How curiosity and journalism led to a career in tech
For many women, the tech industry feels out of reach (thanks in large part to brogrammer culture and a misperception that an engineering degree is necessary). When carving out a career path, tech wasn’t initially on Ellie Williams’ radar. She started out as a journalist and wrote her own unique career story. We spoke to Ellie, one of CommerceHub’s rising tech leaders, to find out why strong communication skills and being curious serve her so well in her role as a leader in Product and Design.
What I do at CommerceHub? Product & Design drives the development and dissemination of our product strategy across all levels of the org. A clear understanding of the product strategy is critical to being able to prioritize well. It’s a constant balancing act of ensuring we’re delivering incremental value, working on the highest impact initiatives, and setting ourselves up for long-term success by preventing technical asymptotes. When you hear scaling, you often think tech, but we also need to scale our team and processes.
Her backstory… I started my career as a journalist. I’ve always been really curious about how things around me work and I figured being a reporter would give me the opportunity to learn as much as I could about many different subjects. As a reporter, I’d be given a topic I knew nothing about and would have to learn enough about it in a matter of hours to do a live report and interview experts. This experience helped me hone my active listening and research skills—distilling and synthesizing a lot of information into the most important parts and then clearly and succinctly communicating it back for a much wider audience.
Her turning point… I was reporting on a tragic news story one evening and was looking to provide an update for the 11 pm show. Law enforcement agencies had all gone home and weren’t providing additional information to the press, so I went online and remember seeing details of the crime being told through what we called “citizen journalists” or neighbors at the time. I wasn’t allowed to use any of this information in my report without first confirming it with police. The more I read, the clearer it became that traditional news gathering would soon become obsolete.
Time to make a career move… I’d started a blog as side hustle because I loved to write and loved discovering new products and services online. Through this, I came into affiliate marketing, which I was doing with Amazon. In those days, it paid well enough that I ended up generating enough money to leave reporting. I joined my first startup soon after through a connection I’d made as a reporter. I found product management a great fit, where I relied on my strong communication skills and ability to synthesize large amounts of information to influence teams across an org. I joined a healthtech start up during the pandemic and built out the Product and Design functions in order to help the company meet new demand. This was a really exciting time in healthtech because of all the Covid-related regulation changes that allowed certain products to be fast-tracked for FDA and other regulatory approval.
Why she joined CommerceHub… There were three key reasons I joined CommerceHub: first and foremost was CommerceHub’s CEO Bryan Dove. I was familiar with Bryan from a Slack group we both belonged to. While I’d never met him, I was familiar with his messages in the group’s management channel. I found his advice memorable and insightful. When I saw him post that he was looking for Product people, I thought, “It’d be awesome to work for someone like him!” and I reached out. Second, I discovered Insight Partners were investors in CommerceHub. I knew they valued being Product-led and had strong domain expertise in ecommerce and supply chain. I also liked the idea of a ScaleUp. (TechNation describes a ScaleUp as a company that has achieved a lot, had some impressive success and is ready to take it to the next level). And third was the network of customers CommerceHub had spent two decades building. From a Product perspective, this is the type of unfair advantage you don’t come across every day.
Why she’s excited about the future… CommerceHub is in a transformational phase as a company, which is just an exciting time and thing to be a part of. As a company, we’re also uniquely positioned to transform the retail industry through our product offering. We have a compelling strategy that will give our customers entirely new ways to optimize, operate, and do business with each other. The downstream impact of this will benefit everyday consumers like you and I.
What she wants you to know about product management… First, I want to stress that you don’t need to have a degree in computer science to be successful in product management. Yes, it can be helpful, but what’s most important is that you have a willingness to learn and an ability to communicate in a way that fosters connection and builds influence. It’s much more about relationship building and being able to innovate on a company’s unique differentiator than being a technical expert.
How she’s breaking the mold when it comes to building a team… It can’t be a cookie cutter approach when you’re trying to build a well-rounded and diverse product team. Product work is incredibly multi-dimensional, so I optimize for a well-rounded team vs. having all well-rounded generalists. Instead, I look for candidates who spike in competencies that are complimentary to those of the existing team. Of course, all PMs need to be smart, creative, and persistent to be successful in the role.
Resilience and strong emotional intelligence are also helpful, knowing when to push and when to pull definitely plays a part in your success as a product manager.
One key idea about women in tech:
I do think women make very strong product managers.
What she likes about working at CommerceHub:
- Clear vision and strategy.
- Having a CEO and leadership team who believe in being Product-led and choose customer outcomes over company goals, believe in the value of design, and in advocating for women.
- The team. I love working alongside smart and driven people.
Best thing about working for a remote-first company:
Not having to commute or waste time in traffic. My feet are also grateful to not be in heels all day.
What’s your superpower?
Empathy (both for users and my team), and my ability to innovate.
Favorite inspirational quote:
“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein
Bootstrapping a company.
When you’re not working:
I swim, read, cook, and hang out with friends and family. Two hobbies I have that sometimes surprise people: I like to play video games and have dabbled in pottery.
Are you interested in joining our growing Product and Design team? Apply here.