Welcome to our new “Leading the Field” series, where we’ll be interviewing leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Black History Month, we’ll be lifting up the voices of Black leaders who are working to ensure government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we’re talking to Simone Sequeira, who leads product management for GetCalFresh.
Tell us about the path that led you to your current work at Code for America leading product management for GetCalFresh.
I’ve always wanted my work to feel like it has a meaningful impact on the world and changes in our everyday systems for the better. It took a little while to get there, and after three years I still feel fortunate to be able to do this work at Code for America.
I started out my career as a manufacturing engineer and after a few years moved into a product role at a startup toy company. From there, I made the jump into software by joining a software consultancy. When I was working with toys, I had to wear many hats and learn a lot of new things really quickly in order to keep my team moving and enable my colleagues to focus on their areas of expertise. As a software consultant, I had the opportunity to work on products at all different stages of development from early concept to active service that customers depended on. All of these experiences and skills developed over the course of my career have served me well as a product manager for GetCalFresh.
One of the reasons that I decided to move into software is because of its scalability. I liked the idea of being able to create something at relatively low cost and quickly scale it up to serve millions of people. I don’t recall how I became aware of civic tech initially, but as I learned more about it—first casually and then intentionally—I began to appreciate it from the perspective of scale. The government is huge and has to serve everybody, so making the government better is a really effective lever for making life better for a lot of people. When the GetCalFresh product role came up, I jumped at the opportunity.
How has the product management community changed since you entered the field? What would you like to see more of? In what ways have you been able to change it for those who come next?
I suspect that the corners of the product management community that I see regularly are only a small slice of what all is out there. For my part, I think I can say that the community has continued to diversify. Not only from a race/ethnicity and gender perspective, but also the backgrounds and previous experiences that product managers are bringing to the table. I think that growing diversity has contributed to more engagement with the long term impacts of products and the potential negative impacts. I’d like to see that focus on empathy, care, and ethics continue to grow and become more prevalent across the tech industry. While contributions to those discussions are coming from a variety of people in tech, I think product managers are strategically positioned to lead on enacting them in their teams and products.
I don’t know if I’ve done anything in particular to change product management for those who come next. I just try to do good work and lead with care.
What advice would you give to others looking to get into a product management career?
From a practice perspective, I would say work on your critical thinking and decision making skills. A lot of product management is making tradeoffs based on the information you have or identifying ways to get more information and test assumptions. A willingness and ability to take input from a lot of different people and places, even when it challenges you, then turn that input into strategic decisions is key to long term success as a team leader. Part of this is being able to hold the big picture in your view while getting into the details of the day to day.
As far as getting that first product management job, I’m not too sure since I imagine it’s different now than it was when I did it. I took multiple steps to move from manufacturing engineering in aerospace to product management in web services for social good. It wasn’t the big leap I wanted when I set out to change roles and industries, but I draw on everything I learned along the way in my work now.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?
I like to work on teams where open communication is valued, and one of the ways that I encourage that is by being open myself. I share my values, I say when I don’t know, and I always invite the perspectives of my team into my work. On the GetCalFresh team, a lot of our accomplishments are bittersweet. We do help people and we do make the systems that we’re a part of a little bit better, but every client we come into contact with is someone in a difficult situation who really needs help. So I try to make space for my team to talk about it by being willing to say that sometimes the work is overwhelming and sometimes it’s hard to know the right thing to do. I feel fortunate to work in an organization that values that kind of openness, and to be in a position both personally and professionally where I feel good about sharing myself.
What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?
For me, designing equitable government starts with understanding that the design of our current systems is rooted in white supremacy. Interrogating and undermining that is a critical part of changing existing systems and building new ones. We must truly want to serve everyone—and serve everyone well. It’s about valuing every person’s human dignity and setting out to provide an experience that respects it. Designing equitable government means looking at the outcomes and putting effort into places where you’re falling short, especially because you’re probably falling short for people who have always been underserved. It’s about a willingness to seek out reality, be honest, and iterate.