5 Questions with Natalia Burina (Director of Product Management at Salesforce)

See how Natalia Burina, Director of Product Management at Salesforce, answered our questions about her career as a PM. Natalia will be speaking on the Lightning Talks panel at the September Women in Product conference.



What was your journey to getting into product management?

I grew up in a Seattle suburb as a first generation immigrant. My family relocated from the Balkans when my mother, a mathematician by training, landed a job in technology. Engineering inadvertently saved us from a war back home which left a profound impression on the significance of engineering skills.

As a student I was very nerdy and disciplined. I studied mathematics and computer science and loved it. At the university I didn’t do much beyond keeping my nose in the books. I wanted to make my parents proud. I strived for a future that was interesting and involved working with smart people. As a student I dreamed of a job in either academia or as a software engineer at Microsoft. I was not aware of product management as a potential career.

The early years of my career were bumpy. I interviewed poorly and I would get nervous during interviews. I dealt with a lot of rejection. While exploring roles at Microsoft I learned about PM. I came across an exciting PM role on the Bing team, applied, and I was surprised when I got the job.

At Microsoft I received world class PM training and was influenced by Steven Sinofsky's writing on the role. The best part was being able to walk down the hall and talk to leading experts on various computer science topics like machine learning.


What is your greatest achievement to date? Why is it meaningful to you?

My greatest achievement to date is co-founding Parable, a creative photo network that was sold to Samsung last year. Building Parable was an incredible adventure. A short time after we launched, Apple featured Parable on the App Store. It meant a lot to us that they liked our design. Parable also garnered acquisition interest from Facebook and Pinterest. At one point we had so much traffic that we reached capacity with our email servers. The greatest reward was seeing endearing and creative posts from our users. Many loved it because it was an opportunity to interact with people from all corners of the globe through their creative posts.


What has been your biggest challenge working in product management?

Influencing without authority is always a tough challenge as a Product Manager especially in large companies. Since you don’t directly manage the engineering team, you cannot tell engineers what to do. Instead, you have to champion why your idea is worth building while motivating and rallying people around a mission that excites them.

As an entrepreneur, I also found it challenging to convince people outside our startup and had to quickly cultivate the art of persuasion. It’s not enough to build a beautiful product. Customers, partners, employees, journalists and investors all have to be convinced. I realized that it’s crucial to tell a compelling story that resonates.


Who has been your biggest ally during your career? Why?

It’s difficult to name one person! I have been fortunate to learn from many wonderful people throughout the years. Each has been helpful in a different way and possesses a unique set of skills.

When co-founding Parable, we were honored to have Steven Sinofsky as our advisor. Steven is a brilliant technologist who sees both the big picture and understands the finer details at the same time. I’m grateful for Steven’s support and input.

At eBay I was lucky to work with Hugh Williams. Hugh is a data science expert, top notch manager and happens to have a great sense of humor. Hugh helped me understand how to build data driven consumer products on a massive scale.

I learned invaluable product management lessons from Sanaz Ahari Lemelson in my first PM job. Sanaz excels in building new products from concept to launch. She is also one of the best people managers I’ve worked with because she’s highly perceptive.

Finally, I’m grateful to Ewa Dominowska for always lending a friendly ear at Microsoft. Ewa is rare breed, being both a brilliant engineer and product person. Ewa taught me how to handle tricky situations at work by methodically thinking through all the relevant details.


What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were starting your product career?

There are a few pieces of advice I would give to someone starting out.

  • Be entrepreneurial by creating your own career opportunities. Identify where you add the most value; this will usually be an area that you’re passionate about.
  • Rejection and failure are a normal part of the growth process. Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t brood for too long. Everyone experiences setbacks. Learn and move on. Whenever you start something new, you will undoubtedly be bad at it at first. It’s important to persist through those difficult initial phases. The only way to become great is a lot of work and practice.
  • Surround yourself with smart people. Take initiative and be creative about solving problems to earn their respect.
  • Maintain calm at all times. Most of the time, building software is not a life and death endeavor. There will be friction between people. It’s important that the friction is of the healthy kind. A great PM will smooth out the kinks between different parties and help to create a great work environment. Foster relationships by reaching out to people. Most importantly, learn to be comfortable with ambiguity.

Originally published in WomenInProduct on Aug 19, 2016.