“Smooth seas don’t make for a skilled sailor” says the African proverb. The non-traditional career path can be fraught with volatility and complexity, however, learning by doing is unequivocally the surest path to excellence.
Unboxed’s Senior Product Manager, Michelle Isme, navigates these ambiguous waters with grace. Brave, fierce, compassionate and highly experienced – we talk about the non-linearity of her digital career, the importance of aligning with companies that align with your ethics and the prospect of a world governed by a wellbeing economy.
To start us off… I wonder if you could give readers a little background info on yourself and your role at Unboxed?
I am a senior product manager and designer at Unboxed. It’s a hybrid role generated via six years in product management and 10 years, more broadly, in design. Because Unboxed is an agency, I’m able to help out on different projects depending on what the project might need. Sometimes it’s more product management and delivery focused and other times, it’s getting stuck in and designing prototypes.
What led you onto this career path?
It’s been an interesting and random journey. I didn’t go to university. I was going to go but the design module of the course that I was interested in got cancelled. They offered me a place on an advertising course instead. I attended one lesson and immediately realised that advertising wasn’t for me. I picked up some admin work and taught myself design in the evenings.
Over the years, knowing that I wanted to land up in design, I sneaked it into my admin work as often as I could. One of my early jobs was for a mental health team and the psychiatrists would often write research reports so I offered to design the front covers for them. Eventually, my roles progressed into more design orientated and communications type roles.
Around the same time, social media was starting to become a thing and organisations were beginning to realise that they needed a web presence. I wrote blogs, redesigned websites and started doing things like testing with staff, getting feedback and designing user flows. User-centred design, basically, but I didn’t know this, I just thought that it was a common-sense approach.
Eventually, I applied for a role as a digital campaigner at a tech start-up and was hired. They promoted me to product manager within six months. It was a small start-up. Only 10 people. But my role involved working directly with developers who went on to teach me about agile development, scrum and writing stories.
So I really learnt on the ground while working very hard and simultaneously teaching myself via YouTube and by attending events. I probably burnt out quite a bit but that’s what happens in startups. Several years later, I was contracting and that’s how I first worked with Unboxed before joining them permanently and the rest is history.
Looking back, would you have changed your mind about attending university?
I am happy with the path that I’ve taken even though it wasn’t planned. It definitely was the right decision at the time. I knew that the advertising course wasn’t for me. I am always tempted to study for a degree remotely or part-time in the future. However, only for a sense of achievement. I probably don’t need it for my career now so I’d probably choose something really random like criminology. But then also looking at how expensive it is, I think I could have fun in cheaper ways so I’m not sure. Maybe if I come into some money and I have some time, I might study one day.
What triggered your love and passion for design?
I was really creative as a child. My parents always remind me of a tool box they bought me which I stored all my pencils in - I loved it. I used it in all my classes. I took it everywhere with me. I was shy and quiet but always drawing. So I knew that I’d always want to do something creative. As a teenager, I had all these different ideas for different types of design work - fashion designer, website designer, interior designer. Basically all types of design. So I’m not surprised that I ended up going down this path. I’ve started to move more towards product management now which is much more about working with other designers and developers to make sure that the right thing is built. I’ve become a lot more analytical and logical as I’ve become older and, coupled with creativity, product management suits that perfectly.
Out of all the projects that you’ve worked on so far, can you pinpoint one that you would label as your most interesting?
Of my Unboxed projects, it would be the most recent one that I’ve been working on: BoPS (Back-office Planning System) - the objective has been to build a back-office system for council planning teams. If you own a house, for example, and you’d like to renovate or add an extension, you have to apply for planning permissions. Or if you’re a developer and you’d like to build a block of flats, you have to apply for varied permissions.
At the moment, council planning teams use legacy software that resemble a 90’s database. It’s not user-friendly and besides being slow and frustrating, this also has a very real negative impact on society. The wrong things could get built like flats that don’t feature enough natural light which could negatively impact a resident’s mental health. Diving deeply into this project and realising just how many different building blocks bring the planning process together has been fascinating. It’s complex and there are so many moving parts, I’ve loved it.
Do you think that there’s a unique perspective that women bring to the table when it comes to complex problem solving?
Earlier in my career, a long time ago now, a male colleague described a user interface that I had designed as having “added my feminine touch.” This did not go down well. Reflecting on the experience, I began to wonder if design was “feminine.” My conclusion was that attaching a skillset to a gender is problematic even if the intention is well meaning.
There are skills that we have been conditioned to think of as feminine such as active listening, understanding, empathy, humility and being willing to admit to being wrong. These traits are all essential to solving complex problems. I’m sure that anyone, irrespective of gender, can possess or develop these traits. I think that a lot of people, particularly the people I work with, do think more independently and as a result we’ve been able to break free from needing to consider toxic gender stereotypes.
Do you think that there’s still a role that unconscious bias plays against merit-based hiring of women in tech?
I’ve not experienced discrimination of this kind directly but I think it’s because I’ve been extremely selective about which organisations I will and won’t work with. My first question is always: do their values match mine? So the organisations that I’ve picked to work with won’t have this mindset to begin with. But, I have experienced other things such as recruiters offering me below market rates or trying to sell positions to me based on what they think I, as a female, might like e.g “oh it’s a fashion brand” and things like that.
I also do know that in the tech startup world male founders tend to attract more investment than female founders so they are able to grow more. There’s research that shows that people have a tendency and bias towards recruiting people that look and sound like them. So obviously a lack of diversity would then apply to areas beyond just gender. I recently read an article by Wired Magazine titled: “UK’s StartUp Founders are Too Posh.” They reported that more than half of the UK’s founders are independently educated which means that we’ve created business environments full of white, male founders from relatively wealthy backgrounds. This does have a knock on effect on who they recruit.
Do you have any advice for women or newcomers from non-traditional backgrounds entering the industry?
I suppose this is for women but also, generally, young people starting out in a new career: question everything and call things out. The loudest person in the room may seem the most confident and that can be quite intimidating, particularly, if it’s a new industry or if they have a big job title. Sometimes that’s a sign of overcompensating for something, not always the case, but sometimes it is.
With experience, I’ve learnt not to be intimidated by that kind of stuff and still offer ideas. Because now I understand that if my ideas are shut down and considered a threat then that person isn’t really a good leader and they’re probably not a good example for me to follow. A good leader will be open to being questioned and will encourage fresh perspectives. So my advice is: if you have an idea, share it. You might not feel comfortable sharing it out loud in a meeting, maybe you could email it afterwards to a colleague. But don’t feel like your ideas aren’t valid because you’re new to an industry. Sometimes the best ideas come from people who aren’t already embedded.
As women, society often expects us to be polite, quiet and not rock the boat but that’s looking at it from a very negative point of view - suggesting an idea doesn’t mean that you’re being impolite. You can put suggestions forward in a friendly way but you shouldn’t hold back because you’re worried about how you might look - bossy or any of the negative perceptions of women that people may have when women are outspoken.
Speaking about big ideas - are there any current problems that you believe technology could be used as a tool to address?
Transparency. It’s really easy to create tools that allow us to track delivery processes… Like when I order a product from a company, I can track it’s journey and see when it’s going to arrive on my doorstep. However, when it comes to considerations like: “what food do I buy?” or “where do I buy my clothes from?” unless there’s been a media expose on slavery or something like that, I won’t know what’s happening behind the scenes. So I would like to, with all kinds of decisions that I make, particularly as a consumer, have a level of transparency that will enable me to see what impact my choices have on people. I know that there are certification models out there: fair trade and things like that, but often they only make up one part of it. I would love to be able to, for example, buy clothes and be able to see: “where it was made?”, “what rate of pay do the company’s employees have?”, “is that normal for their country?” Full transparency so that I am able to make ethical decisions.
For example, if I sign up to use a new bank, there are a lot of start-up banks out there who have great features that are very similar. “Which one do I pick?” “Can I choose based on the way that they treat their staff?” “Are their employees burnt out?” It’s very hard to check all of this stuff. I definitely think that technology could help but the tech side would be the easy side. The people side would be a lot more challenging - how would we enforce compliance? My partner works in international supply chains and I was chatting to him about it saying, “I know that certification labels exist and stuff”… And he was saying, “it’s just not quite there.” But ultimately, if we could track ethics the same way we track delivery pipelines, that would be amazing.
Moving onto technological innovations that do already exist, in your career so far, what would you say has been the greatest transformation that you’ve witnessed?
As much as I would love more transparency, I do think that companies have already begun the shift towards being more open already. Social media helps a lot. If I’m really annoyed about something like, for example, if I’ve ordered something to be delivered and the product arrived broken… If I can’t get the company on the line, I can tweet about it. Since this would be bad publicity, I’ll get an answer straight away. Working in the open is the norm in my field and a lot of that has been led by government digital teams. Transparency has become embedded within systems and processes, we code in the open and share what we have been doing and learnt in fortnightly ‘show and tells’.
So that’s been a massive change. Some of it is driven by publicity and social media. Some of it is just agile ways of working - learn, iterate, repeat, no need to hide! But there has been a definite move in the right direction.
So we’ve looked at the past and the present, what do you think the future of tech / social innovation could look like?
Thinking more along the lines of social innovation… You’ve probably heard of wellbeing economy governance? (The Vision of a Wellbeing Economy) I would love it if all governments took that approach. It’s not about ignoring or rejecting traditional economics in terms of generating wealth but about reconsidering what wealth is and how humans can generate wealth in new ways that don’t cause harm. It is more strategic and it is thinking more long-term but it would affect everything like the future of work and universal basic income. As well as things like which big companies governments choose to work with and invest in, and considering how those companies invest and treat people before large contracts are handed out, it is also about having the government prioritise health and wellbeing and considering how legislation and city design might have an impact on these. Everything is thought of through the lens of wellbeing. I can imagine that some people might think that’s wishful thinking or a bit hippie-ish but there’s been a lot of research done about the impact of unhappy people on the economy so they’re not completely separate issues.
So my social innovation would be that all governments adopt that approach so that when they’re looking at housing policies or infrastructure policies or all of those things… As well as looking at “can we afford it?” and “what’s the cost benefit?” they’re also looking at “what will the impact on people’s wellbeing be?” Considering the environmental impact also feeds into that. It might take a while to get there but we’ll get there.