Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Vanessa Davis, Vice President of Workspace Products at Litera Microsystems
For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series, I interviewed Vanessa Davis, Vice President of Workspace Products at Litera Microsystems. View the full list of this blog interview series to learn the stories of more women product leaders.
How did you get into product management?
My first career was in legal as an associate lawyer at a large law firm in Los Angeles. I understood quickly that I wasn’t going to be a good fit in that environment. I tested myself by going to a smaller firm for a while, but that didn’t seem to work for me either. The practice of law was not what I expected it to be. It was very administrative and prescribed, and I left my second firm without a clear sense of what I would do next.
Luckily, I had a friend who was working at a legal tech startup and he asked if I wanted to work with them to create products. My job was to use my legal knowledge and my writing skills to create documents with guides attached to help consumers and small businesses learn how to request a name change, file for bankruptcy, or create a company. I found creating elaborate, consumer-friendly, step-by-step documents was more fun, and in some ways, more challenging than the work I had been doing previously. I felt I was helping people solve their problems in a way I didn’t feel at law firms. Here I was notified every time someone downloaded my documents because that was how I got paid. It felt good to see people using and getting real benefits from a product I created. That is how I got into legal tech, and it snowballed from there. I worked with both lawyer-facing legal tech and consumer-facing legal tech companies doing similar things. Then I got into the weeds of, “Okay, what do you do with these documents after you draft them? How do you put them on websites? How do you create processes to replicate this? Once I got my first job, it was a smooth transition from a content role to a broader product role.”
Any lessons learned along the way?
The worst thing you can do in big law firms is to make a mistake. You spend as many hours as you need to make sure a document is perfect before the client sees it. You don’t deliver things half-baked. Clients are paying for perfection, and that is what you are meant to deliver.
Very early on, when I transitioned into product development, somebody asked me how long something was going to take. I remember thinking, okay, I better give a number that I’m guaranteed to hit with the total amount of time I will need to take (plus a cushion). I said something like, it will take me 100 hours to do it perfectly. They said, “Absolutely not, we need to launch, we need to get this out. If we need to, we’ll fix it. We’ll iterate and make it better.”
There is no public iterating in law. But in software there is, there must be. Software that’s not delivered is nothing. If it’s not in the customer’s hands, what is it? It’s just time that you spent. If you’re sitting around waiting for perfection, there’s no value at all. No matter how much time you put into it, there’s no value if a customer is not using it.
What do you find the most challenging?
It’s an old saw to say, but the legal industry is resistant to change. People learn how to practice law by learning how people practiced law before them, and so on. The way things have always been done is the way it works. You won’t get in trouble for doing it the way it’s always been done. You won’t risk your client relationships by doing things the way they’ve always been done. There is real comfort in that. The pandemic has helped shift some of this, at least in terms of remote working and cloud technologies, but there is still resistance to process automation.
What do you like most about product management?
It’s exciting to get people together to solve sticky problems that haven’t been tackled for a host of reasons, whether general industry resistance to change, or protective regulations about who is allowed to address legal issues. And the part I really like is the “Ocean’s Eleven” thing of gathering individuals who are each excellent in their own fields coming together with their various skill set to tackle a challenge. You have engineers, designers, customer-facing teams, subject matter experts, and, yes, product people, and they all work together to create something amazing.
And just like when I started, I like getting to solve real problems for real people, even if it’s just to make their day-to-day lives easier. It takes a lot of bravery in law firms to say, I want to do something in a way that hasn’t been done before, and I think this is going to be a benefit to my client. The change we enable makes a big difference for our customers and their clients, and that feels wonderful.
What are you looking for when you’re hiring Product Managers for your team?
In interviews, I always ask people what do you think the most important part of Product Management is. Everybody says communication, because they’ve all read the same articles that say that communication is essential to Product Management. But more than just saying that communication is important, you must show it in the interview.
I recognize that this is somewhat unorthodox, but I think an important way to show communication skills in an interview is by showing that you have a sense of humor. Being able to joke a little bit reflects confidence and trust – both of which are essential to communication. When we laugh together in the interview, it creates an alliance between us. It shows authenticity and I start to feel like you might be easy to work with and more resilient in stressful situations.
More practically speaking, I also often ask about deprecation of features. When was the last time you killed a feature in your product? If you see something you’ve created is not doing well, what do you do? It’s easy to add features, to keep piling on to what you’ve already built, but when do you get rid of it? A lot of people say they never have. I’m looking for the person who has at least considered it. That tells me they know that their job doesn’t end with the launch of a feature but requires you to keep considering its utility and how it contributes to the overall product. Otherwise, you end up with features on top of features without thinking about how it affects the whole platform.
What advice would you give women going into product management?
Although it can help, you don’t need a technology background to make it in Product Management. Develop expertise in the field in which you want to do Product Management, whether it’s finance or fashion. Even if it’s just a hobby, that can be your path in. Leverage what you’re already interested in, or want to learn more about, because you’re going to be neck deep in it for a long time.
If you find someone that you’re interested in connecting with, or who has a job that’s your dream job, reach out. Don’t take up a lot of their time, but write a specific set of questions you’d like answered. You may be on their radar when they’re hiring. Women second-guess themselves about reaching out, but people end up being surprisingly nice when you’re asking for help. And that’s how you get jobs. I hate to say networking because it sounds tedious and manipulative, like 1980s-shoulder-pad-style-relationship leveraging, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Don’t view the relationship as strictly transactional – introduce yourself and have a conversation and see what develops organically.
Any guiding motto?
Start where you are. Throughout my life, I’ve had this feeling like I’m behind. I started in law, then I switched careers: I’m behind. People I went to school with are making partner; other people know more about software development than I do: I’m behind. I even had kids late! There’s an old aphorism, of disputed origin, that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.
In other words: you are here, now. This is where you start. Instead of thinking it’s too late, think where do I go from here? If you’re stuck, look at what currently is. If your software is bad or your platform is failing, or you just don’t like something in your own life, accept where you are and understand what you have right now. It’s okay to freak out for 5 minutes, wail and moan, and gnash your teeth*, but then shake it off: what is the next step forward? In product terms, what is the problem you’re trying to solve? Describe the current situation, map out the “what is.” Then, once you better understand how things are, you can get to a point where you see the path forward, the “what could be.”
*I maintain that this is an important part of the process and should not be neglected. Definitely say “it’s not fair!” at least once.
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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 Solutions 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.