Kay Zeren: Herding Cats as a Technical Program Manager


Kay Zeren is Principal Technical Program Manager at Komprise. In this interview, we asked her about her daily work, tools of the trade, and if she’s ever experienced barriers working as a woman in Silicon Valley.

What does a technical program manager do in software?

KZ: My job is to work across engineering to make sure projects and releases are on time, work with managers on resourcing and requirements and with QA on testing to ensure that it’s on schedule. It’s about getting the right people in the room to shepherd the release according to any changes that come up. I work with customers as well, and customer issues always take priority so that finds me sometimes working with our support team to ensure a hotfix is delivered. As a program manager, I am often herding cats: nobody reports to me but everyone has to work with me. My job is to dislodge any log jams so that the project and feature can move forward.

What are the biggest challenges for you in this role?

KZ: When I came into this role at Komprise, we didn’t have all the processes in place. Over the last three years I’ve been working to do that. We want to be nimble, but priorities change and you have to shift quickly if management has a new direction. But that is life in a startup. For many of our young staff, this is their first job. As you grow, you need to make sure the knowledge transfer is happening. We are establishing the process as we go—which is like laying the rails down as the train is moving.

What skills do you draw upon to succeed?

KZ: People skills are extremely important and being cognizant that you are the hub of the communications. I spend a lot of my time getting the right information to the right people. I need a high-level view of all the channels—slack, email– to make sure that people are sharing information when required. I don’t have an engineering background so when my team members get into details that go over my head I need to grasp at a high level what’s going on. That means understanding the right questions to ask. Ultimately, key decisions ride with engineering and product management, whereas I bring the facilitator mentality to the party. Being organized is important. I have a deep background in product management and have learned a lot of technologies at a non-technical level: those experiences have really been helpful.

How do you counteract stress or negativity on the job, while straddling the line between different teams and viewpoints?

KZ: My job is to facilitate discussions. There is never one right answer. When I hear about customer issues, I’m not the one on the call taking the heat so I can be more objective to come up with the best solution and then turn around and make sure we deliver it. When I hear that we fixed an issue quickly for a customer, that is a very satisfying part of my job.

Your career began as a brand manager for Coca Cola in Japan. What was that like?

KZ: I’m originally from Japan and this was my first job out of grad school. It was cool to work at a global company and have a multimillion budget. I learned about all the pieces that come together to build a brand and the marketing and processes behind it, such as packaging, messaging and sponsorships. Doing this work gave me key skills needed to work across different functions. I took that knowledge to Silicon Valley and applied it in the consumer tech sector.

As my career has evolved, I’ve learned that what has been important is not so much what I did, but how I did it.

Do you think opportunities for women in tech have improved in recent years and how?

KZ: Fortunately, I have never felt that being a woman was a handicap. Your skill set and capabilities are what matter. I definitely felt a glass ceiling in Japan and that culture is still prevalent there. In Japan there are much more traditional expectations of women overall and long commutes made it harder for women trying to work and raise a family. But I also took a different career path so I could be mom first and have a career second. I haven’t necessarily sought title promotions, but my salary and responsibilities have absolutely grown over the years.

If you could pursue any other career regardless of being qualified, what would it be?

KZ: These days, I am more interested in giving back to the community or to Mother Earth. Working in tech has been great for us, and I enjoy living here in Silicon Valley. My next chapter might be quite different.


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