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Above the Glass: Channeling The Superpower of “Why”

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Written by Lisa SmithSeptember 20, 2021

From left to right: Katelijne van Drongelen and Lisa Smith

Katelijne van Drongelen is a Senior Digital Product Manager at Arch Insurance Group. Lisa Smith is an Engineering Manager at Netflix and a Director of the Women Who Code Raleigh/Durham Network. In this edition of Above the Glass, Lisa sat down with Katelijne to discuss her role as a product manager, how that differs from being a project manager, her leadership style, building relationships, and ascertaining user needs to build the best product possible.

Thank you for joining me today, Katelijne. This is a pretty exciting opportunity, so I'm thrilled to be able to chat with you. Can you tell me a little bit about you and how you came into product?

Of course! I was born in the Netherlands and moved to the states when I was around nine. I like to start there typically because I feel it gives insight into my perspective on the world, which is one of observation. Moving from one place to another that's drastically different and not knowing how to speak a language, that first reaction really is one of observation. That's been a skill throughout my life that has been pretty important.

My background as far as education is in computer science and philosophy. I went in two different directions. What comes out of philosophy education is another thing that I use pretty much daily in my life, which is the question “Why?”.  Why is my favorite word and my favorite question all at the same time. That's informed much of my life.

I started my career in a joint role of BSA and QA work. In that first role, I learned all the basics: software development lifecycle, how to be organized, how to make the magic happen, how to gather requirements at the right level, and then manual testing and also automated testing tools. I got a pretty good foundation there. I then moved into a Data Analyst role and got really much more into the weeds. I honed in on my SQL. I started a lot of more visual design through the use of dashboards and things like that.

At that point, I was a single mom with two kiddos, and lo and behold pretty much all of my calls seemed to happen during dinner because that's when all of the financial transactions processed. At some point I got sick of having spaghetti on my walls and that was one motivation for moving out of the hot seat of the IT world and back into the business world. I won't say that was my only motivation because the other part that I really missed was actually talking to people.

I enjoy talking to people about what it is they want and need. That's been a main motivation throughout my career and really brings me where I am today. Understanding the why of what people are asking for rather than just being in a position to execute, is something that I missed as a Data Analyst.


That's such a great place to start. I love hearing about that central theme throughout your life and career. I share a similar thing. I was a librarian before I came to engineering, which was about bringing people and knowledge together. I essentially still do the same thing in my current role.

Let’s talk about product management. What are all of the facets of being a product manager?

From my perspective, I get to influence what it is that the product is building next. It goes back to not just executing on somebody else’s vision, but really being part of that vision. There are always company and business goals that you have to balance that with, but it's deciding what to build next based on value. Back again to that why.

I was part of an engineering-led organization for a while where we just built whatever we thought was cool without really getting that last part of the loop. So, when product joined the organization, it was a revelation to think about the people that are using this and what should we do next for them. Not just what we think is cool. As engineers, we frequently have a different idea about what's cool or useful. Have you ever joined an organization that didn't have a product as part of it?

The position I had before being a product manager was a project manager. I was at an organization that was not value-focused. It was very much guided by top-down directives. It doesn't feel empowering for the people that are implementing the technology and it's actually missing the point of the user to have that approach. In my perspective value has to be set from the top down, but also the bottom up.

At the organization I was part of that didn't have a product when I got there but then later acquired it, we had a bumpy road. I think part of it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what a product manager brings to the team.

A project manager has very specific boundaries and a product manager I feel is more fluid. Where do you join the process when either a new feature or new product is coming out?

It's definitely very fluid. At times I feel like I'm a one-person island. That can be challenging but the balance there is learning how to build relationships so that you can use indirect influence.

The point at which I come in varies depending on where that feature is coming from. If I'm working with some of my end users and they're having a tough day related to some process that they have, sometimes that increment or that feature will come out of a complaint they have. Sometimes it's being observant about the digital world around you. It's something that you see out in the marketplace that has nothing to do with my product, but it's an inspiration. Then I rush back excited, get feedback, and see what the interest level is. I start all the way at the beginning really in a lot of ways with feature development.


It's not just individual features that you're looking at, but the overall product which is a lovely holistic view.

In my experience where the product was already part of the organization, we worked in trios of engineering manager, a designer, and product manager which was a great way to ideate. How do you flow with your teams currently?

We have a similar three-headed dog structure through which we tackle product development. We have the product managers, digital domain owners, and then we have the scrum master role. The collaboration between those three roles is what makes a project successful. Outside of that, when we think about that value realization at Arch, we have a couple of other teams that help with that.

From an operational standpoint, our AMS team applies lean principles to a particular business flow. Some of the product features come from their analysis of those flows and some new technologies may come out of that analysis. New features come from everywhere, but I try to insert myself into that process as early as possible.


The thing that I admire most about product managers is their ability to blend the user experience and persona along with the technical details of what we do in a way that has this complete vision. In this space, you have multiple inputs and stakeholders. How do you meld that all together and bring forth a productive idea, rather than the thing you think is cool?

I think sometimes it is that simple. Sometimes I just have a cool idea and I vet it with some folks which is quite important. We all have a lot of what we perceive to be great ideas, but if we don't vet them in some quantitative or qualitative way, then it becomes very dangerous.

Our specific Arch view on product development is that we have a high-level roadmap to be revisited on a monthly basis with stakeholders. I collect ideas for features along the way and then on a monthly basis present that and get some direction. We prioritize not just based on value statements, it’s user research, it’s surveys, it’s quick POC’s gathering responses to screen designs. It's all of that type of anthropological research that gets put into these quarterly meetings. There's a lot of prep for that.

Then on a semiannual and annual basis, we have this check back to the top. If we're looking at it from the perspective of change happens bottom-up and top-down, part of the product management role is constantly keeping that flow of conversation going back and forth. Making sure we have understanding and alignment on the why and the value is a critical part.


That alignment is key. One of the biggest product failures I experienced was that misalignment. Engineering had one idea about what we were building, and the outside stakeholders had a different idea and that hadn't made it through the translation process.

So, once you've ideated, you've got a great idea everybody's aligned, how do you know once you’ve built the thing if it's successful?

Arch uses Pendo, Google Analytics, and other tools for user feedback. We have both internal and external user bases and we look at user stickiness. We also look at the ratio of daily active users, monthly active users, and conduct feedback sessions.

It's really about making sure that throughout their interaction with the product that they continuously stay engaged. You don’t want momentary excitement when a new feature gets rolled out and now, they leave your site because they're underwhelmed with the rest. It may have provided a quick wow factor, but it didn't really provide lasting and continued value.

For that reason, we do look for the core five to eight features as that baseline for user retention for our product. We at least make sure that we meet that baseline for whatever user group that we're targeting next.

I've not worked with anybody who's been in the insurance sphere before. Can you tell me about the industry and how you’ve navigated it?

People don't usually think of insurance as a particularly sexy enterprise. The typical perception is that it's a lot of old hat technology. I would say that that's one way in which Arch definitely excels.  When you think about insurance, there's the personal Property and Casualty (P&C) companies where you see brick and mortar offices and then there are commercial companies like Arch, that do business with businesses.

It's something that probably a lot of the mainstream isn't necessarily familiar with, but what's great about digital, what's great about technology, applies to all sectors of the world. So just because we have a worker’s comp claim, which is much more complex perhaps outwardly so, doesn't mean that I don't want something like a pizza tracker from a claim status perspective. Here's what I reported. Here's who my adjuster is. Here's my payment and now my claim is closed. Those types of basic concepts are quite universal.


You're exactly right, that human experience of moving through a process regardless of where they're at rings true. That information flow and the feedback loop are so crucial to helping people feel successful and productive. How long have you been in the tech world?

Professionally, about between 12 and 13 years now, all in the insurance space. I am a proud early adopter of computer technology. When I was six, I was on a Commodore with tape setting my counter to the location of a video game. I'm a lifetime nerd in a lot of ways.


Same! I'm appreciating the objects that you have on your shelf behind you because I have many of the same ones.

If there's somebody who is casting about for perhaps either a new adventure or a new direction, what would you say are the important characteristics of somebody who works in product?

The first thing I would say is, we're all on these journeys, so what your goal is for the immediate next couple years may not be what your goal is 15 years from now. Goals can be fluid. I certainly didn't start with the intention of ending up here; it just became a natural evolution.

Very early on I felt a lot of pressure to define where I was going and the titles I was after. It became such a daunting exercise that I really just stopped doing it. I stopped asking myself those questions because I was too scared and because I didn't really have very concrete answers.

That is something I'm very passionate about sharing with others because I don't think that folks realize how many women don’t necessarily have a linear journey.

I 100% agree and fully endorse that! I lead off many of my talks with the assertion and affirmation that I have had a nonlinear career path and I find that to be a feature, not a bug. I think it gives you more perspective and more empathy when you come from different places.  

I also found it limiting to say where you will be five years from now because I think if I had to define a path, I don't know that I would have been where I am today.

And to address your specific question, from a product management perspective, I look at what are my core competencies that have gotten me to where I am today. Such as, wanting to communicate. People often say communication is a basic resume skill, but there are levels of that. Are you genuinely excited to give people updates? Are you genuinely excited to engage with people across the spectrum of influence? Those things are important.

Problem solving is also important. And developing technical knowledge where you understand just enough of implementation so that when a stakeholder approaches you for your input, you can give a reasonable response. That then cuts out running to ask the developers. Having that passion for the technology, the details, as well as the big picture, you can actually make that communication much more effective.


Effective communication can compress that loop down and keep people moving forward, which I think is a great thing that people underestimate.

What do you see as the next frontiers for product management?

I think there’s a lot of great tools out there right now for product management. What I still notice is that a lot of the user experience and user research is outside of the product team. I would love to see them become part of the multi-functional teams that we're all trending towards. If I had those dedicated perspectives, then now that becomes much more a part of my product.

I would also love to see product get away from answering for delivery and moving towards getting better at defining that value. I would say a large roadblock, and I think this is probably fairly universal, is justifying the development cost of X, Y, or Z because I have clear operational gains that are financial in nature. The question is, how do we better quantify the user satisfaction in a way that makes sense at a top-level from a dollar and cents perspective? That still remains a hard thing to communicate even in the atmosphere of focus around the voice of the customer.

I would love to see that as a trend. I think that separation causes that feature spiral.

That's one of the things that's been cool about working for Arch. There is a lot of persona development, user journeys, and empathy mapping. Exactly to your point, when the development team understands the users at that level, the ability to meet the mark the first or second time, rather than in the third or the fourth iteration flies through the roof!


That's exciting! To wrap things up, of all of the things that you've ideated and brought to life, what is the thing that you feel is the most successful or that you were the proudest of?

That's a tough one. When I first started out as a BSA and a QA. I worked on a customer-facing portal for claims and for payments for a personal insurance carrier. Fast forward to about eight years later and I was the project manager for that same product getting a facelift both on the front end and the back end. Being able to throw away what wasn't working and having the courage to throw away a lot of that eight years to start fresh based on user research, which we didn't do the first time around, and based on industry standards for design and user experience was great. In the end we had 250,000 users of that platform.

It was incredibly impactful! On my part, it took quite a bit of emotional courage to just let that go. That's almost as important sometimes as creating a new thing, is letting go of old things.

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