As you pick new opportunities, do not focus on titles, focus on the stories you will tell. The most important thing is the skills that you acquire and the impact you make. In many ways, life is a collection of stories, so it’s important to develop those new skills and to grow. Come to the table with a problem you want to solve for the organization and a proposed solution, and the titles will follow.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irina Farooq. Irina is Chief Product Officer for Kinetica. Irina has over 15 years of product management experience across a variety of sectors, including enterprise software, networking, hardware, IoT, SaaS, and Cloud. Irina joins Kinetica from Riverbed Technology, where she held a variety of leadership roles including Vice President of Products and Strategy for the Service Provider Business and Vice President of Product Management for Steelhead, Riverbed’s flagship product. Prior to Riverbed, Irina was Vice President of Embedded Systems for Grid Net, a Smart Grid/IoT company, where she was responsible for engineering and product management of the company’s hardware and firmware. Irina started her career as a software engineer and product manager at Oracle. Irina holds a B.S. in Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science from MIT, an M.B.A. from Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an M.S. in Environment and Resources from Stanford University.
Thank you so much for joining us Irina! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
There are really two pivotal stories — one that brought me into technology, the other into product management specifically:
I entered college as a math major (way before math and data science were cool) and decided to take a computer science class to simply try something new. My first project in that class was building a MapQuest-like system that would provide optimal directions between two addresses. Within an hour of completing that project, I went ahead and declared computer science as my second major. From that moment on I knew that my passion was to positively impact people’s lives through technology, which ultimately led me down the engineering path at Oracle after I graduated college.
When I joined Oracle as an engineer, I was eager to solve the hardest engineering problems, but I also found myself constantly questioning “why” we were building the features and for whom. I moved into product management by a stroke of luck after receiving some good advice from someone who recognized that it might be a better fit for me. It was a risky transition — I, like most engineers, was worried about losing my technical chops by switching to product management. It was also an incredibly challenging transition. Product managers are expected to understand the market, have a clear vision for their product and use influence to drive the organization to a successful outcome. Literally, for the first year on the job, I thought that every day I could get fired. But then I figured it out and have never looked back, resulting in a 15+ year career in product management.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was delivering a presentation on Kinetica and my parents came across a video of that talk online. My mom, who is an amazing software engineer and architect in the financial services industry, sent me a message to tell me that the topic I was addressing in the video is not only important but has the potential to reinvent the financial services industry. For the first time since I began working in enterprise technology (which can be challenging for people outside the industry to relate to), I truly felt I had my parent’s approval on my work.
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?
About two years into my career as a product manager at Oracle, I was given the opportunity to present my product at Oracle Open World. It was the first time I was going to represent the company in such a public venue, so I was both super nervous and focused on doing the best job I possibly could. As part of the standard conference preparation process, you have to go through detailed reviews of your content with the leadership team. A couple of minutes into my review, it was clear that things were going incredibly well — I was being complimented throughout on the clarity and organization of my content until…someone in the room exclaimed “Is that white-out on your slide?” and laughter erupted throughout the room. I had edited a screenshot on my laptop and that poor editing job was completely obvious when blown up on the big screen. Needless to say, it was quite embarrassing and became a running joke for the next few years. That said, it helped me learn an important lesson that every single detail matters and I am now the most meticulous person you’ll meet when putting together content.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At Kinetica, we are on a mission to help enterprises such as GlaxoSmithKline, OVO Pay, and Telkomsel, to leverage data to reinvent their businesses, from shortening drug development cycles in pharmaceuticals to helping telcos optimize their 5G rollout to developing a 360-degree customer profile in retail. With Kinetica, I go through my daily life thinking of ways to enable smart analytical applications that transform industries. This involves breaking down traditional analytical siloes and creating a new active analytics architecture that combines a mashup of analytical techniques including streaming data, location intelligence, graph analytics, and predictive analytics.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are always working on new and exciting projects! Last year, we partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF), joining its Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to explore approaches to building effective data strategies that will define our current data-driven era.
One of the most exciting projects for me at the WEF right now is around using artificial intelligence (AI) responsibly, to help monitor for AI bias, AI auditing and governance, all while allowing the innovation to take place. I believe that AI will continue to be one of the biggest advances of our time, as long as we use it responsibly, this is why at Kinetica, we are laser-focused, not only on the innovation of AI but the responsible use of it as well.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I strongly believe that establishing the right culture and team is one of the most important, if not the most important tasks for a leader. My advice would be to be very clear on your values and drive them relentlessly into the organization. It’s important to create a safe, respectful, equal, and collaborative culture amongst your colleagues, especially as a leader.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
- Establish very clear goals and objectives that align across the entire organization.
- Make sure that different parts of the organization understand one another’s goals and how they are expected to work together.
- There is no such thing as over-communication! Constantly communicate with your team around expectations, roles and responsibilities, and issues to remove any obstacles that prevent people and the organization from achieving set goals.
- Find your own style to determine when to interact with just your direct reports and when you reach deeper into the organization. I am personally a believer that it’s important to have direct relationships with folks in different parts of the organization while making sure managers feel empowered to do their job. That balance is hard to find but is supercritical.
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?
For me, that person is my husband, Arsalan, whose support comes in a number of ways. Having a shared vision as we go through life has been crucial. If there’s ever a moment where I start doubting myself, he is always my voice of confidence giving me that reassurance that “Yes, I can do this.” He is also a true advocate for me, always holding me accountable to stay true to my beliefs and worth.
Then, of course, there are the little things like not telling me the kids are sick while I am out of town, so I won’t worry and can focus. From the small to big things, his support has meant everything.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I was younger, I used to think of these big ideas of how I can bring change into this world — unfortunately, all of them were going to happen later in life, after I reached success in my career. That perspective changed when I left my previous company and a few of my former female colleagues reached out to me expressing their admiration of how I handled myself in a male-dominated world of technology and what had me in a leadership position at the company meant to them personally. At that moment, I realized that a big change can start with small steps. Since then, I have focused on mentoring high potential young women and men. Even if I can truly impact 2 people a year, I can directly impact the journeys of 40 leaders over the next 20 years. But, if each one of those leaders goes on to impact 2 people a year, collectively we will impact over 1 million leaders over the course of 20 years!!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Seek and value mentorship. It’s typical that most people end up working with their peer group and their direct managers and go to that circle for advice. However, it is important to have a group of mentors who are invested in your success and provide an unbiased point of view and an outside perspective that you may have never considered.
- Pick your co-travelers selectively. It is a sad truth that in the technology industry there is still a lot of bias and many people who are not comfortable with female leaders, especially in technical functions. The good news is — there are also a lot of people who have no such biases. Picking the right company and people to be a part of your journey is key as a female leader to ensure you’re not only setting yourself up for success but that those around you want to help you succeed as well. A tactic I use is to mention that I am a mother in a job interview to see if there will be any reactions that may hint at my motherhood being some type of obstacle.
- Do not be afraid to ask for what you deserve. It is natural to feel that when you do a great job you will automatically get rewarded for it. The sad truth is that doesn’t always happen — for a variety of reasons. Being able to advocate for yourself in a respectful manner and in a way that feels natural to you is really important. During the early days of my career, I was doing great work, going above and beyond and receiving an equal amount of verbal recognition, but still no promotion or raise. I finally conjured up the courage to go to my boss to discuss what steps I needed to take to be promoted and was told “You should have been promoted a while back. I am really sorry.” If I had never communicated with my boss, it would have simply continued to stay off his radar.
- As you pick new opportunities, do not focus on titles, focus on the stories you will tell. The most important thing is the skills that you acquire and the impact you make. In many ways, life is a collection of stories, so it’s important to develop those new skills and to grow. Come to the table with a problem you want to solve for the organization and a proposed solution, and the titles will follow.
- Do not try to fit the stereotype of what a female leader should be like. Find your own unique style and own it. You can never please everyone (and leadership is not a popularity contest anyway!), but you can definitely earn people’s respect. And authenticity goes a long way towards that.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I think early childhood care is critically important for working families, especially women, who more often than not are still carrying most of the childcare responsibilities for their families. With childcare being as expensive as it is, it limits a woman’s ability to stay in the workforce, progress in her career, and contribute to the economy. Subsidized care and preschool will allow women to have that balance without breaking their wallets or dropping out of the workforce when they are not ready.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is from Maya Angelou; “‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I truly feel that the ability to tap into your emotional intelligence and put someone else’s emotions first is an important aspect of leadership. As a leader, you want to be able to drive leadership with respect and trust that can be established when you bring empathy to the table.
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 would love to meet Angela Merkel. I deeply admire her for leading with such a strong moral compass.