Karen Fynn | Journey
Talk of the weather, stiff upper lip, Marmite - all very British nuances. But what are we most guilty of as a Brit? Not giving ourselves enough credit! We often find it very difficult to talk about what we're good at but is it holding us back?
Here, we hear from Karen Fynn - Product Director at Journey, who draws from her experience as an umpire to keep calm under pressure, the importance of the bigger picture when briefing developers and how to tackle "intellectual snobbery".
This refreshingly frank article is just what you need if you're feeling a bit lost or at a crossroads in your career...
CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND HOW YOU GOT INTO PRODUCT MANAGEMENT?
When I was pregnant with my son I was doing some freelance work whilst on maternity leave, building people's websites, trying to decide if that was something I wanted to do as a career change from working in IT to then building websites. I decided that running my own business as a freelancer wasn’t what I wanted to do and I got offered a job by someone I knew. I said I like managing projects, but I’m also really interested in software engineering, he said, “well I think I have the answer to both of our problems then” and I came on as Product Manager with Firehoop and that was that!
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO PRODUCT MANAGEMENT AS A CAREER?
I’ve always been someone that, when there’s a big mess, seem to have the ability to see through it all and organise things. If someone shows me the big picture, I know how to break it down. I’ve always had that ability to see things that way. I like the fact that it can still be quite a technical role, but also, I am interested in business and overcoming the problems that people have and finding solutions and solving problems.
WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU'VE FACED AND HOW HAVE YOU OVERCOME THEM?
With everything that I end up doing, you have multiple plans in mind with what you can do to be able to meet expectations. So having backup plans of how you change the scope to be able to deliver something on time is something that is always a challenge. But I think the biggest one is when there are issues that can’t be controlled by product. Technical debt in a product can be one of the toughest things to work with if you have a product with too much technical debt. It’s virtually impossible to be able to overcome it, we’ve ended up dealing with it with best practice, trying to do the boy scout route of leaving something better than when you found it. I guess it’s also about communicating the needs to everyone. As much as developers want to write code, giving them context for the bigger picture is obviously important as they can make better decisions with implementation and really know and own the product rather than just being told.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE A SPECIFIC PROJECT OR PRODUCT THAT YOU'RE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF AND EXPLAIN WHY?
Revspa, our spa booking platform, we are all quite proud of it as it’s the first spa booking engine with live pricing and availability, we partnered with a third-party company to get that functionality. We worked with them to build their API to our requirements. Off the back of our collaboration as two businesses, we have created something that our customers really love. It looks great, and operates well so that’s still something we are all proud of. The current product that we are working on, OneJourney I’m proud of it and the team because it's so complicated. The Belfry and Celtic Manor have tried and failed to do what we’ve done. It’s a huge achievement to have gotten to where we are. The other one that I really loved working on was a project when I was at Firehoop for British Cycling and SKY, a collaboration for their recreational cycling programme to get a million more people into cycling. We worked with those two companies for about five years launching all their campaigns. And that wasn’t just about the brand, there were bookings, and there were GPS files of routes that you could download, upload, and book on rides. There were so many different aspects to it, all bespoke and all the workflows were complex as it was a very big application. It was enjoyable because it was an interesting subject matter but also technically complex. All three of those products have been technically complex and executed in a simple user-friendly way. So, I think those are always the ones that you know you’re doing well because somebody thinks that what you have produced is simple.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE WHO IS LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE SECTOR?
Listen. And ask the question that needs to be asked, by that I mean, people will provide solutions and listening to what they have to say and asking the why is so important because people don’t always know what they need. Because they will come along with a solution and say "can it do this?", "can you do this thing?", or maybe someone on the board is saying "here’s a vision, can you do it?". Understanding why is the key to all of it. Asking delving questions and then also listening to what people have to say in response and remembering it. If someone gives you that information, it’s polite if nothing else to absorb the information in whatever way is best for you. If you are actively listening and absorbing information and asking questions, then you can do your best work in being able to provide the solution. I think if you don’t fully understand the situation, ask questions to really get to the bottom of it so it’s solid in your help. Sometimes people don’t feel brave or confident enough to be able to say “sorry I’m still not quite getting to the bottom of it do you mind sharing a bit more with me”
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE GIVEN TO YOURSELF AT THE START OF YOUR CAREER, KNOWING ALL THAT YOU KNOW NOW?
Don’t downplay your capability. Instead of people thinking “oh Karen is much better than I thought she was going to be”, they start off by thinking maybe you aren’t as capable and then you must work back from being underestimated. It’s a bit of a British thing anyway, it doesn’t always feel comfortable to talk about what you are good at. I found it with umpiring. I would go and say to my colleagues how nervous I was feeling and start talking about all my gaps. Then my colleagues think “is this person going to be able to handle this” and then you go in and rock it and they’re like “oh she’s okay”. If you don’t say it in the first place they will just say “Oh well Karen rocked that”. There’s no need to point out your flaws to everyone unless it’s necessary. Self-awareness is good but you don’t need to open up to people unnecessarily, and you need to be more confident in your own abilities.
WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED AS A WOMAN WORKING IN A MALE-DOMINATED FIELD LIKE TECHNOLOGY?
I haven’t. It’s a challenge because I think, whether I have needed to or not, I have always wanted to be the hardest working person in the building, and a lot of that has come from wanting to be taken seriously. I also want to know my stuff; I am quite happy to hold my hands up and say I don’t understand that, but I then take time to be able to learn what I need to. I’ve seen situations, and I don’t think it’s a male-female thing, but there’s intellectual snobbery that goes on in the tech world. I think that making sure you know as much as you need to at least, and maybe more, about the technical side of things has been important for me to be taken seriously. That I’m not just someone who is managing, I know the tech as well. I think that has certainly helped with the way that I have worked with teams. Even when I was working in IT as a techie myself, I never had any problems. I have only ever seen problems where someone doesn’t really know or understand or know their field and there might be an assumption that it’s because they’re female. But in my experience, it is more intellectual snobbery, where someone doesn’t know very much be it male or female would struggle. I have had more issues with sexism outside of tech than I have in tech. Dealing with clients and partners, I remember being at a meeting with a partner. I was running the project and I went along with my boss. I knew everything about the product and my boss didn’t, but the brand agency wouldn’t speak to me. I’d ask a question and he would respond to my boss. I was uncomfortable, but I thought I was reading into it. We came out of the meeting and my boss asked me if I was okay as he thought it was awkward.
YOU SPEAK A LOT ABOUT YOUR TIME PLAYING, COACHING, AND UMPIRING IN HOCKEY. WHAT IS THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU HAVE TAKEN FROM THIS INTO YOUR CAREER AND ROLE NOW?
Umpiring, and what I do as a job are very different in terms of ways of thinking and behaving. At work I must consider, collaborate, get opinions, and build a picture to make sure we are making the right decisions for the strategy, vision, delivery, and execution of the product. In umpiring, I must blow my whistle and decide instantaneously without any kind of collaboration. I’m the one with the whistle and you must do what I say in that scenario. It’s a very different way of thinking and that’s been very difficult for me to overcome, but it is helpful at times at work. If you have 11 people in the team all coming at you complaining about something you did, you won’t shrink and instead, be calm and deal with it. We always say panic slowly. Keeping a poker face when you’re under pressure really helps with resilience for work. It’s interesting - psychologically, umpiring has given me some interesting skills. As I’ve got better at work, I’ve got better as an umpire, and they come together. So, there are quite a lot of crossovers.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE QUOTE THAT YOU REFER TO?
Jane Powell (Ex England GB, Hockey, Cricket and Badminton player) used to say when she was training me that she wanted us to “Play with PRIDE, Personal Responsibility In Delivering Excellence”. What you do off the ball is as important as what you do on the ball and helping your teammates to be in the right place and support them. It translates directly to business, with everyone in the team working towards a common goal. From a development point of view, you don’t not self-test and then hand it over to someone for code review and then that other person has to give you a ton of feedback. It’s about doing your job well but also making it easier for other people.
Thanks, Karen you rock 🤘
Interview by Tom Faire