A former software engineer who also held roles in healthcare and at Microsoft is now leading the product vision for one of the largest newspaper companies in the country.

Leanne Gemma, Director of Product at McClatchy, has been busy in the last year working on both quantitative and qualitative data strategies as well as design experiences across their sites.

We’ll find out more about Leanne and her work at McClatchy in this Q&A interview.

Leanne Gemma | Director of Product, McClatchyFirst, would you tell us a little about your background?

Currently, I’m the Director of Product for McClatchy, where I focus on the strategy and delivery of digital products and features, including the tools used internally by our newsrooms. 

I started my career as a Software Engineer for a company in Seattle that worked in B2G intelligence, providing lead information for companies looking for federal, state, and local government contracts. At that company, I quickly realized that, while I loved the development side of things, I was particularly interested in the product side where I helped define the roadmap and requirements for the products. We were early adopters of the Agile development methodology, and as we made the transition from waterfall, I officially became a Product Owner. 

My next position was with Microsoft as a Program Manager, which is a combination of what would typically be considered the Product Manager and Product Owner roles. I worked on the content management system, website and analytics systems that powered the global support websites and operating help system for Windows. If you’ve ever pressed F1 for help, I had something to do with making that work.

I eventually relocated to Raleigh for personal reasons and became the Director of Delivery Services at a startup in the healthcare industry. As is the case with startups, I wore a lot of hats. Primarily, I focused on driving the product forward with the development team, meeting with prospective clients, and onboarding new customers when contracts were signed. 

What does the product development group at McClatchy look like and what is your role with it?

The team is comprised of Product Managers, Product Owners, Project Managers, and A/B Test Managers. We have squads of Product Managers that align with business stakeholder groups and focus on strategy and prioritizing opportunities whereas our Product Owners align to a development team and focus on defining functional requirements. 

I focus on setting the high-level direction and work with the team leads as we determine priorities and ensure all our projects work cohesively. Since taking over the newly reformed Product Team early last year, I’ve also been redefining processes and improving documentation standards.

What are some of the product launches or improvements that you all have made in the last year or so that you are most proud of?

Last year we put a big emphasis on data, both quantitative and qualitative. Everything was focused on learning about our readers. Our qualitative research allowed us to form a set of typologies to better understand users’ motivations and needs. Our investment in quantitative analytics and tools provided us better insight into how our products are being used and by whom. Data is becoming part of our everyday language and toolset that we use to make decisions.

We also began implementing a design system across our websites. The vision for this came from Jessica Gilbert, our Director of Design. We haven’t yet finished the rollout to all areas of the sites, but we’re excited about the flexibility this system presents as we start to utilize data to create experiences within our products that cater to the unique needs of our readers to drive engagement and loyalty.

Are there approaches, i.e. design thinking, that McClatchy has used when it comes to development that have proven to be effective?

We are very invested in Agile methodology, and we constantly look for ways to break down large projects into small, incremental pieces that deliver value. Outside of that, we use a variety of approaches depending on the situation or project. Design thinking is something we often rely on as we meet with newsrooms to get their input. We also use other techniques like story mapping or impact mapping, as appropriate.

How does your background in software development and business strategy help you in running product?

Having been a developer myself, I understand what they need from a product team in order to work efficiently. I also appreciate the complexities of our systems and the impact of technical debt. I’m always looking to ensure that we address those areas while striking a good balance with delivering new features and meeting the business needs.