Currently, only about 1 in 4 employees in the tech industry is a woman. So what does it take to create a successful career as a woman in Tech? In this interview series called Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech, we are talking to successful women leaders in the tech industry to share stories and insights about what they did to lead successful careers. We also discuss the steps needed to create a great tech product. As part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Payne.
What brought you to this specific career path?
I can’t say that I planned out my career path. Out of college, I started working in marketing at a startup called Lookout Mobile Security. At the time it was 30 employees, and I thought I might stay for a year or two, but I found myself working amongst some really great people who were smart and scrappy and afforded me the opportunity to work through multiple different roles at the company, gathering different experiences along the way—so I ended up staying for 6 years. I didn’t even know a role like Product Marketing existed when I was in school, but when I saw that there was an option for marketers to work closely with Product on developing the roadmap, I knew that was something I wanted to do. Then naturally, at a startup, you start pitching in where necessary, even if it isn’t in your normal job description. So when I saw a product presented at a hackathon that I wanted to be built, but we didn’t have enough Product Managers to lead, I stepped in. The Head of Product saw that initiative, and after he left the startup to join Uber, he eventually recruited me as a Product Manager and I’ve been on that track ever since. And that is what has ended up being the common theme throughout my career—the more you prove you can take on new challenges, the more new challenges will be presented to you over time. Take those opportunities whenever they are given.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve had a couple of moments—whether in a live demo, or presenting in a company All-Hands—where something goes wrong and my heart skips 10 beats (like the internet going out during a live demo, or speaker notes not showing up when presenting in front of thousands of people). In these times, I’ve learned the importance of 1) practice and 2) humor. The more you practice, the more you are bound to encounter something going wrong, so you get comfortable ad-libbing at the moment and can fix what is in your control ahead of time. But ultimately, we are all human and everyone can appreciate a joke—so if things don’t go to plan, take a breath, level with your audience that something is up, and wherever possible, lighten up the moment with a quip so you can take control of the moment, rather than everyone feeling bad for you floundering on stage.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment? We’d love to hear the lead-up, what happened, and the impact it had on your life.
When COVID-19 hit, everyone had to figure out how to cope, personally or professionally. Early on at Uber, we took bold action—as a company in the business of moving people and things, we asked people to stop moving. But we knew that people still had important places to be: hospital workers needed a ride home at the end of the day, and essential workers still needed to get to work, so we had to think of a way to keep people moving, but safely. Now remember, this was back at the time when scientists were still understanding the virus, and very few places were requiring masks. I led a team who quickly brainstormed what we could do to keep people moving safely, and changed our entire roadmap to start building lightweight functionality ASAP, while also spending time focusing on longer-term solutions for our users. In partnership with our Operations teams around the world, and based on expert guidance, we got PPE out to drivers, launched a new pre-trip checklist to advise riders and drivers on how to ride safely, along with features that ensured our users were following protocols, and created educational materials and enforcement mechanisms for these new policies.
This was one of the most stressful work periods of my life. The team was trying to work as fast as possible, making decisions that were going to impact millions of people, at a time when the science was still developing. But it showed me what I was capable of in terms of leading a team, bringing structure to chaos, leaning on quick bouts of user research to inform decisions, and standing by my principles even when they weren’t always the popular or easy route. This was a trial by fire, but it gave me immense confidence in my abilities, and I can look back proudly on that time to reflect on what our team was able to accomplish and the impact it had on so many riders and drivers around the world.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
We often joke that time at Uber is measured in dog years, because a year can sometimes feel like 5 with how quickly we move, and when I first started I truly felt that. This is not the place where you spend a couple of months onboarding and learning the ropes before you are expected to deliver results. Rather, I was given the responsibility in my first week to launch a new emergency assistance feature in Mexico—and that was just the beginning. There were certainly times when I felt stressed, overwhelmed, like I didn’t know what I was doing and doubted that anyone would trust my decision-making. But when I look back on this time I realize that learning by doing is truly the most effective way to onboard at a new company. You only learn so much when you are sitting in meetings taking notes, vs. being thrown into the deep end and having to lead those meetings with folks looking to you for a decision. You are forced to deeply understand the problems and form your own opinions quickly.
But whether you are new or have been at a company for 5 years, I have found that it is always important to lean on the people around you. They are there for a reason, because they are an expert in something, and can help you along the way. I often see Product Managers as a translator of sorts between many different functions. We need to speak the language of engineering, design, data science, marketing, etc., and translate between all of those stakeholders to make sure we are pulling expertise from each to come up with a cohesive plan.
So getting through tough times is all about recognizing that the tough time won’t last forever. You will eventually understand all of the acronyms at your new job, who to go to to get things done, and you’ll have more of an understanding of your users to be able to make decisions on their behalf, as well as recognize that you have so many people around you to lean on for help and guidance.
We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address? How does your company help people?
Uber is a technology company building products to help you go anywhere and get anything. But my team within Uber is specifically focused on improving safety on the platform so that everyone has a positive experience when riding, driving, delivering, or eating with Uber. Although rare—99.9% of rides on Uber end with no safety incident reported at all—we know that there may be times when a safety-related concern occurs during a trip. Our job is to provide the right in-app safety features, policies, and educational resources to help people understand the behavior that is expected when using Uber, and give them tools to take control of their safety. Over the years, we’ve built features that include: speed limit alerts for drivers; allowing riders and drivers to proactively record audio on their ride in select markets (just in case something goes wrong); and giving users the ability to call for help from a live safety agent or the police, and automatically share their live location with first responders. The job is so rewarding because we are actually able to see the impact we are having on people’s lives when we build features that help make the Uber platform safer.
If someone wants to lead a great company and create great products, what is the most important quality that person should have, and what habits or behaviors would you suggest for honing that particular quality?
User empathy is what comes to mind immediately. You can’t build great products if you don’t listen to your users’ needs and truly understand their pain points. To hone this quality, it helps to have a strong user research team and to set up regular opportunities for connecting with customers. There is a big difference between seeing a report which says ‘5 out of 100 users reported this issue’, and hearing from one of those 5 users about how the issue impacted their day. Hearing feedback directly from users helps reinvigorate your purpose for building and with prioritizing and developing products that have a tangible impact.
What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?
As much as we’d like to make the product development process linear, the reality is that it is so iterative. You are constantly pulling in new inputs from different stakeholders, which may alter your original requirements or conflict with the requirements of another stakeholder.
I’ve found that communication above all else is what Product Managers need to master in order to succeed. This communication needs to be upward, downward, and all-around. Transparency ensures everyone is kept in the loop on any changing decisions, and that there are no surprises to stakeholders right before launch. Constant checkpoints along the way ensure everyone is aligned on the basics (ie. requirements) before moving on to the details (UI designs & copy). Otherwise, you will find you may be getting pushback on certain pixels or words when really the disagreement is with the underlying framework or goal of the product.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together, and can you recall an anecdote that illustrates the dynamic?
The Safety team at Uber as a whole is one that is united by a passion for solving the problem at hand. This group of people is so hard working, so creative, and shares the mission of enhancing safety on the Uber platform. It’s this dynamic that brings purpose to what we do, and ensures we are all moving in the same direction.
If you had only one software tool in your arsenal, what would it be, why, and what other tools do you consider to be mission-critical?
At Uber, we live in the Google Suite—if something isn’t on my Google Calendar, it’s not getting done. And Google Docs and Slides are the basis of every feature we build—whether it’s getting alignment on requirements and incorporating hundreds of comments, or evangelizing a new feature to a broader audience. It sounds so basic, but there is no better way to drive to a decision than putting something on paper and getting an agreement.
And call me old-fashioned, but I always need a notebook or stack of Post-it notes to jot down to-do’s during and after each meeting. Especially when running from one to the next, this helps me remember everything I’ve committed to so that I can then prioritize my to-do list and make sure nothing slips through the cracks at the end of the day.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
I am a part of a workout group that helped me train for the NYC Marathon last year. I have never been the biggest runner, but there is definitely something to be said for the endorphins and mental clarity that come after a long run (if only because you are thinking about how much your knees or hips are hurting). And doing this in the morning before work makes you feel like you’ve accomplished so much before the day even gets going.
At night, especially on work-from-home days, if I still have some tasks to get done at the end of the day, I find it helpful to get some separation—whether going out to dinner with friends or watching some TV, to give my mind a break, before hopping back online to finish off some emails.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Align on a vision. Make sure all of your cross-functional stakeholders are bought into the key problems you are prioritizing, and the long-term direction you are looking to take the product in. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of sprint planning and tickets, and forget the broader context of what we are working on. Take the time to put this on paper, use it to inspire others, and get folks excited about what you are building. It’s so much easier to make decisions on the little things when everyone is in agreement on the big things.
- Listen to your users. This doesn’t always need to be an in-depth research project—a simple survey or a read-through of support tickets or app store reviews can also do the trick. Just make sure to ground yourself in doing right by your users, and everything else will fall into place.
- Start small + Test + Validate. Everyone has done it at some point: come up with a grand new idea and spend 3 months building it, only to find that users aren’t responding in the way you expected. The first time you experience this you quickly learn that 1) it’s not always the biggest / shiniest idea that is going to have the most impact. Sometimes the simple, lowest-hanging fruit idea gives you much more bang for your buck, and 2) validating your ideas through smaller experiments before spending 3 months building something is always a good idea.
- Eat your own dog food. There is no match for using your own products in the real world, in order to ensure you are delivering the best possible experience. At Uber, we have feedback channels for our employees to report bugs or less-than-ideal events when they are using our products. Many employees also take the time to drive or deliver on the platform to better understand the driver/delivery experience. Each non-magical experience that your users have chips away at their overall confidence and sentiment for the product, and understanding your product from a user POV can help drive better features and overall experiences.
- Collect ideas from everywhere. While Product Managers might have a lot of great ideas, some of the best ideas can come from unexpected places. I keep a note-pad on my computer of these ideas that pop up in meetings with others, generally where you say something like “we should definitely do that someday” but don’t have the bandwidth to take it on at the moment. That way when it comes time to plan the roadmap, I have a list to go back to and those ideas don’t get forgotten in the shuffle.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I have a bit of a skewed view of the tech world because in my time at Uber, we have done a fantastic job of hiring women Product Managers. In fact, on a team of 23 Safety PMs, 14 are women, and there is great representation across the rest of the company as well.
But I know this is not the case everywhere, and this shows me that representation truly matters. Simply put: having strong women leaders and Product Managers attracts more strong women. Companies just need to get the ball rolling in order to create that snowball effect. Focus your energy in hiring those strong women leaders, put them on interview panels where candidates can see that this is a place where women can thrive, and keep the flywheel going.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
I know this is a professional article and I’m probably meant to say a woman in tech, but I watched the Super Bowl halftime show and who wouldn’t want to sit down with Rihanna? She is the epitome of not caring what others think, working on your own timelines, working on things that are fulfilling for you, and owning who you are.