Lead(H)er: Kristin Simonini, Vice President of Product at Applause
Kristin Simonini, the Vice President of Product at Applause, spent the first few years of her career in consulting and human resources. She supported recruiting efforts, helped build software, and used a variety of strategies and products to solve her clients’ problems. Eventually, Simonini realized that she could speed up the entire problem-solving process by placing herself one step further back, getting her hands dirty, and working on the products themselves.
While working at WebHire, a recruiting software company where Simonini had set up a business process consulting team, the product manager went on maternity leave. Simonini saw her chance to make the switch from consulting to product by filling in, but first, she had to come to terms with a reality check.
“When you get on the other side of the fence, you learn that pretty quickly that you can't just come in and execute on every idea you have,” Simonini said. “There are trade-offs. There are new business ventures and strategic initiatives you need to account for. There are considerations that you didn't have visibility into before moving into the role.”
It was the right opportunity at the right time, and Simonini has worked in product ever since. She’s honed her skills throughout her career, working primarily at software-focused companies like Brainshark and EdAssist before moving to Applause.
The company provides crowd testing and digital quality solutions for its clients, which operate in a range of industries, and Simonini’s team maintains the platform that supports it all. This includes the processes to find and match t testers to projects, support integrations with third-party tools like bug-tracking systems, manage test cycles, and process payments to the community.
It’s a tall order, particularly for a team that barely existed just one year ago. Simonini helped create the team from scratch when she arrived at Applause in February 2018 and is now going into 2019 with a fully-staffed and highly-talented group.
The same problem-solving mentality that led Simonini to product helped her tackle the enormous task of helping build a product team at Applause. To her, it’s all part of the challenge -- and reward -- of working at a startup.
“When you're talking about an early stage or start-up organization, you have an opportunity to really make an impact and see the results of your team's efforts,” she said. “If my team can be responsible for coming up with that next market disruptor or new offering to guide sales strategy, those are the kinds of opportunities I’m on the lookout for.”
To Simonini, these opportunities are major breakthroughs that will advance not just her own team’s success, but that of the entire company. She’s always been a problem solver, and impacting a core challenge or initiative wherever she works will always be a top priority.
“The next big step is to do something that’s not just tactically moving the business up the chain, but making 10 big leaps ahead on the chain,” she said.
Rapid Fire Questions
What do you do in your free time?
I have an eight-year-old son, so I spend free time with him doing whatever activities he is interested in and exploring new places together. He’s a Cub Scout, too, and I’m the treasurer for his scout pack.
I'm also heavily involved in a fundraiser called Cycle for Survival that focuses on rare cancer research. We have our r local event a week from Sunday and have raised a lot of money over the years. It’s a special cause for me because my husband had a rare form of cancer that we lost him to. So when I have free time, I like to support that organization through activities and PR and whatever else I can do to help.
How do you typically manage stress?
Stress is almost a constant for me. I take a few minutes at the end of the day to read a book before bed because I find it is a chance to escape to something more mindless. I can disconnect from the day and not go over in my head all of the things that I might be doing otherwise, whether that be work-related or on the home front. I like things that are pure fiction like thrillers. I also find the beach to be great therapy for stress.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
I have two cups of coffee each day-- one in the morning, and one in the afternoon.
What’s one of your favorite places in the Boston area?
A big favorite of ours is the Museum of Science. It’s a fantastic place for an eight-year-old kid to have in his backyard -- there are so many great things to explore and learn about.
I also got married there, so it’s very special in that regard. We were one of the first weddings they hosted. It’s got an amazing view of the city, great food, and you can’t beat pictures with a dinosaur on your wedding day. I always recommend it for people who are trying to find something a little more out of the box.
What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments?
I really pride myself in my strengths as a manager, and I think when you're getting started in your career, you don't know if management is going to be right for you or if you're going to have the right skills for it. So a great accomplishment for me was when I was leaving a company, and I was sharing that news with the folks on my team. One of my product managers kind of welled up and said, “You know, this is really unfortunate on so many levels professionally, but you’re also the most human manager I’ve ever had.” I got welled up with that too. That’s the best thing someone could have ever said to me -- not “Oh, that was a great product release,” or “Customers really loved this feature.”
That's something to hang my hat on, because it's important for me to make sure my team knows that yes, we work hard and we get our jobs done, because we play a critical role in the organization, but at the end of the day we’re here for our family and our health and our life outside these walls. That’s what we’re living for. If the teams that I build and grow over the years feel that they have that balance and that I’m able to support them, that’s my accomplishment.
Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
I’m kind of where I would have dreamed to be earlier in my career. I don’t think I expected product organizations to get to the level they have. Historically, at least in my experience, product was buried deep under marketing or engineering. I feel like it’s really been a turn in the last decade or so that product has elevated and has a seat at the table with the leadership and executive teams. That's so critical, because we always understood that product was the hub and connected to absolutely everything that the business was doing, but at the same time, it didn't really have a voice in bigger discussions. So this is exactly what I would have wanted for myself, looking back 10 years, and what I would have wanted for product managers overall.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
I think a lot of people come out of school and haven’t quite figured out what their path is yet. My advice is to find your passion and identify your strengths. Maybe find a mentor that can help bring you up in some areas where you just don’t know what you don’t know yet. Networking and building connections is huge, because that’s how people find opportunities. Depending on yours area of interest, I would say also get involved in related groups for that. If product management is your passion and you’re in the Boston area, you should be part of the Boston Product Management Association and go to some of the meetings, network, and hear about what’s happening. That’s going to spark some area of interest and maybe shed light on things that you didn’t realize were out there but that are great opportunities. The earlier you start the better, because it’s great exposure.