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 Elizabeth Lawler.
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?
AppMap is my second tech startup in the whitespace of developer tools. I started my career teaching students statistical computing, then became a data scientist, then an IT leader serving as Chief Data Officer and Chief Security Officer. Ultimately, I started founding tech companies to build new products to scratch itches that I had for products that weren’t in the market.
When trying to communicate complex software architectures to new people, employees, and stakeholders, I realized there were evident misunderstandings and misconceptions around code architecture, how software behaves when it is running, misconceptions about quality, performance, security, etc.; so much of what we need to understand is opaque or based on mental models. But the software is itself declarative of its own behavior and the code is best positioned to explain how it works when it runs. That was the aha moment for me, and what drove me and some of the early team members to build AppMap.
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 don’t know if this is a funny example, but it is a real world example. They say you shouldn't repeat your own mistakes, but we did just that. When we started thinking up AppMap, being a runtime code analysis product, we started building it out as a SaaS. It was one of the easiest ways to build a prototype and gather the test data we needed from open source projects to validate our technology.
Given our background in cybersecurity, we knew going in that there was a lot of sensitivity around dynamic analysis and storing sensitive code data. Software development pipelines can be vectors for malicious code insertion and people can gain access to sensitive code and pipelines through all kinds of integrated third party tools, as evidenced by recent breaches of CI systems.
If we moved AppMap entirely into the code editor and micronized our data platform to be closer to the code we could reduce the data security risk. People could use AppMap and we could assure the user that “your code is your code”. We reduced the third party software risk, and adoption took-off.
But then we decided we wanted to build analytics. So we started building on a server using open-source projects as our test data. Again, the consumers said, “I don't want it there. Put it in my IDE.” Yet again, we moved all of those features and functionality back into the codebase, which is where you find the analysis capabilities today.
The lesson here: making the same mistake twice is just as painful the second time as it is the first.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?
This past October, AppMap participated in TechCrunch Disrupt and it was pretty phenomenal. It was an experience unlike anything I'd had before – competing in that way with the audience and the reach of that event. I think AppMap benefited from getting to share our message on that platform.
However, I don't think my career defining moment has yet happened, there is always a new and bigger challenge ahead. I see big things ahead for this team and for this product.
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?
Deciding to build a white space product is no easy task. You have to be able to capture the imagination of people to adopt or try something they didn't know could exist and don't intuitively understand the benefit of it. While creating and the ability to envision something that doesn't yet exist is super fun, it can also be super frustrating. Whitespace products are a challenge to message accurately and sometimes you wonder, “can I keep doing this?” because it’s such a hard thing to do. It's the hardest kind of problem to solve as an entrepreneur.
We went to Google, Meta, and companies with elite developer experience tools, and they didn’t have anything like what we were creating. We validated our assumptions about what was missing, but I don’t think people thought it was possible. We needed to really believe in our vision and our ability to create this product. I am so fortunate to be working with a team that can really build amazingly deep technically challenging products.
It is exhilarating and scary to see an opportunity that others don’t see. It’s when you start to get that bit of momentum and you see it start to click for people and they start to amplify what you built – you realize why you did it. You hear the user’s delight. Now you want to go even further and delight them even more.
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?
AppMap provides the first-ever developer observability platform that delivers dynamic software analysis including performance, security analysis to developers in the code editor.
Until now, this was a huge gap in the market as developers and software teams were forced to rely on static analysis tools and were unable to identify complex code-related design issues or troubleshoot customer issues before they were released. This resulted in hours of rework that stalls creativity and innovation. Software toil is one of the main drivers of developers quiet quitting.
AppMap disrupts traditional approaches to the developer experience by seamlessly integrating its open source runtime code analysis tool directly in the code editor. This enables users to see not only code behavior but also any proposed changes to performance, security and stability as code is being developed. This elevates the developer experience by providing predictive and actionable insights when it is easy to make changes.
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?
You absolutely must have empathy for your user. As a developer tool in the code editor, you're in the most intimate creative space with your user. You're on their desktop, in their creative development moment that defines what developers do. To be helpful, you must have a lot of compassion and must be judicious about how you help. That's a very fine dance.
The goal is to create something that people love and don't want to work without. That's a very steep hill in terms of product design and development. The way to ensure you’re always putting the user first is to get to know your user and build community and conversations around approaches.
At AppMap, we know ideas come from everywhere. We're profiling a lot of developers and our community pages. We have people from all over the world – from all 50 states in the United States and hundreds of countries – represented in our community. This gives us the opportunity to reflect and understand the needs of all. That’s the most powerful way we drive our mission forward.
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?
From our product to the way our team operates, transparency is key. With AppMap, we started with open source first because that allows anyone who can read and understand our product to provide us with input and feedback. By choosing to be open, we created an opportunity to have product conversations with the population of users we're trying to serve. Being open is something our team really believes in.
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 AppMap team is actually made up of many members of my former team from Conjur. The group of us have gone from company to company, working on serial whitespace projects together.
What impresses me most about this team is that not only do we work well together, but we also work together well in the face of adversity. Leaning into the problems and working to address them – embracing the feedback regardless of who is in the room. That is how we all work together.
As a team, we get together frequently to create alignment. We have been able to foster a culture of radical transparency. Everybody can bring ideas from any corner of the organization. We take care of one another and do a really good job of that.
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 think code editors, like VS Code and JetBrains, are really phenomenal places to do once work. Not only do we embrace these as a place for which we consider ourselves members of the ecosystem, but you can see all of the tools and technologies that are focused at developers shifting into that environment – making them absolutely indispensable. If you want to understand how software products are built, you need to understand what is happening inside the code editor. Look at Co-pilot and other generative tools pushing boundaries in the code editor.
As a business leader, another mission-critical tool is time management software. Without a time management software solution, it would be easy to spend your day the way you want and let inertia take you along the day. My days are more productive when I schedule focus time to get important things done.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
My kids are probably the best antidote to burnout. Kids don’t let you work when you are with them. They will be in your office, telling you to put your work away or that they need your time and attention. Kids force you to be present and to put down the job. I treasure every moment with them and I am glad they make me put the tech down.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?
1. Figure out your POV and dare to be different: then add it to the market and see if it resonates. At AppMap, we believe the single source of truth is the code editor and you should have all the tools you need, right where you’re doing your work. From there, leverage both the quantitative and qualitative feedback from your users to drive new features. When things are working, dive in and keep committing, but don’t be afraid to abandon areas that are not seeing usage.
2. Dive right in: and get as close to the user as possible. Be open to learning from your team and customers, and network to get feedback from the market. One tactic AppMap takes is to extensively blog tutorial level content to our Dev Community page. This helps us understand the areas we should invest more in when we see high levels of engagement on a particular feature. Any company that wants to create a great product should take their MVP ideas, share them broadly and use the engagement data to drive their level of investment.
3. Start then continuously build: Reid Hoffman famously said, “If you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late” - and that should become your product building mantra. It’s also important to be aware that you’re not vaporware and not a feature factory. Aim for a good middle ground of completeness of thought and room for improvement for early product releases. The reality is, if your product solves a small use case, people will use it to solve their problems despite a clunky UX or minor bugs.
4. Release it and Measure, Measure, Measure: Don’t expect users to give you tons of qualitative feedback for your product – especially when building for technical audiences. These users are busy and overloaded with other work. They don’t have time to give you detailed feedback. The best way to understand your users is to measure their interactions with your product if you can.
If your usage is high enough, try to iterate quickly on the data you receive, and if you have a large user base, segment them to the best of your ability to better understand the differences between power users and beginners. These user types need different features and building features for one audience could cause problems for others.
5. Iterate and Evolve: Focus is the most important attribute of any company, startups in particular. Startups simply don’t have the time or money to invest in multiple areas. Don’t spend time worrying about the opportunity cost of not working on “all the things”. Instead, focus on the highest impact items and break work into small chunks. By breaking deliverables into smaller units, you can respond to user feedback or usage data faster and continually evolve your product to delight your users.
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?
Women leading tech companies and in positions of power remain the exception, not the rule. Women led companies in the B2B enterprise space remain only 2% of venture financed companies. There are women in this industry who have tremendous talent, but have yet to be sponsored. This is a passion of mine. I believe equity still needs to be built. I hope I can be a strong example and help other women get their ideas off the ground because it’s hard. The numbers don’t lie – from salary, to valuation and the piece women have of the investment pie. I think people should be looking more closely at female founded B2B businesses in the long term. They deliver the best value dollar for dollar.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
I really admire Diane Greene and her career arc. She started out as a naval architect before transitioning into tech. She was a founder and CEO of VMware, board director of Google and CEO of Google Cloud and the co-founder and CEO of two startups that were acquired by Google and Microsoft.
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