Women in Business Q&A: Amie Durr, Vice President of Product Management, SparkPost

Amie Durr is the Vice President of Product Management at SparkPost. Amie is responsible for delivering technologies that help businesses support and drive their messaging needs with a focus on scale, usability, engagement, and analytics. As the only person she knows with a background in both Mathematics and Anthropology, Amie has spent her career marrying her love of data and technology with her love of understanding people and processes. She is an evangelist and strong supporter of innovation and generally doing cool stuff, championing both the voice of the customer and the market, as well as the creative, technical skills of the engineers.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Throughout my entire life I have been very fortunate to have a number of strong female role models ranging from family members to friends and colleagues and some exceptional teachers. One trait they all shared, and taught me, was to never be afraid to be smart.

For example, growing up I had an aunt who went through a divorce and was left to raise two small children by herself in her early 20's. She not only raised two amazing kids, she worked full time, put herself through college, built a successful career and became the vice president of an international publishing company. She showed me that you can experience difficult times that might stretch for months, even years, and work your way out of them to achieve your goals.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at SparkPost?
I've done a lot of work to help people collaborate more effectively, even within their own teams or on inter-departmental projects and initiatives. As SparkPost continues to grow and add more people to our team, my experience facilitates communication and collaboration, whether it's an off-the-cuff brainstorm or a formal meeting. You don't necessarily have to leave a meeting with the end-game in mind, but you do want to problem solve and quickly make decisions about next steps and priorities. That's what moves the entire business forward, not individuals shouting their opinions over everyone else.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SparkPost?
Our company reflects the business world's move to cloud computing. We originally offered an on-premises email solution, and have since evolved to offer a cloud-based email service, and seeing how our cloud offering has become such an integral component of our customers' businesses has been amazing. That kind of change can be scary, but we've been able to evolve and I'm very proud of helping to lead that effort.

One of the biggest challenges early on was resisting the impulse to say "yes" to everyone. We learned to take customer feedback very seriously when developing new features and functionalities of our solutions, not just push out what we thought businesses needed. You need to take the time to ensure you're doing the right thing, and sometimes it has to be OK to say "this isn't ready yet," instead of rushing a product out to meet unrealistic deadlines that prioritize a quicker time-to-market over quality.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Do not be afraid to ask questions. In the tech industry, if you don't have a background in engineering or software development, you likely won't understand all the acronyms and terms that get thrown around. Tech professionals are famous (infamous?) for speaking in a language no one else can understand. Stop, ask for an explanation, and pay attention. You don't need to know how to code, but you do need to understand how the challenges that the developers and IT administrators both at your company and at your customers affect broader business concerns such as risk mitigation, pricing, contract language and customer service.

Also, it's OK to say "no." We often feel compelled to take on more responsibilities to raise our profiles and impress colleagues and superiors. Instead, you should select the projects you can knock out of the park. Say "yes" to the things you can win, and focus on quality over quantity.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Build relationships everywhere -- inside the organization, outside the organization, even in your community where you may think you won't help advance your career or grow the business. You will have an ear constantly trained on news and trends that may affect your customers' wants and needs, or guide improvements you can make to your own decision-making or your team collaboration efforts.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
That answer has changed as my life from being single to becoming a wife and mother, which have occurred in parallel with how I've been advancing my career. The most important thing I've learned is the absolute need to set designated times for personal and work commitments. Be present for family and work when you need to be, don't let one infringe on the other. It's OK to show your family you have to work hard, but don't cross the line of working at the expense of your relationships with family and friends. They need to know they are priorities, and that means the time you spend with them is devoted to them, demonstrating you truly value those moments.

In addition, you must ensure you are focused on work when appropriate - otherwise, you will be forced to work after hours at home which could impede on the time you set aside for family and friends.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Overcoming stereotypes. If a man appears to be aggressive, that's fine -- he's viewed as just trying to climb the corporate ladder. Women, however, are expected to be more even-tempered and are often seen as less than an expert in negotiating and decision-making. That's nonsense (of course), which is why I advise not to expect others to help you overcome these stereotypes. Be confident in yourself, take yourself seriously -- otherwise, no one else will. You have to be unapologetic, professional and confident in everything you do. You can be empathetic and nurturing without sacrificing assertiveness and confidence.

Go after what you want without being afraid or apologizing for it.

Building on that, I would also recommend ignoring the naysayers that live off being passive aggressive -- not including a stakeholder in a meeting for example -- because they feel slighted in some way. My advice is to not engage with that person/s and continue to build relationships and rapport with stakeholders above you, below you and to the side of you. Taking into account the current political environment, we are exposed to both sides engaging in name-calling, underhandedness and just being outright mean - that can infect the workplace as well. If you focus on doing a great job, continue to assert yourself and demonstrate confidence and capability - rather than partaking in the political rhetoric - you will achieve a level of happiness and success now and in the future, regardless of the workplace.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
This is why building relationships is so important. I learned so much about being a better wife, parent and business leader from people across all walks of life. When I meet someone who I see solving personal or business challenges, or helping others do the same, I try to learn from them.

I don't have one mentor I always turn to, there have been so many different people who have helped me become the person I am today. Some of those relationships stretch back to my childhood and teenage years.

I had a math teacher for all four years of high school. From Day 1 of our freshman year, she treated us like equals, not kids. She had us call her "Aunt Jackie," and we felt empowered to discuss life with her, not just math problems. She was open about the end of her first marriage, how she worked to overcome various career and life issues. I still have most of my notes that she would write to me on my tests where she would provide me with advice on both life and calculus.

It's fascinating how there are people throughout your life that you learn from without even realizing it until you reflect on it years later.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
This has nothing to do with the tech industry, but a woman named Glennon Dolye Melton, who is the founder of the "Momastery" blog. In 2002, she was addicted to drugs and alcohol and battling depression. She's worked extraordinarily hard to overcome her addictions and become a successful blogger, best-selling author, speaker, and more importantly, wife and mother to three kids. She has gone from the lowest depths of life to becoming someone who has made extraordinary changes to her life and has had a profound impact on thousands of people. She's built an empire of empathy, helping give people direction and purpose to their lives.

I try to emulate how she cares for people who come to her for help and advice. For me, whenever I make a personal or professional decision, I pause to make sure I'm considering my team, the entire company, my family, and not just trying to benefit myself.

In conclusion, the leaders I admire -- be it in my community or my workplace - promote living life as a decent human being, however simple that may sound. They live and breathe this way of life and do not become mired in the minutiae of wondering what religion a person is or their sexual orientation. In short - they inspire. That, to me, serves as the embodiment of true leadership.

What do you want SparkPost to accomplish in the next year?
We're focusing on developing our people and help them advance their careers -- hopefully with us, but we realize not everyone will stay at SparkPost forever. Regardless, we want even those who leave to be able to say we helped them become better versions of themselves.

We now have a platform to help our people become more visible through speaking engagements, blog posts and other avenues. We have opportunities to help each individual create a voice for her or himself. You don't have place yourself in the national spotlight or on stage in front of thousands of people. But in order to make an impact and move the business forward and advance your career, finding your voice and being able to use it are critical skills.

I want to help and encourage the women in our organization find their voices. That's not easy because you open yourself up to feeling vulnerable, and the reluctance that comes with that feeling can be hard to overcome. But it's key for both personal and professional growth.