“The Most Important Product You’ll Ever Work On: You!”: Cindy Deng, Leadership Coach at Pacific Blue Leadership (Video + Transcript)

June 7, 2023

Cindy Deng (Leadership Coach at Pacific Blue Leadership) shares why having a vision, considering your strategy, embracing your unique value, and executing with focus – means you can and will be your enthusiastic advocate.


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Angie Chang: With us today, we have Cindy Deng who is a leadership coach working with leaders to in tech to succeed in their careers while enjoying life. She has been working for over 20 years in the tech industry and her experience includes over five years at Google. She has worked as a business analyst, program manager and a product manager. Welcome, Cindy.

Cindy Deng: Thanks Angie. It’s great to be here today. Hi everyone. I’m here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hello to those of you also here, and everyone else in the world. All right, we’re gonna start with a little brief story.

Cindy Deng: It was really early in my career when I hit this one critical point. I remember doing this one offsite at this beach to staring at the ocean, feeling really overwhelmed. You see, before that point in my early career, I had amazing managers for a good stretch of time. I worked hard deliver results and there was felt like it was a clear path. My scope increased over time and I became a manager, and honestly I didn’t think much about career development at all that much at the time. Or if somebody were to ask me, I probably wouldn’t even really know what that meant. <laugh>

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Cindy Deng: Hardworking seems to simply led to good outcomes at the time. It felt straightforward, and then one day things changed. We had new leadership in place and everything felt different. I was no longer working with managers that knew my history and my strength and many of my new colleagues had really opposite style from mine and they were excellent at advocating for their ideas, it’s just amazing. But me on the other hand, I prefer deep analysis and I was a bit shy at speaking up in meetings, especially because English was not my native language.

Cindy Deng: Even though I liked the people I was working with, I didn’t feel equipped to navigate the changes and I felt lost. That day, I was sitting on the beach, I felt like I was in the middle of that ocean and just like waiting for the waves to come crashing down on me, but all of a sudden down on me that I could sit there and felt sorry for myself or I could get up and learn how to surf that wave.

Cindy Deng: I didn’t actually learn how to surf, but I could learn how to navigate the unpredictable changes and ultimately my career was up to me. A lot has happened since then. After about 20 years of working with engineering teams, I realized, while I really like working on products, I actually enjoy working with people even more. I now primarily work with female leaders in tech to navigate career challenges and elevate their leadership skills. What I’ve noticed in the last few years is that while career development is on most people’s mind these days, unlike that younger version of it’s not always obvious what to do, which is what brought me here today.

Cindy Deng: Today we’ll talk about how we can apply product management thinking into managing our careers. It’s just one of the many possible approaches to tackle this, but it’s certainly not the only way. Hopefully this will become another tool for you on your career journey.

Cindy Deng: Where are you on your career journey? Which one of these fields that resonate more with where you’re at? Are you looking at taking the next leap to reach for the next big thing? Whether that thing is a big project or promotion or something else that you’re excited about or are you more on the crossroad trying to figure out where to go next? It could be a pretty significant shift of your career direction changing type of roles that you have been working as or you’re moving from IC to a manager or potentially vice versa, whatever it is.

Cindy Deng: You might be debating options and considering how to navigate from where you are to the future direction or perhaps you’ve accomplished a lot in your career so far and you’re looking at how do you carefully balance all things that you’ve accomplished and what’s important to you and what do you do to put on top of that stack of stones while maintaining that balance – whether it’s health, fun, family, relationships or something else.

Cindy Deng: Throughout the talk today, we’ll be kind of going through a number of questions, kind of like this, really for you to think about where you are at, where you wanna go, and if it serves you, feel free to put in your thoughts in the chat or grab a notepad and then jot things down along the way. Yeah, I see some people already starting doing that. That’s great. And as you continue, what we’re talking about today really is a general framework. You can apply the formula and adapt it yourself and regardless where you are at with your journey. Throughout my career I worked on products most of my time. One way or another. I enjoy working with customers to understand their needs, figure out solutions with designers and engineers and delivering products ultimately make users’ lives better.

Cindy Deng: Over the last few years, as I consider how people navigate their career journeys and reflect on my own, it hit me one day, what if we were to look at ourselves as products? If you think about a product leader that you admire, whether it’s somebody you work with or somebody you observe from far, far away that on the stage, how would they approach a product that they’re passionate about? What would be their vision for it and what would be the strategy and how they approach it for the next few years and what would be needed during this execution so that it can launch successfully?

Cindy Deng: How would they advocate for the product that they’re passionate about to the world? Sometimes especially when we might feel stuck kind of in our journey or sometimes have a hard time talking about ourselves and thinking about your career this way gives you a little bit distance. Just backing off a little bit and thinking about what if for you with the product can potentially make it easier to think about it a little bit more objectively. What would you do? Think about this product is truly one of the kind. Anybody would be lucky to have it and one that you care deeply about. I know that because otherwise you wouldn’t be here today.

Cindy Deng: What’s the vision? For those that are ready to engage in the chat, if you just think about what’s your dream vacation look like and just pop in the chat like this one place you would go if you don’t have to worry about time or money or anything else, what would be your dream vacation look like? Just like the images here on the slide. Some people would want to go to the top of mountain and some people would want to get on a hot balloon. Some people say beaches are my way of doing lots of different ways. Everyone is different. Yeah. Like some of the answers coming in, it’s a lot of fun and one person’s dream job, it could be nightmare for someone else. Yeah. But so often we compare ourselves with others. If you don’t worry about anybody else’s opinion, what would be your vision for a successful, successful career?

Cindy Deng: Think about at the peak of your professional career, where would you wanna be? What would you wanna be doing? What role would that be and what size of the company would that be? Do you wanna be in a large size international scale? Do you wanna mid-size or small startup? What industry would that be? Do you wanna be an entrepreneur? Everyone’s answer could be totally different and every single one of those answer is perfect cuz it’s for you.

Cindy Deng: Sometimes these answers could be vague. It’s not always clear for everyone. Some people have really clear answers to say, I want to be this CXO of this one company, but for most people it’s not that clear. And it’s okay to be vague., because often when we’re trying to, even when we’re trying to go onto the highest peak, you can’t always see the highest peak sometimes, until you get past some hills before that.

Cindy Deng: It’s okay to be vague, and if you have absolutely no idea like how I was when I was growing up, I really did not like the question of what do you wanna be when you grow up? I would just make it up if I had to make an essay for it. Some of you might take jobs in the future that don’t even exist today. Who knows, right? If you don’t yet know, it’s perfectly fine.

Cindy Deng: Consider some of these questions. Reflect back on your journey. What brought you joy and what drains your energy, and what have you tried that you did not like? Consider time when things feel really good and you were in the flow, what was really good about it. These kind of questions can help you surface what’s really important to you, so you can figure out like just general direction you wanna go and if it’s kinda hard to figure it out and it’s okay to say I don’t have my vision for the next 20 years, cuz most people don’t.

Cindy Deng: What would be the direction you’d like to grow in the next few years? And just focus on that. And ideally it’s something that’s both a little bit exciting and scary cuz that would indicate things that are drawing you and also would help you grow next with a little direction or maybe a good clear vision of where you wanna go. Now it’s time to think about how do you get there. Just like planning on the road trip, you know, we have general direction where we wanna go, but there are some questions that you wanna kinda understand and the principles along the way. What are some key sights you might want to see? For example, if we were a road trip and we’re all going to Las Vegas, some people will wanna spend time in casinos and some will like make sure they pick out the best buffets to go to, and I will not want to miss any concerts or circus shows.

Cindy Deng: What kind of experience and learning do you want to gain in the next few years? When you think about the strategy, think a little bit distant, maybe the next few years or so. Do you wanna go deeper in areas that you do already enjoy, or do you wanna get a like a more breadth in areas that you may not know yet? Get a better kind of broader perspective around things? And how fast do you want to grow? Do you want to really rapid growth, or you prefer it to be a little slow and steady considering other aspects of your lives to for a better balance? And either way, it’s possible to have a rough itinerary but you want to really detail one because things are changing so rapidly these days. You can’t really just control a lot of things and think about what options might be in front of you.

Cindy Deng: There’s almost always multiple ways to get to a place and some of the options might be obvious, some may not. Sometimes you have to talk to others and discover those doors that might be hidden behind another wall that you don’t know about. And when you’re comparing options, think about what excites you. Often I talked about question yourself to say if you are looking to move to somewhere, are you running towards that option? Or you are running away from your current option if you have the time and the luxury to choose. I know sometimes people don’t, but which way do you wanna go and how do you wanna think about this?

Cindy Deng: Ideally there are little sparks that are drawing you and don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis. Sometimes people ask, do I wanna do this? Do I wanna do that? And it feels like I have to have a perfect option and perfect choice to optimize it all. It’s not always possible. Trust yourself that you can walk through a door and you decide from there. You can build build and you design your f way forward as always. Think about along this way also, what are some of the missing pieces that you might need? Are there new skills that you need to learn to get to the next phase?

Cindy Deng: What type of experience or opportunities that you might need in order to unlock the next opportunity? Think about what type of relationship do you need to build, whether that’s potentially mentors or sponsorships or maybe even peer support, like all the wonderful people here today in our conference. And think about the summer learning, circles potentially that will help you support you along the way. And sometimes it could be something a little less tangible like a mindset, especially if you recently transitioned to a new level or a new role. Maybe as a new manager or manager or managers.

Cindy Deng: What is something that you need to kind of change the way you think in order to lead at this level? Sometimes it’s like, how do I delegate better? How do I be more comfortable of I don’t need to be the one doing everything? Where are you spending your time thinking about the most strategic areas? Remember, what got us here sometimes doesn’t get us there. Yeah. The mindsets are important as well on your journey.

Cindy Deng: And last but not least, thinking about where you want to go and planning how to get there. Make sure you embrace your unique values. I sometimes hear people say, oh, well I don’t have a traditional background of this role. How do I go out and talk about myself? I said, that’s great. What is the unique thing that you are bringing that other people don’t have? How do you own your story and be really clear about it and be proud about that too. We can change the past, but you can think about how do you position that and then use that forward.

All right, so execution time. Not a lot different than how you would approach a work project. First, think about kind of how we prioritize things. Breaking down large large projects into smaller milestones and smaller goals. Where would you want to focus maybe for the next year or the next month? Sometimes we have too many top priorities. If the list of things that you wanna do and things you need to do are fairly long, how do you identify the one or two things to to really just pursue first? Because if you have 10 top priorities for a single team, you don’t really have a top priority. That will be the the top couple things to pursue.

Cindy Deng: Think about what kind of support do you need around you. It can take a village to have a successful product. For you to succeed, who do you need around you? For example, do you have a solid relationship with your manager? If you’re currently in a job, do they know about your career aspirations and where do you want to go? If your manager has idea of those, then they could potentially create opportunities for you along the way and allow you to practice the skills or learn things that you want to learn. Most managers are doing that these days, but if your manager has not had career development conversations with you the last six month or a year, try to start that conversation. Use the one-on-one time and just bring it up. It is your time and to look for manager support around things like this. You can share what you’re interested in learning and see what they can do about it to align.

Cindy Deng: Thinking beyond your manager, what about your skip level or other senior stakeholders that you may not interact with on the frequent basis, but they may be involved in the interest in the projects that you are working on? How do you make your work a little bit more visible beyond the people that you are enacting on a daily basis? And if you’re thinking about kind of exploring what’s next, actively on the job search, think about what kind of roles are you most interested in and really have lots of conversations with people. Networking can feel kind of scary at times, but really is the best way for people to discover opportunities and to find those kind of hidden roles that may not even be published on the job boards yet

Cindy Deng: In this phase as we’re trying things out and learning new things all the time, it’s potential to make mistakes. It’s like likely for us to make mistakes when we’re learning something new. Experiment and try things when you can kind of control in a small kind of setting. It’s less risky, but don’t be afraid to try and don’t be afraid to kind of get out of that comfort zone. And really, successes come from failures. We all have that tendency. I don’t wanna fail. What if I fail? It feels scary, but that’s the best way to learn at times.

Cindy Deng: Let’s say we finish all execution steps and we are ready for lunch. Who would be your number one fan? Any guesses here? Thoughts during the chat? For some time I would say, my number one fan might be my mom in my life, but on the career sense, As I mentioned, I have really great managers in the past. And as we think forward forward, what we really want to be our number one fan is ourselves. This could be really difficult for some people. I found it difficult, especially, for a good amount of time in my career. I grew up learning that it’s good to be humble. When people compliment us, my parents would say, “oh no, no, no, you’re too kind” and brush it off. Talking about ourselves is bragging. I took me a long time to understand that I needed to shift my thinking here, especially working in the US and corporate America. If we’ve done it, it’s not bragging. If we could talk about it in a humble way, it is important to really acknowledge what we’ve accomplished and our strength and our ability.

Cindy Deng: The hard truth is, as much as we like it, we don’t have people constantly advocating for us all the time. Even if our managers try to do their best jobs, they often have multiple people on the team. They can’t do that for just us. We have to do our part and advocate for ourselves whenever we can. Doing excellent work is great, but it’s also important to make sure that’s visible and known to other people. All right, I’m gonna fly through the next couple slides a little faster cuz we’re short on time.

Cindy Deng: After launch, how do we continue to improve ourselves? Getting feedback, making, making sure you remember to keep taking small steps. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Physical mental health are absolutely important, so we don’t build up a tech debt over time. The key takeaways… today’s talk is all about you. How do you invest in yourself, the next step, and how do you keep trying? Love to connect with everyone here. Feel free to reach out on LinkedIn and I have set aside time this year to help with folks on their career journey. If you like some additional one-on-one support, feel free to reach out.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Cindy. That was an excellent talk. Thank you so much for submitting this talk in the speaker call for proposals. Many of our speakers today came through that process. I encourage everyone in the audience to think about what is your TED talk and what can you speak about at the next girl Geek X ELEVATE. I did happily book a time with Cindy to talk and I’m so excited for that time. Thank you for being a leadership coach and helping women in tech. All right, we’re gonna close the session and hop to the next one, but thank you again, Cindy, and there’s a lot of chatter. I encourage you to look at the chat and we’ll see you on the other side. Bye.

Cindy Deng: Thank you, Angie. Bye everyone.

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