#GirlsWhoProduct: Lauren McKinlay
Our next guest of #GirlsWhoProduct series is Lauren McKinlay. With an academic background in Product & Furniture design from an art school in Scotland, she found her perfect match in Product Management. Today, Lauren is a Senior Product Manager at Outfits team at Zalando who really knows how to sharpen up your look. Her passions are storytelling and communication as she believes that we are absolutely better “when we are in it together.”
Check out this interview and discover how the power of listening can help you become a great product manager!
By Katsiaryna Drozhzha on February 4th, 2020
K: How a lady from Scotland, who studied Product and Furniture design, ended up working in Product Management in Berlin?
I came to Berlin for love, as simple as that. And I’m still here. When it comes to Product Management, I didn’t know that it existed until probably five or more years ago. My background is in Product and Furniture design, which is similar to industrial design and is close to architecture. I more or less fell into that as well. I went to a normal school, but that was very strong in arts and crafts. I think I was one of the first people in my school to demand portfolio arts as its own subject. I also had great teachers there who were very adamant to get good people into good art schools. Scottish art schools were especially hard to get to for Scottish people because they wanted to have a lot more diversity and skills . So I must say that I had very strong people behind me who pushed me into art and into university. In art school you generally do a foundation year first, where you basically try a bunch of everything. And then you specify in a subject. I found this new course on Furniture and Product design in Edinburgh, and then I applied and got accepted! Being from Scotland, you have such great people like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a world famous inspiration in architecture and design. So, naturally, it was very easy for me to fall into and I just kept going.
K: Before getting into Product Management, you have tried different jobs — from a designer to a copywriter. So it seems that it took you a while before you have found yourself and what you like doing. A lot of people go through a similar process. So what do you think it means not to know who you are?
That’s a really big question. I can definitely relate to it. Maybe not in terms of not knowing exactly who I was, but in terms of having confidence in yourself and not hesitating too much. You tend to think that you are never good enough, saying to yourself “I don’t know enough about it. No one’s gonna expect someone like me to be good at it, I don’t have the experience.” Not being sure of yourself is one part of not knowing who you are. However, knowing what you’re passionate about when you find it, even if it’s small things, can help you to start building a bigger picture. I would say that is the most important thing in finding yourself in your career, especially when you fall into something as broad as product management.
K: Are there any tips for “finding yourself” and gaining this confidence that you could share?
Personally for me it came with time, from getting the experience from all different places. When I came to Berlin, I had to learn the language a little bit. But apart from that, I just went into startups and was like, “Hey, I have this experience. What about this job?” That is how I slowly worked my way up through the ranks and startups. I must say that I met some really great people on that way. You talk to so many people in startups who have fascinating backgrounds, nothing like yours, and you start to put things together. There’s no right or wrong way to end up here. You just go to try it and meet people who believe in you.
K: You are now a part of an Outfits team. Can you explain what are you guys doing out there?
I have been working with the Outfits team since February last year. And before that I worked with the other teams at the Zalando. We’re really passionate about how people think of outfits. Zalando sells clothing and apparel. And sometimes it’s not easy for everyone to put an outfit together. How do you put the pieces that you have just seen online, and that you cannot touch or feel, together? We’re trying to answer this question. Currently our mission is to inspire and advise customers in their exploration of outfits. We want to help them understand how they can relate to the kind of people or the clothing they see around. Our challenge is to understand how we can recommend things to them in a way that it’s based on something we know they like or they want to explore. Our goal is to help build confidence in our customers so that they build outfits on their own and enjoy doing it!
K: Sounds super exciting! But how can you build confidence of a person whom you’ve never met in your life?
We’re in the very early stages of exploring this area. But for the sake of discussion, let’s think of it in a way the language learning apps work. If you’re learning a language, first you download an app on your phone, you take tests and then slowly but surely start feeling comfortable. At Zalando, we ask ourselves, “Why can’t fashion and outfits be like that?” I’m not saying that you need to take a test, but fashion and outfit composition can be learned and enjoyed. You see people in the streets and you think, “I want to be like them.” You simply like their style, but you don’t know how to get there. And there’s no one to show you how to do that. Of course, all of us have friends and family who have their own taste and the way of doing things. But we’re really interested in how can industry inspire you, advise you, and help you learn and grow.
K: You work in the fashion industry, helping people personalise their style. Do you think that your personal taste in fashion has changed since you’ve joined Zalando?
Sure, like about a hundred times. Berlin has its own style. People dress differently here. So, for sure, I dress a bit differently when I go home to Scotland or when I visit London, for example. The same goes for all the different teams I’ve worked with. I think you kind of rub off on each other a little bit. Last year we were around twenty people in our team. Today we are close to forty or fifty, around that. It means that there’s even more people to look at and get inspiration from.
K: Does it happen to you, guys, that when someone from your team comes to work wearing unmatching pieces, you make fun of each other?
No, of course not. We’re just like everybody else. It’s true that sometimes we make fun out of it, something like, “Oh, it’s outfits team, tell me what I am wearing.” I mean, we’re a really diverse team. We have engineers, we have data scientists, we have commercial people, product people, designers, analysts. None of us graduated fashion school in that way.
K: And what are your criteria for choosing clothing?
I think it’s really important to start thinking now about longevity of clothing, and sustainability in general. It is a huge topic and, obviously, at Zalando we’re working towards being more sustainable as a company. So we choose carefully the clothing that we offer to people. For me, personally, I try to buy things that will last a long time.
They’re not necessarily trend pieces or fashion pieces but more are the things that I will keep on me for years. People who work in e-commerce can see it from the other side. Because you think about it all the time that is why you think of it a bit differently. My criteria is longevity and not rushing into any decisions just because it’s cheap right now.
K: Zalando operates across many countries in Europe. Do you see some significant differences in fashion taste among these countries?
For sure, we do! We have to work a lot with influencers and subsections of influencers. Of course, there are styles that are more universal and more people can relate to them. But we’ve also seen that certain markets have a much stronger taste and we want to tailor it to that. Our teams and the commercial side work with a lot more local influencers, because we want any customer that comes to Zalando to be represented. And the more we understand about their culture and their fashion centers, the more we can make more relatable people prominent to them. We want to make sure that that’s something we can deliver on. The influencers from the area try to reach people from there and help us understand the other side of the things. As a product manager, I need this information. So it is great that I can work on creating products for people, while being kept up to date and educated on how the other side of the road works. It all helps us understand what users are doing and how they use different platforms to educate themselves into experience. There’s a huge network of different stakeholders I work with who help to sharpen up our team.
K: A famous american journalist Larry King, who was a host of a TV show Larry King Live on CNN for many years, talked a lot about the importance of listening. He said that one cannot become successful without truly listening to what the other person is saying. For you, as for a product manager, how important is it to know how to listen?
It is one of the most important things that you can do. No matter whether it is stakeholders, your team or your users, listening to what they’re saying is essential. Your job is to understand that people have different objectives, different understandings and different directions. The more you can understand that, the better answer you’ll come to. There is a rule of five “whys” that I follow. When someone is saying something, I say, “That’s interesting. But why did it happen? Why is it like this or like that?” It is very important because people want to help. If stakeholders come to you with a suggestion, they’re only trying to get somewhere quicker, easier with you. When you work on it together, you can see the whole aspect of what it is they’re looking for and why it’s important. By listening to people you’re helping them, whether it’s someone inside the company or your customer.
K: Is the skill of listening is something what you can train or it comes down to your naturally? For example, it happens to me sometimes that during a conversation my attention is “running away” to little irrelevant things from my private life. So how do you stay focused?
For me it just comes naturally. My teammates tell me that my empathy understanding is very high. So I can see that at least for me, it comes more naturally than others but for sure you still have to train it. You have to make sure that you’re attentive and split your time. For example, if you are in a meeting or a face to face conversation, ask yourself, “Is me being here and listening to this is the best thing I can do for this purpose?” Or should I set up a different subject that is important?” For sure it is not easy to do because I want to be switched on all the time and do as much as I can. But, ultimately, you’ve got to ask if it’s the best thing for every situation. Sometimes you can be super involved in one area and know that you’re really helping and driving something that’s going to create a lot of impact. And other times you have to remove yourself from the situation and understand that there is someone better to answer this. Then in the next iteration, it might be a good time for you to get involved. Of course, it takes a bit of training of your discipline and your ego. You need to understand that you are not the most important part. You can’t solve everything, even if you just genuinely want to help.
K: Do you remember your first customer interview?
I do! I think it was probably four or five years ago. We were specifically looking at the UK market. I was lucky to get chosen as a UK native to go over and talk to my people. That experience was very interesting for me. I got all the training. A lot of great people who work here helped us understand how to get the best out of people for people. I remember our trip to Nottingham in the UK. I went with a small group of people, some more experienced than others. It felt nice to come face to face with the people who are using your product. We went to our customers’ houses. It was great because I think one of the best things you can do is to interview someone at their home or in their usual environment. This way they feel at ease and they can really show you what they would be doing or thinking, if they’re sitting on their couch on a tablet at night, browsing. When they talk you through, you can imagine it. So that was probably one of my first user interviews. And it was great. Sometimes you see people using products in crazy ways and it is also a challenge for you to keep a poker face.
K: Can you think of any embarrassing situation that happened to you during a customer interview?
I remember one situation that happened to me only recently at one of the interviews. It’s just been super early in the morning. I was half asleep. But I really wanted it to go well because it was our first interview of our new discovery. So what happened is that I barely talked to the poor woman before I showed her the form. And then afterwards I thought, “Why did I do that? Why didn’t I make her feel comfortable first?” You need to take time to make people feel good, find out things about them and what makes them tick. Sometimes you need to tell about yourself, explain everything you’re about to do. There’s no right or wrong. You just want to hear their honest opinion of something, no one’s going to judge them. But of course it was just too early in the morning for me and I stuffed up right away. I tried to make it up after that.
K: What do you think is a golden secret of a successful conversation with a customer?
It’s difficult to pinpoint just one of them. There’s probably a few things, such as listening, as we talked before, observing and being interested and inquisitive about what they say. But I would say sometimes awkwardness is the best thing you can do. Sometimes, when you leave an awkward silence for a bit, people begin to talk more than they normally would. And usually you get some really interesting insights from people when they feel like, “Oh, I should say something so we talk more.” Then it can become really interesting.
K: How do you relax after long working days?
Um, it’s hard. I’m not the best person at relaxing. It’s hard to switch off at night. One thing that I always try to do is to walk. In Berlin, I am quite lucky that I can get a tram somewhere close to home and then just walk or cycle if it’s good weather. It’s important for me to have this little bit of time to distance me at work from me at home. It doesn’t mean that you need to be a different person, but this is the time you need to separate. At least for me, I can go home at night and go on e-commerce to shop for myself and it’s very hard not to go, “ Oh, that’s interesting! I should take that to work tomorrow.” I try to tell myself that it is nine o’clock tomorrow’s problem and not think about it then and there. I stay around friends and family, or experience new restaurants, for example. I really like a lot of aspects of living in a big city. There’s always something to do. However, I personally find that after about six weeks, I need at least a day to stay closer to nature.
K: If you were to explain what is product management to a three year old kid, what would you say?
When I was at university, I had this kind of ethos: form follows function. That’s always what you had to think of: you don’t make something beautiful and then hope that someone uses it. You build something that has a purpose, and then you think about the esthetics and the beauty aspect of it. Generally, I would say to a kid that I help understand problems and help build great solutions. That might be a very static sounding. But that’s what it is. You have to be geared up to ask yourself, “Is this a big problem? Is this a legitimate thing that people want or a need for something that they want?” For me, it’s about creating something from a neat, something that people want to use in their life.
K: As for a woman, is it difficult for you to work in a still male dominated environment?
There are certainly aspects that have gone way better in the last five/six years. I personally feel confident in a lot of meeting rooms. I try to find the right words and speak up if no one’s going to do it. I feel like in my team we respect each other. And especially, there’s a lot of women in my team who everyone respects. I respect them as well. But one thing I do see is younger women are still struggling. They need to understand that just because someone’s speaking in the room, it doesn’t mean that he or she knows the most. I would encourage them to challenge things if they think they know best or if they can add something to the conversation. It is very important to me to give women a platform to do really cool things. My last lead was a woman and she was always pushing us to do things, to try something new. For example, she would tell me, “I know someone who can connect you to this. You should present this to these many people,” etc. It’s really important that we encourage each other. Men especially need to learn how to read a room and understand that this exists. We’re far away from perfection, but I feel at least how to make a way. And I want to make it easier for some younger women if I can.
K: Off-record, you mentioned to me that as for a product manager sometimes the best you can do is to be the person in the room who asks “the stupid question”. Can you elaborate more on this thought?
It always depends on the meeting room and who’s in the meeting room. From my experience, as long as you are positive, as long as you are helping towards the solution and not taking away from the situation, then people are genuinely interested in hearing something you’re an expert on. You are in the meeting room to participate, you’re there to add to the conversation. You’re invited to that meeting to address a problem. Meeting culture is a whole other thing and I don’t want to get too much into it right now. But if you are supposed to attend something, then you are needed and you have a view, so share it. It takes practice to find your voice and to know yourself. You’ve got to put yourself out there.
K: What advice would you give to women who want to get into product profession and leadership in general?
If you’re looking for information, I think one of the best things you can do is just talk to other women who have been in a similar situation. Find a Meetup, a talk or social events such as conferences. It can help you get over the initial introduction. Everyone has a story to tell. I’ve met tons of really interesting women from all different backgrounds. From my experience, I would say that’s a really good thing to do something I never did before, because I never knew about it. At the beginning, I felt very introverted and too scared to go into this kind of meetups, thinking, “Oh my God, who am I and who are they? They don’t want to talk to me.” But at the end of the day, you’re genuinely interested to hear. If people can help, they want to help. I would also say, “Read, read and read!” There’s tons of blogs out there. There’s tons of podcasts, like this one, to just inform yourself. There’s no harm in applying for anything. If you don’t think your background is exactly what they’re looking for, apply anyways, go and talk to them. There’s people like me who interview people for jobs. Just because the ad says that you must have six years of experience, that doesn’t mean that that’s the only thing people are going to accept. Just try.
K: Thank you so much for your encouraging advice! Before I let you go, I want to ask you a ten “this-or-that” questions. Don’t think twice, just follow your intuition. Ready?
K: Scottish haggis or a german Pretzel?
K: A simple question or a simple answer?
A simple question
K: A text or a voice?
K: A big city or a still countryside?
Still countryside, a hundred times
K: creating the new or reinventing the old?
Reinventing the old can be creating the new. So both of them!
K: A checkout team or an Outfits team?
I could never choose between my teams. I love you all, guys!
K: A fast growing startup or a stagnant corporation?
A fast growing startup
K: Atheism or Agnosticism?
K: The sun or the moon?
The sun! A Scottish person doesn’t see too much sun, so it’s very important to us.
K: A white lie or a black truth?
A little bit of a white lie is ok:)
K: Thank you for joining #GirlsWhoProduct, Lauren. Stay tuned!
Get connected with Lauren by email at email@example.com , drop her a message on LinkedIn.
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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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