Christine Kucik, our Director of Product, shares her career highlights and philosophy of success as a leader in technology and web development.
What career or life “curveball” did you experience that helped you get where you are?
Career changes are very stressful, even if they are self-initiated. For me, the biggest curveball in my professional life was an involuntary career change (i.e., layoff). I wasn’t prepared for it, although I did have about 24 hours’ notice that “something” was coming the following Monday morning. Regardless, it was a shock to the system.
However, what I quickly realized was that it truly was an opportunity for me to evaluate what made me happy and what type of role and company I would enjoy being a part of. That led me, oddly enough, to AppointmentPlus, through a networking referral.
I’ve worked in both big and micro-small companies in my career. What I’ve learned from those career opportunities is that I like to be part of a smaller organization where I can have an impact on both the customers and my coworkers. Being able to intimately direct the path of the product and, in large part, the business itself, is very satisfying.
I know that what I’m doing now is not only helping our customers, but actually helping our employees to be successful both personally and professionally. I now know that I enjoy working for a mid-sized business that has an unlimited market to tap into. Shaping this corner of the software industry is very compelling.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
A typical day for me is usually pretty scheduled. Between meetings (scheduled by other people) and “drive-by” conversations, there is a lot of movement to my day. No day is exactly the same as the one before or after it.
On an average day, I like to go through my email inbox each morning. Clean out old emails that I completed or replied to, and keep my inbox as small as possible. Actionable items stay there, while everything else gets filed away.
I try to block time on my calendar each day for focused work — that may be time I devote to specific projects, or to maintenance-type efforts (like backlog grooming). I set it up as a recurring meeting, so that time isn’t available for others to schedule meetings.
I also try to prioritize efforts for the day, but I know I have to be flexible to adjust to the ebbs and flows of the company around me.
If I have a deliverable to complete, I plug in my headset, turn on some music, and drown out the background noise.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I enjoy the creativity of product management because I can define how something should work and, in some cases, design what it will look and behave like (with the help of talented graphic designers).
The definition usually begins with a general concept, and then I start to define the “box” the feature will play within. From there, I work top-down from a user flow or behavior model.
It may not be the best approach for all, but it has been successful for me to really understand the nuances. (Keep in mind, the larger the feature, the more user flows probably exists, so this can get pretty complex.)
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The trend that is exciting to me is how the customer experience is morphing into a more holistic concept beyond just the software application. Experience is so much more than just the tools and features we develop. It is the way in which our prospects and clients engage and interact with the people behind the software.
From the sales process, onboarding, and implementation, to support and maintenance, our clients want to feel taken care of and that they matter to us; they don’t want to be just another number. I feel like this is something our business models really well.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?
Keeping a firm hold on my email inbox. I try not to have more than 100 individual emails in my inbox. If I do, it’s too bloated. What stays in my inbox are emails for which I have to do something. Once I’m finished with it, it’s gone: either deleted or filed away in an archive.
Once a month, I look at the oldest emails and decide if they need to stay in my inbox, or if I can move them someplace else.
What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
In college, I worked part-time at a counter restaurant in a hospital. I was both waitress and food preparer/cook, and sometimes even the cashier.
While not horrible as far as college jobs go, it taught me that everyone has good and bad days (and in a hospital, you see way more bad than good). Being kind is oftentimes the best gift you can give to other people. You never know what they were just dealing with — and that included the doctors and nurses that would come pick up their lunch, or pie.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Honestly, nothing. My path to the product role started almost by accident. I was a lead administrator for an LMS, and started to see areas for improvement in the functionality and features. I began by helping to triage bugs with our QA team and then shadowed another product manager. I quickly became excited by the idea of a position that was creative in the definition of how something worked. Over time, I have also been fortunate to work with talented graphic designers from whom I’ve learned a few tricks.
It truly is a great role for me because I like the dynamic nature of managing and positioning software or websites for the future.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over, and recommend others?
Don’t stop learning. While I, admittedly, don’t focus on learning as much as other people, or do it as consistently, I know I have to stay abreast of industry changes. There is much I still need to learn on the networking side of software, but every day I find and learn something new — large or small — that helps me fulfill my projects and responsibilities that much better. Stay intrigued by new things.
What is one thing that has helped you grow in your role? Please explain how.
Having a good mentor in both my job role and as a manager has been essential to my career growth. Tapping into the expertise of others that have been there before me helps me avoid some of the mistakes they made, and navigate changes in the business or within my team more effectively. Whether the mentor is my direct supervisor (I have had a few great ones) or more of a peer/coworker, I find value in the experience and influence of other executives.
What is the best $100 you recently spent (personal or professional)? What and why?
Professionally, The Disney Way management book series and workbooks. They were recommended by a mentor, and have provided great insight into leading successful, collaborative, and productive teams. I’ve found good ideas for cross-departmental interactions that have yielded some good results in terms of facilitating teamwork, transparency in communication, and openness to new ideas.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
SnagIt: It is like the poor-man’s Adobe Photoshop®. I can do a lot with that tool to articulate visual changes or new interfaces to development teams. While I don’t create pixel-perfect images, the tools available in that application provide just enough design flexibility for me to develop what I need for the development team to be able to create the interface through code.
Axure: I’ve used this application in the past to create some working click-through prototypes. While I wish I’d had an opportunity to use it more often, it offered me a quick tool to concept an interaction for website users. It worked well for getting a team of developers talking about a solution, which was the intent at the time.
MindMeister: A mind-mapping tool is helpful for brainstorming. I’ve used this particular one sporadically, and like the fact that it’s free for up to three active maps.
What is the one book you recommend our community read, and why?
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is a good book for almost any businessperson to read. While positioned as a marketing book, it provides food for thought when it comes to identifying your company’s business segment or industry based on the existing categories of competition.
One of the most valuable ideas I took from this book is the Law of Line Extension. This law states that, while your product may lead in one category, it doesn’t mean that an offshoot or slight tweak to your strongest product will equal similar outcomes in an alternative product. (Think Crystal Pepsi versus Pepsi. Can you still buy Crystal Pepsi? It may not be wise to go after a slightly different category if there isn’t market demand for it.)
Who has influenced your thinking, and might be of interest to others to learn about?
I don’t know if I can truly cite one person. Everyone in my career has influenced me in one way or another. This includes friends, family, coworkers, conference speakers, and both fiction and non-fiction authors.
Some of the most truly fascinating people I’ve had the opportunity to interact with are people that strike out on their own, move away from all they know and love, and try something new. I think this is the most influential action a person can take in my sphere. It is more of an action than them being a famous or infamous person.
What is one failure you had in your career, and how did you overcome it?
In a previous role, the team I worked with was executing on a large, web-based financial modeling tool for prospective students of a large university. There were many different departments involved, including the business stakeholder, who also served as the project’s SME.
While the solution was deployed and met a variety of requirements, the partnership of the functional team (business SME, product, development, and project) wasn’t successful. In our retrospective for the project, one of the key elements of the project’s execution that received the most discussion was the fact that the group was not set up to collaborate effectively.
I learned from this experience that, as a product manager, you need to be open to the suggestions and expertise of the SMEs from all groups, and foster an air of collaboration to minimize the conflicts and tension between the various teams. Specifically, involving developers in the refinement of requirements is critical to their buy-in and to their delivering the final product.
What is one little “trick” you figured out early in your career that helped propel you forward?
In the world of product management, you are not your users. It is critical that you do not assume to be your target audience. Therefore, you have to validate all ideas and concepts with a focus group of users that align to one or more of the user personas for your product.
One quote that resonates with me from my product management certification from the Pragmatic Marketing organization is, “Your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant.” Keeping this idea foremost in your mind when you are working on feature ideas, roadmaps, and requirements documents will drive you to seek clarification and, more importantly, confirmation that what you think your users need is what they actually need.