Innovation, Inclusivity, and Women in Product

Irma Mesa is a vibrant member of her local PM community in Indianapolis, and has extensive experience in many areas of Product. She’s worked in EdTech, as a remote Product Manager, and as a volunteer with Black Girls CODE, CodeDoesGood, Girl Develop It and BUILTBYGIRLS. On top of that, she’s currently working as a Product Manager for Open Up Resources.

She took some time out of her very busy schedule to talk to us about being a woman in Product, how to create more diverse and open work spaces, and how to give back to the community.

Can you tell me a little about what lead you towards product? Was there something in your educational background or an experience that made an impression on you?

I’ve always held technology, human behavior and social good very close to heart. I went to school and studied to become an Occupational Therapist, where I’d help young autistic kids develop or improve their motor skills for everyday functions. Personally, this was fulfilling and it was awesome being able to give back but I didn’t feel a strong connection to the work I was doing.

One random day back in December of 2014, I discovered CodeCademy, which is a platform that provides coding courses. I fell in love with it. It was this mix of excitement, discovery, challenge and creativity as I through with the HTML, CSS and JS course. 

I was pulled towards Product Management at my last job because I had a good handle on the product, customers, funnel, collaborated greatly with Engineers and had strong design opinions. I started pursuing Product Management after seeing my old co-worker in the role of a PM and totally crushing it. I wanted to lead the product just like he was. It was also a role that fit my wide skillset, it allowed me to exercise all my knowledge and experience while developing for real people.

Code on a laptop

You have a Bachelor of Applied Science majoring in Psychology. Have you found that helpful for your product career?

Yes, 100%. Psychology and learning about human behavior have both carried me into being a super user-focused Product Manager. It also taught me how to express empathy, which is super important as a PM to be empathetic to users but also to your team. I’ve also incorporated Design Thinking into my toolbox and that coupled with a background in Psychology has been extremely beneficial when thinking and prototyping designs, user flows, etc.

I see that at Paper Street Media you made the transition from Project Manager to Product Manager. Could you describe the main differences between these two roles?

How I’d define both:

  •  Project Managers really focus in on the delivery, timelines, feasibility of projects. If there’s a Project Manager layer on a Product Team, they’re usually working close cross-functionally to understand dependencies and risks in collaboration with Engineering, Marketing, and Sales. 
  • Product Managers are servant leaders carrying out the product as a whole forward ensuring the product is both meeting customer and business needs. They usually will work closely with stakeholders or executive teams to plan out a strategy and connect product metrics that allow them business to move the needle close to it’s the larger goal. They also have a layer of user research and experience and usually will have some technical foundations to interface with Engineering teams. PMs would interface with Project Managers on their team to speak on releases, resource allocation, and feasibility.
Team working

What do you think are the most important things for a product manager to focus on if they want to build innovative technology?

The most important thing is to understand WHO you’re building for. A PM can use the most innovative technology they’d like to ship a product but without understanding and talking to potential customers there’s little chance your product will have an impact or value once in the market. 

What do you like most about being in EdTech?

I love the ability to give back to teachers and students. They are building our future. 

With so many challenges up against teachers when it comes to budget, staffing, classroom sizes, and outdated books it’s been super gratifying to be able to create, develop and ship curricula for K-12 public schools that is not only high quality but affordable.

woman in front of bookcase

What has your experience been like as a woman in tech? How does this intersect with being a triple minority?

I’ve been fortunate to have amazing teachers who have really shown me support and that has helped a lot with my self-esteem as well as confidence. But I remember with one of my jobs coming in and being the only woman on the Tech team and feeling scared and nervous. Why were all these men going to listen to me? I was also very new to tech and to my role so that didn’t really help. In the beginning, I felt like I really had to prove myself to my bosses. I’d work late, spin up tons of resources and documentation for the team, create plans and visuals to display roadmaps for our projects. I was essentially doing MORE work that wasn’t in my job description because I knew I had to stand out. As a woman in tech, I’ve always felt like I had to do more work than the next person, I had to be more outspoken than him because if not I would be left behind. 

Now, I am a triple minority. I’m a Hispanic and gay woman. Thus far I’ve been extremely lucky and grateful to have not been discriminated (as far as I know) from being gay. I’ve had a lot of support from co-workers and bosses. I’ve been sponsored by previous bosses to attend Lesbians Who Tech in NYC a few years back and then given a presentation about it at work. Because of this support, it’s helped me to be accepted to be a triple minority in tech. I also know of the struggles that others have faced and never take my experience for granted.

Boardroom discussion diverse people

What would you suggest for companies that want to create a more diverse, equal opportunities culture?

I’d suggest companies do 3 things:

  1. Educate – bring in diverse speakers, hold training sessions, or bring in highly regarded D&I professionals to educate your team. And allow that education to inform your culture. To me, it’s crucial that there’s a shared understanding about representation and around what marginalized communities face because of their gender, race, status, disability and that they should not be treated any differently because of that. 
  2. Be intentional with recruiting – use terminology or verbiage that speaks to a diverse group of people. Don’t alienate candidates because of gender-specific language, instead, show that your company is welcoming and it cares about representation. 
  3. Focus on accessibility – coming from underrepresented backgrounds sometimes means limited accessibility to a number of things. As a company, bring your team to those underrepresented areas or those meetups and talk to candidates. Meet them, hear their story and share with them how your company is re-thinking and taking action to bring in folks from all backgrounds because that’s what makes great, successful products. Diverse thinking and experience is something every company needs. 

You also have a lot of experience with volunteer work (Black Girls CODE, CodeDoesGood, Girl Develop It, BUILTBYGIRLS). What sort of impact does volunteering have? What would you recommend for someone who wanted to contribute?

Volunteering can place you in a moment with another person where you’re helping them, inspiring them, connecting with them, showing them something new, and much more. But you are making an impact on someone’s future even if it’s a small way. 

I suggest volunteering for everyone. Usually, take a look at local orgs that align with your interests. For me, it’s tech and code so I’ve been doing work with coding organizations (Women Who Code, BUILTBYGIRLS) for volunteer work. As of last week, my partner and I have both picked up volunteering at a local food bank to help with preparing meals for homeless folks. So, do a quick Google search for volunteering opportunities near you and I promise you’ll come across something that interests you. Even if it’s 2 hours a month, you’re giving back and in a world like the one we live in today, it’s incredible to give back and impact life or a community.

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