Get to know Bettina, Anna, Christoph, Eva und Violeta– five of the ten Product Owners at Spreadshirt.
How do you manage the products in a company like Spreadshirt, anyway? Who takes care of agile software development and production processes? Of course, it takes a whole team of people to do that together. Product Owners manage the products according to the needs of all the various players – developers, stakeholders and customers – without being involved in the development themselves. In this way, they are the bridge between everyone.
Together with four of the ten Product Owners at Spreadshirt and Bettina, Director Product Management, we will explore how to become a Product Owner, what soft and hard skills are needed, and why diversity is one of the most important factors in today’s digital world.
Hello dear colleagues! Thanks for taking the time for this interview. Today we’re going to be talking about your jobs at Spreadshirt: All of you have the same job description, while your backgrounds and individual tasks couldn’t be more diverse. Before we dive deep into your individual stories… Which 3 words describe best what skills are needed when working as a Product Owner?
Bettina: There are so many. I’d say communication and problem solving.
Anna: A mother’s skills. (Everyone laughs)
You choose communication, problem solving and… mom skills?
Eva: Logical thinking…
Bettina: Empathy… You need empathy for your customers, your stakeholders, everyone.
Violeta: And we’re back to being a mom.
Looks like all moms have the skills to be Product Owners, eh? And like being a mother, you can’t study to become a Product Owner. What are the general tasks of a Product Owner and how do you become one?
Violeta: For me personally it started with doing the ground work: understanding the projects. Specifically, I was a Quality Assurance Engineer and after I had gotten a better understanding of the projects, I became a Project Manager. When I had a wider view, I became a Product Owner. As a Product Owner you need to be able to see things as a whole. You can’t just focus on the small things and forget about the bigger picture. You have to have an overall view of the product at all times.
Anna: And you need to be an expert in your field. Without that, you can’t be a Product Owner.
What’s your individual role at Spreadshirt? What are the challenges you face?
Christoph: I’m mostly responsible for our internal customer service tools. My main focus is to provide an excellent service for our customers and partners. My major challenge is the number of requirements that come from our stakeholders. We have a lot of big plans and ideas and I have to make sure to funnel our resources to get the best possible results. Especially when it comes to our quarterly prioritization, I lead the negotiations and walk the tightrope between what’s necessary and what’s possible.
Anna: I’m responsible for the internal tools we use to check nearly a million designs per month. When a design is published for sale, we have to do some legal and quality checks. We have, for example, built an artificial intelligence to process some parts of the legal check automatically.
Violeta: I’m the Product Owner of Production. There are two kind of tools we use here. The tools we use to actually produce things and the tools the production directors use to control the flow of orders in their facilities. My biggest challenge is when the software meets the reality of the physical world. What works perfectly in the software world doesn’t always work in the actual process with human beings. It’s essential to focus on the bigger picture at Spreadshirt, especially because there are many different teams and components involved in each project.
Eva: I’m the Product Owner for the Partners. We take care of many things in regard to all partners, from Shop Owners to Marketplace Designers. I take care of their user interface, for example how they upload designs and use their accounts. The biggest challenge I see for Spreadshirt is that the company used to be a start-up and is now in a process of transition. The platform is so big now and we have to take care of what’s already there while also trying to develop further.
Bettina: I lead the Product Owner team— and that’s my challenge of course. (Smiles) We have a lot of big goals and aspirations as a company, we have different Business Units and the challenge here is to figure out, how to create the most value for our customers, partners and the company.
Anna and Violeta, your work involves a lot of software. Which interesting technologies are you currently using?
Anna: We’ve built up an inhouse-trained and self-learning software to support our human image reviews. We tested many methods and ended up with a pretty well-functioning mix of approaches. The moment when you get some numbers on your performance after doing adaptions is always a really exciting one.
Violeta: We have a 3D-printer and have been using that to bring our ideas to life. Spreadshirt is not only about software, but also about hardware development. We 3D-print pieces for our production, we test those ideas and see if we can use any of them.
What’s the coolest feature that has improved the customer journey at Spreadshirt?
Anna: It’s definitely Create Your Own (CYO). That is one of our Business Units and it’s such a cool thing! Everyone visiting our website can create their own products and designs directly in their browser. It’s very DIY and people can realize their ideas in a simple way.
Bettina: I’m very proud of the new partner area. We’ve completely changed the process of setting up a shop as well as the publishing process.
Eva: It’s now super easy to set up a shop and create products! It’s not rocket science for the partners, they can create several products at once and they don’t have to be experts in e-commerce. This is one of Spreadshirt’s goals: to create products that enable partners and customers.
As Product Owner, you are reporting to and connecting with stakeholders, customers and your developers… How do you achieve the balance between the different wishes and perspectives?
Bettina: We use the OKR method to prioritize initiatives. That sets the frame for our work.
A little hint for our readers who don’t know what OKR (Objectives and Key Results) means: This method of planning and setting goals is based on setting regular objectives and their checking their outcomes regularly to improve processes and products. It allows the people to work together in a more agile, transparent, and timely manner, as well as in an environment with flat hierarchies.
Anna: And then there’s meetings of course. We bring all people together who have to make decisions and try to move things forward.
Eva: It’s important to make decisions that everybody understands. Sometimes people don’t really get what they want. So we try to help them understand what they’re not getting and why.
Violeta: We cannot always satisfy everybody’s requests. There usually needs to be some give and take and it is our job to manage this. For that, we collaborate with them at all times.
Developing products using the OKR method usually involves a so-called SCRUM master. This is a person which is not directly responsible for the product but is there to make sure that agreed processes are seen through. Do you think this role is essential or can a Product Owner do this job by himself?
Anna: None of us has one.
Bettina: It depends on the maturity of the team. We’ve been working with agile methods for a long time now. A lot of our processes are well established and at this point a SCRUM Master isn’t needed as much as it maybe was a couple of years ago.
What’s the best thing about your product team? How do you work together?
Violeta: I like how open, understanding and collaborative we are. We’re willing to discuss stuff in a constructive way.
Anna: We are really honest with each other all the time. We don’t need to pretend to be someone else. It’s a nice atmosphere.
Christoph: I really like the high level of expertise. Everyone in our team is very professional.
Bettina: We all have the same mindset; we all want to build cool stuff. We want to work on things which in the end really make a difference to the customer.
Violeta: Yeah. We are pretty like-minded, when it comes to what we want to achieve.
Anna: And of course, we have some fun as well! We do karaoke (all laugh). We all try to do our best, be open and collaborative. That makes our culture. We work on the same level.
Bettina, you are the Product Owners’ team lead. How do you keep the team together?
Bettina: Our Product Owners are closely embedded into the respective product teams. But we all come together for daily stand-up meetings to keep everyone in the loop on what’s happening. Then of course we have team meetings and team events. There’s also a lot of collaboration between teams on bigger initiatives.
You’ve got a very interesting background and already worked for Skype and Microsoft. How was that? And how did you go from large tech companies to a business like Spreadshirt?
Bettina: A lot of things were quite similar. In each of my jobs my focus was the customer, trying to understand their needs, how they use the product and in which context, and then come up with solutions. What has changed is the way we work. When I started out, we were using the “waterfall approach”, now we’re working in a very agile way with short iterations and ongoing feedback. It’s a lot easier that way to validate your ideas and make sure you’re building the right thing. I spent 14 years abroad and decided to move back to my hometown for personal reasons. I was looking for a company with an inspiring vision and international working atmosphere as well as flat hierarchies. This is how I found Spreadshirt.
Since you started at Spreadshirt in October, the amount of women in leadership positions has reached 50% for the first time in the company’s history. Do you feel like working in a leading position as a woman is very different?
Bettina: It’s hard to say, because I am a woman. I don’t know what it’s like to work in a leading position as a man. At Spreadshirt it’s no different! We have a culture that supports everyone.
Christoph: External companies actually raise the question much more than we do. We don’t think about this so much. I guess that is actually a good sign. I wouldn’t even know there was a 50% share if you hadn’t mentioned it now.
The only man in the game. How does it feel to be a “minority”?
Christoph: It doesn’t feel like that. I like to work with people, no matter the gender. Jokes are sometimes on me of course, but that’s something I can live with.
Eva, You’re responsible for Spreadshirt’s partner area. There have been many changes in the last year or so – and many more to come. What are the challenges at the moment? What are you working on?
Eva: The partner area is a super great tool. Right now, we’re focusing on bringing the old partner area to this awesome new partner area.
You studied physics, are Co-Founder of Leipzig-based house music label Rose Records and lived in the Netherlands. Can you name one skill from each of these interesting facts that helps you in your job at Spreadshirt?
Eva: Physics – Don’t ask me why I did that, but I did and somehow finished. It helps me understand things that are not easy to get, it helps me to pursue it and get it done. Label – We release records on vinyl, but even before I started working here, we printed T-Shirts at Spreadshirt for merchandise. Because of that, I know how a partner might feel. Netherlands – you appreciate the weather in Leipzig afterwards and that you don’t have to watch the rain radar all the time.
Violeta, You studied and worked as a Software Quality Assurance Engineer before becoming a Product Owner. How are these two job profiles connected?
Violeta: It gives me a good understanding how software works. Not only from the user’s point of view, but also from a developer’s. I don’t code, but I understand the logic behind it. Being a QA, I was training my eye to look for certain things. I still do that naturally.
You studied, lived and worked in Armenia before joining Spreadshirt in Leipzig. Was it the job that brought you here?
Violeta: Spreadshirt brought me here! In Armenia I was working for startups and was doing freelance work for American companies, but I was ready and wanted to step out of the startup world and step into the bigger chaotic world.
Anna, you’ve been at Spreadshirt for 9 years! What are the biggest differences between now and then? What has changed and how?
Anna: It’s true, I have a history at Spreadshirt. I started here at the age of 19 looking for a summer job. First I worked in production, later in Customer Service. I was always interested in designs and when Asset Management was looking for someone, I started in copyright/trademark check as well as creating designs for bigger partners. Then I figured out that people in Product Management were doing a really cool job. So I found a university course in Leipzig that focused on engineering, but many other things like economics, too. I started with an internship at Product Management and I was lucky to stay. It’s really hard to capture changes along the way, but altogether, Spreadshirt got more mature. It was more “startup-y” 10 years ago. Back then things moved faster, but we didn’t dig as deep as nowadays. And the decision making on what we do improved a lot.
What are the specific challenges for you? How do assets and designs go together?
Anna: My biggest challenge is that we have lots of internal tools that don’t bring revenue, but save time, cost and improvements for our employees. It’s not always easy to defend the need to maintain and develop older tools.
Christoph, you’re the Product Owner of Customer Services and Communication. What are the specific skills you need and what are the challenges?
Christoph: Spreadshirt’s level of customer focus is amazing. We have this policy that people can return whatever they want. This is made possible by our awesome customer service! People give really good reviews. That means from the product side there’s a huge variety. My biggest challenge is to ask regularly: Are certain products, tools and policies good for us and the customers?
What did you actually study and how does that help in your decision making?
Christoph: Before becoming an “office clerk” I was in sports. Parallel to my sports career, I studied Economics and Sports science. During my time as a professional sportsman I learned (among other things) how to lead and communicate with a group of people that have very different cultural and personal backgrounds.
Before closing this interview, we want you to close your eyes and imagine that the seat next to you is free – If you could be sitting anywhere, where would you be and who would be with you/next to you?
Violeta: My cats! One is handicapped and he inspires me to not give up. We would be sitting somewhere warm.
Christoph: I see myself sitting on a bench, with a view of the sea. And it would be fine to not have anyone next to me for a while, just a cup of coffee.
Eva: Of course, Ryan Gosling! I mean I only see Christoph all day. (Everyone’s laughing)
Bettina: I’d like to sit next to myself in ten years, to see what the future will bring!
Thanks so much everyone!