#GirlsWhoProduct: Catherine Louis

How to work from home during the pandemic? What are the biggest obstacles for women in Product Management? Where can product creators find a safe place?

In this special edition of #GirlsWhoProduct, we chatted with Catherine Louis, a co-founder of #PoDojo in Berlin and a Scrum trainer. As the COVID-19 outbreak urged for virtual collaboration, Catherine and her team continue to give creative training and design sprints for product people in online mode. In this interview Catherine shared with us some insights on her life, on her career journey and on the new product reality we now are living.

By Katsiaryna Drozhzha on May 27th, 2020

K: Welcome, Catherine, and thank you for joining Girls Who Product

C: Thank you. Welcome to be here.

K: Catherine, you were in the United States when the outbreak of Coronavirus started. How have you been doing during the last few weeks? What has been challenging for you in this new situation?

C: As you know, our president did not respond at the beginning, but our local governor did. We were requested to stay at home much earlier than the rest of the country. And that’s always a challenge because I like to be outside and I like to get a lot of exercise and to see the sun. I am just trying to stay positive and to avoid a panicky situation.

K: A couple of days ago, you published an article on how to keep a positive mental attitude while working from home. Can you explain what the positive mental attitude (PMA) means ?

C: PMA is a really important thing in terms of health. I learned about positive mental attitude from my volunteer work as a search and rescue technician, where we used the dogs to find missing people. What accompanies PMA is this rule of three. If you let panic rule your actions, you can be doomed in less than three seconds. You can survive three minutes without air, and three hours if you are without shelter in a harsh environment. Three days without water, if you’ve made that shelter, and three weeks without food, if you have water and you’ve made that shelter. So what I learned was that the most important thing to know was the situation, the state of the person who’s missing, what sort of environment and what kind of shelter you can make. The rule #1- don’t panic! I see panic spreading right now, as fast as this novel Coronavirus is spreading. What it means to me to stay positive working from home is just what we did when we started this call. We have a check in to see how we’re really doing. And you can do that simply by naming a feeling that you have and talking about it. Don’t blame yourself. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I should have gone out and splurged shopped for that toilet paper.” But, you know, you have what you have and go do what you need, with what you already have. There’s things that you can control, so try to control them. There are things you can influence, so try to influence them. It’s best not to panic when you can’t change the situation.

K: When the pandemic was just starting, the first thing that a lot of people did was buying up toilet paper, alcohol and guns. Do you think that something is going wrong with our values? Or is it our authorities’ mismanagement that makes people panic so much?

C: I think it’s a herding behavior that human beings have. There was some media publication about a truck full of toilet paper that was stolen in Hong Kong. I guess that was a trigger of herding behavior for toilet paper. Herding behavior happens. And you can see it in conferences and grocery stores. But I don’t think it’s a failure of the government. I think this is the way people are. We go on in herds. I don’t know if I answered your question or not, but I was curious about the toilet paper as well and I have a little story to tell. My friend moved into an Airbnb, and she got caught without toilet paper. So I put one on my front porch. And then she knew that somebody stole it. I was very angry at the beginning, but then I thought that if somebody steals toilet paper, they probably need it more than I do.

K: Don’t you think that there comes a time where we need to stay at our homes and let the planet breathe?

C: Oh, that’s an interesting thought. I am looking outside and I’m seeing really blue skies. I think our planet is breathing right now. Lots of people are traveling less as a lot less of jet fuel is being used right now.

K: I’ve seen some statistics saying that there are more people dying because of the carbon emissions than people dying from COVID-19. We must be saving lots of lives just by not traveling.

C: Around four years ago, Stephen and I (Stefan Haas — Co-Founder of #PoDojo) introduced the Sustainable Development Goals from the UN along with the design challenge. What we realized when we formed a team in the dojo, is that it really motivated the teams to build something without harming the planet. I like to encourage others to do that whenever you have a product challenge, to add a sustainability goal.

K: Let’s hope that sustainability would be our top priority after the pandemic is over. A lot of critics who reflect on the current situation say that our world will never be the same again. Now, people are finding alternative ways to work online, they finally have time to stay home and think about who they really are and whether they want to come back to the life they used to have before. So if you reflect on this idea, what would be the world after the crisis that we’re experiencing right now?

C: I think there will be a lot more job positions that say “remote only”. There’s going to be a lot of people questioning their values. Maybe your trip to the beauty salon might not be as important as it was before. And I’m extremely hopeful that we will see more politically and socially active folks to build a better newer reality.

“When you create a fun environment for teams, you learn from them and they learn from you” .

K: For the past two weeks, I see lots of partisanship initiatives coming up. It is fantastic to see people awakening. You, as well, keep being active working with product teams. Together with your partners at #PoDojo you organize a series of online

sessions on How to Stay Sane While Working Remotely. Can you outline the main problems that people are bringing to you during these sessions?

C: Last week we did a session on running OKRs remotely. What we realized was Q1 is ending and Q2 is starting. Suddenly everybody is working remotely having to wrap up what they had for goals in Q1 and plan what they want to do in Q2. So this next session that we’re doing is on the tips and tricks on how to stay positive. And the one after the next one is on how to address concerns. We will also talk about how to do retrospectives completely remotely, especially if you have never done them before. In fact, many are concerned on how to work remotely. I get three or four inquiries in my inbox in a day. Our trainings are focused on product people.

K: What are the main obstacles that people are having working remotely?

C: Focus. That’s the session we will have next week. We’re really doing a personal Kanban, knowing that you have to put yourself on the calendar first. You need to set up a schedule for when you exercise, your schedule for when you eat. You know what you need and you need to take care of yourself first. It’s really important. People expect the same level of productivity from somebody working from home, but it isn’t really working from home now. It’s working from home during a pandemic. There’s quite a difference there. It is a whole new reality. Another thing that I would say is we will be needing to make shorter iterations of absolutely everything because time is spinning faster.

K: Let’s hope that we’re going to be back to a normal reality as soon as possible. How did you discover your talent for coaching and training people in product thinking?

C: As a development manager, you help people get started, you help them to plan and secure iterate. I learned these things by doing. Now, I am really a firm believer that product development should be fun, it should be a kick in the pants. When you create a fun environment for teams, you learn from them and they learn from you.

K: I personally assisted a couple of your workshops and it was a very unconventional experience. At #PoDojo, you launch a safe place for Product Creators. What is then an unsafe place for them?

C: That is what we ask people at the very beginning. What makes your safe place? And we get a lot of different answers. Some people might say that they feel unsafe when their ideas are ignored, others say that it is when their work is being interrupted. It is not a question to ignore, asking your teams, what makes this a safe place and seeing what is it that you need to add? What do we need to change to make it safe? It’s unique to the group.

Catherine giving #PoDojo training in Zurich

K: How easy is it for the teams to apply the new skills that they learn at #PoDojo in practice?

C: To make it a habit, you need to iterate and retrospect. it has to be a company with a schedule, with a retrospective. I suppose with a very interrupted team or somebody in command controlling and managing them, it might be difficult. The team comes first. If the team is not the team, then you do not get a product.

K: And what about small teams, who works within a big corporation?

C: At any point in time, a product person’s compass would be either customer facing, or product and team facing, or the organization facing. If the organization is huge, this product person will spend all his/her time organization-facing to the detriment of the customer or the product team. So there’s no real easy answer for that, but just know where you focus is and why it’s there.

K: Product Manager is definitely a hands on role. With #GirlsWhoProduct series we want to inspire more women to get into product management. As from your experience, how can women get into this area in the most practical and hands on way?

C: First, find another product person and go have lunch with them. Just reach out to them. Not right now, of course. This may be a remote lunch or remote coffee. But reach out to another woman who’s in product, or reach out to me. If you have an idea for a

product, see if it makes sense on paper. And then you get some feedback, start testing and iterating your biggest assumptions, areas where you will need to get some more feedback. Then build your product.

K: It sounds easy. Hopefully it’s that easy in practice as well. While we’re seeing more and more women getting leadership positions, there are still some obstacles left on their way. What are these obstacles?

C: Women are amazing, great leaders. I think that the biggest obstacle would be themselves thinking that they’re not. One thing I would encourage is to find a buddy. Find someone who could poke you if you are underestimating yourself or your capabilities. Team up with somebody on whatever you feel like you have weaknesses and get some feedback.

“The biggest obstacle for women would be themselves thinking that they’re not.”

K: And where do you think we should look for inspiration and empowerment. Back in the times, our ancestors were doing it through connecting with nature through different rituals, nowadays, we see a strong rise of feminist and empowerment movements. I think those are two kinds of two extremes. Where do you think is the golden middle for us, as for a modern society, to find this empowerment?

C: I’m a firm believer in the whole singing and dancing stuff too. You know, I think deep down inside we have the things that we need, that charge our batteries and just tap into that. I have a tool for that. I have a big poster of a Marvel comic super powers and it has all the names of all the different superpowers. And when I have coffee in the morning, I check out all the powers and I think for my day today, what is the best superpower that I need? And then I tap into it.

K: And how did you start your career in product management?

C: I started at Bell-Northern Research (BNR). I was in a team where we owned the handover software transferring an ongoing call from one cell tower to another cell tower. This is back when cell phones were the size of suitcases and the car antennas were super tall. We would go make mobile to land, land to mobile, mobile to mobile calls and get pizza at lunch and come back. And then once at the end of the month, the customer would come, sit with us, look at our code and tell us what they wanted for the next iteration. We had a burndown chart, and really so it was quite agile way back then. The first thing that happened was we separated design from sustaining. Then the testing moved onto a different floor. We were cross functional, which was split afterwards. So I would really search hard for your team, especially if you are just starting. I was lucky enough to get a really great team. In any job, it’s really important to have a good team.

K: Don’t you feel that product management is challenging by its nature?

C: You shouldn’t enforce guidelines. I teach Scrum. But I’m not the Scrum police. There’s a lot of research that says if teams have control of their own environment, they’re more productive in that environment. So if the daily stand up is hurting people, switch it up, you know. Let them switch it up.

K: Do you think that the change for these teams should come from the inside of the team or from the outside?

C: If you’re on a team, and you’re wanting to see how others work, go visit another team. And that might inspire some changes. Never stop learning.

K: What advice would you give for women who want to get to product leadership but are afraid of doing so?

C: Product development is a kick in the pants. Have an idea. Play with it. Talk to other women. It’s lots of fun.

K: And the last question. If you got to meet little Catherine, little you, when you were let’s say ten years old, what would you say to that girl?

C: Learn the power of negotiation. Learn how to negotiate as soon as you can. Somehow I think women are not taught negotiating skills. And they don’t question an answer. There’s a lot of power in negotiating. and learning how to sew a little bit about that. There’s a way of negotiating where you imagine it’s a pie, for example, and I want all the slices in the pie to be divided up somehow. Negotiating is about making more pies, and making lots of people happy.

K: Thank you so much, Catherine, for joining us.

C: Thank you.

Get connected with Catherine by email at catherine@podojo.com , drop her a message on LinkedIn.

Catherine recommends must 📚 on product and leadership:

  1. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy — by William B. Irvine

2) The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer

3) The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age by John Heider

4) Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger by Peter Bevelin

5) The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Jeff Cox

6) Thinking, Fast and Slow Paperbackby Kahneman

7) The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development Hardcover by Donald G. Reinertsen

8) Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want by Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur , Gregory Bernarda, Alan Smith, Trish Papadakos

9) Domain-Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software by Eric Evans

10) Mapping Experiences: A Complete Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints and Diagrams by Jim Kalbach

{Note there are many more than that she recommends, however books on her shelf are frequently referenced with dog-eared pages.}

Don’t stop creating products that customers love, no matter what! Check out the next #PorDojo online events >>

PoDojo video Lisbon :

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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