Solv­ing prob­lems through code

Slack Vice Pres­i­dent April Un­der­wood gets ahead with cu­rios­ity, a ‘su­per­power’ and three key ques­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - WORK LIFE - By Tracey Lien an en­ter­prise com­pany. Try to change one thing at a time, and it makes it a lot eas­ier. It takes a few leaps and a few years.”

The gig: April Un­der­wood, 37, is the vice pres­i­dent of prod­uct at en­ter­prise soft­ware com­pany Slack, one of the hottest tech com­pa­nies in the Bay Area. As the head of prod­uct, she part­ners with engi­neer­ing lead­er­ship to over­see a team of around 350 peo­ple and is re­spon­si­ble for prod­uct vi­sion and strat­egy at a com­pany that boasts more than 5 mil­lion daily ac­tive users and a val­u­a­tion of more than a bil­lion dol­lars.

Cu­ri­ous kid: Un­der­wood grew up in Amar­illo, Texas, the daugh­ter of par­ents who stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture. She was never pres­sured to pur­sue any par­tic­u­lar ca­reer, al­though her fam­ily had a geeky streak. An un­cle who worked at Texas In­stru­ments en­cour­aged her to play with the “Speak and Read,” “Speak and Spell” and “Speak and Math” toys when she was a kid. An­other un­cle gave her toys fo­cused on learn­ing bi­nary. She wound up ex­celling at chem­istry and was later ac­cepted to the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, Austin, for chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing.

Risky change: When Un­der­wood de­cided to ma­jor in chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing, she thought she would en­joy it be­cause she had done well in class­room chem­istry. But she quickly learned that the chem­istry taught at school dif­fered from its prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions. “I re­al­ized a lot of those paths lead to work­ing in oil and gas fields at re­finer­ies,” she said.

Dur­ing her first se­mes­ter, she knew she didn’t want to go fur­ther with it — but chang­ing ma­jors meant los­ing her engi­neer­ing schol­ar­ships. “It was a huge leap of faith,” she said. “At the time it was re­ally scary for my par­ents to see me do that, so I knew I needed to fig­ure out a way to close that fi­nan­cial gap.”

She switched to man­age­ment in­for­ma­tion sys­tems, a busi­ness-cen­tric ma­jor that en­abled her to take classes in cod­ing, fi­nance, ac­count­ing and mar­ket­ing. To make up for the lost schol­ar­ships, she got a part-time job.

Tech sup­port: An­swer­ing an ad in the col­lege news­pa­per, Un­der­wood got a gig in tech sup­port for Austin firm TeleNet­work, where she was paid $10 an hour.

“Cus­tomers would call in, I’d have to walk them through ex­actly how to fix their com­put­ers, then they’d have to hang up the phone and try it be­cause they only had one phone line,” Un­der­wood said. This was dur­ing the days of di­alup In­ter­net, so Un­der­wood learned to com­mu­ni­cate clearly to cus­tomers what they had to do be­cause she couldn’t walk them through it in real time. She wasn’t in­tim­i­dated by com­put­ers or tech­nol­ogy. While do­ing tech sup­port, she even saw an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate train­ing pro­grams for other peo­ple in the call cen­ter.

Over the hol­i­day break she taught her­self HTML cod­ing from a book, and con­vinced her bosses to let her build the soft­ware. Bub­ble bust: Un­der­wood’s se­nior year co­in­cided with the height of the dot-com bub­ble — stu­dents were re­ceiv­ing lu­cra­tive job of­fers and sign­ing bonuses and could have their pick of where they wanted to work. By the time she grad­u­ated, though, the bub­ble had burst, and a com­pany she had in­ter­viewed with, En­ron, was about to go un­der.

“I passed on a cou­ple of job op­por­tu­ni­ties, and my peers and pro­fes­sors were an­gry with me be­cause they thought it was very short­sighted of me,” she said. “It was like the world was crum­bling.”

Still, with a back­ground in busi­ness and cod­ing, and in­tern­ships at 3M and Deloitte, she scored a job at In­tel in Ore­gon as a soft­ware engi­neer, work­ing on In­tel’s en­ter­prise soft­ware.

Su­per­power: Un­der­wood quickly learned that she wasn’t con­tent to only do soft­ware engi­neer­ing. She was fas­ci­nated by the busi­ness side. She had an in­ter­est in mar­ket­ing. She en­joyed and was good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple. She wanted to do some­thing that com­bined all th­ese skills. Af­ter a year at In­tel she went to travel site Trav­e­loc­ity, again as a soft­ware engi­neer, but this time tak­ing on more re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, ask­ing busi­ness ques­tions, and serv­ing as the bridge be­tween the com­pany’s tech­ni­cal and busi­ness teams.

“You’ve got to have your su­per­power,” Un­der­wood said. “You’ve got to have the thing you’re re­ally good at, be­cause you need to be use­ful from Day One, and you need to get your foot in the door.”

For Un­der­wood, that abil­ity was solv­ing prob­lems through code.

“But once you get there, if you have a broader per­spec­tive and some ex­pe­ri­ence or in­ter­est in other ar­eas, you’re go­ing to stand out. That hap­pened for me re­ally quickly in my ca­reer, and it’s part of the rea­son I made the tran­si­tion from engi­neer­ing to prod­uct man­age­ment a cou­ple of years in.”

Nav­i­gat­ing a path: Un­der­wood moved around a lot in her ca­reer, work­ing at en­ter­prise-fo­cused com­pa­nies such as In­tel and now Slack, and con­sumer-fac­ing com­pa­nies such as Trav­e­loc­ity, Google (where she spent two years) and Twit­ter (where she spent five years). Dur­ing th­ese job changes, she also tran­si­tioned from solely be­ing a soft­ware engi­neer to strad­dling engi­neer­ing and busi­ness to be­ing fo­cused on prod­uct.

The key to her suc­cess­ful tran­si­tions, she be­lieves, is she never made any ma­jor leaps.

“You have to imag­ine there’s a stone path, and you’re try­ing to get from one place to an­other,” she said. “If the goal is to get to prod­uct man­age­ment of a con­sumer app, but you’re start­ing as an engi­neer of an en­ter­prise app, then start by mak­ing the tran­si­tion into prod­uct man­age­ment at your own com­pany, or in When to leave: Un­der­wood of­ten left com­pa­nies when they were on the up­ward tra­jec­tory, a move that baf­fled some of her peers. In­stead of cling­ing to a role at a com­pany be­cause of its pres­tige, or feel­ing that she had to “do her time” be­fore she could move on, she asked her­self three ques­tions when de­cid­ing whether to take a new role.

“The first is to ask your­self, what will you learn over the next year at the com­pany you’re at, ver­sus what you be­lieve you might learn some­where else,” she said.

The sec­ond is how you feel about the prod­uct the com­pany makes. In the case of Slack, Un­der­wood had been a long­time user be­fore she’d even con­sid­ered work­ing for the com­pany.

And the third is to look at whether you’ve set up your ex­ist­ing team for suc­cess once you leave.

“I do think there’s a re­spon­si­bil­ity that you owe to your team,” she said.

Stay cu­ri­ous: Un­der­wood chalks up much of her suc­cess to her cu­rios­ity. “Be re­ally, re­ally good at some­thing at any given time,” she said, whether it’s engi­neer­ing, busi­ness strat­egy or some­thing else en­tirely, “and then get to know what the peo­ple next to you are work­ing on, and de­velop re­la­tion­ships with them.

“That’s when you start to get a broader per­spec­tive. Peo­ple who can do what they’re as­signed to do, and an­tic­i­pate the prob­lems that are over­looked, those peo­ple are gold within an or­ga­ni­za­tion. So be good at the thing you’re good at, and be cu­ri­ous about the rest.” Per­sonal: Un­der­wood lives in Marin County and en­joys hik­ing and bak­ing. She is gluten in­tol­er­ant and can­not eat most of what she makes, but it doesn’t stop her from bak­ing it. tracey.lien@la­times.com

Slack

AS HEAD OF PROD­UCT for Slack, one of the hottest tech com­pa­nies in the Bay Area, April Un­der­wood is re­spon­si­ble for prod­uct vi­sion and strat­egy at a com­pany that boasts more than 5 mil­lion daily ac­tive users.

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