Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Denise Hemke, VP, Analytics Product Management and Strategy at Workday

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 Denise Hemke, their success stories, lessons from past failures, candid feedback on how to tackle gender parity in PM, and actionable insights to move forward with. Watch the Facebook Live video of Trailblazing Women in PM: How to Blaze Your Own Trail.

A little about you…

I have a daughter that will turn three years old on Valentine’s Day this year. As a result, a lot of my traditional hobbies are on hold and I’ve got a bunch of new ones. Previously, I did everything from knitting, to boxing, to relay long-distance running… picture a team of 12 people running 200+ miles in about 30 hours. Fun stuff! Now, much of my time is spent dressing up like a princess or a superhero and dancing around my living room on Friday nights, exploring new parks, adventures on scooters, and gardening while my daughter plays outside. The plus side is that gardening has given us amazing food from strawberries, to tomatoes, to eggplants. We live “front yard to table” now.

How did you get into product management?

I had contemplated Product Management at different points of my journey in Engineering, but honestly—I was in my own head. I mistakenly told myself, “this is a less technical role.” Later, at a startup, due to limited Product Managers, I got the chance to try the role before committing to it. I basically functioned as the Product Manager and was willing to do so since it was a technical product. I loved the job! I learned it was the perfect mix of customer interactions, strategy, and engineering. So, I threw my name into the hat for a position on the product team and the rest is history. Well, there is a little more to the story about how it happened at a company party and my future boss asked me, “Are you sure? Let’s chat Monday.” Well, I was, and so here I am.

Any missteps along the way?

Of course, but the ability to learn from mistakes is critical. I’ll share one of my mistakes. I was at Platfora (before it was acquired by Workday) working on a new generation charting engine that had to be scalable for exploratory analysis of very large volumes of data. When you have an existing solution that functions reasonably well, you have to decide how many new capabilities to build into the next generation product before releasing. Do you build more capabilities or ship it fast? We ended up with a hybrid where we allowed customers to turn on our “lab” version. Honestly, though, I made that choice too late and should have shipped faster.

The impact was frustration by the field and customers that they weren’t getting new capabilities fast enough. Everyone tells you to ship fast and get feedback, but in the moment, people tend to ignore all that great advice and explain away why it doesn’t apply in this situation. It does! Ship fast and ship often. Nothing is more valuable than real customer feedback. You can do this with designs and clickable demos—to some degree. But a real product with the customer’s data and their hands on the keyboard is invaluable! All of these tools have a time and a place, but I learned to not spend too much time during the design and development phase because there is a point of diminishing returns.

What do you find most interesting about product management?

I love the intersection of customers, business, and technology. Take any of these out of the picture and the job becomes significantly less interesting for me. I love transforming someone else’s business through technology and hearing their success stories. On the business side, I enjoy understanding the market, a customer’s willingness to pay, and ensuring the product has good margins. Lastly, I love a good whiteboard session with an engineer and a designer. It truly is the mix of all three areas and that keeps me captivated.

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

Domain experience is important in my field. You are dealing with engineers that have PhDs in databases, and customers that have been writing SQL for 20+ years. You must be able to walk the talk. That said, hard skills can be learned. Much harder to learn is tenacity, systematic thinking, and the ability to inspire others. Not to say that these skills can’t be learned, but they are harder to develop. Some people just won’t take “no” for an answer—give that person a project that is the equivalent of pushing a boulder up a hill, and they’ll do it every time. Prioritization and strategy are all about systematic thinking—you must start by framing the opportunity or problem in the right way to understand it and then solve it. Too many people jump straight to a solution and miss the critical first steps. But, you can do all of this, and if you can’t rally the troops then what have you got? No product—unless you can code.

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

Ask for more than what you want and more than what you think you deserve—the guys do! I’ve attended and participated in too many events where women hold back, or downplay their great ideas, or don’t showcase their great work. Show your work! I’ve also reviewed entirely too many resumes from men where they are clearly underqualified, and yet I have little to no resumes from women to review—apply, especially when it is a stretch! More recently, I’ve observed more women negotiating their salary, sponsoring other women, and mapping out their career paths. This is a positive trend, and I’d love to see more of it. One last piece of valuable advice from a great (male) leader that I admire—still, there are more men than women in leadership roles in our industry, so studies show that the most successful women don’t limit their mentors to just other women. Seek out mentors and sponsors outside of your gender, too. Lobby for yourself, elevate those around you, and don’t put artificial boundaries on your opportunities for growth!

Download the Trailblazing Women in Product Management E-Book


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