Irina is VP of Product at Kinetica, a distributed, in-memory database management system company backed by KPCB, Canvas Ventures, Meritech Capital Partners, and GreatPoint Ventures. Previously, she was VP of product at Riverbed Technology. Earlier in her career, she held senior product roles at Grid Net, Silver Spring Networks, and Oracle Corporation. She has an MBA and M.S. from Stanford and a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science and Mathematics from MIT.
You studied Math and Computer Science at MIT. How did that lead you to product management right out of school?
I joined Oracle as an engineer out of college and switched into a product role 3–4 months after college. When I joined as an engineer, I wanted to solve the company’s hardest problems. As an engineer at a large company like Oracle, I would ask people what we were working on and why we were doing something and could never find a satisfactory answer.
I met someone on another team who suggested that I move into product management based on my personality and how I think. It was a difficult transition navigating the market of hardcore enterprise technology, learning product management and finding my voice to have the confidence to put together a strategy and tell others what to build, but it turned out to be an amazing challenge and learning opportunity. In short, I moved into product management accidentally with some good advice from someone who recognized me.
It looks like you took a short detour from product to VC. What skills, if any, from product management overlapped with VC and what brought you back to product?
This goes back to my philosophy on product. I never planned on being a VC, but I knew that I wanted to be a CEO and it was beneficial to understand the perspective of VCs. I took a summer internship to learn how VCs make decisions. I was at an amazing firm where I got to sit in on partner meetings and strategy off sites. VCs naturally think about markets and how the product will make money. Good product people marry business models with creative methods of solving problems in a sustainable way.
How have you prepared for each new role at the different companies you’ve been at throughout your career?
For me, the best preparation has been to come in really open minded, understand the markets, build relationships with new people and understand their perspective. I lead product not by focusing on checking feature boxes but from understanding who the customer is, both the buyer and the user. I focus on building the customer personas and making sure I focus on solving the most valuable problems in a unique way. The worst thing that I can do is bring in my existing biases into new domains.
These experiences have generally been in B2B companies. What has captivated your attention the most about enterprise companies as opposed to consumer/B2C companies?
I’ve always found that I don’t have the ability to say what’s going be hot or not. Being an outsider to consumer, it feels like certain things take off and certain things don’t. With enterprise, it feels a bit more rational — the way companies make purchase decisions. Plus, I have had the privilege to work on some really hard problems, like modernizing the electricity grid, and address those problems with unique technologies with defensible competitive advantages. These are the types of problems and technologies that I love working on.
What do you think has contributed most to the advancement of your career as a product manager? Any differences depending on the stage of your career?
At every stage of my career, I have a one year and a three to five year goal. I look at how I am developing and what I need to learn next. I look at where I am, and I also look at my mentors or people who I feel like I want to be.
Seven to ten years ago, the most important development was managing people, directly and indirectly. Now I feel like I have my style and I’ve developed my style over time. What I would encourage people at every stage to do is recognize the stage that you’re in and what things you need to learn. Unlike sales and marketing with a defined hierarchy, in product, you start out in a pretty senior role, and you don’t always have a development plan. Product managers need to do that for themselves or seek out mentors who can help guide them.
I think the single thing that has contributed the most to my career is that I’m never afraid to “call my baby ugly”. Just because you worked very hard and did a great job on something, doesn’t mean you can’t disrupt it yourself. You have to maintain this ability to objectively look at your product and challenge its place in the world. If you don’t, someone else will.
How would you describe your management style?
My management style is most defined by being very direct (people always know where they stand with me) and empowerment. Everyone has a different bias towards who they hire, and one preference I have is that I want to hire people who want my job in a few years. I hire high potential A-players who can be a pain to manage but I think that I’m better equipped to manage those people. My job isn’t to figure what they should do. I hire people who get excited by solving hard problems and taking initiative, and I make sure to develop them, guide them and remove any obstacles.
How technical do you think product managers need to be?
Product managers need technical intelligence and need to be comfortable with what they know and what they don’t know. It’s more critical to understand a broad spectrum of technologies and tech trends vs. knowing the nitty-gritty. If you have a solid technical foundation, you can be a successful product person and pick up specific areas of detail.
Do you have any favorite learning opportunities of yours that you reflect on often? What takeaways do you have from the experience?
Ironically, the biggest learning that I have is accepting that some things are outside of your control and getting comfortable with that. You become more humble, understand your role in the world better. I think it’s a critical part of maturing both as a professional and as a person. It doesn’t mean that you don’t try to go as fast as you can to change the world — of course you do:) But it helps you become more deliberate in how you spend your energy to make the greatest impact.
Post published by David Cheng, Director of Content, Advancing Women in Product. Please drop us a line at email@example.com!