independent, often taking on too much by herself. Sophia now believes that there is no such thing as ‘communicating too much’. “If you think you’re being annoying, know that it’s better to be annoying than to under-communicate.”

Study Computer Science. Modupe said she would tell herself to go and learn computer science in school. She believes that because she works in a technology-based environment; it would have made her daily work life much easier.

Follow your passion. Soumya admits that she would tell herself to avoid following trends and stop doing everything that was considered “cool.” Rather, she would tell herself to devote more time to the things she was truly passionate about. She also said she wishes she had entered the tech world sooner.

Experiment and embrace failure. At the start of her career, Erin admits that she would have told herself to ignore her fears, try new things, and embrace failure. “I would have also said that it’s okay to switch goals as you’re trying to figure out where you want to go in your career. Never stop learning.”

A huge thanks goes out to our wonderful panel for a great conversation. Also — special thanks to Charl Porter, Audrey Jensen, Andrew Klubertanz, Andrew Avrin, Cindy Tong, Preety Bhardwaj, Chul Kwon, and the marvelous people at Condé Nast for their contributions to this event.