People In Product feat. Estelle Howes

We aim to feature and celebrate product professionals from all walks of life, sharing their journeys, challenges and success stories. As part of this we recently had a great discussion with Estelle Howes, Senior Product Manager at Ocado Technology.

We gather stories, career journeys, as well as advice and wisdom, all to give you a glimpse into the experiences and perspectives of individuals working in the Product world, and help you gain a deeper understanding of this exciting industry.

Fran @ ADLIB: In a nutshell, what has been your career journey so far, leading you to where you are right now?

Estelle: My career in Product began many, many years ago. I initially pursued a degree in languages and gained experience working for EuroStar – the train that goes to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. I served there as a train manager. This role allowed me to utilize my language skills while also engaging with people on a daily basis. However, when I had my first child, the demanding shift work became impractical for me and my ex-husband, who also worked in the railways. At that time, my neighbours approached me with an opportunity to work for their website, “Friends Reunited,” which was gaining popularity in the early 2000s. They said to me: ‘“Do you want to answer some e-mails and stuff’. I thought: ‘Great! I can work from home’. Initially part-time, the arrangement proved ideal for balancing my responsibilities as a mum. Even after my second child was born, I continued working for the company. Eventually, the website expanded to include a family history branch called “Genes Reunited,” which was later acquired by a larger company called “Findmypast.” Long story short, I assisted customers by responding to their emails. While doing it, I noticed recurring patterns and felt compelled to share these insights with the Product Manager, who acted as the head of the website. It was around 2009 or 2010. They said to me: ‘We’d really like you to come and work with us in the product space’, marking the beginning of my journey in product management. The experience of being the voice of the customer always stayed with me. I remained with Find My Past for an extended period, working as their Product Manager on various products. However, as they were a small company, I desired more opportunities for growth and learning. This led me to join Ocado about 4.5 years ago where I am now.

Fran @ ADLIB: Which product role have you found most interesting?

Estelle: The one I currently hold. Throughout my career, I have primarily focused on software products, with some exposure to hardware. However, since joining my current role, I have gained so much knowledge and experience. It is just really interesting what we’re doing! You hear a lot about robotics nowadays, anyway, so being part of a team that works with robotics is truly exciting.

Fran @ ADLIB: What are the top 4 skills you think are required to be successful in Product?

Estelle: First of all, I think that’s empathy. It is essential to have a deep understanding of your customers and their needs. Empathy allows you to put yourself in their shoes, enabling you to make informed decisions. Never assume and truly get to know your customers.

Secondly, know your product. Don’t simply assume you know your product inside out. Get in there: Use it, try it, and truly understand its features and functionality. When starting work on a new product, engage with stakeholders and spend time understanding how they use the product.

Thirdly, I think that you need to be a very, very good communicator. As a Product Manager, you interact with many different people, and it is crucial to learn on how to communicate with different audiences. The way I talk with engineers will differ from how I talk with senior stakeholders. Master the art of storytelling. Again, the engineers may be technical, whilst senior stakeholders may not necessarily need this level of detail. Keep it short but make it clear and easy to understand.

The fourth skill you need is curiosity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Over time, I have changed enormously as a Product Manager. Maybe this comes with age as well, but I don’t have to pretend that I know everything. Now I put my hand up and ask questions. I’ve learnt that usually there are other people in the room, who are also thinking the same but are too afraid to ask for clarification. Be curious and don’t be afraid!

Fran @ ADLIB: When building your own team, do you prioritize technical skills or people skills, as discussed earlier?

Estelle: Personally, I prioritize people skills over technical skills. They way I approach it, is that the technical aspects are best left to the engineering team. I recognize the importance of having a basic understanding to effectively communicate with technical people, but I do not believe that a technical background is a necessity. As a testament to this belief, I can confidently say that I have been successful in my role without a technical background. My degree is in modern languages, and I have never coded in my life. However, I have proven that I can excel in my job as a product manager.

Fran @ ADLIB: What challenges have you faced in your Product career?

Estelle: I have faced loads of challenges throughout my Product career. One significant challenge I faced was prioritization. Often, people would approach me with various requests, asking if certain tasks could be prioritized. I remember an instance where a stakeholder insisted on a particular priority despite my comprehensive data analysis, both qualitative and quantitative, demonstrating that it wasn’t the right course of action. Despite my efforts, the stakeholder remained unconvinced and refused to speak to me. Therefore yes, challenges – difficult stakeholders. However, equally, you get really nice stakeholders!

Another challenge I experienced was having products that failed. We built something many years ago at Genes Reunited, where we spent considerable effort to building a feature, we believed was amazing, and would revolutionize the onboarding journey… and no one really used it. It was too difficult.

Next, aligning multiple teams has been a consistent challenge, particularly within a large company like Ocado. In the e-commerce division, for example, coordinating six teams to build one feature proved to be difficult: aligning the roadmaps, avoiding roadblocks, and ensuring timely completion might be challenging.

I think this sums up some of the main challenges I have encountered in my Product career.

Fran @ ADLIB: How have your past experiences, skills, and interests shaped your approach to Product Management and influenced the way you work with teams and stakeholders?

Estelle: I think that what has significantly shaped my approach to Product Management and how I work with teams, is the fact that I raised kids. They are now 19 and 22, and raising teenagers is the hardest thing in the world! It has taught me valuable lessons in dealing with people and choosing my battles. Furthermore, I’ve always had a determination to succeed. In one of my companies, working as an older female in the field of Product Management posed some challenges. Maybe not as much as female, but definitely being older. My manager there once told me, that I shouldn’t be a Product Manager! Despite facing discouragement, it motivated me to go and say: ‘Actually, I can do this.’ This determination led me to Ocado, where I have been continuously supported, encouraged, and given opportunities to learn, develop, and grow, and it continues even now, 4.5 years in.

When it comes to working with teams, I have always valued effective communication. I am a good communicator and I enjoy talking to people. I’ve learnt, that getting to know people you work with is super important. Taking the time to chat about hobbies, pets, or even Netflix shows has proven to create stronger bonds, making it easier to work together. During a recent 6-week work visit to the USA, I prioritized getting to know my team members on a personal level, and the results have been invaluable.

Drawing from past experiences, you always continue to learn. While there are books and courses on Product Management, nothing compares to hands-on experience and learning from mistakes. I always reflect on my mistakes and past situations. I have learnt to ask questions and seek clarification when faced with unfamiliar acronyms or concepts. If I don’t know something, I just ask. This approach has not only expanded my knowledge but has also created an environment where others feel comfortable asking questions too.

Fran @ ADLIB: Do you think there is a gender pay-gap or gender influence in the Product space?

Estelle: No, I don’t. Definitely not. It really varies, but we have women across Ocado in product role and equally there are men, and there is no pay gap. In Ocado no one is discriminating against one another, at least.

Fran @ ADLIB: What would you like to see more of in the Product space?

Estelle: What I would like to see more, is on how to get people in the product. Currently, becoming a Product Manager is a really hard thing to get into! There is no specific degree or structured career path. Often, people stumble upon the role and find it intriguing, but breaking into the industry can be a daunting task.

At Ocado, I have had the opportunity to mentor junior people who expressed an interest in Product Management. Some of them have successfully transitioned into product roles through a combination of their dedication and hard work. But if there were ways to make it easier for people to become product managers, it would be great. At Ocado, we have different levels for Product Management, starting with lowest associate level. We consider both internal and external candidates, allowing for growth and development within the company. I would like to see more organizations adopt similar approaches, providing opportunities for those who really want to get into product. Because it is hard to get into! But once you’re there, you learn the skills, and the world is your oyster.

Written by

Head of Product

Product & Agile Delivery

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Francesca Macmillan