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How to Transition into Product Management and Excel as a Leader

product management

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Veronika Kovalenkova, Product Lead at Truelayer has had a truly rich and varied career to date. In this insightful interview, she shares how and why she transitioned into Product Management, what her role actually involves and what leadership, diversity and inclusion mean to her.

Why don’t you kick off by telling us a little about your role as Product Lead at TrueLayer? What does your general day to day involve?

TrueLayer’s mission is to open up finance through Open Banking. Open Banking enables people to share their financial data and make payments in a faster, more secure way. At TrueLayer, we’ve built a global platform that allows clients, like Revolut and FreeTrade to use these capabilities to build better services for their users. As a Product Lead in the Open Banking Expansion group, I’m responsible for expanding TrueLayer’s coverage globally. In practice, this means identifying and prioritizing new markets, building integrations with banks and working with early client adopters to test connectivity and optimize conversion.  

TruelayerMy day-to-day life is quite varied. Right now, I’m working with Commercial to define a Beta tester programme for new countries, working with Engineering to define release channel standards and building out our 2022 hiring pipeline. The biggest challenge by far has been transitioning away from product delivery and taking on the management and development of other Product Managers. For me, at least, being responsible for people rather than a product, feels like a particularly important responsibility, that I really don’t want to screw up!

What attracted you to TrueLayer, as an employer?

To be honest, 2 years ago, I thought I was settled in Government for the long haul. I had a really great few years working in GDS (Government Digital Services), which was pretty flagship in terms of digital delivery, with really strong communities. Fancying an opportunity to work in a more ‘digitally nacent’ Department, I ended-up accepting a Transformations role.

Then out of the blue, I was approached by an ex-GDS colleague, who’d left to work at TrueLayer. At the same time, my team was spiking TrueLayer to better understand Open Banking payments. These two things kind of aligned and sparked my interest in exploring Open Banking a bit further.

I ended-up going for the interview, just as an exploratory thing…but, it ended up being, hands down, the best interview process I’ve ever been through! Everyone I spoke to was aligned on the vision, spoke openly about challenges, and seemed genuinely committed to the company, without that cultish vibe you sometimes get from start-ups. I left with the impression that this company had the enthusiasm and drive of a start-up, but also the clarity of vision and strong sense of culture you usually see in more mature places. When I got the offer the next day, it was a no-brainer really!

What prompted you to transition into tech, and more specifically, product management? 

My mum is a QA and I remember in school saying I would never, ever want to work in tech. True to my word, I studied Law and got onto the Civil Service Fast Stream. My ambition was to quickly rise through the Civil Service ranks and lead a Policy Directorate in the Department of Health. One year into the Fast Stream, I selected ‘Private Sector,’ as my 6 month secondment preference, thinking I would probably end-up in a Consulting firm. A week before my start-date, my Cohort Leader told me I was going to a film production company. The ‘film production company,’ was actually a tech-startup called Improbable, building a simulation platform.  

Major miscommunication aside, I had an absolute blast and ended-up accepting a job there a few months after completing my secondment. Start-up culture was the complete opposite of the bureaucracy and resulting apathy I previously experienced in Law firms and Government. I was excited about how the tech could be used beyond gaming to help solve some of the real-world problems we were trying to tackle through policy initiatives back in Government.

The whole company was smart, driven, and felt really fresh. I won’t pretend I wasn’t intimidated by all these brilliant STEM people. But, coming in via a secondment really helped. It gave me the confidence to ask dumb questions, learn a crazy amount of new things, but also realise that I had a bunch of valuable skills to bring to the table.

My development into a Product Manager was pretty organic, as it was just the Head of my Department and me to start with. I didn’t have a lot of the frameworks and support you would get as an Associate Product Manager in a more established company, but the company was great on getting me onto any courses I wanted. It was a lot of learning on the job though!   

What advice do you have for women looking to pursue a career in Product?  

There’s so much literature out there on what constitutes a ‘proper PM,’ what’s a good v bad PM, how you get into Product, etc. I’ve heard people say you absolutely need a technical background or you absolutely need an MBA. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a ‘one size fits all’ route into Product Management. I certainly didn’t follow any remotely ‘traditional’ route but evolved into the role organically.  

However, this route is only really feasible if you are joining a relatively new company and I certainly wouldn’t advise it for everyone! You need to do a lot of self-learning, you end up operating with not a lot of frameworks in place, and not having mentorship can be quite lonely. If you really want to get into Product, I’d recommend going down the APM route in a company that has a strong Product culture and community.

Don’t get daunted by not having the ‘perfect’ background. I suggest breaking-up the role into some of the key competencies/skills, such as analytical rigour, customer empathy, technical literacy, but also softer things like comms and collaboration. You will more likely than not, have some solid experience in at least some of these.  

When hiring for people new to Product, I always look for what steps they’ve taken to fill some of the gaps in terms of required skills. Of course your job isn’t going to let you tick off the entire list, but if you can demonstrate that you are invested in learning, that’s a really good sign. I’m talking about taking courses, attending talks, or even shadowing or supporting a PM in your current company on a particular project. I interviewed a candidate recently who was looking to transition from a commercial role.

They spent a quarter supporting a Product Manager in defining some performance metrics and gathering client data in support of these. This was really great evidence of this individual’s commitment to learning about the role.  

When it comes to leadership, do you have any key principles?   

Don’t get too preoccupied with what a good leader should look, sound or act like. Of course, get inspired, but know your own strengths and lean on those. Because I worked so much in tech and Government, I internalized that a leader was typically an unemotive, very logical and well-articulated man. For a while, I really beat myself up over the fact that my thought process and emotive communication style just really didn’t align with my perception of a good leader.

I thought no one would take me seriously, unless I suppressed what came naturally and emulated all my old bosses. As I got more experienced and confident, I realized that authenticity and playing to your strengths is integral to being a good leader. My thought process can bring new perspectives in a homogenized group and my emotive communication style means I can be quite an engaging public speaker.

What doES diversity and inclusion mean to you? 

There’s so much that I can say on this, but I’ll focus on one specific thing that I think is pretty basic to an inclusive working environment. You can do all the right things when it comes to policies – flexible working, shared mat/pat leave, leave for child-loss, etc, but what can really undermine it, is tolerating the ‘arsehole geniuses’ and allowing ‘tech bro’ behaviour to flourish. Over the last 8 years of my career, I’ve heard comments like ‘her only purpose is to be eye candy in meetings’ about a close female colleague. A senior colleague evaluated the womens’ potential in the porn industry.  

These types of behaviours don’t make women equal or valued. Excusing those types of comments and behaviors on the basis that the guy’s been there from day 1 or no one understands the platform like he does makes women feel downright inferior. There should never be excuses. Weeding out these types of individuals should be part of the hiring process and if existing employees exhibit these types of behavior, they should go, end of. 

This is why I really value the fact that TrueLayer puts so much emphasis on our cultures interview. We’re all trained on how to do it and the Talent team always ensures a wide range and diverse group of people conduct it…there’s no ‘only c-suite interview the c-suite’. Even if this person is going for CPO – if they don’t pass the culture interview, they’re not getting the offer!  

How do you think companies can get more women into tech and leadership?  

Start young and without the crazy competitive element. Grad schemes are already catering to a reduced pool of women that have gone to the right unis, studied the right subjects and got the grades. Thinking from my own experience, you’d have already lost me at age 14 when I decided I hated math and that my mum’s tech job was lame.

Companies should be investing in speaking about careers in tech at primary schools, there should be more work experience/shadowing for 14-16 years old…around the time they’re choosing their GCSEs and A-levels. Maybe partnerships with schools in less economically privileged areas. Mentorship and application coaching for school girls by women in tech. 

Learn more about WORKING AT TRUELAYER

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