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 Natalie Rutgers.
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?
Five years ago, I was working as a product designer at Deepgram. We were at a massive inflection point in which we had to take the company from a research stage to a commercial one At Deepgram, we tried to implement a product-led growth (PLG) strategy before it even had a name in the developer community. Initially, our PLG product got a lot of attention from consumers, but it wasn’t picking up much traction from developers. Overall, what we needed at the time was a salesperson to get transcription models in the hands of business leaders. Then COVID hit, and people were collecting and storing audio data at higher rates than ever before by holding more meetings online. With this rise in the need for audio data transcription skyrocketing, we saw the demand switch from business leaders to technical practitioners. Those individuals wanted to put their hands on a product way ahead of engaging with a salesperson. Thus, product-led growth was a natural next step The team and I decided to build out Deepgram’s Developer Console.
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?
Looking back at the start of my career when I was working as a designer, I often made the mistake of putting way too many design options in front of people. Today, I know now that the best practice is putting 2-3 options in front of people to choose from, but at the beginning, I would present maybe 6 different design ideas at once. This would cause my team to get pretty frazzled, and as a result, they’d actually take out their own pen and paper and draw their own designs! From those experiences, I quickly learned that by presenting 2 or 3 options and keeping it more simple, people still feel like they are part of the design process and are able to give valuable, targeted feedback. This approach ultimately helps us all come to a decision much faster.
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.
A massive, career-defining moment for me was helping Deepgram open up its product to be developer focused rather than sales gated. Our team genuinely dropped everything we had been working on for around three months to lean into that product experience, and we all knew it was going to be a big bet for our startup. It was risky, scary, and exciting all at once. Before that switch, everything was very sales-mediated, so wins didn’t necessarily feel like product wins, but now things feel like company-wide wins and efforts. This has been a game-changer for team morale. Today, looking back, that switch allowed the product to shine and speak for itself, so that was a really big impact on my personal career journey and Deepgram’s company journey.
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?
At the beginning of my career journey, I was a designer thrown into an extremely technical environment. I essentially had to learn a new language and understand how to best work and innovate with engineers. It was difficult in many ways, one being that I needed to learn how to properly form my questions in a new way to work with the engineering team.
Additionally, as a woman in the tech and startup world, rooms are often full of men with very little female representation in technical roles. I was lucky that Deepgram from the start has been welcoming to all and honors individuals who are brave in asking the hard questions. Often, women prefer to showcase their knowledge and expertise before revealing their shortcomings, but I’ve learned that being brave enough to stand up and say, “Hey, I’m not familiar with that technology or technique. Can you help me understand this?” can propel you to the next level in your personal growth.
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?
Deepgram's speech AI platform is the foundation for the future of voice technologies. Deepgram’s speech recognition technology provides fast, affordable, and accurate speech transcription. The company has raised $86 million to put speech AI behind leading innovators and has transcribed over one trillion words since inception. Deepgram believes that every voice should be heard and understood, from audio to customers to employees. Enabled by end-to-end deep learning models, Deepgram's strength lies in our diversity of people, ideas, and backgrounds that inspire the next generation of voice-enabled experiences. Deepgram views accurate transcription as an increasingly solved problem for the more than 100 languages that the company works with. That's the groundwork upon which Deepgram is building the future of speech understanding: to give customers insight into not just what was said, but how it was said, which can result in an actionable understanding of why it was said.
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?
One of the most important qualities to have in order to create great products is to make sure you are building the right product for the right audiences by casting aside your own personal biases. For example, many people tend to fall into the trap of imagining themselves as the primary users of a product when building it out. This is the worst thing you can do as you may think you’ll know how people will utilize a product, but they may end up doing the exact opposite. To mitigate this, it’s best to pause before making a decision and always seek contradictory opinions from different sources. Receiving a range of input helps you best assess all different potential outcomes.
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?
For the product development process, I’ve found that empowered teams of small functional groups tend to produce the best work. These small, functional groups of product managers, designers, and engineers can build the product roadmap together versus leaders determining the course from the get-go. This fosters an environment of ownership over products as well as trust in one another and the company.
From a leadership perspective, you also must trust the experts you are hiring and avoid micromanaging. Your role as a leader in the product process should be more of a diagnoser of an issue, making sure the team can see any blind spots and encouraging them to work towards a solution with one another.
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 strongest team I’ve worked with was our Developer First experience team. From the onset, our end state was clearly defined. We knew we were working with a short timeline to build our product and were essentially building the plane as it was already flying. Despite the challenging time frame, we built an innovative environment where we could come together to assess what we accomplished the previous day and how we would forge on the next day. We trusted one another and subsequently knew we’d reach our goal against all odds.
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?
My must-have software tool, if I could only have one, would be Figma. I’m a very visual person and, Figma helps me make my ideas come to life; and it’s great how collaborative the platform is. I’ve noticed that traditional slide formats or spreadsheets can cause people's eyes to glaze over, so using a tool like Figma helps us co-create and encourage one another to buy in on our ideas.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
I love to surf in my downtime! During the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all inside 24/7, I knew I needed a way to safely get outside and get fresh air, and surfing has been a lifeline for me in that way. Being in the water forces you to focus and put aside everything else going on in your life. Otherwise, you’ll wind up getting humbled by a wave.
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. Understand your audience. The very first thing we ever built at Deepgram was a drag-and-drop transcription editor tool. This was great for introducing people to Deepgram’s transcription, however, developers care way more about good docs and API reliability than a polished interface.
2. Know your audience’s expectations beforehand. When we got our initial transcription product up and running, people immediately were interested in being able to edit their transcriptions. We knew we didn’t want an editing interface to be our primary focus, so we worked on optimizing for the ask behind the ask: “How can we create more accurate transcription outputs?”
3. Co-create your product spec. When building out your product, don’t let a product person ideate in a silo. It’s critical to consider design and engineering from the beginning because their expertise will help you build a better, more well-rounded product. For example, when I share a product spec, I know it’s about 70% of the way done before I send it to my other teammates because I know that their input will help us create a truly great product.
4. Put your product in front of people as fast as you can. The faster you can get your product in front of users, the faster you’ll collect valuable feedback.
5. Measure everything. Think through and track every little detail before you launch. You want to make sure you’ve outlined and tracked everything before you need it. You can’t learn how to optimize without data.
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 believe there’s a lot of work to be done when hiring and ultimately recruiting women. When women see a startup predominately staffed by men, they might subconsciously remove themselves from the running when it comes to their application process before they even have applied. Representation is important, and it’s important that we actively seek out women's groups for hiring efforts to make sure we are pursuing female tech, product, and engineer leaders.
Even when I was growing up, I didn’t want to learn to code. I’d written it off as rigid and uninteresting. However, when I started working with engineers as a designer, I realized how similarly creative coding actually was. Coding was a natural extension of the problem-solving I enjoy. What I needed at a younger age was a peer set and a group of female leaders who were in aspirational tech roles to showcase what my future in product could look like.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
I would love to sit down with Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Youtube! She is a huge inspiration to me. As an early Deepgram employee, I admire her career journey from early Googler to CEO of Youtube. It’s rare that we hear about early employees, so I’d appreciate the time to get her perspective.
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