For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series I interviewed Marie-Pierre Belanger, VP Digital Solutions Product Management at Pitney Bowes.
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Don’t be afraid to take a risk to go in to Product Management. Women are typically very good planners and organizers, and that makes us forward thinkers.
Marie manages a team of solution architects and Product Managers who are creating new ways to increase mail production efficiency through data, some machine learning and visual analytics. I was curious to learn how she turned an Electronic Engineering degree into a career in Product Management. She laughed and spoke often through this interview about the need to have a sense of humor. She practices what she preaches.
“I got into electrical engineering more by process of elimination. My dad is a physicist in laser optics and he advised me not to go into pure science because there were no jobs. I didn’t like medical or financial fields. I was very creative, and I wanted to become an architect. As I thought about my future, I wasn’t sure what an architect would build because I was from a small town in Quebec. I thought electrical engineering was almost like art because you’re able to take an idea and make it happen with different electronics and software. I really enjoyed that degree. It was tough, but I enjoyed it. I started in technical support and I was good at training clients too. Along the way, I moved from the traditional field of fiber optics and wireless microwave radio networks to software. I got into pre-sales system engineering and then discovered Product Management.
I stayed in Product Management because it really fits my personality. I was offered several times to do an M.B.A., but the user interface and the user experience degree was starting to become more popular. At the time, I worked for EMC and they offered a few employees to do a part-time Master’s degree for three years in UI/X and I jumped at the opportunity. It was very different than engineering and a lot more about psychology. I’ve been in Product Management pretty much all my career now.”
I was curious how Product Management fit Marie’s personality and asked her to expand.
“I like to be creative. I like to take an idea and make it happen in multiple ways. Some people like to code and do software development, because they’re more individual people and they like to go deep. I like to take an idea and make it happen, but I’m more broadly focused. Product management is a cross-functional discipline. I get to work on the marketing with my creative side and write technical requirements with more of my individual side. I also have to work on the finance, which is tough, but you have to make it happen. Product Managers have to want to really be up to par with the latest and greatest technology. We have to constantly learn. I like to be in the center and I work with a lot of cross-functional teams. I touch a little bit of everything and that’s what keeps me going with it.”
I was curious what Marie found most interesting and challenging about her role.
“Sometimes I don’t realize or appreciate it on a day to day basis. It’s now time to do budget planning. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I enjoy doing budgets, but once it’s done, I’m kind of proud of myself for going through it and coming up with the costs and revenue projections. I really enjoy the strategic portfolio planning and how I’m going to get there. The ability to pick and research different technologies, different partners, and deciding whether to build or buy. That’s the area like the most.
The most challenging piece is the pressure from the market and the sales force. There are never enough features and the price is always too high. We have to be able to have a little bit of humor and the correct road map to be able to demonstrate that we’re going to get there. The challenging part is to keep being patient and forward thinking. We have to have a lot of foresight and keep everybody looking at the end goal. Things happen every day that cause a bit of anxiety and panic, like missed revenue or a late release. But, if you keep thinking forward, usually you get there and you’re successful.”
When I asked about missteps or lessons learned, Marie’s shared the importance of working well with cross-functional teams.
“There are always going to be challenges wherever you are working and the lesson to learn is how to adapt to your environment. I’ve worked in startup companies and also some large corporations, like Pitney Bowes is today. You have to adapt to the culture and the people you work with. That’s the only way Product Management can succeed. You can be a great innovator, good at process requirements, have deep knowledge of your market and technology, but if you don’t have a cross-functional team that works well together that you can trust, it’s never going to work well. My lesson learned is sometimes instead of beating with your opinion, try to understand different sides of people and use accurate information to make the right decision. I have learned over the years that the little bit of humor everyday works well. It calms the group.”
I was curious how Marie drove success with her own team.
“Everyone has an end goal for the week. We go back to our product roadmap and try never to deviate too far from our angle. If there is a technical problem or a delivery problem, we assess several fallback plans. Once the team is comfortable that they have the plan and a fallback plan, people have an aspiration and a desire to continue with the main plan. If something happens, the team is comfortable switching to plan B. People are excited by the changing dynamic, particularly our culture here. My team is always looking forward. That’s what keeps them up and going.”
I asked Marie what she looks for when she’s interviewing for new talent for her team.
“When we interview people for our team, they have to come in and teach us something that we don’t know about. It doesn’t matter what their experience and knowledge is; They might not know the electronic mail industry at all. If they are able to infer from their own experience, and from other markets and jobs they had, tell us how they approached a problem from a different technology or software, that’s what I really look for. I probe for some problem and I see how they answer using inferring information from other things they’ve done. If I can learn something from this person, I appreciate that and consider that good candidate.”
I asked what advice Marie had for women coming into Product Management.
“Don’t be afraid to take a risk to go in to Product Management. Women are typically very good planners and organizers, and that makes us forward thinkers. Product Management is one of the best area for women to work and it really hasn’t been promoted that way. It’s creative, like art. You take an idea and you bring it to life. It requires a lot of planning, a lot of strategy, and a lot of social cultural ability. Usually women are very good at it. Even without the technical background, women can become a Product Manager on the business side. If they have a technical background, women should really just take the risk. It’s fun and it’s one of the best areas to create the next innovation.”
Of course when I asked about Marie’s guiding principal, she laughed.
“Always have a sense of humor and always have a backup plan. People refer to me as the portable engineer. I’m a short and petite person and if they need some problem solving somewhere, they put me in a little suit case and I go and fix it. I get a certain amount of satisfaction when there is an impossible situation and they say give it to Marie and she’ll figure out how to make it happen. That’s my reward when I hear that.
Have a backup plan. If your technology team can’t deliver, can you go to a partner? If the technology fails, do you have a second fallback technology you can use? Always think shorter term. Gone are the ways that you can pick one software development platform and build your product for five or ten years. Always reassess the technology that you’re developing upon.”