Interviews – Technology – Jennifer Mowat

The general manager of eBay UK, Jennifer Mowat was no internet anorak. She tells us how easy it is to wise up to what’s going on in the dotcom industry and how to make the most out of e-business

How did you get into e-commerce?
I became a sales manager at General Electric, which taught me a fantastic amount about geography. It also taught me that most people will sign an order if you’re nice to them! After sixteen months I went to Thomson directories and worked on their database. Twelve months later I was going to leave because I was grumpy about lots of things but they offered me the job of internet product manager which is pretty much how this all kicked off.

You hadn’t any technology expertise before that?
No, not at all. I didn’t learn anything about software until I was 22 or 23. Five and a half years ago the internet was still brand new. This is an embarrassing story, but fairly pertinent. I didn’t know much about the internet when Thomson offered me the product manager job, I only had a Compuserve account at home. And the truth is, it took me three months to realise that the little square in the corner that said ‘www’ was actually the internet. I’d spent three months looking at the proprietary information within the Compuserve server! And amazingly, it didn’t matter – I still got the job.

How did you overcome your lack of technical expertise?
The first thing I did was demand they let me go on a training course to learn about HTML. From that basic beginning (it was only a one-day course) I’ve taught myself how to use HTML proficiently and I can steal JAVA from everybody else. Nobody ever writes original code, they always take it from elsewhere.

What is the most important thing you learnt?
I learnt that the technology side is the key part because you have discussions with technical people who say ‘oh no, that can’t be done’. Well, of course it can but you have to know that it can. You cannot discuss how much something is going to cost if you don’t know how it works or how it’s put together. Even something as basic as understanding how long it takes to create a banner, which is actually only about 30 minutes. Never pay somebody £!60 for something like that because you don’t understand how it’s put together.

How easy is it to start from scratch?
HTML has got to be one of the easiest things ever because it’s very logical. It’s like basic maths; there’s nothing clever about it. The best thing is that you can go to somebody else’s website, see the code they’ve written, see something you like and then take it – so you can learn by example.

What did you do at university?
I left university with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, and then went on a student ‘work abroad’ programme in Canada working at a ski resort for three months. I then moved to the UK about four months later.

What was your first job?
My first job was with General Electric (GE) as a Sales and Marketing assistant for wholesale lighting – so basically I sold fluorescent tubes. One of the other more glamorous parts of my job was selling automotive lighting and I’ve got the rather dubious reputation of having shut down the Ford Escort production line for one day, which cost them several million pounds, because my 45, 000 headlight lamps didn’t turn up.

What has governed you choice of company?
I didn’t really want to do a start-up that was under-funded or didn’t have the right idea. I chose eBay because I thought they had a really good business proposition. One that was going to be long term and more importantly, had people committed to backing it up.

What’s been the best thing about working at eBay?
There can’t be anything more frustrating or disappointing than having a fantastic idea and no ability to turn it into anything, either because you don’t have the money or you don’t have the team behind you. With eBay I got to select an entire UK team and that’s an amazing thing, to be able to have all these people who are as equally focused as you.

What’s your biggest challenge at eBay?
This is my first role running a company – I have only ever been marketing director before, and marketing is fundamentally different.

What characteristics do you need to survive the dotcom world?
Confidence – believe in what you say and don’t say it until you believe it. And be prepared for very little sleep, because it is hard work but it’s a lot of fun as well. It is long days but it’s long fun days, if it weren’t fun I wouldn’t be doing it.

What are your top tips for graduates in the field?
Go to a company that knows what they are doing. Learn how every single part of the business works. Having a great idea is not enough: you need all the infrastructure and ancillary pieces that go with it and as a graduate you can only really learn that from other people.

Read as much as you can – you don’t have to do it yourself but you have to understand the principles. And finally, have confidence. Believe in what it you say, but don’t be arrogant.

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