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Collaborating to Create Products Customers Love

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This is the Engineering Culture Podcast, from the people behind InfoQ.com and the QCon conferences. In this podcast Shane Hastie spoke to Sara Rossio Chief Product Officer at G2, about how product people and technical people collaborate to build great products that people love.

Key Takeaways

  • Engaging technical people in the customer discussions results in more empathy and a deeper understanding of the real needs
  • Having a shared vision and purpose for the products we create helps keep everyone aligned around customer value
  • When each person knows that everyone in the team comes from a place of positive intent, with mutual respect for each discipline then collaboration and innovation are enables
  • The practices and principles of Lean Manufacturing are played out in software through agile development
  • Leadership isn't complex. It's being human, connecting as humans, understanding what people need, and being there for them

Transcript

Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I'm sitting down with Sara Rossio. Sara is in Chicago, so we're spread across days and many thousands of miles. But Sara, great to meet you. I suppose, a useful starting point is, who's Sara?

Introductions [00:23]

Sara Rossio: Well, it's great to be here. Thanks for connecting today. I am the Chief Product Officer at a company called G2. And I have been in the product discipline for about 20 years, and it is what I love to do. So I'm so excited today I'm here to talk to you about that.

Shane Hastie: In your product background, from our chatting earlier, you've worked in and with technology products for most of your career. Let's start with the most interesting of those technology products, and then we'll look at the most challenging.

The most interesting and most challenging products [00:55]

Sara Rossio: For me, the most interesting was that I was a product manager who helped collect data on location around the world, and work with car companies and anyone who made maps, or moved people around the world, to basically understand location, turn-by-turn navigation, and really changing the way people moved. And I did that 10 years ago, when navigation in cars just started. And it was probably the most interesting because we were challenged to change everything, to collect data no one ever collected at a scale of 60 countries at a time. And it was just fascinating from moving to trying to keep up to date with real-world change, to actually figuring out how to create real-time data, and getting those to devices. And it was unbelievably fun. So that was the most interesting for me.

Shane Hastie: And the most challenging?

Sara Rossio: I worked at a company that did in-flight connectivity. And if you have ever been on a plane, like most people might have been on, not right now during COVID, but you remember when you actually got onto wifi and it didn't feel like you were on your couch. So for me, an empathetic product manager, trying to create an in-home comfortable experience for seamless connectivity of wifi in-flight, when it uses the terrestrial network to actually pass those signals, to keep the wifi consistent, was unbelievably challenging. And for a company like that, we actually tried to use price, and we tried to give movies on planes for free, all these other things, to create this amazing experience. And it was challenging because you're at a point where you have scarcity, you don't have enough capacity. And so it was a challenging problem.

Shane Hastie: These are pretty deep technical problems. As a product person, what is your relationship with the engineers and the technologists who are making this stuff happen?

The relationship between product people and technical people [02:56]

Sara Rossio: My favorite people. They're my coaches, they're the people who train me on how to think about the problems, and what's technically challenging. They give the gift of explanation, in a way that I can understand. And also, have always allowed me to ask questions like, "Under what condition can we change that?" And staying open and curious with me. My relationship with engineers over time, it's a gift for me, maybe not always for them because I have this drive to learn. But also to make sure we're doing the right thing for anyone who's using our products. And so I am always challenging to be more disruptive, to figure out how to get through this appearing roadblock in front of us.

Shane Hastie: How does that play out in real worlds? Tell us some stories.

Bringing technical people into customer interviews [03:47]

Sara Rossio: One of the first challenges I had was figuring out how to create, and this is in tech, but not as much, was working with engineers to create a sensor that would change its magnetic field dynamically, which is really cool technology, won't get into it, super interesting. But what we tried to do at the same time was actually make it really small. The smaller you make the sensor, it impacts the magnetic field. And so I remember coming into the room with the engineers and saying, "It doesn't need to be that small." And they kept saying, "But Sara, we have to have the smallest sensor in the world." And I was like, "No, no, no. We have to have the most adjustable sensor in the world."

And we had this moment that they were so far down the path on this direction, and felt very convicted on it, that I asked them to do one thing, and I said, "Let's just stop for a second. Would you be willing to sit in a room with me? You don't have to say anything, but let's talk. I want you to hear me ask these questions, open-ended questions to our customers. And you don't have to say anything, but I want you to hear their voice, and when I'm asking questions about what's more important to them, the smallness of size or the adjustability." And they agreed. We sat in a room. I had three customers lined up, one after another, getting on conference calls. And my first one answered all my questions. They're looking at me still skeptical. But I said, "I want you to hear them versus me because they're more important."

And at the end of the three calls, they looked at me and said, "One, thank you for letting me in the room, two, thank you for not making me speak, but three, you were right." And so it was in this moment that I was able to bring them closer to the market, that we built the best product possible, for those customers and for the company at the time, to really build out our market share. And it was because they were willing and stayed curious to learn that we did that. And so for me, some of those experience I'm bringing engineers to the market is some of the most fun parts of my job. Not that I want to be right, it's just that I want the customer to get what they want at that.

Shane Hastie: Building on that, in many organizations, less so today than it used to be, but I still see the strong divide between the customer-facing folks and the technical folks, whether that's in a banking organization, and you've got business analysts, and then the engineering teams or whatever. How do we bridge those gaps?  How do you get that connectivity that you're talking about there?

Bridging the divide between product and technical viewpoints [06:20]

Sara Rossio:I think at the end, everyone wants what's right. And they have a sense of purpose for the company and the vision, and mission you're going after, unifies a team. At G2, we want to create a platform that's trusted by buyers to research software. And we all have that mission where we want to make sure we do the best thing for the buyer, whether you're a salesperson, or you're an engineer, or anyone else in the company. And so any conversation that allows an engineer to unify with anyone else in the organization around that sense of purpose, and what they can do to support that sense of purpose, I think really creates that bond. And then from there, sometimes languages are different, some of the vocabulary people use are different, but I feel as long as each person knows that they come from a place of positive intent, and mutual respect for each discipline, around whatever they're trying to achieve, sense of purpose for the company or a project or anything else, it'll unify each other. And that's the heart of new product development.

I mean, I'm different than the engineers I work with. My background's different, I might look different because early in my career, I was the only woman in every room. But I felt, as long as I trusted them and they trusted me and had mutual respect, we always figured out a way to have that conversation and get things done. I find that sometimes we forget we're all humans, and we all have more in common than we don't. And as long as we use that positive practice, no one has to limit their voice, limit their thinking. Hopefully everyone works in safe environments and you feel like you belong. And then you do your best work, especially in new product development. When that happens, it's beautiful. People do their best work. That's when true innovation disruption happens. And so for me, I'm always trying to find how I can help as a leader create, there needs to be a little tension, but not create too much tension and conflict in new product development because everyone's voice is important.

Shane Hastie: Expanding on that everyone's voice, you touched on it early in your career, you were the only woman in the room. How has that changed? What is happening in the technology industry in terms of diversity and inclusion, and how far have we still got to go?

Progress on diversity and inclusion [08:36]

Sara Rossio: We've made progress. I said I started my career in technology 20 years ago. Every five years, there's a shift it feels like. There is so many more women in the room, so many more women leaders across these different disciplines. And now we're looking to say, "How do we create more diversity?" Because we know how important it is. People from different backgrounds, people from different locations, and making sure that they feel comfortable in these environments. And to tell you the truth, I think it's harder now than it was back then because we're acknowledging how diverse the population is and how to bring more people in. And actually we're more thoughtful and intentional about it. But I don't know that we've created all the tools to create those environments in a way that's safe for everyone.

For me, when I was in the room, I felt like I was the only one, and may have been the only one, who looked like me, but I had enough confidence to say, "I just want to do my best work. And I don't want to silence myself, and I want to my seat at my table, and I want to be curious and I'm going to keep pushing." And for me, that helped me elevate in my career. So now, what I do is I try to spend time watching, observing, coaching people in my teams, in New Product Development. So that I'm inviting people in who normally would be quiet, and allowing other people to create the tools, to invite people in, to have the right conversation that doesn't shut people down. And so there's a lot of training to be done, I think. We're making progress, we're not there yet. I think we will always be making progress in this area.

Shane Hastie: What's the biggest step we have to take?

Find the connection between people [10:13]

Sara Rossio: Find that connection. I said before, we're all alike. Look for the connection and not for the difference. The bridges need to be built. And we, as a team, at G2, in New Product Development, we have values we live by, but we also created these virtues. It's how you behave, it's the words you use. And so we actually wrote them down in front of us. And when we go to meetings, if someone's not living by our virtues, behaving in the way we've asked people to call them in to talk to them about that together when possible. And I think it's those moments and those tools that will make us better.

Shane Hastie: Shifting take a tiny bit, you mentioned in our conversation before we started recording, your electrical engineering background and exposure to lean manufacturing a couple of decades ago. How have you seen that play out in software?

The influence of Lean Manufacturing [11:04]

Sara Rossio: Oh, it was fascinating. So my parents ran a manufacturing company. So I should tell you, I understood manufacturing, and I was geeked out by process inputs, outputs, where are things at, bottleneck, whatever. And what I went to Eaton, when I worked there, working as a product manager for sensors, and they taught us the best practices of the lean enterprise, lean manufacturing. We all got our Six Sigma, we understood all this goodness and everyone had their black belts and it was just beautiful. And then all of a sudden, I went to software. And this new thing came out called Agile and Scaled Agile, and everyone came in to teach us. And I was like, "Wait, isn't this just what the manufacturing companies learned so long ago?" And so it felt very comfortable for me.

For me, I was never attention of saying, "Oh, we need to actually find the minimum viable product. We need to figure out how to get it through the system fast enough. We need to break things down." It felt so right. And so early in my career, when people were starting to get all of this product owner training, it was like, "Oh yeah, okay, I'm right there. Let's figure it out." And I could move pretty quickly. Until you said that, Shane, I probably never connected maybe why, in that time, I actually propelled my career. But maybe that was it, that it just felt good. It felt good to be able to break down stories and get value to the market really fast, and work with engineers to have them start to understand more, stay connected with me throughout the process, ask me questions, make sure we were iterating and doing the right thing. It just felt very natural.

Shane Hastie: Could I ask you to give some advice to the recently promoted engineer, to a technical leadership position? What advice would you give them for their career?

Advice for new leaders [12:49]

Sara Rossio: Anyone who becomes a manager for the first time, anyone recent, in any discipline, you're never going to know all the answers. There are best practices to learn. And I would encourage everyone to seek out those best practices. Make sure you have one-on-one meetings, understand the goals and the goals that your person who works for you has, personal, professional. Understand how they want to work, understand how they want to communicate. Never have them be you because they're unique and beautiful and different. And stay curious, ask them what they need. And give them feedback, good and bad. It doesn't always have to be bad. Early in my career I thought, "Oh, I have to give people feedback. Here's the three things they did wrong this week." That doesn't work. Maybe that just was Sara trying to get the best out of her team. But knowing that every person is unique and how you engage with them will feel completely different, and it's going to feel rough and uncomfortable.

But what I do at the end of every one-on-one, and that I learned late in my career is this is my own thing, "How are you feeling this week, one to five?" And whatever they rate, it really doesn't matter. Unless it's a one consistently, then you need to have a different conversation on why it keeps being a one. But if they rate themselves anything, the next question is, "How do I actually get you to the next number?" And by them answering the question on the one to three, they understand where their pain was this week. And a lot of times, it's your responsibility as a manager to figure out, to move them from a three to four is, "Well, I was really frustrated with this, that no one came to help me." Okay. And then you can have a conversation that next week, "Okay, I'm here for you, let me help you. Next time you run into that, could you reach out to me on Slack and I'll do my best to help you?"

That question, while it's so simple, and honestly, this is my feedback for most leadership, the simple things, leadership isn't complex. It's being human, connecting as humans, understanding what people need, and being there for them. And it's all simple stuff. So your first position is the hardest, and also, ask your peers to give you feedback along the way. Your manager won't always see everything, so ask for the 360s from your peers. I got coaches earlier in my career who were in rooms with me, who would be like, "Oh Sara, let's not do that again." It's like, "Oh, that's interesting. Didn't know that." And that will help you, because in management, you learn by failing, and you just don't want your team to be impacted.

Shane Hastie: Looking back or looking forward, what are the biggest challenges in the product role today?

Challenges in the product role [15:18]

Sara Rossio: In B2B, you had to earn your right to get access to the market. So through sales or through customer success or anyone else, the challenge when you don't have access to the market is you're guessing. And guessing, it's a coin toss. And so for me, the challenge has always been, how do I make sure the salesperson is right there to open the door for me into any conversation I need, and keep that door open for me and whatever engineer wants to come with me? Because ultimately, that will be the prescription to our success. It's a big challenge. The second thing I would say, when you are B2C, access to data. There's seemingly too much, and being able to combine them, correlate them, figure out what is really going on in trends, can be challenging with some data sets.

Shane Hastie: Again, speaking from the point of view of the product person, what are the technical challenges that you see bubbling to the top all the time?

Coping with architectural complexity [16:16]

Sara Rossio: You and I briefly spoke about this before, but I have many product lines that we manage at G2, with different stages of maturity. And what I love to do is make sure our teams have the ability to choose the technology they want, when they want, and make sure that the architects across the company can do that to move as fast as possible. But what happens is, you have disparate, disconnected  sometimes, architecture, based on when those decisions were made and whom made them. And for me, one of the biggest challenges is how do I get things talking to each other, efficiently and effectively, when they're architected in completely different ways, using different tech. And I just feel like, wouldn't it be nice in a world where things just fit together and there wasn't a technical rearchitecture, or I need a couple more days to sync this system, or to move something into a different data warehouse? It's a constant, for me, opportunity to figure out how to do it well.

And what I would say is, what I've learned, never slow teams down, but always just take a pause, and have architects talk to each other. Or understand what developers are making decisions. And just not stop them, but understand that because then I would understand later, do I need to think about when we need to rearchitect this or change the technology out? And I keep that in the top of my head versus making assumptions, as a leader, that we can scale the business faster at a certain point, for instance. So my advice is always, architects talk to each other, developers talk to each other, and when there's constraints that are created by the decisions made, let them be known.

Shane Hastie: Some really useful advice and lots of food for thought here, Sara. If people want to continue the conversation, where would they find you?

Sara Rossio: You can find me on LinkedIn at Sara Rossio, or you can email me at srossio@g2.com. I actually answer most of my emails of anyone just reaching out to me because I love to connect and learn more about what's going on in tech, and with people across the company, across the world.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Sara Rossio: Thank you. Shane, it's been a pleasure.

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