“Make your work visible and let your voice be heard.”
With Abhi Butchibabu, Senior Director of Product Management
Making sure your work is visible can be a challenge. Speaking up for yourself can be intimidating. But believing in yourself and finding allies who can advocate on your behalf is essential to personal and career growth.
In our latest edition of Women in Leadership, CMT’s Senior Director of Product Management, Abhi Butchibabu, shares her advice on being more confident in the workplace, letting her voice be heard at the table, and how her background in aerospace engineering led her to CMT.
Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CMT: Hi Abhi. Thanks for chatting with me today. To start off, can you share what it means to be a Product Manager?
Abhi: Product management is kind of a funny role in that it’s a vast discipline that requires a lot of different skill sets, and it requires you to do a lot of different activities. For example, at CMT, as product leaders, we often conceptualize new products and new features. We test those features in the market with end users. And, we do product discovery to understand what is the value we are driving to customers. We also do market analysis — we keep a pulse on the market and see how things are changing.
We work with an amazingly talented team of engineers and designers to think about how to build the product, what the roadmap should be, what should be our milestones. So, there are a lot of different activities that could take place on any given day. The fact that it’s so different makes this job really fun and exciting because not every single day is the same as the other so that’s a really fulfilling part of the role.
One of the things that really attracted me to CMT is that it’s so mission-driven. Even our goals, when it comes to real business goals around revenue and profitability, we’re really striving to make the roads safer. And our products are really pushing for that. That’s the part of my job that I really really enjoy. And it’s really nice when you have your business goals tied to your mission goal really well.
CMT: How did you get to where you are today in your career?
Abhi: Product management is something I got into very accidentally. It’s not a career path I chose. It’s really funny because when I was younger I really wanted to be an astronaut, actually like many aerospace engineers, which is what I got my degree in, I wanted to be an astronaut, so I did all the things that would get me there. All the little check boxes. I was like I need to get my Ph.D., check. I need to get my pilot’s license, check. So, I kind of went down that path for a long time. In fact, I spent seven years in grad school getting my Master’s and Ph.D. from MIT and just doing engineering and I always thought engineering was going to be my career path.
While I was getting my graduate degree I sort of had this very rare opportunity to work with a lot of these different institutions and companies that were trying to solve really complex problems in the world of aerospace. Companies like the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Transportation, Boeing, and airlines, and they were all in this room and these are like senior execs from these groups, in a room talking about all these problems and I was this 20-something-year-old in the back of the room and I had full exposure to hear it all.
I brought all those problems back to MIT where I just did research on them and tried to solve them. I found that to be so exciting and fulfilling — that something I’m doing is actually contributing to the world in some meaningful way. And that’s the part of my job that I just hooked on to. Before I knew it, I ended up in product management, because the goal of the role is to try and build products that really provide some value to the customer and have a meaningful impact on the business.
CMT: How do you manage your team?
Abhi: Product management in general is very much a team sport. No PM can do everything on their own — you really have to rely on your teammates. It really requires building a good relationship and making sure that you’re including everyone’s thoughts and perspectives into the product itself because that’s really what builds products.
Sometimes the ideas come from our engineers, sometimes our ideas come from leadership, our stakeholders, and our sales team… so you never know where great ideas are going to come from. One of the things we really try to do is make sure everyone is aligned, and everybody feels open to sharing ideas with one another — and that’s one of the ways I like to lead. Letting the team do what they’re really good at and not being in their way so much, but rather encouraging them and pulling their ideas forward to something that the company can really value from and our customers can really value.
CMT: How do you balance being a full-time mom and full-time employee?
Abhi: I’ll be honest, being a mom and being a full-time employee is really hard. Very honestly. You’re always trying to find a balance between what’s the right thing to do when I’m in mom mode versus what’s the right thing to do when I’m in work mode. I really try very hard to compartmentalize those, but it’s never perfect. I really do try to find the balance when I’m focused at home, I’m really focused on my daughter and my husband and our home life. When I’m here, I’m focused on work.
What’s really interesting is one thing I didn’t really expect to come out of being a mom was that it actually made me have a very different perspective at work. It’s kind of made me a different person in a good way. I’ve actually made a lot of changes to how I do my job.
For example, time is just so precious to me at this point that I get more done in a short period of time than I used to. It’s just so important for me to make sure that the time is extremely valuable because I know consciously that I am giving up on something else. Oftentimes it pushes me to ask questions like why are we doing this? What’s the outcome? What’s the value? This makes me in turn a very different product manager, too. Those are the questions we are often asked for product management but now I am really pushing to ask that.
The other thing that being a mom has taught me is empathy for other teammates that I have — engineers and fellow stakeholders who are also parents — and really making sure that I value their time too. So, when I’m making product decisions, or working on a feature, we all better understand what the value is. Otherwise, it’s sort of a waste of time for people, and I’m wasting everybody’s time that’s really precious. So it’s changed me as who I am in terms of how I’m working in a very positive way.
CMT: What is a piece of advice you can share with women in the industry?
Abhi: I often tell women, whether they are moms or not, particularly junior PMs or PMs who are looking to really grow their career in this space, is to really try to make sure your work is visible. Visible to your stakeholders, visible to leadership, and that your voice is heard at the table.
I know that that can be a challenge for women and I myself fall into that pitfall of “Gosh, I really want to be likable, I don’t want to step on people’s toes, and oh my goodness, didn’t I just say that idea but so-and-so is getting the credit for it and I’m not?” I think it’s really important that even if you come across as bragging or come across as being whatever the words people use to describe, it’s really important to try and bring your perspective to the table. Not just for your own career growth, but in general for the product’s growth as well because I think your voice is really important.
The advice I was given early on is find yourself allies, whether they’re at the table or in your team, who can advocate for you. If you’re not able to advocate for yourself, they can say “Actually, as Hayley said earlier…” or something along those lines. You can also try to practice skills where you’re voicing for yourself saying, “To add onto the point that I made earlier,” or if someone is cutting you off you can bring your perspective and say, “Actually, I have more to say, hang on.” It doesn’t have to be harsh or cruel but I think being deliberate about making sure your voice is heard is really really important.
Getting that visibility is so critical because I think sometimes we get into just working really hard and working crazy hours and stressing ourselves out. But, ultimately, if your ideas and thoughts aren’t being heard, it’s not valuable to anyone, including yourself. Even if you don’t have the confidence, fake it til you make it, it’s so important. Over time as you start to fake it and get into the practice of having that confidence, you automatically start to build up that confidence. It’s not always perfect, and it’s something that I’m constantly learning about myself in areas where I may be lacking confidence, and where I really do need to fake it.
CMT: How do you decompress and manage stress?
Abhi: I’m not shy about asking for help when I need it, whether it’s with my partner, or whether it’s from my mom who can maybe come into town and watch my daughter for a couple of hours so I can just have a little bit of me time. I try to take that as often as I can.
In those “me” times, I’m usually meeting with a friend one-on-one, which is a very rare opportunity nowadays because we all have kids and we’re often running around. But getting that one-on-one time is really valuable to me. Then I also play my piano on the side when I get the chance to relax. My piano is my outlet whether I’m happy or sad or angry, I kinda give it to the piano. It has always been my outlet since high school and so I channel my stress into that.