Women in Product Management: Diana Benli, VP Product Management at Cognizant

For our third installment of the Women in Product Management Series I interviewed Diana Benli, VP Government Programs Product Management at Cognizant in the TriZetto Healthcare Products Group.

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Imagine being the product manager for a product that is dependent on the ever-changing landscape of healthcare regulations and reform. What would your roadmap look like?

That was just one of topics I discussed with Diana Benli as part of our Women in Product series.

Diana started her journey to software product management in high school based on a love of math and the introduction of computer science.

She focused her education and studies on systems analysis, computer science and IT. For several years, she was a systems analyst for a health care software company.

“There was a turning point in my career where I had worked myself up the management ladder from systems analyst to directing the product development of a national health care product solution. When a large change in the healthcare market occurred, Medicare Advantage and the Part D program was legislated and that resulted in the re-privatization of Medicare in the US.

“At that time, the President of our organization was looking for someone to help the company get into this new market. He asked me if I wanted to take on the role. The company needed someone who had the technical acumen, but who also had a solid market understanding, strong customer interaction, and partner collaboration abilities to lead a major go-to-market strategy.

“It was this opportunity and the decision to take it that led me into Product Management.

“My reason for taking on the opportunity was that technology was changing very fast and I was becoming more interested in strategy and connecting the business drivers to the ways that technology solutions could solve them.

“It was a natural kind of fit and progression for me. To this day, I always feel like that technical background, especially in the software product management field, has been instrumental to helping me leap forward.

“Being the bridge between technological capabilities and the customer’s business is what product management in software is all about.

“Understanding the market problems, and then collaboratively focusing on how to solve those problems by making the customer more effective, operationally and economically – is the goal.”

When I asked how the uncertainty in the government’s healthcare reforms impact her team’s business decisions, Diana had to laugh.

“I hesitate to say that it’s a product manager’s dream. That may be too optimistic, even though there is some truth there. It certainly is challenging, and it really emphasizes the need for our product management teams not only to be hyper vigilant of what’s happening in the market, but to be able to understand and dissect those changes in a meaningful way.

“What is absolute? What do we need now? How can we reasonably predict the future? Our team talks about these challenges all the time. We have a large product management and portfolio team where compliance and regulatory changes are reviewed and assessed on nearly a daily basis. While it is extremely complicated to stay on top of it these days, and to know what’s ahead, it is the role that we play.

“As an example, we were doing some development to enhance one of our products to offer and expand into another market segment. We decided that we had to keep moving forward, but focus on what we know today, and be excellent at that, because it’s very uncertain what’s going to happen with health care legislation and the impact it will have on our customers. It could be a complete repeal and replace scenario or a few improvements to what we already have.

“As Product Managers, we have to be fluid, flexible and adaptable. We have to always be prepared to shift quickly and we have to design products that can do the same.

“The healthcare industry as a whole, and what we see happening with reform, is definitely an exercise of strong product management. We’ve got a great team that is really focused on art of shifting and reprioritizing on a regular basis.

“Additionally, being organized is critical as you are constantly balancing several sources of input. You have to be able to look ahead and almost be a futurist in your space. You have to satisfy the needs of both your existing and prospective customers. You have to be able to get down to a detail level with the product development teams and then communicate your strategies to executives for investment.

“Product Management is one of the most complicated roles in the organization and it requires a keen ability to be able to compartmentalize all of these activities.

“Product Managers are constantly changing hats to respond to the customers, development teams, and Executives.”

Not surprising, when I asked Diana what she found most interesting about her role, she said looking into that crystal ball.

“As Product Managers we have to know the future direction in our space, but balance that with an excellent understanding of where we are today; making sure that we’re developing products that will satisfy both our existing and future customer.

“That is the most interesting part of my role.

“The most challenging part of the role is ensuring that investments are spent wisely across a large portfolio.

“We have to ensure that every unique product within our portfolio is getting what it needs and deserves as an individual product. That is one of the challenges when you have a large portfolio.

“I have worked for both large companies and small startups. In a small startup, deciding where you spend your investment, once you have it, is easier. All of your investment is focused to that product or that smaller set of products. When you’re a larger company, there are a lot more tradeoffs that you have to make in regards to your overall investment.”

Diana manages a team of 10 individuals responsible for the product management and the go-to-market strategy of their B2B government portfolio. I asked what she looks for when she’s hiring a new Product Management position on her team.

“It all depends on the level of the role, where we are in the product life cycle, and what we’re trying to achieve and accomplish for that product, strategically.

“If we’re focused on market or product expansion, then we’re looking for the person with industry and strong product management launch expertise. If we’re working with a product that is in more of a maintenance phase, and we want to make sure that we’re satisfying our existing customers, then we’re looking for someone who has a strong understanding of our customer’s current business and has product management prioritization expertise.

“Ideally we get someone who is an expert in all areas, but you can’t always find that.

“We recently introduced a new process in our interviewing process. We look at what we want the individual to accomplish in the first 90 days of a product management role, and then what we want her/him to accomplish long term.

“We put together a business problem case study exercise and once the individual passes through the initial interviews, we have them complete the case study exercise. We then ask the individual to present their solution and approach for the case study exercise.

“This really helps us vet the right candidate. We’ve learned that a candidate can be fantastic at answering questions, but by taking this deeper dive in the interviewing process, we are really able to learn how that individual understands a business problem, how they logically think through the business problem, and then finally how they solve and present their solution – aligned directly to the needs of the role. I believe this is a proactive way to ensure the success of the individual and our product strategy.

“I find that individuals who are in the product management field – and who excel – are people who love to create and invent, while at the same time can stay focused on the day-to-day needs of their customers.

“Product Managers have to be very passionate and work in a safe teaming environment where they have the ability to explore while they create. They have to build solid roadmaps, but also be very flexible.

“Allowing product managers to be empowered with some direction and a few guardrails is the best way to ensure you’re creating a high performing and nimble product management team.

“Our whole team is very clear on the value each of them brings as an individual to the team and that is really important. We make sure that we are disciplined in who is responsible for what, but also know that any of us can pick up and help – knowing that if some action will help our customer or strengthens the product, we are doing the right thing.

“Having a very strong team that works very well together and that is not only empowered to make decisions, but also knows when to make those decisions – is essential.”

When I asked about missteps as a Product Manager, Diana reflected back to early days in her career thinking that she knew what to do with the product without really talking to customers.

She had been in the healthcare space for a long time and knew parts of the business and what some products were capable of. She thought she knew how to solve customer problems as well. The intent was good, however…

“Sometimes trying to solve a customer problem without really sitting down and understanding ‘a day in their life’, can be wasteful.

“You can head down a path and deliver something that doesn’t entirely solve the customer’s problem; you deliver it and then you have low adoption. In this day and age of investments, budgets, and managing to tighter and tighter margins, we really can’t afford to miss the mark. Working on the right thing at the right time is critical.

“We’ve put in place a lot of ways to determine how to build the right thing. One is certainly a very close and intimate relationship with our customers. We are continually finding ways to engage and involve customers earlier in the process to ensure a feature or product is something they need and will use and adjusting based on that interaction.

“The other lesson is keeping an objective view of things. Looking at what’s important to our company, our customers, and aligning those key strategic drivers helps us to filter and objectively determine, with various weighting models, what we should be working on and what will bring the most value and results. This is one of the most important disciplines in product management.

“We never run out of ideas, so this helps us to balance the value of our product ideas with our capacity to deliver. It took a few times of low adoption by customers to learn this. In the B2B world of products, you can’t do trials with a test group like some consumer based products can. So we rely on the customer intimacy and trust to help us define the ‘value’ the products bring to the market in measurable ways. This has also been a lesson learned for me along the way.”

Diana’s motto: Change or Challenge

“When you’re trying to push a product idea forward, a big part of product management is communicating your message, influencing the stakeholders and negotiating where necessary.

“One of our senior executive leaders in the organization told us, ‘You’re the quarterback. You make the calls.’ With this type of responsibility, sometimes you have to change your approach in order to do the right thing.

“Other times you can’t take “no” for an answer, and you have to challenge that “no”, respectfully. This is a key trait of a strong product manager who is focused on the best thing for their product.

“You either have to change or you have to challenge. I think applying this rule has contributed to great products and I am really proud of the success that our team has experienced over the years.”

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