Breanna currently works as a Product Manager at Universe. I met her when I started working at Wattpad last year, and she stood out to me as a smart, independent, no-nonsense woman who was not afraid to speak her mind. Her candor is seen as refreshing to some, and intimidating to others – or even both in some cases. Either way, she’s a force to be reckoned with – striving to challenge stereotypes both in tech and beyond. She was one of the first people who came to mind when I started this blog, and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to chat with her a few weeks ago. We talked about her background and journey into Product, the experiences that have shaped and molded who she is today, and her various contributions to the fight for equality – a movement very close to her heart.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey so far.
I’m Breanna Hughes and I’m a product manager at Universe. I’m from a very tiny town in the Okanagan, in BC, hence why I moved to Toronto – to get away from the small town. I always felt that super big fish in a small pond syndrome. I love music, going to concerts, sports, games, and I love tech. And I just got married.
Outside of work, what are you most passionate about and why?
I’m super passionate about women equality – especially as it relates to tech. For the longest time, I was afraid of using the feminist word because of what I thought it meant. As a society as a whole, we didn’t have a proper understanding of it – or I personally wasn’t mature enough to understand it because I would say stupid things like “I’m a feminist, but I love men”. But that’s not at all what it’s about; it’s about preventing all the inequality we experience as women – that I’ve experienced as a woman in tech – and making it evaporate so that it’s not even a thing. It shouldn’t even be a thought that crosses the minds of the next generation of young women.
Obviously, there’s a lot of other problems like intersectionality that I can’t empathize with as a white woman in tech; I’m becoming hyper aware of white privilege, so I’m taking something that I can empathize with and trying to change that.
What are your values – the things that influence your decisions in your life or career?
I’m an insanely passionate person; it’s very easy for me to get excited and passionate about things. So one of my core values is that if I’m not excited and passionate about something, then I shouldn’t be doing it. My main passions right now are definitely tech and solving problems; I love that side of things – taking ideas or hypotheses and using data to prove them correct or incorrect.
What is a saying that you live by?
Get shit done. After my first job, there was this interesting turning point in my career. I would spend a lot of my time tweeting, blogging, and going for a million coffees to pick people’s brains; but I felt like I was talking a lot but not doing enough. So I did some self-reflection and I decided that I needed to do more shit – I needed to stop asking people what they were doing and start doing more. It was a pretty good turning point in my career – I switched jobs after that and really started making a name for myself in tech. So get shit done is my motto, and I live my life that way. When it comes to sports, I’m focused on going to the goal and throwing something at the goal; when it comes to product, I’m focused on collecting data and using that to make intelligent decisions. Get shit done is what I live and die by.
In my About section, I spoke about the various barriers I put up for myself. Is that something you relate with?
Totally! Working in tech, the makers are, rightfully so, put on a pedestal – especially the developers. So because I’m not actually doing the making, I always kind of have this imposter syndrome – even though I’m a big part of figuring out how to solve the problem.
I’m a pretty technical person – I taught myself how to code through high school then took Computer Science in my first year of university. But I had something super sexist happen to me, and I was also one of the only females, so I didn’t respond well to the program. I even interned as a developer, but I was really bad at it because I was distracted – I didn’t like to focus, and I felt like I wasn’t talking to anyone else; it was very isolating and I hated it. So I dropped out of Computer Science and switched to the IT management program at Ryerson.
Even with my technical background, a lot of shit still goes over my head. So I have this huge insecurity that people think I’m stupid because I can’t code professionally. That, for sure, feels shitty, and I think anyone working in a non-technical role in tech can probably empathize with that. I think that’s a systemic issue in tech – everyone feeling kind of second fiddle to the developers. The industry caters to that too, so it’s very easy for those of us who aren’t in that role to feel a little bit insecure. That’s definitely my biggest insecurity; it’s weird being a manager but not actually doing the implementing. It’s a critical role that needs to be done, but not everyone sees it that way.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey into the product world? What triggered the switch from the business world to product?
When I completed my program at Ryerson, I worked as a Salesforce consultant which was a very technical role. As I mentioned before, I hated coding. But what I really did like was interfacing with customers and developers; I loved collaborating with the team, and also found that I was really effective in communicating development problems to non-developers because of my technical background. The flip side of that was being able to translate our customers’ needs to developers. That’s when I realized that this could be an interesting strength for me – I really liked being able to extract the actual problem, determining how we could solve it, then working with developers on that.
I had no idea what a product manager was – it didn’t even exist as a role when I started doing it. I actually went on Google and entered the stuff I was doing in my day-to-day like managing developers and designers, translating requirements, and so on. I found that Google and Microsoft had this role of product manager which sounded just like me! It’s hilarious because it turns out that was exactly what I went to school for and had been doing. So I completely stumbled into product management, which is really fortunate because it’s a perfect role for me!
Can you describe what your current role entails?
I’m a product manager at Universe – I’m leading the product management team there. We lead teams composed of a designer and multiple developers who work on a project; we’re in charge of gathering all the requirements from our users as well as stakeholders in our company, using that to determine what we’re gonna build, and distilling it down to actionable tasks for designers and developers to work on. We define the goals and success metrics of the project, run user interviews and tests, work with designers on the right flows, work with marketing on talking about the feature or project, work with our customer support team so they can anticipate any problems we might face, and basically see the project through launch. The thing that’s awesome about product management is that you interface with everyone in the company. So it’s means taking a lot of inputs and distilling them down into what the main priorities are.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered as a PM? Are there any challenges that stem specifically from being a woman in this role?
Being a female PM has massive advantages because women are inherently stronger at skills like empathy and communication. It’s a stereotype for a reason – I think I possess the ability to communicate well across teams and distill a lot of information into focus. Going back to my biggest insecurity though, as a PM you’re working with pretty much all men, especially the developers, so that gnawing feeling of not being a strong enough developer always nags at me a little. I feel like it might even be tenfold because I’m a woman – they might view me as not as technical or knowledgeable because, stereotypically, that’s the case. I definitely get mansplained a lot, and I try to educate people when they do that, but I think sometimes it’s just purely human nature; they assume I don’t know as much and I don’t give myself enough credit, so when it comes to such situations I always just kind of assume they know more than I do because of their experience. So not feeling like I’m technical enough is certainly a challenge.
Some people like to describe me as a bitch, which I find interesting. I definitely think that you do need to make sure you’re not like a bull in a china shop, especially when you’re in a management role. In my case, I’m just quick to point things out that aren’t true and move the conversation forward because I like to be efficient. And if I have the data to prove it, I’ll call people out if they’re using false anecdotes. So when I get this feedback, it’s conflicting; part of me wants to take it to heart, but I also think those attributes help me be effective at my job. It would be interesting to hear if men also get that feedback; I’ve heard people saying they don’t like Hillary Clinton’s voice, or that it’s too shrill, and that angers me because those things don’t define her and have nothing to do with her abilities.
So it’s been really hard figuring out where the balance is. One thing that’s been helpful is going to my peers and asking for 360 feedback to make sure that it’s not just individual perception; if it’s collective, and everyone feels that way, then I need to work on it.
What are you most proud of in terms of your career?
My involvement with Ladies Learning Code – starting that with Melissa, Laura, and Heather, getting it off the ground, running those workshops for years, and seeing what it’s become now is definitely a shining moment in my career. It’s given me the opportunity to take my experience and the crappy things that happened to me as a woman in tech, and do something to help make the tech space more inclusive for women – which is really awesome.
Another thing I’m proud of is being very outspoken and shameless when it comes to speaking up about women issues in general. I’m very outspoken on Twitter – I’ve set aside any reservations to protect my personal brand and career, or what people think of me, to be that voice so that other people can feel comfortable sharing their voice. I talk about things that make a lot of people uncomfortable, so I’m proud of myself for just laying it on the line and being transparent to hopefully inspire others to do the same.
There are these guidelines on how women should behave or express themselves so as to be likeable or more likely to get promoted. Any advice you would give other women facing this constraint?
I don’t know if I’ve figured that out, so I can’t really give advice. I do try not to listen to any of that though. It helps that I have more of an outspoken personality, but I do sometimes wonder whether I’m overcompensating; I’ve always been talked over so maybe I feel like I have to overcompensate to be heard?
I think in general, women should continue to stand up for what they believe in and make sure that they are heard in whatever way. And it doesn’t have to be in the form of volume or voice; if you’re better expressing yourself in writing, then write it and read it out – or send it out by email then follow up in person. There’s a lot of ways to make sure that you’re heard. I don’t have it mastered though – I’m figuring it out [laughs]. But I’d want other people to speak up – be honest and talk about it.
There’s this conventional wisdom around switching jobs after certain periods of time, and so on, that result in pressure to stay put. What are the things you look for or the things that drive that decision for you?
The moment I’m not passionate and don’t care, there’s a problem. When I notice that I’m bored, that I’m not learning anymore, and that I’ve lost motivation – that’s the right time. But there’s also such a thing as giving up too soon; you can have a bad week or month, or you might be working on a project that doesn’t motivate you or that’s not exciting, but that shouldn’t taint the big picture. So making sure that your boredom or lack of motivation is more of a permanent thing is also important.
One thing I think is really important is to always be looking – there’s always interesting things happening! You never know – you might find your next passion project or maybe even an opportunity for a career switch. So it’s always important to just talk to people and see what else is out there; understand your value, what people are looking for, and what the industry is like. I’ll always have a conversation with someone – which some employers might look at as a bad thing. But at the end of the day, if I’m a good employee, and I’m doing great work, that should push employers to be better and create an environment where their employees can thrive and apply their passions.
In your experience, what proactive considerations should be put in place to allow for women in tech to first of all stay in tech, and then thrive and grow within their companies?
The biggest barrier, I’d say, that companies set – especially smaller startups – is that when they’re starting off they hire people they trust, which is usually friends or like-minded individuals. Before you know it, you have a 15-person company that’s all men. Having been the first or second woman at such a company, I can tell you that it’s very hard; you feel like you’re very much an outcast – you’re always outnumbered, and so you feel like you’re at a disadvantage.
So looking early on at your company and challenging yourself to go outside of your circle, actively working harder to be more inclusive, is super important. Until we have equality for women in tech, and the numbers are equal, you should actively try to recruit women – just like you’d headhunt some superstar developer you’ve heard about. And it’s bullshit for you to say stuff like – “We’ve really wanted to hire women, but there just aren’t any out there”. Try harder – you’re not trying hard enough; you’re taking the lazy route or you’ve created an environment where women don’t want to work. And don’t say you want to hire the “right person for the job” because you don’t know that they’re not the right person for the job. Until you have an equal amount of applicants, and you’ve given them an equal fair chance, you cannot say that. And even then, it’s an excuse. Look harder – try harder.
Can you speak on the Ladies Learning Code organization and what it means to you?
When I was in Computer Science, I had this incident one of my classes. Like I said, I was from a small town, so I was really excited to be in the big city, and I wore this outfit with heels and a skirt. I walked into the class and the TA, in front of the entire class, was like – “Uh, fashion’s down the street at Ryerson.” It didn’t help that I was one of the very few females in my classes, so I always felt like a huge outcast.
When Heather and I were talking about how she wanted to start this thing, I was like – sign me up! I wanted to build this company with her because I didn’t want anyone to feel like I did. Who knows – maybe Computer Science could’ve been for me and I wouldn’t have had those insecurities if I’d finished the program. I still believe the IT management program was great, and I’m where I am for a reason, but maybe I would have finished Computer Science if I didn’t feel like so much of an outcast and so alienated. So that movement means making sure that women feel included; that they can thrive and have successful careers in tech. And we’re gonna get a diverse set of people working on building better products because of it, so I love it!
What role do you think we, as women, play in our own advancement?
I think we need to be better at building each other up and supporting one another. I haven’t worked for any women in my career, but I find it weird when I hear the Lean In principles, especially when it comes from white privileged women. It’s really easy to say – just talk louder, speak up! But it doesn’t work that way. I’d say we need to help each other. And women, especially those in leadership roles, need to be better at educating men so that they can speak up on our behalf. Standing up for us and being our allies is how it’ll get more ingrained.
What advice would you give girls/women looking to pursue a career path similar to yours?
Get out there and get shit done [laughs]! I got super involved in the tech community; I was running Ladies Learning Code on the side, doing tonnes of side projects, going to events, tweeting, and basically getting my name out there – to a point where I had to slow down a bit and focus on doing more. It’s definitely a balance between getting your name out there and meeting people vs. working on side projects and spending time helping the community – there’s tonnes of meetups that need volunteers! So get more involved; take some time to give back to the community and the community will give back to you.
Do you have any book, blog, video, etc. recommendations that have inspired you as a woman in tech?
I think the most inspirational thing is just other fellow women who are outspoken about feminism and other issues that plague us – women who are out there fighting for our rights. I recommend finding women like these in tech, following them, and building them up. I follow women like Jen Agg who owns the Black Hoof Restaurant and wrote a book about taking the word “bitch” back from people who just throw it around; Julie Ann Horvath who worked at Github and was pretty outspoken about what happened there; and even Lucy DeCoutere from the Jian Ghomeshi case. There’s a lot of women who are outspoken about equality, and I try to be one of those voices too – sharing my own experiences and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.