Women in Product Management: Soni Meinke, VP Corporate Product at Optum, a Division of United Health Group

For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series I interviewed Soni Meinke, VP Corporate Product at Optum, a Division of United Health Group.

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How did you get into Product Management?

I actually graduated with a Communications and English Writing degree and got a job at a newspaper right out of college. It was an interesting experience, but then I started to get more interested in technology and eventually landed at Great Plains Software. They were a financial software company that got acquired by Microsoft. That’s where I first got involved with roles directly related to the end-to-end product experience.

As I look back at my education, that communications degree provided a great foundation for the people aspect of Product Management. There is so much to learn about forming and maintaining productive relationships and nurturing them in a way that fosters a collaborative approach. It’s a critical component that’s often hard to teach. I wouldn’t necessarily say a communications degree is a must have if you’re interested in product management but looking back it certainly did help me realize the importance of relationships and effective communication in this role. I was fortunate enough to balance that education with valuable on-the-job learning at companies who established very product-centric, customer-focused environments.

I’ve had kind of an interesting journey through the product management world. Oftentimes I’ve been focused on roles where I sit in a core central product group that works with the broader individual product teams within the organization. That is similar to the role I am in right now. I’ve had an opportunity to really look at common approaches, models, practices and behaviors that enable the product teams to function more productively and drive that mindset across the organization. There are some products and programs that I’ve owned start to finish. But it has been super interesting to have the opportunity to work in these central type groups within a product management organization to help drive those best practices across the board.

Any lessons learned or missteps along the way?

My weakness or soft spot is seeing all the opportunity and problems there are to solve. Early on, the one thing that I tried to focus hard on is prioritizing and managing scope. Not just of individual projects or product efforts, but also just how much in general I took on. It’s good to have that deep passion and caring to make a difference, but at the same time, to do it right, you really need to focus on prioritizing the right stuff and controlling that scope. Then you can be much more successful in what you deliver in the end.

What do you like the most about product management?

I think it is the variety of work that goes into managing an effort across the whole life cycle. There are so many opportunities and problems that we’re trying to solve and it’s not just a cookie cutter approach to every product experience.

There are a variety of people you get to work with and different customer scenarios and engagements to solve. Then adjusting to how the group that you engage with along the way might change. I like the variety. At the core you are still doing similar work, but based on the problem you’re trying to solve, the players may change. It’s not an environment where you can get bored easily. In this role we’re also closer to the customer so we can more easily see the impact we’re having.

What do you find most challenging?

Probably the variety (laughs). Keeping the number of different internal functional groups aligned on priorities and keeping them anchored on the right scope. A lot of times some of these different groups have multiple things that they’re also working on. It’s kind of a dance to make sure that you keep everyone appropriately aligned on timelines and deliverables.

When you are part of the hiring team looking for new talent, what do you typically look for?

I like to see a constant thirst for learning and knowledge. I don’t care how long they’ve been in the business or how long they’ve been working. That thirst for knowledge is key. It is proof that they have an appetite for that. I look for some proof points of how adaptable they might be or how they deal with change. Their ability to remain calm and level-headed as we try to navigate areas of ambiguity. None of this comes to you fully defined and mapped out. That ability to kind of parse through an undefined space and really find those golden nuggets of what it is that we need to manage is critical. Their general problem-solving skills is key as well.

What advice do you have for women who are entering product management?

I think that product management is a unique role. It’s a field that requires such a diverse mix of skills from technical skills to critical thinking, empathy, and a passion to make a difference. It isn’t all just kind of scripted and defined, which to me is what is very appealing to the role. I feel like we also bring a diverse mindset of managing across a number of different perspectives like that. With that, each of us then come to the table with a different mix of those types of elements, whether it’s critical thinking or empathy.

We should all take a look at our talent as the “product” that we bring to the role. We can approach it in kind of an MVP mindset of minimally viable product of “I’m going to focus on simply getting the job done” or we come to the table with the intent to differentiate ourselves. Knowing that you have an opportunity in this type of diverse role to blend those different elements in a way that makes you standout is important. To me a person can’t come to this role with just super deep technical expertise and very little empathy or critical thinking. It really requires that blend of those different skill sets. I think a lot of us have that in us. We just need to tap into it to see how we can make a difference.

Any guiding principle or motto that you have around your career?

Strive for continuous improvement instead of perfection. I can’t remember who originally said it, but it’s kind of a simple thing that I try to keep in the back of my mind. A lot of times we just want to get everything exactly correct. Obviously, we strive for quality and don’t release anything if it hasn’t reached that bar. But having that mindset of continuous improvement in the end helps drive more continuous value than getting stalled by searching for perfection, which sadly is impossible to attain.

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