Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Brandye Sweetnam, Director of Product Management at PayPal

In honor of International Women’s Day, 280 Group hosted a virtual panel discussion on how trailblazing women paved their way into Product Management. We heard from PM veterans, like Brandye Sweetnam, their success stories, lessons from past failures, candid feedback on how to tackle gender parity in PM, and actionable insights to move forward with.

A little about you…

I have always had wanderlust – I love to travel and can’t sit still for long! I often plan my next vacation while I’m on vacation. My family has a list of places we want to visit, and we’re working on getting through as many as we can while our kids still like traveling with us. I’m also lucky to work for a global company where international travel is an integral part of my role. When I’m not traveling, I love to cook and enjoy trying all sorts of cuisines. I’ve taken lots of different cooking classes, and you can always find me creating new recipes in the kitchen.

How did you get into product management?

I’ve been in FinTech for over 10 years and I’ve gained a lot of domain expertise along the way – from customer experiences, to sales, to backend operations, to new product development. My first taste of product management was several years ago when I was helping design a new online account management service for our customers at Capital One. I’d been working in Customer Operations and had a lot of empathy for our customer pain points and the tasks they were trying to self-serve. It was a natural transition for me. More recently, I moved back into Product Management at PayPal when I found myself, once again, being the loudest advocate for our customers. Working in technology, we often focus on the technology first, and the customer problem second. My approach has always been the opposite, and it’s helped keep my team in check when riffing on ideas.

Any missteps along the way?

Oh, sure. Failing is one of the fastest ways to learn. On one of my biggest projects, we were all so focused on making the solution as simple as we possibly could that we decided to remove the need for the customer to provide a piece of information. Well, it turns out we’d grossly underestimated the value of that information and within months of launching, it was clear we’d made the wrong call. We added that information back in and had to release a new version. Everyone wants to make the most elegant, simple solution and I learned that you can take that too far. The tradeoffs for each simplifying decision need to be carefully examined – both in the context of the present use case as well as future use cases. “Friction” is a dirty word in product management, but there are times where it’s warranted – whether for compliance, privacy, risk, or ease of future use. Knowing where to strike that balance is more art than science, but it’s also what makes our jobs fun.

What do you find most interesting about product management?

The potential. Technology moves so quickly, there are always great new ideas and possibilities to expand or improve upon an experience. Product management encompasses so many different disciplines and its practitioners have to be part technologist, part business person. I work with people all over the world, across many different organizations, in order to best understand our customers. The different cultural norms and user behavior around the world are fascinating to me and present a unique challenge when we build global products. It’s complex requirements like this where product managers get to practice both the art and the science of our roles. We get to play in that intersection of creative possibility and reality, working on great new experiences and then bringing them to market. Creating a “wow” moment for a customer and seeing your product actually being adopted is one of the most exciting parts of my job.

When you’re hiring people for your team, what are you looking for?

I look for someone who has a breadth of experience, whether that’s across different roles or different domains. I find the best product managers are those who have a diverse background. Ideally, I look for someone who has worked directly with customers and with technology, someone who has had to excel in a cross-functional or matrixed environment in order to succeed at their job. This could be in any discipline, at any level – it’s really the exposure and experience that are key. I prefer to hire for soft skills over hard skills as those are much harder to learn on the job. I look for common sense, communication, and problem-solving skills when hiring as these are all critical to a product manager’s success.

What advice do you have for women that are entering product management?

My biggest piece of advice would be to understand there are many different pathways into product management. It’s not a clearly defined career path, and for good reason. Some product managers are superior technologists, some are great salespeople, some are great analysts – there is no “one” way to be a product manager. I do, however, find the best product managers are the ones who have worked with customers. If you are looking to get into product management and have never been in a customer-facing role, I would strongly suggest you look at that as a stepping stone. Developing strong customer empathy is essential to being a strong product manager, and the best way to do that is to talk to customers every day.

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