Women in Tech: Brightwell CPO Audrey Hall on the 5 Things You Need to Develop Great Products

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Currently, only about 1 in 4 employees in the tech industry is a woman. So what does it take to create a successful career as a woman in Tech? In this interview series called Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech, we are talking to successful women leaders in the tech industry to share stories and insights about what they did to lead successful careers. We also discuss the steps needed to create a great tech product. As part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Audrey Hall.

Audrey Hall, Chief Product Officer at Brightwell and one of the Top Software Product Executives of 2022 leads the integrated product, engineering, and marketing departments to deliver innovative payment solutions that generate revenue. Looking to solve real-world problems, she develops and executes strategies that push Brightwell closer to achieving the vision of simple, secure, and accessible payments for everyone with a customer-centric approach for design, delivery, and team structure.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In high school I had a marketing teacher who encouraged me to get into the advertising world. I took her up on her advice and never looked back. I absolutely loved working at digital ad agencies—it was always action-packed with crazy deadlines, late nights, wild ideas, and the most creative people I’ve ever met in my career. Later, I started to see the industry shift toward digital product development. Disruption innovation was being applied across countless verticals, and more and more industries were getting disrupted by new startup entrants who believed they could do it better than the incumbents—hello Uber! And they did. This shift ultimately sparked my interest and led me to where I am today. I didn’t mean to end up in the product world, it just happened naturally. As a person who loves to learn and is inherently curious, it was a seamless fit for me.

It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I started out at a high-profile digital ad agency, where we regularly hosted big-name clients in our office, which of course was an all-glass space. This was a time when walls were not on trend for interior designers. One day, I wasn’t paying attention and walked straight into a giant glass conference room wall in what was at the time one of the biggest client meetings of my life. There was a huge boom, a makeup stain of my face, and I had everyone's attention in the entire agency on me at once—it could have been a scene out of a movie for all the commotion I caused!

I was so embarrassed and overwhelmed by the intensity of the entire agency’s eyes on me, including our big-name client, that I blanked out and actually curtsied! Talk about an odd reaction! But at the same time, it lightened the moment and everyone laughed and moved on.

Now looking back on it, I’m happy I didn't run away and lower my head in shame. By owning the moment and making light of it, it allowed everyone to move on more quickly. I’ve learned in life that you have to roll with the punches, as they say, and own your mistakes quickly. It helps the embarrassment go away faster, as opposed to just living in it by trying to ignore it. Today, I’m not walking into any glass walls but I do make mistakes, and I embrace them rather than run from them—a practice that has served me well over the years.

What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment? We’d love to hear the lead-up, what happened, and the impact it had on your life.

It has to be the moment I chose to leave the company I was working at before I joined Brightwell. I was happy, I loved the team, and I was energized by my work. I was consulting with Fortune 500 companies across a number of verticals, helping them to figure out their product strategy, specifically how they could “disrupt” themselves through innovation and product development. We would leverage qualitative and quantitative insights to help some of the biggest brands define, build, and grow exceptional digital experiences that brought in net new revenue and valuable portfolio growth and diversity.  

That career-defining moment was when I thought “Do I want to stay and do what I know and love? Or, do I want to take a bigger leap and see if I can do it on my own?” I was consulting then, and beyond the initial implementation, I never had the opportunity to see those strategies beyond their first year in the market. As we would often help the business to scale and take the project in-house once we collectively found product-market fit. I had this amazing opportunity to build something I could have a direct hand in, I wanted to invest years in growing a product in its maturity and building net new to expand and diversify our portfolio. Our team was able to achieve that and so much more these past few years post the pandemic! I’m so proud of what we’ve done and our growth trajectory that I know it was the right move for me.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Unfortunately, I have dealt with my fair share of sexism in the workplace. Especially in the tech world, it happens constantly, and I think a lot of women have stories they could tell. I have had top executives walk into a room and assume that I’m the note-taker, thinking that my male direct reports were the leaders in the room. Moments like that can really shift your confidence if you let it. You have to constantly say to yourself “I have value to provide. I have a place in this room and conversation. I’ve done the work.”

I often find the drive to continue by thinking about my mother and the hardships she had to overcome in her life. She was a single parent, an educator who worked extremely hard for less, and had to basically raise me on her own. It was always just the two of us growing up, she absolutely shaped me and showed me that you can be a strong, independent person who can achieve more than you ever thought possible. But you must encourage yourself, be your own advocate, and don’t let others hold you back from that dream. When I have those moments where someone makes me doubt myself, I think about how much she did to get me to where I am today.

We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address? How does your company help people?

Brightwell is passionate about helping people and businesses send money securely around the world. We process billions of dollars each year for businesses of every size—from startups to Fortune 500. Our payment products are simple to use, easy to integrate with, and we help our customers achieve measurable results.

Our purpose really is to help these underbanked, underserved communities who deserve the same access to the tools that we all have.

If someone wants to lead a great company and create great products, what is the most important quality that person should have, and what habits or behaviors would you suggest for honing that particular quality?

When it comes to leading a great company and creating great products, having strong communication skills is crucial. Effective communication is necessary to align a diverse team around a shared vision and to foster a healthy environment that encourages collaboration and healthy conflict. In fact, healthy conflict can be a catalyst for growth and improvement within a team. When team members are willing to challenge each other's ideas and perspectives in a respectful and constructive manner, it can lead to a deeper understanding of the problem at hand and more innovative solutions.

By focusing on being a great communicator, you’re able to ensure that every level of the organization is able to internalize and verbalize what the company’s goals are. Then, they’ll be able to evaluate their work and adjust accordingly. By empowering team members to take ownership of their work and make decisions, a leader can foster a culture of innovation and creativity.

Great communication is not just about expressing ideas clearly but also about actively listening to feedback from others. By practicing active listening, you can gain a deeper understanding of the needs and desires of your target audience and incorporate those insights into the product development process. This can lead to a more user-centric product that meets the needs of the market and is more likely to succeed.

Let’s talk about teams. What’s a team management strategy or framework that you’ve found to be exceptionally useful for the product development process?

As someone who has been involved in product development, I have found the Lean Startup build, measure, and learn process to be an incredibly useful team management strategy. This approach emphasizes continuous experimentation and iteration, which is crucial in the fast-paced world of product development. By continuously measuring and learning from feedback, teams can quickly pivot and adjust their strategies to better meet the needs of their target audience.

In addition to the lean startup framework, I have also found The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni to be an exceptional resource for team management. This book outlines common pitfalls that teams face when trying to work together effectively and provides actionable strategies for overcoming these challenges. My team and I have found it so valuable that we make it a point to read it together every year, using the insights to continually improve our teamwork and communication skills. Ultimately, building a team with a strong foundation and a shared vision for success is essential for achieving long-term success in product development.

When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together?

When I think of the strongest team I have ever been a part of, the first thing that comes to mind is our ability to have healthy conflict in a respectful manner. Our team knew how to have difficult conversations and provide honest feedback without letting emotions get in the way.

One anecdote that comes to mind is a time when our team was struggling to come up with a solution to a challenging problem. One team member had an idea that was radically different from what we had been considering, and initially, there was some pushback. However, instead of dismissing the idea or becoming defensive, the team rallied around it and engaged in a healthy debate about the pros and cons. In the end, we were able to find a solution that incorporated elements of both approaches and was more effective than anything we had considered previously. This experience highlighted the importance of respectful conflict and the power of diverse perspectives when it comes to problem-solving.

I highly recommend the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High for anyone, regardless of their profession or background. The book offers valuable insights on how to navigate these difficult conversations and apply those lessons in any challenging situation, ultimately leading to better outcomes and stronger team connections.

If you had only one software tool in your arsenal, what would it be, why, and what other tools do you consider to be mission-critical?

While my Notes app is my go-to tool, I also consider collaboration and work management platforms like Asana and Slack to be mission-critical. Asana helps keep my team and I stay organized and on track with deadlines, while Slack allows for easy and efficient communication between team members. I also believe in the power of tangible items like a notebook and pen to write down important ideas or brainstorming sessions. Ultimately, the most important tool in any arsenal is the one that enables you to effectively communicate, collaborate, and stay organized in order to achieve your goals.

Let’s talk about downtime. What’s your go-to practice or ritual for preventing burnout?

My energy comes from personal time with friends and family. I used to be the first to sacrifice that time to work late or work on weekends, but now I am very intentional with protecting that time so that I can be a healthy, happy person. I’m a wife, a mom, a friend, and at the end of the day, I work so that I can nurture those parts of my life. If I don’t stay connected there, it can be easy to lose sight of why I do this job in the first place.

Based on your experience, what are your “5 Steps Needed to Create Great Tech Products”?

1 .  Identify the problem your product aims to solve and clearly define your value proposition.

2 . Build an exceptional team with diverse skills and a shared dedication to solving problems.

3 . Prioritize user experience because it ensures that your product meets the needs and expectations of your target audience. By designing with a human-centered mindset, you are more likely to create products that are intuitive, user-friendly, and provide a positive experience.

4 . Create a low-level prototype quickly and get user feedback right away. It’s an essential piece in refining your assumptions and making important improvements.

5 . Ensure you have a strong feedback loop built into your process.  Never stop iterating and evolving based on what you learn, as there is always room for improvement.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am not. I do believe that progress has been made in recent years, and there are more women in tech than ever before. But there is still a lot of work to be done, especially in terms of representation and diversity. I think we need to continue to create more opportunities for women to enter the field, provide mentorship and support, and actively work to eliminate biases and discrimination in the workplace. It's also important to celebrate and showcase the successes and accomplishments of women in tech, as this can help inspire future generations and promote a more inclusive and equitable industry.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

If it could be anyone dead or alive, I would definitely choose my mother. She passed away in 2021 from cancer and there is not a day that goes by where I don’t miss her. I would do anything to have one more meal with her.

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