Currently, only about 1 in 4 employees in the tech industry identifies as a woman. So what does it take to create a successful career as a woman in tech? In this interview series called Women in Tech, we spoke to successful leaders in the tech industry to share stories and insights about what they did to lead flourishing careers. We also discuss the steps needed to create a great tech product. As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Naragon.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Curiosity and coincidence. I started my career in the nonprofit sector as a fundraiser, which was a blend of marketing and sales applied directly to impacting the community. Between my first and second year of business school, I found an internship in a sector WAY out of my comfort zone—software. My curiosity kicked in because it felt safe enough to step out of my comfort zone, if only for a couple of summer months. And the coincidence came into place because this particular internship was within walking distance of my apartment! It seemed like a no-brainer! And I returned to it post-b-school because I knew that it was an exciting space in Martech, with tremendous growth potential for the business and me personally, and I took every opportunity I saw to learn more in this field.
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?
One of the funniest mistakes I made was as an early 20-something in my first job out of college. I was working late at the Red Cross, processing donations. Everyone was gone, and when the phone rang, I answered it because it was winter in Rhode Island, and our organization was always on call for house fires in the winter to help victims with shelter, clothes, and assistance to get back on their feet. So we always answered calls. But this call was from a radio reporter, and they wanted an official live conversation to give residents tips on preparing for the upcoming severe cold weather. I panicked and gave the interview, and leaned on my knowledge as an outdoor adventure instructor. The advice that I gave was not wrong, but it probably also wasn’t advice that the Red Cross would have officially contributed. Later in my career, I took mind-blowing press training classes and tried to help people not make that same mistake.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?
I’ve had several, and they each have a similar element—fear. I knew nothing about enterprise software when I started, which was scary. But the more I put myself out there, the quicker I learned and the more I loved the impact I could make. When Adobe acquired the company I worked for, I was put in the sales function. The enterprise sales team at Adobe is a high-functioning team, and did I feel out of my comfort zone again…yes! When I transitioned into a strategy role and needed to pivot the business into a new category, I once again felt that high risk of failure, and once again, I learned to give it my all. I did not take a straight and narrow path, which meant that I constantly put myself in a high career risk situation with elements of fear. Did I make mistakes along the way—absolutely. Did I fail epically—no.
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?
I think the thing that I’ve learned, looking back on my tech career, is that people who put themselves out there and push hard to make an impact will always face hard times. I’ve found myself looking at my ‘to-do’ list and melting down with an unbearable sense of being overwhelmed—too many times. My initial response was just to work harder. But it turns out that only made it worse. Instead, I had the good fortune to have a seasoned leader to whom I finally learned to bring my list, and he would help me prioritize. This encouraged me to continue because it gave me instant relief to know that not everything on my list is a priority and I don’t need to deliver everything that quarter at 100% perfection.
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?
I was in the market recently for cough drops—I travel a lot, and lozenges are a must between the occasional cough and the constant dry air in planes, airports, and hotels. I ran out and didn’t have time to get to the pharmacy, browse for options, and grab a bag for the road. So I went to Amazon, searched for a brand I know, and saw an offering for two bags. The next day when my husband opened the package, there were so many lozenges he wondered if I was preparing for another pandemic. That was not the product that I had expected. My husband asked if I had checked the price or the number of tablets per bag, but I hadn’t. I was embarrassed and a bit angry that there wasn’t enough correct information to put context around my quick, transactional decision on that channel. Perhaps if they had referenced the size compared to what is available at a typical pharmacy or had an image of the bag in front of a person, I could have seen the product in context. I probably would have returned the item if this were a larger purchase. If it was a more significant product, I might have even left a negative customer review or comment on social media channels.
Each of the moments that we experience when browsing for products—each time we see a product, we look for its story. We want to learn if it will meet our expectations. Brands and retailers need help creating and distributing engaging product stories along every touch point of the customer journey. That’s the problem we are helping businesses to solve. And those brands/manufacturers and distributors/retailers we help realize increased sales, reduced returns, higher profit margins, and faster ability to pivot into new markets or new routes to market than ever before.
At the end of the day, we help people make better-informed decisions on the products they choose to buy. When personal finances are tough, people must find the right products for the right situations and not be disappointed by misaligned expectations. This ultimately helps the environment as well because it reduces returns and, therefore, reduces waste while assisting the buyers in deciding how to spend their money with companies that source responsibly and ethically.
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?
I’d have to go with curiosity. I think some people come in with book learning or even take their playbook from their prior experience and apply those learnings to the following business context they find themselves in. But great companies and products are often the results of disruption, disrupting the book learning and vanilla playbooks. Curiosity leads someone to ask ‘why’ and then, most importantly, to listen to different stakeholders for their answers. A curious person keeps asking questions and can then take the feedback to craft a solution that fits the business context. Yes, they use book learning and past experiences to accelerate the discovery process and digestion of feedback. But amazing business breakthroughs are far less likely to happen if you’re not willing to challenge those things by hearing different perspectives to your questions.
Let’s talk about teams. What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?
When it comes to product development, the team management strategy that I hold above all others boils down to the structured collection of different points of view on the job to be done. I was fortunate to have taken Professor Clay Christensen’s course centered around his theories of disruptive innovation in business school. It fundamentally changed my thinking about problem-solving and team structures to support innovation. And when product teams look to build out a roadmap, the first questions that need to be asked are, what is the job to be done? What is the business trying to accomplish, and what’s holding them back? Having customers, market analysts, prospects, product managers, product designers, and product marketers contribute to the response to those questions will ultimately get you to a solution that might be outside the apparent path and is more likely to be the best solution positioned to win.
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 best teams I have worked with have always had three things in common: alignment, trust, and respect. Alignment is vital so that each individual knows what is expected from them and how they will interact with and rely on the other team members. Trust comes next because there will always be times when even the most reliable people can’t live up to expectations, so the team needs to have trust and show grace to their teammates so they know that if they are falling short, that it’s probably not for lack of trying and other things must be going on. Finally, respect is a critical element because if individuals feel confident about each other, the different dynamics of alignment and trust will be easier to maintain. One of the ways that I know that we have a strong team is when I can go on vacation and not worry about my inbox, same for anyone on the team. Because we are aligned on what needs to be done, trust that it will all be okay while on vacation, and respect the fact that we all need time away from work.
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?
I can’t imagine a world without video conferencing anymore. It’s amazing to engage with people around the world on a daily basis without having to travel around the world on a daily basis. Could I use fewer screens in my life? Yes, but it’s been such a productivity gain to have the flexibility to engage virtually in addition to in real life. I’m also a little old school because I consider another tool that helps me daily to be a pen and notebook. Writing (especially to-do lists) allows me to think and helps me to remember things better. Nutrition is also mission-critical for me…whoever joins my morning meeting will see me with my matcha latte and kale smoothie.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
Time with my family, exercise, and nature. I love the weekday morning routine in our household and relish the times when I get to walk my kids to school. The hours when work is done and before the kids go to bed are my most soul-replenishing hours. And if I don’t get to fit in my 6 am Peloton ride for whatever reason, I feel less prepared to face the challenges of the day. And on the weekends, nature is a must. Pulling myself away from my screen and going for a walk in the woods, taking my kids to their ski lesson and marveling at the snow on the trees, taking a long weekend in a cabin in the woods—those are the rituals that help me put back perspective into my life and prevent burnout.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?
- Define the job to be done. So many B2B enterprise software companies look at a market and wonder how they can do it differently. Others look at a category and wonder what other innovations or adjacent technologies they can expand into, and that’s how they grow. Still, others look at what a large software company doesn’t have and build a product to be acquired by that large software company. I find all of those approaches short-sighted. I prefer to study people and processes; I like to understand the goals of business and technology leaders. I want to observe how the business tries to reach its goals and determine if it's the right moment to introduce technology and how it will accelerate and drastically improve the job they are trying to do and achieve its goals.
- Define the solutions businesses are using to accomplish that job. If the job you want to help companies get done better is going to require change, show that company what the difference will look like. Otherwise, they are unlikely to go along with it.
- Define the unique value you can bring to that job to improve results for those businesses. If the solution that you’ve developed does not provide exceptional value, it’s time to get back to the drawing board. The job to be done that you’ve created does not provide unique value; it’s time to get back to the drawing board. It’s one thing to make a back office process faster and more efficient; it’s another to draw a direct line between that improvement and top-level business results.
- Bring it to market before it’s ready and be willing to scrap, iterate and change course as necessary. This one is both the scariest part and the most exciting. Finding the right moment to launch a new product or direction is a risky business. If you’re too early, the market might not be ready. You might miss a substantial first-mover advantage if you're too late. You have to balance getting enough market feedback with putting something into the market that can be modified and honed to fit the needs of the actual market.
- Find quick wins along the journey and amplify those. If you’re unable to collect, consolidate, understand, and leverage feedback and quickly change course, then you might not be the right person to build great technology!
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?
What a question! Some people love the phrase progress over perfection. But on this topic, I’m demanding perfection and will settle with nothing less. So, no, the state of affairs for women in tech today is not perfect. But you know what’s nice? Having so many more men who are more aware and who are not afraid to step up and step in. Just the other day, a male ally pulled me aside to let me know that I should never be caught in a room alone with a certain person who I had just met. Wow! More of that, please.
If you’re a C-suite or VP of a company, your voice naturally carries more weight. And since there are more male C-suite executives and VPs, being an ally to women, people of color or any otherwise marginalized person means a lot. Making a difference is as easy as committing to doing something supportive every week—asking for finalists in the interview to be both men and women, or you won’t approve the hire; if colleagues are planning an event and all male speakers are proposed, insert your voice and make a change; encourage a woman take a job she might not feel ready for; ask HR for an equal pay assessment internally; select a talented woman in the company to mentor and help her progress her career; pay attention to women in meetings and notice if they are being heard or if they are being talked over or talked past and amplify their statements by saying their name and repeating or rephrasing their comments.
Obviously, there are systemic changes that still need to happen, like legislation guaranteeing maternity leave. Or ensuring that there is equal access to quality childcare for women and parents of all economic situations. Or providing women with equal access and ability to secure financing for entrepreneurial ventures.
But the changes that will be most immediate and meaningful will be realized through daily actions and words.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
Marc Benioff. Clearly, the man is a genius. He has built something amazing at Salesforce, and I want to hear firsthand what he initially imagined for the business and the market. I’d also like to learn about his decision-making process. I would also like to share with him that I think that I see a massive market creation opportunity that he might not see. Do you think Mark would take me up on such a challenge?
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