Women in Product Management: Irina Farooq, Chief Product Officer at Kinetica

For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series, I interviewed Irina Farooq, Chief Product Officer at Kinetica.

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 switched into product management by a stroke of luck four months out of college. I received some good advice from someone who thought product management would be a good career for me. I didn’t even know what that was. Becoming a product manager for an enterprise software company right out of college was exciting, but an extremely rough transition.

It was very exciting because I was learning so many new things, but the organization was not prepared to have somebody who was a recent college graduate be a product manager. The whole path assumed that you had at least seven to ten years of industry experience and understood the market and how the process worked. There was no kind of training and onboarding for new product managers. I had to quickly learn the industry, what I should be doing, and also find my own voice.

Product Managers work with incredibly smart capable engineering leaders who have strong technical backgrounds, and also have a vision for the product. Product Managers have to learn how to find their voice and become the trusted leader that first of all people will even listen to, and then ultimately become the leader they will follow. That first year I worked day and night to really educate myself on the market. I volunteered for a lot of extra things that people didn’t ask me to do to learn and help establish my credibility.

Any missteps along the way?

I am somebody who has the ultimate growth mentality. I treat everything as a learning opportunity, not a failure. But even with that mindset, there have been a lot of learning opportunities along the way.

One of the bigger learnings that stays with me and that I have internalized in my career is that just because you can build something, doesn’t mean you should. A lot of people think that they will build the most amazing product that does everything. However, a lot of times there are natural places in the technology stack to solve certain problems, and you can’t and shouldn’t try to change that. Instead, it’s most beneficial to focus on your core strengths and to develop a partner ecosystem for a more effective go-to-market.

What do you find to be the most interesting part of product management?

I love the strategy element of product management. I always drive product from our business strategy and goals. What’s our role in the world of technology? I think product management gives you that perfect balance of being able to think strategically, understand the business, understand your customers and the market, and then be able to create something amazing that wasn’t there before.

What do you find to be the most challenging?

You could come into work and be doing a lot of things every single day, but not have tangible things to show for some period of time. That means you have to have the confidence and belief in what you’re doing when you encounter challenges along the way. People that you deeply respect, who have strong opinions may contradict you or not believe in what you’re trying to do. You have to be flexible and take input and refine your strategy, but you also have to sustain your belief and act as a glue for the organization to move the product and technology forward. That requires a lot of management of everyone’s expectations, including your own. Of course, when you succeed, it’s extremely rewarding.

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

I’m not usually as concerned about how many years of product management experience they have. I really try to look at the type of person they are, what their interests are, and what they could bring to the team.

I look to see if this person can define the boundaries of the problem and scope the problem, or if they are good at just executing within a clearly defined problem. Because in different stages of the product you may need different types of people in your team. If I generally know that we want to go after a new market, I need a person that can come in and understand that market, identify our value proposition, and scope a solution. That’s going to be a different skill set than somebody who takes an existing product from version 10.1 to 10.2.

I also look at how the person is able to critically assess what they have done in the past. In technology, what is hot today could be deprecated tomorrow. Every few years technology gets disrupted. That’s the world we live in. I look to see if people see the challenges that are facing their product or technology or business. I want people on the team who will challenge something we’re doing that we shouldn’t be doing anymore. I always tell people on my team that they should never be worried about their job if they do that. That level of critical thinking and understanding of the market is absolutely essential. Without that, many technology companies become single act shows.

What advice would you give someone entering the product management field?

I think one of the most important things is being a good listener and being able to understand the point of view of the person sitting across from you. Whether it’s a customer, an internal stakeholder, or a board member, you progress in your career because of good listening skills. In product management when we build the product, we understand the persona and their problems that we’re solving. But you have to be a good listener to understand all the stakeholders for your product that are much broader than just the immediate user. It could be the buyer or the internal users within the organization, like customer support. Being able to then think critically and synthesize everyone’s input into a compelling product vision and roadmap is incredibly important.

Be comfortable with what you know and what you don’t know. As a product manager, I’m not as technical as the engineers on my team. But I’m very comfortable with what I know, what I don’t know, and with asking the right set of questions. The worst thing you can do is to feel under-confident and think that by asking questions you’re exposing that you may not know something, and then actually make wrong decisions because of lack of information.

What advice would you give women entering the product management field?

In the hardcore enterprise companies like networking and databases, you don’t typically see a lot of women in product management and I think it’s a shame. There are a lot of extremely capable women that could excel in this role. I have been spending some time mentoring women that are transitioning to product. It’s a very exciting career.

I advise women to get a mentor that they want to learn from, irrespective of gender. In fact, overwhelming majority of my mentors are men. Don’t be afraid to ask people for honest feedback and advice. You need feedback on how you are doing without the context of a superior versus employee relationship. It can give you a great sounding board and key advice on the next set of skills you need to develop. I think that is the most valuable thing as you go through any career transition and product management in particular.

Any guiding motto or principle that you use?

I am somebody who has that growth mindset and needs to be continuously learning something new. I always have a mental map of the next set of skills that I need to develop.

In the workplace, my guiding principle is respect. I give people the ultimate respect, whether they are on my team or my peers, and I demand respect back. I do a lot of work to make sure that I foster that environment on my team and within the broader organization. It sounds trite, of course you want respect. But, it’s amazing how many organizations don’t embrace it as their core value. We talk a lot about increasing diversity, but ultimately it all starts with respect and making sure that people are heard. Making sure that people are not judged and that they feel included. Respect is the most important professional value I hold.

To read the entire series on Women in Product Management make sure to sign up for our newsletter.

What are your thoughts? We’d love to hear from you.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *