Heard at SXSW 2017: Top Takeaways from Badass Women in Tech

March 17, 2017

People at “South by” (yes, people are really calling it that at SXSW 2017) will warn you that you often can’t get into the digital marketing sessions you planned on attending. That happened to me on on Day 1, but it’s how I stumbled upon one of my top takeaways from SXSW.

My first choice for an afternoon session was cancelled. My second choice was at capacity. My third choice was cancelled, too. And that is how I found myself sitting in on a session called “Product Mavericks: Top Tips from Women Who Build.”

This session, which I’m so glad to have attended, turned out to be a panel including a veritable badass lineup of ladies. The list included:

  • Fidji Simo, Director of Product at Facebook leading Video, News, and Advertising at Newsfeed
  • Merci Grace, leader of the Growth team at Slack
  • Stephanie Hannon, CTO for Hillary Clinton, Director of Product Management for Social Impact at Google, and a member of the Google Wave product team
  • Tali Rappaport, VP of Product at Lyft

Making Strategic Digital Marketing Decisions

Whether it’s for a project, an account, or a product, it can be easy for managers (like me!) to lose sight of what we were originally tasked to do. After a few conference calls and email threads, you might find yourself in a meeting thinking, “scope creep!”

To remedy this, Fidji Simo emphasized the importance of keeping the original goals and purpose in mind. Think to yourself: “What is the prime objective we are trying to test?”

For one of the most successful digital marketing projects I’ve ever done, I loved the way that we structured our social assets because every single creative choice was made to answer a question that could inform future decisions. For example:

  • “Are we communicating X?”
  • “Does X messaging drive more sales?”
  • “Does X type of imagery perform better than Y type of imagery?”

Simo used the example of Facebook Live. Even though since its launch many features have been added, her team always keeps in mind the original goal of the product, which was to have a conversation and to get feedback from your community.

Simo said it was important to have strong principles you can fall back on. This means that when you have to make a decision in a moment, you aren’t just reacting, but rather are relying on what you’ve already identified as important principles to guide your decision-making. Some might argue about whether or not Facebook made the right decision when it comes to fake news on their platform, but they certainly they stayed true to their value of uninhibited expression.

A good practice used by businesspeople faced with challenging strategic decisions is to wait 24 hours and consider options before executing a strategy. Making decisions in the moment based on gut instinct might work out sometimes, but having a logical framework and a strategy rooted in company-wide goals is always smart.

On change:

Timelines are so much shorter than they used to be in the business world. Everyone is looking for the next big thing. This means companies need to take a portfolio approach, and not just be focused on one single thing. It also means you have to encourage a culture of change at your company—a place where change is embraced and rewarded.

Inertia is dangerous – and easy to fall into – in a creative agency setting. We have to make sure we are constantly challenging the status quo, whether it’s with the work we produce clients, or even if it’s the way we internally create the work.

For example, brainstorming. It’s important to try different techniques and methods to avoid creative burnout, and keep people excited about the projects we are working on.

On failure:

Failure is one of those words in San Francisco that no longer seems to hold the same meaning it once did. Now it’s all about “failing faster”, so you can rebuild as if you are some kind of metaphorical phoenix. Merci Grace said, “We need to stop pretending that Silicon Valley embraces failure”—and she mentioned this especially in the context of being a woman in tech.

Grace explained, “I know a bunch of men who have had the opposite experience. If you’re a dude, you can fail and then go raise a bunch of money to fail two or three more times before someone stops you.” This got a bunch of laughs from the room, but it also struck a chord as something serious that many of us have faced.

Stephanie Hannon, who worked on Google Wave, said that she learned not to let fear of failure hold her back. Her advice was to not be afraid to try big things, because even if they don’t succeed there is always the opportunity to take the learnings from that failure and implement it on future products or work. Some of the features created for Google Wave were later used in products like Gmail and Google Docs.

On women in tech:

We talk about the challenges of being a female in the working world (I’ve read Lean In like 3 times), but it means so much more coming from women who aren’t quasi-celebrities and who are still “making it.” Here are my favorite tips from the panelists:

“People will underestimate you, and you can use that to your advantage.” – Merci Grace

“I learned a lot just from listening. I got an inside view from executives.” – Fidji Simo

“Say what you don’t know and be curious. Put yourself in a scary situation and find a way to thrive there.” – Stephanie Hannon

“Realize that you have more power than you think you do.” – Fidji Simo

“Break the negative self-talk. You are often your own worst enemy. You are going to get a lot of negative feedback. One of the most important things is being right with yourself.” – Merci Grace

I’ve was impressed by the female leaders, speakers, and panelists at SXSW. It’s made me feel inspired about what I can accomplish at BSTRO!

By Lana Olmer, Account Executive