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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 privilege of interviewing Crys Black.

As the VP of Marketing for Origin AI, Crys is a seasoned marketing and operations leader with a proven track record of success in helping global advanced technology companies in the Seed to Series C funding rounds achieve their business objectives. With a deep understanding of the latest marketing and sales tools, including account-based marketing and AI technologies, she is known for her ability to drive revenue growth and increase market share. Crys is also an experienced executive who leads high-performing teams and has a reputation for being a strategic thinker, problem solver and effective communicator.

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 began my career in IT, working on web-based systems at Transmeta, a pioneer in low power processing. However, my path took a turn when I joined a startup that spun off from Transmeta, Orion Multisystems. This is where I was an early employee and had the opportunity to take on a marketing task—a trade show. This experience sparked my interest in marketing, and I never really looked back.

As I progressed in my career, I found that I was drawn to the energy and passion of early-stage companies. I enjoyed the challenge of helping these companies to grow and succeed. My background in IT and experience running projects gave me the ability to bring structure and discipline to these organizations, which helped them to operate more efficiently and effectively. This combination of my IT experience and passion for marketing and operations has been a valuable asset in my role as a fractional executive, advisor and consultant working with early-stage technology companies.

My career path exemplifies the idea that are careers are more like jungle gyms than ladders with no direct path. I took advantage of opportunities that came my way and allowed my interests and skills to guide me to new roles and industries. This approach has allowed me to gain diverse experiences and expertise and has ultimately led me to where I am today. 

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?

One funny mistake I made early in my marketing career was when I managed my first trade show in Japan. As a young woman aspiring to be a business leader, I thought I had all my bases covered. I had never been to Asia so I did a ton of research and knew that I wasn't supposed to shake hands and to hand out my business card with two hands and to receive it with two hands and to look at it. But little did I know what I was in for.

As the trade show began, I walked up to people with a smile on my face, ready to make new business connections. But to my surprise, as soon as I approached attendees, they would quickly turn around and hurry away without speaking to me! I was confused and couldn't understand why this was happening. My local team wouldn't tell me what I was doing wrong and I was left feeling like I was missing something.

As the day went on, I watched the women from other booths who were sitting quietly and smiling, and not approaching oncoming attendees. Not only are the customs going to be different, the roles of women and of foreigners were different. No amount of research was going to help prepare me for how to behave. I attended that show for three years and every year, I watched others and learned to be more culturally appropriate, even while still staying authentic to who I am. 

This experience taught me an important lesson as a woman aspiring to be a business leader: the importance of cultural intelligence. As women, we often must navigate unfamiliar cultural and societal norms, not just when we travel to different parts of the world. By watching and learning, we can develop the cultural intelligence needed to succeed in a global setting and make meaningful connections. So, don't be afraid to make mistakes, they are a part of the learning process and can help you become a better leader.

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.

My career-defining moment occurred at a young age when my family moved to the Washington, DC area and my parents purchased an Apple IIe computer for me to use in school. At the time, I was in elementary school and the school had recently acquired Apple IIe computers for the computer lab. When I was first introduced to the computer lab, the teacher was having difficulty getting the computers to work. As a result, I stepped in and helped the teacher get the students going. 

I started borrowing books on programming from the public library and began writing my own games, modifying the code in the library books to get my games off the ground. I was hooked and knew that I wanted to work with computers and technology.

Throughout my career, I have held various positions in the IT field and had another defining moment that led me to transition into marketing. However, my passion for technology has remained constant, and I have continued to work with advanced technology companies to bring innovative solutions to solve real problems.

As a business leader, I believe that my early interest and experience in technology has given me a unique perspective and skill set. It has allowed me to understand and anticipate the needs of the industry, and to effectively market and position cutting-edge technology solutions to solve real business problems.

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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?

When I first started my journey in Silicon Valley, I had a clear goal in mind: to be a part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to be part of the technological revolution that was taking place in the Valley and make a real impact in the industry. It was the early 2000s and the dot-com era was in full swing, with endless opportunities for IT professionals even for kids like me who had never worked in IT yet. My first company was Transmeta, a company that was on the cutting edge of low-power computing. However, two years into my time there, the company experienced a 40% layoff, and I was among those who lost their jobs.

The whole Valley was experiencing a major shift as dot-com companies were disappearing overnight and there were no job opportunities for someone with only a couple of years of experience like me. I decided to go back and regroup in Blacksburg, Virginia where I had attended college. I worked in the Virginia Tech English Department computer labs and even briefly as an English professor, but the pull to go back and try again in Silicon Valley grew stronger.

I returned to Silicon Valley, this time for a company that was using the Transmeta processors in new and innovative ways. The journey was hard, but I was driven by my passion for technology and the desire to make a real impact in the industry. Even though things were difficult, I never let the hard times discourage me for long and I kept my eye on the bigger picture. I think what really gave me the courage to continue was the idea of being a part of something bigger than myself, making a real difference and being a part of the technological revolution that was taking place.

Let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. 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? 

Adaptic Health is an early stage start with a Software-as-a-Service platform designed to accelerate clinical development for cancer and rare diseases. The platform provides biopharma companies with digital infrastructure for clinical development starting with clinical trial design. We empower biopharma companies with a platform that provides dynamic literature review and what-if analysis. This accelerates the clinical trial design process by up to 6 months, resulting in cost savings of millions and increased likelihood of success. Our mission is to make the clinical trial process more efficient, effective and data driven. We help companies make better decisions in the clinical trial process, to reduce the time and costs associated with the trial process, and to make the data collected more actionable.

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 flexibility is the most important quality for someone who wants to lead a great company and create great products. In early-stage startups, there are a lot of unknowns, and in technology, things move very fast. It's crucial for a leader to be able to navigate this uncertainty and change course when necessary.

Being able to balance confidence in the product and its potential with the ability to pivot when data shows that a change is needed is key. A leader should be able to stand their ground when necessary but also be willing to shift when it's in the best interest of the company.

To hone this quality, I suggest developing habits such as active listening and radical candor. Leaders should make a point to actively listen to the core teams and gather feedback to make informed decisions. Additionally, being transparent and candid when communicating with team members can create a culture of trust and accountability, which helps facilitate the ability to pivot when necessary. This is important because when leaders spend time not being clear because they don't want to hurt feelings, the whole company and the people within it suffer.

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?

Agile methodologies can be particularly useful for product development as it encourages a collaborative, cross-functional team approach and focuses on delivering working product increments in short time-boxes.

Early in my career, I started using iterative design, a precursor for Agile and Scrum for projects and found that the clarity of the framework and the ability to pivot when more data became known was not just beneficial for product development, but also for all types of projects. The Scrum framework provided a clear structure for the team to work within and helped align the team's efforts to achieve a common goal. It also helped to track progress, adapt to change, and make adjustments quickly.

I found that the Agile methodologies allowed for a more flexible and responsive approach to project management. It helped me to manage and complete complex projects with a more efficient and effective approach. This approach helped me to identify and solve problems early, to make data-driven decisions, and to create a culture of trust and accountability within the team. This approach helped me to deliver projects on time, within budget, and to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

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?

When I think of the strongest team I've ever worked with, I think of my immediate team at Saama Technologies. We had an amazing product manager who was creating something he was truly passionate about (I work with him now at Adaptic Health) and a product marketing person who was both funny and methodical. Our boss allowed us the freedom to do things our way, as long as we were able to meet the objectives, and took the time to understand where we wanted to go with our lives and to mentor and encourage us throughout our time at the company. He has even continued to do so even after we parted ways.

What made this team so strong was the mutual respect and trust we had for each other. We all always had the best interests of the organization and each other at heart. The whole team was creative, smart, and kind. We all gave each other the room to experiment and make mistakes. This allowed for a positive and collaborative environment where everyone felt comfortable taking risks and learning from their mistakes.

One anecdote that illustrates the dynamic of the team is when we were working on a new product launch. We had spent weeks researching, planning and preparing for the launch, and we were all excited about the final product and the plan we had come up with. However, just a few days before the launch, our CEO decided to change the plan and we had to start from scratch. The team was disappointed and frustrated, but instead of giving up, we pulled together, and worked late hours to come up with a new plan that we all felt confident about. This teamwork and dedication is what made our team so strong and the product launch was a success. Our mutual respect and trust allowed us to overcome any obstacle and achieve great results.

If you had only one software tool in your arsenal, what would it be, why, and what other tools (software or tangible items) do you consider to be mission-critical?

If I had only one software tool in my arsenal, it would be Motion. Motion is an organizational tool that helps me keep my calendar organized and manage my tasks effectively. It automatically blocks out deep work time based on my priorities, which is invaluable for productivity.

As a marketing leader, I also consider account-based software to be mission-critical. This type of software allows the Go-To-Market (GTM) team to personalize and target their efforts towards specific buyers across the digital marketing ecosystem. This is essential for effectively reaching and engaging with potential customers.

In addition to Motion and account-based software, I also consider Salesforce CRM to be mission-critical. This CRM tool allows teams to centralize all of the data and create actionable insights that can be shared with the GTM team, executive team, and even the board. The integration capabilities of Salesforce CRM make it an essential tool for any sales, marketing and RevOps leader to have in their arsenal. Overall, these tools are all essential for me to manage my time, my team and my data effectively, helping me make better decisions and drive results.

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

My go-to practice for preventing burnout is to remove myself from work entirely and engage in activities that are completely unrelated to my day-to-day workday. I find that activities such as off-roading or shooting wildlife or night photography are particularly effective in preventing burnout. These activities allow me to disconnect from my daily routine and immerse myself in something that is both physically and mentally demanding, yet enjoyable and relaxing at the same time.

Off-roading and photography are hobbies that require my full attention and focus, and as I engage in them, it helps me to achieve a state of flow. That feeling of complete absorption and engagement in an activity helps me to forget about my work and any stress that I may be feeling. This allows me to relax and recharge my batteries, so when I return to work, I am refreshed and energized.

Additionally, going out for off-roading and photography helps me to see things in a different perspective, to be more creative and to come up with new ideas, which are beneficial for my work as well. It helps me to come up with new approaches to tackle problems and to think outside the box.

Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?

1 . Identify the problem: The first step in creating great tech products is pinpointing the specific problem that needs to be addressed. This requires a focused approach to ensure that the solution targets the root cause of the issue. At Adaptic Health, we identified the pain point of biopharma companies facing delays and high costs in clinical development, particularly in trial design. We discovered that traditional methods of protocol development, such as writing out a several hundred-page document and seeking input and approval from internal and external stakeholders, are not only inefficient but also prone to errors, resulting in significant financial losses and potentially even lost lives.

2 . Validate the pain and understand the market: The second step is validating the pain that the identified problem creates and understanding the market need. It's crucial to put the customer at the top of the priority list and understand their needs and wants. Building something just because it's cool doesn't bring buyers and won't make your business thrive. I learned this lesson firsthand when I was part of a hardware company in the dot-com era. Despite having a clear problem statement, we struggled with knowing when the problem was truly solved and ended up iterating the product and adding features that were cool, but not necessarily what prospects were looking for. This led to delays in the product launch and a lack of focus on the market need. It's a valuable lesson that I still keep in mind today.

3 . Iteratively Build the Product: The third step in creating great tech products is to construct a solution that addresses the problem and pain points identified in the previous steps. It's important to make sure that the pain is being addressed and that the new product isn't just a nice-to-have, but something that people will actually want to buy. We all know that no product development is ever a smooth ride, with everything going according to plan. That's why every tech company I have been at uses some version of an Agile methodology to iteratively build solutions. With daily stand-up meetings, sprint planning, and retrospectives, teams stay aligned and able to pivot and adjust as needed, ensuring that the final product effectively addresses the identified problem, even when things don't go as smoothly as we would like.

4 . Test and Validate: The fourth step is to remember that we are not perfect, nor will our understanding ever be perfect, so we need to go outside ourselves to test and validate the product by gathering feedback from advisors, alpha or beta customers, and adjust as needed. Having a customer advisory board is a great tool in this step as they can provide valuable insights and perspective on the product. At Saama Technologies, we regularly sought feedback from our customer advisory board on our product roadmap and UI design to ensure we were effectively addressing the problems we aimed to solve. This testing and validation process ensures that the final product meets the needs of the target audience and addresses the problem identified in the first step. It also helps to bring out a customer perspective that can lead to surprising insights and helps to validate the problem and solution.

5 . Continuously Disrupt Yourself: The final step in creating great tech products is to always be on the lookout for ways to improve and stay ahead of the competition. Technology and customer needs are constantly evolving, and what might be disruptive today may not be tomorrow. At Saama Technologies, we lived by the mantra of disrupting ourselves before others could disrupt us. We regularly conducted user testing, gathered customer feedback, and analyzed usage data to identify areas for improvement and make updates to the platform. This approach helped us stay ahead of the curve and ensure that our product remained innovative and relevant to our target audience.

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 am not satisfied with the current status quo regarding women in tech. We need to create a better pipeline for women in leadership positions. It's not just about having more women leaders, but also about having more women at every level of the organization and ensuring that they are given equal opportunities for promotion and advancement.

One specific change that needs to be made is addressing the issue of harassment and discrimination that women in tech often face. This includes creating a culture where women feel safe to speak up about their experiences and where there are clear and effective mechanisms for addressing and preventing harassment.

Another change that needs to be made is addressing the gender expectations and stereotypes that still exist in the tech industry. This includes promoting gender equality both at home and in the workplace, so that women are not viewed as people who will inevitably leave to start families. Additionally, addressing the unpaid emotional labor that women are often expected to do, such as cleaning up after meetings, taking notes and managing the emotional health of others within the organization.

Creating a more equal and inclusive culture in the tech industry will not only benefit women but also the industry as a whole. It will lead to a more diverse and innovative workforce, and ultimately better products and services.

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

If I had the opportunity to have a private breakfast or lunch with any person in the world, I would choose Reese Witherspoon. She has been able to make a significant impact on the entertainment industry by promoting positive and strong images of women. She has shown courage in being selective about the roles she takes on and has been a vocal advocate for gender equality in Hollywood.

One of the things that impresses me the most about Reese Witherspoon is her ability to create opportunities for women when they were not readily available. When she faced challenges in finding roles that aligned with her values, she took matters into her own hands by producing her own content. This determination and entrepreneurial spirit is something that I admire and would love to hear more about in a private breakfast or lunch.

Reese Witherspoon has not only been a successful actress but also a successful producer and entrepreneur. I would love to have a conversation with her and hear more about her journey. I think there are a lot of parallels with what I’ve experienced in the tech industry.

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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.