The Tsunami Crashed Her Dreams. Now She is Breaking The Glass Ceiling as a Tech Leader

This is a Q&A series on women in product management. You can find more such interviews here.

It was March 2011, and a brutal tsunami had left Japan with $210 billion in economic damage.

The timing could not have been worse for the budding business graduate Silvia. It was her first time building digital products after her long streak in traditional record label companies. She had just launched an online crowdfunding platform for artists in Tokyo to cater to Japan’s booming music industry.

It was a rough ride after the tsunami. 

Cut to today, she is the chief technology officer and product management leader at the ZALORA Group — South East Asia’s top fashion e-tailer. You can follow her here. Not only she switched industries but also roles. It is a tale of restless curiosity by straying off career paths repeatedly and without approval. 

As a new mother, Silvia is thoroughly sorry for having made me wait for our scheduled Zoom call. That she spared an entire morning when a lot was on her maternity schedule was exceptional.

Her 8-week old baby sports a blue onesie with prints of seahorses. He occasionally mumbles cute nothings and cries for attention. Silvia assures me he is a calm baby and that remains true for the most part of our call. She walks around the room carrying him in her arms and tries to put him to sleep while fielding my hard questions about her career and life.

I ask her if she is comfortable sharing her career missteps for an off-the-record chat— something I ask every interviewee. 

“I’ve been through a lot of changes in my career. I used to think there were plenty of missteps that I had made in the past. I think it would be worth sharing these on the blog.” she says smiling at the memory of her younger self.

Silvia Thom grew up in a nondescript countryside in the south-west of Germany. As a teen in the 90s, she was fascinated by the work of pop artists of her times—from Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys. I ask her if she sings. 

“I’ve taken piano lessons for a number of years but I have always been more curious about what goes on backstage.

What do producers do? How do they create music videos? How do they collaborate?

I wanted to work with artists and help them ship their albums.”

How has your education helped you be where you are today?

“I knew where I wanted to be but I had no contacts in the music industry. Everything that I had learned about these artists and their work was from old media — newspapers, radio, TV, and magazines. Anything that I could get my hands on. So when it came to my education, I did my Master’s in traditional Business Administration but with a focus on Media Management & Communication from The University of Saarland hoping I’d get broad exposure to the real world.

I tried hard to land an internship. After a dozen applications, I got to intern at prominent record label companies such as Sony Entertainment and JVC Victor Entertainment in their product management and talent scouting departments. It prepared me to work with old media. However, by the time I was ready to take up a full-time job, the world had changed. The music industry was struggling and there were no career opportunities. I felt stuck and couldn’t break through the glass ceiling.”

If we recall, this was a phase when innovation in the music distribution technology disrupted entire industries. The pre-internet music industry relied primarily on physical distribution for a significant revenue. Concert tours were more of a way to promote their albums and were not intended for profits.

The dream of every artist and band then was signing a contract with a record label as that meant the record label bankrolled a professional studio recording and gave the artists visibility from the record labels’ international distribution system. None of that was possible for the talented bathroom musician who can now earn fans with a click of a button.

With music going online, industry outsiders emerged taking a huge slice of the revenue pie from traditional record labels. Apple was the first to create a successful online service for legally selling and distributing music and they were not a music industry player at all until then. In 2006 came Spotify’s model of hosting the freemium and premium music streaming service.

“Finding a job in the same industry was challenging, to say the least. I realized I had to change to a different industry. I was interested in working with digital products but I had no experience.”

Having arrived in Tokyo through a scholarship from the German government, she began looking for opportunities in the digital space. 

What was it like moving industries?

“I joined SellABand, an online Kickstarter for artists, as Japan’s Country Manager. It was a super new concept and it got a lot of hype and press. But it cooled down after a few years. They were looking to revive the business and one way was to expand to different markets. They were popular only in Europe. Japan was the second biggest music market in the world after the US so they wanted to test the waters.

By then, I had developed a network of contacts and knowledge about the Japanese market. It seemed like a perfect match for both of us. I was given the opportunity to manage their digital product. I was lucky enough to see it through launch. That experience was vital for the career that I have today. But the situation in Japan after the tsunami was gloomy and no one was interested in the platform.

I had to pack my bags and go back to Germany.”

How did you learn about Product Management?

“My interests widened after the brief experience working in the digital industry. I had a mentor in Berlin who showed me the way to Product Management. I was hired as a Product Manager for an online beauty subscription service based out of Germany and that was the official beginning of my career in software.”

What was it like in your first job as a Product Manager?

“It was quite challenging as I wasn’t from a technical background. A lot of people who are not technical but who can make for great product managers are scared of taking up the role.

I definitely had to roll up my sleeves and convince the engineers that I was good at my job initially. Since it was an early-stage company, I was lucky to learn a lot on the job. I was responsible to launch websites for their different markets. Within six months, I had launched 20 websites. The team was super supportive in helping me learn. Although I stayed there only for a year and six months, I learned a ton in this short amount of time and I became very good friends in the process with a number of colleagues. 

I then decided to start my career in Singapore where my husband worked. When I moved to Singapore seven years ago, the product community was quite small. That has led me to share more with people. A part of my personal mission is to support things like what you’re doing. I spend most of my time in in-person meetings, organizing meetups through ProductTank Singapore. With the current COVID situation we’ve gone digital. Here’s where I do light-weight mentoring. The deeper mentoring happens with my team at ZALORA.”

Why Zalora? How did you grow from leading Product Management to Chief Technical Officer? That is something else!

There was no guarantee that ZALORA would become this big or how long I would stay because startups go through a lot of ups and downs. Looking back, I had a steep learning curve. Year after year as the company was growing at a very fast pace, I was growing with it and learned so much from the tech team that surrounded me.

Product Managers are fully integrated with the engineering team. In fact, I used to report to the CTO before I became one. We have Engineering Leads who think very much like Product Managers and PMs who can go very technical. It’s blurry in the organization as it is a part of our culture. The environment is very important so that your learning doesn’t stagnate in your job. When you work for such a young company, a lot of challenges are thrown at you. You have to learn how to solve those over and over again. You set the benchmark for those who join you later and you build a company along the way. 

Firstly, it’s important to define the pace at which you want to learn and work.

Secondly, exceptional engineers make the time to teach and explain to non-technical colleagues. I am lucky to have had Senior Engineers and Directors break down a technical problem into a way I could grasp those. And they always respected me for bringing something to the table they couldn’t, like business savviness and product vision.

What were the challenges you faced in your career?

Okay. First is my professional challenge. The most frequently asked question to me is how hard is it to start out as a non-technical Product Manager. The main part of the PM’s job is to continuously acquire new skills and knowledge.

I tell people to not be threatened by the lack of experience in software development. Just identify subjects and start learning. 

Next is my personal challenge of switching industries. I find it hard to give advice on what to do to get into Product Management from a completely different industry. I was at the right place at the right time so I can’t generalize it. A lot of external factors are at play.

Learn to build or blog something about the industry. Even if it’s a mockup, just make it to demonstrate that you can build and manage a product. 

What would you call as your career missteps?

I have not always been very strategic about my career as I was driven mostly by passion and authenticity. Looking back, I switched companies a lot in the first few years of my professional life.

People say switching companies often looks bad on your CV so I was worried about that. Now, in retrospect, I am glad I did because I learned a lot about what I like and what I don’t like in different work environments. The problem is though that you don’t always get the chance to tell people the reason behind your story.

Some companies want to see a cookie cut CV. At the end of the day, taking those risks were important to me. I wanted to enjoy the work I do and not be stuck at a job because the company looks good on my CV.

Now in my role, I never reject candidates if I see that they changed positions a lot. I try to see what is the relevant experience that they can bring to the workplace. In our industry, change is rapid. Switching companies shouldn’t be shamed as some come around and go. Some might not be suited to our learning needs and so on. 

Okay, so what advice would you like to share with young women who want the best for their career, marital life, and motherhood?

One thing I did not do was to think bigger and broader about my career aspirations. I dreamed of being a CPO one day but because I don’t have a CS degree I never dreamt of being a CTO. When the promotion was being discussed, I really had to reflect on what it meant for me and I got a lot of encouragement from people around me to go for it.

Dream big – is what I would encourage everyone – and then see what happens. You can probably achieve more than you can imagine at this very moment.

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