As a continuation on our series of interviews with women leading product management teams, I reached out to Sarah Gaeta, currently VP and General Manager in Software and Services at Tivo.
I was curious to learn how an undergraduate degree in Italian and a teaching degree from Harvard led her to a career in Product Management.
In this interview, Sarah shares her path, missteps and lessons, and offers advice for new Product Managers.
Sarah’s basic philosophy is that everything happens for a reason, and at the time, you may not know what the reason is.
Life is a bit of a winding road. She shared her history from buying her first Macintosh and taking Pascal, to training to be a professional photographer. Then, ending up teaching math after getting her teaching credentials from Harvard. A downturn in Education lead to a career in high tech. A winding road indeed.
“It was 1990 and education jobs were shrinking, not growing. I wound up being a substitute teacher and working in a temp office. Because of my computer skills, I was able to get projects using Illustrator 88 on the Mac, or doing spreadsheets, or whatever. Back in those days, not a lot of people were proficient with the programs and computers.
“I met an engineer from Adobe who told me that tech support at Adobe was hiring. He encouraged me to apply and I sent in my resume. I interviewed the next day and was offered a position on the spot. I started as a temporary employee doing tech support for Photoshop 1.0. What really got me that job was being trained as a news photographer. I could relate to what the photographers were trying to do and could show them how to do it in Photoshop. Of course I had to learn Photoshop, but that wasn’t hard. I knew Illustrator 88. That is how I got into Adobe. Serendipity, past experience, and networking. I was only a temp for two months and then became a regular employee.
“I decided my mission was to learn everything I could about the business. I wanted to know what the different functional groups did in business and what the challenges were.”
“Once inside Adobe, I decided my mission was to learn everything I could about the business. I wanted to know what the different functional groups did in business and what the challenges were. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do next. I knew going in that tech support wasn’t the-be-all-end-all. I wanted to do more, but I didn’t know what it was. I did a lot of internal networking while I was there.
“Because of that networking, about a year and half later, I had an offer at two positions within Adobe. Because of my Master’s in Education, they were both in the training area. I’ve always been curious about how things work, why they work that way, and what if we did it differently. I’ve always been very product engaged. So my whole career through Adobe, everything I did was around the product. It was a natural fit there. Once I got into high tech, I knew that I wasn’t going back to teaching.”
After 17 years at Adobe, Sarah went to Plastic Logic, which she describes as a great startup experience.
She held a diverse role of Product and Partner Management where she had to do a lot of partner negotiation.
“When you’re at a big company like Adobe, you set the terms. At a startup that doesn’t work. I learned a lot there about how to make a one plus one equals three kind of Partnership, which is not always easy. That wasn’t the approach at Adobe. Adobe was more like this is what we need, and what we want, and we hope that works for you, and if not we’ll find someone else. At a startup, I’m really hoping that I can convince you to work with us. How a win for you is a win for us. It’s a different kind of negotiation.”
When I asked Sarah what her biggest challenges were, she said balancing the creative drive of the development and product management team with market opportunity side and the right investment (and still get it to market on time).
“Teams have a window, and often you can know what that window is and often you don’t. If you stay in development too long, you may miss the window. It’s human nature that you don’t want to say no. It doesn’t feel good to say no. That’s a hard message. Especially when it’s not a one-to-one, but a one-to-many. Some of those one-to-many are customers. I think of it as a no – and here’s why. As a leader it doesn’t get easier, but I get better with more repetition at.”
The hard and soft skills of Product Management
I was curious what skills Sarah had to uplift when she moved from training into Product Management.
“I had to get much more business savvy. I had to understand and be able to do a market sizing and marketing assessments and build models. I needed to understand the business financial side of things. I hadn’t done that before. Being a math teacher, I liked numbers, so that was good. What is an addressable market? What is a serviceable addressable market? All of the terminology was a big part of the learning. I had to learn how to build a model so that I could present it to others and walk them through it. Every interaction was an opportunity to refine and learn.
“I think really effective product managers are good at collaborating with anybody”
“The second area was how to be the person with a non-technical degree in technical discussions in ways challenging technical people. It’s not that everyone would come across as “hey I know more than you so be quiet,” but if they did, you had to find ways to challenge them – not challenge them directly, but to collaborate with them in a challenging way. I think really effective product managers are good at collaborating with anybody and still guiding that conversation and engagement in order to support the business or the product and the customers. My skill at collaborating with others took many years to develop. I have had harsh feedback experiences to help me understand and see what I needed to change and why.
“Early in my career I was hesitant to say something if I didn’t have the answer. I wasn’t good at soliciting input from others and I wasn’t good at being comfortable saying I don’t know the answer, but I have an idea. Over time I had some great managers and mentors to help me see that black and white is not what you need to be and not a position of strength and richness. It’s actually in the gray area. Inviting others to help you get to the grey is a really productive way and actually benefits the products and customers much more than a one-man show.
“I always started with my engineers because they are so creative and so knowledgeable. I have built a platform of inclusion whereby I could tap into those engineering resources and experts and say ‘I’m not understanding x, y z. Can you give me the high level? I’ve done this reading and I have some questions.’ They were always so open to sharing. That’s how I’ve grown technically.
“I draw on these guys that do it day in and day out. I need to understand what they are saying and be able to translate that into the customer /user impact. The really good product managers are the people that really have that in their bones.”
When I asked about misstep, Sarah laughed and said, “Well, I can laugh about it now, with a tinge of ‘oh shoot!’.
“This was back in waterfall development. On Acrobat 5 we were very date driven we had a few of the features that were fine on Windows, but not to a quality level that we could release on the Mac. So we were looking for alternatives, and decided we would make it a web service.
“This is 2001, and we’re thinking everyone is on the web and everyone would still have access to it. We’re not taking it away from them. We’re just moving it from local computer to the web. It’s all good. That will be fine.
“Well, it wasn’t. We released it without the absolute feature parity and with no good story about why. Our story was people could go to the web. On the web people felt it was a burden because people didn’t have the bandwidth that they have today. We had very angry outspoken customer backlash. They were passionate, which was great. We had passionate customers.
“It was painful, we had passionate customers. So that was Part 1. The CEO of Adobe got blasted at a trade show. It was almost a personal attack on him. Not a good thing to create for your CEO. And Part 2, it caused us to run into revenue recognition issues following the new federal accounting standards board rules.
“That was the first situation at Adobe that ran into revenue recognition issues. So, I was not popular with the CFO, let’s say, because we had to defer some revenue. That was my biggest misstep. We thought about it from a product stand point, but we didn’t thoroughly assess it from a customer satisfaction impact or from financial impact. I didn’t know revenue recognition rules existed until that happened.”
Time for some lightning round questions:
Most fun part of your job?
Getting with customers, learning their businesses, figuring out ways that we help them solve either business challenges or improve their functions
Hardest part of your job?
Aligning what customers want with the direction the company wants to go. It’s the investments, the mechanisms and the timing. That balancing act.
What keeps you up at night?
My team. Are they happy, motivated, what more can I do for them? Do they have enough challenges coming their way? Do they know enough about the customer? What can I help them know more about the customer and the business?
How do you drive success in your team?
Ensure they know the target and have a clear path to getting there. If things come up that cause that path to get blocked or need to be deviated to work with them closely to figure out how to get them back on path.
What are you typically looking for in hire?
First and foremost, drive and energy – the get go. Someone who is smart and can apply the skills that they have developed in different ways to new situations. I’m not always looking for someone who is a domain expert. If you have someone who is a really solid product manager and they are smart, they can learn it.
Any motto or guiding principal?
Hire smart people and get out of their way. Don’t hire people you’re not sure can cut it. Don’t take the risk. I’ve had that come back and bite me. I’m much more definitive. They are either a yes or a no. There are no maybes.
Any advice for people going into Product Management?
I’m almost done reading Product Management for Dummies. I would tell them to start there. The book lays it out so thoroughly and clearly. It’s a 360-degree review. Go internalize that book. Product Management is a tough role. I know in some technical companies they have technical Product Management versus Business Product Management or even Product Marketing. Call me old school, but if a Product Manager can’t say what the customer wants and understand and articulate the impact on the business, then you’re not doing Product Management. My advice is go and see if you can get an opportunity or project at your current company to get your feet wet. Help out, shadow someone, it’s so different between thinking and doing. Try it out if you can.
For women you have to be willing to play the game that the environment set up, whether it’s a boy’s club game, who’s the smartest person in the room financially game, or who’s the most technical person game. Finding a way that the game works for you, is not always clear cut. In my career, even to this day, there will be situations where I think about them and two days later (because I can be very slow on the uptake) I think I wish I had done this in this situation. So I make a note, okay when this thing happens, I’m going to respond this way next time. I’ve got a little book that I write this down and reread every so often to remind myself.