Product experience and engineering: A day in the life

Elli Rader, a partner at West Monroe, shares her unique career path and offers insights into the way organizations approach digital transformation
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One of the biggest misconceptions about tech executives is that we are born self-assured and confident, have all the credentials, and are motivated to climb the ranks. But early on, I walked a winding path through many disciplines, including account management, business management, photography, and design. Because I don’t have a college degree, I felt I had to prove myself – even as my work responsibilities grew.

It took me years to realize the truth: I struggled with imposter syndrome for most of my professional life – that nagging voice that tells you you’re not going to make it past a certain level in the industry. In many ways, I held myself back more than anyone else did.

Finding my way forward

I’ve always been fascinated with technology. I had an 8-bit VIC-20 growing up and used to take apart every electronic I could get my hands on. My parents, who were small business owners, always made sure there was a computer around to tinker with.

Just like my parents, I founded my own company after having kids: a one-stop shop providing web and print design and digital photography services for local businesses. When my kids got older and attended school a half-decade later, I found myself at a crossroads with free time on my hands. I took a leap of faith and joined The Nerdery, a user experience and development firm.

[ Also read Chief engineering officer: A day in the life. ]

The move enabled me to learn about cutting-edge technologies and how to manage different accounts. My experience as a business owner helped me excel, and I was promoted to Associate Director of Development – a role in which I mentored, motivated, and supervised a team of project managers.

But eventually, my ambitions grew. I had more to say about the strategic elements of what we were offering. That’s why I transitioned to a small business incubator and digital product studio called GoKart Labs, where I was given the opportunity to learn about digital product development. By the time the company started the acquisition process and later got acquired by West Monroe, I was responsible for their revenue and branding.

Now I’m working with West Monroe as a Partner in the firm’s Product Experience & Engineering Lab, and I couldn’t be happier.

A typical day

Each day is varied, but there’s a rhythm and arc to each week. Because I’m one of the leaders of the Product Experience & Engineering Lab practice (with more than 450 people) and managing a team of 55, I regularly attend internal meetings focused on staffing client projects, business development, and planning. Often complications concerning clients or staff – what I like to call “surprise parties” – manifest at the beginning of the week, and I try to diffuse them before Friday, so I don’t take them into my weekend.

Since I often work from home, I set boundaries. I don’t check emails until I get to my desk, and I only work from my desk. I have three teenagers and three dogs, so while I’m taking one of my dogs to obedience training or dropping one of my daughters off at school in the morning, I occasionally take a call in the car.

I am lucky that I get to work on exciting projects every day that make a real impact on society. I meet with companies looking to become more digital and help them better understand their market and what tools are available. These conversations are not only the most fulfilling part of my role, but they enable me to identify patterns in what our employees are interested in and how our clients need to transform the ways they work.

I am lucky to work on exciting projects every day that make a real impact on society.

For example, one exciting project I worked on was a competency-based education platform that created a place for higher-degree seekers to apply their field experience and earn their next degree in about half the time of a course-based program. I led our design and development team in this project while managing several of the client’s other vendors.

I also often have one-on-one meetings with early-career coworkers looking for advice on growing and advancing.

The biggest challenge in my day is context-switching between different tactical and strategic issues –some small and some concerned with the firm's future. It’s taken time, but I’ve learned how to prioritize the meetings and workshops in which I will add the most value.

It's all about the people

My advice to anyone in a consulting role is to have fun with clients and your team. If you don’t bring charm, levity, or irreverence to the work, it will be harder to stand out and make a difference. Try to be patient and methodical; I spent years trying to stay productive and busy. And if everyone around me wasn’t like that, I would become impatient. It’s not a trait that everyone appreciates.

Another thing I’ve discovered is that you don’t always have to talk. Chiming in during a meeting to sound smart means you aren’t listening. I encourage people to speak up only when they believe it will add value. Senior employees can sometimes move too fast, preventing junior people from sharing their ideas. Younger employees might be suffering from the same sense of imposter syndrome I felt when I was younger.

Over the years, I’ve also noticed that companies often look for the fastest and cheapest approach to digital transformation. But in doing so, they often miss the biggest factor: their people. To foster a culture of community and attentiveness takes practice and routine. Leadership may want to make a change, knowing it’s the right thing to do, but they often don’t put in the time. True change isn’t cheap or quickly accomplished – but when done right, it pays off in the long run.

I did not have a traditional path to get where I am, but it has helped me become a better adviser to my clients, a better mentor to my colleagues, and a more empathetic leader. I overcame self-doubt and imposter syndrome and put myself in a position to help others do the same.

[ Check out essential career advice from 37 award-winning CIOs! Get a variety of insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Elli Rader is Partner, Product Experience & Engineering Lab at West Monroe. As our Product Studio leader, Elli helps clients organize and rally around a digital vision. She also surrounds them with best-in-class development and client service teams as we collaborate to create breakthrough solutions.