Be willing to make decisions as bets. You don’t have to be 100% sure about a specific direction, but not making a decision is more harmful than making the wrong one. To minimize risk, I write down all the facts I know and everything I’m not sure of. Then, I share this information with anyone working with me on the problem (usually in a Google doc where they can leave comments and suggestions). I’ve found that this generates collaborative thinking and shared accountability, but most importantly, this serves as important documentation to later understand why I made said decision.
As part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure to interview Karen Cohen. Karen is an Engineering Manager and Product Architect at Wix.com, where she designs and builds infrastructure and platform products. She enjoys the challenge of reconciling developer experience and operations, as well as the end users goal and experience. Karen has over 13 years working on a variety of multidisciplinary projects as a developer, product architect, manager and mentor. She believes in and practices leadership without authority, and helps people understand both the business context and the underlying architectural landscape. In her spare time, Karen regularly organizes and speaks at tech conferences, blogs, and takes an active part in Wix’s R&D events and branding. Karen holds a B.A.Sc. in Computer and Business from IDC Herzliya.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Both my parents are engineers, so I was very fortunate to have grown up having two exceptional role models, computers around the house and analytical thinking as a way of life. I remember when I was in the third grade, my older brother and his friend were talking about writing a computer game and I interrupted to discuss how they would get people to buy it.
I’ve always viewed software as a tool; it’s just one possible solution to a problem. As I moved between development, management and product, I’ve discovered that it’s defining and communicating the problem that’s the hardest and most interesting part.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Though it might not be as interesting to others, it was definitely transformative for me — ever since I started to lead my team, I became more self-aware of my role and how it impacts others. So my insecurities take a backseat, as you have to lead by example. By removing this barrier, I was able to reinforce my strengths and work through my weaknesses. It’s similar to raising a child — you automatically have short- and long-term objectives. Not only are you trying to keep your team happy but you’re also focusing on growing them, and making sure they are growing within the company. When you see your team flourishing you gain a massive level of confidence. It’s an amazing feeling.
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 team had been working hard on an integration between our system and another. We had been testing it for so long and at some point we got tired of sending “test test” so we started writing silly texts instead. Once everything clicked, an executive asked for a picture and a team member sent him a random one. None of us gave it too much thought. It was signed “team burning loins” and that executive noticed only after he published it and shared it with other executives. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased, and my team was viewed as childish (granted we were all between the ages of 18 and 21). It taught me an important lesson on internal vs external communication.
As a leader you want to be able to connect with your team on a personal level, encourage inside jokes and create a fun, healthy work environment that people want to show up for daily. However, when communicating upwards and outwards your team counts on you to represent them and their work with dignity and seriousness. When discussing your team’s accomplishments, leave the silliness behind.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Wix helps employees in a way I’ve never seen any other company do. From providing support for a family funeral to temporarily relocating employees and their families in the case of geographic turmoil, it goes above and beyond what I expect an employer to do.
As a manager at Wix, it means that I have more tools at my disposal. For example, one of my team members had a tough time dealing with stress at work and at home. After speaking with my HR business partner (HRBP) I asked for funding to send him to a few neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) sessions to help him develop solutions to manage his stress. My HRBP went the extra mile and helped him find a specialist in this area to provide a long-term solution.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I volunteer for Reversim Summit, a nonprofit tech conference, and we’re currently organizing our next event, which will be our biggest one yet. As part of this volunteer work, I take part in choosing the content and speakers, and then mentor them until they are ready to hit the stage. We spend time fine-tuning their messaging and working on their content delivery. This is especially important when dealing with first-time speakers or underrepresented people.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Start viewing accountability differently. You’ve probably gotten used to being the one doing the job, but now you are accountable in a different way. Your job is to make sure the thing gets done, not necessarily to be the person who does it. Delegating doesn’t make you any less of a contributor to the success of the company or team; it’s a chance to teach and mentor.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
When you’re managing a team whose members are purely technical, you have to make communication a priority. I find that assigning a point person on your team for each client works wonders. These point people are similar to account managers; they are your client’s communication line and will be the voice of the client to you and the team. By doing this, you establish other official communication lines (in addition to yourself), test for managerial abilities, and enable your team members to take initiative. Because those point people get unfiltered context directly from the client, it’s easier for them to take initiative and solve problems on their own. Of course, all this goes hand-in-hand with keeping the team aligned with one another and the greater company goals.
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?
There’s a saying, “the most important decision of your career is who you marry” and that’s definitely true for me. On the professional side, my husband is a huge advocate of mine, and pushes me to speak at conferences and become more involved within my field. It isn’t just about developing my self-confidence as a professional but it’s about him helping me manage my time. We share the responsibilities at home and with our children. This extends to when I have business meetings, events or speaking opportunities — he supports me by making it easier for me to take on these meetings.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I co-run a program called “Navigating the Workplace” in “Baot,” the largest Israeli community of women in R&D. We discuss workplace politics and how to navigate difficult situations to our advantage. I’ve been co-running this program for the past two years, and we have had three cycles thus far. In our last cycle we ran two groups consecutively: one for R&D managers, which I co-led, and another for tech leads. A cycle usually includes both juniors and seniors in their respective roles, who bring in a diverse set of challenges and viewpoints to discuss.
Taking on the role of a manager can be a lonely endeavor; many managers like myself find it beneficial to have a supportive peer group. Moreover, as a manager, most of your relationships are about you helping your counterpart, so you hardly ever have time to focus on your needs. Women who attended this program got promotions and better quarterly reviews, as a result of their understanding of how to navigate the business world and its politics. These members support each other and develop close friendships on top of the expected networking.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I take time getting to know the background of any problem. Then, together with the person who approached me, we work on communicating the need behind the problem, be it technical or otherwise. This helps us reach a wider variety of solutions and uncover biases in the initial thought process. This habit keeps all parties learning and growing together, all the while instilling humility.
- Be willing to make decisions as bets. You don’t have to be 100% sure about a specific direction, but not making a decision is more harmful than making the wrong one. To minimize risk, I write down all the facts I know and everything I’m not sure of. Then, I share this information with anyone working with me on the problem (usually in a Google doc where they can leave comments and suggestions). I’ve found that this generates collaborative thinking and shared accountability, but most importantly, this serves as important documentation to later understand why I made said decision.
- Invest time in your team members’ personal brands. An example: an engineer was treated poorly (not as an equal) and he was frustrated when he wasn’t promoted. He was doing well on his tasks, so we started to work on building his confidence, personal brand, and visibility. He gave a couple of talks at local meetups, and pushed to be a tech lead for a project. Six months later he had peer recognition, two managers fighting over him and a nice raise as well.
- Creative minds require an adaptive management style. Each of us are wired differently and, therefore, have our own thought process and problem-solving techniques. If you truly want to hone your team’s talent you have to make room for different ways of thinking and problem-solving. There’s no one true way to solve a problem.
- Find something, anything, to cleanse your emotional palette and clear your head after a day’s work. This will not only help you gain a fresh perspective on problems, but it’s especially important when dealing with people you’re expected to be cool and collected. I learned this when I was an officer in the army heading a development team while also simultaneously studying for my bachelor’s degree. I found that when I was annoyed with the army I would turn to school projects/homework, and when I was annoyed with school I would turn to work. That enabled me to take on twice the course load I expected I could handle and twice the workload. Nowadays what helps me most is spending time with my family and working out.
You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂
There are so many movements that already exist, and my role is to contribute to their success. Whether it is increasing female leadership in the tech sector and in business as a whole, or cutting down on mass production, I lead by example.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The quality of our lives is the sum of decision quality plus luck.” Annie Duke, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts
I love this quote because this way of thinking has allowed me to give myself a break when looking back on past experiences or when comparing myself to others. Sometimes you can work your hardest and not succeed as much as you had hoped, other times you’re just at the right place at the right time and everything clicks and it’s amazing.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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 🙂
Tina Fey, for a few reasons: she’s hilarious and it would probably be a hilarious encounter; she was the first female head writer for Saturday Night Live, and has changed the comedy and entertainment landscape. And getting the courage to do standup is similar to going up on stage and speaking about something technical — there’s only so much you can assume and be prepared for, and you’re speaking to a group of very opinionated people who will willingly boo you off stage.