Interviewed by Bhargavi Shankarananda, December 2021
Meet Heather Johnson! Heather is currently a TPM Manager at Stripe, supporting EMEA and LATAM teams. Her path to tech and TPM wasn’t as direct as most — she graduated with a broadcasting degree and worked for the NFL hosting webisodes. Her first role in tech was at Groupon as an Account Manager before moving into Product Ops, and then was introduced to TPM at LinkedIn where she worked in their Foundation organization before landing at Stripe. Outside of work, you can find her traveling the world, creating paintings for her art studio (Craigmore Studio), marathon training and hanging out with her best friend, a beagle/lab mix named Buster.
Tell us about your current role!
I’ve been at Stripe for a little over 2 years, and joined as an IC [individual contributor] before moving into management in March of last year. I currently support the EMEA and LATAM Technical Program Management team.
How has your career transformed over the years?
It’s a long journey! I did not come from a “traditional” TPM background — I don’t have a degree in engineering and was never a software engineer. My major was sports broadcasting, and held various roles in the arts for a few years. I started my journey in the tech industry as an Account Manager at Groupon. In my 4-ish years there, I bounced around from Sales, Project Management, Procurement, and then was part of a very small team that created the Product Ops function. I joined LinkedIn as a Product Ops Manager for their Consumer products, and that’s where I quickly realized that I was really interested in how our tech stack worked and how we can leverage technology to solve problems. I knew early on that I didn’t want to get into product or engineering, and a mentor of mine suggested TPM. After speaking with other TPMs at LinkedIn, I interviewed for the role and the rest is history!
I was really lucky to have some amazing partners and managers that took a chance on me early on in my career. Building technical context and knowledge all came from learning on the job, thanks to some brilliant, kind, and patient engineers. I think sometimes people feel like in order for them to be a TPM they need to have a past life as an engineer or a degree in a similar field. You don’t! Understand that you’ll need to work a bit harder than those that do, but as long as you’re curious, proactive, and self-aware of what you don’t know, it can be done.
You have been in different roles in different companies — Program Manager, Product Ops, TPM (IC and now a Manager). How has your previous experience helped in your current role?
The benefit of wearing many hats in a tech company has really allowed me to see all facets of the operation, and build empathy and understanding of what non-technical teams will need to support user facing changes. The ability to flex into a variety of roles seamlessly, think about problems differently and understand the problem space quickly has been foundational to my TPM career.
What do you think about career development as a TPM? What resources have helped you grow?
One of the many great things about being a TPM is that the skills and tool kit we’ve built can be transferable to any role. In addition, we are exposed to many different functions in the organization, so you can get a sense of what positions are out there in the organization that might interest you. The world is your oyster!
What were the biggest challenges you faced starting as a TPM in a new company?
So many! When joining a new company, there are those non-TPM specific challenges that tend to apply when starting a new job: understanding the business, company culture, navigating organizations, communication and calibration styles, and building relationships. All of these things are fundamentally important to the TPM role, since we need to be able to influence without authority. It really forces you to spin up quite quickly and build that connective tissue with folks — which I love!
For TPM in particular, TPM means different things at different companies depending on the maturity of the TPM organization. For example, when I joined TPM at LinkedIn, the role was pretty well defined, strong brand within the eng organization, and partners knew what to expect when working with a TPM. There were really strong leaders that paved that way for the rest of us at LinkedIn. At Stripe, it was the inverse, where TPM was a very nascent role that was still trying to find it’s way in the company. Calibrating on that definition, and working to build that brand in EMEA was a very thrilling challenge. We’ve come a long way since then and it’s been exciting to be a part of that!
How often do you see yourself dealing with ambiguity in your work?
All the time! I LOVE ambiguity, and bring clarity in those situations are a TPM’s super power. My tactic is to ask questions. I find that teams tend to jump into architecting the solution and implementation without ensuring everyone is aligned on the bigger picture — what is the problem we’re trying to solve, why is it important, what does success look like, what do you mean by [x], etc. Aligning early on these fundamental concepts will ensure the team is moving forward together. It also sets a tone that it’s ok to ask questions if you’re confused or things aren’t super clear, and be a leader in creating that psychological safety on the team.
What’s your favourite quote to represent your work as a TPM?
I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite quote to represent my work here, but more of this moment that clicked with me in my early days of TPM. When I was at LinkedIn, I forgot to keep track of a key component of a huge project we were working on. Once learning of my mistake, the Tech Lead I was working with said to me, “Remember, it’s not about the mistakes we make, it’s how we recover from them.” I was so busy beating myself up that I should’ve channeled that energy in getting things back on track. No one is going to be perfect — mistakes will be made and things will be missed — and that’s ok. It’s important for us to forgive ourselves, own up and learn from our mistakes, and move forward.