Sarah Bourne of Zalando discusses her unconventional journey to product management and the importance of ‘straight talk’ for her job.
Sarah Bourne is a principal product manager at Zalando, though her background is in design and programme management. Here, she discusses what led her to her current role and why she sees Dublin as “a real hive of product talent”.
‘As a product manager you need to be able to cut through the noise, figure out what’s important and filter out the rest’
– SARAH BOURNE
What first stirred your interest in a career in product management?
Initially I didn’t choose a career in product management, it sort of chose me! I had been working for a number of years in design and then later programme management. Product management seemed to be a path that people, particularly with a design or software engineering background, were transitioning to.
When I moved into product management, it was only really starting to become a recognised job title within the tech industry and even more so in Ireland as many of the roles were still largely based in the US. Fast-forward 10 years and it’s really encouraging to see how so many companies have decided to establish their product teams here. Dublin is a real hive of product talent.
What experiences led you to the role you now have?
To answer this, I’ll have to jump back in time a bit. When I first started my career, I worked in a number of varied design roles ranging from a comic-book colourist, bringing life to the latest adventures of Catwoman and Spiderman, to pharmaceutical and software packaging.
After a number of years working in many smaller companies, I moved to a large technology company which became my home for the next 15 years. It was there that I got exposure to a company which was passionate about building great products and solutions for their customers.
Over time, I found myself taking on tasks and responsibilities which were more closely aligned to a product role and solving customer problems. I became part of a small but agile team consisting of two engineers, one QA and a product manager (me!), working on product solutions and integrations for our global cloud providers and telco partners.
It was in this role that I really learned my craft and further developed my skills and training in product management. Fast-forward to August 2019 and a new chapter of my career brings me to Zalando as a principal product manager. The product teams in Zalando are highly skilled, collaborative and passionate about creating the best experience for our customers.
What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered on your career path and how did you deal with them?
I think the biggest challenge for me has been learning how to manage the expectations of your leadership team and stakeholders while also trying to balance this with supporting your team in the day-to-day trenches.
Managing these relationships within a company can be challenging and requires a lot of diplomacy. This can feel uncomfortable at times but can be extremely rewarding when you find some common ground and achieve results with the executive teams, partners or customers.
Was there any one person who was particularly influential as your career developed?
There have been many. The key for me has been to find a good mentor. Ideally look to someone who you have a relationship with already or have worked with in the past. A good mentor will be willing to share their knowledge and provide you with guidance. They’ve been there and got the T-shirt, so will have lots of real-life experiences to share.
What do you enjoy about your job?
At Zalando, you get to work with lots of smart, cool people who are passionate about product and solving customer problems with innovative solutions and ideas. Being a product manager is a diverse role, which at times requires you to wear many colourful hats.
I also love the collaborative side of the role. Those who know me know I love to talk! Being able to pop around to a colleague’s desk to talk through an idea or jump on a hangout with someone in another office to get a different perspective on a problem is a really rewarding part of the job.
What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to this job?
Great product managers are great team players. My focus has always been on making the teams that I work with shine. Being a team player has helped me to build trust within these teams, which has led to many successful product launches.
I would consider myself to be a straight talker. As a product manager you need to be able to cut through the noise, figure out what’s important and filter out the rest. This can be tricky when you have many competing requests from stakeholders, but I’ve found that investing the time to build good relationships with the people you are working with will benefit you in so many ways.
What advice would you give to those considering a career in product management, or just starting out in one?
Until very recently, the product role would have been aligned with engineering or marketing teams within a company, but this is changing and we are now seeing companies becoming more product-led organisations.
Zalando is a great example of a company that is putting product in the driver’s seat. Every part of the customer experience has a dedicated team developing and improving specific customer touchpoint products, which gives teams clear ownership with measurable impact.
My suggestion would be to look within your own company to see if there are opportunities within your role to collaborate with the product team. Product managers have interactions with many cross-functional teams in a company, so even if you are in the support or legal team there may be an opportunity for collaboration.
In addition, online product management groups are great (and free) sources of information. There are lots of product communities available with people who are keen to share their knowledge, experience, skills and insights. Meetups are also a great way of finding out about a company’s approach to product management. They provide great opportunities for networking and attending other product-related events.