Passionate Product Leader and entrepreneur Katerina Suchkova has worked across various B2C and B2B product areas during her 10+ year career in both startups and large organizations. Applying design thinking in Product Management has become her passion and expertise. When she is not thinking design and product, Katerina advises at #BUILTBYGIRLS, coaches Product Managers at HireClub, explores the world, reads books, appreciates cinema, teaches yoga, and enjoys sunsets.
Listen to this interview and discover how we can help the product community in an inclusive way.
By Katsiaryna Drozhzha on January 7th, 2020
K: To start with, why have you chosen the path of a product manager in the first place?
You know, I didn’t choose it. It chose me. What’s interesting about product management is that it’s not really the field that’s been studied in the university. The majority of the product people that I know kind of fell into product management by accident. We do something else and then suddenly we start wearing this hat where we have to deal with business, engineering and design. Then we start taking ownership and get excited about identifying and then solving the problems. Looking back, I don’t think I have consciously chosen that field. But I am super excited that the decision was made.
K: You were born and grew up in Russia. What do you remember from your life back there, from the positive?
That is true. I grew up in Russia and I was eighteen when I moved to the United States. From the things that I remember, they’re very different from things there today. It was a different place when I was leaving it. I was also a different person. When you are eighteen, there are so many opportunities that you would want to see, but sometimes you just don’t see them. So from some of my memories growing up in the Soviet Union, I still remember some of the cues and long time waiting in them. It wasn’t that bad. Maybe because I was a kid back then and the memories are much brighter than if I were to go back in those times being an adult. I also remember me and my parents traveling to the Black Sea. I grew up in the North, in Murmansk, which is close to the border with Finland. At the age of eleven, I moved all the way to the south, to the Black Sea. So it was a drastic change not only weather wise, but also people wise. You know, Nordic people go through different hardships.
K: Was it difficult for you to adapt to a new culture when you moved to the United States?
You know, surprisingly, it was not. When I moved, I moved all the way to New York. Usually, it’s very natural for someone from former Soviet Union countries, when they move to New York, get situated in Brooklyn and fall into the Russian community. It was very different for me because I never fell into that community. It was kind of weird for me to move from the place where everyone speaks Russian to the country that doesn’t speak Russian but really communicate with people who only speak Russian. I think that if you want to learn how to swim, you just jump into the ocean and that’s what I did. I literally jumped into day to day life, being nineteen years old, trying to find a job and then figure out what would be my next education path.
K: What is your product philosophy nowadays?
My product philosophy, and I have that on my website, is aligned with the philosophy of Elizabeth Churchill, a director of UX at Google.
Her philosophy reflects what I came to understand and feel when I build products. To me the product, it’s not just something intangible that exists on its own. It’s all about people. When you combine people, their needs and the solutions to those needs, you are stumbling upon something very magical, something that never existed before. And that’s love for both people that I work with, as well as the products. This combination really reflects who I am.
K: You are advising at the initiative #BuiltByGirls. Their mission is to give young women the exposure, skills and network they need to get their first job in tech. How do you see your role in this organisation?
I’m a mentor there. I love this organization because it provides something that I wish I had when I was nineteen, at the very beginning of my career. It provides an exposure to real life leaders, people who pass their way all the way from college times to where they are today. It connects college girls with real life examples helping them to answer questions such as: “How’s it to work in the corporation?” “Is there any discrimination in there?” “How do I behave as a woman in the meeting when I’m 22?” “What do I do as an intern in the company?” #BuiltByGirls brings that real life and empowers young women to choose their own path. We help them understand that whatever decision you make, you can always reverse and you can always do something else.
K: And how do you outreach to the ladies who might be interested in participating?
There is a platform where they match you with some mentees. I make sure that I work with a mentee and then provide that ongoing support for the period of quarter that usually lasts for two to three months. They also help them to structure their meetings and make sure that they are being heard. I help explore other avenues of their professional life and help them to see the whole spectrum of professional careers.
K: And do you think that a talent has a date of expiry?
The talent doesn’t expire. But it might become irrelevant. I think if the talent is not used, if you don’t take advantage of your perseverance, if you don’t set the goals, the talent might become useless. There were a lot of studies that have been done about the growth mindset. There are talented people who understand that they are gifted, but they don’t put any effort into developing the talent and they are being defensive towards getting constructive feedback. But we know that constructive feedback actually helps us to grow. So usually those people have troubles later on to exceed those who might not have as much talent but have much more perseverance in their life. Keeping it short, a talent doesn’t really expire, but gets irrelevant and kind of wasted.
K: From 1945 to 1991 in Soviet Union, every month there was being published a magazine called “Soviet Woman”. The main purpose of that magazine was to inform about different aspects of women’s life in soviet society. Of course, there was lot’s political propaganda, but it also touched upon various feminist topics and gave life hacks on economics, culture and family life. The magazine was extremely popular! So let’s reflect on our times. Do you think there is a need to create a magazine only for women in Product. Something like “Product Woman”?
Speaking about women and products, there is no magazine but there is an organization that already exists. I think it was started by a former VP of product of Slack. I understand the intentions of creating gender specific magazines and organizations. These intentions are most likely good at the beginning. But this is not the inclusion that will try to bring in women. Here I talk about inclusions as of being included in the meetings, having our voice represented. So for me, creating the magazine will be totally opposite from what we’re trying to fight for. I don’t mean to say that we don’t need support groups and that we don’t need to align as women bring those issues above the water.
K: How do you think the world would look if men and women had the same rights from the very beginning?
I think it would be a different world. Right before I jumped on our call, I was reading that World Economic Forum calculated that it’s going to take about 257 years for women to reach the same level of rights as men. It is not a lot from the civilization point of view. When it comes to civil rights, and I think, at some points of time we were trying to achieve that, but we never really did. I think the biological differences would always come up, even within the civil rights, unfortunately. But going back answering your question directly, I think it could be a much better world. And this is what we all are trying to do today. We’re trying to make a point that just because I’m a woman, I don’t have to get only 82 cents for every dollar that a man does. It means that if we are the same and have the same competencies, why should we be paid differently? Why should women be parked in the housewife corner after taking two years maternity leave? So the world where there is equality would be different, but I don’t think we would ever be able to actually achieve equilibrium. There would be always forces pulling us up and down on either spectrum.
K: What was the most challenging for you in your career?
A couple of things. One is imposter syndrome. I think this is something that keeps coming back to all of us. It’s that feeling that short drives me forward, but it also makes it hard to make my journey smooth. When it gets on the way, you always get the chatter. You have always that inner critic who comes in and starts criticizing you. It’’s been very challenging early in my career. As I moved into product management and having meetings with my engineers. Looking at the structure of the team, 95% were men and maybe 5% were women. So it was very difficult to overcome that feeling of “I’m never good enough.” That’s number one. And then the second point is admitting to myself and to others when I don’t know something. I think it goes back all the way to gender. Again, being a woman admitting in front of your team, that is relying on you for decision making when you don’t know something. I always felt like I’m supposed to know everything. I’m a product manager, I’m a leader, I need to have all the answers etc. Also being a student back in Soviet Union, I had to know all the answers, I had to be the best, I had to be perfect. That’s a bit of perfectionism that always gets in the way. It’s been a practice for me in the last few years to openly admit when I don’t know things. And I started seeing drastic changes in the way people perceive me and in a way I let go of things.
K: You are also coaching at HireClub, helping people to grow in their careers. I found that your clients leave great comments about you. What is it that makes you such an amazing coach?
I think that would be a good question to ask them. But since we can’t, I’ll tell you the feedback that I’m getting. I always approach things from a product management background. First, I try to understand what is that problem that we are trying to solve. If I’m working with a client, I try to make sure that I hear them. I understand them, instead of trying to be understood first. We are all human beings, and no matter how different we think we are, we all go through the same type of struggles and we suffer in very similar ways. The way it manifests itself is slightly different.That’s kind of goes back to coaching too. First I try to hear them, really emphasize them and then build the roadmap. Blending my product management background is all about building the roadmap and trying to identify how we get to that ideal vision where they want to be.
K: Do you think that you have completed your main mission in your life?
Oh, not at all. I think I’m just scratching the surface here and there. For a long time, I have been just throwing a lot of things on the wall and trying to see what sticks. I tend to try a lot of things and then dip my feet into this water. I try a little bit of everything to find the meaning that eventually turns into a mission. When I was a little younger, there was always an inspiration to have an impact on a more global way. With the years, I have realized that sometimes it matters impact only one person’s life or one community. Elevate communities experience to something that they haven’t seen before. Or really eliminate some of their problems and needs so that then they experience a different level. My legacy would be if an individual or a community that I leave behind are not where they used to be in the beginning. If they experience a greater sense of meaning for themselves, a better quality of life or they change the way they look at their problems — that would be meaningful for me.
K: How do you think we as a society can support women in losing their fear and taking over the leadership positions?
I think number one is to give the support and role models. When we are growing up and we see others doing extraordinary things, such as seeing women moving into leadership roles that have never seen before women at that level, that is a perfect example of role modeling. If you don’t have anyone you can look up to, it’s easy to give up. The second way to give support is to reconsider the way we are raising girls. As the girls go through their puberty into their adulthood, that encouragement should come from the families. Going back to the role models, I think mothers are the first role models that we see when we are born. So if we have strong women in the family, being the mother, an aunt or a grandmother, I think it sets a really good example and provides support. The true sense of education also matters. A college or a university should empower women to join different clubs and blurry any type of borders between only girls club and only boys club. If we really want to make sure that we’ve been moving leadership forward, and if we keep being sticked to those borders, we need to do it in inclusive way. Those are, in my opinion, three major elements to empowering women to move into those leadership roles.
K: And what kind of advice would you give for women who want to get into product but are afraid to do so?
Just jump in there. For the last several years, product has become a hot field to be. I am seeing quite a lot of women joining product. Which is both very inspiring to see young women out of college trying to understand first what the product management is, trying to break first at the associate level and then to move into product. So my advice would be, if you enjoy solving problems, if you are trying to understand what makes us, human beings, tick, then you should give it a try. There are not too many decisions that are irreversible. The majority of the decisions that we make can always be changed. My advice would be find someone who can tell you a little bit more about it and then just get into it. That’s enough to start creating your own path.
A rapid-fire questions round with Katerina:
K: Human for products or products for humans?
Human for products
K: Individual coaching or peer coaching?
K: I know that you are a yoga teacher. So Yama or Niyama?
K: Now this question is for the lovers of Russian cuisine. Olivier Salad or double cheeseburger?
K: Swim in the ocean or swim in the river?
K: Problem thinking or solution thinking?
K: Classical Ballet or Contemporary dance?
K: American or Russian rock?
K: Books or Magazines?
K: Love or Money?
Get connected with Katerina by email at firstname.lastname@example.org , drop her a message on LinkedIn.
Katerina recommends must 📚 on product and leadership:
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More resources can be found in Katerina’s personal Medium blog.
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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