How long have you been at Gilt?
How has program management at Gilt changed during that time?
When I started here, my job was more project-based: We’d get deployed on a project, then the project would end and we’d be deployed on another project with a different team. Now we have fairly stable teams, which enables program managers and teams to work together more efficiently.
Another change is that our approach is more data-driven than it once was. The teams get to decide–like mini start-ups–how they’re going to meet their KPIs (key performance indicators).
How is program management different from project management?
Instead of managing a specific project, a program manager manages and prioritizes multiple projects all at once for a specific program or area of the business.
Tell us about your team.
I’m the lead program manager for Gilt’s back office team, which includes more than 20 engineers who work on distribution, customer service, and business operations such as sales, finance, and creative. My team includes Ruby and Rails developers, Java people, Scala people–technology here is pretty fluid. We want everyone to feel empowered to do what they want and make their own decisions.
How did you get into program management?
After I earned my college degree in biology and chemistry, I worked in a lab. One day I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be stuck in a lab, never talking to anyone.” I decided to pursue programming, and started getting my masters degree in engineering. But then I realized that, once again, I was alone at 2 AM, coding. So I stopped programming. It was very hard to make that decision, because I don’t like to quit things.
I ended up at a crossroads. One weekend I came to visit a friend in NYC for her birthday, and just decided to stay and see what happened. I got a job within a week–not in tech, but at a small nutrition company. My responsibilities evolved into redesigning the student database and revising the website. I started working with my supervisors to define what we needed to do with our technology, and over the years we grew a tech team. While at that job I started researching project and program management, and learned the project life cycle from the ground up. That was 10 years ago.
What makes a great program manager?
I think you naturally tend to have a personality that lends itself to doing the job. I enjoy talking to people and getting things done. I love finding a problem and helping the team work through creative ways to solve it. I’ve worked at tech companies that followed Waterfall development practices and others that followed a more Agile approach: I appreciate both types, and layer methodologies from both into my project management style here at Gilt.
Also, I think if you’re a really good program or project manager, then the developers want you around to be there for them. I consider myself to be my team’s shield: I’m there to get business done, but also separate them from all the information that could be coming at them.
If you had to name some key traits that every program manager should have, what would they be?
A key trait you need is to be a really good listener and be able to explain things to both business and technical stakeholders. You have to be an effective liaison and manage other departments’ expectations. You also have to know how to explain concepts and ideas in a non-technical way, but also understand what the tech team is saying.
Like being a translator.
In a lot of ways. Every project involves lots of stakeholders, and they’re each going to want to have their say. It’s my job to manage all of that and establish a relationship with each person. I take in the information, figure out the best strategy, and make sure that all the stakeholders understand and agree with the plan in some way.
So it’s also like being a diplomat.
Yes. A large part of my job is developing relationships, so that when there’s an issue we can just chat about it and it’s not so formal. It’s about building trust, so that the other person knows you’re going to tell them the truth, and that if you don’t know the answer, you’ll find it and be there for them.
How do you stay up-to-date on the technologies we use?
Most of the learning is done by osmosis. I read tech blogs and books, but it’s really more about listening to the developers and trying to get in on those conversations. You don’t always have to know the technology at the same level as they do, but it helps.
How does program management at Gilt compare to other companies’ processes?
Here, you can’t be super-rigid. Gilt follows Agile principles, so you have to know how to take projects apart and work on them piece by piece. It’s a more flexible way of doing things, with more iteration. We focus on getting out the minimum viable product and iterating on it once it’s been released.
How often do you meet with other program managers?
Our program management operations team meets every week. It’s a way for all of us to find out what’s going on across the organization, and to talk about the impacts of our initiatives. We go to a lot of social events together, to help us stay connected. And we also go to trainings, either taught by outside instructors or Heather [Fleming, Senior Director, Program Management Office].
What have been your biggest accomplishments at Gilt?
Before joining the back office team, I worked with the Stores Platform team and helped launch keyword search. That initiative significantly changed how people shop on Gilt by enabling us to better serve not only browsing customers, but also customers with specific needs. We also created a unified navigation, which brought all of our stores under one unified brand. That project involved all the teams at Gilt, and required agreement from all the department heads.
What are you working on these days?
The back-end team is developing a new customer service app so that we can support our customers more quickly and easily. We’re also working on reworking our business processes to gain efficiencies in our workflow, and create a data flow that’s seamless from one enterprise application to the next. My biggest priority is to nail down our road map: to gain consensus on what we will focus on in the next few months. And of course, dealing with all the changes along the way!