#GirlsWhoProduct: Linda Mackessy

Growing up with six brothers, Linda Mackessy never imagined her professional career would match the tech environment. But as it turns out, it gave Linda a tough skin and the confidence to pursue her goals. Today, Linda has more than 4 years experience in Product Management; developing mobile and desktop products across various industries. Most recently she is developing products using Machine Learning for the Zalando Tech Fashion Store. Outside of work she enjoys organizing and taking part in charity cycles, playing Scrabble with her family and upcycling old furniture.

Read this interview and discover why product management is all about boosting your creativity.

By Katsiaryna Drozhzha on November 22, 2018

K: How did you get into product management in the first place?

L: It’s quite an interesting story. Previous to being a product manager, I worked as a consultant. You can be everything when you have the title of a consultant. I was doing proactive product management. I was doing trade and training to clients. Internally, I was doing UI and design work. So it was an all-encompassing role. When a recruiter contacted me about the actual product manager job, I had never really known about the discipline before that. So when I heard about this job, it seemed too good to be true. Because it was a full-time role for all the things that I loved doing in that current job. It was quite a jump from being a consultant into the tech world.

K: Was it scary for you to put your hands on doing something new? How did you overcome your fears?

L: I wasn’t scared at all, I was really excited. Anything worth doing is never easy. So when I was in that job before I moved over, I started a degree in data analytics and interactive marketing. This incorporated everything: from database design to SQL, analytics and visual design. It was a good stepping stone into a more technical role. For me, it was just really exciting because at my full-time job I could do what I loved doing.

K: As a product manager, how do you unwind once you’re out of the office and back to your daily routines?

L: There are lots of different things that you can do outside of work. I try to be creative. From an early age, I loved making things. When I was nine, one of the only things I asked for at Christmas was a pottery wheel. It’s good to have hobbies that let your creative abilities develop. Being creative also gives you a space where you can unwind and de-stress because product management isn’t easy.

K: You grew up with six brothers. Back then, what was your dream profession growing up in such a male environment?

I never had one job in mind that I aspired to be. I actually always envied people that were able to say: “I want to be an accountant” or “I want to be a mechanic,”- some easy label that you could apply. I don’t really like labels. I think they bring with them a lot of assumptions and that it’s no harm not knowing what you want to be. People should get as much experience in as many different disciplines as possible throughout their career. It makes you more of a rounded professional.

You’re able to make better decisions when you have more experience from different disciplines.

K: Do you think that growing up with your brothers helped you to get prepared for the male dominated working environment that you are in right now?

L: It’s funny because when you grow up, you don’t really think about what your profession is going to be. I never envisioned that I would be surrounded by men. In tech, it’s very much male dominant. But I think growing up with six brothers, you definitely learn to have a bit of a tougher skin and learn to be a bit more brazen and a bit more bold. That helps in having the confidence to speak out or just ask things. I found lots of research that shows women hold themselves back, they don’t think they meet all the criteria for a job role for example. If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

K: After building a successful career, do you still find time to be a sister to your brothers?

L: As you grow up as a person, you’re less of the little sister and you become more friends. You are there to support one another throughout your life in the ups and the downs. And it’s always good to get them serving dinner instead of it just being me and my mom.

K: Did you keep any family traditions or little routines until nowadays?

L: I love anything to do with words like Countdown Conundrum or Scrabble. People find them boring but I love them. With one of my brothers we play a competition every Christmas. So it’s whoever gets to be the winner. We get very competitive and the rulebook definitely comes out. It’s very much a ritual now.

K: Does he ever get upset if he loses?

L: No, he doesn’t get upset at all. I don’t win all the time. It’s good that there’s a bit of a balance as well. It gives you something to aim for the next year to try and get better.

K: You love giving back to the community. To my knowledge, you have a lot of experience working with different NGOs, organizing local and international fundraising campaigns. Do you think that good product management can benefit our society for better?

L: Within Zalando, one area that I’m really passionate about is the sustainability area. Doing industry research about how polluting the fashion industry is and how can we change this kind of new emerging trends where fashion is seen as a disposable entity almost. People are buying cheaper clothes but they’re disposing of them much earlier. Just thinking of capabilities that we can develop here in Dublin to try and expose the sustainable clothing on the Zalando fashion store and creating an awareness — I think it is really key. We need to create value for our customers but also to help our communities and the world in general.

K: If you got a chance to create a product that would help the community, especially in e-commerce and in fashion, what would it be?

L: It would be something around the sustainability aspect. When you think about sustainability, it’s not just the logistics operators or how the clothes are made. There’s everything to do with the workforce that’s used, the number of pesticides in the production of cotton for example. There’s plenty of opportunities to make this better for the world, but also to capitalize on developing products to better the community.

K: You organized a charity cycling recently in Ireland. Where do you find the drive to do that? And do you feel supported by Zalando’s community to do those things?

L: In a previous company I arranged my first cycle back in 2013. I got the CEO of the company to cycle with us and everything. This time, in Zalando, I was able to round up a group of 18 cyclists. In the end, I couldn’t cycle myself. That was very frustrating because I had raised all this money from my family and my friends. But it was because I was just in the early stages of pregnancy, so I was advised not to. Yet, I was able to be the support van driver so that was good.

Giving back, in general, is very important. Trying to support charities in our community is even more important. For this charity cycle, we chose a charity called Shine. They support people with mental ill health. In Ireland, mental health is a huge issue. Raising any kind of awareness and funds to help people who are suffering from those illnesses is very crucial. I like doing things that will help people. You always find like-minded individuals in work who are passionate about the same things that you are.

K: You consider your greatest achievement to be volunteering in a teaching program in Salvador, Brazil. Why do you think it was one of the biggest achievements in your life?

L: It was not that easy, because it was on a different continent and in a different language. The education in Brazil is free and still in poverty-stricken areas children cannot attend school. They’re still not able to go to school because they can’t afford copy books or pens or pencils. The place where we volunteered in, the children ranged from eight months to eight years. They had little to no education, not even the alphabet or numbers. Myself and my friend, we organized the table quiz to raise money to go over and do this. We started teaching them letters, numbers and colors. It was definitely a challenge because it was in Portuguese. Trying to understand them was a bit hard and I was just a beginner. But it’s amazing what you can communicate with body language and nonverbal cues as well. We were able to do different types of games with them that they really enjoyed. It was easy for us to act out what the instructions were.

K: As a person who worked with local communities abroad, how do you think we can prompt our western society to travel, not just only do tourism that implies nothing else but sightseeing?

L: It’s so important to visit and learn about different cultures. I mean really learn about their cultures. We might go and visit different exotic countries that we feel are exotic, but yet still know nothing of the people and their customs within that locality. It’s good to do some volunteer work to create awareness, maybe through social media or other ways. I know a lot of the schools in Ireland that do exchange programs. For example, I did a digital marketing campaign for the charity that is called Habitat for Humanity. In Ireland, some of the school classes arrange to go over and help to build homes for poor people all over the world. I think it should be part of the discipline in schools. Even if it’s not international, students can volunteer in hospitals or at homes for the elderly. It can help us to create more awareness that is crucial in developing young people’s minds.

K: Let’s talk a bit more about product management and motherhood. Shortly you will become a mother. How are you planning to keep up with your career once the baby is born?

L: Being a mother is definitely something that I want and it will be a privilege when the baby arrives. On the other side, I have invested so much in my career, that I am adamant not to let it hold my career in any way. Three weeks ago I attended a Product Tank Meetup in Dublin. One of the panelists was a manager within product management. She had just given birth five weeks previously to the Meetup and her baby was there with her husband.

I got to talk with her afterwards and she was so inspirational. To be able to do that after five weeks just shows that anything is possible. Whatever you want to achieve you can still achieve afterwards. She gave me really good advice and we are still in contact.

K: What is your plan for your career after the baby is born? Are you going to be back soon to work or you’re planning to go on leave for a while?

L: Obviously, the priority will be to take care of the baby, but I don’t have any plans, only to progress my career still. I find it hard to stop. I always like to do a lot of things, so I think I’ll just continue as normal.

My fiancé and I, we’re very much a team and it’s very much teamwork that gets us to where we are. We like different domestic chores that complement one another. Teamwork is the key thing.

K: How would you explain your profession to your child?

L: It’s always a hard one trying to explain machine learning products to anyone in general. I think I would explain it like this; we are developing capabilities to help other teams deliver value to our fashion store and make a better customer experience.

I need to make it more child-friendly I think!

K: In 2015, you went back to studying data analytics and interactive marketing at the university. How did you feel being among the peers who were younger and less experienced than you? Did it feel different to be back to college after having a full-time job?

L: It was definitely a challenge to go to college after a full day’s work. And in the job I was in at the time, there was a lot of traveling to different countries. I think I traveled to 10 countries in seven days at one stage. One of the key differences is that you’re choosing to be there and you’re choosing a topic that you’re passionate about. That passion really drives you to do the best and you enjoy the work, the project and in general learning. It was a really challenging, but a great experience. For me, it was really good that I was able to develop more tactical skills there and also to delve deeper in to my passion; my obsession around data analytics. As a product manager, you can have good instincts or assumptions but it’s only your opinion at the end of the day. It’s always important to back it up with data, whether that would be qualitative or quantitative.

K: For someone who wants to get into the product profession, what would be a good start?

L: I would always advise people to get networking. Go to the meetup events, find out what people look for. A lot of the skills and competencies that a product manager would have are skills and competencies that are within other disciplines as well. If you’re looking at how to transition over, find the commonalities, find what you’re lacking, where you need to improve those skills and what you need to do to get there. There’s always volunteer work that you can do on a professional level. For example, companies are always looking for volunteers to redesign their websites, create a marketing or a digital campaign, or anything around social media marketing. That would kind of be outside of the box thinking. All experience is really good and a lot of the times when you’re going for these roles, if you don’t have the title, people think that you don’t have the capabilities to do it.

At the end of the day, everyone knows themselves. If you’re committed and ambitious, you can do anything that you put your mind to.

Talk to recruiters and be with your people!

K: You said that creativity is one of the main fuels that help you in your profession. One of the hobbies that you have is upcycling furniture. Why did you find your passion specifically in this activity?

L: I loved being creative since an early age. There was one woman that I used to work with and she had told me about upcycling furniture. I found a few pieces in my home of the certain color and of type of wood. Then I wanted them on a different color to go with the color scheme. So I just started researching different types of paint and then it just spiraled into a upcycling old stool. Then I was dragging my friends into the secondhand stores to look for old furniture. I really enjoy it and it’s very rewarding being able to see what you started out with and what you end up with. It’s very similar to Product Management. When you start out with nothing and then you go through the whole phase of looking at the problem, designing the solution and adding value to the user at the end of the day.

K: I guess every piece of furniture that is at your house is already renovated. So where are you looking for the new object to upcycle?

L: Sometimes I go to my mom’s place and find old furniture that she does not use. I would also go to the second hand stores. I recently bought three lovely wooden frames that I painted really vibrant colors so that I could hang them up in my sitting room.

K: And the last word. What advice would you give to women who want to become product managers?

L: If you want to get into any profession, I would encourage people to research and find out as much about the disciplines as possible to really understand what’s involved. It’s definitely not an easy one, but I think if you’re passionate about it, it’s very rewarding. If you believe in yourself — that’s the key. Especially female aspiring product managers; I would encourage them to be more brazen and a bit more bold. Again, if you don’t ask you won’t get. Definitely go after what you’re looking to achieve. Choose the right balance between work and life. It’s important to have those outlets in your personal life. Being able to say “no” to products that maybe aren’t as valuable as you thought or are more complicated or problematic to build is also about confidence as a professional so people need that. That would be my advice.

Get connected with Linda by email at linda.mackessy@zalando.ie, drop her a message on LinkedIn.

Linda recommends must 📚 on product and leadership:

Books 📖

Marty Cagan INSPIRED: How to Create tech Product Customers Love

Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More than IQ

Talks 🗣

Simon Sinek — How Great Leaders Inspire Action TED Talks

Seth Godin — How to Get your Ideas Spread — TED Talks

About #GirlsWhoProduct

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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