Lead(H)er profile - Kelly Shortridge, VP of Product Strategy at Capsule8
I had the opportunity to learn from Kelly Shortridge, VP of Product Strategy at Capsule8, about how she’s uncovered her strengths and interests to shape her professional journey in product strategy, what’s involved in her work and a snapshot into her interests outside of work.
The foundation for what has propelled her career has been a curiosity to uncover why people make the decisions they do, “I love understanding human behavior. Such as, why someone is making a particular product? Or why someone wants a particular feature? Or why they’re facing a problem that they haven’t solved yet? All of those questions make my brain itch and I have to scratch that itch.”
No two days are the same when you’re a product strategist. For Shortridge and her team, they focus on three core elements. The first, working with the engineering team to define the current product development priorities and explore if there have been any feature or product requests from customers. Next, understanding market trends through conversations with the industry community to help inform the product strategy. And finally, developing external communications, messaging and content.
“I’m often writing about a new vulnerability that just came out with a realistic perspective about the danger it poses to enterprises. Or, I could be writing a piece of long-form content that we think is interesting or valuable to the security and DevOps community.”
For background, Capsule8 was founded in 2016 and currently has 60 employees based in New York City. Capsule8 protects Linux infrastructure in a production-safe way, detecting attacks or rogue developers who may type commands that they shouldn’t. The company has received investments from Bessemer Venture Partners, ClearSky Security and Intel.
"I genuinely believe in our mission. A lot of times customers are running blind in production environments, without any detection capabilities, and our modern world depends on these systems running seamlessly with a lot of uptime. These systems also often process customer data, so helping ensure all of that data is protected and those services can hum along without any trouble is important to me.”
In addition to the mission, Shortridge pursued her role at Capsule8 because of her interest in wanting to learn more about modern infrastructure. “I’m getting a window into how enterprises are going to look over the next five years by seeing what some of the early adopters are doing and then watching our customers as they go through their digital transformation journey from the old-school paradigm of a monolithic app hosted on-prem to shifting towards containerized workloads hosted in cloud environments.”
To be impactful in her role, Shortridge shared that it’s her passion for learning and her ability to synthesize a lot of disparate information to make important connections. “I get to research intriguing topics and have many fascinating conversations to really dig into the challenges people are experiencing in their journey to adopting modern practices and infrastructure, like DevOps and containers. Understanding all of those pain points our customers are experiencing and actually helping build a product that makes their lives genuinely easier is really compelling to me.”
When it comes to her leadership style, Shortridge had some early lessons on how not to be a good leader. “My leadership is largely honed by leaders who I didn’t like and who were like dark clouds in an organization. The main thing in common with all of those leaders is that they didn’t listen to the people around them, whether customers or direct feedback from colleagues. As a leader, I try to listen as much as possible because I think that’s the best quality a leader can have.”
“I think it’s important to project an image of strength, but transparency and honesty are appreciated more than many leaders think. I think it’s a considerably better strategy to be open to other people’s contributions. Particularly in product strategy, it’s important to almost be a bit vulnerable with your engineers, sales and marketing teams by asking for their input -- being honest that you don’t have all the answers. Then people feel like they’re along for the journey and that they have a stake in the outcome, which helps foster a stronger culture internally.”
What do you do in your free time?
In truth, I don’t have a lot of free time, but when I do, I enjoy walking around the city and checking out the latest pieces at art galleries and the symphony. I also am a role-playing games enthusiast, eagerly playing titles like “the Witcher 3,” “Skyrim,” and, recently, “GreedFall”. I absolutely love reading, particularly fiction, sci-fi and fantasy. My favorite hobby is worldbuilding, which is admittedly super dorky and nerdy. It involves building out my own fictional world I’ve created from the people, culture, and economic systems to more scientific elements like technology, geography, flora and fauna. For example, I contemplate what types of trees and animals are there, what in the night sky takes the local people’s breath away, what tech is a painful fact of life.It’s about building a full-fledged planet and society. It involves a ton of creativity and it’s totally different from what I do in my day job, so it’s a nice way to refresh my brain.
Who do you admire or get inspiration from?
Most of my professional inspiration is from some of the leaders I know in my own life, particularly some of my friends who are more advanced in their careers. Some of my friends are incredible leaders and communicators who have accomplished so much in their careers, yet they’re so gracious and willing to help. They refuse to tolerate b.s., which I particularly appreciate. As I’ve grown in my career, having those tangible examples of leadership and inspiration have been more helpful to me than looking to the typical set of tech titans. Having this kind of practical inspiration can help you get from point A to point B as you attempt to realize your ambitions. With that said, the fictional character Ian Malcolm has been a persistent inspiration in my life, literally since middle school -- being unafraid to call out mediocre thinking and wearing all black is very much my vibe.
How do you manage stress?
I don’t. I think it’s important to be honest about that. I’m sure my stress would be worse if I didn’t try to manage it. I make sure to work out, specifically weightlifting, multiple times a week. I make sure that I read fiction daily and write fiction when I can, since it helps me detox my brain from just thinking about tech all the time. But I still feel incredibly stressed constantly.
How many cups of coffee do you have a day?
I have an autoimmune condition which means it hurts to consume caffeine, which still makes me quite sad! But I generally have at least one cup of an herbal infusion, ideally peppermint, per day and then I drink tons of water, as much water as I can possibly get!
What’s one of your favorite places in NYC or the world?
In NYC, I have so many favorite places. One gem that I love is the Elizabeth Street Garden, a public sculpture garden. It’s a fun place to be reading a fantasy novel, then looking up and being surrounded by sculptures of mythological beings and beautiful humans.
I have traveled to so many places and there are more visually stunning places than I could have imagined before I started traveling. Most recently, I was in Namibia and visited Deadvlei, which has the most amazingly rich orange dunes as a backdrop to cracked beige sand with dark, petrified trees that branch into the sky, and you could imagine a necromancer making it their home. The trees are gnarled and ancient, exquisitely contrasting with the vivid turmeric-hued dunes, it just feels like one of the places where you’d expect magic would spring up in the world.
What is one of your proudest accomplishments?
It’s not a specific accomplishment and it’s not something I talk about a lot, but I think it’s important for anyone who wants to be in leadership and is looking to develop their career who lives with it. I have a chronic illness with daily chronic pain, which feels almost like another full time job. I’ve been able to speak in seven countries and on four continents all while wrestling with this illness. I feel proud of that, since there’s a lot of perseverance and persistence involved in that. There are plenty of times where it feels like you can and maybe should give up, but I'm proud of myself for continuing to go on and trying my best to not let anything get in my way. It’s not always easy -- I’ve had to back out of a conference before because I couldn’t physically manage it, but I’m definitely proud of the fact that I’ve generally pushed forward, maybe too hard sometimes, and haven’t let it stop me from a lot of the things that I want to achieve in my professional life.
Is this where you thought you would be 10 years ago?
Not remotely close. In some ways, I’ve succeeded more than I imagined and in other ways completely failed. My life plan since I was around 11 years old was to major in economics and then pursue a career in finance. Anything that deviated from that path is not something I would have imagined. I discovered the beautiful world of economics and what intrigued me is how it’s the study of how people make their choices, so I Googled what careers you can pursue in economics and investment banking came up. So from age 11 onwards, my goal was to be an investment banker in New York. And I succeeded in that, beginning my career as an investment banker covering cybersecurity, but I moved on from it relatively quickly to found a security startup. I would have never imagined that I would be VP of product strategy at an information security startup at this point in my career -- it wasn’t even in my mental model.
What advice do you have for recent college graduates?
Say yes to as much as you can barring anything illegal! Say yes to opportunities even if it feels like it’s taking you in a weird direction and even if it’s overtaxing you. I know it’s kind of unpopular not to advocate for work-life balance, and while I do think it’s critically important, the reality is that I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t hustled early on. Treat yourself like a sponge and try to absorb as much information as you can. Don’t think you have everything figured out right now -- I still definitely haven’t figured everything out.
Don’t feel bad if your first few years are a bit rough. For me personally, as soon as I left school, I couldn’t have been happier. I absolutely love working, but I know that’s not true for everyone. And even when I switched from investment banking to information security, I was constantly doubting myself and wondering if this weird path was the right path. But as long as you put in the work towards realizing well-considered short, medium, and long term ambitions, then you’ll be okay.
Underestimating the value of your own voice is a stumbling block I faced a few times. I used to underestimate how relevant or interesting my own insights would be to other people, so I tended to shy away from expressing my viewpoints. I’ve overcome that over the past few years through my blogging and speaking. I think it’s important to put yourself out there even though it feels scary and even if only a few people like your post at first, because getting into the habit of putting yourself out there makes you resilient over time. I remember in the early days, I had one person reach out over email and say how valuable they found my post, and that was enough to propel me forward. Knowing that I had at least provided value to that one person was an essential step in having the confidence to go on the content-creating adventure. So, I would advise that you should assume your thoughts have value, put them out there for other people to enjoy, and trust any positive feedback you receive -- don’t talk yourself out of greatness!