This week’s employee spotlight features Melissa Burpo, CognitiveScale’s Cortex Product Owner (don’t worry, she explains what that means), and how she wound up in this role. Melissa is a deep thinker, a problem solver, and a passionate leader in this space. It was inspiring to learn more about her life, and I can’t wait to share it with you!
Okay so firstly, what led you to pursue the area of study and the career that you have today?
MB: That’s an interesting one. I’m a Product Owner for the Cortex team but didn’t start out with that as a career path. I got a Master’s degree in technical writing and worked for years as a writer. Yet in addition to that, I’ve also worked as a front-end developer, and I’ve done a bunch of other stuff to support the teams I’ve worked with over the years, like testing, business analysis, and UX design.
When I started at CognitiveScale, I was hired as writer. But when a position opened up for a Product Owner, I was like, “Yes! I absolutely want to do this.”
And now you’re here!
MB: Right! So it’s an interesting question to answer, because what I’m drawn to has changed over time, so I’ve tried a bunch of different things, and that’s what led me here.
Can you elaborate on what exactly the technical writing part entails and then explain the role of a Cortex Product Owner?
MB: I’ll start with the tech writing part. When I started working here, Cortex was just getting started. There were only a handful of developers, a couple QA, and me. So my job was to figure out first, what it was we were really building, and second, what we wanted people to do with it. Based on that, I wrote the initial set of documentation about Cortex and how to use it. That content evolved rapidly because we’re a startup, and things are always changing. So a big part of my job was trying to figure out how to keep the docs up to date and to make sure they reflected what Cortex really did.
That sounds intense!
MB: One of the things I did to help with that is build a doc system that made it easier for anyone on the team to contribute—it’s all written in Markdown and stored in the same place as the rest of the code, so anyone could jump in and update the docs. That definitely helped.
Anyway—because I was the only writer, I worked on every feature and ended up getting to know the product pretty deeply. I think that’s one of the reasons I was a good fit for the Product Owner role.
Briefly, for anyone who isn’t familiar with Agile or Scrum—a Product Owner is responsible for managing a team’s backlog of work. That includes defining it, prioritizing it, communicating it, etc. etc. I get input from all different kinds of people when I’m building the backlog. That can include product management, developers, end users, and bunch of other CogScale folks who have input about how we’re developing Cortex.
Basically, my job is to make sure everyone on the team knows what it is we’re trying to build, what it means to be done, and what they should work on next.
Wow, that’s fascinating. Do you still do technical writing as well?
MB: No, it was a total switch. I’ve been full time as the Product Owner for about a year now.
How do you like the change?
MB: I like it a lot. I feel like all of my previous jobs were the perfect training for becoming a Product Owner. And it’s been exciting to move my focus from already completed features, which is where a lot of a writer’s work happens, to the start of the feature to define what’s actually going to be built – that’s where I focus as the Product Owner.
It sounds so cool to have a whole new perspective on it.
MB: Yeah, it’s fantastic. So I love that part of it. I also get to work with our UX and design team, who are all brilliant and a blast to work with. With them, the focus is on what the user experience should be, and how we can make users successful through design.
I feel like I’ve already learned so much! I had no knowledge of this realm of work. A few fun questions as a break…
Dogs or cats?
MB: Both! Dogs AND cats. Anything that’s cute and cuddly is a friend.
Augmented or artificial?
MB: Augmented, of course.
Emails or Slack?
MB: Slack, which seems to work the best around here!
City or mountains?
Awesome. Switching it up a little, after all these different roles, what would you say is your biggest strength?
MB: Ha—I have no idea how to answer that. I guess one of my strengths is figuring out how to dig in to understand complex problems. That’s what made me a good writer, I think. I would be given these, “well go write about x,” kind of assignments, right? Well, what does that mean? How does that work? It’s just a sort of drive to figure out how to drill down on a problem, ask enough questions, and deeply understand it, so that I can explain it to someone else. I also think that’s something that has transferred well between being a writer and being a Product Owner. So, I don’t know, what is that strength?
Asking questions? Deeply thinking? Being curious?
MB: Yes, something like that!
Perfect. What most excites you about your job here at CognitiveScale?
MB: This is similar to my answer to the last question. What excites me the most is getting to solve interesting problems. A lot of times we get a request like, “we need this feature.” Well, what does it really need to do? How do you build it? What’s good enough? You don’t want to spend an entire year on something when maybe you just need three months to build something really solid. Every single thing that we work on is an opportunity to learn something new and to figure out the most effective way to get it done.
Totally. What would you say is your biggest challenge on a day to day basis?
MB: I think that it’s probably trying to figure out what’s most important, because there are always people who need something. We get requests all the time from people across the organization and from customers, and then we also have things that we’re trying to build towards for the future.
So essentially prioritizing?
MB: Exactly. How do we prioritize in a way that will best help people? How do we make sure that we’re making the right decisions and moving in the right direction? There’s never a clear cut answer to it, so it can be tricky.
Are you the only product owner or are there multiple?
MB: It’s just me. But I work closely with Jon Richter, who runs the product management side of the organization. He has a much more external role, and mine is more internal. He works closely with customers and defines the large-scale initiatives that we’re working towards for Cortex, and then I work with our dev teams to figure out how to implement those initiatives.
That makes sense. Do you think there is a particular application or field of A.I. that you’re most interested by or that you see the most potential in for humanity? Or maybe a favorite project you’ve done, something like that?
MB: There are so many cool AI projects out there, and so many that have amazing potential for humanity. One that I’m super excited about though is the idea of the intersection of AI and Smart Cities. Basically, cities generate a ton of data, both people-generated and IoT-generated. You can combine that data with AI to improve several dimensions of city life, like coming up with ways to improve energy efficiency, reduce air pollution, reduce water usage, improve mobility—the list goes on and on. It’s a super cool concept, and I’m excited to see more cities move in that direction.
It’s really things that we don’t even think about, like I would never even think about A.I. affecting a city that way.
MB: Right. There’s so much potential there.
Wow. Okay, my last question. This is kind of backtracking, but can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman in tech, either when you’re in school or in the work place, and have you had a lot of female mentors along the way?
MB: I have. I was very lucky right out of grad school to get introduced to a woman named Mary Connor, who has been my mentor and good friend for the last 10 years. She’s given me all kinds of amazing advice and pushed me in all kinds of directions that I never would’ve considered on my own. It’s an incredibly valuable thing to find someone who’s willing to give you some of their time and to share insights, especially when you’re just starting out in a new career.
As far as what it’s like being a woman in tech…I don’t know. It’s interesting, I’ve actually had the chance to work in a few different environments over the course of my career. I’ve been in places where there are a lot of women and places where there are barely any. I think that a balance is always good. At the same time, the most fun I’ve ever had was when I got to work as a developer on a team that was almost all women—only one guy. It was just a different experience, even in terms of figuring out how to actually get work done. It was a lot of fun.
Oh, I can imagine! Do you feel like you ever face subtle inequality in the workplace, anything like that? Or have you been pretty fortunate?
MB: No, not really—I’ve been lucky in that regard. But on the theme of women in tech, I do think that it’s important for women to support one another, and I think it’s great for women to get into tech. I keep hearing about new programs that are popping up to get young women involved in STEM. That’s amazing, and I totally support it. When I was a kid, I was never pushed to do anything with science or technology. I was a writer, I was into art, I was into literature, and that went on all the way through college. It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I paid any attention to technology at all.
What?! How did that happen? What did you major in?
MB: I mean it was crazy. When I went to grad school in 2006, I knew nothing about tech.This is kind of silly, my masters was in technical and scientific communication. When I went to school, I decided that my focus was going to be astronomy. I wanted to be an astronomy writer. I got there and I was like, just as a backup, just in case this whole astronomy science writer thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to add a second specialization in computer science. It was literally just my back up.
That was the very first time I ever took any computer science classes, and I loved it. It was the first time I’d ever coded, the first time I’d ever used a computer in a real way—other than just writing emails or whatever, you know—It was kind of amazing and was totally by chance. I was just really lucky.
That’s so wild. I can’t imagine getting into coding after all of that time spent on other interests!
MB: From there, I ended up getting really into it. When I started working as a writer, I was immediately drawn to the coding side of the job. I was the one who was building all of our documentation systems, coming up with doc automation systems, and thinking about how to write code to help us with those things.
What a turn of events.
MB: It was an unexpected switch for me and so that’s one of the reasons that I’m super supportive of trying to get young women into tech earlier.
For sure. I love that. Well, thank you so much for your time Melissa. Such an honor to hear about your journey to get where you are! It’s so great to see that you moved through a variety of fields and that your job keeps you interested.