May 4, 2022

Maintaining Work-Life Balance as a Product Manager With Megan Berry of Octane AI


In this episode of Product Chats we chat with Megan Berry, VP of Product at Octane AI. Megan has been working in product remotely for many years and has some great insights that can help product teams boost their remote work performance. We also dive into how remote work can actually challenge work-life balance and how you can overcome that.


 

Time Stamped Show Notes

Importance of customer success and product teams having an amazing relationship [03:14]

Communicating about tough product decisions [04:59]

Remote work tips for product managers [9:16]

Avoiding being a jerk in written communication [10:57]

Best practices for onboarding remote team members [13:34]

Maintaining work-life balance as a product manager [16:11]

Parental leave [19:14]

The importance of empathy [21:30]
 

 

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Transcript

Kayla: Thanks for tuning in to Product Chats. On today's episode, I talk with Megan Berry who's the VP of product at Octane AI, and we talk about work-life balance and remote work. So hope you enjoy the show and don't forget to leave us a review.

Kayla: Hey Megan. Thanks so much for coming on today.

Megan: Thanks for having me.

Kayla: Yeah.

Kayla: So in a minute or less, can you tell us about yourself?

Megan: Yeah. I'm VP Product at a company calledOctane AI. And before that I was VP Product at a company called Rebel Mouse. And I started my career earlier on focused on marketing and community management.

Megan: I live in Portland, Oregon, and I'm also, I'm a mom to one kid.

Kayla: Awesome. And then let's talk about kind of how you started in product, right? Like what that journey looked like.

Megan: Yeah, well, I actually, I started out my career doing community management and I got really good at listening to customers, listening, you know, building community and understanding the power of it.

Megan: And I think where it took me is I wanted to act on that. So it's like, oh, people really want this. Or there's this like underlying desire. And I really wanted to like get on the other side of things and I sort of slowly made my way there with sort of leveraging that knowledge of the customer I had. So I still approach product with a very customer first approach, which of course is very in vogue.

Kayla: Yes. And with that, let's talk a little bit more about like how you actually do that. Obviously you started out listening to your customers and now you're listening to customers. So let's talk about how you do that today and what that involves.

Megan: Oh, gosh, so many ways. So Octane AI I we're zero party data marketing platform for Shopify merchants.

Megan: So our customers are Shopify merchants, which are just really awesome businesses of all sizes, lots of small businesses, medium businesses. And I love getting on calls with our customers and hearing directly from them what they need, but we also, we have account management and sales and an amazing customer success team.

Megan: So it's about keeping in touch with those teams as well as making sure me and the other people on my product team are getting on calls with customers directly. So it's a lot of things for sure, but I think it's incredibly important.

Kayla: And so with that, right, you mentioned sales and success and support.

Kayla: What are some ways that you like to work kind of collaboratively to make sure, I know all these different, like parts of a company are so important to building a product. How do you make sure you work best with those teams?

Megan: Yeah, I think you have to get to know, especially like Octane AI as a startup so we're, you know, on the smaller side.

Megan: And so you're talking about a handful of people on each team. And so with, with that size of company, you really want something that works for those people on those teams. And so for us, what we do is we have monthly syncs with each department. So we have a monthly AM product sync, a monthly sales product sync, et cetera.

Megan: But customer success at Octane AI right now actually reports up into product. So we're very closely linked and are part of the same team. So that's a little unusual as well.

Kayla: So with that, I think you bring up a great point right around the structure of teams and the structuring. So can you tell us a bit more about why you put that team under product and how that really helps you like grow as a company?

Megan: Good question. I don't think it's necessary. Like obviously even most places, customer success doesn't report into product. And I think that we could, you know, as we get larger, it's possible that that could shift at some point. So I don't think it necessary, but what I do think if necessary is that customer success and product have to have an amazing relationship because that is such valuable feedback you're getting directly from customers.

Megan: And you want to make sure that like, in some places it can almost be antagonistic like, oh, stop, stop bugging me about that bug. And that's not going to make a product better. You need to make sure that you're, it's very clear. You're on the same team to help customers as much as possible.

Kayla: And I think with that also, right, like it's all about the customer at the end of the day. And you can see that tension at a lot of companies because different teams or like a sales team or success or support, right, is saying, hey, I need this feature. I need you to build this out and product saying, wait, that doesn't actually align with our company goals or, hey, we have these other priorities.

Kayla: And so I think exactly what you're saying. It's so important to have that alignment around, hey, we're all working for the same goal. It's just, we may need to prioritize things differently than you see. Like that's I think a big piece of product is we see this bigger picture. Like I'm in sales, so I say, oh, I need this to close this deal, right?

Kayla: And I may be missing that piece of, hey, this isn't affecting that many customers or what is their, why? Why do they need this?

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. I think like a big thing we try to do and is so important to have good relationships with other teams is present like the tough decisions as well. Like we really want to build this, but we have to give up this.

Megan: Cause I think that's when people can really understand why product is making those decisions. Because of course we'd all love to build everything. It just isn't possible.

Kayla: Yes. And I think with that, right, it's you bring up a great point around communication. Around, hey, we need to communicate. And I think this is also with customers about setting expectations and we may not always build this thing out, but we will communicate to you about our strategic, vision or where we're going so you at least can understand.

Kayla: And I think that gets to the point of the human connection of product of like, hey, we're going to communicate with you. You may not always get what you want but we're listening to you. And we care about you.

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. It's so important to me like internally and then of course with customers as well as an organization, but internally that product answer every question that the team has. Sometimes product in certain companies can be a little more hands-off, and obviously it depends on the size of the team, but I want us to be very responsive.

Megan: So if we can't do something, I try to always have us explain why and build that sort of empathy in other departments for why we're making a certain decision, as opposed to like, oh, they just said no.

Kayla: Yes. And I think that's important for both internal and external stakeholders, right? Internal are your success, your sales, your support, your C-suite, right?

Kayla: And then your external are your customers. And I think it's just that piece, like you mentioned, right? Like the human aspect of like empathy and understanding. Yes. We understand what you need. It may not be what we're building out, but we understand you.

Megan: Absolutely.

Kayla: Yeah. So let's kind of pivot a bit and let's talk about remote work.

Megan: Awesome.

Kayla: So on that subject, I know that you've been like remote work is this hot topic. A lot of people kind of have transitioned recently ever since the pandemic happened, but I know you've been basically doing remote work for 10 years. So tell us a little bit about that.

Megan: Yeah. It used to be like a hard sell, like people would always, when I said I was working remotely or with remote teams, people would be like, oh, how does that work?

Megan: Like, how do you get work done? Like, what if you need to, what if you need to talk to someone? What do you do?

Megan: And now of course, everyone, almost everyone, like everyone in tech certainly has experienced it for at least a year and a half, you know, often more. And they understand , actually it works pretty well because you know what most people need to do good work?

Megan: Focused time in an ideal environment. And you can set that up for yourself at home in a way that the office doesn't always lend itself to. I personally, and I've heard this story from many other people. I don't work best in an open office. It's distracting and I can't focus and I work better in a quiet environment.

Kayla: I used to go into work every single day. And as soon as remote work started to happen I was very hesitant. I thought, oh, well, I'm going to miss this human aspect. And I think through tools like Slack and Zoom and other tools, you still have the ability to connect with your team. Yes. You're not in person, but it's just about saying, hey, let's set some time on the calendar.

Kayla: Hey, do you have five minutes? And really connecting with those people to say let's actually set some time aside to connect.

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. I think remote work lends itself really well to having a lot of structure around how you connect. And I think truthfully, a lot of in-person environments could have benefited from that structure, but you can get around it when you're in person. But remote work forces people to have that sense of like, okay, we need that weekly one-to-one. We need monthly like fun chats or like, whatever it is that the team needs.

Megan: And it will vary for team, but like thinking about it and really being thoughtful about what you're doing makes any team better in person or remote.

Kayla: Yeah.

Kayla: And I think with that also, like you bring up a great point of like, be intentional, right?

Kayla: Like there, I would say a lot of times companies will just have all of these meetings cause everyone was in the office. So it was, hey, let's get everyone together.

Kayla: And I think it allows people to put more intention behind meetings.

Kayla: So I want to talk about like, because you've been doing remote work for so long, what are some of your like tips and tricks around remote work?

Megan: Okay. I do have a bunch. All right. I'll try. I'll try to give you like a quick run through here.

Megan: So, okay. One, clear ownership is really, really important. So again, I think also true in office, but you can get away with it more. If you don't know who's running with something, it will get left behind. So clear ownership and clear next steps.

Megan: Sharing the why behind what you're doing and sharing assumptions. Too often, in like remote environments, we don't get that visual cue of like the other person looking like confused, or like, maybe they're more hesitant to ask that question because they have to write it out. And so make sure you're sharing as much as possible, why you're doing something. So the other person can really participate in the whole mission and the whole thought.

Megan: I'm a big believer also in embracing async in remote work. It doesn't always have to be a meeting.

Megan: Meetings often suck.

Megan: And so they can be good, but question every meeting you have to make sure it's really necessary to be a meeting, because I think we've all been there where a meeting was actually should have been an email, right?

Megan: And it's like, someone's just like, here's my presentation. And I'm going to update you all. And there's no discussion and it really didn't need to happen at that specific time.

Megan: So I think remote work is perfectly set up for async. So that's huge.

Megan: And then with that, async comes all these pieces around how not to be a jerk in written communication, which I think probably all gotten better at, but watch your tone. Think about using emojis and gifs. Even if they feel silly, they can really help when you're writing things down.

Megan: And if you're going to veer towards negativity, do it one-to-one and consider doing it in a call instead of written.

Kayla: I think those are some great like tips and tricks. I think also the piece, right, is you mentioned the piece around being clear about like the thought process and running for it. And I think on the other side, it also allows people to take responsibility for their own communication and speak up.

Kayla: Or maybe they didn't feel comfortable speaking up in an in-person meeting, right? And they said, oh, you know what, hey, I'm struggling with this.

Kayla: So I think it's, it's on both sides, right? Be very open and clear about what you're doing and, and offering help. I think that's especially something as a leader, right?

Kayla: Hey, here's what we're doing. Here's the vision. I'm here to be a resource, but also like giving your team the space to say, hey, I don't know how to do this. Or I'm very confused. And having that, creating that environment so that people can say like, hey, I don't know, actually, can you help me?

Megan: Yeah. That's something I think about as I onboard people, like I have like an onboarding, like, like Google doc that I give out that has sort of like, you know, different things about onboarding and like first month priorities and things like that.

Megan: But one of the things that's very central there is please ask questions. There are no dumb questions. Like, please question what we're doing. It's probably not like, I think there's a temptation sometimes when you start somewhere to be like, oh, they must be doing this for a good reason. And that's not always true.

Megan: So I really encourage people to question their assumptions they're making as they join and like, bring that fresh perspective and then hopefully continue that throughout the relationship. I really try and I'm sure I'm not perfect at it, but I really try to make sure when people do question thinking and bring up questions that I respond to that really positively so they continue to do it.

Kayla: Yep. I think that's the only way to get better is to create that safe space around, hey, question this right. We want this. Speak up. If you don't understand this, and then it also creates better relationships because someone understands the reasoning and they're like, oh, this makes sense, right? Or I don't get this. And let's actually, maybe there's a different solution, right?

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. Some of the best solutions that you know, have happened in my career were from that, right? I was in this, you know, in this space and imagining this thing. And then the other person was somewhere completely different.

Megan: We talked about the end goal and they suggested something that was way better than my idea. And that's where the magic happens.

Kayla: Then you talked about onboarding and let's touch a little bit on that, and some best practices that you kind of use when you're onboarding, especially since it's remote, like what are some best practices you follow?

Kayla: Obviously you said, like creating comfortable space, allowing people to ask questions and challenge ideas, but what else are things that you include in your onboarding for new team members?

Megan: Yeah, totally. I think it does vary by department, but talking about product specifically, it's about a balance between making sure people have as much information as possible, but also giving them the space to deal with that.

Megan: And so I try to set up, usually at least the first week, like a daily meeting and a check-in of what are you supposed to be checking in on? Where are you supposed to be learning? And making sure I'm available for questions. But I also encourage them to look through the available documentation we have to set up one to ones with all the key stakeholders, like as soon as possible.

Megan: I want them to feel like when they have a question, they know how to go about answering it and beyond just asking me. But of course I encourage them to ask me if they can't figure it out.

Kayla: So I think you also bring a great point, which is something that's super important as a product manager, is being resourceful. And it's not just always say, and this is something I've struggled with in my career, not always going to the person to say, hey, how do I do this? It's hey, here's the resources. Let me actually think on bigger picture. Do I actually need to go to Megan?

Kayla: Or do I need to go to this document or maybe there's other team members that have experienced with this? And I think that's something also that's that I've seen work really well with teams is, hey, when you come on board, some teams will have like a lunch where it's, every time they have very virtual lunch where a new team member comes on and they all talk and it creates kind of this team environment to allow people to get to know people a little bit better and what they do. And then, hey, maybe I have a question about, let's say APIs or whatever it is, someone specialized in that. Okay, let me reach out to that person versus going straight to Megan and asking her about that.

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. I think it makes a big difference if you've had a casual conversation with someone before you need like an actual answer from them. So that's why it's like for product managers. And I think it could be a group call. I think that works also for depending on company size, one to ones, but something where you've had that casual chat.

Megan: What did they do? What do they care about? What do they care about outside of work too? Then when you have a question for them, you already have that relationship built in and you can capitalize on it.

Kayla: So on the subject of remote work, I think there's a big concept around this of work-life balance. So let's talk a little bit about that.

Megan: Yeah. I think remote work can be incredible for work-life balance because you're in the space you want to be. You don't have to be in a certain location. You don't have to be like you can, you know, pick up your kids from school or you can go to the gym and it doesn't necessarily need to be before or after work.

Megan: It can be at the time that makes sense for that, but it also, if you don't structure, your day can be a disaster. It can lead to huge burnout. And I know in the pandemic that's been a real issue for people because you know, now things are a little different, but especially like getting out of the pandemic, a lot of people didn't have a lot else to do.

Megan: And so work became the thing they threw themselves into and then they got burned out because they weren't doing anything else. So I think as a remote worker, you have to set those boundaries for yourself and they could be different based on who you are. Some people like to set clear hours. Some people like to have like spaces and breaks throughout the day.

Megan: It's what's important is that it works for you and that you're productive.

Kayla: Yep. And out of curiosity, since you've been remote from 10 years, obviously, I think you bring up a great point about do what's best for you. I think in most, in all cases, it's about that. Right? Do what's best for you. What's going to give you the best work-life balance. But what have you found works best for you in terms of structure and like the way you meet with your team and, I know we're online a lot of times, so how do you kind of set those boundaries and make sure you have this balance?

Megan: Yeah. Great question. And you know, for me it has evolved. So like earlier in remote work, I did more of that sort of like work life integration where I would like first thing, check work, then like, go to the gym.

Megan: I was living in New York at the time. I was really the Soul Cycle. So I would go to Soul Cycle, come back shower, then do more work. Then maybe like take a walk in the afternoon. And like, there was like lots of periods in the day where I was working, but I was also taking breaks. So it was, there was the last definition.

Megan: But it worked and I liked it, but now I have a kid. And so now I've found that setting more boundaries around my hours works better for me because I need childcare when I'm working. And when I don't have childcare, I want to pay attention to my kid.

Kayla: So I think with that, right, it's just especially for like, and I think this is women in tech, there's a lot of moms in tech. There's a lot of dads in tech. And so it gives also new parents, the ability to spend more time with their kids. Because if you had been commuting into an office that may have been, I mean when I was commuting, I think it was just 15 minutes, but still, that would be in your case, who knows how long your commute was, but that could be an additional for a lot of people they were commuting like an hour, and that would be two extra hours in your day that you wouldn't be able to spend time with your kid.

Megan: Yeah, exactly. Spend more time with the people you want to spend time with, not just the people you happen to work with. Like it, of course it's better, right?

Kayla: Yes. And I think with that, like that's a great piece of advice is spending more time with the people that you love, right.

Kayla: And the people, your family, obviously you're doing this work and finding what works for you and finding that like balance, but on the subject of work-life balance, let's talk a little bit about parental leave.

Megan: Yeah. So this is something that I'm really passionate about. There's kind of two pieces to it.

Megan: Like obviously I think companies should have parental leave. It should be good. What does good mean is a big question, but the second piece of it for me is I really think parental leave should be equal for all parents. And I'm saying that even though I am a mom, I don't think, I don't like policies where the primary parent gets more time because my husband is not a secondary parent to my child.

Megan: We are both parents and I think it's important that someone of any gender who is having a kid, have the opportunity to bond with that kid and to spend that time and not to make some people feel like they're not as important as parents. And, parents need that time to bond with a newborn.

Megan: And also just to survive. It's a hard time. You're not getting much sleep. You're going to be more productive if you have the time off, rather than trying to jump back into work.

Kayla: Yeah. And I think that's, you bring up a great point with that, right? Like in this day, it used to be that moms would stay home.

Kayla: Right. And that's probably the reason why it came up that way is because moms would stay at home, right? And so now there's, I've seen a shift. I know it's not equal at all companies, but have seen a shift where they're becoming more equal in parental leave for both like moms and dads.

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, there, as we move towards less sexism in work and in the world, hopefully, there are things that need to get better for women, but they're also things that need to get better for men.

Megan: They should also be part of taking care of a kid, have the time off to be home with that kid. And also then from a company perspective, it's an important shift because you don't want companies to have these incentives that like, oh, well, If we have more men, they don't need as much parental leave. And it's like, there's all this stuff behind the scenes.

Megan: No, everyone who has a kid is a parent. No matter their gender or whether they were pregnant and they should have time off to bond with that kid.

Kayla: Agreed.

Kayla: So on that note, I want to pivot a bit and what's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring product leader?

Megan: Yeah, I would say, make sure you are thinking about empathy above all, as you're dealing with your team, your customers, other departments in the company.

Megan: If you're understanding where they're coming from, you're going to be more effective at motivating, which is such an important part of being a product leader. You have to motivate a lot of people in departments who you don't have direct responsibility over. So I think empathy would be my top piece of advice.

Kayla: Great. And then are you hiring currently?

Megan: Yes, we are hiring for a couple roles right now and you can look them upat octaneai.com. We are not hiring on the product side, but other sides.

Kayla: Perfect. And then where can people find you?

Megan: You can find me on Twitter. My handle is @meganberry.

Kayla: Perfect. Well, thanks for coming on today.

Megan: Thanks so much for having me.

Kayla: Thanks again to Megan for joining us on today's episode of Product Chats. For more product management resources, head to canny.io/blog and we'll see you next time.