Carla DawkinsCarla is a product leader passionate about helping teams to succeed in building quality digital products that creatively solve existing problems.

She is currently Head of Free Product at Experian Consumer Services, directing a cross functional team that accelerates the growth of the company’s digital consumer products. A large part of her role involves helping people in challenging financial situations to benefit from Experian’s services.

Carla was previously a technology consultant at Deloitte before taking up a role as senior product manager at News International, serving as product owner for household names The Times and The Sunday Times. She studied architecture at University before deciding to pursue a career in technology.

Tell us a bit about your current role

I am a Head of Product within Experian’s consumer business. My primary focus is to help people access their credit score. However, my role also involves helping those with more complex financial needs benefit from one of our subscription products, and directing the ones in the market for credit to our comparison site, where they can explore a range of credit and insurance products.

As we evolve these products, we’re looking to create greater distinction in the market and explore new, innovative ways to solve existing problems, whilst also developing solutions that can support the financial lives of the people who really need it. The launch of Experian Boost last month is an example of Experian doing this – a product that I have been heavily involved in the development of.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I did – but I wasn’t actually planning for a career in technology. When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect. I remember when I was seven, I saw some blueprints for a house that one of my dad’s friends was having built in Jamaica. It’s one of those standout moments where I think I decided what I wanted to do. I was also a big fan of Lego, loved to sketch and took a keen interest in maths, so this ambition made perfect sense.

How did that evolve as grew and what led you to your current role?

I studied architecture for my degree, but on completion of my undergrad, I concluded that I didn’t want to study for another four years to get a full qualification. It became clear that a career as a practising architect would involve long hours and expensive education, as well as planning and budget constraints tempering your creative vision. That’s when I decided to explore other avenues and looked at available grad schemes.

Deloitte stood out from the pack in terms of recognisable names and that’s what I applied to do. My skills in architecture were very adaptable, so I was confident this would be a good fit for me.

Deloitte was a fantastic entry point into the world of work – a rich variety of industry, clients, services, complexity of work, smart people and an eventual springboard into some exciting things. It’s from there I went to go work client side for The Times, which was my first ‘product role’. I later worked for a company called Moonfruit where I was part of a team who were given permission to pull apart and rebuild several key elements of the business. This was an incredible experience.

After that I consulted for a few start-ups and advised on some investment panels before joining Experian.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My involvement in launching Experian Boost. I am one of few people within the organisation that has been involved with Experian Boost from the start. The new service allows people to include regular payments, such as council tax bills and digital entertainment services, into their credit score. Using the service, people can increase their score by up to 66 points, without damaging it, while lenders can better manage their risk.

I actually joined Experian to specifically work on Boost and while it was a baptism of fire, it has given me an invaluable and rich introduction to the business and allowed me to work with colleagues from right across different areas of the organisation.

It’s been two years of hard work and I’m proud that we were able to launch Experian Boost in November. It’s a huge positive to end the year on. However, there’s so much more we can do with the product and I’m looking forward to playing my part in its evolution.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I think my ability to look beyond the norm and embrace change has helped me. Through point of exposure, and the fact product management as a profession was early in its formation, I didn’t know other careers existed beyond the traditional professions. I was keen to follow a well-trodden path and studied to be an Architect. I wouldn’t change that for the world, the skills I developed there are so transferable to what I do today. While making the decision to change track was tough, it’s also led me to where I am today.

The jobs we are doing now will inevitably change in the future. The rate of change has been further accelerated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and we are seeing more businesses adapting to a more digitalised world. We all have to be prepared to continually review and adapt. That shouldn’t be a scary thought, it should be an exciting thing to embrace.

What bit of advice would you give to your younger self?

An extremely cliched point but, it’s OK to fail. I think the earlier you experience examples of this, the sooner you realise it’s not as scary as it seems and there’s so much to learn from doing so. The next time it happens, which it will despite your efforts to prevent it, you’ll be even better equipped to respond quickly and appropriately.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Develop a broad skillset, because this will give you more options in the long run. In different organisations the ‘next step’ for people working in product varies significantly. I’ve seen career pathways bend and flex in very different directions, but that’s not unusual as product management is very multi-dimensional. To succeed you need to be able to draw upon a broad and deep set of skills, which means you can push your career towards majoring in one or many of those disciplines.

In product, here’s a few examples to consider:

  • Managing a bigger patch – a wider, more varied product portfolio developed in-house or in relation with partners.
  • Taking on greater responsibility in designing the construct of product functions, working practises and talent development of teams.
  • Becoming the CEO of your product, and being responsible for the profit and loss.
  • Absorbing more go-to market responsibilities.

What are the big misconceptions that exist about a career in the tech industry?

You need to be technical. I couldn’t profess to be able to write a beautiful line of code, but I do understand conceptually how to build systems. I also fully respect the engineers in my team who have this base well covered and can speak to them in a common language where we understand each other and ensure we’re pushing towards a common goal. My role as a product person is to understand deeply the customer and coordinate a team to create an elegant solution to their problem. I think you can develop that skill from any number of backgrounds, not all of which are technical. There’s a big, valuable contribution you can make to a team which so happens to use technology to get the job done.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I think there’s few women you could ask who haven’t experienced that to some degree. I would say in my case, I’ve been fortunate to not have had any major barriers to my career development. In tech, there’s an increasing representation of women in roles of all seniorities, although we’re definitely still the minority. Even more so black women like me.

Evaluating my experience across my career, I would say the most common things are the unconscious biases that sometimes creep in. Examples being people you meet directing their conversation to your male colleagues irrespective of the role you’re there to play, being heard above others which can sometimes be a challenge due to perhaps the higher pitch of your voice which might not carry so well in a sea of voices, or when your objections or reactions are referred to as ‘emotional’, which is a demeaning term and isn’t so often used in reference to male colleagues.

What do you think companies can do to support the careers of women working in technology?

Irrespective of industry, there’s a huge responsibility for companies to facilitate women (and men!) in maintaining and advancing their careers as they take time out and juggle the ongoing demands of children. I feel there’s a way to go universally, as it’s an extremely difficult one for employees and companies to navigate. At Experian though, its super encouraging to see many examples of female leaders who are doing that well.

We, of all genders, have a personal responsibility to tune into these subtleties and adapt to enable a more level playing field. It’s a topical subject and something I think is improving overtime. Training is one thing but changing behaviours is a far greater challenge. This is a societal challenge and not one which is only experienced at work.

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