Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Sabrina Mandese at Qurate Retail Group
For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series I interviewed Sabrina Mandese, Vice President of Product Management at Qurate Retail Group.
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How did you get into Product Management?
In college I developed an interest in technology as I studied various areas within my business major. After college I started with Accenture as a consultant where I learned various development languages and database management along with the soft skills of working with clients. I continued my career in software development progressing to management of development teams. Although I liked what I was doing, I was never a hard-core engineer with the ability to learn new development languages with ease.
At that time, Agile Methodology and the idea of Product Management was just evolving, and we were starting a grass roots effort to move in that direction at HSN. I was leading a big project where we did not have Product Management involvement and realized I was filling that role, despite my title of Software Engineering Manager. When that project wrapped up, I also decided that software development was still NOT my passion. I wanted to apply my technology background to solving customer problems while meeting the goals of the business. I wanted to be more creative and focus on user experience and flow versus writing the code. Our Product Management team was growing and had strong leadership, so I asked to make the leap into Product! That leap did require that I take a step down in terms of my title/level. But in the end, it was well worth it and the right long-term career move.
Any lessons learned along the way?
Having spent nearly all my career in retail, it was easy to think I knew what the customers wanted and needed because we are all online shoppers. I’ve learned never to assume. I quickly became a firm believer in customer and A/B testing. It’s always important to validate your hypotheses through qualitative and quantitative data.
The other lesson I learned was to build strong stakeholder relationships. It’s very important to develop a level of trust with them so they give you a level of freedom to develop your products. They must trust you enough to provide a problem to solve rather than a solution to implement. This can be done by developing a deep expertise around your product and the business it serves. Also do not be afraid to speak up and use your voice regardless of your level and the level of those in the room. Have the conviction to fight for your ideas.
What do you like the most about Product Management?
I’m a problem solver at heart. In Digital Product Management we are often evolving products vs creating brand new ones. I love the challenge of trying to find ways to improve and “fix” things. It’s also a craft that forces you to continuously learn and understand the latest technology, which keeps it fun, interesting, and ever changing. Over the years it has also provided me with opportunities to improve my communication and presentation skills. Doing this interview and other public speaking would have terrified me years ago. But when you do it as part of your daily job, it forces you to improve.
What do you find the most challenging about Product Management?
Explaining what Product Management is to people! In retail especially it often gets confused with management of the products we sell. Beyond that it is still a challenge to explain it to people outside of the industry. Although more organizations are becoming “Product Driven,” there are still many that are not or are still early in their journey. Product Management plays different roles in different organizations and often reports within different areas of the business as well. I’ve experienced it under both business leadership and IT leadership, but there is value in Product Management being an independent organization as we ultimately represent the interests of the customer. No matter where Product Management sits, it’s most important that we ensure there is an understanding of our value in taking business strategy and goals and supporting that through the evolution of our product offerings to best support the customer needs.
What are you looking for when you’re hiring Product Managers for your team?
I’m looking for passion for the customer with a pinch of technical knowledge and dash of curiosity. There are many important traits that make up good Product Managers. They need good and varied leadership, communication, and collaboration skills to be able to work across both their business stakeholders and technology partners. They need to be able to use qualitative and quantitative data to drive their decisions. They need to understand how their products impact the business strategy and financials through things like metrics and OKRs while ultimately providing customer value.
What advice would you give women going into Product Management?
I’ve seen many strong female Product Managers, and many did not start out in this field. Some of the commonalities that made them strong Product Managers are also what makes them strong women. As women we often have tendencies and traits from our personal lives, like being detail–oriented, our ability to multitask, and having good planning skills, that we can apply to our careers. When you think about it, many of us have “life” backlogs where we are constantly prioritizing and planning out daily tasks. Have faith that your skills are transferable.
Any guiding motto?
I often jokingly say “Fake it ‘til you make it!”, but what I really mean by this is have confidence in yourself. You will not always know the answers but KNOW that you are smart and curious enough to find them. If you believe in yourself, so will others.
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About the Author
Nicole Tieche – Client Relations Specialist at 280 Group
Nicole was born and raised in Michigan; she received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan in French and Creative Writing.
After Nicole spent time studying and traveling through Europe, she moved out to California and discovered advertising was a great way to use her creative skills. Not as a writer, but as an Account Executive. Nicole is most creative in how she works with people: building relationships with clients and teammates, learning about them, and supporting them – even in ways they didn’t know they needed.