Context, Collaboration, and Cake by Tanya Johnson

Tanya and her black forest cake

After doing a few of these interviews, I am realising how nerve wracking it is to write questions for someone you personally know and admire. I really want to ask the right things to share the strength of character, values and respect Tanya has around her. 

Kia Ora’s main mission is to share stories that might inspire you to explore life from a different angle, stories of people around us who work hard on making this world a better place. We want to share the vulnerable side of people.

Tanya is one of these amazing humans. We know her as a kick-ass product manager, founder of Women In Tech’s Slack community in NZ (now known as NZ Tech WomeNB) and the Women in Tech Auckland Meetup, and a really impressive baker.

You have worked for Propellerhead, AskNicely, Hapara and now Auror, all in product leadership roles. Product management is not something that a lot of people know about. How would you describe it to someone who has never heard of it? 

I think of product management as a facilitation role where we act as the glue between product, design, and engineering. Our time is spent listening to customers, digging into data, and doing research with our team on the best way to solve problems for customers and users. If you're curious about how things work, enjoy solving problems, think strategically, and are good at digging into details then you might enjoy being a product manager! It's an interesting time for Product Management. It's been something many of us have come to from different (but related) disciplines like development, user-experience research, design, or marketing and we're now reaching a point where you can study product management and choose it as a career. 

What are your personal values / mission and how does it align with your work?

I'm really motivated by doing work that makes a meaningful difference in the world, and with supporting people in all the different ways they need to work well. I did an exercise with Lara Hogan recently where we summed up our leadership strategy - mine ended up being "Context, Collaboration, and Cake" which pretty accurately sums up my approach not only to work but to life in general. As a product manager I believe that if people have enough context about what we're aiming to achieve and why they make better decisions, we're more effective when we collaborate (and have more fun too), and there is no work above me or below me so if the only way I can help is by bringing cake then that’s what I'll do.

Tanya baking rainbow meringues

In New Zealand tech community, you are known for your wonderful advocacy on diversity and inclusion. What inspired you to become more vocal about it? 

We are taught that girls can do anything, while at the same time seeing all the adult women we know being really constrained in their options. Trying to view the world as a meritocracy when it clearly isn't leads many of us to believe that we simply aren't good enough. I spent many years being the first, or the only woman on a team, trying desperately to change myself to succeed within the organisations I'd joined. It was lonely, and hard, and there have to be better ways. I want to see real structural change. I want organisations to change rather than expecting women and other underrepresented groups to change to fit within them. And I think strong communities and networks of women will help more of us understand that we don't need to be fixed, the system does.

You have started Women in Tech / NZ Tech WomeNB 5 years ago and it has been growing ever since. Tell us a bit about this community?

I think we're up to 800 women and other minority genders in the Slack community, and 1,700 on the Auckland Meetup which is pretty amazing! It all started out of a Gender Diversity session at the Gather Unconference where women in the tech community were talking about needing a safe space to gather (ha!) regularly. Shirley Tricker and I were the last folk in the room after the session and despite both being introverts decided there was no time like the present - I think we may have registered the Meetup group right there and then. The community has been a place where we can meet other people like us, get advice, mentoring and sponsorship. It is also a good resource for working out where the most inclusive workplaces and teams are in NZ.

Tanya giving a presentation at the MUV talks. Pie chart answers the questions "Should I go out tonight?" and the answers are: "No" and "No, but in yellow"

What's some of the best learnings you brought from your work into the NZ Tech WomeNB community or vice versa? 

Speak honestly (even when your voice shakes). Support your team. Work fewer hours. Be open about your failures so that you demonstrate to yourself, and to your team or those coming up after you, that trying is valuable and that you aren’t always going to get it right the first, or even second, or third time.

As a leader in the tech space, what advice would you give to others when it comes to building great teams and culture?

I've had the privilege of working with some incredible teams over the last few years and the most successful have had trust in their team and empathy for each other, they have also shared an understanding that people who are looked after well will bring their best to work. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Leadership is partially about modelling the behaviour you value and know will bring long term success. I sometimes feel like I'm LARP'ing a good work-life balance - letting my team know when I'm leaving early because the sun is out and I'm taking my kids for a swim and ice-cream on the beach, and when I'm stepping away from the keyboard because I need some downtime - I've found that doing this enough makes it more visibly ok for the rest of the team to do too. 

If you’re a man and you’re looking for ways to help make your industry a better place for underrepresented groups the two biggest impacts an individual can have are 1) tell people what you earn - it’s easier to close the pay gap when salaries are transparent, and 2) speak up when you see/hear men behaving in a way that causes harm.

What have you read / watched / learned recently that had an impact on you? 

I tend to spend my time outside of work on other non-tech-related things. I'm passionate about Taekwondo which teaches me how to fail repeatedly and still persevere. I love reading sci-fi and fantasy (highly recommend the Murderbot series and The Traitor Baru Cormorant). I'm enjoying Lara Hogan's book Resilient Management, and my drive to work is usually spent listening to podcasts like Authority Issues, The Guilty Feminist, Be the Serpent, On the Rag, The Twenty Minute VC, The Moth, Darknet Diaries, and Inside Intercom

Tanya with her kids and her niece on the beach

Based on what you've seen and done, if someone wanted to follow in your steps whether it is in product or starting a movement, what should they do?

Just start. 

You'll soon know if it's working for you or not, and you can adjust course or stop at any time. Also reach out to people, in almost all cases they are willing to share their experience and their time if asked. I've received an enormous amount of help by contacting people I admire and asking if they'd have a coffee and tell me a little more about how they do a thing I want to learn.

I find that today it is really hard not to attach your personal worth to your achievements, whether it is money, status or how much social impact you have had. Being productive, efficient and working all the time is almost seen as a must. Do you have any advice on how to avoid feeling like you are not enough? 

Hahahaha. No. 

I've lowered my standards to the point where I'm ok being rubbish at some things most of the time (as long as the thing I am rubbish at this week isn't the same as last week I figure I'm doing ok). 

Understand that it's not possible to be everything to everyone. Get comfortable with failure. Iterate on everything you care about until you improve. 

What are your daily routines or activities that fill you with joy the most? 

Weekend pancake breakfasts with my kids. We bake and have afternoon tea every Sunday afternoon with friends and chosen-family. Long walks on the beach (with ice-cream!). Taekwondo. Reading every night until I fall asleep.

Tanya doing Taekwondo

And finally, whose story would you want to read about?

So many amazing people I’d love to hear more about! Aurynn Shaw, Chloe Swarbrick, Haunani Pao, Cassie Roma, Sian Simpson, Perrin Rowland, Vivian Chandra*, Serena Chen*, Shirley Tricker, Jade Tan*, Katie Hinsen, Bailey Lenart, Brough Johnson (read interview on Kia Ora here), Kate Pearce

*Interviews coming soon :)

Elina Ashimbayeva