Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Shuba Swaminathan, Vice President of Product, Developer Experience & Design at Vonage

For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series I interviewed Shuba Swaminathan, Vice President of Product, Developer Experience & Design at Vonage. To read the entire series on Women in Product Management make sure to sign up for our newsletter.

How did you get into product management?

I am an accidental product manager. I had no idea that’s what I was doing when I founded my own company. I was literally the CEO of the product. I was coding it. I was trying to market it and sell it at the same time. I enjoyed what I did, but there was much I did not know. I made a lot of fundamental mistakes; it was painful and expensive. That’s when I decided to go to business school, and that was the first time I heard this thing I was doing all along is called product management.

Any lessons learned along the way?

The number one lesson is never rule yourself out. Don’t let the fear of rejection hold you back. What is the worst that could happen? You apply and you get rejected. But if you never applied, the outcome is still the same. By putting yourself out there, there is a chance, however slim, that it may just click. That framing helped me shift my perspective and helped my career. My career is a checkerboard, crafted with intention. I have not confined myself to any one domain or role. I moved up the ladder because I gave myself permission to try different things.

The second piece of advice is to optimize for impact, above all other metrics. One of the most important things product managers do is make prioritization decisions, often with incomplete information. Be picky about what you say yes to, because you are implicitly saying no to something else. Consider the outcome you’re trying to drive and optimize for that. Saying yes to too many things is often the root cause of blurring work-life boundaries, resulting in burn out.

What do you like most about product management?

The skills I have honed as a product person are applicable not just in my professional life, but also in my personal life. I actually have a personal roadmap with themes for different aspects of my life such as health, finances, personal goals, travel, and household management. In the household management theme, I have auto insurance as a Q2 item, for example. Our auto insurance comes up for renewal in June, so it’s a reminder to start shopping for better rates in April. Well child checks figure in my health theme for Q3, so we can be ready with school forms in August. The personal roadmap removes a lot of my cognitive overload of trying to remember what needs to be done when, and avoiding a last minute scramble. It has made me a better partner, mother, and professional.

What do you find the most challenging about Product Management?

The challenge with product management is that it means very different things to different people at different companies. When contemplating a new role, ask what product management means to the company in the context of their culture. To be successful, expectations must align. What some companies call product management is much closer to product marketing. Product management roles can be very fuzzy around the borders. The company or team needs to agree this is how we’ll operate, and here is where borders overlap. This is where a good leader can make a great impact.

What are you looking for when you’re hiring Product Managers for your team?

First is mindset. Smart people with the right mindset can do wonders. A growth mindset is so critical for a PM because the problems that get thrown at you don’t always have straightforward solutions. You’ve got to make the best of it with the limited knowledge you have, which requires an open mind.

Second, I look for communication skills. Product managers talk to people all day long. You don’t have direct authority over the engineering or design teams, but you’re still accountable to ship product on time. Much of this job is about influencing people. If you cannot articulate ideas or help people understand different perspectives and develop trust, you will not be effective in your role.

Third is EQ. How well do you work with different personas? How do you roll with the punches? Do you get frustrated? How well do you manage your emotions? Especially in a leadership role, it is important to project calm and confidence.

What advice would you give women going into product management?

First, challenge yourself to speak up, if that doesn’t come naturally to you. Many women have amazing ideas when you speak with them one on one, but in a room with six or seven people where they need to articulate and defend their idea, they hold back. I recommend joining groups like Toastmasters to become more comfortable. Then, set a goal to speak up, for example, in four different meetings and present two ideas in a week. This is critical because so much of product management is about articulating your thoughts and ideas in front of a group. You need to be able to deal with criticism and feedback from the team and think on your feet.

Second, think of your career as a product you have to manage. Understand your current skill set and what skills you need to acquire to take the next step in your career, then be intentional when seeking your next opportunity. Each new role should add to your portfolio of skills.

Any guiding motto?

Be intentional. Be mindful. Take as much pleasure in the journey as you do in delivering the outcome. Develop deep empathy with customers and colleagues.

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View the full list of this blog interview series to learn the stories of more women product leaders.

About the Author

Nicole Tieche is a 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.

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We empower Product Professionals with the knowledge and tools to create products that matter.

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