Alicia Goodwin is a Product Owner in Zalando, Berlin. Having grown up on the ocean, in a small town in New England, she loves sailing and traveling. Someday she hopes to combine the two and sail around the world leisurely. Alicia likes doing creative things as well, like drawing, painting, refinishing furniture. In terms of work, she is proud to have had such a colorful career — both in terms of diversity of things she has worked on and in terms of having worked all over the world and getting such rich experiences that have really enabled her to have this kind of flexibility and opportunity.
Read this interview and get inspired to stand for who you truly are.
K: Alicia, you are a woman of many talents who is currently working as a Product Manager at Zalando, Europe’s largest online fashion retailer. Can you please tell us more about the development of your career path?
A: I grew up in the United States and I studied Business Management at Salem State University in the Boston area. After my graduation I decided to work in clinical research, where I was working on finding clinical applications for a medical imaging device, doing a lot of data analysis. That was when I got interested in technology and I ended up getting recruited by a software company. Even though I started working for them doing more consulting rather than product management, I actually really liked the idea of product management. I found it to be more analytical, technical and business facing. So, eventually, I moved from doing consulting and project management into product management.
K: What you were looking for in your first job?
A: I wanted to do something that was really interesting and, let’s say, ‘noble’. I found that by doing research I can be both technical and impactful. Even though I never wanted to work directly with patients, not for any particular reason, I liked working in research and found it to be really challenging and interesting. I think that I generally like solving complex problems and finding solutions — those are the types of things that I try to take on.
K: After working 7 yrs in research and technology, what made you switch to a product role later on?
A: I don’t think there is just one way into product management. To be honest, I decided to move to tech mostly because I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do in the academic world and whether I should go for a Ph.D. track. In the academic world you really have to make a decision on how deep you are going to go in your research, and that wasn’t what I felt I wanted to do. So I got really excited to start working for a tech company because I could be working on similar kinds of problems and complexities in building technology as in doing research. When I first started in a product role, I wasn’t doing product management yet. Actually, I didn’t really know that product management was a role. But I really enjoyed working with our customers and solving their problems. That experience helped me to learn a lot of different types of products and eventually what the role of product management was. It all happened organically, I would say. I think that even now a role of a product manager is neither easy to get into nor is it well-known.
K: While working at Open Clinica, you were promoted from a product owner to a senior position within a matter of 2.5 years and a half. What do you think made you take those steps? What qualities did people appreciate in you?
A: Thinking strategically is what helped me to get promoted fairly fast. I try to be objective about what I want to accomplish both for myself and for the company. I’ve always looked at where I want my career to be and at the things that I am missing. I also ask myself what are the things that I could be doing better? What are things that others are doing that will get the company ahead? It’s important to focus on not only being great today, but also thinking about what I should be doing to be great tomorrow. When it comes down to moving into the next role, I think it’s more compelling to say, “Look, I took on a lot of strategic initiatives and I looked at what would get the business ahead in these areas.” So, basically, I took on not only the role that I was hired for, but I also looked ahead and tried to take on other areas and execute.
K: What do you think helped you to climb your career ladder so fast? Did it happen because of your personal qualities and efforts or you just had a right mentor in your early career?
A: Since early on I’ve had some really good people that would influence me and give me a lot of confidence. For example, my first boss, who could be sometimes very hard on people, was a very smart guy and would also give a lot liberties. For instance, when I went off to start my own projects and I got really far, but I failed, he would never harshly criticize. Especially if I could to explain every path I took, every rationale for choosing this model versus that model and the reasons why I did the research — my boss always took those as teaching moments, which gave me real confidence. He also gave me confidence, encouraging me to take all the steps, do them independently and conduct good research around them. It made me confident to trust myself, trust in the things that I was doing as long as I had a really good rationale for doing it. I think having somebody that has confidence in you and recognizes your success and failures, gives you the flexibility to take initiative.
K: Do you still keep in touch with your mentors?
A: Of course, I do! I have always embraced my position in a really positive way. My mentors are really supportive of me. Even if I don’t live in those countries anymore, whenever I go back there, I try to stop and say ‘Hi!’
K: Alicia, we all know that the U.S. is kind of ahead in terms of product management. What made you move to Europe, particularly to Ireland, and develop your career in product there? Do you have any regrets about your decision?
A: I would say I certainly do not regret doing it. Even considering that I was doing product management in Boston and I had a network and a career established there, it was totally worth it moving to Europe. It’s true that the U.S. has an established kind of products career, for me those places would be Boston or California, for example. And of course, I had to weigh a lot of different things before taking on that decision, but on a personal level, I’ve always wanted to live abroad. I was looking for countries that had a good tech industry and wanted to find something that could really be a good fit. I wanted to find a company with an interesting and growing profile where I could have a successful career and have the flexibility and autonomy to do good product management. In Europe you have some interesting companies like Zalando. It’s young and it’s growing like crazy. At the beginning I had concerns about going to a much larger company and about how much ability I would have to affect things and grow the product. But the offer by Zalando sounded very good and it felt right to me. I got to work on some really big and impactful products, and, so far, it has been a great experience.
K: So maybe you can tell us a little bit more about the product that you’re working on right now. Does it fascinate you?
A: I’ve worked on different products in my career, but I actually really like all the products that I have been working on in Zalando. For example, I do enjoy working on the back-end products. Right now, I work in Product Analytics and economics. We’re working on a core component for our platforms that are steering and enabling a level playing field that can allow us bring both internal and external stakeholders to the platform in a way that is more transparent and data driven. That way we can benefit our customers. In general, what I like the most about this product is that by putting together economics and data science we can do some really interesting things.
K: Alicia, coming back to your decision to move to Europe, when you first moved to Ireland, was it different from what you had expected? What were your first adaptations?
A: I cannot really say what I expected from Ireland, but in general it has been an easy transition for me. I have also done some substantial traveling before I moved out of Boston. When I was doing consulting, I was traveling probably 70% of my time and a lot of those travels where to Europe. So, when I moved, it wasn’t a big shock. It’s different, though, to live somewhere than to visit somewhere. I found my experience really great and I got to meet interesting people. I worked for Zalando in Ireland and for Zalando in Germany and, even those offices have a different vibe, but both of them are really great.
K: Do you think that being away from your own culture made you grow personally?
A: Yes, in so many ways. There are so many things that you learn about yourself and about others. You also learn about thinking about the problems and about tolerance of people in different ways. I think there’s so many ways to learn and grow even from subtle things. I would say that now I’m probably much more relaxed and patient than before. I find that you have to be more self-aware, more cognizant of things in the way you work. You also had to learn that people have different expectations about how to work together, what are group dynamics or what’s expected in the workplace.
Another positive side of moving to Europe is that in America you don’t have a lot of vacation time compared to Europe. Also, Americans have different working practices. For me, even getting used to taking more vacation was hard because sometimes I don’t know what to do with all this time off.
K: How do you manage to find a compromise between your professional and personal life?
A: I’ve been in Berlin just for a year. And as I reflect back on the last year, I would say I’ve always been a very independent person. That is what you get to test when you keep moving to different countries. I try to be more cognizant of what is my work-life balance. For me, career has always been super important, but I also try to put effort into my social and personal life. It takes more energy to balance those things especially when you move to another country. I am actually thinking that a year is good amount of time, because that is when you start finding those things again: the places you like to go, the things you like to do. You also start joining a club where you secure different spots and start feeling the network of friends again. I try to invest in all these areas.
K: Was it easy for you to build friendships in your product management community?
A: I would say that building up friendship within Zalando has been much easier. When I was working at Zalando office in Dublin, I had to spend much time in Berlin. So I got to build relationships with people who worked at Zalando’s Berlin office before actually moving there. Perhaps, because I was spending so much time going back and forth and I already had some exposure to the market here, that is why it wasn’t really difficult to build new relationships in Berlin. I know quite a lot of product people here. For example, one night I was out riding my bicycle and I ran into a friend who introduced me to his friend. Somehow, he’s also a product manager of a different company, but years ago he worked in Zalando. Eventually we became friends. I feel like in Berlin, especially in the tech scene or product scene, it would be really hard not to find somebody who hasn’t already worked or is working at Zalando. Zalando has a really big presence in Berlin.
K: How do you stay connected within your product community? Do you have any Whatsapp group or any Slack group?
A: I try to organize small get-togethers and to catch up with people in a less formal way, like lunches or brunches. I also try to involve people that are outside of Zalando and people in product in general. That is a great opportunity to learn more about more general product issues, stay updated on what is happening in the industry and focus on your own product.
K: You know that there is still a lot of ways women are not equal in the workplace. Do you feel that you are being disregarded vis-a-vis men in Zalando?
A: Throughout my entire career I worked in mostly male-dominated organizations, but I never felt discriminated because I am a woman. On the contrary, I even got recently promoted. I have worked with so many wonderful people that it rarely crosses my mind. I know that gender inequality at work still exists. I remember that once I was talking to a friend about something personal and I was wondering where to get advice. My friend said, ‘Why don’t you ask one of the women that you work with?’, which made me realise that I actually didn’t have any women colleagues. But on the other side, I rarely feel dismissed by my male colleagues. And especially my experience working at Zalando has been very overwhelmingly positive. Maybe it’s because of my personality, but I always feel respected. I would say that I am very independent, and I am also very forceful, outspoken. At Zalando I’ve got to work on some really great products that, I’m sure, other men would kill to be working on.
To be honest, I think that gender discrimination empirically is still taking place but it’s usually the last thing I think of. When I have challenges with colleagues, I try to think ‘it’s a communication issue’ before anything else. For example, English might not be everyone’s first language or maybe the topic is not equally interesting for everybody. Normally, there’s a long list of things that I go through and try to resolve before I think if it could be a gender issue.
K: What advice you would give to someone who wants to build a career in product management but doesn’t have a university degree yet? What should they study for a career in Product Management?
A: It’s a little bit challenging to talk about product management as a job. There’s so much variation in the type of products you could be managing. You could be managing something that’s like a mobile app or something that is more about user interaction. I’m managing products that are very back-end. I think you should consider holding the degree depending on the types of things that interest you. Being really organized and having sort of project management skills are very useful, regardless of what products you work on. I see that a transition from a project manager to a product manager could be very useful. The core is to be organized and self-starting. You need to be able to bring things over the line and be able to navigate through challenges. Again, I think it depends on what kind of products you want to be working with, whether you are more about the user experience or you really like the visual elements of things. You might like getting into the mind or even drawn to more technical kinds of challenges. So, to get in the product it doesn’t mean you have to have a technical background. Obviously, if you are more towards technical challenges, then it could make sense to get more experience in that. But if you’d be more towards design and stuff like that, I think you could even go to an Art School and become a really successful product manager. Find what makes you feel good and what gets you really interested in products, and then do some kind of courses around that.
K: Talking about challenges, what was the biggest challenge that you faced with in your professional life?
A: Probably one of the biggest challenges for me was standing up for what you think is right for the company: for the product and for the customer. Especially when you’re a junior product manager. I always believed in what I was doing and I tried to stand up for the things that I believed in, despite having somebody much more senior than I who may have had a different opinion. Just believing that something is right and having strong supporting evidence gives you a solid ground to stand on. Putting yourself out there and challenging things, you learn to be confident in yourself. And you will have to do it for the rest of your career to keep challenging yourself.
K: After so many years leading the products, is still challenging for you to stand for yourself?
A: I think it’s not going to get harder and you are going to get just better and better. But you should always keep challenging the status quo and expect to be challenged. That is the part that makes product management so interesting. As you get better in selling your vision, you get better in developing your products and rationalizing them.
K: And the last word. What advice would you give to women who want to become product managers?
A: Product management is a really great way to be an entrepreneur and to develop your vision. It’s incredibly rewarding to get the vibe from other people and really affect change.
Get connected with Alicia by email at email@example.com, drop her a message on LinkedIn.
This project was made possible thanks to our partnership with Zalando Tech. #GirlsWhoProduct is a series of interviews with women that have been able to beat the ‘product’ ceiling and get into the profession. Our mission is to inspire, connect and empower more women to get into product roles and help them consider ‘product’ as a venue of personal and professional growth.
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