Melissa (they/them) has almost ten years of B2B, B2C, and B2G product management and people management experience. Melissa currently works as a product leader at Lattice, an employee success software platform. As a queer person in technology, Melissa cares about mentoring and providing a voice for underrepresented groups in tech!
In their words: “I’ve been following Clement for a while now and am excited to be part of the Diversity in Product series! Please don’t hesitate to connect with me and reach out with any questions or resonance.”
We’d love to hear about your journey into product management. How did you become a PM, and what were some of the challenges you faced in securing your first PM role?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been curious about how everything from physical objects to nature to technology “works.” How is something built, how and why do we think, what went into creating X? I also really care about people feeling seen and heard, meeting their needs, and feeling happy. This combination of my interest in the way “things” and people work led me to study neuroscience in college. During my time in college, I had the opportunity to develop courses, for example, building devices to measure bioluminescence in liver cells of zebrafish and mice to track circadian rhythms. I also participated in programs centered on technology entrepreneurship, including the Draper Competition, and fell in love with product development.
I thought about going to medical school but wanted to be able to apply my learnings and interests to helping folks immediately and decided to join a group within IBM that focuses on technology and healthcare. Through this work, I identified client pain points and hypotheses and built wireframes and prototypes in the evenings to try and validate the assumptions. This led me into product development and product management, and I couldn’t be happier to have found this career!
I’ve had the opportunity to work on many different types of software development projects, build teams and processes, and mentor other underrepresented folks interested in technology and product management. I feel very fortunate to be where I am in my career and would love to continue to help others find their passion!
Looking back on that first PM experience, what advice would you give yourself?
I like bullets — I find them easier to digest :) Here is a scoped version of advice that I would give myself in my first PM role:
- You care about your career more than anyone else — advocate for yourself even when it feels tough.
- Life isn’t all about work — have fun and prioritize your mental and physical health and wellbeing in addition to your career progression.
- While life isn’t all about work, we spend a decent amount of time working — Work in an org that emphasizes a culture of psychological safety.
- It’s hard to learn without trying new things. Often we aren’t perfect at everything on the first try (or 100th) — people make mistakes. Try your best and when you make mistakes, remember that no one else will remember a week from now.
- Soft skills > hard skills — I love reading books about product processes, but those are much more learnable skills than emotional intelligence, relationship building, and stakeholder management. The latter is often more critical to many PMs’ long-term career success.
- Have a vision and north star, and focus on the WHY! Take a broad view of the problems. Outcome-driven vs. output-driven product development will help your users and business infinitely more than launching something to launch something.
What is the best piece of advice you have? Send me a note!
Product management can sometimes be an isolating role. What are some approaches you’ve taken to get support?
I care a lot about connection and often think about isolation in the PM space. Some thoughts:
- Peer mentorship is enormous and, I’ve found, often as or more helpful than mentorship from someone more senior. Find peers at your organization or outside of your organization to bounce ideas off and get advice.
- Build relationships and ask for and offer support to your engineers and designers. Get to know people personally so that you can provide and receive genuine support.
- Write a weekly update (Lattice has a feature like this if you’re looking ;) ) that outlines what you accomplished. Look back at those updates when you’re feeling imposter syndrome or like you’re not accomplishing enough.
- Take a step back and tell yourself that you’re doing a great job. No one knows what they are doing any more than you do, even when you don’t feel that way. Keep doing what you’re doing (and also take a break!)
What do you find frustrating about being underrepresented in product management?
I want to start by recognizing my privilege. I have had opportunities presented and made possible because of my privilege. I feel very fortunate to have the role that I have and the experiences that I have had.
There are ways to sugarcoat the struggles of being underrepresented in tech. That said what’s most frustrating to me about being underrepresented in product is the same thing that is most frustrating about being underrepresented in general. Being underrepresented comes with many challenges that, frankly, suck and can be scary. I have spent weeks thinking about whether being queer will negatively impact my career and whether others will advocate for me even if i don’t “look like them”. I also have regularly been relied on as the knowledge expert on inclusion and diversity in product and organizations which is frustrating.
I am fortunate, and being a queer person in tech and the world is still scary and frustrating. Having a community like “Out in Tech” has been beneficial for me to see and connect with others who have been through similar experiences.
How can hiring managers make that first PM role easier to obtain for people who don’t look or think like them?
I first need to mention that we need more diverse and underrepresented folks in tech at all levels, and to do this, organizations and people need to build inclusive processes and environments. Hiring =/= retention, and we need to hire and retain (and mentor and coach and promote) people from all different backgrounds. To do this, we need to prioritize building psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces. One step is making the first PM role easier for folks from marginalized communities to obtain. Another step is to make sure that people who do have these opportunities continue to want to be in the product space, have others to look up to, and continue to have opportunities to progress.
More practically, I would think about this question in two different ways:
1) How can we make the first PM role easier to obtain?
On the first point, there are many articles about how to break into product management (example here, here). Organizations can continue to think about building APM programs, hiring folks with knowledge of the space without PM-specific knowledge, building rotational programs, or mentoring folks on particular projects from different areas in the organization.
2) How can we ensure that we are hiring and putting the process in place to hire folks different from us, be that skills, personality type, sexual orientation or gender, ethnicity, etc.?
This is a much longer conversation, and I don’t know that there is a “right” answer. Some ways that I’ve attempted to approach this:
- Doing an evaluation of what the specific role needs and what the team needs from a skill perspective — if the majority of the team has X skill and we don’t have anyone with Y skill, let’s optimize for hiring for that skill.
- Putting a process in place for hiring to ensure that you are unbiased and have folks with different backgrounds at every step of the pipeline
- Consciously think about and acknowledge bias that we all innately have and do work to counter that daily and during the hiring process.
What’s the best way for readers to reach out to you and stay on top of what you’re doing?
I would love to hear what resonated with you (or didn’t!) and connect with folks who are in or interested in product management.
You can find me at:
Thanks to Clement for his product leadership and for taking the time to highlight marginalized voices in the product!
Written By The Product Teacher Team