Ashley Fidler explains how, through a series of career twists and turns, she went from a PhD in Linguistics to becoming CPO at Eigen Technologies.
Ten years ago, I left academia to go into tech full time. In my current role as CPO for Eigen Technologies in London, I manage a team that includes business and technical product, UX/UI, and subject-matter experts. Our product helps businesses (especially in financial services) use natural language processing to get information and insights from their documents at scale.
As CPO, it’s my responsibility to ensure that we build the right product for the right customers, both today and in the future. That means working closely with leaders across the business to ensure that we have a solid corporate strategy, and that we translate that strategy into a product that serves the needs of our customers in a compelling way.
It’s fascinating to me to be in a startup working with some of the largest companies in the world. This area has a special blend of pure product, operations and tech that doesn’t seem to be as prominent in the B2C world. I’ve been at Eigen for seven months and I’m hugely impressed with the whole team here. They’re smart and highly motivated to learn and to serve our customers.
My Career Experience
I have a PhD in Linguistics and started my career in academia as a linguist. However, when I finished my PhD in 2010, there were no academic jobs so I moved to Silicon Valley and eventually became a computational linguist at Microsoft.
My job there was a hybrid of data science and technical product management. After a couple of years, I moved into the program management organisation. From there, I went on to become a technical product manager at a machine learning (ML) startup, Context Relevant, responsible for the ML platform.
That company later pivoted to cybersecurity, I took over the product team in 2016, we built a new product and were acquired by another cybersecurity company in 2018. I was CPO at the acquiring company, eSentire, for about nine months before taking a break and moving to London to join Eigen.
I believe that my technical and operational background has definitely helped in my current role. Enterprise product, especially in machine learning, is more of a hybrid role than B2C product roles seem to be. The VC firm Andreesen Horowitz recently published an interesting piece, The New Business of AI (and How It’s Different From Traditional Software) – it’s definitely worth a read to understand this difference better.
Landing the Role
When I was looking for a new role, many of the recruiters who contacted were from the UK and Europe. The growing startup ecosystem in Europe is creating a lot of demand for scale-up leadership in particular.
At the time, I wanted to get back to natural language, and to share my experience as a product manager for ML products for enterprise, so this particular role really appealed to me. I also know that enterprise ML is hard, and I wanted to help other companies learn from past experiences.
The hiring process started when I was contacted by a recruiter, but it turned out that one of Eigen’s investors also sat on the board of the startup I previously worked at, so there was also a personal connection. We did two rounds of online interviews (one with the CEO, one with the heads of commercial and delivery) and then a full day of in-person interviews in London.
The thing I liked most about the interview process was that they had me in the London office for 10 hours. They gave me a key, and let me talk to whomever I wanted. I had lunch with engineers and talked to everyone I could find! It gave me a great perspective on the culture.
My Top Tips
First, for interviewing, it’s key is to spend the time to really understand the needs of the team you’re joining. In my case, this was especially important as CPO tends not to be a very well defined role. You have to understand how exactly you will move the ball down the field in this specific company, with this specific group of people. I talked to more than a dozen companies before taking this role, and they all had a slightly different definition of what they expected.
In general, if you want to move into product from other disciplines, it’s critical that you show how your skills will translate into the product world. For example, as an academic, I did a lot of teaching, speaking and writing. I coached and mentored people. I conducted user research. I managed groups of stakeholders to deliver research. There are a lot of parallels to the product world. Do some informational interviews, if needed, to fully understand the role/area you want to go into, and then spend time mapping what you know to what the team needs and making that argument to potential employers.