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The Dirt: Diversifying the Boston tech sector with Boston Women in Product


BWP header image

There’s reason for optimism when it comes to diversity in product roles – specifically, the percentage of women product managers has grown year-over-year. Though they are still a  minority in product, particularly when it comes to leadership roles. This means fewer women influencing product development or business strategy, which isn’t just harmful to women; it’s bad for business. Studies show that companies with different points of view, market insights and approaches to problem solving have higher sales, more customers and larger market share than their less-diverse rivals.

Enter Boston Women in Product (BWP). Founded in 2015, BWP is a community that empowers women to be influencers in their role, inspiring them to make a difference and grow in their career. Their mission is to inspire, equip and help advance women in product by encouraging career leadership, development, support, mentoring, and building relationships with like-minded women.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with three key members of this group to talk about what Boston Women in Product is doing to support women in product leadership roles.

Vanessa Ferranto, Director of Product Management at The Grommet, and Cait Porte, SVP, Product & Customer Experience at Zmags are founding members of the community. Also joining me was Emera Trujilo, Senior Product Manager at MediaMath and one of the organizers at BWP.

We covered a variety of topics related to role models, mentorship, and networking opportunities for women, including:

  • The current state of women in product leadership and whether the challenges women face are unique.
  • How, when, and why Boston Women in Product was founded, and their plans for 2018.
  • The characteristics and skills that make rock star product leaders, and which tend to be present for women perhaps more naturally than in men.

If you enjoy this podcast, you might also like to hear what Smarter in the City is doing to improve diversity in tech.

Listen to the show

Show notes


Heath: I’m here with Vanessa Ferranto, Cait Porte and Emera Trujillo, three of the founders/organizers of Boston Women in Product. Welcome.

Cait: Thank you.

Vanessa: Thank you.

Cait: Thank you for having us.

Heath: So, as I mentioned, all three of you have been part of our Product Hero series based on your roles as product leaders, all happen to be here locally, though not all are, but I want to just briefly have each of you talk a little bit about your background, what your role is today in products.

Cait: Okay, I’ll jump right in.

So, I’m Cait. I am currently in an SVP role, looking at product and customer experience across our product, so the second a customer signs the deal, I own everything that sort of happens. My team works on that. But my background: I grew up in product roles at larger organizations, really thinking about large amounts of data and how to get that to customers and transitioned over to smaller companies because, for a product role, I wanted to have more of an impact and so that was really good for me because I had gotten the process down for larger organizations and then was able to transition that into smaller businesses.

And so, I’ve had to opportunity to work in three different small organizations, taking their product teams and kind of growing them up, putting a little bit of process in place, making sure that we’re focused on the right things and now I have this opportunity to expand my role to think, not just about the product, the product management component of the role, the user experience component of the role, but also this component of thinking about the whole user experience, from emails hat they’re receiving to our support portal and really thinking about everything in between and how our customers can access everything. So, It’s been an interesting career, for sure.

Heath: I forgot to ask, sorry, if you’d tell me what’s the current biggest challenge that you’re dealing with right now?

Cait: Sure. The biggest challenge that I’m dealing with right now is that we are in the process of migrating our development to Boston from Copenhagen, and with that comes a lot of opportunity and we’re at a really pivotal moment in our company where we’ve had a product that’s 10 years old that’s been doing really well and, sort of, there was a shift in the market and we, two and a half years ago, launched a new product in the market and that’s starting to take over some of our revenue and so we’re at this pivotal place where this new product really needs to grow up because we validated that it’s worth it in the market and now we have to have that product grow up so that the product that’s ten years old can kind of be sunset or depleted from our organization and from a product perspective, love my CEO but he gets really distracted by bright, shiny things. I’m sure we’re all familiar with that.

Heath: Unlike all other CEOs.

Cait: Right. And so, it’s really critical and I use the term with my team of Ruthless prioritization. We really have to think about, Are we working on the right things? It’s so easy for customers to come to you with all kinds of really great ideas but they can’t predict the future and, given that we’re at this pivotal moment in the company history, we really have to be focused on the right things. So, nothing too different, I think, than most of us, but given that we’re moving development, we’re at this pivotal point, we have to make sure that we’re really focused.

Heath: It’s funny because, in a sense, your current challenge is replacing one of your previous challenges when we last spoke, which is having a team in two places, right?

Cait: Right.

Heath: I think you were fairly new at the time-

Cait: Yes.

Heath: … and you were trying to establish relationships with, learn your development team, who happened to be over in Copenhagen, so-

Cait: Yes.

Heath: … solve one problem, push on the swishy balloon, create another problem. Alright. Vanessa?

Vanessa: Hi, my name is Vanessa and currently I am heading product and design at The Grommet, which is an e-commerce company. E-commerce is definitely new for me, compared to the other companies and industries that I’ve been at. My background has ranged between small, start-up organizations. I first got into product management in financial services. It was a 30 person company, predominantly located in Boston but also an office in Toronto. From there, I had moved into digital media, which is actually where I met Emera, at one of my organizations,, so it’s and WGBH. From there, I went back into start-up and spent some time in the mobile point-of-sale space, which was really exciting, really interesting and then, also, from there, had a variety of different experiences in start-up, with acquisitions and closing doors, which is always a fun experience before going into Zipcar, which was the company and the role I was in prior to my current organization.

Really, what I’m doing right now is overseeing the design and the product team, design being the visual designers or creative service designers who are supporting the business from a marketing need as well as the UX and UI designers, who are helping, which kind of leads into our biggest challenge here, helping to really re-establish, what is the experience for this new platform initiative that we’re embarking on. So, it’s been a lot of fun in that regard, having that design team under me as well as product, so I have one product manager and soon to be two, which I’m incredibly excited about, given that we have this platform initiative happening.

And the biggest challenge that we’re dealing with right now is the management of priority, so this idea of being ruthless and making ruthless decisions is the biggest, biggest challenge because not having someone necessarily asking for the shiny object syndrome necessarily but we’ve got a platform that isn’t really serving the needs of the business in the way that we need them to, which is why, or one of the primary reasons we have to move to this new platform and really build it from the ground up but we also have to support the business in the near term. So, you’ve got this situation of trying to progress with a small team. We’re a 85-person company and the product and engineering team is only … I think we equate to about 15 people within that. So, it’s a really small team trying to build this whole thing for a consumer business, a B2B side of the business as well as our maker portal, which is something we call the suppliers the center, these vendors who we source all these products from and all the other internal admin tools as well.

There’s just a lot to do and it’s challenging because the business wants us to prioritize these near-term initiatives but that’s going to have an impact from a capacity perspective on making this progress forward for this new platform initiative so, it’s an uncomfortable situation to be in. You down want to drag yourself down in the near-term and it’s really difficult sometimes to get everyone aligned on seeing the bigger picture and understanding that near-term trade-off. So, that’s really what I’ve been trying to do, is build that justification, put that information in front of them. I think data is key when you’re trying to produce a plan and say, By making these decisions, this what you’re asking us to trade-off and this is what it means in the long-term, are we willing to do that?

So, it’s been fun but it’s been incredibly challenging in trying to move that forward.

Heath: Okay.

Emera: I’m Emera. I’m a senior product manager at a company called MediaMath. Our main office is based in New York but we have an office here in Cambridge as well and, since we’ve talked just a few weeks ago-

Heath: Now you’re much more tenured.

Emera: So much more tenured. Double the time now that I’ve been there. To give a little background on me, so I’ve almost always worked in the media space in some capacity and in product in particular, I’ve always sort of worked on an advertising product of some sort so I’ve always been in that B2B space, even if I’ve worked at a company that has a B2C arm and I guess I found my niche there and at MediaMath, we have an advertising platform. We’re trying to connect marketers with their customers, with their prospects in sort of a data-driven, intelligent way and that data-driven piece is really what I focus in, although, using signs for advertising is not foreign either. Most of our Cambridge office focuses on something that’s called our data-management platform, we help marketers sort of manage their data access, which is typically about us, as people who are interested in buying things, for instance on The Grommet.

I think, in terms of a challenge, for me at the moment, it’s interesting what Cait mentioned about sort of having a product that you realize needs to grow up a little bit and also touching on what Vanessa said about kind of re-platforming, I think we’re at that point, we’ve sort of arrived at that point as I’ve gotten up to speed in the role and with the company and learning sort of the history of the product, certainly seems that that’s the next step. I’d say challenge-wise, it’s that, while I have a bit of a vision, it still feels a little cloudy to me, like I need a little bit clearer resolution so that I can really sell it through the rest of the organization. So, that’s sort of my number one focus at the moment and challenge in a way, is to say, I don’t have a lot of history at this organization, but it’s very clear to me that where we need to go, we can’t get there unless we make this decision to sort of re-platform so to speak and help the product really grow up.

Heath: Cool, okay. So, Vanessa, you and Emera, you met at Cait, did you meet through Boston Women in Product? Or did the two of you know each other already? How did that happen?

Cait: So Vanessa and I had … It was interesting, I was trying to think about this because when you meet people there’s a pivotal point in time and it’s important but you don’t necessarily ever think about it again. But, so, Vanessa had known each other through just the community in general and the first time we met was actually when Sarah, who’s the other co-founder, who’s not here today, brought all of us in and said, Hey, what do you think about this idea? And it was the more formal meeting of all of us but I think we clicked right away and then obviously introduced through Emera through Vanessa.

Heath: I was searching around for some stats. I’m gonna get your reaction to it and see if you can validate it or update it. So, the best thing I could find in my 30 minutes of googling was a report I like … at least I liked the title, ‘Solving for XX.’ It was a CNAD report and they said that in their research, the average percent of women in tech was 30%, just in tech companies. But if you break that down further, only 15% were in tech roles and 23% in leadership roles and so they said, that then an impact of that are those are the roles that are influencing product development and business strategy. So, what you get is, not only is this a story about being harmful for women, but it’s really harmful for the business cause you’re not getting different points of view, market insights, approaches to problem solving at the higher levels with a more diverse group. Thoughts on the 30%? I couldn’t find any stats. Are there any recent stats out there? Do you think it’s gotten better, worse, about the same?

Vanessa: It’s interesting only because I think one, it could depend completely on the company. I know there’s a majority that seems to exist where women in product and product leadership roles or even in the tech space within those organizations tends to be a smaller percentage and I would say most of my career, with the exception of my current role, that’s been true, where I have been, or women have been the minority at that table. My current company though, actually has, I want to say it’s the opposite problem, but it’s the opposite demographic, where we’re predominantly women and women in leadership roles and it’s definitely a different dynamic than what I’ve experienced in the past.

Cait: I think that there’s an interesting situation that we have going on, where product is becoming a more … it’s not a new role, I want to make sure that that’s clear, but I think it’s becoming more formal and it’s becoming something that people can say, I want to go into this, I want to be a product manager. Most people that you talk to who have been in product roles will say, Well, I sort of fell into it. Whereas newer product people are saying, No, no, no, I chose to do this, I tried to get this role that I’m in. So, I think we’re at a pivoting point in time, where things are changing. In terms of females, I frequently tend to pick up on the fact that I’m one of the very few women at the table, in the room participating and I find that, it’s more interesting to me. I don’t think it prohibits me in any way. I think it’s something that I think about and try to acknowledge.

When I think about product specifically and women, one of the things that comes up in my mind is that there are not a lot of product leadership roles anyway. Typically, you might have a team of product folks and then one product person on top of that. You don’t have many directors. It’s not like sales where you have different territories. You’re really looking at a small but mighty part of an organization. And so, because there are very few leadership roles, and there are not many people going into product, you’re at a point where you’re going to see a limit in women being in those roles, just because there are not that many of them.

And I also think that it’s really critical to think about the fact that there are these very few leadership roles and the fact that there are very few women to kind of go to for guidance or for leadership at a particular level and we can get into this later on, you start to think about, Who do I look at to say where do I want to be? And it’s fortunate that Vanessa has primarily women in her organization. I have a little bit of an opposite situation. Not that it’s over-dominated by men but I find that there are more men in the room than women, particularly in the product space. Again, to go back to the original point, it’s there are very few leadership roles and trying to get women in those roles is going to be critical for all of us to say, We’re going to take the leap, we’re going to ask for more. As opposed to sort of sit back and wait for that to happen.

Heath: So, it sounds like some of that what you mentioned was sort of a role model/mentor type challenge.

Cait: Absolutely. Yeah.

Heath: So, what would you say are the biggest challenges for women? DO you think that the challenges are different, unique or largely the same?

Vanessa: You know, I think the most immediate thing I recognize, when I go into organizations where it is predominantly male in those leadership roles versus female, is the need to build credibility and trust. There tends to be a much greater curve in trying to get to that point, where you’ll come in with your peers who are male and, I don’t know if this is perception or not but I always find that there’s this kind of need to have to prove myself before being able to take on that leadership. In prior roles, leadership without authority or even a leadership role in general. So, that would probably be the most significant thing that I think I combat or have combated historically. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that as well.

Emera: I think I get challenged more on the technical side of whatever we’re doing in product than my peers do, who are men. Perception is reality, right? It might just be my perception that but that’s where I’m living and I’d say a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed it, probably. I think I just … We don’t necessarily know that that’s any different than what other people are experiencing and I think that through Boston Women in Product and actually connecting with more women in product roles, I’ve become a little bit more aware of the situations that I’m in.

The other thing that I would add is that, and this is by no means a sort of unique idea, but product can be kind of a lonely role and there are a lot of start-ups in the Boston area. My perspective on it, and I’m sort of stealing this from a former colleague of mine, who leads up design and product at Trump Club, he said this in a podcast recently, or earlier this year. He was talking about how someone on his team had sort of completed a big sort of project and at the end, he had noticed, oh this person is kind of a little bit down, a little sad maybe, depressed was the word he used and he was talking to his manager about it and saying, I don’t know what gives, and he was like, Well, for product managers, we sort of like, hold all this in our heart of this buildup of all the trade-offs that we have to make to get our product launched and it’s kind of like a very … it can be exciting but it’s also very like, you just look back and go ‘What if?’

We’re very curious, product managers, so you constantly ask that. And I think especially if you’re in that role alone at a company, that’s a lot and I think that women in product roles at small start-ups might feel like they have no one else to connect with, if you’re in an area that’s maybe dominated with men so I think that that’s why this community can be really helpful for people who just want to connect and share experiences because they maybe don’t have a peer that they feel like they can go to.

Heath: So we had another Product Hero, one of my former colleagues and I asked her a question about her background and did I think there was a particular kind of background that was more beneficial to get into product and she brought up this idea of being challenged on technical matters and she said she was actually in a meeting with her product team and I think it was an external vendor. I don’t even remember the backstory but it was a technical discussion and someone in the meeting, I don’t think it was a colleague thankfully, actually turned to her as if to say, Hold on, let’s hit pause here, are you following this? Okay. And she said, Well thankfully I’ve my masters in electrical engineering so I think I can get there.

My wife is an engineer as well so to me it just doesn’t come to mind but I can totally see where, unfortunately that would … it’s almost as if she felt like she should have come with her degree in front of her on the table just to squash any perceptions that she couldn’t follow the conversation that was going on.

Vanessa: You know what’s interesting as well? It’s … and I don’t know if this is a male/female thing and I’d love to hear if you guys have experienced this similarly but there have been situations where … I’m a natural introvert and so I tend to be more quiet and observe and then kind of when I’ve formed my thought, like to add it, like to participate. I’m by no means so quiet that I never speak a word. As a product manager you have to, you kind of have to have those conversations but I tend to be more of an observer or internalizing the information as opposed to actively engaging or bouncing things off and it’s been interesting that I’ve had several male managers or peers as well to say, You know, you need to speak up more, you need to say more, you need to add your voice.

And then so, you know, trying to grow in your career, you try to speak up more, you try to add your voice, you try to add your thought and then, you get the kind of opposite response, which is, You know what? You’re coming across as being too contradicting, or opinionated-

Emera:  Assertive.

Vanessa: … or assertive-

Emera: Aggressive.

Vanessa: … It’s like you know, you need to just sit back and participate and engage in a conversation in a way that’s more friendly, and it’s like, Okay, do I be quiet? Do I speak up? Do I add my opinion? Do I nicely say ‘Oh, thank you, but maybe we look at it this way.’ How do I interact? So, I’ve kind of gotten myself to the point in my career where you know, I say something if I have to say something. I don’t if a don’t and, you know, someone’s gonna have a problem with it but you just can’t control, necessarily, who will.

But that’s something that’s just been a challenge for me and it could just be that I am naturally ore quiet initially as opposed to kind of coming to the table with those thoughts but I’d be interested in hearing, kind of, have you guys dealt with that? Have you heard that feedback from managers or colleagues in any way?

Cait: So, I have two examples. One is my poor husband has to hear all about work when I go home at the end of the day.

Heath: You’d have to tell me what that’s like.

Cait: And I’m always saying, Maybe I should have said this, or I don’t understand why I got this reaction, and over the years, we’ve been together for about ten years and over the years, what he’s said to me is, You’ve gotta get over it. It doesn’t matter. You’re thinking about this and the people that are in the room, men, women, whomever, hey don’t care. They’re not thinking about it, and it took a really long time for me to realize what that actually meant. Men, women, it doesn’t matter what sex it is. I was overthinking this situation. Was I too aggressive? Was I too assertive? Was my message delivered? Because I think that that’s a tendency more so for women. My husband has articulated that he doesn’t think that way. I don’t know that that’s all men but he says, You know, I don’t think about it. We have a conversation at work, we move on. I come home, I internalize, I try to think, you know, have I done something incorrectly. Have I done something wrong? And so, I think what’s been really critical is learning that for me, and to say, this is what happened, I gave my voice. I go home at the end of the day feeling confident about what I did and that I have to be able to move on from that.

So, tough lesson to learn and I don’t think it’s easy but it’s really helped me grow.

The other example is, my boss is a saint. I frequently will go to him and I’ll dissect a meeting that we had with a particular component or the organization and I’ll say, You know, maybe I came across as too aggressive. Maybe I became too assertive in that situation. And his feedback to me all the time, every time I’ve ever said that has been, That’s not the case, Cait. I don’t know how long or how many times I need to tell you that but that’s not how people interpret you. You have to be a strong voice because you own the product. So, whether you’re a man or a woman, don’t overthink you bringing value to the table. You’ve gotta be able to have that strong voice and it is difficult because I do think that, as a culture, we do take direct feedback from a man different than we take it from a woman and I’m not going to go too far into that but it’s helpful to at least know that my boss has my back, to say, No, keep going. You’re doing the right things, and whether it’s because I’m a woman or not, it’s helpful to have that reassurance.

So, those two examples have just been men in my life who, work-related or not, have consistently told me, No, you’re there, keep going. It’s okay, right? And I don’t know why I need that. I don’t know why I have to tell other woman that but the reassurance certainly does help.

Vanessa: You know, that’s something that is incredibly valuable or important as women in product. I can think of two mentors that I have who are male who I really value. They’re incredibly supportive and it does mean a lot when you can get not only female mentors, but also male mentors, to kind of have that balance in insight.

Heath: I do think that some of it though is … you’ve both referenced it a little and I actually wanted to get into it a little bit in the next line of questioning but I do think that some of what you’re describing is inherent to men versus women and so, speaking as a man, it’s my impression that men are more inherently selfish and by that, I don’t mean, ‘This is mine, you can’t have it, they just tend to think not far beyond this cocoon. And so, I would have the same reaction and I’ve probably had the same conversation with my wife like, Move on, don’t worry about it, whereas she might think about what others are reacting to. I think that’s just men not caring when they maybe should and the opposite for women but I think there’s probably some of that is going on.

Cait: Absolutely. I mean, so, we all listen to a lot of podcasts and I listen to a podcast from the man who wrote Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars and he’s written a new book now and recently what he said is that, you know, this has all to do with your chemical in your body and how you react to this and women need to build estrogen and when men build too much estrogen, it’s this weird combust that happens and I think about that as I do things and so, emotional intelligence has come up and one of the things that I looked at before we had this discussion was the article from Marty Cagan on Why Women Make Great Product Managers and I couldn’t agree more. I think that women tend to have a little bit more emotional intelligence. I think that a woman can walk into a room and understand. A woman might recognize more quickly than a man would that a client is all on one side of the table versus maybe something that we’re all sharing the same … you know, we’re all here together.

A woman may realize that someone’s not speaking up and say, Hey Tommy, or Joan or whatever, what do you think? It seems like you’re sort of thinking … Pulling that information out. Maybe recognizing that the tension in the room is there. Knowing how to read people. I think that that’s a critical component of why women are successful in any role that they have and in particular, a product role.

One of the things that product managers have to be great at is communicating and being translators. What better to have in that role than someone who can really understand and read that room with emotional intelligence. So I think, to go back to what I started with is, as you ask men to build up their estrogen and their reactions and talking, it’s not a natural state. For women, we want to talk, we want to communicate and so having a dynamic and understanding the room and being able to read that is definitely a factor in what makes women great product managers.

Heath: It’s interesting because I thought that’s where Vanessa was … that came to my mind when you were talking about being told or advised that you should speak up more, I wanted to jump in and say, well it’s interesting because I think that one of the skills that a product … We all agree that one of the skills a product leader needs to have is that ability to listen before speaking perhaps. And that was not a strength of mine in my early product days and so, I actually view that as … So, it’s interesting that the person charged you with saying more when you might have in your mind, said, Well, I’m not ready cause I am still listening, taking in what people are saying.

Vanessa: Yeah, you’re only gonna get my thought at that moment.

Heath: Right.

Vanessa: You’re not gonna get a fully, well-rounded response at that point, so … yeah.

Emera: The thing I would add though and sort of challenge is that those things that you were mentioning, like, Oh, this is just how I approach it as a man, it’s just, those are socialized behaviors so, there’s some science in there, but those are things that you can learn.

Heath: Sure.

Emera: So, if you, regardless of however you identify gender-wise, if you recognize that reading a room is not a skill set of yours, and you’re in product, guess what? Pick up a book, go listen to some podcasts, you should try and start flexing that muscle, cause it does take some time to recognize and if you have a boss who’s maybe not recognizing that, that’s maybe something to even mention to them, like, Hey, I tend to take time to digest and I’ll share when I’m ready, when I have a thought that’s worth sharing. Feel free to call on me if you feel like I’m being too quiet or you’d like to hear my thoughts because you hired me and I have something to contribute, but I’ll tell you if I’m not there yet. But that can be hard to recognize, I think if you’re younger in your career, that you’re gonna need to manage-up in that way.

Heath: Yeah, it’s probably age too. I just know that, back to my thought about being more self-centered, I guess is the better word than selfish, but I also think it’s important to remind yourself, as a product leader, that it’s not about you, it’s about the user and so, who cares what I think because I find myself all the time using products or seeing marketing and say, Well that’s stupid, who would ever want to do that? And even across the table, Richard has said, Well, you’re not the user. This products not for you. I’m like, Yeah but, still it’s stupid. I don’t know that product. It’s for other people, so …

So, do you think there … So, you referenced Marty’s article. It resonates with me that those tick off all the things that I think are skills that tend to be present in the sort of rock-star product manager and it seems reasonable that those two are present typically, more in women than men. Do you think those are the skills that … It sounds like you agree with that.

Cait: I do. What I like about it, is it doesn’t just extend to women, it extends to men as well.One of the things that I do in my spare time is that I teach at general assembly and we spend ten weeks going through all of the things that you do as a product manager, your roadmap, your user stories, interviewing users and on week nine, we start talking about interacting with the people that you work with and how the dynamics are critical and one of the things that I always show is this image of a chameleon changing colors and there’s not enough talked about in the product role, I think, about these intangible interpersonal skills that happen. And yes, women tend to be a little bit more … they can read the room a little better, they can be a little bit more humble, they have a little bit humility but I think they can be learned, to Emera’s point, and I think that it’s a critical component to the product role.

I can interview a million product managers and one of the questions that I ask them is, Tell me about a time when something didn’t go the way that you expected. Tell me how you reacted. When it was a poor conversation, when it wasn’t going the direction that you needed to, because, man or woman, you have to be able to, as a good product person, be able to navigate that situation. And so, that’s where it resonates for me with Marty, is not necessarily why women specifically make good product managers, but that there is this component of the product role where you feel like, I’m just a really well paid babysitter sometimes, or I’m a translator.

Heath: And women are typically babysitters too, so there you go.

Cait: There you go, right. My husband would probably lose his mind if I asked him to go and watch my nieces and nephews.

So I think that it’s just a very interesting dynamic there and I applaud Marty for bringing it up. One of the things he says in that article in the very beginning is, if a woman had written this article, it might have been considered self serving and I would agree with that.

Heath: Yeah.

Cait: If I had read it, I would say, Ugh, well, this is sort of strange, but it’s very nice that, and it attributes to the success of women in these roles that a man can recognize that and say, Hey, maybe we’re missing something here.

Vanessa: It actually goes back to, kind of at the start of our conversation, talking about diversity and also, if we think about it, inclusion, but I’ve noticed at companies, when there are men leading these initiatives at an organization, there seems to be a weight that’s carried there as opposed to just maybe a women-dominated group trying to drive it forward within organizations. Not saying that it undermines at all the success of it, but I really value and appreciate when there is male leadership or similar to Marty Cagan, when there is a male voice there saying this is something we need to focus on, this is something that’s important, this is something that we have to support, it just helps bring that to the forefront in a different way.

Heath: I’ve found that the product community lends itself to self improvement. There seem to be a lot of meetups, get togethers, organizations, formal and informal and I’ve talked with other about how the fact that there is no product management curriculum or degree or school and lot of us fell into it because of some internal desire to learn more about the whys of the product or the users or it could just be that it didn’t exist in the company, you got tapped to do it, it strikes me as natural that Boston Women in Product would have formed, so tell me a little bit about how that got started. What was the story behind that?

Cait: I think we were all looking for a way to elevate ourselves in our careers and what we were finding is that there is a strong community in Boston for product. It varies by seniority and there are a lot of people that are trying to get into product roles and there are a lot of people looking to have more dynamic conversations, have more just support in various areas and I think initially when Boston Women in Product came up, we were thinking about, selfishly, Vanessa and myself and Sarah, ourselves and saying we needs mentors, we need women that we can communicate with and say, How did you tackle this situation? How did you handle this scenario? What do you think about this?

And so that’s where it started and what it’s grown into is, and I think Emera’s done an excellent job executing on this with us, has been we have this new dynamic where part of it is growing the product management community and giving resources to people who are looking to get into product roles or just starting out in their product careers and then there’s this other opportunity that we still have to sort of crack I think with how can we take the women, like Emera, like Vanessa, like myself and connect them with other women in these types of roles and have these dynamic conversations? Have these really critical moments where we’re saying to each other, Tell me about this. Tell me how you might solve this problem, because women do feed off of each other and they do want to get advice from others.

I think that’s where it started, it came out of this selfish desire for us, that we were saying there are these communities but there’s nothing that’s really trying to either enhance the role itself or build up the people that are in the roles already and we sat down and looked at each other and said, yeah, it’s time, so we’ve been really fortunate to get Emera involved and have her be a real staple, while you’re not technically the co-founder, I think you’ve been so significant in the organization and it’s been overwhelming, selfishly, from my perspective to see the number of people who are saying yeah, we need this, we’re excited about this.

Heath: Yeah, I looked, just yesterday, I think I saw there are 706 members in the meetup.

Vanessa: We cracked 700! So exciting.

Heath: I think there was like five (hundred) when you and I … I know you guys had some awesome event recently but …

Vanessa: And we … Our first event was in March 2016, and so, this has really grown from that start.

Heath: So, tell me about that, so how do you accomplish your mission that you described so well, Cait? Do you do this through events that you host or … tell me a little bit about that. What do you do?

Vanessa: It is predominantly event-driven. A lot of the value is getting women in the room together to connect, to network, to be able to build those relationships. The events do focus on key topics and our topics come from a variety of different sources, things we’ve dealt with or that the community has indicated they have an interest in better understanding and just other things that we recognize within the industry as well so that’s been the predominant focus. We have also, I know Emera’s been leading this, but we’ve also tried to focus on building kind of a social presence as well in finding other content resources out there that also do help to bring additional content or a layer of information outside of these event-driven opportunities.

And the goal really is to bring those more seasoned professionals, who have had the experience, who have dealt with those issues as people presenting that experience to what tends to be a younger demographic in regards to where they are in their role. Someone who’s just starting out or they’re at a company and they’re not sure if they’re doing product management and they think they are and trying to better understand what is it that I should be doing in this role, so, it’s really had a positive impact and we’ve received a lot of really great feedback saying that this has helped them in a variety of different ways, not only as an opportunity to build those relationships or meet people they wouldn’t have otherwise, we’ve heard that people have actually found jobs through this as well, so they’ve been able to connect with people who’ve helped get their foot in the door but also just a really great opportunity to learn a different perspective in product management as well.

Cait: I don’t know if you want to add anything about the types of events that we’re running. I think that’s a big part of I think what differentiates the Boston Women in Product.

Emera: Definitely and I would selfishly say that we put a lot of thought into the content of the events. We’ve done all sorts of things, from just speaker panels to doing small workshops that might just have maybe 20 or 25 attendees. I think we always try to emphasize just connecting the community and try and make sure there’s time for that. It’s one of the things that I’m always impressed by our community members. They will love to hang out before and after the event and chat and network and connect. As you mentioned, there are a lot of product meetups and activities that you can participate in, in the Boston area. It’s amazing. But I often will attend those and kind of see that there’s not that stickiness after the event or even people showing up quite early, just to have that opportunity to kind of connect with people.

We try to vary it up and do some in the morning and some after work, mostly after work but we understand, you know, depending on your schedule, you might not be able to have, you know, childcare in the evening or something like that, so we try to offer, I think a variety of events throughout the year that’ll get people interested. As Vanessa mentioned, most of our topics come from surveys that we run throughout the year for the meetup community and also people you will have attended the events so, really, honestly, we were just looking at what are we going to do in 2018 and we’re looking back at what we had done in 2017 and I think of the top ten things that had come up on the survey of, like, I want to learn more about UX, I want to learn more about roadmaps, et cetera, we had hit, like 80% of those. It was really … That’s our goal is to make the community happy and service them.

Heath: How many events? Is it a regular cadence or is it …

Emera: I’d say at the moment, we’re … I think last year, and the year before, we actually did maybe seven events ish seven or eight and ideally we’d be doing one a month and this’ll be my call to anyone who’s interested in volunteering and being an organizer so it’s not just me, it’s not just us, Sarah, Cait or Vanessa either, we’ve got some really dedicated volunteers who I always refer to as our organizers cause they help plan the events, help connect us with sponsors. There’s opportunities, as Vanessa mentioned, to write content if you’re interested. We’re sort of a community that’s a part of the Boston Product Management Association so we have a great platform through their blog that allows us to connect with additional people who might be interested in events and we’re always looking for volunteers who might want to get involved in social promotion or just helping out occasionally at events if the have the time to.

Heath: What’s the biggest challenge of putting these events on? Is it venue, is it recruitment, is it speakers, is it guest?

Emera: Event planning is breeze. No, to be honest, I think we’ve got a good system down, really. Hey, we’d love to have more sponsors but the Boston community has been really supportive of our group and generally speaking, finding a venue, getting someone to maybe buy some treats for the group …

Cait: The big things is that, you know, we’re not looking to benefit off of this in a financial way and so-

Heath: The organization?

Cait: Yes. So, we just try to keep everything neutral. We keep our events low cost. We do, in many cases have to charge for them. I think usually it’s like 5 or 10 dollars, if it’s a workshop, it might be a little bit more but one of the key factors there is saying what can we do to just get as many people in the room that can start talking to each other and allow for that community to grow and Emera’s done an awesome job getting everything together and organized so that we can remain neutral, whether it’s through sponsorship or partnerships that we have. We see a lot of product events that happen on the 95 belt, the Waltham area. We try to bring events into Boston.

I think that was a huge opportunity for us, where people are saying, yeah, we love these events, that they’re in the area so, for anyone that’s listening to this, we always are looking for venues and locations and we’re more than happy to take over your space for a period of time but again, I think we’ve been able to find really good support in the Boston community for everything that we want to do and I think that that just attributes to the people that we work with, to the three women who are on this and to the community that’s available just to support each other and it’s been really, really great.

Heath: Cool. So, how does someone get involved? Other than first being a woman? As a speaker, a organizer-

Cait: And actually, that’s a great point. So, you should come check out our meetup, join the meetup-

Heath: I’ll put it in the show link, that kind of stuff.

Emera: Great. To the point you’re making, actually our meetup is open to everyone, as are all our events. It’s a topic that we discussed because that’s not always the case with women in STEM groups but I would say, by and large, if you attend our events, you’d find that the audience will be 80% women, which is great, but again, open to everybody and, if you’re interested in attending, join the meetup. That’s the easiest way to find out about things that are happening. If you’re interested in volunteering, or potentially sponsoring, you could contact the organizers of the meetup easily through that, it’s probably the quickest way. Yeah.

Heath: It’s interesting that we kid about men showing up but if … For a lot of these topics, hearing it discussed live, there could be nothing better than sitting there and saying, Wow, I didn’t think of that perspective, or, This is interesting, or, Oh my gosh, there’s talent in this room that knows a hell of a lot more than me, I’d love to hear more, kind of thing.

Vanessa: Yeah and going back to a previous comment, men who help support women in these roles is incredibly valuable so we want men to come, we want you to be part of this group because we also want to make sure that we’re supporting women from both of those perspectives.

Emera: And we want to hear from all kinds of people in all kinds of roles. I think we want to structure the conversation in a way and that’s how we organize our events but we’re always welcoming feedback from all kinds of people.

Heath: Awesome.

Cait: I think the biggest thing is speak up. For people who are listening to this, one of the things that I know we talked about getting more ingrained in is the opportunity to grow the experienced product management community and while that feels a little bit exclusive, it is. We want to allow for a group that can communicate on a leadership level and talk about the struggles. You go from a senior to a director or maybe a VP, or even further, and there are different challenges at all those levels and one of the things you hear frequently is that it’s lonely at the top and so, if we can help foster a community of leaders in the product space, ideally women, but also incorporating men, then for those of you listening to this or reading through this, we want to start that community and get that going, so we’re open to that feedback as well.

Vanessa: Yeah, that is a key initiative of 2018 is building that additional segment within the organization and we actually have an event targeted for April at this point, which is hopefully going to begin to realize against that but absolutely, if you’re interested in participating or getting involved, we’d love to have you.

Heath: That’s a good point. It’s like that’s why there are, you know, CMO groups, right? It’s a different … Everyone’s dealing with roadmap, but you’re doing it with a different decision about the roadmap. So, how many workshops can a marketing leader attend about building a roadmap before they realize, this isn’t answering my challenge. I know how to build one.

Cait: I need to know how to sell it and make sure that it’s aligned and have my team execute on it. You know, one of the things that comes up frequently for people that reach out to me is, how do you organize your product team? Is it by functional area? Is it by product line? So, these are really critical questions that aren’t specific to women but are specific to the opportunity that’s sitting in front of us in the product community and that’s really what the 2018 focus is going to add in.

Heath: Awesome We should be hosting the event here.

Cait: Let’s do it.

Emera: Maybe. We’ll do it.

Heath: I’m serious, let’s do it.

Vanessa: Great.

Heath: Awesome. I will talk to Richard. Well, thank you all for coming. This has been great. I appreciate it.

Author Heath Umbach

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