Deepa Subramaniam is the Director of Product at Hillary for America. Previous to that she was Head of Product at charity: water, a non-profit bringing clean water to people in need. Her first job out of college was with Macromedia which was eventually acquired by Adobe, where Deepa spent the first 10 years of her career. She took time out of her insanely busy schedule to talk about how she came to be on the Hillary for America campaign, what her role is like (it's as crazy as you might imagine) and how she keeps herself firing on all cylinders.
Tell me a little bit about the work that you're doing right now and what your role looks like?
I joined the Hillary for America campaign at the beginning of July 2015 as Director of Product, just a few months after Secretary Clinton officially announced her presidential campaign. It’s been an amazing, fun, challenging and inspiring ride so far. I am a part of the Tech team which is a fantastic group of front-end and back-end engineers, product designers and product managers.
The purview of the Tech team is to use technology to do a variety of different things: raise money, spread our message, engage with supporters, and of course ensure people go out and vote! And of course, Tech is all about helping the campaign run more efficiently.
In short, it's a really exciting job where I learn so much every single day, especially how to produce at a high-volume and quickly. It’s funny, I used to think I needed a full few days to put a presentation together and now I can do it in an hour. At past jobs I would be so proud if an idea went from concept to execution in a couple of weeks. Here you can have an idea on Monday and it can be live on the site on Wednesday. That kind of speed is exciting and invigorating though it also poses all these different challenges that I haven't had before.
I used to joke around that I wished there was a reality competition for product management, and once I joined the campaign I thought: “Oh, this is it!”
I'd love to know more about your role as Director of Product and what your responsibilities are within that role?
In many ways it’s classic product management. I’m ideating with my design and engineering team, writing requirements and specs, working closely to make sure what we’re building is going to be successful, and satisfy requirements, yet can also evolve as time passes. My main focus at the moment is online fundraising and how we get people to sign up and engage with us in the variety of ways possible.
Of course, once we ship a new product or feature, I make sure everything is performing as expected and end-users are happy. That means looking at data, tweaking the product if it isn’t satisfying the original goals or maybe completely pivot the product to tackle an area we weren’t initially thinking of.
I also try to pay close attention to what’s happening outside of the campaign in order to stay connected and generate new ideas for things we could build.
A campaign is a series of amazing moments that make up this very deep and relevant experience. Some of these moments you can control and some happen more fluidly. I find that my time is best spent thinking about how technology can be used to make these moments even more impactful.
“As challenging as this job can be, I still pinch myself in the mornings when I walk into the office and get to work with such amazing people to put the first female president in office.”
What was your path to this role, how did you end up on the campaign?
Macromedia was my first job out of college and in 2006 was acquired by Adobe. Together I spent 10 years there and Adobe continues to be a company I love. However after a full decade, I was ready for both professional change and personal change and around that time I met Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water. He needed someone who had my skills and so I decided to take the leap and move from San Francisco to New York to work on product. It was an exciting and disruptive move for me, leaving the for-profit world to join a non-profit charity, but I was really motivated by how technology and storytelling could be used to tackle huge global problems. The water crisis is an active, ongoing issue - 663 million people around the world lack access to clean and safe drinking water. charity: water was all about using technology to raise money in order to build water projects for people in the developing world. For me, it was incredibly eye-opening to see that you could creatively mix disciplines like classic engineering with beautiful design and powerful storytelling to have a real impact on the world.
I was at charity: water for over 2 years and very proud of the work we were doing when I happened to get an email from a friend of a friend who had just joined the Hillary for America campaign. I remember it very clearly, he shot me an email on Easter Sunday that ended with, “P.S. - What do you think of presidential campaigns”. Needless to say I was intrigued and later that night we got on the phone and he explained the role. I was immediately excited. I grew up in a very politically conscious household, my parents are proud Democrats and we talked about politics all the time. So after a few weeks I was connected with the leaders of the HFA Tech team and through a few conversations got offered the job! As challenging as this job can be, I still pinch myself in the mornings when I walk into the office and get to work with such amazing people to put the first female president in office.
It’s so crazy how sometimes the biggest and most amazing opportunities can just come through a note in an email.
Yeah, I definitely feel very lucky but in hindsight I can see how there were certain things I did that helped this opportunity land on my plate. When I came to New York I really put myself out into the tech scene and I now realize that by doing that, you help sow the seeds for your name to get thrown into interesting conversations. I mean when I moved to New York I literally knew 2 people in the city. I joined charity: water and met great people there and also spoke at some conferences and meetups and gradually expanded the folks who were fun to “talk shop” with. It was through those actions that I got put in touch with the campaign so I’m a big fan of connecting with folks in your community, you never know what could come of it.
“You’re kind of in this constant “game-on” state. Because of that, I’m learning a lot about what things I need to do personally to stay charged and energized and what are the things that I need to cut out in pursuit of focus.”
What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work that you’re doing right now?
I’ve never had to lean on my time management skills as much as I do with this job. I eat in minutes, I think in minutes, free time is a luxury. Additionally, this role has really highlighted the things I feel like I’m good at and the things where there’s still lots of room for improvement. That’s a very rewarding insight to have.
One thing that is key for this job is to stay focused. You’re kind of in this constant “game-on” state. Because of that, I’m learning a lot about what things I need to do personally to stay charged and energized and what are the things that I need to cut out in pursuit of focus. Discipline has been key. A campaign is a marathon of sprints tumbling head-first towards this grand finish. Every day I’m learning how to harness my energy and keep the pace up.
What things have you been doing to keep yourself inspired and help keep that energy and focus?
Engineers, designers, product managers: we’re all so rational and organized. So of course the way I stay focused is keeping lists and action items and goals top-of-mind at all times. I can’t tell you how many Medium articles I’ve read on life-hacking. I’ve tried it all, but the things that work for me are pretty basic: quality time with my family and my close friends who inspire me and make me laugh, quiet mornings with strong coffee and little treats to keep my days exciting.
Also, I’ve never been so crazy protective of my downtime. I used to sometimes feel guilty if I hadn’t seen a friend in awhile or I didn’t feel like going out to a social event but now if I have an evening off or even a couple of hours of free time, I guard it like a precious jewel. I’m more thoughtful about the time I have off so that I’m using it in a way that lets me rest and stay inspired and connect with the people I love.
How do you manage your time amongst email and communications versus the heads down work that you need to be executing on?
Yeah, it’s tough - the volume of information and projects flying at me is like a fire hose. Whether it’s Slack, email, text or phone there’s so much information to consume and act on. I used to come in in the mornings and write the top 5 things I was going to do that day and now I’ve learned that is just a silly task and every day will be different. This means ruthlessly prioritizing what’s on my plate to make sure I’m moving the biggest boulders and not getting lost with the pebbles. Now I write 3-5 five things that I kind of want to get done but always know that there’s going to be days where the plan gets blown up and that is A-OK.
“Whenever I feel fearful or nervous about speaking my mind, I just look to my left and right and there are so many strong women who fearlessly say what they believe. That's not something that came so naturally to me and I'm so thrilled that I get to flex that muscle in this job.”
What are the tools you use every day to stay on top of things?
Slack - I cannot believe how much I can coordinate at all times of day and night with my teams and extended teams through Slack. I have it on all my devices and I use it constantly - what a lifesaver!
TeuxDeux - I use this to keep track of the things on my plate both personally and professionally that I need to take care of and do in a timely manner.
Headspace - Headspace is a beautiful meditation app. It’s whimsical and well-designed and has helped me dabble in meditation.
Notes - I write lists constantly and I find my little system of using Notes works well for me to stay organized.
You must be seeing the impact of your work so frequently and directly all the time with the campaign being so public and such a big event. So many people must have opinions or things to say about both the work your team is doing and Hillary Clinton. How do you keep that from affecting you, avoiding burnout and staying inspired towards your end goal?
What I've learned more than anything is that everyone has an opinion. It's something I knew prior to the campaign and that has been heavily reinforced. I mean, it’s actually a good thing: people are interested and they care. Now there’s times where that can be overwhelming but I control what I’m reading and how much of it and certain days I just focus on what is important.
Also, I look to our candidate for inspiration. I mean Hillary Clinton is such a fighter, someone who relishes hard work to get things done. She’s been in the public eye for decades and has accomplished so much and I find that truly inspiring.
I’m sure this entire campaign has been about pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, but I’d love to know if there are any recent examples you could share of how you’ve had to do that?
Oh gosh. Yesterday? Everyday? [laughs] I think one thing that this campaign has taught me, this is actually pretty personal, is that inspiration can be right next to you. I work with such amazing people, including a group of the most creative and whip-smart women you’ll ever meet. Women in technology has been a conversation I've always been part of and it’s awesome to interact with such talented women outside of tech now that I’m in this new political realm.
I’ve really found a stronger voice in working with the HFA team. Whenever I feel fearful or nervous about speaking my mind, I just look to my left and right and there are so many strong women who fearlessly say what they believe. That's not something that came so naturally to me and I'm so thrilled that I get to flex that muscle in this job.
“On the campaign, success is so clear, so binary. You win or you lose. That clear outcome is powerful, it’s what helps us focus and rally every day.”
What are some of the things you’ve learned about politics and working on campaigns that you didn’t know before this role?
I’ve learned so much, especially about elections and campaigns and democracy at large. I think what kind of constantly takes my breath away is just how much work happens behind the scenes to support any candidate. The collaborative effort it takes for something like this to happen is impressive.
On the campaign, success is so clear, so binary. You win or you lose. That clear outcome is powerful, it’s what helps us focus and rally every day.
What do you love most about the work you’re doing, why is it meaningful to you?
I truly believe with my heart that the best thing for our country and for the world right now is for Secretary Clinton to be our next president. It is a privilege every day to work alongside my colleagues to accomplish this together. There is such a sense of urgency and importance in what we're doing - it's really a beautiful thing.
Who would you want to see featured on Ways We Work?
Smiley Poswolsky - Smiley is a good friend and an amazing author. He is helping people all over the world learn how to find work that inspires them. He’s also one of the most disciplined people I know and I am truly amazed at how he can do that! Maybe he’ll spill some of his secrets if you guys talk.
Bryan Mason - Bryan is a good friend and mentor whom I met at Adobe and he just really kills it at life. Like seriously, he truly knows how to live a fun and balanced life. He just accepted an amazing new role at VSCO and as a fan of Bryan and a fan of VSCO, I’d love to hear how life is going for him!
Stacey Mulcahey - Stacey and I have been friends for I think over a decade. We met working on Flash stuff and since then she’s gone on to have all these amazing roles. What I especially love is she’s taking her love of code and her wicked wit and applying it to helping kids learn to code. She’s like the absolute best teacher and I’d love for her to share her thoughts on inspiring young kids.