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Engineering & Product

Sarah Cunliffe, Product Manager at CoGo

Dreams of staring on Coronation Street, to studying Biology and eventually working for the UK Ministry of Defence, Sarah Cunliffe, Product Manager at CoGo has had anything but a straight-line path into working in tech.

A family holiday to New Zealand morphed into a permanent move, as COVID began to spiral around the world. Sarah shares some insight into her approach to Product Management and why she is loving her connection to CoGo's mission of impacting the world at scale. It is great to have you and your family in the country Sarah and thanks for sharing your story.

“If our ideas aren’t working, we try to figure out why they aren’t working and come up with some new ideas to try.”

Firstly, how would you explain to a five year old what it is you do?

Lots of people want to be kind to other people and to the planet by doing things like treating people fairly or protecting sea creatures. My job is to try understand when they find it hard to do these things. Then my work friends and I try to figure out ways to help them.

We test out our ideas and see if they work.If they work, we put the ideas in an app which people can get on their phone and use it to help them decide what to do. We want to learn whether our ideas are helping people be kind to other people and to the planet so we talk to people who use the app. 

If our ideas aren’t working, we try to figure out why they aren’t working and come up with some new ideas to try.

And for the adults, what does that translate to in regards to your day-to-day?

CoGo’s vision is a more ethical and sustainable future for our world by enabling change. My role is to figure out what are the biggest impact problems that will take us towards this vision.

I do this by talking to consumers and businesses, understanding the science of sustainability, looking at data on how the app is being used and bringing together ideas from across the company.

Once we’ve figured out what problems to solve, I work with designers, developers and science and data experts to find a way to solve them. We usually make a prototype which we can test and, if it works, then we build it in the app. This means we learn quickly without lots of effort. If it doesn’t work, we see what we’ve learned and we try again.

I’m responsible for making sure that what we actually put in the app is solving the problem we wanted to solve. We don’t forget about it once it’s there; we talk to users and look at data to see if it’s working.

Product development is a cycle so we go through this process lots and lots of times, learning as we go, until we find something that works.

“I’ve learned to ask the right questions at the right time to trigger people’s thinking and help us focus on doing the smallest possible thing to solve a problem.”

What are some of the common misconceptions about working in as a product manager?

1. You need to have all the ideas. You definitely don’t. More important is empathy for the user, balancing how feasible it is to build something with whether it aligns to where the business is going. One of the most important things I do is learn from everyone around me - who are users are, what their problems are and brainstorm ways to solve them.

2. You need to be technical to work in tech. Again, not true. I’m not a particularly technical product manager. I can’t write any code. I’ve become technically aware though. I’ve learned to ask the right questions at the right time to trigger people’s thinking and help us focus on doing the smallest possible thing to solve a problem.

Was working in tech something you dreamed about doing as a kid, if not what was?

We had a Spectrum ZX +3 in our house when I was a kid (the first one with the built in disc drive) so I taught myself to write simple “hello sarah” type programmes aged about 8. That’s as far as my tech dreams went. I mostly dreamed of being Bet Lynch from Coronation Street (because those earrings) or failing that I wanted to be a doctor.

Tell us a little bit more about your career journey and ultimately about how you ended up working at CoGo?

I studied Biology at university because that’s what I enjoyed learning about, but had no real career plans. This led me to join the UK Government’s Science and Technology graduate programme at the Ministry of Defence where I quickly realised I wasn’t super-technical compared to the amazing technologists working there.

I became a policy specialist on military operations, spending time in Iraq and Afghanistan and then set up a new team running policy for the UK Special Forces. It was here I learned a lot about agile working and continuous improvement.

After this I took some time out and lived in Chamonix in the French Alps whilst I figured out what to do next. It was here I fell in to product management, moved back to London and started a new career.

Our little family accidentally moved to New Zealand during COVID - we’d come on holiday to see relatives and when COVID was going crazy in London we decided not to go back.

CoGo was the first product role I saw when I started to look for work and I was immediately excited about the opportunity to have a positive impact on the planet and bring some of the learnings from my last role in fintech in London. It felt like serendipity.

What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

I’d been a civil servant for about 6 years and was working for a senior director who’d come in to the Ministry of Defence from industry to help widen the department’s thinking. He saw that my career was taking a classic civil service route. He suggested that I look for opportunities where I could combine my organisational skills with my currently untapped creative side.

It took me quite a few more years to really understand this myself and leave the civil service. I often reflect on how insightful this observation was and how influential it’s been on my career decision-making.

“It’s important to be comfortable with change and be willing to get stuck into whatever the next big idea or challenge is on the horizon.”

Do you have any advice for people considering tech as a career path and how they might get there quicker?

I think careers in tech can seem intimidating from the outside until you start working in a tech company and realise that you don’t need to be able to write code to do well and enjoy it. I’ve found that meetups are a good way to get to know the industry or career space that you want to pursue.

The Product Tank one is a good example. Its’a global group of friendly product people with lots of different background and experience.

What is it specifically that you like about working at CoGo?

I can be myself 100% of the time.

Lastly, CoGo continues to grow and evolve. What kind of candidates do you think CoGo is looking for in terms of experience, attitude and character?

We need lots of different people and lots of different ideas to help CoGo be successful in its mission to change the world together. We’re growing fast, but we’re still a startup so you’ll fit in well at CoGo if you’re team-centred with a positive attitude.

It’s important to be comfortable with change and be willing to get stuck into whatever the next big idea or challenge is on the horizon.

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