'The Future of Work is Remote' - Valentina Thörner, Head of Product @ Klaus

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Valentina, Head of Product @ Klaus will be joining us at European Women in Tech on 26-27 November in the RAI, Amsterdam.

Tell us a little bit about yourself?

Some of the labels that come to mind: Pragmatic minimalist, solution finder, location independent, barefoot runner, product empress at Klaus, productivity nerd, reader, author, twin mom. The guiding thread here is my love for getting to the root cause and optimizing for results. I enjoy focus, creation, and letting go of what’s not useful anymore. Those things are very helpful both in product management as well as motherhood - so I constantly reprioritize, experiment and try not to take myself all too seriously.

What’s a typical day at work like for you? 

I usually get up before the kids to start the day with some meditation and a quick review of what’s up for today. Work effectively starts once the kids are at school. Recently I’ve experimented with giving each day a topic to avoid them blurring into each other. This translates into a rough structure like this: 

  • Monday is Sprint and Planning day, mostly dedicated to, well, planning the upcoming week, meeting with the development team and the designer. 
  • Tuesday is Product day, where I review our Product Board, work on feature requests and meet with our founders for ongoing strategic insights. 
  • Wednesday is GTD day. This is when the bulk of my creative output happens. I use this day to advance on scoping features, to talk to customers and to take note of any adjustments that might be needed in the medium-term future. 
  • Thursday is Social day. This is when the All-Hands meeting happens, as well as many of my customer calls. By the end of this day, my introverted self is usually quite drained - which is why I love doing this later in the week. 
  • Friday is Wrap-up day. This is my joker for anything that requires documenting or follow up and that didn’t get done during the week. Granted, some of the things will end up on my to-do list to be tackled the upcoming week. The importance here is that there are no loose threads and that everything either gets done or gets a reminder/time and place attached to it. 

Much of this work happens either at my home office or in a coffee shop if I need a change of scenery. Working remotely means I don’t lose any time commuting to an arbitrary place somewhere. As a team, we keep in touch via Slack - both process-oriented as well as socially. For example, every second Friday we do a happy hour via Zoom, where people can just hang out and share what’s going on in their life.

What excites you most about working in the tech industry?

I love the pace, and the fact that you can measure almost everything. Innovation happens everywhere, but in the tech industry, it feels much more present in day-to-day operations. Tools, ideas, processes iterate really fast and I enjoy being a part of this ever-changing landscape. You end up getting really comfortable with change that way. 

This is also one of the reasons I enjoy so much working at my current job. One of the most fascinating parts of being Head of Product at Klaus is the possibility to build features that no one has ever built before. And, we are doing it in the customer service industry, the place where I feel the most at home. 

The tech world is full of opportunities for professional development. I've absolutely enjoyed my journey from running global quality-oriented support teams to building a product aimed at increasing the quality of customer service.

Fun fact: I was one of the early adopters of the conversation review tool Klaus before I became the Head of Product at the very same company. Never underestimate the power to give thoughtful and actionable feedback to your vendors :)

What would you say the most difficult element of your role is and how do you overcome this?

Finding the balance between organizing the now and keeping an eye on the future is probably the biggest challenge. As Head of Product, I need to be aware both of what we are solving this week, as well as manage the roadmap and get input about features that we are planning for 2020 and beyond. At times, I really need to keep my excitement in check so that it does not pair up with impatience and ends up creating unnecessary pressure on my team. Luckily, our company culture embraces open communication (a non-negotiable for anyone working remote) across all levels. So while I remind developers to stop working after hours, they tell me when I am getting ahead of my own plans. As a team, we are so much stronger than anyone going off alone.

Why have you decided to get involved with European Women in Tech?

I attended last year and loved the positive energy, the open-ness, and the sheer brilliance of the women that attended. Most tech events cater (usually quite unconsciously) to a male audience, so this was a welcome change of perspective. The content was great, the swag was different, and the conversations were refreshing and inspiring. I wanted to be part of that inspiration, helping other women to embrace the opportunities and challenges that are ahead not only for us as women, but for the entire industry. These past months, climate change has finally gotten the attention it deserves. And I do think that the tech industry can have a huge impact - and women will be leading these changes.

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What will you be speaking about at the conference and why have you chosen this topic?

My talk focuses on 'Distributed Teams as a Growth Strategy - How to Create a Sustainable and Scalable Remote Culture'. I believe that the future of work is remote, and the tech industry can actually lead the charge here. Every morning, I have a coffee on my balcony, while thousands of people are stuck in traffic trying to commute into Barcelona - usually one person per car at a time. That does not make sense! You end up with grumpy humans, traffic accidents and loads of contamination - especially in big cities. And all of that simply because of the persistent belief that people can only be productive if they talk for 5mins at the water-cooler in their lunch break. Seriously?

When I talk about remote work though, I do not talk about the gig economy, about outsourcing to the cheapest possible freelancer who happens to be able to do location arbitrage in Thailand. I want to help companies and managers to hire and retain talent long-term. Whether you work from home or from an office should not define whether you have a right to maternity leave. Working from a coffee shop should not mean that you aren’t eligible for a stable salary. If you want to scale sustainably, you need to engage your employees - and engagement requires psychological safety. So let’s shift the conversation from “how can I pay as little as possible in the short run” towards “how can I hire and retain the talent that I need in the long term”.

What are your top tips for remotely managing and maintaining a team?

Communicate. A lot. In writing. Seriously, communication is the one thing that can make or break your remote culture. And communication comes in many flavors: 

  • Use Slack status updates to indicate what you are working on, whether you are in Deep Work mode or happy to be interrupted, whether you are at lunch, in a meeting or testing out a new co-working space. These little tidbits of information can spark interests and are the equivalent of seeing someone at the office. 
  • Share your priorities for today and for this week, publicly. This helps you to stay on top of your tasks and it shows others what you are working on. It is also one way of how collaborations can start because what you do might spark ideas for someone else. 
  • Create an Internal Knowledge Base that’s not just a repository of Google Docs. Combine this KB with a collaboration tool (the likes of Notion, Basecamp, Evernote). Use a tool that’s searchable, where you can mention other people in case you want to draw their attention to a specific topic and then document every single process, decision and idea. At any time you should be able to go back in time and remember why you made this or that decision in the past. That’s the only way you can learn from yourself. 
  • Make sure to have regular check-ins at least with your direct team members. Weekly or biweekly tends to work well, even if it’s just a 10 min check-in. Use these sessions to listen to your colleagues, and to help them advance in their own career path. 
  • Give opportunities to people to connect on non-work-related topics, through social hangouts or social Slack channels. Even just sharing the music you are using to focus today can be very helpful. 
  • And once every four to six months, get people together in real life. Four to six days is enough time to work on a project, have way too much foot and create team (or company) memories that can sustain collaboration for the next four to six months. Once a year, try to bring the company together, the other one or two times, stick to timezone based meetings to reduce jet lag during and after the meet-up and foster camaraderie between those that are online simultaneously. 

And find me at the conference. I can talk about this for hours. 

Who is your female tech inspiration and why?

Melissa Perri, author of The Build Trap. She had a huge influence on how I see product management and how I engage with customers. I very much recommend both her book as well as her presentations/videos. Google her name and be amazed.

This year, European Women in Tech will be uniting 4,000+ tech innovators for two days of thought-provoking content. Join us in celebrating gender diversity in the world's fastest growing industry.


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