SXSW: Product Mavericks: Top Tips From Women Who Build

So, people warn you about this about “South by” (yes, people really call it that)…sometimes you can’t get into the session you planned on attending.  That happened to me on my first day.

My first choice for an afternoon session was cancelled.  My second choice was at capacity.  My third choice was cancelled too.  Which is how I found myself sitting in on a session called, “Product: Mavericks: Top Tips from Women Who Build”.  This session was a panel including a veritable badass lineup of ladies such as:

Fidji Simo: Director of Product at Facebook leading Video, News, and Advertising in Newsfeed.

Merci Grace:  leads the Growth team at Slack

Stephanie Hannon: CTO for Hillary Clinton, Director of Product Management for Social Impact at Google, worked on the Google Wave

Tali Rappaport: VP of Product at Lyft

Even though I’m not a Product Manager, there were some awesome takeaways from this session.

On a Product’s Purpose:

For many of us who work as managers, whether it’s for a project or an account or a product, it can be easy to lose sight of what we were originally tasked to do.  After a few conference calls and email threads you might find yourself in a meeting thinking, “Scope Creep!”.  Fidji Simo emphasized the importance of keeping the original goals and purpose in mind.  Think to yourself, “What is the primitive we are trying to test?”  I remember one of my most successful social projects I’ve done so far.  I loved the way that we structured our social assets because every single creative choice we made was done to answer a question that could inform future decisions.  So, it might be a question like, “Does X messaging drive more sales?” or “Does X imagery perform better than Y imagery?”.  Fidji Simo used the example of Facebook Live.  Even though since it’s launch many features have been added, her team always keeps in mind the original goal of the product which was to have a conversation and to get feedback from your community.

It was interesting to keep this in mind with regards to the fake news phenomenon during the US election (especially since the panel included both a Facebook and former Clinton campaign employee!).  Fidji Simo said it was important to have strong principles you can fall back on.  This means, when you have to make a decision in a moment, you aren’t just reacting, but rather are relying on what you’ve already identified as important principles to guide your decision making.  I think we can argue about whether or not they made the right decision when it comes to fake news on Facebook’s platform, but certainly they stayed true to their value of uninhibited expression.  I remember once attending a speech by former South Carolina Governer (now UN ambassador) Nikki Haley, who said she had a 24 hour rule for decisions.  When something happened, she would consider her options for a full day before executing her strategy.  I’m not in a place to determine whether or not this philosophy always worked in her favor, but there certainly seems to be a common theme here in terms of not making decisions in the moment or through gut instinct, but rather having some sort of logical framework to help you.

On Change:

In today’s business world, timelines are so much shorter than they used to be.  Everyone is constantly looking for the next big thing that will make it big.  This means that companies should take a portfolio approach and not just be focused on one single thing.  It also means you have to encourage a culture of change at your company — where change is embraced and change is rewarded.  Inertia is something I’ve recognized we all easily fall victim to–and in a creative/agency setting it’s absolutely dangerous.  We have to make sure we are constantly challenging the status quo whether that is with the work we are producing for clients or even if it’s the way we internally create the work.  For example, brainstorming.  It’s important to try different techniques and methods to avoid creative burnout and keep people excited about the projects we are working on.

On Failure:

Failure is one of those words in SF that I feel like doesn’t mean what it used to mean.  Now it’s all about “failing faster” so you can rebuild as if you are some kind of metaphorical phoenix.  Merci Grace said, “We need to stop pretending that Silicon Valley embraces failure.”  And she mentioned this especially in the context of being a woman in tech.  She explained, “I know a bunch of men who have had the opposite expeirnee.  If you’re a dude, you an fail and then go raise a bunch of money to fail two or three more times before someone stops you.”  This got a bunch of laughs from the room, but it was also kind of sad.  Stephanie Hannon who worked on a product called Google Wave (which I didn’t know existed–oops!) explained that she had grown to not let fear of failure hold her back.  Her advice was to not be afraid to try big things, because even if they don’t succeed there is always the opportunity to take the learnings from that failure and implement it on future products or work.  For example some of the features they created for Google Wave were later used in products like gmail and and google docs.

On being a working woman:

I feel like it’s always easy to talk about the challenges of being a female in the working world (hello! I’ve read Lean In like 3 times), but it means so much more coming from women who aren’t quasi-celebrities and who are still “making it”.  There were a lot of helpful tips from the panel such as:

“People will underestimate you and you can use that to your advantage.” – Merci Grace

“I learned a lot just from listening.  I got an inside view from executives.” – Fidji Simo

“Say what you don’t know and be curious.  Put yourself in a scary situation and find a way to thrive there.” – Stephanie Hannon

“Realize that you have more power than you think you do.” – Fidji Simo

“Break the negative self talk.  You are often your own worst enemy.  You are going to get a lot of negative feedback.  One of the most important things is being right with yourself.” -Merci Grace

I’ve been really impressed by the female leaders, speakers, and panelists that SXSW has had on the schedule.  It’s made me feel really inspired about what I can accomplish when I get back to work!




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