July 17, 2019

Lead(H)er: Jody Saarmaa, VP of Product Management at Building Engines

Jody Saarmaa always looks for a way to be right in the middle of the action. She began her career in software development at IBM, then cycled through roles in sales and product marketing after getting her MBA at MIT. When she put all of those roles together, she found product management. 

“The hub of a lot of different functions, for me, is product management,” said Saarmaa, who is now the Vice President of Product Management at Building Engines. “You’re at the center of interfacing with customers and internal stakeholders, like the sales and client success teams and software developers, and I always felt like I was good at communicating back and forth between different groups.” 

At first, Saarmaa thought that she would work towards becoming a Chief Information Officer. After discovering product management, though, she pursued product management roles instead. She threaded her way between startup companies like Synopia, an enterprise software company where she was a senior member of the founding team and focused on business planning, and more established firms, like Liquid Machines and Active Control eXperts, where she identified and developed new products, before finding her current role at Building Engines. At each one, she held roles from director to vice president of product management, guiding strategy and managing branding of technology and software products. 

“You can make change happen a lot faster at a startup,” Saarmaa said. “In a smaller organization, you know everybody’s name and what they do, and you can walk into the kitchen to pick their brains to get input on whatever you’re working on.” 

During her five years at the company, which creates software for the commercial real estate industry, Saarmaa has gone from being the first person in its product management department to building out an eight-person team of her own. Each of the five product managers oversees different aspects of the product portfolio, and Saarmaa helps set the strategy for each. 

Her biggest project now is helping Building Engines completely redesign its product. After about 18 years in business, the company has the unique advantage of knowing its market well and having a wealth of data to help it improve its software offerings for its next iteration. 

“These tools are getting better and better,” Saarmaa said. “We can see which aspects of our products are popular and then use that to help people move through the product more easily.” 

One of Saarmaa’s favorite bits of data is being able to see whether people are “rage clicking,” or clicking over and over in a certain place in an attempt to get something to work. While the team at first found that amusing, they soon realized that the data helped clearly show areas for improvement within the product. With information like this, Saarmaa is looking forward to continuing to help create products that help customers succeed. 

“When you’re building a new product and are able to see what people are trying to do, it’s so powerful,” Saarmaa said. “You can make a big change.” 

On a personal level, Saarmaa is doing what she can to encourage more women to be involved in coding and programming. 

“I’ve seen fewer and fewer women in software rather than more and more,”  Saarmaa said. “I always want to tell people to check it out -- sometimes they’re hesitant, but even here in the Boston area, there are so many opportunities and intensive courses. I would love to see more women do that.” 

Quick Q(uestions) and A(nswers) 

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 

I like exercising the creative side of my brain, so I’m very involved with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I enjoy going to see art and giving my brain a different way to think of things. 

How do you typically manage stress? 

One of my other hobbies is gardening. I like to go out and kill weeds, so I’ll get some stress out on those this weekend! 

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day? 

Usually two or three. 

What’s one of your favorite places in the Boston area? 

I have several, but I really love the Public Garden this time of year. It’s beautiful. After this cool and rainy spring we had, it’s just spectacular. 

What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments so far? 

I think in general, what I really love is getting products to market and having customers give you positive feedback on how it’s improved the way they do their jobs. 

How does where you are now, compare to where you thought you’d be 10 years ago? 

During that time, I’ve been doing what I wanted to do, which is going from an earlier stage software firm that had just gotten to the point where they’ve proven they have a viable product to be able to really scale that product and grow the company. I’ve done that multiple times, and what I’ve been able to do is jump from different types of software within these companies. I’m more of a process specialist rather than a specialist in any certain type of product or industry. It’s been fun to jump in and learn completely new markets and industries. 

What’s your advice for recent college graduates? 

Jump in and try something! Boston is a wonderful place because there’s so much going on. There are so many people you can meet at so many organizations and informational seminars and networking events. It’s important to meet a lot of people and see what’s out there. 

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.

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