Europe, Interviews

Karla Schönicke – Product Owner at RatePAY

Karla Schönicke is a Certified Scrum Product Owner at RatePAY GmbH where she is building digital and customer-centric products. She is passionate about product management, user experience and building technology that benefits people and has been active in the Berlin tech scene for 9 years. If you want to enrich your conference stage with perspectives on tech, diversity and language and speech, she’s the one to call.

Read about her journey from business to tech, why diversity needs a broader approach and what skills she points out as necessary to be successful in tech.

In a Nutshell: What role does technology play in your work?

My job title is “Product Owner” and that’s where the questions start already. When I tell this to people a lot of them say: “Oh, so is it like product management? But what is the difference between product management and project management?” And then I usually explain the principles of Scrum and agile product development (you can contact me if you still need answers). 

As a product owner, you have a development team, which is cross-functional, and you hold a so-called lateral leadership position, you’re leading from the side. At the end of the day, I have to make sure the user out there gets the most value out of the product. To sum it up, technology is what I do – I use it all the time as a part of my job and I also create it with my team.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

Okay, let me go back to high school. The first time I was in a computer science class was in 8th or 9th grade with one hour per week where I would play with Excel sheets and learn more about computers. Then, I chose Computer Science as my major during A levels, which was really a rare option because usually in German schools you don’t have that. For three years, we programmed in Pascal, learned about binary numbers and the layers in a computer system. We were one-third of girls and two-thirds of boys in the class. And the boys were so much better all the time and much geekier, so I never thought I would fit into informatics, let alone study anything like that. 

I always knew I had a really broad spectrum of interests. After working as an Au pair in Finland for one year, I started studying business, since I wouldn’t have to specialize too much in the beginning and it would let me decide later on what kind of a job I wanted to take.

Already after the first semester, I was pretty bored because of all the economic theory and did an internship in a startup in Berlin, where they let me do everything – from customer support to QA and marketing. I love the atmosphere and way of working in these small tech companies and stayed in the Berlin startup scene during my studies. 

After university, I started as an Operations Manager. In this role, I supported the two founders with all the paperwork, taxes, invoices, customer service, and I also did product development, because I understood the product and when customers had inquiries, I could translate this to the tech people. At the same time, I started doing some programming on the side again and that’s how I realized that I definitely wanted to move into product management. That was three years ago and now as a Product Owner, I have truly arrived in the tech sector.

You did a technological major and coding in school, and the number of boys and girls there shows how it is on a big scale. Women in the field of technology are definitely in the minority. What steps should be taken to attract more women to tech?

One broad thing is visibility and perception. I don’t see a lot of women in this field, they’re not in the media, or the papers that I read, not so much on social media either. When little girls see job portrayals on TV, movies etc., you rarely see women in tech. There is maybe one woman that does science stuff, two or three series where women are coders, but apart from that most roles on the screen are a geekier and it is usually men. On a day- to -day basis, you hardly see women in technological fields or even broader, in STEM. 

To be fair, nowadays things are changing, but still – just think of children’s books and how roles and task responsibility are portrayed there. This is a general societal issue, so it’s important how the job is viewed: Do we celebrate the geek sitting in the cellar and eating pizza and drinking Coke? Do we like to tell these jokes all the times, do we like to celebrate this kind of male-dominated nerdiness, or would we like to celebrate diversity? 

That is something that needs to happen in everybody’s minds. If I think of a programmer, I don’t think of a man in a hoodie. If you google for images or check older articles in the media, the first picture they find is a white dude. And I don’t like that. So, there is a lot of space, whether it is the language, pictures, visibility or images in our heads that need to change. And not just women, gender is just one part of diversity. I don’t think with 50 % men and 50 % of women we have reached diversity when they are all white and academic. We need a much deeper sense of diversity in tech, we need to create products for i.e. older or disabled people, and we can’t solve these problems if we lack the perspective. I don’t think we can ever be good at product development if we’re not good at diversity.

Which skills do you need for a career in tech (aside from the actual tech skills)?

I was recently on a panel organized by the Women Tech makers Berlin on how to get into tech. What the whole panel agreed on, is that the only skill you really need to be successful in tech is persistence. Whether you have studied art, or you were a teacher before, if you want to be in tech, the only skill you need is persistence. There is no magic to it, you don’t need to be super intelligent, it’s not extremely hard. If you want it, you can do it – the only thing you need is persistence and the constant willingness to learn. 

And then you will do it because you will learn all the vocabulary, you will create the network, you will maybe start coding, read a hundred articles on product development, get a certificate. If you are persistent and open to learning you will succeed. That is my message, there is no magic to it, everybody started at the bottom and worked their way up and nobody has been born as a tech genius. I know that this narrative has been reproduced so often, especially in the media and TV-series, but I don’t believe it. I’ve seen a lot of senior people making basic mistakes because they also need to learn new technologies, update their knowledge and learn continuously. If they stop that, they also start getting bad. So, persistence and learning, that’s all that you need.

You mentioned one key is visibility, young women need to see what jobs are available, they need role models. Who are your role models?

Personally, I think role models are an inspiration, they show you “yes, it is possible to get there where you dream to be”. I personally draw inspiration from anyone who inspires me. I have several people right now, and it may change the next years because my goals and where I want to be could change and I would search for new people that inspire me to get there. 

I was raised with this feeling of “I can do whatever I want, and I am not defined by my gender that I can or can’t do something” and “Just do whatever you want, and you will be good at it if you want it.” And I have to thank my parents for not putting me into any predefined forms, and especially my mom for being a role model herself as a woman in science. 

The teacher of my computer science major was also a woman and that is again visibility. Today, I have a female CTO and she inspires me to think that CTO could be a possible position for me as well and that not only men can become CTO. There are thousands of female developers, female product leads, female engineers, other female CTOs, female digital leads at large corporations, who inspire me every day. I know now that I can get there if I want to, and I can have an impact not just by being visible myself but I can pull other women after me. That’s one key fact I realized some years ago: Just because I have the strength and the possibility to get somewhere, it doesn’t mean that others have. Therefore I try to support those who don’t have the privileges that I had to get to where they want to go. 

For me, my personal success is not enough. All the things I have enjoyed during my education, university and professional time, I want to pass this on, so others can also benefit.

What has been the greatest piece of advice you have received in your career so far?

I received one a few months ago that stuck with me. I am very pro-diversity and inclusivity and an advocate to use nondiscriminatory language. Which means I hold people accountable to write their emails and documents inclusively. Then some people started taking offense or were annoyed and let me know it. Then somebody told me that people who are facing backlash, they stand for something. They are bold and believe in something. 

So if you are not facing a backlash that means that you don’t have a topic you are passionate about. Other people might not even realize you are there, but if you voice your opinion, a backlash is an automatic consequence – some people will always think they need to comment on that or try to silence you. Just ignore it and continue, you’re on the right track. 

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career or in general?

I would say the Internet, but that one’s rather old already. I was born in the time when there was still no public internet, it was not that broad. We had our first computer with a modem, and I was a huge fan of Microsoft Encarta back then, I spend hours reading through the articles of this encyclopedia.

The internet is both good and bad, it depends on how you use it. Everyone has access to information, that’s awesome. At the same time, I see the risk of the bubble, I can choose the information I want to see and reinforce my own opinions. 

With the internet, I can remove all the friction and middlemen, have direct trade, can learn so many languages and be international. At the same time, if only a small part of the world population is building the software and the rest is just consuming it, it is not that diverse. 

The internet is a very nice invention, it revolutionizes the way we communicate, behave, everything. Our complete daily life can be tracked with apps, we have an alarm clock on our mobile, shopping notes, Gmail, I can explain what I did the whole day just by mentioning the apps I used. That’s a huge change but also an enormous responsibility. I don’t think we have completely understood yet how to handle it and combine it with democracy and make a positive use and change. Yes, it has brought capitalism to a new level, but has it brought social benefit to a new level? I would doubt it.

If you could host a dinner party with 3 influential people in tech, who would you invite and why?

I’m not sure if this would be a nice dinner party if I would invite this person because I would probably be arguing the whole night, but I think Mark Zuckerberg would be a nice addition. So, we can ask him what he is doing about privacy, Russian hackers and elections and all these responsibilities he is obviously not taking seriously. Or if we say it needs to be diverse, maybe Sheryl Sandberg?

Once in my life I want to meet Michelle Obama because I just think she is such an awesome woman, I love what she has accomplished, and she never seems to runs out of energy to change the world for good. So she’s also invited.

And as a German woman in tech, I would invite Verena Pausder, who is out there on stages talking about her work connecting education and technology. Moreover, she was recently appointed to a supervisory board, which I find very inspiring and has a huge impact on visibility for digital women.

Karla Schönicke is a Certified Scrum Product Owner at RatePAY GmbH where she is building digital and customer-centric products. She is passionate about product management, user experience and building technology that benefits people and has been active in the Berlin tech scene for 9 years. If you want to enrich your conference stage with perspectives on tech, diversity and language and speech, she’s the one to call.

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