Productized

Mihaela Draghici is a Product Manager at Volkswagen Digital Solutions. She is a Marketing woman that turned into a Tech woman. Mihaela is known for her passion, professionalism, and changemaker attitude both within her work and personal life. She is a strong advocate for gender equality and inclusive work environments in tech industries.

What does Mihaela do when she’s not in the office? She is passionate about travelling, outdoors cycling, hiking and yoga. Listen to the entire conversation now!

By Elena Tisato on September 17th, 2020

E: Hi Mihaela! Do you want to talk a little bit more about yourself? Where are you from?

M: Nice to meet you, everyone. Thank you, Elena, for the invitation. I’m really excited to be here. It’s a pleasure to be part of the Girls Who Product series of podcasts and webinars. I am originally from Romania since you mentioned your origin. And I’ve lived in London for about seven and a half years before moving to Lisbon.

E: How did your product career start? How did you decide to turn to the PM role?

This one is actually an interesting story.

Like many Product Managers out there, I didn’t set out to become a PM when I was doing my studies, or even after I graduated. It’s something that I never thought of, and I didn’t even know this kind of role existed back in the day. As you mentioned, I started my career as a marketing intern and then moved on to a marketing manager role. I was working in a company called QS (Quacquarelli Symonds). It’s a top provider of international higher education services. But that’s where I also became very passionate about understanding more about how our websites were working, what systems we had behind, how we can optimise our content, optimise our landing pages, optimise our user flows, just to create a better overall user experience for the students who were visiting our websites, looking for education opportunities abroad, and looking to join our events. So at that point, I moved over from doing marketing for events into focusing more on the content on the websites and on the digital side of things. And I started working more closely with the engineering teams, I learned more about agile methodologies. I got more involved in that. And then the company CTO back then, who is actually a great mentor to me, still, involved me into something completely different, something completely new. We started a new area of the business and we set off to build an affiliate network to provide more education opportunities. And that was all from scratch. And at that point, I took on an official role of a Product Manager. And at that point, I realised ‘Okay, this is what I want, and this is something that fits me’ because I get to use the skills I already have in terms of communicating, creating relationships, negotiating, time management, operations side, put them together with the technical knowledge I was trying to learn at that stage, too; create something from zero, basically. And after that, I moved on to a Product Manager role at a company called Awin, which is a top global provider of affiliate marketing solutions. It’s a global affiliate marketing network, where I worked on very technical products to help advertisers and publishers run successful collaborations on performance marketing campaigns. This was kind of my progress into product management. It was gradual, it was over the years, and it was definitely not something that I had planned for, in the beginning.

E: You have a lot of international experience, and you can speak five different languages. Do you think everyone should have work experience abroad?

M: Yes, definitely. I wholeheartedly support people’s plans to study abroad or go work abroad. And in fact, I actually encourage people, I’m part of different initiatives and different organisations, working towards encouraging more and more people to go work or study abroad. For me, this is something that helps you develop as an individual, personally and professionally. I guess, going to live abroad has its challenges, right? You go to a completely new country, you have to find a place to live, you have to deal with that country’s bureaucracy, you leave your family behind, you leave your friends behind. So, you need to create your new environment, new friends, new contexts and a new network. It’s quite difficult at times. But I think going through these challenges builds you up as a person, makes you stronger, more self-reliant. And through living in a different country, you also get to learn new perspectives. You learn about the history, you learn about the cuisine, you learn about the music, you learn about how other people are. So, you become more tolerant, more open-minded, more inclusive. And it changes you as a person fully, I would say.

E: Why do you think your experience in London as a marketing intern has particularly influenced your career?

M: I’d say I had a few career-defining milestones. In this specific case, this opportunity was beneficial to me. Firstly, because I was getting to work in a company that was aligning with my values to empower people to grow and develop and reach their potential. In this specific case, I was working in a company that was providing access to education and to opportunities related to higher education. And the second big benefit was the fact that I got to move to London, to go to a new country, to live in a new city. And in this role as a marketing intern, actually, it was funny, you start from scratch, you don’t know much, and then you end up progressing throughout your career and I got to do a lot of things, from, I don’t know, planning and executing digital marketing campaigns, working with agencies on content creation, or media buying, paid search campaigns, dealing with marketing automation, dealing with lead generation and lead management. I learned a lot around the marketing side for events for higher education, and that meant I had to work with people from different countries because we were doing marketing globally. So, it meant interacting with different cultures, different mindsets, different expectations, and I had to do it all in a very fast-paced environment. In events, you always have to keep the ball rolling and be on it, as you know, and I had to learn a lot of things very quickly. And it was amazing. And the fact that I ended up working and living in London was a great benefit. You have a vibrant cultural scene, you are in one of the biggest tech hubs of the world, where you are up to date with the latest technologies and the latest developments. So, you have to be in constant evolution, progress and learning. And I totally enjoyed all of that.

E: And now you’re currently working as a product manager for full VW Digital Solutions, this Software Development Centre in London, what makes you wake up in this job?

M: I guess a lot of things. I do enjoy working with the team I’m part of at the moment. And we have some really interesting challenges to solve. I always get triggered by ‘Okay, we have a problem, we need to solve it.’ It’s exactly the typical Product Manager attitude, right? ‘Houston, we have a problem. Great, otherwise, we wouldn’t have a job.’

And it’s also the fact that previously, in my previous roles, I interacted a lot with stakeholders globally, which is something that I continue doing at the moment, the products we are working on in Lisbon mean that we interact a lot with our stakeholders in the office in Germany, for example. So there’s always a connection with the broader picture, which is an interesting thing to deal with. There’s a lot of information to assimilate because, at the moment, we’re part of a big group, we’re part of an enterprise company. On that matter, there’s a lot to learn. And I get triggered by this. ‘Okay, so there’s more information to find out about, more information to dig into.’ And it’s something that gets me excited, like, going back to the problem aspect, as I said, I do love a problem and a challenge! The products we’re working on right now and the approach we have is really great because we are really looking at our users and the problems they face, trying to get a deep understanding of those problems. Sometimes we focus so much on the problems, just to make sure we’re not missing out on any important aspects, to make sure we’re building the right solutions for our users. And I absolutely love that.

E: You were speaking about global teams, like people from different backgrounds, different cultures and different countries. What are the factors that enrich a product management team?

M: I guess it goes back to what I was saying earlier: for me, it’s all about the people. It’s about caring about the people you work with, but also about the people you work for. If I am to strictly look at the product team, and what’s very important for me, no matter where they come from, no matter their cultural backgrounds, or their professional backgrounds, one of the most important things in a product team is to make sure that everyone is heard. And to create an environment of trust, where everyone feels safe to share their ideas, to share their opinions, to challenge certain status quo situations, to challenge opinions, to give feedback on a regular basis. And it’s important to create that kind of environment where people feel safe to communicate and share knowledge. Because from this shared knowledge, you get to build great products, you get to have the insights and the information that you need, and you act upon it.

I guess there’s another point I would touch upon here, which is communicating to the team you are part of, and making sure that the team understands the value of their work. They will understand together that the work we do has a great impact on the business. And also that the work we do has a great impact on the users we solve problems for. That gives you a great sense of responsibility and accountability as a team, and it also gives you a great sense of satisfaction. When you reach a milestone and you achieve your goals, you’re happy about it. I’d mention these as the two key points.

E: You also spoke about stakeholders. So, I would like to ask you now that we have been working remotely, how do you keep the relationship with them? Do you have any tips for anyone who hasn’t been able to do it yet?

M: That’s an interesting question. I guess this shift has affected a lot of people and has impacted a lot of companies as well. From my personal experience, actually, in terms of dealing with stakeholders as such, it hasn’t been much of a shift because, to give you an example, with the products I’m currently working on at Volkswagen Digital Solutions, we do work a lot with the stakeholders in Germany. So, we have always constantly been in touch remotely. So the situation hasn’t changed for us. For example, at QS, I was working with and managing remote teams in Europe and Asia. When I was part of a product team in London that was working on global products, we had to liaise with business stakeholders across Europe, North America, and Latin America. So, I’ve actually had a lot of experience over the years in working remotely with stakeholders. And I didn’t feel that much of an impact at the moment. but I’ve learned a lot over the years. And I think some of the points I could highlight here would be around reaching agreements with your stakeholders around the communication channels. It’s very important to align on: what channels are we going to use to communicate on a daily basis, to communicate important information to give regular updates? And make sure those channels are not too many. Because then you get lost in the software you use and the platforms you use, and you risk losing information, which leads to a lot of overhead afterwards. So, to keep it short, agree on the communication channels and keep those channels to a minimum.
At the same time, it’s about knowing your stakeholders very well, knowing who you should be keeping in touch on a regular basis, knowing who you should inform on a much higher generic level, because maybe you don’t want to bombard with daily or weekly updates, for example, someone who is at the senior management level and only needs monthly updates on the progress of your project. Another point that I think it’s very important is to make sure that the way you communicate is very straightforward, very concise, and adapted to the stakeholders you’re working with. In my case, over the years, I’ve worked with stakeholders from different departments, from sales to finance, and the technical side of things, even HR in some cases. So, every time you communicate with these different stakeholders, you need to make sure you’re adapting your message to their knowledge, their interests and their needs. Because, for example, you can’t really communicate something super techie to someone who works in Client Services, and deals with the Sales department. And another thing, which is all obvious for many but sometimes gets overlooked, is around being mindful of time zone differences. Working across regions sometimes is challenging when it comes to setting up meetings, or to direct communication. You always need to be careful. If I set up a meeting I need to make sure that it’s not bedtime for someone in Asia, or it’s not like 5am for someone in Brazil or it’s not lunchtime for someone in Germany. It goes the same with sending a message and expecting an instant response. Make sure that the person you’ve messaged is not in a completely different timezone. Maybe for them it’s 10pm and you’re sitting in front of your laptop waiting for a response, but you’re not going to get it until the next day. I think this part is really important and a lot of people acknowledge it, but in many cases we overlook it.

E: And when you don’t do PM work, you actively promote an advocate for inclusive work environments and more opportunities for women in Technology. As a woman, do you think the inclusive work market still needs to improve?

M: I think the obvious answer to this is “yes”, I strongly consider that. Actually, there’s an interesting thing I wanted to mention: tomorrow is the first ever Equal Pay Day initiated by the UN. I’ve been involved in a lot of initiatives around encouraging and supporting more women to start careers in technology or to progress in their careers in technology. Over the years, I was involved in Girls in Tech London, for example, initially as a Marketing Director, then as an Advisory Board Member, and we were organising a lot of workshops, conferences, bootcamps, or webinars, to give more women access to information and opportunities around working in tech. In Lisbon, the same, I started working with different organisations, like LeanIn, around webinars, mostly helping women to deal with the current landscape challenges in finding a job, in negotiating a salary, and so on. I strongly believe that there’s still a lot more to do. If you look at the World Economic Forum Global Gender Pay Gap report from 2020, you will see that since 2006, there’s been a gradual decrease in the gender pay gap. But it’s minimal. And in the same report, they actually mentioned that it would take over 250 years to close the gender pay gap.

I think that, beyond the initiatives that governments are now taking, that companies are now taking, organisations are now taking (everyone is involved in a lot of initiatives around closing the gender gap), I think all of us have a responsibility to work towards that. And if we can do it, we should do it. And I encourage everyone to get involved. I’m a big advocate of that.

E: And speaking about you, what are you still doing to empower women in the Tech world? What are your actions right now?

M: Quite a lot, actually. To be honest, I was fortunate to benefit from great contacts, great mentors, people who helped me progress along the way. And, at this stage in my life, I am very much keen on using my expertise, my knowledge, my contacts in helping more women get into tech and progress in their careers. As I mentioned, I got involved in a lot of initiatives in Girls in Tech London. I’m currently getting involved in quite a few initiatives in Lisbon, in Portugal, even participating in this talk is a great opportunity for me to try and encourage more women and more people to get into technology, to get into Product Management or any other Tech roles. Another thing I’ve been actively doing over the years was one-to-one mentoring, especially with women professionals who are looking for a career change from non-tech roles into tech-related roles. And that’s been quite rewarding, so far. I’m learning a lot from the experience and I’ve also helped quite a few people along the way, which is a great satisfaction for me.

E: This year, you’re in the top 3 of Portuguese Women in Tech 2020. So, how important do you think it is?

M: I’m actually very happy to be one of the finalists. And I’m also very humbled for the nominations and the votes I received from my colleagues and my extended network as well. For anyone who is on the call, and who doesn’t know what the Portuguese Women in Tech Awards are: it is a set of awards initiated by the Portuguese Women in Tech Organisation to reward women for their work and for their achievements in the Tech field. To go back to your question, I think they’re essential. Such awards are very important for rewarding women for their involvement and their achievements. And at the same time, to raise awareness around the importance of having more women working in technology, by showcasing role models that can serve as inspiration. So you get to encourage more women to join the industry.

E: That’s a great initiative. And speaking about technology, innovation, and digitalization, when you have to deal with all these things, you have to deal with coding. You said a funny thing in one of your articles about coding, you said that it’s like a language to learn. Can you comment on that?

M: Yes, I guess it comes from a person that has been studying foreign languages since five years old. It was always like “Oh, I’m trying to learn French, or English, or Spanish, now Portuguese. And I end up working in a field where I actually need to learn how to code?”. On a more serious note, I think it’s very important for a Product Manager to understand an engineer’s language. You need to understand the technology that the teams you work with are using, how a product is built from a technical perspective, you need to understand the terminology that is used by the engineers. That’s mostly because you need to have healthy conversations and be able to make decisions, and you cannot make those decisions if you don’t understand what your engineers are talking about. I think it’s very important to understand what they’re talking about, and it’s also very important how you approach the learning process towards that. And from the perspective of a person with zero technical skills, I can share a bit of how I did it, which is around “Hey, I don’t understand this. Can you please explain it to me? Can you please teach me?”. I think it’s very important to reach a stage where you can be comfortable enough to say that you don’t know something and you ask for people to help you out. For me, it was a learning curve and a process. It happened over the years, it didn’t happen overnight. But I can proudly say, I do understand the engineers at the moment. We can have healthy conversations. I can give you a specific example. A few years ago, I had no idea what APIs meant, right? I was like, “Okay, what is that? What are we talking about?”. And now, I can easily have a conversation about GET requests, PULL requests and POST requests, and I know what they mean, and how our services are built, and so on. For me, it was also a sense of achievement that I managed to understand this terminology, to understand what my teams need, and how we can work together. And I didn’t get stuck onto “Okay, I don’t know Tech. I can’t learn it.”. I was very curious about learning more, and not necessarily reaching a proficiency level, but at least a certain degree of fluency — if we are to talk from a language perspective. It is definitely key for a product manager, and especially if you don’t come from a technical background.

E: Yeah, it’s important to be able to communicate. So, you will be the speaker during the Productized Online Conference 2020, would you like to give our audience some more details about it?

M: Yes, sure. So, my talk will actually be about outcome driven product development versus feature driven product development, and how we’re using it and trying to implement it at a big enterprise level. How this is helping us to build great products, and also the challenges we are facing along the way, in terms of implementing this in a big company. I’m very much looking forward to the talk. I’m also very much looking forward to the conference, overall. There’s a great lineup of speakers. There are some very interesting topics that I’m keen to hear around user validation and user research, product growth strategies. There is also a very interesting workshops that I’m actually seriously considering joining around conflict resolution. So yeah, I’m very keen on joining the conference, and I encourage everyone to participate.

E: Would you like to give some advice to those people that may want to start a career in this area? Or have to start it from the beginning?

M: My advice to aspiring Product Managers?
Firstly, it’s about trying to understand what the role is, what the responsibilities are, and what skills are required. And then deciding whether this role is a fit for you and for your professional background or for your personality. You can do that by finding people who already have experience as Product Managers and ask them about their roles and for more input and information. Or find the Product Managers in your company and ask them “Hey, can I work with you for a week or two? Can I shadow you for a while? I would just like to understand what you do on a daily basis, what you’re dealing with, the challenges you have, the successes you have, to see if it’s a fit for me.” And if this role is a fit, then just go about understanding if you have the right skills for it, or if there are skills that you need to gain, plan it and stick to your goals. Another important thing would be around connecting with people that have networks in this specific case with with Product Managers, trying to create relationships with them, get more information from them, find mentors. It’s always very important to have these connections in the specific field you want to get into or you’re already working in.

E: That’s great advice, thank you very much, Mihaela!

M: Thank you!

▶️ Listen to the interview with the Q&A at the end:

E: We have a question from Juan Gouveia from the USA. The question is: as a Product Manager, how do you decide what to do and what not to do? How do you assess the important and the urgent? How do you prioritise?

M: Well, I guess that’s one of the key things we have to deal with, right? What to do, what not to do, what to build, what not to build. For me personally, and from my experience over the years, it’s a matter of collecting as much information as possible, gaining as many insights as possible. Quantitative data, qualitative data, business perspective, user perspective, insights from your stakeholders. Use all these gathered information to make your decisions. The second thing to do is talk to your team, discuss things with your team, discuss things with your designers, with your engineers, and everyone else involved in that specific product, to reach decisions together. What I’ve learned is that it is very important to get everyone’s input in making those decisions and getting the information you need in making those decisions. Sometimes it’s not the best thing to make decisions on your own, but actually get information from different perspectives, areas of expertise, and so on, to make the decision. Sometimes it comes down to instinct as well. But I would say mainly rely on the information, the data and on the input you get from the different areas of the business and the people you work with.

E: We also have a question from Alexandra Ferreira, from Portugal. So why did you decide to move to Lisbon?

M: That’s an easy one! I mean, I’ve moved from London. And I think that the answer is self explanatory. To give more detail, I came to Lisbon many years ago on a holiday and after that I kept coming to Lisbon every year, on holidays, or for work, or for different events. I kept exploring the city and I felt that I’m more and more connected on a personal level to the place and that it could be a great place for me to explore and live in.

E: And connected to this thing. We have Diego Alonso, from Spain, who would like to ask you: What is your favourite food type?

M: That’s very hard to choose. I think this is the hardest question to answer and I will not give an answer to it. I actually appreciate food coming from different corners around the world. And I love this part of exploring different cuisines around the world, different countries and different cultures. I think that each culture has its great aspects and its pluses. I learned a lot from everywhere I’ve travelled to and everywhere I’ve lived in. And, also, that is why it is very difficult to decide what my favourite is because I have a lot of favourite ones.

E: Do you have any book recommendations, podcasts, articles, more information that may be interesting for your audience?

M: I have a few actually. What is top of my mind at the moment would be ‘Delivering Happiness’, written by Tony Hsieh (I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing the name correctly). It’s about the Zappos company, how they started it and how they grew it and moved on to sell it to Amazon for millions of dollars. Mostly, it is about how to build a company culture where the employees and customers are happy. It’s one of my favourite books. Another very good one is ‘Hooked’ by Nir Eyal. It is about the modern technologies — games, apps and the software that we currently use, from email to the social media platforms, and how they were built and conceived to catch our attention and then how they made us addicted to them. From a Product Management perspective, I think that it’s a very interesting book to read because it gives you a few insights on the perspective of how users behave and how to use the information at hand to build your products.

E: Thank you again for your time Mihaela and for answering all our questions. And also thanks to all of you. Don’t forget to join our next Girls Who Product podcast with Anabela Cesario. And see you all at Productized Conference 2020.

Mihaela recommends must 📚 and 🎧 on product and leadership:

📗 Start Something That Matters — Blake Mycoskie

📗 Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell — Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, Alan Eagle

📗 A great list of books for Product Managers she published on Twitter:

🎧 Nir Eyal:

🎧 Simon Sinek:

🎧 Product Hunt Radio:

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.

About Productized

Productized organizes different activities with the intention to boost the product community around the world. It was created by professionals from the engineering and design space, with a history of co-founding several pioneering projects in Portugal such as TEDx, Beta-i, Startup Weekend and Silicon Valley comes to Lisbon.

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