As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Knaster.
Rachel Knaster is Chief Product Officer for ASAPP where she has built a world class team of product managers, designers and analysts to create a powerful platform that makes people happier and more productive. Previously she was a member of the IBM Watson team and holds a patent for automating communications. She majored in computer science at Harvard and is a former member of the USA Rowing Junior National Team.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I majored in computer science at Harvard and developed a passion for problem-solving with technology and a few years after graduating, I joined the IBM Watson team. IBM was one of the first companies to bring AI to the enterprise. That experience allowed me to pull people up with me, who were great team players. However, the opportunity to lead an industry-defining product at ASAPP, not held back by legacy technologies, was my opportunity to steer a team to success. Over the last few years, we’ve raised $400 million and grown to over 350 people. I’ve built a world class team of Product Managers, Product Designers, and Product Analysts to create a powerful offering that transforms how millions of contact center workers’ tools will be simpler, more powerful and help make them more productive and ensure artificial intelligence is being used to create sustainable jobs.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In our early days at ASAPP, we were looking to hire someone with a very specific skill set and found a person who was incredibly strong but… Culture matters at a company and this person demonstrated that they were not a team player and was pretty rude. Despite having a thinly stretched startup team, and a desire to alleviate some of those pressures, we made the decision to not proceed with the candidate because we valued our team and our work culture over short term work-load release. When times are easy those decisions are easier to make. However, this was a lesson that ultimately making this type of decision is tough when your back is against the wall, but it’s what builds culture.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I started in consulting, which has its own business speak that I didn’t understand at the time. When you’re at college there’s not a course in business speak, and the language just made me cringe. Being new to the industry, I called it out at a team meeting, and everyone laughed about it. “Action Items!” While I now understand business speak — all of us still need to make sure we replace jargon with clarity. Shorter sentences too, please!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Stephen Chong is a Professor of Computer Science at Harvard who taught me Systems Programming and Machine Organization. I was new to computer science, and it was a very intimidating subject. Yet, his encouragement and understanding that it is an intimidating subject pushed me to major in computer science. That decision to stick with computer science changed my career path.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
The ASAPP product team gets pulled into high stakes situations at work in part because, when it is stressful, our team can lighten and laugh about the situation, reducing the tension for everyone involved. It’s been great to hear that feedback and it speaks volume about the team.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
A diverse company and executive team bring different points of view, different experiences, different working styles, and different backgrounds. That diversity helps build better products and understanding of our customers’ challenges and our own challenges.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
People are looking for innovators and new entrants to come in and disrupt how we help people. Everything from how large corporations are run to how people access healthcare to how we handle crises. The list can go on, but any event that shakes a society as we’ve experienced in the last two years, brings to the forefront all the opportunities for improvement and there’s no better way to solve those than new approaches.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
My job as an executive is to help manage the challenges and stress, which require my help, on my team. I’m totally focused on them, so we’re rowing in the same direction. However, when I’m working with my peers on the executive team, it’s different. We’re working as a team of equal partners that are looking at the business and how to continue making it successful. It’s very much about the company and being selfless and being part of a team that’s representing the company, versus representing the product team.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The myth about being an executive is that you are far removed from the details of the day-to-day operations and not getting involved. The most successful executives I’ve seen delegate and manage teams but when needed, they can dive in and help situations at any altitude to be super strategic.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I can speak about the enterprise software space, which has a lot of old incumbents — both software and people that have been around for decades. I think being a woman is certainly not an advantage in this environment, which is part of what makes ASAPP, and my successes to date, all the more satisfying.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I joined ASAPP as employee number 18. It was just this small-start-up, so just about everything I do has completely changed!
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Every business needs different people in different roles and not everyone is suited to every role. For example, great engineers don’t necessarily make great salespeople and vice versa. I think it’s more important that people should think about what they want individually and where their strengths can make a difference. I don’t think there is one cut of a person that makes an executive. However, I do think management should be taught in schools. If we learned more about peoples’ experiences for recruiting, managing and growing teams, it would help. It’s one of the skills that I learned from rowing competitively, some from group projects in college, but mostly I learned by trial-by-error in the real world.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
When you care about people in the workplace you get better results. Happier employees, means happier customers and better results. There’s also a financial and employee retention benefit for both your own teams and customers.
One critical element is to understand peoples’ jobs and their challenges. We design software for people who work in call centers/contact centers; yet the buyers of our software are totally different. We ensure that our customer executives understand the problems we are solving in their team, which is really important, and it gives huge amounts of satisfaction to my team.
There are three million Americans who currently work in customer service at these call centers, yet 40% leave their jobs within a year and 45% report the rate of technological advancement in the industry is behind the times. Given people are the industry’s most important asset, we need to ensure that they have the best tools and training to cope with the challenging demands of their work in servicing consumers like you and me. This background has informed ASAPP’s design philosophy in developing AI software primarily for the customer service worker because we know that well designed intuitive software makes work lives better. That ultimately impacts employees’ happiness and their company’s ability to retain quality talent.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I majored in computer science at Harvard and developed a passion for problem-solving with technology. I also saw the challenge around me. My class had only 30 percent who were women. Along with several other classmates, I was a founding member of Harvard’s Women in Computer Science (WICS), an organization that continues to provide an empowering support network for undergraduate women. I continue to help women in STEM through WICS mentorship programs, and several mentorship programs ranging from younger middle school to people looking for next steps in their career.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Business Speak
- Being clear on something for yourself doesn’t mean everyone else is clear on it.
- Find the right place. Not everyone is well suited for every role. People have different character strengths and weaknesses, so on paper they may look the same, it’s more about where people can fit.
- Find the balance of speaking up and questioning things for brevity, leverage, and impact.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
To push, and reward, honesty in the workplace.
While it’s much easier at a smaller company, the workplace can be an area where people avoid conflict and it’s very hard for most people to get genuine feedback. Constructive criticism is not fun to deliver, and it’s challenging to take the time and provide substantive value to delivering such feedback. It takes altruism. So as a result, people lose out on improving themselves because people are scared to receive and deliver feedback.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If you are not valued, you are in the wrong place. I believe everyone has a place and a strength. People feel so much pressure to succeed and become self-critical when it’s not working. Sometimes a different role, different company or change is required.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Safra Catz, Oracle CEO.