Emily Washington, SVP of Product Management at Infogix - The Road to Product Management Success
Growing up, she loved English and writing and went on to San Jose State University to study Elementary Ed. I asked Emily how she became interested in technology. She was in Silicon Valley in the 90s and took a job with a dotcom as a customer service rep working 30 hours a week. This exposed her to technology and although she lost her job when the dotcoms crashed it had given her a taste of the tech culture and its intense energy. After finishing college, Washington returned to Chicago where her experience in Silicon Valley gave her a leg up when it cam to job searching.
She got a job at Cyborg Systems as assistant to the Head of Development. The job left her with occasional downtime and she used the time to find other projects to do to stay occupied. Her manager was impressed that she looked for opportunities to improve and grow beyond her role. Her Manager moved to Infogix (called Unitex Systems at the time) to head up Global Development and four months later (Jan 2003) she recruited Emily as her assistant again.
Because she loved to learn Emily sat in on demos to learn about Infogix products. Before long Washington found herself reporting to Sumit Nijhawan who later rose to become CEO at Infogix. She said she started to dabble in product mgmt. projects and Sumit began to rely on her for presentation materials. Occasionally, she would brainstorm on a whiteboard and offer suggestions for positioning a product. She became interested in and fascinated by UI design and took a graphics design course.
At Infogix, during those early years, she took it upon herself to become familiar with the functionality of the products and began writing data sheets, marketing collateral and creating demos for product launches. She also began piloting new products with existing customers. Her discipline and dedication and her desire to understand the products and how they worked led to her being rewarded with a promotion to a project manager. But she panicked when she was asked to actually demo a product. “I was a shy kid and hated speaking, I was very reserved”, she recalls and tried to get out of the task but her manager insisted that she was the right person for it. She says the experience gave her confidence to speak publicly.
There was as yet no formalized product management organization but what she was doing was product management. So she was moved to a PM role, the only one in the company at the time. Her initial charter, as she calls it, was to find out what product management was. This was 2009 and 6 months after she gave birth to her daughter. “Thank God for Google!” she says and embarked on a journey to educate herself on the topic. She says she has no formal education in PM, although she considered going to school to get it. But she had just become a new mom and given everything on her plate at the time she decided against committing to school. Everything she has learned, she says emphatically, is through experience. “while I have a deep appreciation for all the formal methodologies, one thing I have learned is that you have to be able to apply and tailor them to the needs of the particular company, whatever state of maturity that company is in”.
After she became a Manager of Product Management, she received a budget to bring in a couple of people into her org and formalize a team. And while she didn’t have a luxury of learning from people who had done the job before her, “what was nice was that I had the flexibility to mold it the way that worked for us”. One important detail that gave her confidence was that just before she began her PM role, she closed an important 6-figure deal – the one with Wells Fargo where he had demoed the product. “there was some sort of high associated with it, you know. I had taken something from zero to implementing it for a client. I had done something right and I wanted more of it. There was that extra motivation I needed and my drive just kept increasing after that.”
“What I have realized is that there’s a relationship element to this job. You’re the SME, you know these products in and out, and your customers and prospects rely on you, but there is that soft component to it, it’s not just about selling. I can connect with someone, I can communicate with someone and I know our products.” That’s the incredible value she brings to her role – a seller and communicator in tandem.
Washington became a Director in 2014, and SVP early in 2016. She keeps ascribing this to luck but stops herself to say her Dad told her, “No, you worked really hard for this”. Still, speaking of influences, she says, “I can’t imagine getting to where I am and all the opportunities that I’ve had without the support of the management team.” Clearly this was a company willing to promote and nurture talent.
There are 6 people on the executive team at Infogix – she’s the only woman. Not only is the executive team all-male (other than her), the board is all male too. Not only is she the only woman, she is also the youngest person. Some of her coworkers have 30 years of experience under their belts. Does she feel like “a fish out of water?” “I’ve learned how to manage people, how to speak at a senior level. I’m figuring it out as I go because things are happening so fast. I read a ton (to keep up).” She reads mostly about leading and communicating.
In dealing with the board, she says she tried to balance getting advice from the men and knowing that she can do this by herself. “I’m constantly learning. Every meeting I go to, every person I talk to, every template I come across, you know, I’m always thinking: what else can we be doing to standardize this process so that everyone can understand organizationally and at the customer level.”
What does she think of her Product Management role ? “I feel that product management is a tough one. If we have a bad quarter, it’s easy to point fingers at product management because we didn’t see this coming, we didn’t have the right materials, we didn’t have the right products or the right message. But all in all, we have an amazing exec team that is in tune with each other.”
Does she feel hamstrung by the lack of a technical degree? “There isn’t a typical path in Product Mgmt. But you can do it even with an English or History degree. I can talk to a CIO of a bank and hold my own. I’ve come up the ranks and learned how to be a product expert, how to deploy a product, the technologies. Product Management touches every part of the organization - I have conversations every day with Engineering and Sales & Marketing but I also talk to our Services group.”
For all of you wondering if having a Product Management career is possible without a technical degree/background, this should remove any doubts. Emily Washington parlayed an Elementary Ed degree into a powerful and highly successful product management career. She did this through sheer hard work and a desire to learn and apply those learnings in her role. It’s also a reminder that a Product Manager, you have to be a good communicator. So those English and History (storytelling) skills can be very handy! Don’t waste a moment – go for that product manager’s role you’ve been thinking about. Good luck.