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Interview
Women In Tech: AutoReturn’s Sharada Iyer On The 5 Things You Need To Develop Great Products

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 are talking to successful 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 Sharada Iyer.

Sharada’s Bio

As Chief Product Officer at AutoReturn, Sharada Iyer spearheads the SaaS company’s transformation to smart vehicle management overseeing product and data strategy, connecting AutoReturn’s vision while staying true and empathetic to its users. In her role, Sharada leads the product & analytics department to drive innovation through a portfolio of products fueled by consumer psychology, ecosystem development and data driven decision making. Prior to joining AutoReturn, Sharada headed up product driven transformations in various industries (FinTech, Media & Entertainment, Advertising, Consumer Tech, Retail) notably as the Head of Omni Channel Experiences & Product for Neiman Marcus Group and Director of Mobile Products for Samsung Electronics America. Outside of work, Sharada is a mom, wife, pilates instructor and enjoys painting.

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?

I believe that exposure means opportunity. When you get the right exposure, at the right time, it can help open up certain opportunities. Growing up in India, most parents wanted their children to become engineers or doctors. I’m fortunate to have gone to a school where engineering, computer science, and technology were taught starting around eighth grade… and I fell in love. You could not get me to leave the computer lab. It was a way for me to express creativity – I was creating games and quizzes through coding. Around 2000, the IT and customer service industry was thriving in India, however, I knew I didn’t just want to be on the receiving end of helping solve product issues. I love creating and I wanted to be a part of developing the products, solutions, and technology. This is when I decided to move to the U.S. and go to school at the University of Texas where I received my Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

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?

After business school and before starting my next job, I had about a 5-month period where I worked on the floor at Neiman Marcus as a Sales Associate. My first day, I wore high heels. Now, anyone who has worn heels for an extensive amount of time can understand the pain my feet felt after 9 hours on the floor. Later in my life, I went back to Neiman Marcus as Head of Product and developed technology solutions for customers, as well as for employees in the store. My decision to wear heels that one day was one of the biggest lessons I learned throughout all of my experiences. Not because my feet hurt for days after, but because I was able to understand the people I was creating solutions for when I was Head of Product. Understanding people’s day-to-day life, and everything they go through and having empathy for them is seriously critical when building products and I highly recommend getting a job in the service industry to better help understand the people you are building products for. 

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.

Right now! You have to be able to appreciate what is in front of you and not dwell on the past. For me, it is mind-boggling that I’m in this position now where I get to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, and with the people I want to do it with. We can’t change the past, we only have this moment in front of us to react to. My past has taught me a great deal but I firmly believe this moment, my Chief Product Officer role at AutoReturn, is my career-defining moment.  

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?

One of the hardest challenges I faced was the fact that I was an immigrant on a visa. I had no control over this situation. I came to the U.S. as a student and was working so I could maintain my visa. When I decided to go back to school full-time to pursue my MBA at Southern Methodist University, I was on an F1 visa and was hoping that whoever hired me after business school would sponsor my visa. There was nothing else I could do. Fortunately, while in business school, my husband (also on a visa) and I received permanent residency. This was very fortunate but I had no control over this process or the time it would take. It was extremely stressful not knowing if I was going to be able to stay in the States after I graduated. 

What helped me get through this time of uncertainty was my love for learning and expanding my skill set. I always remained grateful to even have the opportunity to study at such an amazing university, opening up more opportunities. 

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?

AutoReturn is an end-to-end towing management systems platform that makes the towing process easier and more pleasant for everyone involved – think law enforcement agencies, towing companies, and community members. Essentially, AutoReturn is disrupting an industry that hasn’t been modernized for decades. The platform keeps traffic moving and reduces secondary accidents by streamlining the towing dispatch process, makes it easier for people to find their cars that have been towed through data collection, and helps police officers save time on admin tasks to focus on public safety.

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 believe there are two non-negotiable leadership traits and seven ownership qualities necessary to be a successful leader and create quality products. To be an effective leader, you must know how to both inspire and influence. Instead of taking on a dictator role, it’s important that you know how to inspire the team to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Important ownership qualities:

  1. Ethics: Technology can get away from us if people aren’t ethical in nature
  2. Introspection: A great product leader needs to be able to inspect the elements of whatever is in front of them
  3. Reflection: Understanding the attributes and which ones you can change to get where you want to be
  4. Retrospection: Building pieces and moving them around to figure out what worked and what didn’t
  5. Empathy: What you do affects others, having the ability to listen 
  6. Audacity: Having the guts to execute and communicate, and the courage to be vulnerable and put yourself out there
  7. Simplify: You can’t be a good product leader if you can't simplify complicated problems

Next, 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?

As a leader, I think it's most important to emphasize that everyone's perspective deserves to be heard. It’s up to the leader to make sure all members of the team feel like they have a voice by cultivating an atmosphere that is inclusive and collaborative. Another key component to having a successful team is having a deeper understanding of how to pick the right people for the right jobs in order for them to best utilize their unique skill set, enjoy their work, and bring value to the organization. 

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 that I’ve been a part of trust each other, have a common goal, have open communication, and collaborate exceptionally well with one another. Strong teams have a sense of mutual respect between members and management, and leadership plays an important role in fostering this environment. The ideal leader has empathy and understanding towards all members of the team, no matter what position or role they are in.

As mentioned above, early in my career, I worked a retail position as a Sales Associate on the floor at Neiman Marcus. This was a pivotal moment in my career, as I learned so much about effective communication, multi-tasking, working with a wide variety of people, and problem-solving skills in a fast-paced environment. Years later, I came back to Neimans in a leadership position and decided to visit the same stores in-person to meet with Sales Associates directly to discuss challenges they were facing, potential ideas they had, and how management could improve their experience. We had communication and mutual respect for each other's diverse insights and perspectives, which ultimately made us work together successfully. 

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?

In life and in the corporate world, nothing beats Excel. You can do just about anything within Excel, from data collection and analysis to organization and presentation, Excel is the perfect tool to assist you with any project. I even used Excel to organize my son's chaotic summer camp schedule.

Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?

I’m a wife, mother, businesswoman, teacher, and active community member and with that, life can get very crazy, very fast. It's crucial to have "me time" to prevent burnout in any part of my life. This can be things like listening to music or treating myself to a new hairstyle, anything that allows me to take a step back for a moment. The value of "me time" allows you to bring your best, most present self to situations where you are needed. We have so many expectations from outside voices, I recommend everyone indulge in some "me time" whenever those outside voices are getting a little too loud. No one can cherish, champion, and indulge you as you can.

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.

  1. Due diligence on the current state: Evaluating and understanding what is right in front of you is the first step. Look at the people, the process, the technology, the customers, and how things are done. 
  2. Ask who, what, and when?: Who you are doing it for? What are you going to do? And when are you going to do it? It's okay to not have all these answers right away but these questions allow you to understand your future state. 
  3. Hire SMART people: When looking to hire, keep in mind the SMART acronym, standing for self-starters, mission over ego, audacity to act, responsible for their actions, and technical in understanding their job and skill sets. SMART also comes into play when creating an environment that fosters growth.  
  4. Create a culture of collaboration: Collaboration is important internally but it's also important to allow your customers, users, and stakeholders to feel they are a part of your overall success.
  5. Create a culture of balance: Tech can be easy to get lost in like a shiny object, but you have to create a balance between money, mission, experience, and 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?

Absolutely not! A teaching I live by is, "you get two choices in life. You either accept the situation as it is or you take responsibility for the consequences of changing it." We, man or woman, can never be happy with the status quo. The position we're in is because of the past, and we have the opportunity to change it right now.

Everyone needs to accept the role they play in cultivating change. Participating in conversations and understanding privilege are good ways to continue the momentum we have created. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of changing the path for women in tech.    

Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Chelsea Handler, Anna Wintour, Dave Chapelle, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais, Serena and Venus Williams, Arianna Huffington, Michelle Obama, Oprah, Harry and Meghan, Deepika Padukone, Vir Das, JK Rowling, Adam McKay, Rick Riordan, Joanna Fluke James Patterson, Gary V, Every politician at the senate, Misty Copeland

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The Product Manager. Following six years of experience in the tech industry, she pivoted into the content space where she's had the pleasure of working with some of the most brilliant voices in the product world. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a love of bringing people together, her mission is to foster a fun, vibrant, and inspiring community of product people.

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