Create a Product Career With Impact with Airtable Product Leader

This week, Product School hosted Shannon Anahata, Product Leader at Airtable, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Shannon gives thoughtful insights on her experience breaking into product from a non-tech background, and how building relationships has been one of the most important things she’s done to further her product career and create impact.

Meet Shannon

Shannon Anahata, Product Leader at Airtable

Shannon is a Product Leader who works tirelessly to make complicated products usable and human-friendly so that technology can really work for people. Currently, she’s working on product at Airtable. Before this, she spent almost six years at Zendesk. She started with the company as a Customer Advocate, helping customers as they implemented the product into their lives. She later moved into the role of Technical Support Engineer, where she continued to build strong relationships with her customers.

How do you create work with impact that allows growth in terms of personal and career?

A lot of this ties back to the talk I gave last week. Whenever I’m considering the work that I am prioritizing, I consider the impact on the business and customers. My favorite way of working is in partnership, so the way a lot of my work comes out is through championing and unblocking others by helping to create the pathways that will lead us to success. Most of the time, I’ve seen that this is through laying a good foundation that we can all trust – research, a great story, solid data (when you can find it), and an open, collaborative environment that improves on whatever the initial seed of an idea is.

flower growing from rocks

I have found that the more people I get to connect and collaborate with, the more I learn, and the more I find myself growing. For personal growth, it’s very much the same, but I also take the time to be vulnerable with people close to me. And, I prioritize doing my best at being “home with family and friends” when it’s that time or “in work mode” when it’s work time.

I also take the time to ask for feedback and create retrospective sessions so that we can reflect together. The focus here is on action items to learn how we can all improve.

How do you convince leadership stakeholders of your roadmap/strategy?

There are a few levels to this one. The most important part is to make sure no one is caught by surprise.

  • Building a rapport and relationship of trust helps a lot. This means making sure you’re being communicative and consistent with your work enough that leadership knows what to expect from you. This doesn’t mean always being successful or on time, but it does mean consistently letting people know what’s happening, and what the plan is.
  • Then there’s showing your work – what research have you done to prove your hypotheses? Does it include quantitative, qualitative, and competitive data?
  • Think of the story you are trying to tell, and keep asking why it’s important to the business, and make sure it fits in with the business narrative and objectives and key results (OKRs). Then, make sure your story is consistent and strong.
  • Make sure your key peer stakeholders (engineering, design, marketing, go to market) are all bought in and already ready to partner on your roadmap.
  • Check in with specific leadership stakeholders 1:1 before bringing the group together to get earlier feedback and let them in on the how the sausage is being made.

I was wondering how (if) you deal with imposter syndrome and how you maintain confidence as a product leader? 

woman sitting with head and hands, a fountain out of focus in the background

Thanks for the great question. I read this great piece on women and imposter syndrome that gave me serious pause when considering those feelings.

One great way of handling those feelings is to make sure you take time to reflect on all the work you’ve been doing on a regular basis. I try to take some time around a quarterly basis to reflect on all the work I’ve done. I also find people in my life who I can be vulnerable to, and talk to them about what’s coming up for me. This includes having a mentor who can help me see where I’m at and help coach me in the direction I want to go.

The last thing I’ll say here is that we’re all learning all the time, and that’s one of the most important qualities of being a product person. Moving out of a perfectionist mentality and into a “good enough” mentality has helped a lot.

What was the process like of transitioning from a non-PM role into PM? Any advice for someone following a similar path?

The biggest thing I did was to not be shy about asking people if I could buy them a coffee or simply talk with them about their experience as a PM. It felt so opaque when I was trying to figure out what product even was, so I needed real people to help me understand what the role was. Find people in your company if you can, and reach out to people here and in the product community! Reading books can help, but learning from real people helped me the most. I was really lucky enough to be working in a place where I could build relationships with product and then bug them until they took a chance on me.

view of two people through a windown sitting at a coffee shop with mugs in their hands. the shot is over the shoulder of one person and focused on the slightly smiling face of the other

How do you go about adding a feature that is strongly supported by customer research, but that your team is not ready to add?

If my team is not ready, I need to better understand why not. It’s possible we’re miscommunicating in some way, and I’m not telling a compelling enough story. Otherwise, it’s possible that there’s FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) around the product area for one reason or another, and we’ll need to get to the bottom of it. There could be a good reason the team doesn’t want to build the feature right then. Or maybe the feature feels too big, and you need to work with them to break it down a bit more so they feel excited about their ability to hit the first milestone.

If you truly believe that this is the best next thing to build, don’t give up, but you’ll need to find out another way to partner with your team. If all else fails, I’ve asked someone in leadership to partner with me to help rally the team. Hearing how important something is from someone at the top usually helps to unblock some of that uncertainty. To do this, of course, make sure you’ve got buy-in from leadership on your roadmap.

For more on effective leadership, read: Leading Good Product Teams

What was your main focus on development when you were pursuing a PM position? Did you have leadership in mind? I also value the customer-facing and relationship-building aspect of business.

My main focus on development was to learn as much as I could about what people expect of PMs, and then find ways to practice it. I reached out to peers in other companies who might need product help, and I bugged the PMs at Zendesk until one finally gave me the opportunity to try out a small project doing product work.

In terms of leadership, I only knew that I wanted to be a part of the development process, and I found that being a PM was the right role for me in that arena. As a customer-facing person with relationship-building experience, lean hard on those skills as major plusses in your journey toward product management. Those are massively important skills as a PM. Customer empathy and great relationship-building are two of the greatest skills that can be hard to teach.

two people talking and walking down a corporate hallway

What are your top tips for kicking off 3rd party integrations for the first time?

3rd party integrations are a tricky thing. First, you need to think about whether your team is going to build it, or if you’re going to partner with a 3rd party developer to build it. If it’s your team:

  • What problem are you solving?
  • What are the top functionalities that customers need? Are they doable via the API that the external application provides?
  • How much do you need the app to scale and is it scalable enough?

I also love researching whether there are particular trends or focuses around what segment of customers are trying to use or wanting to use that application as an integration. Maybe there’s a way to narrow down to a specific use case. If not, think about what a platform integration would look like instead. That can be trickier, but sometimes the right move.

Any final tips?

Lean into your strengths as a person, and make sure you’re making connections, communicating, and partnering. Think about the stories you’re telling, and why they matter, and remember, (most) everyone you’re building for is human, so make sure you’re connecting with your audience. If you’re just getting started, don’t be afraid to reach out to people, ask for feedback, and keep asking. A door will open if you keep at it.

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