The Versatile Product Leader: an Interview with CPO Nesrin Elsawi

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Nesin Elsawi is a Chief Product Officer at BCG Digital Ventures and was a speaker for Product Management Festival 2018. With a background in computer science and psychology, Nesrin shares her lessons learned from her time at small and big companies in North America and Europe, interim-CTO stint at Berlin-based Outfittery, and how founders and PMs can augment their skill set when stepping into each other’s shoes.

Our readers like to see how senior product leaders get to where they are. How did you come to be a Venture CPO at BCG Digital Ventures?

In my undergrad, I studied computer science and psychology, which at the time didn’t seem like a logical or common combination, but they captured my interests very well. Like many, I started out working as a developer for a startup in California, but I was constantly trying to figure out why we were building things and how people used them.

I found myself wanting to be much closer to the customer and more involved in the business side.

I didn’t know of the job title “Product Manager” back then, but I found another startup looking for someone to do the technical work while also defining what we should build and how we should work with our customers, which seemed to match my interests much better. I spent over 5 years in that role, never with a product title, but essentially being the product manager for several of our biggest products. In the meantime, I also got an MBA to round out my business knowledge.

Once I decided to move to Amsterdam and join a large company, I officially took a product role and moved into management, which is what I’ve been doing for the past years. The shift into a pure product role meant for me that I no longer had to take care of sales or marketing myself but had to collaborate with large teams specializing in just these topics. It suddenly felt much bigger and more professional, but in some ways more rigid.

Going from hands-on PM to management is this difference between tactical and strategic product management. I rarely work on any product specs; it’s now about driving the big picture and working with all the stakeholders to have a winning product strategy.

Of course, there’s also the team aspect, so I think a management role is definitely for those who love coaching and growing others. I think what made me a strong fit for BCG Digital Ventures is the combination of startup and large company experience as well as B2B and B2C product knowledge. It gives me the right toolkit to work with our large corporate partners and understand their world but build our companies and products like a startup and hire the right team members. It also gives me the versatility to work in different industries and on different kinds of products.

How has the progression been for you as a woman in product management (and computer science)? Any advice to other women in product management?

Early in my career, I was lucky to work with more senior peers who really believed in me and created space so I could go after my goals. As a result, I always felt I could achieve anything I set my mind on and rarely thought about the fact that I was a minority.

I gained a lot of confidence, which I bring to every situation I encounter now. I feel it’s opened a lot of doors for me because I strongly believe I am just as capable as my peers. The main obstacles I’d encountered were actually around my technical skills. Unlike my male colleagues, I got challenged by team members or even clients and asked to answer silly questions to prove to them that I, in fact, had a technical background. During my stint as an interim-CTO at Outfittery, a couple team members reporting to me would not give me the full facts and would just tell me it’s too technical for me to understand. I find that your work will speak for itself, so in these situations, I mostly ignore the bad attitude from others and know that over time, they will also see the skills I bring to the table.

My advice to women in product management is to choose an environment where they have senior team members who really believe in them and invest in their growth, which will help them build up confidence and important experience. I think it’s also important to know that everybody is different, so don’t measure yourself by criteria others have chosen for you or aspire to be just like them. I believe the key to unlocking the full potential of diversity is also creating an environment where people are aware of different skillsets and performance is evaluated through many lenses.

You’ve worked with a lot of new and established companies. There are quite a few, or perhaps it’s a growing trend, of product managers who become founders and founders who oversee product management. Have you seen any trends (or traits) in helping contribute to their success?

I think the key is understanding what product management really is.

If you empower the product organization and don’t reduce them to ticket writers for engineering, you can unleash a group of people who combine knowledge of the business, market, customer, and technology. I believe PMs should be equal partners to business as they are to engineering, so broadening their scope will lead to a stronger product strategy.

For one, I would hire a senior leader in product and have them directly report to the CEO, not into any other vertical. It’s also important to have the right customer-centric approach from the beginning, so it’s not just about hiring great product managers, but also experience designers, user researchers etc. For PMs becoming founders, the biggest challenge I’ve seen is that while they have strong business acumen, they often have not been deeply involved in the numbers side of the business, so they struggle with detailed business models and structuring smart deals with investors. If their co-founders aren’t very savvy in this, I would encourage them to get an advisor or just focus on learning as much about these topics as possible before starting negotiations.

Nesrin was a speaker at PMF2018 and finalist for Women in Product in Europe, a List highlighting ladies, nominated by their peers, who’ve been making an impact on product management in Europe.

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