May 29, 2018

Career Path: Cait Ryan, Product Owner at Carbon Black

What does the career path and day in the life look like for a Product Owner at Carbon Black?

We interviewed Cait Ryan to find out!

Where did you grow up?  What did you parents do for work?  What was your very first job?

I grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island. My mom is a nurse and my dad is a retired steamfitter/pipefitter and is now an Inspector for the City of Providence. Combined, my parents have had about five employers their entire careers and it’s definitely an important part of what has shaped me professionally and how I approach my own career. When you work in an industry with very little turnover and the same colleagues for decades, it’s important to prioritize values like establishing credibility, relationship building, and just being a good overall corporate citizen. You can’t compromise on those things when you work with the same people for 20+ years. Through their example I work to always keep those things in mind as I navigate my own path.

When it came to work, I had my first internship as one of Target’s regional HR interns. From there, I took an internship at Citizens Bank where I was a business analyst for the lean six sigma development team. This was my first exposure to technology and I have to admit I was completely lost. However, I relied on my communication skills and dove into the new material. I proved myself in any way that I could and that gave me an opportunity to recruit new interns, gather business requirements, and translate said requirements for my team. I didn’t know it then but this work would prepare me for a drastic career change ten years later here at Carbon Black.

Where did you go to college?  What did you study and what were some of your initial jobs out of school?

I went to Bryant University in Rhode Island. It’s a small private business school and I thought I wanted to go into business even though I was not wildly passionate about any one specific field. I started in finance but the cutthroat nature of Wall Street didn’t appeal to me. I moved to accounting and while I was great with numbers the repetition of the work and lack of human interaction didn’t speak to me.

At the beginning of my Junior year, the school started putting a heavier focus on liberal arts majors. At the time I was a sociology minor and was finding that my minor coursework was much more stimulating than my concentration classes. It was when Sociology was officially declared a major I made the difficult decision to stray from a known path and take a risk graduating from a known Business School with a Liberal Arts degree. I was 1 of 8 students to graduate from Bryant in the first class of Sociology majors. I can honestly say taking that risk was one of the first of many lessons I’ve learned.

After my experience at Target, I knew I wanted to work in HR once I graduated. The recruiting work I did at Citizens aligned with this. I liked finding people and putting them in the right place, kind of like a puzzle. I was able to parlay my learnings in my sociology coursework into the experiences I was finding out in the professional world. It didn’t feel as rigid and prescriptive as Accounting and Finance had for me. At that point It had occurred to me that while it’s important to have an academic focus, having a broader liberal arts concentration gave me the flexibility and freedom to stretch my own view of what my future could look like.

You spent a good portion of your career in the recruiting industry.  How did that experience transfer over to what you are doing now in Product Management?  

Cait Ryan Carbon Black
Cait Ryan (right) & Ashley Perez (left), Carbon Black

In managing the campus recruiting program, I had to be organized, strategic, and forward-thinking. I looked at the big picture and collaborated with many different areas of the business. I had to have strong people-skills in order to pivot from hiring engineers or security analysts to sales reps. Not only did I have to build those relationships, but I also had to build credibility to get their buy-in to a new hiring model. Building these relationships over the last couple of years has helped my transition to Product Management because I’m still working with those same people, just in a different capacity.

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as a Product Owner?

As a product owner, I am tasked with prioritizing the work my team has committed to completing each program increment (fiscal quarter). It’s my job to look at upcoming product features and architectural goals and reconcile them with my team's backlog of work.

One of the main facets of Agile is breaking down work into short-term goals the team can complete quickly, ensuring a sense of accomplishment. To do this, we work in two-week sprints where we are focused on producing a complete deliverable at the end of those 14 days. Rather than building a huge widget, we’re focused more on building a cog. The iterative nature of Agile development means product features are delivered incrementally bringing benefits in speed to market, quality, and revenue.

My role deals with communication and information gathering which inevitably leads to meetings — lots of them -- to ensure everyone is aligned. I work with the operations team and we collaborate with various development teams to get the product deployed with each release. We also work to upgrade environments and improve efficacy and reliability for the product.

In general, product owners are working with their specific teams to understand what they’re working on, keep them on task, prioritize when new asks come, and funnel all communication out to the rest of the organization.

Any tips for someone considering a career change?

Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and step out of your department. Managers at Carbon Black do a great job communicating internal opportunities for growth. I’ve seen more people move internally here than any other company I have worked for and I think it’s an essential part to building a strong culture with a people-centric vision.

That being said, you need to put in the work. No one is going to advocate for your career more than you. You need to find people in the organization that can advocate for you that other teams trust. I don’t think I would have been able to make this transition if I didn’t make connections with people outside of my group and expanded my network within Carbon Black. People are not always able to see what you have done in previous roles in order to envision how it would transfer to a new one, so having these relationships help tremendously.

Also, get comfortable being uncomfortable. At the end of the day, a career transition like this is a risk. But in my opinion one worth taking.

Day in the Life

Coffee, tea, or nothing?

Cait and her husband, Justin
Cait Ryan and her husband, Justin.

I’m an aspiring caffeine addict and an open Starbucks snob. I usually have ~2 venti coffees by 10am. Some of my colleagues might say I’m a little over-caffeinated (don’t believe them!)

What time do you get into the office?

I’m definitely a morning person (must be the coffee). I wake up around 4:30am everyday to work out. I’ve always been someone who can’t work out at night so it’s morning or bust for me. After class, I’ll stop home to shower and after an hour or so of traffic, I get to the office at 8:30.

Every day is different, but can you outline what a typical day looks like for you?

  • Morning: By the time I get to the office, I have an hour or two to get through emails and set myself up for the day. I also use this time to do on project work and catch up with my colleagues.
  • Afternoon: Usually heavily meeting-driven. Anything from stand-ups, one on ones, product steering, or our culture club.
  • Evening: Depends. I could be at softball games (I’m one of the managers of the Carbon Black team), hosting trivia, or having a glass of wine on my couch. This usually is when I’m spending time with my husband. We both work in fast growing software companies so our schedules can be pretty crazy and time with him is important. We are big jeopardy fans and can usually be found catching up on old episodes on our DVR.

What time do you head out of the office?

It ranges and depends on where I’m going or what I have to do. If I have to beat traffic, I leave earlier but sometimes I can be at the office until 7.

Do you log back in at night or do you shut it down completely?  

I’m usually available in some capacity. I get work FOMO and have a tendency to check in on my email and Slack app right up until I go to sleep at night.

Any productivity hacks?

I’m an old school list person; I prefer to write my lists out and cross things off as I go which can be gratifying in a sense. It’s not really a hack, but more so a preference. I could probably use a hack if you have one!

What are the 3 apps that you can’t live without?

Slack, Waze and Instagram - I’m always checking in on the happenings at work though Slack. Commuting in the greater Boston area can be a nightmare and Waze has become a go-to in order to maximize my time where I can. Instagram is definitely my guilty pleasure social media platform of choice.

Cait participating in the Harpoon Race
Cait participating in various competitions. 

What professional accomplishment are you proudest of?

So far my transition from HR to Product Management. It’s unique and I surprised myself and a lot of other people in this move which has been personally gratifying.

Having been in recruiting for so many years, I had mastered skills that at times made me feel like I was on autopilot. It was really challenging to change departments because there was so much new material to learn and master, such as the Agile methodology, security, technical operations infrastructure and tools. I love it because I feel like I’m challenging my brain a new way.

Who do you admire or call upon for professional advice?

I’ve been lucky to meet and work with a number of folks that I admire and go to for professional advice. I think it depends on what I’m looking for guidance about. My previous manager has always been someone I respect and aspire to be like. She supported me to make the move from HR to PM and has been a great sounding board and a continuous voice of reason through this transition. We spend so much of our lives working that things are bound to get hairy. Having a support system is key and it’s important to figure out what you need and then seek out the right people that can give that to you.

Alyssa Oxner is a Customer Success Specialist at VentureFizz.  Follow her on Twitter: @Aoxner23.