Diversity opens doors in product and engineering

Software engineer Erica Lloyd moderates a discussion on Diversity and Inclusion in recruiting at Tribe, BigCommerce's employee resource group for women and allies.

BigCommerce is full of brilliant, dedicated people focused on revolutionizing the world of e-commerce, with offices in Sydney, San Francisco, and two offices in Austin – corporate headquarters and a downtown product and engineering office. It goes without saying that employee diversity is crucial to a global company with customers from around the world and all walks of life.

Recently a local chapter of Tribe, BC’s employee resource group for women, formed in Austin’s downtown office. Seeing that the new chapter’s leadership consisted of three different perspectives on product and engineering, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk to them about diversity in a P&E organization.

To examine the role of diversity in any organization often means looking at its individuals’ backgrounds. A common thread running through their origin stories is that each woman had a non-traditional path to their present role. One might argue this is a major source of their strengths.

“I started in the second grade,” said Theresa Garritano, Product Designer at BC. “I would stay after school everyday in art class – my teacher would let me.  I was obsessed with art. In high school, I took a branding design class, and someone said I should take graphic design in college.

“I took a graphical user interface class and fell in love with the concept of interviewing people and understanding what makes them tick. At the time I didn’t have a smartphone, so I was so beyond what I knew, but everything was fascinating to me. That’s how I got interested in product development, working with engineers on projects in college and internships,” Theresa said.

“I always was a math numbers-based person, but I actually was a finance major in college,” added Kelsey Isaacson, Senior Software Engineer on the Powered By team at BC. “I was working as a trading analyst on the floor [in Chicago] for a couple of years after school. The head of our analytics group had built a lot of our reports in a language called R. After being there for two years, I realized [working on those reports] was my favorite part of the job. So I looked into how I could do more of that full-time.”

Kelsey moved to Austin to attend a coding boot camp. Next she worked at a startup writing Ruby and Javascript, and creating React front ends. After a couple of years, she moved on to BigCommerce where she’s been for a year and a half.

Stevie Huval, Product Manager for the Apps and Themes Marketplace team, was a Biology major, but ultimately decided her interests lay elsewhere.

“I basically ended up in financial services sales,” Huval said. “I worked for Wells Fargo for years, and had a stint as an entrepreneur in my early 20’s.

“I’ve always been this kind of person who keeps a notebook of business ideas and inventions, since I was a little kid,” she said. “I was working for Wells, and had this software I was noodling on I wanted to bring to market. I didn’t know what product management was – I had never heard those words. [But] I thought if I was interested in one day bringing a technology to market, I should go work for a technology company and see what it takes.

“I started at BigCommerce in sales, then moved to our sales engineering team and did that for a few years. That’s when I really came to understand what product management was,” said Stevie. “As a sales engineer you interface with product management a lot. That was the first time I heard of the concept and thought, that’s what I wanted to be doing.

“Those were the people who do the research, prioritize the order we attack feature requests or opportunities, and help shape the product roadmap,” Huval said. “I realized that’s the thing I came here to learn, and just didn’t know to call it that.”

“It worked out because I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of it, and the numbers aspect of it,” Kelsey said of her career. “I like that there’s a lot more creativity to it than I found in a financial analyst job. It’s not the same kind of creativity that Theresa’s using as a designer, but it’s my own creativity how I structure things.”

“We’re all creative problem-solvers,” said Theresa.

“People conflate creativity with artistic output, but creativity is something that exists independent of that,” Stevie added. “Good problem-solvers are highly creative people, and sometimes art is your medium and sometimes other things are your medium.”

So many different influences translate into an abundance of strengths for product and engineering professionals.

“Every product person is inherently an optimist,” explained Stevie. “You have to be able to find problems and actually see a path to a solution. And then just be really objective – is it more or less important than any of these other things we want to do.

“Having gone through majoring in biology, understanding how research works, forming a hypothesis, and not having a bias towards proving your own hypothesis… I was lucky to have this foundation, and apply it often,” she said.

“I’m an overthinker, an overanalyzer,” Isaacson said. “With code that can be a really good thing. Product people appreciate when engineers build things that makes them easy to iterate on, easy to change, and makes them more flexible.”

Garritano, who also minored in psychology, said the empathy she developed in her early studies is critical to product development.

“Being empathetic is important because you’re thinking like the user,” said Theresa. “My role is to make it desirable, and to do that, you have to know what the user’s next move is before they’re ever going to make it. That takes a lot of intuition and practice, to understand what people are going to do.”

With experience, also comes advice. Learning from those who came before you and sharing with those who come after are qualities most product people share.

“Whether it’s what subjects you take in school, what to major in, or what job to choose, my recommendation is always do the most technical thing you’re interested in,” said Kelsey, suggesting that it’s much harder to acquire that experience later.

She said a lot of people did not want to give her a chance. “Even though I now have several years experience, I still don’t have a CS degree and there are still some people who will hold that against me – rightly or wrongly.

“You can always go toward another direction. But having that technical background, that technical experience is invaluable,” Kelsey said.

Garritano took a turn being a web engineer for a while before concentrating on design, which has paid off in product engineering.

“Working with engineers is so much easier, because I actually know what they’re building,” she said.

In addition to diversity of experience contributing to success in product and engineering, it cannot be overlooked that the role of diversity in general, such as gender, is equally important.

“There are skills we think of as highly feminine that actually work really well in product and engineering,” Huval said, echoing Theresa and Kelsey on problem-solving, analytical thinking, and empathy.

“There are strengths society built up in females that just apply here, and you can show up as you are and be very valuable,” Stevie said. “I hope in the future we do a better job of making little girls understand that.”

Kelsey Isaacson is a Senior Software Engineer at BigCommerce, a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, and a travel junkie. (Up next, Peru!)
Stevie Huval is a Product Manager at BigCommerce, a passionate DNI advocate, and a dog person.
Theresa Garritano is a Product Designer currently building rad experiences in the e-commerce software space, while also attempting to eat all of the tacos in Austin.
Content edited for space and clarity.