Shawna Wolverton, new chief product officer at Benchling, opens up on her background in product, science, and the trapeze
Benchling is on a mission to unlock the power of biotechnology. To make strides toward our ambitious goals, we need the right team in place. We’re excited to welcome Shawna Wolverton, our new Chief Product Officer, to the Benchling team!
Shawna has led product and product management orgs at Salesforce, Zendesk, and Planet. At Benchling, she’ll play a crucial role in the next stage of our growth, leading on all things product management, design, and data. To welcome Shawna to the team, we asked her to share with us what motivates her, both professionally and personally.
How would you describe the state of science today?
When I started my career, it was the beginning of SaaS. I think of those early days, where we were inventing entirely new ways to deliver software to the world — the opportunity for scale and transformation was beyond our comprehension. This is where my mind goes when I think of biotech today. Science is at this exciting tipping point. It took us 18 months to get the COVID vaccine. If I can be a part of making science better, faster, more efficient, that’s where I want to be.
How did you first get interested in science?
My first grade teacher was a chemist, and as a kid I was convinced I would be a scientist. I was inspired by my teacher and by the inventive, albeit extremely dangerous and flammable, chemistry sets we ran together.
Life shifts and I went on to major in political science and Russian studies and found that what I really love to do is build and design tech products. But that scientific curiosity and interest didn’t go away. I come from a household with multiple medical professionals — my mom is a public health nurse, sister is a microbiologist — and I have always cared deeply about how disease and suffering affects our communities. Right now, I feel that we all have a sort of collective amnesia about the last epidemic we lived through. Our friends and family were decimated by AIDS. It took a lot longer, but we got there in making HIV and AIDS a manageable and treatable disease. That was the first miracle I saw in science.
What are your tips for building great products?
If you develop deep, deep empathy for your customers and put them at the center, it’s hard to do wrong and it’s hard to see how your business won’t succeed. You do this by stepping away from things like outside researchers running A/B testing and instead asking users about their day. My favorite question to ask: “Tell me what drives you crazy about my product?” You build customer empathy by embedding yourself or your product org in the users’ community, both listening and communicating. This is especially accessible and helpful now if your community is online — find their Slack groups, their forums, and learn more about their real needs and challenges. Also, bring your end users into the org as much as possible, I recommend a monthly AMA (ask me anything). Keep it informal. Get a table for 5-6 product managers and a customer and talk it all out.
What experience do you bring to Benchling that will help us during this high-growth phase?
I’ve been working with large enterprises for so long, I have a deep understanding of what they care about: predictability, scalability, and security. I don’t know how to build software without those things. At the same time, I recognize that while expertise is good, it can blind you into thinking and acting in a specific way. I need to understand our end-users and their priorities — how do they work, what problems do they face, how can we help, what will delight a scientific user? Scientists are doing extremely challenging work with R&D cycles that can take 5-10 years. I know that they don’t want to inject more risk into this system and that we need to make their work streams and therefore their lives easier so that they can spend more time doing the work that really matters. The tools they use need to be frictionless. We know people are spending so much time in our product, they need to enjoy it. Design plays a huge part in this and is always a top priority for me.
How do you fill your time outside of work?
One of my more interesting hobbies is trapeze. But with COVID, the trapeze gym closed and my trapeze partner somehow convinced me to start running instead. I’ve been a lifelong “I will never be a runner” person. And now, I’ve just completed a half marathon!
Now that concerts are back, I’ve been non-stop going to concerts. We’ve also made our backyard into “Rockridge Bowl” for concerts, with my daughter leading on drums. Dorky ‘80s New Wave is our family sweet spot, with a healthy dose of David Bowie.
Please reach out to Shawna and the team at Benchling if you’re interested to learn more. And visit our Careers page for open jobs, trapeze background not required ;)