Talking to Women of Tech

Talking to… Lily Smith

Lily Smith
VP Product at Memberoo
Twitter
LinkedIn

Hi Lily,
Thank’s so much for agreeing to talk. I know you’re really busy. So perhaps we could start with what it is that you do?

I’m VP of Product with Memberoo, tech start up based in Bath, we’re building products to help retailers on the high street to connect more meaningfully with their customers.

What is a VP of Product?

That’s a very good question. Product Management means different things at different places, But my view of Product Management is it’s the role that understands ‘what’ needs to be built and ‘why’, and will also have some views about ‘how’.

The Product Manager appreciates all of the different aspects of developing a product – marketing, sales, technical development, and has insight into what’s going on in the market too. With all of this knowledge the PM is in a great position to steer the product development. Ideally no one reports directly to the product manager – which means that they have to use influence rather than authority to steer the product in the right direction.

Sounds like an interesting role. Is Product Management something you’ve always been interested in?

Not specifically – I started out life wanting to be a Producer/Director for film and tv. When I landed in the tech scene I found myself doing a producer-style role but for delivering websites and apps. I guess it was a pretty natural progression.

How did you get into the tech scene?

I tried out lots of other things first. I used ‘fail fast’ as a concept in my life before I ever understood it in the product development sense. If something didn’t feel right I would move on quickly; I worked at a bank, but I found selling finance products to people struggling to get by very immoral. I worked on Harry Potter for a bit but the idolisation of actors while the skill of other crucial contributors went unnoticed really frustrated me – that and the fact that it took forever to create something. When I started in the digital department at Future Publishing I loved the pace and the passion of the place.

So had you been interested in tech before? Or was it that the opportunity presented itself?

I’m not really interested in technology to be honest. I’m more interested in people.

I don’t typically rush out and by the latest gadgets – but I am fascinated by how technology changes behaviour and can make people’s lives easier (or harder!). I also love working with developers. As Naji El-Arifi said at a TedX talk (it’s a great talk, watch it!) – these people are Wizards. And typically they have no ego. They love technology and I love working with them.

On the opportunity side…

Yes, it was an opportunity. I met David Maher-Roberts, founder of TechSPARK, and he hired me into his team as a PA / Project Manager. I’ve always been an opportunist – I will always meet people and I find it hard to say no to things especially if I have a good vibe about the person. I’m a bit of a hippy really – vibe over logic.

I love the idea of vibe over logic. I imagine you have to be pretty brave to follow that mentality though? Much like the ‘fail fast’ concept. I would imagine a lot of people find the idea of failing scary (I certainly do!). Is that something you struggled with?

Hmm… That’s tricky to answer.

I’m definitely not afraid of taking a risk. I think that people fail all the time but they don’t admit it to themselves. I find that thought much scarier.

Unless I feel really useful to a business I don’t see the point in staying. Which can be hard in a project management role actually – my theory about project management is that if you organise a team properly they don’t need you anymore. Maybe that’s why I’ve changed roles quite a bit too (even within companies I’ve worked for). If I feel fully utilised in my role and I’m having a positive impact – that’s when I know I’m not failing.

I can see that. The need to feel as though you are being as useful as you possibly can be while having a positive effect on those around you is very relatable.

I can imagine that you learn a lot in a role like Product Management?

Yes, if you listen well! I learnt a LOT of what I know from working with developers – finding out what information they need, what makes them happy, how they like to work etc. I’m sure I’ve made a ton of mistakes too but hopefully people know me well enough and trust that I want what’s best for everyone, which includes building the right thing to make the team and business successful.

And do you have a lot of technical knowledge for a role like yours?

It definitely helps a lot. But you can get by as long as you ask the right questions and you have a tech team you can trust. Asking questions is so important in this role.

I’ve learnt all of my technical knowledge by learning from the developers that I’ve worked with.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learnt because of your job?

I’ve learnt that the way in which you work is as important as the work you do. It’s no good to deliver an amazing app or website if your whole team is miserable. And as a Product or Project Manager you can have such a big impact on the happiness of the team. And a happy team is a more engaged team, and a more engaged team can yield much better results. I once had a developer say to me ‘I’m just a code monkey, I do what I’m told’ – I told him no, I valued his opinion on all matters – sometimes people do have to make a judgement call and move on despite knowing there’s a better way, but it’s important to acknowledge that is what is happening. I try to make sure everyone knows why they are doing what they’re doing. But I’m not perfect – I’m still learning from the awesome people around me 🙂

Have you found that being a woman has affected your career? Or attitudes towards you or your work?

Yes definitely, both positively and negatively. Positively in the sense that there aren’t many women in Tech so people are generally interested in hiring a woman. On the flip side, I had children quite young (started at the age of 24) and had a few comments like ‘oh you don’t want to be a board member, you want to be at home with your kids’. I have also had the occasional inappropriate advance. I think this is something women experience across all lines of work though and I actually believe the Tech sector is probably becoming one of the best places to be a woman (or a man!) at work because of the forward thinking mentality of the companies.

It’s sad that inappropriate advances and disparaging comments are something that still occur across all lines of work, but I think you’re right about the forward thinking mentality. Do you have any advice for women looking to work in tech?

My advice would be to network loads, take advantage of every opportunity to meet people, talk to developers and ask them what they’re doing, in fact just ask loads of questions (but try to ask them at the right time). I believe in always asking as many questions as you need to make sure that you fully understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it – not just as an individual but as a team. One of my favourite books is the ‘8 Questions of Nowhere’ by Nick Udall.

Thanks, Lily. Great advice. It was good talking to you.

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