All you have to do is ask

This is a Q&A series on women in Product Management. Stay tuned for more interviews here. 

Rekha is a Senior Manager, Group Product Management at Walmart leading international product teams. She is a product evangelist and technologist with close to two decades of leadership experience in product management, strategy, and engineering.

Her career in tech began with a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. She has a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Arkansas with a specialization in Supply Chain Management. She leads the Women in Product Tri-Valley region chapter and is also an Ambassador of Advancing Women in Product. She is a featured speaker at various events across the Bay area and a committee member of Grace Hopper Summit. A native of South India, Rekha grew up in the capital city of New Delhi, started her first job in Chennai and now resides in San Francisco.

You can follow her here.

It’s great to feature you first in this series, Rekha! I hope you will inspire those who read my blog. 

So tell me. What drew you to technology and working with software companies?

First off, I should admit that I had no clue I would be where I am right now. It is not like I planned ahead of what I wanted to be.

When I was a child, I had little to no exposure to technology or even the kind of careers one could have. My parents, like any well-meaning, aspirational Indian parents, wished I followed their footsteps by either becoming a doctor or an engineer. So I majored in Biology at high school because that naturally opened up pathways into both medicine and engineering. However, neither of those were my calling.

I took up Information Technology for my bachelor studies on a whim! Back then, it was a fairly new branch of engineering. Thankfully, I liked what I studied. So, in a way, my foray into tech was serendipitous. This is how I gained exposure to computers that set me on a long journey in software. 

That’s interesting and sort of relatable. A lot of kids today are into Computers even before they turn ten and have clear ideas on what they want to become…

Yeah, that’s true. My six-year-old son is into Robotics. He is already taking up Robotics classes and learning to program. Not just that, he loves to follow topics like astronomy, space, and the weather. He has not one but several ideas on what he wants to become and it keeps changing by the day. From being a research scientist, a FedEx pilot, to a storm chaser and most recently— a trashman.

SF has played a huge role in shaping his interests. I am grateful that as parents we can provide him an environment where he can choose to be whatever he wants.

Tell me about your career. 

I started my career in Chennai as a Software Engineer. My work involved a lot of travel. I moved to Bengaluru to continue my career in software for a brief period before moving to the United States twelve years ago for my onsite. After moving here, I have lived in Chicago, Dallas, Columbus, Arkansas and now I live in SF with my husband, son and a Maltese dog Snoopy.

Quite a journey! What’s the place you like the most?

That’s easy. Arkansas! Life is simple and free from the hustle and bustle of a typical city. It gave us a lot of great memories. It’s where our son was born. Also, our dog Snoopy was born. I love the place because we could go on hikes. There was always a great deal of variety in our hikes as Arkansas is a home to 52 State Parks!

How did you transition from engineering to product management? What was it like?

Initially, I was more of the mindset of simply doing things that were asked of me. I had a turning point in my career in 2009 when I was consulting for major retail-tech companies in the US. One of the stakeholders I worked with suggested I think about the big picture as I could leave a bigger impact.

Until then, I was only dealing with the Hows of the problem. I soon began abstracting problems and questioning a lot of my assumptions. I started to think deeply about every problem I took up. What is the problem? Why is it a problem in the first place? How can I help? All of this was even before I got my degree in MBA.

As I moved organizations, I enjoyed building products and taking part in several hackathons. But it struck me that there is no point in building products if no one was going to use it.

I realized I should figure out what products to build before actually building any. That involved a completely different skill set which I wanted to explore. I brought up my interest in trying product management with one of my mentors. I was suggested that I had to unlearn a lot of things and that it could halt my career trajectory. That was scary! However, I mustered the courage for the unlearning and started seeking mentors at work and beyond. At one point, I had four different mentors and all had different perspectives to offer. 

Mentors can only take you so far.

As a woman with big ambitions in tech, you need sponsors who will invest beyond their time and advice. Mentors are different from sponsors and we often tend to confuse the two. Mentors are those who can guide you to be better at what you want to be.  If you are persistent, you will find a lot of mentors. They will polish your approach to finding a job or sustaining in one.

A sponsor, however, is rare. It is sponsors who will truly launch you into the field that you are interested in. Now, that involves a personal commitment and a bigger stake.

Although I had several mentors online, what I really needed at that time was a sponsor. Someone had to take a chance on me. 

Coincidentally, my organization was on the lookout for Technical Product Managers. I was a good fit for the role and I took it up with no second thoughts. Since it was my first time in product management, I started off as a shadow PM and began learning as much as possible. I got a lot of feedback during my first year. I even doubted if I could sustain in the new role. Somehow I did not lose hope. I began working on the feedback, one by one. 

I was always curious to learn about the business and particularly, our customers. The process of really empathizing with our customers and not simply theorizing their problems from afar taught me invaluable lessons.

Have you faced major challenges as a woman in tech? If yes, what were those and how did you handle it?

In this industry, it’s usually a lot of men who go up the ranks.

Women are so conditioned to wearing multiple hats — as a techie, a homemaker, a mother and everything in between that they end up burning out too soon. Things don’t fall in line for women to enjoy an upward career trajectory. There’s some compromise women end up making.

Back in India, I interviewed a candidate who was carrying a baby. She was too anxious to know if I would reject her based on her pregnancy. That really shook me because that speaks volumes of how terrible her experience has been in the job market.

A lot of women reach out to me saying they find it hard getting back to work and I could empathize with them a lot. Women in my family too faced the same problem. I really had to do something about it. I had a fair share of struggles myself and I could no longer stand seeing others face the same. So I, along with two others, started a Women in Tech Chapter two years ago. We started off by helping to review resumes, gave workshops on storytelling and conducted mock interviews. We wanted to provide resources for women to support each other. 

What is one advice you would like to give to women in tech?

All you have to do is ASK.

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