#GirlsWhoProduct: Marta Skassa

By Katsiaryna Drozhzha on September 25, 2018

With more than 5 years experience in Product Management, Marta Skassa, a Polish expat, is now working at Zalando Tech as a PM in Search & Personalization. Marta is in love with lizards, all-things-digital and Berlin window displays, out of which she made her own little project.

Listen to the interview and discover a different, fresh path into PM.

Hello Marta! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m Marta, I’m Polish and I’ve been working in Zalando for two years now. I’m originally from Warsaw. Before becoming a Product Manager at Zalando, I was working for a couple of years in a startup based in Wroclaw and Vienna. Before that, I was a Product Manager in Microsoft and a linguist.

After finishing your B.A. studies in Applied Linguistics at the University of Warsaw, you had a six months internship at the Polish Embassy in Brussels. How did you find this position?

I actually did my Erasmus internship in Brussels. Because I was in my fourth year of university, I was not so much into going wild during my Erasmus time and I decided to do something else on top of studying. That’s why I applied to work at the Embassy of Poland. It was an interesting time when Poland held the presidency of the European Union. There were a lot of things to do, I was focusing on translating official documents but also attended various events happening because of the presidency.

That sounds really cool! But back then, when you were actually making your path in linguistics, did you ever think that you would switch to a more technical field?

To tell the truth, I think I didn’t hear about product management when I was studying. I was doing my degree in Applied Linguistics because I was passionate about language. And still I am. Yet, I quickly realized that translation was not something I wanted to do long term. Even if I could translate the best authors ever, I felt that sitting on your own every day and doing translation work was not something that I wanted to do full-time. I finished my bachelor in Linguistics, I decided to focus on interpreting: translating what people are saying in a real time. I thought it was something I would really enjoy because this job is more energetic and gives you a lot of adrenalin. But after spending another two years doing my masters, I realized that even though interpreting is indeed very fast-paced, it is also very stressful and extremely competitive. You have to hustle a lot if you want to be a freelance interpreter. I basically decided to rethink my path one more time. On my last year of university, I went to Frankfurt to do my internship in European Central Bank. There, I got exposed to the latest state of art translation tools and innovative ideas around translation. That is when the idea of working more closely with digital started to sprout. While looking at the new opportunities at the university, more connected to technologies and linguistics, I got to know what Product Management was. I started applying for studies and for jobs at the same time. Shortly after, I received an offer from Microsoft, as a Search Analyst. I could say now, that as for the responsibilities I had, it was like a junior product management role.

You were an Ambassador for e-skills for Jobs in 2014 (DigitalEurope), where you mentioned that your aim was to convince young people that digital skills are vital in today’s world. How can technology help us fight for a better cause and better education?

I ran a couple of workshops for secondary and high school students about e-skills. I think it’s super important for everyone to be digitally aware. Otherwise, you will lag behind. In the workshops, I was talking a lot about what I was doing at Microsoft and how lack of engineering background was not an obstacle for me. You can come from different backgrounds and still be involved in technology, either directly, like I am, or do something on the side.

Happy faces at the end of the very first design sprint Marta ran

You also volunteered in Kenya, as an English teacher in a primary school. Imagine that you have a chance to create a product that makes people’s lives in Kenya better and easier. What would it be?

After I came back from Kenya, I started to reflect on my experience. A question came to my mind: “Are we really helping these people by just coming here and volunteering?” A better approach to help would be to teach them how to do things. I would like to build a product that empowers people to learn and grow on their own. It would help the users to better understand which path they want to follow and how can they achieve their goals.

Do you see any difference in the working environment between Poland and Germany?

The biggest difference between working in Poland, compared to working in Berlin at Zalando, is that here there is more diversity. It’s extremely interesting to see how people behave, act, speak and what stands behind their behaviors, because of their different cultures and backgrounds. Sometimes it’s challenging, but I am grateful that I can experience that. In Zalando, I’ve learned to voice my concerns, my ideas in a straightforward and open way. Things at Zalando happen quicker because there is the drive and there is the energy.

What was your own way of exploring Berlin? You have a very interesting Instagram project called “Berlin School of Visual Merchandising”, where you document the weirdness of Berlin’s window displays. How did your first window display look like that it inspired you to create this project?

While walking around in Berlin, I realized that there was an interesting phenomenon going on. People from here love putting things on their window displays, both at homes and in the shops. Sometimes this stuff looks seriously weird! I tried to research the topic on the internet, but I didn’t find any information and so I decided to document all these weird windows that I see every day and make it a little project of my own.

About the relocating experience itself, I think the toughest thing about it was to find a place to live. The real estate market in Berlin is crazy. It’s really difficult to find a nice apartment. The times when Berlin was a cheap, cool city, where you just came and find a place to live, is over. What I really like about Berlin is that it’s very diverse. Every district has its own vibe where you can feel a different atmosphere. The second thing I love about Berlin is the nature. You can take the metro or the bus, spend 30 min/1h commuting and there you are, swimming in the lake.

Berlin School of Visual Merchandising —documenting the weirdness of Berlin’s window displays

How does it feel being a woman in Product Management?

Until very recently, I was working almost only with men. I never felt being discriminated and I was lucky to have great male bosses. Yet, the truth is that I had no exposure to working with women. There were no female developers, only female designers, and my leaders were always men. That says a lot about how the whole tech industry looks like.

Since the beginning of August, there were some changes in Zalando. Now I’m reporting for the first time in my life to a woman. There are also more women in my team and I’m really excited about that.

Explaining value proposition canvas to the team.

Do you think that there is a strong difference between gender equality at work in Poland and in Germany?

At my university, I was only studying with women. Then, when I started working, my colleagues were mainly men. But I will repeat myself here — I have never had any bad experiences neither at the university nor at the workplace. What was funny for me when I moved to Berlin, was to see that the things that I was used to as a woman in Poland, were not here in Berlin. I am referring, for example, to such little things as opening the door in front of a woman. Or, for example, I’ve never seen a guy helping a woman to put her coat on. Here, I had to get used to the fact that nobody will open the door for me (laughing).

In Zalando Innovation Lab.

How do you think your work is different from any other Product Manager responsibilities at Zalando?

First of all, I had a really interesting path to where I am today. When I first started as a Product Trainee at Zalando, at the same time I received a job offer in Poland for a product owner position.

I didn’t really feel like a doing another traineeship, but what Zalando offered seemed interesting. You can select the team you want to work for, you also get a mentor and a buddy to support you. After five months, you switch to another team. Then you work on a more independent project for three months and finally you move to the third team. I had a good feeling that I should accept this offer to learn from the best. I completed the program at Zalando in one year, instead of initially supposed one year and a half. It was a great adventure! I was working for an app that Zalando was developing as well as for a more backend product. I also had the chance to meet a lot of people, learn many different things and actually realize what I liked doing the most.

After all,I got an offer to drive a completely new product as a full-time Product Manager and that’s what I’ve been doing for a year now. I’m working on a super cool and innovative machine-learning product. The customer problem that we’ve identified is that our customers often struggle with finding clothes that match the products they previously bought on Zalando. We are trying to alleviate this problem by showing them outfit recommendations based on their purchases and wishlist — created entirely by algorithms.

Marta with one of her favourite pieces of design: Carlton bookcase by Ettore Sottsass

How does a normal day of a Product Manager look like? What are the processes that you would like to skip and what are the little routines that you would like to keep?

There is no regular day for a Product Manager. It really depends on the product you are working on. For example, the research and development cycle for machine learning products like mine is much longer compared to regular software product development. At Zalando, we use a 4D framework, that I’m a big fan of. It’s a way of the working framework that places the customer in the center. First, you need to discover the customer problem and form your hypotheses. Then, you define one problem you will try to solve. Afterwards, you design a couple of solutions that address that problem and you test them. And finally, you deliver the winning solution. You hope you solved the customer problem and then you do the whole cycle again. Depending on which phase we are on, my daily job can be related to discovery, definition, design or delivery. What I like the most is definitely talking to customers. You can never get enough of that. The most exciting and rewarding is to listen to people and getting their feedback. Product Management is also a lot about alignment, especially in big companies. The more parts of the company your product touches, the more alignment is required. The cool part about it is that you talk to a lot of people with different skill sets and backgrounds. You can really learn a lot from them. I’m taking my energy from talking to customers, talking to colleagues and talking to stakeholders.

Interviewing the customer!

What is your favorite way of talking to customers?

There are many ways to talk to customers but my favorite way of interacting is, by far, in-depth interviews. Sometimes you spend 1–2 hours talking to your customers, trying to understand what their needs are. This is all before you have something to show to them, so it’s not about testing usability. It’s more about the moment in the beginning when you’re trying to discover if the problem or the need really exists. Recently, in Zalando, we did a huge customer research project. Different teams went to different countries to talk with our customers. I went to Manchester with a couple of other colleagues. We spent 2.5 hours in people’s houses, talking and listening about what fashion means to them. They even showed us their wardrobes!

Wireframing like crazy during one of the workshops

Do you have your spirit animal? What is your superpower?

I love lizards because I can just lie in the sun like them, for ages. As a superpower, I believe I am really good at getting people together and driving them to work towards one goal. I have a lot of energy and a lot of passion for what I do. And I think I can “inject” this into other people.

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

Looking at my past, I think one good way of getting into Product Management is going to meetups, they are a great place to learn and to network. Meetups help you to better understand in what direction you would like to go as a product person. I also often get inspired by Medium posts. The great thing is that you can always drop an email to the authors and most of the time people are be open to talk to you and help you. What is important when starting in product management is to to remember that you cannot have all the knowledge and that you are constantly learning. So ask for help, see what’s out there and push for what you want to do. It sounds a bit corny, but that’s the way to go.

Get connected with Marta by email at marta.ewa.skassa@zalando.de, drop her a message on LinkedIn.

Marta recommends must 📚 on product and leadership:

Books 📖

Marty Cagan INSPIRED: How to Create tech Product Customers Love

Jake KnappSprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days (super hands-on, just read it and organize your first design sprint the next day)

Don NormanThe Design of Everyday Things (not only for designers!)

Tem Kelley and David Kelley — Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us

Ed Catmull and Amy WallaceCreativity, Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (good reads on creativity)

Frederick P. Brooks Jr. — The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (classic on software engineering)

Newsletters 📰

— On machine learning: https://machinelearnings.co/ and http://aidl.io/

— Not only product-oriented but usually really interesting: https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/

— All about new products: https://www.producthunt.com/

— Good stuff on UX and research: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/the-smashing-newsletter/

Blogs 💻

Big product management community:

Insights by Marty Cagan and other people from SVPG:

All things UX: https://uxdesign.cc

Not only Design Thinking:

Julie Zhou is VP of Design at Facebook and she writes amazing stuff:

Marketing, product management, customer support and design:

More of what Marta enjoys reading on Medium you can find here

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.

#FindyourPlay in Product Management. Apply now!

The diversity of people, lifestyle, opinions and attitudes are crucial drivers of innovations and success. We want to support local product communities to create an inclusive and diverse network. We believe that an inclusive culture is the most effective way for us to increase diversity within Zalando.

Find out how you can make the next play as part of our team.

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Through workshops, courses and coaching, we seek to contribute to the relationship between people and their organizations to build better products. Welcome!