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 Saira Taneja.
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 have always tried to follow my passions and they often haven’t been on a linear path, albeit a Corporate one. I developed my career in the health insurance sector working in a strategy capacity across multiple functional areas. Through these experiences I learned that strategic rigor can and should be applied to everything, but with the keen eye to solving for the intended user / recipient of the product or service. Last year, I started my journey with Cover Whale, a leading commercial auto insurtech. I was seven months pregnant when they offered me the opportunity to lead the charge on experience and oversee the business development, marketing and customer service teams. The company has a compelling value prop, amazing growth and great people, so, it was a “yes!” Cover Whale aims to make the world safer through technology, and my dedication to the agent and driver experiences underscores that we care.
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?
Earlier in my career, I was supporting a major initiative to develop a first-of-its kind partnership with Amazon. I was asked to represent the business and work with an impressive technology team full of seasoned data scientists with star-studded backgrounds. I was beyond intimidated, but later found out we were all intimidated, apparently. The technology team was nervous about what I was going to expect from them in terms of execution within a tight timeline. At the end of the day, I learned how to operate in their world (agile, scrum); conversely, they learned how to build with a customer-centric mindset.
The lesson learned: break the ice and check your fears at the door. You’re all there to accomplish the end goal so focus on that and let the rest fall into place.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?
They say you plan, and then life happens, and that certainly is the case for me. My career-defining moment thus far has been taking a role with Cover Whale - a combination of all my corporate experiences into one beautifully challenging job. I joined seven months pregnant. I disclosed this to the CEO and President during the final round of the interview process (and I was pretty nervous doing so). They said that they would waive the waiting period for benefits so I could take the time off I needed. Their positive response was exactly what I was looking for to sign on the dotted line. This is why I now say ‘deep empathy returns fierce loyalty’.
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?
In college, I thought I wanted to go down the career path of International Relations, so I sought to intern at an embassy in Washington D.C. I applied to a handful of embassies but never heard back from any of them. So, I started at the top of the alphabet and called every embassy trying to get someone, anyone, to talk to me and see if there was an iota of an opportunity.
When I got down to ‘V’... Venezuela took a chance on me and I ended up working there for a summer. In the end, I ultimately decided it wasn’t the right career path for me, but had I not gained the practical experience to make that decision earlier on, I may not be where I am today. Moreover, it gave me the confidence to persist regardless of bleak 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?
Broadly, we pair a fundamental insurance discipline with proprietary technology to utilize data and better price risk in the commercial auto insurance space. A bit of background: the average long-haul truck driver covers 125,000 miles each year. In 2020, about 13% of the 36,000 fatal crashes on US roadways involved at least one large truck or bus. Because safety is our top priority, we created the Driver Safety Program that uses a dash camera and telematics data with safety coaching. This program encourages safe driving for the safety of our drivers as well as all motorists on the road. Cover Whale helps people by leveraging data and technology to make the roads safer and save lives.
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?
Once there is a clear vision of the end goal, persistence to drive to it is key when cultivating a great product.
Additionally, the ability to focus is a critical quality to master. Ask yourself why you’re building something five times over and how it achieves the end goal. Understand your users’ needs and stay true to them.
A great leader should also be able to pivot when necessary. Being adaptable and flexible to new ideas and ways of working can lead you to success in any field.
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?
There are several components of effective team management, but those that I find most salient include:
- Talent: Hire talented team members who are exceptional at what they do and are capable of executing the company’s vision.
- Vision and expectations: Ensure that everyone is aligned on where the team is going, why and what the expectations of their roles are, and how to work together to reach the broader end goal.
- Communication and collaboration: I can’t stress this enough, having all the elements but not having clear and honest communication can hinder the best of teams. Communication also includes active listening.
- A high degree of autonomy: If leadership has established the above 1-3 components, enabling a high degree of autonomy can unlock the best of results.
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 ever worked with was composed of members who were vastly talented in their respective domains. We were a dynamic group where debates could get a little energetic, but because we had a unifying vision and mutual respect (and had fun) we drove the project to success. P.s. - healthy debate is always good, diverse perspectives make outcomes that much stronger.
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 version of leaving behind fairy dust is post-its. If you see post-its slapped up on whiteboards and walls, I’ve likely been there. The digital version of being able to share my thoughts / vision and to map journeys via post-its is Miro.
Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?
Meditation. I’ve done a few stints of Vipassana where you focus on (silently) training your mind for 10 days. Now I try to just take a few minutes to myself daily. Spending time on nourishing your mind and body makes you that much more effective in all aspects of life.
Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?
The product is one component of the customer experience. I like to leverage design thinking - a non-linear, iterative process - to understand users, redefine problems and create innovative solutions.
1. Empathize with the person who is receiving the end product / service. Empathy is a critical component in human-centered design - understand your users inside and out, and empathize with them to understand their perspectives (e.g. what delights them and what doesn’t).
2 . Define - Synthesize everything you’ve collected in the ‘empathize’ stage and define a specific problem you are going to try to solve in a problem statement. Be specific, and create personas to stay on task of what you’re solving and for whom.
3 . Ideate - My favorite, use post-its (or Miro) and ideate solving for the problem statement. Encourage free thinking in a brainstorm session.
4 . Prototype - Of the ideas, pick the most viable or those that the team would like to explore and develop low resolution prototype(s). “Low resolution” or “low-res” means a quick mock-up - it can be a few lines of code, a mapping in Miro or Figma, a sketch, or even something duct taped together. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it should just enable you to test.
5 . Test - Take your low-res prototypes and test with your intended user(s). What feedback did you receive? Go back and apply it, at step 4, was there something you missed all together? Maybe re-define the problem in step 2, learn something about the user that you didn’t know before? Go back to step 1.
The point is, this constantly iterative process will get you in the mind of the user and will enable development - both for products and the overall experience - from the user’s point of view. It is an invaluable process to work through.
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 wouldn’t think about it as women in tech, but more diversity in thinking, and diversity comes in many forms: gender, race, ethnicity, age, educational background, and so on. To move technology and society forward, we need to be as inclusive as possible because we never know where the best ideas come from. By excluding any group of people, we are missing out on their perspectives. When it comes to women, we need to support them through their career journeys from early entry, to having and raising families if they choose to do so, and beyond.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
Indra Nooyi. Apart from being an indelible force in the corporate world, I once heard her relay a Chinese proverb in an interview: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Meaning: she was the product of a tree planted 20 years ago, and we have to continue to plant more seeds now for more types of people to achieve executive levels. A seed was planted for me too, and I’m also planting them. Pay it forward.
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