One of the most common words thrown around by companies today, regardless of industry, is innovation. Every company wants to be seen as the innovator, the forward-thinker, the one tackling problems in new, unique and creative ways. But if everyone is saying it, how do the true innovators go out and prove it?
In this special two-part edition of Collaborative Conversations, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sit down with an experienced innovator and tech entrepreneur: PGi VP of Innovation Nikki Santoro. I spoke to Nikki about a variety of topics, from her professional background to the importance of STEM education for today’s youth.
In Part One, Nikki discusses her background, her passion for entrepreneurship and the challenges often faced by product managers.
Tell me a bit about your background and career up to this point and how it brought you to PGi.
My first internship and job out of college was with Microsoft, but I was a bit of a strange bird there – my education was in psychology and instructional design, so I had to work hard to convince them that it was okay to hire someone who couldn’t write code or algorithms. Luckily, I was recognized for bringing a unique perspective to software projects, a fresh set of eyes missing on traditional dev teams.
My ten years at Microsoft were an amazing experience, especially since I did not come from a software background. I felt like I earned a Master’s Degree in the software development process just from working there. I had the opportunity to work on a variety of products at Microsoft, but it wasn’t until I moved to the consumer group that I really found my passion for software. I got to focus on communication and collaboration services and design products that people love to use every day. I worked on the consumer side for five of those ten years and it was always exciting to see how customers use our products to connect with other people.
Where did you go after you left Microsoft? What prompted the exit?
I left Microsoft because I was eager to explore new possibilities and smaller product niches to which a bigger company may not be able to commit resources. I was also interested to learn new aspects of running a business, like building products on a budget, making payroll, and selling your ideas to complete strangers. Running a tech startup forces you to learn all of those things and more, on the fly. I wanted the entrepreneurial experience — the good and the bad!
After leaving Microsoft, I founded a tech startup called Kinnection. My vision for Kinnection was to provide families with a safe place to share memories, stay connected and preserve family history. The product combined the best of social networking, blogging and scrapbooking. Shortly thereafter, my husband and I moved to Atlanta where I met Vlad Mijatovic who, at the time, was the CTO of a virtual-worlds company called Halcyon Worlds. Vlad introduced me to the company’s primary investor, and he tapped me to run the company. After launching a virtual office service, we were introduced to PGi through some partners. Our platform and team turned out to be the perfect vehicle for helping Boland Jones realize his vision of a creating a simple, intuitive meeting product; thus iMeet® was born!
What do you consider to be the most challenges aspects of product management and product development?
I think the biggest challenge that PMs face is having to lead without authority, having to convince executives, developers and all other stakeholders that your ideas are the right ideas. You have to be confident enough to sell your ideas and your plan of attack above you, below you and to the side — if you can’t do that successfully, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to secure resources, whether in the form of developer time or company funding.
That’s a really interesting point – it almost sounds like, even within a bigger company, that you have to have a bit of a startup mindset to aggressively pitch your ideas.
Absolutely! Say your company has a dev team that could be working on any of 17 projects right now, but you want them to work on yours. A good product manager has a way of getting people excited about the work. Instead of being a chore, you’ve got to get your team motivated by where you’re going, why you’re going there and how you’re going to get there. That’s the real challenge of being a PM and not everyone overcomes it the same way. You have to learn your own strengths.
Stay tuned for Part Two, where I talk to Nikki about the importance of innovation and the value and necessity of STEM education in today’s society.
Interested in learning more about the unique challenges and opportunities in today’s business? Download PGi’s free eBook “The Future of Business Collaboration” today!