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 Meghna Misra.
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?
After a Master's degree in computer engineering, I joined United Technologies and was working on next-generation technology for Otis elevators. While the work was challenging and we were able to get several patents on it, I found myself most energized by customer conversations—discussions about their pain points, gleaning insights from those, and brainstorming with my designers and engineers to solve problems that mattered most to customers. I was fortunate enough to have a manager who encouraged me to double down on my passion and what was at that time an emerging area of strength to make the shift from engineering to product management. And I’ve never looked back after I crossed over to this side!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting and a lesson you learned from it?
I made my share of mistakes and still do as I am constantly learning. One funny story that comes to mind is when I was a few years into my journey and in a new industry domain. I’d started meeting with many of my customers and was invited to visit an accountant to see her use our product. Armed with (misplaced) confidence that I’d been building products long enough that I could understand and speak the customer language, I showed up at her workplace and began observing her team going about their day-to-day work. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door. The accountant says it must be her customer dropping off a shoe box filled with receipts that will take days to sort. I laughed and made a lame joke about it. I then open the door to find an orange Nike shoe box crammed with crushed receipts!
It’s not funny if you discount my embarrassment—I was not listening to my customer. I had ignored the frustration in her voice about a task that would take her hours to complete. I had assumed that if there was an easy way of doing this through a mobile app, why wouldn’t someone use it? Turns out when I used the app, it didn’t work seamlessly for crushed receipts, as we had tested the recognition technology on crisp, brand-new receipts. I took that learning back. Fast forward a couple of months, and we partnered with a company that had superior OCR technology to be able to scan more than 95% of receipts! This saved each customer tens of hours of cumbersome, laborious work.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?
While there have been several moments of truth in my career including the impact of COVID-19, the biggest teacher of them all and a turning point was when I learned that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness, but of self-awareness and strength. Having successfully dealt with challenge after challenge and having plenty of hero moments, I ran into the first challenge that I couldn’t solve on my own while building a new product. I was trying hard and driving my team and still failed.
A deadline was coming up and I had no clue how to resolve the issue. I vividly remember that feeling of utter dejection and defeat and then reluctantly picking up the phone to ask a peer for help. My peer gave me all the help I needed and I had that ‘ah-ha moment’ that I didn’t have to solve everything on my own, as the sole leader. This experience changed and influenced how I lead. I began to focus not on how to solve problems by myself or just with my core team but with a broader set of problem solvers. This has led to better products and outcomes. It also gives my teams the necessary coaching and mentorship, and I have been able to scale as a leader.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Product management is a craft that is learned, practiced, and perfected. Having come from an engineering background, I had the necessary chops to understand the technology, the analytical mindset to understand inputs, outputs, and root causes—and then obsessively measure outcomes.
Problem-solving came naturally to me. When I would hear about an issue, I could jump to solving that problem with technology. It was much harder for me to develop true customer empathy, i.e., a deep-rooted understanding of the ‘why’ behind the customer behavior and not just an analysis of the problems they were facing. It’s about human behavior, their motivations, and balancing what is said with what is observed. I was, and continue to be, fueled by an all-consuming drive to solve real problems that matter to people and make their lives better. At the end of the day, we can’t forget that humans are using our product.
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?
The health insurance and employee benefits industry is undergoing rapid digital transformation. Today, most people shop, enroll, and utilize their benefits not by calling their insurance carrier or logging into a carrier website, but by using third-party InsurTech platforms or the HR and benefits software provided by their employer.
Given this shift, it’s become essential for insurance carriers and third-party systems to exchange data—data about benefits products, enrollees, employers, and more. But exchanging this information quickly, accurately, and securely has proven challenging. In fact, inadequate data exchange is a primary reason why the employee benefits digital experience has lagged behind other, more innovative industries like finance and retail.
Ideon is tackling the data exchange challenge head-on, facilitating a new era where benefits selection more closely resembles an Amazon-like experience, where products are easy to understand, and the data management burden of the past is an afterthought.
We’ve built an API platform that allows carriers and InsurTech platforms to exchange data accurately, efficiently, securely, and at scale. In doing so, we enable the benefits ecosystem to operate efficiently and effectively, grow, and, ultimately, deliver a seamless experience at every stage of the member journey.
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 that it’s a trifecta of qualities that enables someone to build products that drive maximum impact on the customer experience and business. The qualities include a combination of insatiable curiosity, a problem-solving mindset, and relentless customer focus! Have a fire in your belly to solve meaningful problems, ponder and question the status quo, and never lose sight of what matters most to customers.
What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?
For me, it is a culture of empowerment and accountability where everyone is encouraged to do their best work. This culture should not be created in isolation within the product team alone, but rather be a facilitative partnership across various company functions to deliver on shared outcomes. The work environment has changed post-COVID and we find ourselves largely working with remote teams. In this environment, communication, transparency and a high do-say ratio become even more critical.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together?
Trust. It’s one word but it encapsulates so much. To me, it means assuming good intent, being transparent and vulnerable with each other, reaching out and asking for help (and giving help without judgment). That is what creates a strong team that works together to build great products.
I’ll offer an example. At a previous company, I was going to ship a new product that would have driven significant revenue for the company. We were announcing it at a conference, had global marketing campaigns ready to hit the wire, press releases lined up—the full product launch treatment. However, we ran into an issue a couple of days before launch (as we often do). Only in this case, it was a missed requirement that would have prohibited us from releasing the product in some global markets. Once I was partly over my panic attack, I trusted the team to provide a recommendation on what it would take to make it work. The team said that we could enable the product in English-speaking countries but not others. And while that was a difficult decision to make and share with the executives, we took accountability, delivered on the commitment that we would ship to all English-speaking countries and fast follow within a week for the rest. I’m sharing this story because while the outcome wasn’t all rosy—we had to walk back some of our commitments and we lost some revenue—the team stood together and took action towards the best possible outcome. We did it all together, as one team, with one voice, bound by trust.
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?
Hands down it would be Jira—it’s where I create my roadmaps, write out epics and detailed stories and tasks, work collaboratively with designers and engineers to build awesome products, and manage day-to-day work. And I would be remiss if I did not talk about Google Slides—an excellent tool for communication and collaboration.
Outside of work—I love Google Photos for the experiential values it provides, its sharing capabilities, hassle-free (and mostly free) backup, and search that works—powerful awesomeness in a product!
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
On a daily basis, my time during that first cup of coffee in the morning is sacred. I don’t think about the day ahead or any commitments—just clear my head, wake up, and enjoy the aroma of a freshly brewed cup of coffee. I do love to travel so every few months, I’ll take an extended weekend or a week off and spend time visiting a place I’ve never been to before. There is so much to learn, see and explore in this world.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?
- Strategy - Building the vision and plan to win. We often place a lot of emphasis on driving an inspiring vision for the product but a clear path to achieve it only happens when we define customer benefits that enable effective decision-making. We need to build durable advantages and anticipate actions and reactions in the market to stay ahead of competitors through innovation.
- Empathy - Understanding the true ‘why’ behind customer behavior. A product manager should focus on getting deep customer insights and make the voice-of-customer part of their DNA. Step one of that is understanding pain points and clearly articulating the customer problem that is most important to address. And then never losing sight of the problem because we often tend to fall in love with the solutions. Curiosity is an essential competency and it’s critical to leverage curiosity and question everything.
- Analysis - Using data to drive decision-making. Analysis is about leading with fact-based and data-driven points of view. We build great products by understanding inputs, outputs and root causes and using rapid hypothesis-driven validation and data analytics to inform judgment and prioritize investments. All of this has to be done by viewing the data and insights through the lens of the customer problem. We should encourage and enable teams to rapidly experiment and learn with data and define clear success criteria to know when experiments should be scaled up or concluded.
- Facilitation - Communicating, influencing, and partnering across teams. Develop a team that has a passion for building products that not just solve problems but delight customers. This can only be achieved by partnering across the functional teams, communicating and influencing effectively and appropriately across the organization, and embracing transparency, values, and coaching.
- Delivering Results - Driving relentlessly to ensure customer outcomes through product development and delivery. A product manager should own that end-to-end process of ‘delivering awesome’ by nailing the fundamentals and sweating the details. We should relentlessly ensure that the vision and benefit are integrated into each step of the product development and delivery process and then ensure that the definition of awesome is confirmed by the customer.
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?
We’ve made strides but as Robert Frost said—we have miles to go before we sleep. First and foremost, we need to have the conviction that we will not give up and work to make things better for women in tech. And who better to do this than women themselves? We should lean in but also enable others to lean in. Help our fellow women, be a mentor for not just women in the workplace but young girls in school. Be a role model for them, show them what’s possible by doing, influence their mindset, and give them tactical help to advance early on.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
Jacinda Arden, the soon-to-be ex-PM of New Zealand. I respect her for her decision-making prowess. She has surrounded herself with the best team, genuinely listens and values their opinion, and makes decisions. And she owns those decisions—puts words into action and takes full accountability for them.
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