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 Nayana Singh.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series, Nayana! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was always interested in tech and people. At the beginning of my career, when I worked as an engineer, it was fulfilling, but what really excited me was solving questions like “Why are we building?” and “What exactly are we building?” So, I got an MBA and began transitioning into product management. I realized over time that my sweet spot was building products. It allowed me to focus on the commercial, the business, and the technical aspects of things.
After many years at Microsoft, I began looking for a new challenge—a place where I could stretch my skills and learn new things. I realized that Web3 was that field. It was a humbling experience at first. Despite my experience, I would have to learn things from scratch.
Since then, I’ve joined ConsenSys, as the General Manager of Product, working specifically with NFTs. It has been the most amazing journey because the tech changes so quickly. It made me come alive in a way that has forced me to start my career over in many ways while still applying all of my previous learnings in a new way.
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?
When I started my career right out of college, I thought I knew everything.
I recall one particular moment early on when I was in a packed conference room waiting for a presentation from the new VP about the strategic direction of our business. While waiting for the talk to begin, I struck up a conversation with the person next to me. I wondered out loud if it was necessary even to be there. I just wanted to go back to my desk and get back to work. He asked if I thought it might be helpful to understand what we are working towards. At that moment, the man I had been speaking to heads toward the stage, takes the microphone, looks over a sea of people and then straight at me, before saying, “I’m here to tell you why you should all be excited to work on this project.”
I was 100 percent certain I was going to get fired that day.
I learned a lot in that moment—most importantly, the significance of understanding the bigger picture. As my career has progressed, I’ve become strangely appreciative of my own folly because it makes me better at what I do, both on the management and product side.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?
Interestingly, my career-defining moment didn’t happen on the job. It happened while I was getting my MBA. It was one of those moments that forced me to think about what I wanted to do, and it changed the course of my career.
Back in 2006 and 2007, I was really interested in product management. The economy was struggling, and considering my background in engineering and software development, which is seen as super technical, shifting into product seemed like a big hurdle. I was taking a strategy class and the professors, both of whom had been CEOs, said something that has been my mantra ever since; “Execution trumps strategy and culture trumps execution”. I’ve never forgotten that.
It was a career-defining moment because I realized that strategy was only the starting point. If you don’t have a great culture, if you don’t focus on building the right team, you’ll never get to where you want. It was important to me to build a strong culture, and I think my drive to do so changed from that moment onwards. It wasn't just enough thinking about yourself and about your goals, but it was about the 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?
For me, the hardest time was when I decided to move on from engineering. It was 2007 and the economy was on the brink of recession. There were a number of professional and personal pressures I was facing. I began to realize that being a software developer was not as fulfilling as I wanted it to be, and it was difficult to transition into product management.
In my frustration, I wrote to a Senior Director with an open role and asked him if I could talk in-person about the position. I had nothing to lose. As a Systems Architect, I knew I didn’t have the experience he was looking for, but he took a chance on me. Ironically, this was back when they were trying to figure out what Web3 was.
I would never have thought that being a Systems Architect could actually help me be a product manager, but it did. We had to do everything from writing code, to talking to customers to developing business plans. It was my job to convince the rest of the company whether they should adopt these new technologies. In many ways, it set up the path for leadership to have confidence in me and for myself to have the confidence that, yes, I could do product management.
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 work at ConsenSys, founded by Joe Lubin, one of the co-founders of Ethereum. As a market-leading blockchain technology company, ConsenSys has been a pioneer in creating the foundational software that is unlocking the collaborative power of communities by making DAOs, NFTs, and DeFi universally easy to access, use, and build on.
ConsenSys manages the two most important access points to Web3: the end-user access points and the developer access points. The first access point, the direct user offering products, is largely centered around ConsenSys’ MetaMask cryptocurrency self-custodial wallet, which has surpassed 30 million active monthly users. The developer offerings, namely Infura (a managed infrastructure service) is often positioned as the flagship product on this side of the business but other offerings include Diligence (a smart contract auditing service and tools) and Truffle (a smart contract development suite).
Web3 or the decentralized web will bring new ways of interacting, new business models and entirely new industries, all while directly empowering people. The problem we're solving is the complication associated with building, testing, launching, scaling and making use of web3 apps. This is crucial as it makes it easier for developers to build applications on Ethereum and other blockchains, making it easy for end users (consumers or institutions) to make use of DeFi, NFTs, DAOs, web3 games, and the metaverse.
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 think that empathy and listening are really important. You might say that empathy and listening go hand in hand because if you're empathetic, then you're generally (and genuinely) going to listen to other people. The key is curiosity about how other people – your customers, partners, stakeholders or team feel. Empathy helps you make better decisions and, ultimately, be a better leader.
What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?
When thinking about a team, I'm always thinking about having complementary skill sets. One of the things I think about is if you hire someone super intelligent, but you don't think about the collaboration aspects, or you hire someone with the exact same set of skills, you’re not creating an optimal team.
People think very differently, and the product will ultimately be stronger if you consider it from different angles. If you have a team, even if they get along great, but they all think too much alike, then you might have some gaps in your product. So, I'm very deliberate about the teams that deliver a range of perspectives and skills. I think it’s a great way of growing people as well because it allows team members to know how to interact with people with complementary skills.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together?
At ConsenSys, we had to build a team and deliver results in a short period of time for the project I was leading. With my own history as a guide, this helped me build a team that was able to move incredibly fast where people were motivated to achieve a common goal, keeping each other’s skills in mind. Because we all had complementary skills, the team was able to function as a well-oiled machine. The team rolled up their sleeves and did whatever was necessary. PM’s tested code and wrote docs, developers created videos and led demos and hackathons for the very first time. We were all motivated to help each other succeed while achieving our goal of releasing the product as planned.
When I was at Microsoft, we had a particularly strong team. But, it was an evolutionary process that got us there.
When we started, there was a particular person who was not collaborative. You could even say he was combative or perhaps provocative, but he was also incredibly smart. This was a team that I inherited, so I had to figure out a way to make it work. As a woman, I felt I had to handle the situation very differently than a man in my position would.
One of the things I learned was to focus on what the person is saying rather than the emotion. Look at the substance. Over time, I developed a strong working relationship with this individual. Once I started to embrace this philosophy, it benefitted the whole team.
What he was really good at was forcing us to think about things differently – to challenge the status quo. As we started to learn each other's working styles, we began to mesh, ultimately, creating a stronger team. It’s been 10 years since I worked with him, and he’s still one of the few people who I've kept in touch with.
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?
For me, those things would be Word, Excel and Slack. I need a documentation tool and a financial tool to succeed together with a communication channel to share ideas. To me, communication is critical. As a product manager, I believe that you need to write down your thoughts, your conversations, and so many other details. This allows you to communicate in a way that resonates with different people.
Then, of course, there are the numbers. It’s critical to have a tool that lets you play around with numbers. It allows you to figure out the financial side of things, and calculate user data. Without Word and Excel, I’d be lost.
Both of these have to be augmented via a channel like Slack that lets us communicate, brainstorm and share ideas quickly. Communication is key not just for product management and leadership. It allows for the integration of many additional products that allow seamless communication at any time.
What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
Every time I'm super stressed, I go running and it relaxes me. I don't listen to music or anything else while running. The peacefulness of it calms me down.
There are also my kids. When I play with them, it completely distracts me because there's something always going on. Even breaking up their fights can be distracting and relaxing because it's so different from the work I do.
One last thing I do to help manage stress is paint. This is a new hobby I discovered 10 years ago with my daughter. Thanks to my analytical brain, I can make pretty good replicas of things.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?
1. Understand the customer and the market.
It's crucial to understand your customer's pain points and to identify which ones are a priority.
Listening to what your customers are saying, asking them to describe scenarios and their use cases, and understanding why they can't solve that now is key. In other words, it's necessary to filter the noise from the signal.
Extracting the right information to resolve these pain points and incorporating solutions into the product is imperative for success. This feedback loop is something Infura did with its customers. Web3 developers wanted an easy way to build applications on the blockchain, and Infura provided a way to abstract the complexity by providing APIs. By listening to its users, Infura was able to provide a solution and accelerate how many developers were building on the Ethereum chain.
2. Know the importance of a minimum viable product (MVP) and iterating quickly.
Once pain points are realized, prioritized, and verified, it becomes important to build something quickly -- even if it does not have all the bells and whistles.
As long as the product addresses an important nuisance, customers will be willing to deal with the initial pain of using an incomplete product.
There are great examples of this within Web3 technology and its concepts. Developers were willing to put up with the complexity of the underlying blockchain, even learning a complex language like Solidity to write smart contracts. This core MVP led to the development of many additional, sophisticated developer tools like Truffle that provides developers a development environment to write contracts, compile in Solidity, and test the framework as well as an asset pipeline.
3. Go slow to go fast: prioritization and execution are key.
It's essential to create a prioritization framework when building products. There are many frameworks out there, however, it's important to pick one that supports your product and its goals.
It's not just about which capabilities to develop first. It’s important to consider ROI, effort, cost, alignment, and resourcing. It is better to take the time to be clear on priorities so that the team understands the strategy and execution path, ensuring that stakeholders are aligned.
When we decided to work on NFTs at Infura, we took 10 - 12 weeks to understand the market and competition. We created a prioritization framework tied to company and organizational priorities. This framework allowed the team, organization and partners to buy into the vision, making the execution of these milestones and deliverables easier.
The initial effort that was spent was worth it as it ultimately allowed us to get to open-beta of Infura NFT with all capabilities targeted.
4. Use the right measures for success at the right time.
Metrics are extremely important for success, and these metrics change over time depending on market conditions, competition, and the state of the product in the life cycle.
When you first release a product, the focus is on time to market, features, capabilities, and product market fit. Depending on the product, revenue may not be the only measure of success. Adoption and acquisition also are key.
Over time, as the product matures, the focus and metrics should change, looking at things like churn and retention. This means the product has to be well-architected, and the design can accommodate different usage patterns. It is important to know the costs of your products intimately. This becomes critical as you think about a product’s evolving position, where it might start as a high-margin product but over time it could evolve to a more undifferentiated platform where gross margin becomes a key measure of success. These metrics might also change depending on market conditions. For example, the measures of success in a “bull market” may be different than in a “bear market,” when the willingness to pay for customers and the total customers adopting and using products are low.
A great example of this is when Infura launched at DevCon2 in 2016. At the time, the biggest factor for success was adoption, as competition was non-existent and just getting the customers started on using the blockchain infrastructure API was hard. Over time, the measures of success have evolved to include other metrics like customer satisfaction, and churn.
5. Continue to innovate for better competitive advantage, team morale, and pride.
Launching a product and making a return on investment is not enough. For success, both as a market leader as well as for the team to take pride, it is important to establish market leadership and a product moat. That only happens through continued innovation.
A great example of this was how companies like Microsoft (and I was lucky enough to be a part of this journey) continued to innovate cloud technology starting with Infrastructure as a Service with storage and compute. When that was commoditized, they moved towards Platform as a Service, with data, IoT and AI services, allowing partners to innovate on top through SaaS services.
At Infura we are innovating with value added APIs like NFTs in addition to the infrastructure API. Within the NFT space, we continue to innovate by adding capabilities for READ, WRITE, simplifying the user journey for developers. This also motivates the team to take pride in their achievements as they work on cutting-edge 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?
No, and there are many reasons for that answer.
First, when you look at the numbers, women are woefully underrepresented in tech. It has been that way for a long time. While there has been some progress, we’re nowhere near the parity we need.
I’d like to see recruiters and people in positions of power be women and actively look to hire more women. When you see successful women around you, that motivates you to do more. But if you look around and don't see anybody who looks like you or talks like you, you can feel very alone.
One way to fill that pipeline is to encourage programs like STEM. These are critical ways to get more girls involved in these disciplines at a young age. I’d also like to see the leadership teams at more companies go through unconscious bias training. It's not enough to just hire women. It's important to think about what we can do to help them grow and to acknowledge their experiences. If women are supported and encouraged in a particular area, they can and will thrive – which, I believe, ultimately benefits everyone.
It is not just about hiring women into roles, it is equally important to set them up for success thereafter. Many women leave organizations where they don't feel valued or are not recognized and promoted due to unconscious or conscious bias. We need to not just work to change this for the women in tech now, but we need to change this for future generations.
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