Zalando’s Linda Mackessy Spader discusses her journey to product management and explains how others can take a similar leap of faith.
Working in the area of product management has given Linda Mackessy Spader the opportunity to be part of large-scale tech projects and deepen her understanding of AI.
Here, she talks about her role as a product manager at Zalando’s Dublin base and shares what she has learned over the course of her career so far.
‘I focused on small wins to build my confidence and absorbed as much information as possible in a short period’
– LINDA MACKESSY SPADER
What kinds of product management projects do you work on?
Over the last three and a half years I have worked on amazing initiatives that have impacted 38m-plus active Zalando customers across 17 markets. Being a product manager has enabled me to work on large-scale projects, including Zalando’s most recent redesign, our customer reviews experience and several AI products.
We are currently working on an AI language model focused on moderating content, which is both complex and exciting. I would say machine learning is a lot like parenting; it’s challenging but worth it. I’m currently trying to teach my daughter colours. She knows how to say each colour but cannot correctly assign them to an item.
I hold up a strawberry and ask her what colour it is, she says green. I correct her. I point to the sky and ask her what colour it is, she says green. I correct her. I ask her what colour the grass is, she says green. I praise her. You teach a child the same thing over and over again until they can tell you what the item is on their own. A model is no different.
I’m so lucky to work with an amazing team where everyone is an expert in their area and committed to solving something that matters.
What experiences led you to the role you have now?
My undergraduate degree was a core business discipline peppered with technology. I learned HTML during that time, which sparked my passion for technology. After completing my master’s degree, I found myself working as a tech recruiter, finding data analysts and engineers their dream jobs.
I was envious, wanting to apply but lacking the core skills. I decided it wasn’t too late. My employer at the time created a role for me that was more process and technology-oriented, allowing me to get involved in projects like the redesign of the company website, training staff in the CRM system and spearheading the company’s first women in tech survey.
These projects provided the perfect stepping stone into my first role in a tech start-up. As a consultant, I worked closely with the development and analytics teams, gaining deep experience fast. Before I knew it, I was doing aspects of product management without knowing the job title existed. It was at this stage that I decided to study data analytics and interactive marketing to deepen my technical knowledge.
It was the ideal move as I could put what I learned into practice, and I loved it. It helped me understand the more technical aspects of my role, enabling me to ask better questions and produce better results. By then I had gained enough experience to say yes when a recruiter contacted me about my first product role. That was the start of this journey.
What advice would you give others looking to move roles or re-enter the workforce?
Firstly, just start. Once you find something you are passionate about, learn everything you possibly can about it. Talk to experts. Attend meet-ups. Go to a conference. Read books. Watch tutorials. Find out what skills you need to learn, the main tools used, the courses offered. What steps can you take now to get one step closer to your end goal?
Have a clear objective. Figure out what your end goal is and break it down into SMARTER – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound, evaluation and readjust – subgoals.
Focus on achieving something small to get you started, like drafting an action plan or researching college courses. Completing a small task will build confidence. Once you have some knowledge or experience, look to volunteer to develop your skills while helping others. A great resource is Volunteer.ie.
Finally, don’t limit yourself. As Oprah once said: ‘You are not your circumstances; you are your possibilities.’ There will always be people who tell you that you cannot do something. Listen to the people around you that help you, build you up and support you.
There’s an abundance of resources available for people who want to re-enter the workforce or move into a different career. The Springboard initiative is a great example of upskilling into a different career. Find out what resources are available to you. There is always a way.
How have you deepened your knowledge in product management?
I have completed multiple courses in product management and agile development throughout the last six years. Last year I completed an online course, AI for Business Strategy with MIT CSAIL, which was great to deepen my understanding of AI. I am curious about everything and have an appetite for learning – this will never stop!
Have you ever experienced challenges as a woman in tech?
Yes. It can happen in obvious ways but, more commonly, it is the subtleties that are harder to pinpoint. They surface as comments that are delivered with a smile or disguised in blissful ignorance.
I was once asked in an interview how I thought I would manage in such a male-dominated environment. My response was: ‘I have six brothers, I think I’ll be OK.’ What I should have said was: ‘You need to look into how you can fix that.’
We should all be aware of the words we use, how they affect others and how we can create inclusive workspaces.
What has been your biggest challenge recently?
Just returning from maternity leave when the pandemic hit was a real challenge. I found myself at home with a toddler trying to juggle work and parenthood. I had a new manager, a new team and coupled those changes with a new sense of self-doubt. I felt like I was starting all over again, like everything I had previously accomplished was a write-off.
Luckily, I had support at work and at home to build me back up. My manager organised an amazing mentor for me who has taught me a lot in such little time. She reminds me to be strong-minded and unapologetic. I focused on small wins to build my confidence and absorbed as much information as possible in a short period.
After a few months, I had regained my confidence and was aiming for a promotion.
How do you combine your professional and personal interests beyond your day job?
Last year I organised a team who ran over 700km to raise money for Comfort4Covid, an excellent charity focused on connecting Covid patients with their loved ones through technology.
Recently I participated in a volunteering workshop organised by Zalando for the charity Dress for Success. It was in collaboration with Volunteer.ie and the objective was to help women looking to re-enter the workforce by sharing experiences and learnings. It was an amazing half-day and I met so many inspirational women.
I also recently started volunteering with the charity Empower the Family, driven by Deborah Somorin. The charity focuses on empowering young people from disadvantaged areas with the key of education, so they can unlock barriers and prosper.