Seema currently works as the Head of Core Products at Wattpad. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a number of discussions with her on product, diversity, and our mutual love for Salsa (mainly, who our Salsa instructor likes best), and have always come out of them enlightened or entertained! She continually inspires me, be it through stories of her unconventional journey into product, her inquisitive and analytical approach to problem solving, or her contagious passion and excitement for the things she holds dear. I was excited to connect with her to hear more about her experiences and learnings over the years, and her thoughts on some of the gender and diversity problems we face today.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey so far.
My name is Seema and I’m currently Head of Core Products at Wattpad. I’ve had a very winding career path to get here – I’ve had a number of jobs in the business sphere, and most recently in the tech and startup space. In terms of my personal life, I love doing anything that revolves around entertainment, performance, and creativity; I love to act, write, and direct, mostly in theatre and comedy.
What are your values – the things that guide your decisions in your life or career?
The number one for me is passion. Whatever I do, I have to love it, be excited about it, and have that interest and drive for it.
Another really important thing to me is to be around people, to have them influence me, and for me to influence them. I’m an extrovert and I love connecting with others; whether it be learning from others, sharing with them, or even just driving really strong friendships.
Leadership is another related value – it’s really important to me to be able to lead people. For me, that means coaching, mentoring, and helping people grow and find themselves.
Curiosity is another big one – I’m really interested in understanding more, and asking “why” questions to dig deeper. I’m just genuinely curious about a lot of things.
I have a few others: I care a lot about recognition, and always being able to learn, grow continuously, and be challenged.
What are you most passionate about and why?
This one might sound cheesy, but, making a difference. I really want to leave a mark somehow – and hopefully a positive one! On the creative side, my love and interests around theatre and comedy grew because I don’t see them purely as entertainment – I see them as somehow changing how people think and as a big part of empathy. If someone can look at art and that helps them understand others’ perspectives, or change their thinking, art has done it’s job.
I also apply these principles to how I choose work. In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of roles and companies, but the ones that have always made me the happiest and where I’ve been most passionate are where I’ve been able to have impact, see that impact, and know how meaningful that impact is.
What is a saying that you live by, or that influences your daily life?
Fail fast, or failure is a step along the way to success. It’s tough, and I have to keep reminding myself of that one, because that’s not necessarily how the world is structured. You’ve gotta get out there and try, and fail; fail multiple times and fail publicly sometimes. No one who’s ever achieved success has not failed. So embracing that failure, learning and growing from it, and not being afraid of it is really important. There’s a way to do it that’s less painful, and you learn that over time. I remember taking a few judo classes when I was a kid and the first thing you learn is how to fall [laughs]. It’s horrible in the beginning, but that’s the nature of doing judo: you’re gonna have to fall a lot, so you need to learn how to do that well and less painfully, which is kinda how you have to learn to fail.
What is one of your proudest achievements?
I’m really proud of moments where I’ve been able to get out there and do something all on my own, such as producing a play because I wasn’t getting into the roles or plays that I wanted.
I’m also proud of a company I started, built, and failed at very quickly, because it taught me a lot, and I had a great experience going through the grunt of building something from the ground up.
And I’m really proud of the 9 months I was unemployed in my early 20s, struggled hard, and went through big life questions; I’m proud of who came out of that – it was important for me to go through that experience, and I think I came out a lot stronger for it!
In my About section, I spoke about the various barriers I put up for myself on a regular basis. Is that something you relate with? If so, what is the one thing you wish you could stop doing?
Self-doubt; I have my ups and downs with it. There are periods in my life where I’m really confident, and things are going well, and then there’s times where it’s overwhelming. Something that has been resonating with me a lot lately is the idea that if things are suddenly getting really hard and feel horrible, you’ve probably just leveled up [laughs]! It helps me deal with self-doubt: it’s a new level – I have to figure it out and learn the tricks, but I will get there and then I will level up again!
But, self-doubt is tough; it catches you in surprising moments, never really completely goes away, and I’ve found that it transforms as you move up in your career. In my current role, I don’t have somebody to reassure me that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing – there isn’t necessarily that sounding board I’ve had in the past. So I just have to believe that my intentions are good, and that my experience and knowledge are enough to make me right more often than wrong. So it’s a tough one, and I wish I could turn it into more of a learning opportunity and move on from it quickly.
Can you tell me a little bit about your current role? What it entails?
I lead a group of product managers who work on different parts of the Wattpad product. A big part of my role is making sure that they are equipped to do their jobs really well, which ultimately feeds into a product strategy that will support Wattpad’s goals and will get us where we need to go. And I play a really big role in owning and honing that product strategy.
What is product though? One of the definitions I like is it’s essentially finding ways to make sure that we’re delivering the right product or solution to our users – whatever it might be. Ultimately, what determines a product manager’s success is if they can ensure that we’re building the right things, which will achieve our goals, by solving the right problems. So being good at product is very much a generalist type of thing. You have to be really good at business, design, and also technology, which is part of why I love product; you get to consider a lot of factors deeply, and are ultimately accountable for making the decisions – which is not an easy place to be in. You have to be a very objective person to be able to do this, often in very imperfect circumstances with imperfect data. So a big part of my role is instilling all of those values and skills into the team, and making sure that fits into a cohesive product strategy that makes sense for our users and for our business.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a female leader, particular to the intersectionalities that constitute your personal identity i.e. being a colored woman?
There’s a lot of good that comes with it, such as being in a position where I can actually, hopefully, help others around me and make a difference. One of the challenges of that is some of the expectations that go along with it. Being a woman of color, there’s a certain degree of wanting to help and do more for people around me who are in similar situations, but there’s also an expectation that it’s part of my job. And I don’t mind that because I love it and want to do it, and it’s probably me putting the expectation on myself, if anything, but it’s a complicated life.
Also, being a woman in leadership – being a woman in a lot of places – there’s this added layer of nuance to self-doubt. It’s subtle things such as how people talk to you, and presumptions that are made about who you are in a meeting. I feel like I’m fighting a number of things in life – not specific by any means to my role at Wattpad. I’m being perceived as young, one of not that many females – particularly on the tech side, and as a person of color. And you never really know if that has to do with anything when things seem strange or off, and it’s very subtle, but it builds and it’s really hard to deal with that in life. It’s also something that I’ve been used to for a long time – I’ve been in environments where I’ve been in the minority most of my life, so it normalizes; it doesn’t make the negatives okay, but it sometimes makes them less noticeable.
Can you tell me about a failure you’ve gone through and what you learned from it?
I’m really proud of the company I started, built, and failed at very quickly. I made all the classic product mistakes: I thought I knew all the answers before I actually built out the solution, and hadn’t done a lot of customer validation. I had read Lean Startup, so I was trying to operate by some of those principles, but I still thought I knew way more than I actually did because I came from a strategy background. I was wasting time and effort on things that were too far down the line vs. just understanding whether this was something people would even want. So I failed, and was quite devastated by that, but that was part of it – I had to go through that to learn. And the end, even if I failed, I’m grateful because then I ended up at Wattpad [laughs]! So, things work out.
Can you speak on how you are able juggle your responsibilities while maintaining your health and sanity?
I don’t think I’ve got the silver bullet on that one just yet. I think that a lot of it is how you manage your time, and the choices you make about what to do and what to drop. A big part of product management is prioritization, and that means some things will just never get done – and that’s okay! I think it’s also a bit of attitude around how much it matters to do everything; I’ve had to get comfortable with the idea of not being able to do everything all the time.
Someone once told me that it’s not about work/life balance, it’s about work/life rhythm; things go up and down, change, and evolve – and that’s worked reasonably well for me. There’s times in my life where I’ve neglected things I probably shouldn’t, such as health, friends, or family; but then those periods tend to calm down, and I get back into a groove. So I’d say that it hasn’t been one of the biggest stressors in my life; it’s more just being able to live in the moment with what you’re doing at that time, and appreciate that.
From previous conversations I’ve had with you, you have come across as a strong supporter of diversity in the workplace. What to you are the things we should do to move towards diversity or inclusivity in tech?
I don’t have the answer yet. I think there’s a series of issues that lead to it, all the way from childhood – what people are raised to believe in terms of their values, ambitions, and aspirations; through to the educational system where there’s a set of choices people make that take them down a certain path; to the workplaces themselves – what their hiring pipelines and internal cultures look like, the advancement opportunities they provide, and what their executive and board compositions look like. And the issue is much broader than that because other societal things influence it: If there was actually a fair representation of diversity in the governments across the world, that would probably have a massive impact on how the corporate environment is structured. And it’s not just about justice and fairness, but it’s also about the economy – what’s best for this world and the people in it.
So the problem lies within the whole system, and one of the challenges is that it’s very easy for any part of the chain can pass the buck to any other part of the chain. But it’s a really complicated problem, and it’s on everyone to take responsibility, wherever they are, to do something. It’s on minorities, because often they are the most effective at getting change done, and it’s, in a lot of ways, their story to tell. But it’s also on people who are not minorities and those already living with a strong degree of privilege to actually support making these things happen, because they hold a lot of the power.
There’s this conventional wisdom around switching jobs after certain periods of time, and so on, that result in pressure to stay put. What advice would you give other women going through such a moment in their careers?
The way I like to think about rules – and when I say rules, I mean the expectations that exist – is you should know all the rules, but more importantly, you should know why they exist and what’s behind them, and then go ahead and break them [laughs]! And the reason I say that is I think it’s very different to break rules if you have no understanding of them, vs. if you’re making a conscious decision to break a rule with intent, knowledge, and insight. Maybe the company just isn’t the right fit for me; maybe it’s because I’m advancing very rapidly and that means moving to a different department or a different company that will give me this opportunity faster. So when it comes to breaking the rules of career progression, I think you can totally do it, and I think you should do it, but also know the implications of it; it may look strange on my resume, I might have to start further down than I did before, but I’m bringing something to the table that other people don’t have, and if I use it well, then the change shouldn’t impede me at all! You can follow the path that’s expected, and you’ll be good; but you can also break those rules and could go from being really good to being exceptional. At the end of the day, you’re the only one who has to live with your decisions; you have to do what’s best for you and what makes you happy.
What is your definition of a feminist?
To me, what it’s always meant is people who believe in fairness and equality of genders. Right up until somewhere in university, I was uncomfortable with the word – it was this negative thing that was associated with some extreme behavior. I became way more comfortable early in university when I got really involved in women’s issues – not just because I was an activist, but I just fundamentally believed in equality. It became really important to me that everyone in my life identified as a feminist because if you didn’t believe in that core principle, then we didn’t share the same values. It’s great when people are able to make a change, but I think believing fundamentally in the concept is important and I would hope that the vast majority of people living in our time today believe that and are feminists.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership/advancement?
There are different expectations placed on men vs. women from an early age, all the way through; they’re intense expectations that shape a lot of who we are, and they’re not easy to change. I think that is a huge part of what leads to it. We have learned to value a set of leadership characteristics that are typically more masculine identifying: people who are authoritative, powerful, direct, unflinching – all these Winston Churchill type qualities that we associate with strong leaders. In reality, those are the exact characteristics that are socialized out of girls at a very early age; in fact you’re punished if you have a lot of these characteristics, whereas we look up to them in men! So that’s a huge problem because we’ve now made it impossible to break out of that cycle.
True leadership is often a combination of both masculine and feminine characteristics, and in any organization you need people who display a variety of these characteristics to be successful. So, ultimately, you need to make sure that the characteristics we value in society, and that we instill in people, are not forcing them into any particular box, and that we’re rewarding all forms of leadership.
From your experience, what do you think women can do to close the gender wage gap?
The typical thing you’re gonna hear here is: “Women can be more confident about having frank conversations about money, and being more aggressive about their own career development. That’s gonna help solve the problem.” And that can happen – I would encourage any individual who’s in a situation where they feel that they deserve more to go ahead and have those conversations. And that’s presuming that they have the ability to do so, which many people don’t. But that’s not really going to solve the overall problem.
The wage gap has to do with systemic issues: the second you see more men entering a career path, say computer programming in the 70s/80s, suddenly the salaries go up; the opposite happens when you start to see more women entering a career path. Because it isn’t actually an objective measure of the value of that role in society; it has to do with the fact that we value women and their contributions less as a society, and that’s a big part of why we have the wage gap. So I think it’s really complicated, and it goes back to cultural norms and values that we have. The industry should compare the average wage made by men vs. women, think about what this means, and try to figure out ways to address it. It’s gonna take a lot of proactive heavy lifting, this one; it’s not an easy one.
Do you have any video, book, or blog recommendations that have inspired you as a woman in tech?
Over the years, there’s been a lot that’s been really interesting and impactful, and has shaped so much of who I am and what I believe in. It’s everything from seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler be so successful through SNL and the rest of their careers, to all the product books I’ve been reading lately. I have this giant stack of books that I love on my desk; they are fantastic, I’m learning a tonne, but pretty much all of them are written by men, and pretty much all of those are white men. And they’re great and I like them all, but this needs to change; I really hope that 10 years from now this isn’t gonna be the trend.
Some great product books that have been really inspiring to me and helpful at different points in my life include The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Lean Startup, and The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I’m also a big fan of, from a product perspective, Silicon Valley Product Group and the articles and books they produce. There’s also been a lot of Ted Talks such as Start With Why – which is also a book that has been really interesting and powerful to me. So yeah, I like to try and take things from everyone and everything around me as they apply.