Lessons learned on a journey from schoolteacher to Head of Product
Most of the people that listen to this podcast have been in product management for several years. Many of them are in leadership roles, such as Product VPs, CPOs, and Heads of Innovation. But many others listen as well. Some are new in their product management careers, and others listen to this podcast because they are considering a career in product.
All of us have different paths to our roles, and I love hearing about people’s paths and what attracted them to product management, especially when the path is uncommon. In this episode, we are going to hear about Bella Renney’s path and what she learned along the way that helped her become Head of Product at Tray.io, her current role.
Bella is a former secondary schoolteacher with a bachelor’s degree in geography. After teaching she moved to product roles. Now at Tray.io, she believes embedded integrations may be the relief product teams sorely need. She is leading product and engineering teams to develop a platform for embedded integrations that quickly connect various software applications.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[3:02] When did your interest in product work begin?
I was always interested in people, how they use tools, and the problems being solved by businesses. When I was in education, I thought about how we could educate better. How can we empower students, teachers, and parents? It was scary how little we were utilizing great technology to solve challenges in education. I wondered what we could do to use technology better to share resources among teachers and bring students into the 21st century with skills like innovative thinking. That’s where my interest in product and technology and solving problems came from. I wanted to use technology to solve the problems I saw every day in teaching, but I couldn’t do that in the role I was in as a secondary school teacher. I moved away from the classroom into product technology.
I want to empower others to make things better. Rather than just using technology for technology’s sake, how could the right tools in the hands of the right people empower them? The right software in the hands of someone in an organization can add transformative change to their own role, their team, and their business.
[7:53] How did your desire to make things better turn into your first product role?
As lots of product people do, I thought I could do it all myself. I wanted to start my own business. I tried a few different avenues, and it lasted for a bit of time and taught me grit and resilience. That was exciting, but I decided I wanted a bit more skin in the game. That led me to take a job as a contractor with a few folks I knew who were launching a product software company called TableCrowd. They were pivoting from being a services company to a platform for running events. We had a bunch of tools people used to run events, and we wanted those tools to talk to each other to provide a seamless experience for people running and attending the events. I did market and competitor research and figured out the basic requirements for the product.
I moved to financial software company Bloomberg for a while, helping them with product for philanthropic endeavors. Then I landed firmly in the European car tech industry at a car buying marketplace where I stayed for three years. After that I went to Tray.io, where I am now.
[12:38] What skills help you be successful in product work in a variety of domains?
It’s important to have a blend of frameworks in your toolkit. Ask good questions of the folks you’re working with, who are more expert than you in their domain. Ask curious, open questions to get insightful qualitative data from customers, potential customers, and stakeholders. From teaching 11-18-year-olds, I had developed the muscle of how to talk to people, how to get things out of them they don’t want to say. That coaching habit helped me across the board to move swiftly, hit the ground running, and know everything I needed to add value to whatever group I was working with.
You need the ability to influence others. Leadership characteristics will serve you incredibly well. First, ask the right questions of the right people and build relationships. Second, know what to do with that information to move everybody forward. Know when to make decisions based on collective agreement and when to have a more dictatorial stance.
Ask yourself, do I have those leadership skills? If not, what do I need to do to grow them? Be confident you can use these skills in other places, in other domains or industries.
Moving to a new domain, I don’t bring the same assumptions everyone else in the industry has, which is really valuable as we’re trying to create new value for customers. However, it’s not easy to move to a new industry. It’s scary. I love the knowledge I have about the industry I’m in now, and I think it’s really valuable. The idea of taking all that accumulated knowledge about our customers and putting it aside to go somewhere new where I have nothing to bring to the table is daunting.
I have the energy to always want to learn more. Be hungry to learn what you don’t know. Be curious and ask good questions.
[20:37] Do you consider yourself more of a product person or an innovation person?
I would say I’m more of a product person, but there’s definitely overlap between product and innovation. I like to harness the people and processes in an organization to bring product thinking into innovation. I apply a product lens to a novel idea to determine how it adds huge value for our customers. It’s important to have a nice blend of both product and innovation, because sometimes you can get caught up in the product headspace thinking about the value and opportunity cost of the product and lose sight of why it’s exciting and where it could go in the future. Allow yourself to dream, hope, and think.
[23:18] What experiences prepared you to lead product at Tray.io?
One thing that has enabled me to lead product where I am is a lot of enthusiasm for our product and how cool it is. I’m infectiously excited about our product, what we do, and how much better we do it than others in the market. Through infecting other people with energy, motivation, and excitement, I allow people to see the bigger picture of what they’re doing. It puts me in a leadership role because I’m painting that vision of where we might go in the future in a way that allows people to get behind what we’re doing.
There’s a balance as a leader, because hard things are hard. Always focusing on how great the product is can lead you to miss that you’re having really hard challenges. It’s a balance between creating excitement about the future and empowering teams to solve immediate problems.
As a product leader, you have to find the people you can lean on when things are hard. Those people will help pull you through and make you feel like you’re part of a team as opposed to just on your own at the front. Build those relationships early so they’re in place when you need them.
Action Guide: Put the information Bella shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Learn more about Tray.io
“The definition of insanity is doing the same things again and again expecting different results.” – attributed to Albert Einstein
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.