Hear from Levina Basra, Product Manager at cinch
Levina gave us her time to talk about her career story, her development as being entirely self-taught while working in the world of tech, and ultimately what it’s like working in an environment that brings a lot of change and demands resiliency. We hope you enjoy listening to Levina’s career story and find her insights useful as you start your own tech career.
Could you give us an introduction: where did you start from, what are you up to right now, and generally how is your career going?
I started my career not in tech but in marketing, on a marketing graduate scheme. I’m a creative person so I knew I wanted to combine that with my analytical skills that I’d learn and practice as part of my History and Economics degree, but quite quickly I realised I didn’t like marketing. What I did learn is that I enjoy problem-solving and using data to drive decision-making. And what I learnt was these were key attributes of being a product manager.
Fortunately for me, the motor industry was rapidly changing and you had disruptors like cinch and Cazoo, then the pandemic happened which drove the demand for purchasing cars online. As a result, [in] the business that I worked for put a lot of resources into a product engineering team and I became the first product manager in the company. That was cool because buying cars online is quite a unique challenge. It’s not like you’re buying something from Amazon, it’s your second biggest purchase after buying a house so I found that exciting.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I now work at cinch as a product manager. Currently, I work with engineering, architecture, service design, data analysts, data engineers, and UX designers to provide direction on what we should build and what best meets cinch’s business objectives.
A lot of people when they think of different business sizes think it’s very exciting working at a startup and they’re already aware of that terminology and that kind of environment. But what is it like at a scale-up and what kind of skills and attributes do you need to succeed in that environment?
So just to talk about the difference between a startup and a scale-up – when I first started at cinch it was definitely moving into scale-up mode and what meant for us was going back. You’ve built this online platform but you’ve done it really quickly, so that means that you’re pulling plasters off things. You’re now trying to solve the problems that we created along the way. A lot of that is technical debt and product debt. And also trying to figure out new innovative ways of tackling growing volumes. For us at cinch, that’s especially within our product teams. So what I would say is, you learn so much being in that environment but what you also need to remember is you have to be adaptable and resilient. You have to evolve quickly and at a quick pace because it’s a really fast-paced environment. It’s very challenging and it’s also very reactive to market conditions.
So just to break that down further: being adaptable. As I said, we’re very reactive to the market and direction changes quickly. That results in projects changing quickly. Most recently, we had to throw away four months’ worth of work to realign to cinch’s new business objectives and that’s where resilience comes in. That’s work where you’ve put your heart and soul into that and because you’re in this environment that’s fast moving [and at a] quick pace, you have to remember you need to keep providing value. And as a product manager, you have to lead that and get your team on that journey and through that ride.
You’re self-taught and you’re working in the world of tech which is quite unique and exciting. Could you tell us how you went about taking that plunge, how you chose what to learn, and then as I’m sure you’ve developed throughout your career, how do you choose what to learn next?
[There are] Three things I’ve done to develop my career. Number one is learning from other people like your peers, people senior to you, people who I’ve met at meetups, and also just watching people and asking people I admire “How do they do what they’re doing?”
The second, and I feel like this is probably quite relevant to the people [reading] this, I didn’t start in tech. A lot of people don’t, but I’ve worked before, I’ve done a degree, I’ve gone to school. So what kind of skills have I learned there that I’m able to apply to my role in tech? In my case, as I said, that was data-driven decision-making, problem-solving, and being an analytical thinker.
But the most important is backing myself and listening to my intuition. It’s hard at first and you have to build up that confidence to back yourself. But I started off small, I worked my way up to bigger decisions (such as the one that I mentioned earlier) and also in the startup/scale-up environment you don’t necessarily always have data to prove why you want to do something. So for me, it was always finding a very quick way to prove my theory and I always remember you grow from failing.
You also asked me “How do I decide what to learn next?” I think that’s easy: it’s what I’m stuck on. Tech is constantly evolving. There’s always a new way to do something, so again, speaking to people around me, googling, you’ve got chatGPT and Google Bard these days. As you mentioned, I’m self-taught so I did a lot of online courses, in particular OpenClassrooms.
I’m also a podcast lover. I’m not really a reader and I’m kind of proud of that. At cinch we love Lenny’s podcast and podcasts can help you think about new ideas, and spark your thought. I’m also going to keep mentioning this: meetups. There are so many online and in-person ones across the whole country.
One thing about shines through in your career is change. You mentioned earlier about working for months on something and then having to change it very quickly and a lot of stuff, unfortunately, can go out the window due to a change of forces, which are beyond your control, they’re coming from above you in the business as it pivots position or strategy. Even in your career, you changed from marketing to being a product manager and you’ve changed teams within a business. With all these changes going on, what opportunities have you been opened up to in your career?
That’s such a great question. The changes have allowed me to grow which has also resulted in new opportunities. For example, as mentioned cinch’s business model has shifted multiple times since I’ve been there due to the changing economic environment. Because of that, I’ve been able to move to bigger priority initiatives. That also means I’ve had to work with new squads. New squads all have different ways of working, their quirks, and different practices. And one of the most impactful things that I’ve learned this year is job titles within a team don’t mean much. It’s the people within your team and the skills that people have.
Playing to people’s strengths is so important and because of that, I evolved the way that I’ve been thinking and the way that I interact with other people, and that’s allowed us to have a way happier environment to work in. And it’s because people are doing what they love and playing to their strengths and enjoying that. That’s resulted in us having higher productivity within our teams.
We have lots of people when they finish our training and move into a client environment, sometimes they feel that they need to know everything to get everything done. And one thing we try and instil in people is being curious. Chatting with other people, with other client teams, even if it’s not the team that you’ve been designated into at a client. If you can learn what everyone else is working on, it creates that environment where you’re open to more people, open to more experiences and open to more knowledge. Then you’re able to connect more dots when you’re faced with a problem. Because we don’t expect people to be able to do absolutely everything on day one, or day, two or even day fifty, sometimes. But they’ll get there by exposing themselves to other people across a business and learning from them. That’s exciting to hear from you.
We have lots of people coming to us and starting their tech careers. What advice do you have for someone who’s in the early stages of their tech career?
I have two pieces of advice. Firstly, it can be intimidating going into an engineering team. Starting at cinch was the first time I’d worked with engineers within a squad. They were all men. They were a lot older than me. They were more experienced, but it’s also where I grew the most. Without that experience and putting myself out there, asking what I thought were silly questions, I wouldn’t have realised that back-end project management was the thing that I enjoyed and that’s what I do today.
My second piece of advice would be exactly what you were just saying: networking. Go to meetups and stay in the office longer. If you’re remote, message people that you think are cool and have a conversation with them. You can learn so much from talking to other people and you never really know where those conversations can take you.