Eisha Armstrong: Building a Community of Women in Product
I find myself yet again preparing for an interview on a subject about which I know nothing about, and I love it. (Any job where you’re always learning is the best job, right?) Five minutes on the phone with Eisha Armstrong, partner and co-founder of Vecteris, a startup product management consultancy, and I feel at ease. “When people talk about product management,” she tells me, “they talk about the intersection of technology, user experience, and business acumen.” But Armstrong and her triple-threat cohort of female founders believe there’s more to it than that. In a city bubbling over with potential and promise in the world of tech, this is a conversation that we should all be having.
This interview is sponsored by Vecteris. In the spirit of transparency, note that one of Vecteris’ founders, Judy Zitnik, is also a member of Women of Cincy’s editorial team.
Tell us about yourself.
So I grew up in Kansas and after college, I spent about 10 years on the east coast in Washington, D.C. and Boston. I spent that time working for an information services company that grew from 200 employees to 2,000.
Yeah. It was great. It was fun. I moved to Cincinnati in 2006 and continued to work for that company remotely until 2015. I worked at Scripps full time for three years helping them launch data analytics products, and then left earlier this year to start Vecteris.
Our products would’ve been more successful and we would’ve had better working experiences if we’d had more diversity on the teams that we were a part of.
I’m also a wife. My husband works at UC; he teaches at the College of Law. That’s actually what brought us to Cincinnati. I’m a mom to two boys who are 12 and 10.
So “for dummies,” what is Vecteris?
We provide end-to-end product management services from market research and customer understanding to design builds, prototypes, and go-to-market strategies.
Product management is kind of like classic brand management but for technology-enabled product. And so it really does have to start with, “What are the needs of your customers? What are the problems that they have? How can you design a technology-enabled product to meet those needs, and then how can you make sure it’s something that they will use?” When people talk about product management, they talk about the intersection of technology, user experience, and business acumen.
So Vecteris got its start earlier this year. How’s the journey been so far?
It’s been fantastic. I’m really enjoying doing this with two other women who I admire and respect. Our skill sets are very complementary to one another. We had one prospective client refer to us as a triple threat.
Can you give us a brief glimpse into the first conversations where Vecteris was born?
It was pretty casual. One of the partners and I, we were on a retreat in Utah, hiking and talking about the next stages of our career. I had already worked on one project with the other partner, but I felt like we needed to pivot direction, and we just started talking about what it would look like if the three of us worked together. It was very organic.
The research is very solid that teams that are diverse – in terms of gender, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of background – develop stronger innovation.
So we had this great idea, and then we spent the summer doing market research and really trying to narrow our service offerings.
What needs did you see that weren’t being met?
We see a need among companies in the $5 million to $250 million range who were not originally technology companies, but are going through some type of digital transformation to build product management competencies. So perhaps they’re creating new technology-enabled products, but they don’t have product management expertise in-house. Or, they started to create technology-enabled products and then realized that they need to improve their product management processes because they’re not as mature as they need to be.
We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring something like this to Cincinnati?”
In particular, we see the biggest need with business-to-business companies, especially around teaching them the importance of really understanding their consumer prior to designing and launching a product.
Why are you three the right people to do this work?
Judy [Zitnik]’s background coming out of Procter & Gamble is in the market research: understanding your customer; understanding customer needs.
My background was 20 years of product management experience for both software-as-a-service products and data-as-a-service products within the design build/prototype/working with developers/working with data scientists [areas].
And then Nicole [Merrill] brings a long work history of customer onboarding and customer success for software-as-a-service and data-as-a-service products, so she’s really strong on the go-to-market side. So that’s kind of the end-to-end value chain.
So when you ladies were having those early conversations, did you talk about trying to do this work differently than what you’re seeing elsewhere in the industry?
Absolutely, and that’s what brought us to one of the first things that we’re focusing on: bringing a Women in Product chapter to Cincinnati. All of us have worked in heavily male-dominated environments, and that was fine, but we think our products would’ve been more successful and we would’ve had better working experiences if we’d had more diversity on the teams that we were a part of. Nationally, they estimate that women make up about 35 percent of product managers, but most of that is concentrated in entry-level roles. At the director level, you have fewer and fewer women to look up to as role models.
You have to have a culture where everyone sees product management as part of their job.
You have to have a team that reflects the demographics of your customer base, but also, the research is very solid that teams that are diverse – in terms of gender, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of background – develop stronger innovation.
So where does Vecteris’ role fit into that conversation?
It’s certainly an area of growth for us. So we talk about product management as typically being referred to as the intersection of technology, user experience, and business acumen. We think there’s this fourth component, which is culture, and that means you have to have a culture where everyone sees product management as part of their job. Product management is not just one person, but it’s a competency that everyone in the organization should have at least a part of. It’s also a culture where diversity of thought and ideas is nurtured. So that’s where we see it coming into play: helping our clients not only developing that business acumen, technology understanding, and a strong grounding in user experience, but [encouraging] that they also have a culture that supports innovative product creation.
Tell me more about Women in Product.
Women in Product is a nonprofit organization that was started in Silicon Valley a few years ago to give women who are in product management roles a community and a place to find mentorship, to find direction, and to build skills. We went to the annual conference that was held out in San Francisco in September, and we loved the energy of the group. We loved being around other women who are in product management roles, seeing women who had ascended to the very highest levels of product management in their organization, who had found a way to be successful in technology, which is a very male-dominated field, and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring something like this to Cincinnati?”
And you three are now making that happen?
We gave a talk at ProductCamp a few weeks ago about what we learned at the Women in Product conference, and ended with an ask for people to raise their hands and say they’re interested in helping us bring a chapter here. We saw enough interest that we were able to apply to become a chapter. So we’re now in the stage of planning our first event and getting the group launched.
Why do you think Cincinnati needs a chapter?
Well, certainly we know that the technology sector, not only in Cincinnati, but in this region, is growing. Our region has attracted interest from venture capitalists because of the success that we’ve had with the startups that we’ve launched. Plus, quite frankly, it’s getting very expensive on the coasts for talent to live, and so they see this as a new place to cultivate tech talent and tech businesses.
So tell us what tomorrow’s event will be like. If it’s a success, what will that look like?
It’s going to be from 5 to 7 p.m. at 3 Points Brewery.
I think the first thing is a steering committee: people to provide leadership in planning future events. And companies who want to help sponsor us… Product management is at a premium right now in Cincinnati, so if there’s a company that’s recruiting for talent, sponsoring Women in Product would be a great recruiting opportunity for them as a way to build their brand in the employment market.
I’m curious how young women will fit into an organization like this, too.
Judy Zitnik: I’ll chime in here. I think we’re trying to play off what the national organization has done, but there’s skill building that’s going to be involved for different levels. It’s definitely a goal of ours just to have a space for women anywhere in their product management career to be able to come and network with other women and learn. “I want to grow into a role, and how do I do that?”
I know there’s a lot of product management talent among women here in Cincinnati, and we need to help them get more noticed and elevate their voices and all that stuff.
For me, in addition to being inspired by the conference, I keep paying attention to all the technology and entrepreneurship articles in Cincinnati that have been everywhere – about how in Cincinnati there’s all these top faces for technology innovation – and if you look at the pictures, the pictures are all men. I know there’s a lot of product management talent among women here in Cincinnati, and we need to help them get more noticed and elevate their voices and all that stuff.
If someone can’t make it tomorrow, how can they stay in the loop?
Fill out the survey on our website and we’ll add them to the list for future events.
What else do you ladies want people to know?
Judy: Going back to why we started, one of the things that became clear among the three of us was trying to create a place that we wish we would’ve had when we were starting our careers – for Women in Product and also for Vecteris. To create the kind of place where we would’ve wanted to work, where all voices are heard and all voices are important.
If you could snap your fingers and be five years down the road, what does success look like?
Judy: I think we’ve got a team of women that are working together. We have a diverse team that elevates all voices, and we’re giving people the opportunity to work in a flexible environment that meets their lifestyle but also meets their career goals. We work with people that are committed to investing in the community and making a better community. We’ve been very choiceful of saying we want to have clients that want to make a difference in the world. That can be making money, but it also means that you’re committed to who you hire, and just creating a workplace that people want to come to. We want to a part of that. We want to be employing people, but we also want to help lift up businesses in the area.
Has there been a moment in the journey so far where you just felt like, “Yes! I’m so glad we did this.”?
It’s almost every day. [Laughing.] I think we’re doing a couple things right. We’re addressing a big need in the marketplace. I think we are going in this heart first, which is, like Judy said, what is the work environment that we wish we would’ve had? How can we use this business to do good in the world? And we’re working with people that we really enjoy working with.
Thanks to Vecteris for their support of this month’s Women of Cincy! Be sure to check out Women in Product’s kickoff event tomorrow.