Women in Product Management: Tiffany Trent-Abram, VP Global Product Management at Transaction Network Services
For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series I interviewed Tiffany Trent-Abram, VP Global Product Management at Transaction Network Services.
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How does a summer internship with the State Treasurer’s Office take this Oklahoma Sooner on a career path into the payment processing industry?
That was just one of the topics I discussed with Tiffany as part of our Women in Product Series
“I started working at the State Treasurer’s office as a summer intern to help pay for college. I was able to get a full-time job with them and learn more about the check industry and check processing. I’ve always had a very curious mind, thanks to my Dad, and wanted to know how things worked. Four or five years later, I had worked my way through various aspects of the check processing business at the state.
We brought in a new system to do the check processing and I became completely ingrained in it from a technical aspect. That led to my boss recommending me for a position with a startup company in Oklahoma City where I had the opportunity to grow through the organization. I started by configuring systems and completing installations, and traveling constantly. I was a true travel warrior. I was home maybe every other weekend, but I was fresh out of college and didn’t care. I wanted to do anything but stay in Oklahoma. It gave me a great opportunity to interact with customers and learn the technical aspects of the software. It was both the business side (keeping the customer on track) and the technical side. As with most startups, I played multiple roles.
Fast forward a little bit, I had to train more people to do installations. We were growing so fast that we were hiring ten installers per month. The company needed a support group, and because of my technical background, they had me set up a new call center. To support the technical knowledge of the team, I also developed a training program. I didn’t really understand product management back then, but we were doing a great job of getting the voice of the customer feedback to enhance our products. We had user conferences where we brought in all of our customers and let them tell us the good and the bad.
In the early years of the company, the development team (which included two of the founders) built what they wanted to. They started putting together software updates and handing them out at the User Conference. There wasn’t a quality assurance team then, so the updates didn’t always go well. Because I had the trust of the founders, another team member and I were put in charge of making sure that the releases were tested. We saved our customers from situations where they were installing bad code and having issues, resulting in more calls coming into the call center. Little did I know I was playing a bit of a product management role.
This was almost twenty years ago. I was working with development, setting regular releases, continuing to work to get voice of the customer information, monitoring the number of calls coming into the call center, and evaluating what issues we needed to fix in the product. We were hiring people directly out of college who didn’t have the technical background to write code, so we started looking at how to configure the software to make sure that we had easy usability tools for configuring the software itself. I really found my passion for product management then and decided that was what I wanted to do.
We were acquired by Metavante out of Milwaukee (now FIS). I stayed with them for a couple of years, and then decide that I wanted to spread my wings. I’d been with the company for fourteen years and it had been a great ride. I enjoyed the team members that I worked with, but I still wanted to get out of Oklahoma. I wanted to find out how my experience with that little startup company we had grown to a multimillion dollar company, and five hundred employees from fourteen employees, could carry over to another organization.
I chose to go to a much larger organization, First Data. They recruited me because Western Union was still a part of the business at the time. They wanted to do paperless check processing. I had been living it for fourteen years, so it was a very easy project for me to take the team through. We did it in about twelve months. After that project, I started looking across the organization to get into payments and out of checks.
After that project, I started looking across the organization to get into payments and out of checks. I moved into the payments division and focused on technical, strategic solutions. I was part of the team that built the initial Google Wallet. We created some new networks for the payments infrastructure. Then I was recruited for my current opportunity at TNS, and again, continued to focus on more technical products. I do enjoy the software and the hardware aspect of products and the fast pace of technology and how it evolves.
I love being able to see the full lifecycle of a product and where we can make change by just evaluating the calls coming into the call center. What does that signal to us from a product perspective? What’s the industry doing? What are some of the problems we can set forth and solve? I love the challenge, I love the pace, and I love the technical aspect.”
When I asked about missteps along the way, or lessons learned, I heard a chuckle from Tiffany.
“My goodness yes. I find myself leaning towards trying to understand the other side of the issue so it’s not just my way. I want to understand why people are bringing other issues to us, and why and how that can feed back into bettering the product or the solution that we offer. Sometimes I got caught in that, with people trying to tell us what product management should be. I say us because I was leading a team.
Sales was trying to tell us the product should be one thing and individual customers were telling us the product should be another thing. We had to consider where the market was going, how it impacted our customers, and why the feedback from sales and individual customers would signal something else. We had to determine what would add the most value at the time and set the priorities accordingly. That was one lesson.
Product management has to pick the priorities and set the direction that the team is going in.
There are some things that you have to put on the back burner, whether you want to or not. Prioritizing the back log is big and it is a balance between near-term revenue opportunities, long-term revenue opportunities, pain-point fixes, and automation.
Another lesson I’ve learned is trying to identify at what point we show that we need additional resources. It’s not necessarily based on the number of products, and it’s not always tied directly to the revenue. It may be based on the enhancements we’re trying to build into the product, and the amount of value and focus that we put on the product. It’s hard in a private organization, even more so than what it was in a public organization. It’s not always tied to additional revenue coming in. I had to learn how to show the opportunity and the business case the resources are tied to in order to build it right.”
Tiffany currently has a team of 50 employees that includes product management and development. The toughest part of her job? Balancing it all.
“There are demands from finance with a perspective that we may need new reports, or we may need to change the price of the product. We have to balance that with the strategy of what we need to build and what needs to be fixed with the product. We launch new products and also have maintenance releases for existing products. To gauge and balance all of that across the organization can be a challenge sometimes, especially when the organization doesn’t have a clear strategy all teams are following.”
How do you drive success with your team?
“As I came into this company, one thing the organization didn’t do as a core component of their business was really listen to the customers and what they needed. It was about the internal systems and what could or couldn’t be done. My goal was to get us back to voice of the customer and ensure that we are listening to the customer’s issues. We look at statistics and analytics to see where we need to go next with a product. That’s just key. Otherwise, you’re not going to be successful in building new products.
Because we’re a global company, there are products that we have been very successful with in Europe and are now providing to countries in Asia. We’re taking the product expertise and lessons learned in Europe and improving on that by listening to the market in the specific countries in Asia. We have to know the challenges our clients there are facing and make sure that we get it right. It’s not necessarily a duplication of what we did in Europe. It is still a different spin; however, being able to reuse that architecture is another win.”
Time for the lightening round
When you’re interviewing for product managers, what are you looking for?
“Somebody who is strong and who can be an agent of change, both internally and externally. Strong enough within the organization tell us that we need to look at something a different way. They need to be able to listen to the customer have the ability to ask the right qualifying questions and get to the core of the problem. They need to be able to follow the product through from the vision to the launch.”
What advice do you have for people considering a career in product management?
“Make sure that you know how to get organized. There’s going to be a lot of information coming to you constantly, so you need to make sure that you organize the content and put it into the right bucket in order to follow through. Attend networking events or classes that keep you using the other part of your mind. We get very busy in business and we only look at what the shiny object is today. Even if you’re experienced and you feel like you don’t need any other training, just do it. You need that break away from the office. You need to be able to see something new and see it from a different perspective.”
What is your guiding principle or motto?
“Be open and be a good listener. Sometimes customers, both internal and external, need to vent. You won’t necessarily get any value for your product, but still it’s important to build the relationship. Often there is value in that conversation and there is value in what you’re really trying to drive to for your product.”