There is the myth that “technical” things are “really complicated.” I like this perception is what keeps people who don’t have traditional STEM training from entering product management roles. This becomes problematic because, at most companies, product roles are central to the trajectory of the business. If women aren’t finding themselves in these roles because they feel unqualified then they will lose out on having a seat at the table in the long-term.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Doina Harris.
Doina Harris is the Chief Product Officer of Simon Data, where she oversees product commercialization, market research, and finance. Throughout her impressive career in tech, Doina has brought a global perspective to organizational scaling and culture — notably, she has 8 years in various Strategy and Partnership leadership positions at Google, as well as AppNexus (now part of AT&T’s Xandr) where she most recently served as Head of Analytics and Finance. Doina received a BA in Economics from Harvard University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Myroad to tech included more than a little serendipity. When I was younger, I was passionate about animation and that passion is what initially lead me to coding. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the strongest coder, but I loved the work and the people. Still, when it came time to think seriously about a career I felt it was best to pursue different interests.
My first job after college was in finance and I worked on Wall Street before before getting my MBA. After that I joined McKinsey as an associate, which is where I discovered my other passion, business strategy. Initially I wanted to find a role in strategy with a CPG brand, but because of my background I was mostly being steered toward roles in M&A or finance. I was still hungry for a role that would let me be more myself.
I found that role when I was recruited to join Google. I fell in love with the pace of change that only exists at an innovative technology company, and I was able to rediscover my love of tech and coding in an environment where being a self-declared nerd is accepted and even encouraged.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting thing I’ve observed since joining Simon is how quickly the rest of the leadership team has embraced me and my role here. This amount of openness to a new exec is amazingly resheshing and, I think, really healthy. All three of the co-founders have asked me some version of the question; “Now that you are X days in, do you have any any early observations of what we do well and what we should do differently?” That enthusiasm for change and outsider perspective is really exciting.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our new office is located in a very secure building in the financial district and I have already lost my office key card multiple times. As someone who prides herself on being well organized, that has definitely been a humbling experience — I have been so laser focused on onboarding myself in my new role, learning the product, and meeting the people that everything else has slipped from my attention. It’s been a good lesson for me actually. While striving for perfection you cannot ignore the basics — like being able to get into the actual building. It has also produced a very amusing series emails featuring photos of me signing myself in at the front desk. They’re all in my inbox and they’ve given me a good laugh more than once.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Simon is at a really interesting size and stage. . We have a strong mix of talent, but we’re still at the stage where we can create new things together and see the impact of our work in a very hands-on way.
Traditional customer data engagement models have lost efficacy. Marketers are looking for solutions that will help them to better understand their customers, experiment with messaging, and provide a more adaptive customer experience without adding complexity. At Simon Data, we’re helping brands more powerful and meaningful interactions with customers. Marketers are our clients, but we’re also creating a more positive experience for end consumers by cutting down on the clutter of noise and unhelpful interactions that they have with brands.
I’m proud that Simon is at the forefront of this shift, and I am excited to join this team, where I can be myself — both assertive, and a bit nerdy with a sense of humor — and lend my strategic experience to further accelerate growth.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
No one really wants more email, or to be targeted with another meaningless ad. Many of the messages that show up in your inbox every day are examples of bad brand communication. They’re not productive for businesses and they’re also annoying for customers. Right now I’m working on developing the Simon Data product roadmap to actually help business build smarter and more meaningful connections with their customers. Being in a position to help businesses connect in a more authentic way with individuals is hugely exciting to me.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
We’ve made significant progress on this front, but to be frank, that progress is totally insufficient. We’re still not encouraging enough women, especially young women, to pursue STEM subjects. Given the growing role of technology in all sectors and business functions, this opportunity gap is only going to widen if it’s not addressed. There is plenty of market data out there that shows how few women are at the C-level, let along CTOs or CPOs and that number won’t climb if those jobs increasingly demand STEM skills that women aren’t acquiring in large numbers.
We need to do more than make STEM subjects approachable to young girls and have programs that are focused on doing that. Being part of a tribe, or a community really matters to people, not just girls. If you’re the only girl in your coding class, you will not feel comfortable. You might not take the second coding class. The same can be true if you’re the only woman in a leadership position in your organization.
In my opinion, the progress of women in STEM fields is very much like dancing the Tango. Every time we take two steps forward, we take one step back. This progress is further complicated when you get to the C-level. In senior leadership gender representation seems to be moving backwards in some cases.
There’s been a lot of talk about mentorship as a solution for these problems, but I think something more directed is called for here, which is sponsorship. I have been lucky to have some amazing sponsors during my career who did not just mentor me but advocated for me and took a risk on me.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
It’s subtle, but I think one of the biggest challenges women in tech face is what I call “the pause.” There’s almost always a moment when you’re being introduced to a new business contact for the first time and they pause for a moment. Not for long, usually just for a millisecond, but you know in that moment that they’re processing the fact that you’re not who they expected. That pause gets more common as you move into more senior roles. When most men visualize a chief product officer at an innovative technology company, they’re not picturing someone who looks like me.
I recall one time, on a yacht in Cannes, my colleague introduced me as his boss to group of other industry professionals. They were all so similar to him–tall, white men. I was reconciling how I look, because the others physically needed to look down at me. And not in a condescending or questioning way, but I’m short, I have an accent, I do not look like a stereotypical business executive at Cannes.
At this stage in my career, I enjoy the pause. That millisecond of surprise is fun for me. But earlier on in my professional life it was daunting. I imagine it still is, for other women growing their careers in tech. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to fit in, rather than use what is unique about you as a competitive edge.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
There is the myth that “technical” things are “really complicated.” I like this perception is what keeps people who don’t have traditional STEM training from entering product management roles. This becomes problematic because, at most companies, product roles are central to the trajectory of the business. If women aren’t finding themselves in these roles because they feel unqualified then they will lose out on having a seat at the table in the long-term. If you apply yourself to the work, it’s completely possible to be successful in these roles even if you haven’t had a traditional STEM education. Very few things are truly “rocket science.”
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Jump in — I’m in total agreement when Sheryl Sandberg advises women to “take a seat at the table.” Don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity that you want. Raise your hand and raise it fast
- Put self-doubt in box — This is the only way to grab opportunities and lean into them. It’s natural to be unsure if you’ll be successful, and it’s important to have a personal support network (family, friends) to share that feeling with. But keep it compartmentalized from your work
- Be mindful of influence and power dynamics — Recognize the people and functional areas that are shaping the direction of the business.
- Find your sponsor — Unlike a mentorship where someone is offering sage counsel and direction, you want to identify and work with someone senior in your company who is willing to invest in you. Once you reach a senior role, look for someone you can sponsor yourself.
- Find your balance — While not possible at all times, I always recommend leaning into situations, roles, and companies that enable you to keep your balance and be happy
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
There was a time in my career when I was very reluctant to share personal things with my colleagues. The feedback I received during that time was that I was being perceived as intense and aloof. That feedback has stayed with me over the years because it’s so at odds with how I see myself. The most effective leaders I know are very personable and I want to embody that quality myself.
There’s a lot of power in authenticity. Feeling comfortable being your authentic self is empowering in any situation, and particularly so when you’re managing a team. When you bring your total self to work, it allows people to understand what makes you tick the things that you’re passionate about. People warm up to people that they can connect with on that level and they’re more willing to share similar insights into their own character. It makes for a stronger, more cohesive team, and it builds trust and confidence.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
When you’re dealing with a large team, the way you communicate is synonymous with who you are and how your leadership style is perceived. It’s easy to have a personal connection when you’re working with a team of 30 or fewer people, but for larger teams, it can become more challenging. In this scenario, communication is paramount. Everyone likes to think that they do it well, but there’s always room for improvement. Focus on consistently sharing a vision, cross-collaborating, and sharing progress to ensure that everyone involved is updated every step of the way.
I’m also a big believer in radical candor. It can create a certain amount of discomfort, but the tradeoff is worth it. It’s easy to avoid difficult conversations, but if you’re having a disagreement, or challenging some aspect of the status quo for the good of the business, it’s worth vocalizing. You can be honest and still be respectful. In the long run that builds trust.
It’s a little martial, but I think you can map every style of leadership back to a medieval battle. Are you the kind of leader who’s positioned behind your troops using maps and signals to command the army, or are you leading the charge from the front line? I’ve worked with both types, but personally, I’d rather be the kind of leader that charges in the middle of the pack. I want to be with my team, not ahead of or behind them. All approaches are effective, but it’s important to recognize what kind of a leadership structure works best for you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been lucky enough to have a few people in my life who were essential to my success at different periods in my career. During my time at AppNexus and Google, I worked with leaders who were not anchored by gender-bias and were able to see me for my abilities and my contribution to the team. This allowed me to build my career without having to manage a set of gendered expectations.
There’s a lot of market research out there that spotlights how being a minority in a group setting impacts your willingness to take risks. People are less likely to speak up and advocate for something that may not be the status quo when they’re the only person like themselves in the room. I don’t fit the profile of the typical tech company executive, but thanks to the leaders I had early in my career, I never felt the need to hold back. Thanks to these earlier sponsors I’ve been able to grow my career based on the merit of my experience and value.
I also am amazingly lucky to have a partner who has valued my career on equal terms with his own. At home we work operate as co-founders of Harris & Co, and we’ve managed to juggle both our intense careers and most importantly being a good Mummy and Daddy to two wonderful children.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have tried to consistently sponsor diversity, not just gender diversity but cultural and personal diversity. I really hope that I have had a positive impact on numerous careers — time will tell.
If you could inspire a movement] that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think the most powerful think we can do for people is to rethink the way they’re valued. In business, but also in life, we should value people for their potential and the things they could do rather than the things they’ve already done. There’s a tendency in our society to overemphasize history, resume, and looks and this tendency causes us to waste tremendous potential. I’m not sure what form this movement like this would take, but I think it would have to start with bringing greater equality to educational opportunities. Everyone should have as many opportunities as possible to harness their potential.
To take it a step further I think we need a movement that supports people who take risks to realize their potential. Especially those people, like women, who haven’t traditionally had that kind of support. The kind of career sponsorship I spoke of earlier is only one piece of the puzzle. I also think we need more women building businesses, receiving funding, and moving into leadership roles where they can keep companies accountable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favourite quote comes from my childhood. Every time I had a setback — or simply fell off my bike — my grandfather would tell me “It’s not about how bad the fall is, it is about how you recover”. When I was young, I used to think that this was a widespread Romanian saying. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that it was his own piece of wisdom. I still value it now. I had plenty of failures and failed attempts in my career and what I what I learned from them and the ways I applied that knowledge later has had far more impact on my life than any single failure.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I find it so hard to choose one, so I am going to cheat. If you are asking me about a living person that II would just love to meet, then my answer is Jennifer Lee. As mentioned before, I wanted to go into animation when I was young (I still want to direct an animated short at some point when I retire from tech). Not only did she direct two of the biggest animated movies in the last decade, but she is also the Creative Director of Disney Animation. I would love to understand her creative process and how she balanced that with her career as a studio executive. If I’m allowed to stretch the bounds of history a bit, I would probably choose Marie Curie. If you read any of her biographies, what stands out is the sheer perseverance she applied to reach her north star and learning how she cultivated that focus would be humbling and incredibly valuable.