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June 13, 2017
Lead(H)er: Vanessa Kafka, VP of Product Management at KAYAK

As the VP of Product Management at KAYAK, Vanessa Kafka has earned a leadership role at one of the world’s leading online travel companies - without a traditional product management background.

Music was an early passion for Kafka. Her parents -- who immigrated to the US from Peru -- gave her an early appreciation for both traditional and modern music and culture. She learned to play the guitar and began writing and performing her own music at a young age. “It’s a great way to go through your teenage years and build up confidence,” she said. “Plus, it’s a great outlet.” Her love for the process of creating and writing music led her to record an album as an independent musician in 2008 called Into Place. The creativity didn’t stop at just writing music, as she also sought other avenues to express her creative energy.

“As a child, I developed my nerdiness by teaching myself the different things I could do on computers,” said Kafka. “As I got older, I spent a lot of time learning graphic design software and web design. I realized that technology was a medium which allowed me to explore my creative side.”

Kafka attended the University of Connecticut and after exploring three different majors in hopes of blending her creativity and her interest in tech, she ultimately achieved an MIS degree.

After graduating, Kafka landed a role at Ernst & Young as an IT Auditor. This role involved working with E&Y’s clients and auditing their IT systems. At E&Y, she built the foundation of her career and was exposed to the inner workings of companies both large and small.

After four years at E&Y, Kafka decided to attend MIT Sloan full-time to further her professional development and explore her interest in tech and business.

The education at Sloan is driven by a hands-on approach to coursework through research projects, so Kafka started working on a project with a taxi hailing startup in the UK called Hailo. The company was interested in expanding into the Boston market and other cities in the U.S. She spent six weeks researching the taxi industry and interviewing drivers in Boston.

What started out as a six-week research project, turned into a full-time role after graduation as she joined Hailo as the General Manager of the Boston market.

From there, she joined Wayfair in a digital marketing role, where she learned customer acquisition strategies and how to rapidly grow a user base. While she enjoyed marketing, she wanted to work on the actual product and get closer to the end-user. She ended up focusing her career search on product management roles.

At the time, KAYAK was just starting to build a product management function, and while she lacked traditional product management experience, she was able to connect the skills that she had gained in previous positions and during her time at Sloan to win over the team at KAYAK.  

“We look for self-starters - people that are smart, driven and willing and able to hit the ground running. That matters more to us than the perfect resume,” said Giorgos Zacharia, CTO, KAYAK.  “Vanessa stood out to us during the interview process as a strong communicator who would work well with the team and add a unique perspective, given her experience working at a start-up and for more mature companies.”

Until then, product was controlled between a collaborative process between engineering and design. She ended up being one of two Product Managers hired into the company.

The lack of background in product management worked to her benefit, as she didn’t have a preconceived notion of what she should be doing every day. Instead, she just rolled up her sleeves and jumped in where she could to help out.

“I was not afraid to do things other people maybe didn’t want to do,” added Kafka. “I tried to find different ways to add value early and build trust and respect with the different teams internally.”

Kafka’s impact was immediately felt and within two years, she rose up through the ranks in the company to become the VP of Product Management. She now leads a global team of 18 people.

When asked about her rapid ascent, she remains humble by saying that she has the same characteristics as most of the employees at KAYAK. She has a passion for solving problems, she is highly effective at managing her time, can work autonomously, and gets energized by working in a team setting with smart people.

When it comes to hiring for her own team at KAYAK, she keeps an open mind and hopes to attract equally open-minded candidates that will be creative, thoughtful and productive.

She is the perfect example of a great product manager, whose resume wasn’t obvious.

The Flexible Dates - KAYAK Inhouse Band
The Flexible Dates

In addition to the traits previously mentioned, she also looks for people who are collaborative and easy to work with. Critical to the role is the importance of getting people to work with you, even though there is no direct management responsibility. Highly effective product managers need to ask the right questions to pull the ideas from engineers and designers, and demonstrate sound judgement involving complex projects.

Not only has Kafka landed a product role that allows her to leverage her interest in tech, but she is also able to keep her passion for music intact too. KAYAK has an in-house cover band called The Flexible Dates, which plays occasionally at Thursday happy hours. Vanessa is one of the lead singers.

Here’s a great cover of Pyro by Kings of Leon:

Or… Love Song by Sara Bareilles:


Brianne Shelley is a Contributor to VentureFizz and an Account Representative at BlueGrace Logistics. Follow Brianne on Twitter: @MuddleandMix.

Images courtesy of KAYAK.  Flexible Dates photo credit: Jason Brillon.