RTC Conversation with Megan Seel: My 17 Years at General Electric from Coder to Product Manager
“RTC Conversations” is an interview series with mentors and advocates of Rewriting the Code. The series is spearheaded by two RTC alumnae: Alice Chen, a software engineer at Two Sigma, and Lucy Zhang, a software engineer at Apple.
Megan Seel is a Principal Technical Product Manager at General Electric. We spoke with Megan over Zoom about her experiences as a woman in technology.
A: Could you talk us through a little bit about what you do at General Electric?
I currently work on the IT side of our HR Shared Services team. We work on all of the human resources solutions that are centrally administered at GE, whether it be payroll, benefits administration, or leaves of absence. All of our 270,000 employees across the company work very hard and deserve to know what benefits the company gives them. One of the big ways that they interact with our HR Shared Services team is through our HR portal. My team supports and delivers a very personalized HR portal experience: every individual can have a different view based on what benefits they qualify for.
Another part of my team supports our HR call center. Those HR call centers use a service management platform, i.e. a ticketing platform. My team supports that ticketing platform in addition to other things that contribute to how we get information into the hands of our employees.
A: Everyone who works for a company needs that. So what’s a typical day like for you?
Oh, I’m in meetings all day long! We’re a very globally dispersed team. We accomplish a lot from real-time collaboration and getting multiple brains on a problem. Every day I’m jumping from topic to topic, trying to drive our portal forward, or integrating with our new Workday ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) platform. Meetings do sound awful to a lot of people, especially if you’re a software engineer, but I’m more in the product management space right now. In order to manage a product with this scope of impact, I have to talk to people to understand what they are doing, what they need from the product, how urgently they need it, and then how we deliver it and how I can help the team deliver it. My entire job is to clear barriers right now: if there’s a software engineer who can’t engineer because they don’t understand HR requirements, then I need to clear that barrier; if there’s a backlog that’s as long as my arm, and we only have resources to do about a finger’s worth, I need to figure out the best thing we can do.
A: And you’re most excited about that sort of thing compared to pure coding?
Yeah. I studied computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for undergrads and was a straight-up coder. Our computer science degree at the time was pure Java and C++. At my first internship, I did a lot of programming, and then I was asked to be the technical lead for one of the projects so not only was I programming, but I was also planning and dividing work to assign to different people. Throughout this process, I found myself more excited about the planning than the coding. I think it was because the coding wasn’t challenging to me, but people were. I felt like I could rise to that challenge. That leadership and motivational aspect is how I went from the engineering brain to project management and then eventually product management.
My whole passion is to help people. My professional brand has become how I can make people’s lives better using technology. It’s been a fascinating journey. And sometimes the best thing to do is not to use technology, which is probably a little uncomfortable for some technologists early on.
A: Could you give an example of that?
When I was on GE’s Renewables team, I worked a lot for our warehousing. In our warehouses, we had lots of nuts and bolts as well as big, 10-thousand-dollar parts for wind turbines. One time, our users came to us saying, “The system is trying to do all this weekly automatic ordering and is screwing things up because it’s building up too much inventory.” When we worked through the problem, it turned out that the problem was not the technology but the process. The system was working fine; it was an industry-standard thing. But the users were not managing the added demand. The solution was for them to get better at forecasting. They had to get better at asking about the incoming orders. It took my project management skills to draw out the root of the problem and make sure that we didn’t use technology without actually fixing the problem.
L: What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to deal with, regarding dealing with people?
The emotional side of being a people leader is really hard.
There are usually two types of people. There’s the type of person who just doesn’t care: they have the capability but don’t care to use it. Then there’s the type of person who wants to do well and doesn’t have the capability to do it. That second type of person is the harder type for me as a leader to deal with emotionally. Their intent is there. The hope, the dedication, and the trying is there. Seven times out of ten, they do learn and rise to the occasion with appropriate coaching. Sometimes it feels like a lot more time than you want to put into it, but the satisfaction that a leader can get, the value that the company can get, and the learning that the individual can get through that process are huge.
L: Going back, what’s your origin story? Why did you decide to pursue an evening MBA program? Why did you even decide to pursue a CS degree as an undergrad?
I always grew up wanting to be a teacher, because that was what my dad did. I grew up helping people: I was a youth coach even when I was in high school. Teaching just seemed right for me. But when I was in junior high school, there was one math teacher who recognized that I was very good at math and sciences. He taught one-quarter of computer programming and so for a couple of months, we programmed in BASIC and made worms that crawl across the green screen. The teacher would give the five of us an assignment to last us through the class. For 25 minutes of our 30-minute class, I’d be playing the game that I wrote. He pointed out to me, “It’s not normal that this kind of thing is so easy for people. You’ve got to do something with it.” And so between him and my guidance counselor pointing out the difference in long-term earning potential between a high school teacher and a computer scientist, I pursued the computer science degree, with the knowledge that I could go and teach it if I so desired.
On the MBA side of things — four years into GE, I got my first leadership role as a manager of a team, and I loved it. Not only did I enjoy coaching, helping, and mentoring people to be better at their jobs, but I also found things like recruiting and budgeting fascinating. If I really wanted to be a more holistic leader, I figured I should have a second degree beyond computer science, because my computer science degree would never tell people the kind of person I really was. I wanted the outward-facing image of me to match how I felt about myself and how I wanted to see myself in the future.
L: Did you find your MBA rewarding?
Umm… It was interesting. It was a great program. The instructors and content were good. The hesitation at the beginning of my answer was because I had already been a leader at GE for six years, and GE is well-known for its leadership development program so I’d been through a lot of formal leadership and business acumen training from the company.
As a result, I pursued an entrepreneurial focus for the MBA so I could learn how to think about, design, and start-up a whole business because that’s not something I would get out of GE. The MBA was a complement to what I already knew. I’m glad I did the program and proud of how it went.
L: It’s awesome that GE already gave you so much great training. Looking back, what do you wish you knew when you just started your career?
Sometimes, your day job doesn’t get you all giddy. There are days when the reason I get out of bed energized isn’t because of the 8 hours of meetings I have about my product but because of that 30-minute interview I have with the Rewriting the Code women, for example. It’s those extra things I do that keep me moving through tough times. I had a bullying boss and a really down job cycle a couple of years ago, and it was extracurricular things like mentoring (I was a leader of our Women’s Network for a while) that motivated me, kept me optimistic, and got me through. My identity is not just based on the one project that I work on; it’s the knowledge I gain and the network I build in my extracurriculars that make me more valuable to my team.
So be proud of your extracurriculars. Find those opportunities that make you smile. Go after them and sell their value to your leadership, too. They’re not a distraction from your productivity. If you’re happy, motivated, and connected outside of your world, you’re only going to be better at your core job.