Updated: April 10, 2023 - 18 min read
At Product School #AskMeAnything sessions, you ask your questions, and Product Leaders answer. These are the exceptional Product People we had the pleasure of learning from this month:
Kaushik Sethuraman, Head of Programs at Meta
Kevin Armstrong, Senior Product Manager at Amazon
Shannon Vettes, Head of R&D Programs at BlaBlaCar
Sathya Krishnamurthy, Technical Product Manager at Whatsapp
Cecily Liu, Product Leader at Meta
December’s theme was balancing customer, business, and stakeholder needs. We all know customers are important, but it can be challenging to keep them at the forefront without managing the other two.
Bonus: Our guests generously shared insights on other topics! Check it out:
Balancing different needs
”How do you prioritize between customer, business, and stakeholder needs?”
At Meta, we don’t use the term customer, it’s always “people”—and people come first and are always important. Business impact and priorities are next up, critical and crucial, and of course, as important are stakeholders and managing their expectations on what success looks like.
Prioritizing between those three is like trying to choose your favorite child. They all matter! Your priorities should above all have a strategic focus.
Business priorities take top billing for me when the growth plan is front and center. We are trying to build something, so a lot of “will this help us get new customers” or “expand a new product or line” become top of everyone’s mind. 😜
Other stakeholders: I like the opinion that there are 2—those making the user’s experience, and those making the stuff that makes the users’ experience. Other stakeholders fall into that second category a lot like CS, Sales, Marketing, etc. They often become the target when they are mucking up the user’s happiness.
Given WhatsApp is a heavily customer-facing product, our first priority is always towards end customer experience. Every decision taken is biased towards delivering highest quality customer experience. Having said that we cannot deliver everything ourselves, so we rely on businesses and stakeholders to work with us and prioritize for a unified North Star goal of end customer experience.
Customers, businesses, and stakeholders sometimes have conflicting needs. I typically take a step back and think about what is the problem we’re really trying to solve – in the short-term and long-term perspective. This would help identify what is the most immediate priorities.
”Once the features are prioritized, how do you work out the release timeline for a feature and how do you keep everyone involved accountable to meet those timelines?”
For timeline, I typically ask myself when I would need the feature, and ask Engineering to come up with when they think they can deliver. If there’re no gaps, that’s great! Go with the Engineering timeline. If there is a gap, then have a discussion and see if you can get more resources or move things around to help the team to improve the timeline. How to keep everyone accountable – this is tricky and it depends. Some teams have Project Managers that make sure things are on track. In my experience, a good Product Manager can see a timeline/accountability gap before anyone else, and the Product Manager would take on a discussion with Engineering to re-prioritize, communicate with the team it’s important to meet XYZ date, or escalate.
Breaking into Product
”I am from technical background and I want to move towards a Technical Product Manager (TPM) role. What do I need to know about being a TPM?”
At Meta, TPMs have 3 capabilities that make us successful. These are also the axes with which we are measured:
Technical: We are expected to understand complex technical problems arising out of features. Understand bottlenecks in execution for these technical problems.
Program: Ability to understand a complex program, dependencies, risks and be able to articulate the program and ensure execution of the program.
Leadership: Demonstrating ability to lead teams, when hit with roadblocks identify means to work around or figure out a path forward. and finally able to present the program to the leadership
TPMs are not expected to code. But at the same time, TPMs are not expected to be meeting minute takers, or just program status reporters. They own execution, building partnership with Eng, Product, Design, Data and a variety of other cross-functional partners who will impact execution and drive results is the key strength that makes the TPM successful.
Read next: Product Managers and Technical Skills…What’s The Deal?
”What are some tips for the job search & resumé to help me stand out from all of the other PMs out there?”
First, know what is YOUR special sauce. Why are YOU great? Knowing your own value is the best way to highlight it in an interview. Bonus: they will pick you for you, which increases your chance of success.
Second, get comfortable with cases. The surest way to get looked over is not knowing your own “way” of investigating PM cases. I’ve seen a few now, so I like to ask the interviewer if my method suits them.
Third, research the company. A great way to stand out is to show that you re interested enough to have done your homework. I know how hard this is when you are interviewing at multiple places, but if you want to stand out then you have to demonstrate your passion for their product by knowing things like:
Their lines / products / best features etc.
Their market / target segments / customers / competitors etc
Pain points in their product
Things they do well today
Four, don’t forget that a part of your skills are soft. Practice your elevator pitch on video. OUUCHHHHH I know. but you gotta do it. Where did you look down? Where did you sound less confident? Find those spots, ask why, and make them sharper/stronger. Something like that can get you crossed off the list quickly.
These are a few things are what I look for in PMs who may not have all the experience on paper, but who are great in the role.
I rarely gloss over people with:
Passion for the Product
Knowledge in the field
Experience on the job
A clear vision of what they want and who they are
Product Manager Role and Responsibilities
”In your experience, how involved do you reckon a Product Manager should be with the Product design?”
You need to evaluate based on your particular circumstance – how capable is the design team? Are they new? How much direction has anyone given them? Do they have enough directions to design something good that you’ll be satisfied with the result? Does this design matter to your topline goal, or is it just a bug fix? As Product Managers, we need to choose where to best focus our time and energy.
Senior and Executive PM Roles
”What advice do you have for women look for the C-suite in tech?”
Get good at POLITICS. You better be persistent, patient, and very passionate about tech because it’s a very thick glass ceiling imho.
For women wanting to build credibility and leadership soft skills, here is a talk I did for 50 in Tech (plus slides).
”How does your job differs now from when you first started at Facebook/ earlier in your career?”
Things that have stayed common are:
The desire to bring value, impact and deeper sense of community to Meta people (aka users)
The ability to stay nimble (aka ship fast while having togetherness of resources, thoughts, etc.).
Now, the company has grown in size and we are quickly finding ways to bring more efficiencies into investments and prioritizes. Focus is the mantra of the past few quarters. Responsibilities are all centered around navigating the external and internal dynamics, and not losing sight of what the business needs.
Podcast episode: Skills to Take You From PM to CSuite by Facebook VP of Product
”How do you spend your time day-to-day as a senior-level Product Leader?”
It’s generally dealing with some combination of 4 things:
Talking to Product Managers about strategy, roadmaps;
With engineering leads on prioritization, on-call issues, maybe architecture;
With data science on metrics;
With privacy, policy folks on planning products for markets.
And always execution oriented.
”How have you learnt to successfully lead Product teams by influence. Any tried strategy you found successful?”
These are some strategies that I found successful:
Ask, not demand. You can phrase anything as a question and have the team decide if they want to do it. I highly recommend giving this a try because it forces the team to take ownership instead of just executing an order.
Empower the team – encourage the team to think about and discuss product strategy, user problems, etc., and they will be capable of coming up with their solution.
Leverage other team members or your sponsors (leads) – you don’t have to be the one to mandate what the other person must do. Sometimes, it is easier to have a discussion with more people who are on your side, and they can help you move things forward.
Product Discovery for a New Product
”There’s a lot of research required for Product Ideation. How do you conduct proper research for a new product?”
Hmm what a pain I would be to ask “what’s proper mean to you?” lol, but I want to ask it.
How about I tell you what it means to me. “Proper” ideation strikes a balance between doing enough digging to know if your idea is valuable without crossing that forbidden “oh no, now I’ve researched more than this thing was worth.”
Pro tip: Timeboxing it. Product Discovery has the same limitations and benefits as technical discovery -> you can always try to get more information.
Research depends on the kind of thing you are doing. Here are some examples of what I expect from my teams.
New market / New Product line (aka: big bets).
Market research to check if you:
Have a market
Have a target
Provide “enough” value (tricky that one) for investment
Absolutely stop if this doesn’t pan out.
Aren’t going to be eaten alive by competitors at some major phase in your funnel.
Then do some user research of course to validate the product has a fit.
Existing market / New product or line (medium bet):
You can make assumptions, so don’t go overboard on knowing the “user.”
Focus on the user research -> use design sprints to get ideas quickly, vet them with users for fast feedback.
Then, when you have an idea that is worth pursuing, you can do the usual suspects of prototyping to check for feasibility, and then more serious beta testing.
Existing market / Existing product / new feature (smallest bet):
Spend the least here b/c it’s the smallest risk
Keep projects small so you can do fast A/B test feedback loops
Google Analytics & Google Trends & Consumer barometer —Google has a bunch of data already collected, and there are ways you can start there if you have even a slight idea of some of the scope
Hubspot —I personally haven’t used, but seen a lot of Product Managers recommend over Twitter, as a way to craft and tailor your product survey and send to a group of customers matching demographic data
Statista—great for quick insights into specific locales and known large competitors
Enter the new inventor dilemma. Great question…I suggest you always look at this as a cyclical solution rather than a sequential one. I’d launch a tinier version to a small or interested or niche client, fix the version and go back to them while going to a bigger client, and so on, until you land the perfect product with the right Product-Market Fit (PMF) for the ideal client.
”How do you continuously discover customer needs and pain points?”
With continuous discovery, there are a few options.
Quantitative: with any product, it’s important to build in tagging and metrics to gather feedback, and not rely solely on customers/people submitting issues or crash reports
Qualitative: gather information about the changing customer landscape. Each day is provides a new set of data pieces. With my work at Amazon that is geographically tied, I’ll focus on researching specific eCommerce trends of that locale.
Do a deeper dive: The Difference: Qualitative vs Quantitative Data
”What’s the right amount of qualitative user data?”
The “right” amount of data is what gives you confidence, and this varies depending on the person. The entire point of research is to offset risk, so the important thing to keep in mind is that you want to get enough data that tells you a trend.
It’s really hard to put a finite number on this, but I would recommend trying to get a % and checking for trends or clear decision impacting data points.
Here’s a suggestion: If you have 1,000 users, try 10% of your base. if that’s impossible, try 5. You have to start somewhere and getting users to give you feedback can be hard!
Try incentives if you get stuck, you’d be surprised how well they work for B2C. If it’s B2B you might try freemium, trials, being a part of prod advisory boards, going to events/conferences, or other ‘perks’ that they care about.
”How do you develop a deep understanding of your customers?”
I find the best way to do that is YOURSELF or through your user research team if you are lucky enough to have one! You have to be willing to watch the clips, pay attention to the data, and learn. There is no shortcut, you just have to dig in.
Of course you can work with an external research contractor, but in-house is better for long-term knowledge gathering and comprehensive understanding. 😉
Think big picture: What information will help you to uncover those 10x value problem spaces? Don’t go too granular like “why don’t they use this feature” because you’ll miss the opportunity to potentially discover hidden markets/users/competitors.
”How do you identify competitors?”
At Amazon, we try to define our products not by our competitors, but by the value you want to bring. If there’s a solution already there for a group of customers, is your product trying to solve a different need? Amazon has tons of competitors whether it’s Shein, Alibaba, or Mercado Libre. If you start with a unique need and identify the customers, survey them. They’ll tell you who their competitors are or aren’t if the data isn’t available on Statista or another market survey site.
”How do you assess the strength of your competitor’s product?”
Product strength can take multiple forms, but I’ll focus on 3:
Market share of a pre-defined industry
Customer lifetime value
Brand awareness—do customers already know your product/company, and what are their pre-conceived impressions of it? Are there already relative comparisons to your competitors?
Market share—typically defined as % of sales going to a particular company relative to competition, but can be % of customers shopping in one place.
Customer lifetime value—much more ambiguous, but a measurement of the stickiness of your customer. Do you have “moats” built to make switching costs high for your customer? Are they spending or a zombie account that rarely goes on? How long do they stay with you, on average?
PMing through challenges
”With the current context of ongoing layoffs, what strategy do you suggest for Product Managers? ”
Regardless of layoffs, I think all Product People should be very skilled (or skill up), fluent (or read up) around managing ambiguity, doing more with less, bringing culture and camaraderie, and learning new tech (or developing a fluency for learning fast) quickly. With this suite, I think it’s certainly possible to navigate the challenging times.
Check out: How to Break Into Product Management During a Recession
”What are some common challenges you face on a day to day basis as a PM?”
Dealing with ambiguity, managing friction to ideas, navigating regulations, and balancing what’s right for the people vs. what’s expected from the business. The better we get through this, the more respected we become as Product Leaders.
”How do you handle declining usage in products?”
Great question. I look at decline in 3 aspects:
Certain products and features have a natural decline, where there is an initial excitement, but fades away. (online games, movie based apps etc.).
Competitor-driven decline. Either products are not competitive enough or does not meet the needs of the changing user base or changing user requirements.
Quality-driven decline. There are not external forces, but just product has quality issues or just not simple enough.
Each decline has to be addressed separately. 1. If a product relies on hype cycle, then it is what it is…it is a pump and dump model, where the scope is not long term. 2. Competitor-driven decline or declining Product-Market Fit is a bigger challenge. This means either products or features are not at parity with competitors or your user base has shifted. 3. Quality requires a significant commitment within the organization to fix the issues to make the product relevant.
”How do you manage stakeholder management & requirements for a new product? My team is working on a new product and it’s been hard to figure get stakeholder approval! ”
Managing stakeholders is one of the hardest elements to the job, because we can feel like a middle-person of sorts trying to “shop around” someone else’s inputs.
I would say if you are getting to the “shop around” stage, and I have been there plenty of times, it is reactive vs. proactive. I try to anticipate stakeholders by setting up 1:1s with either them directly on a recurring basis to understand their evolving needs, or 1:1s with their direct reports. Then, you have their perspective before they even see their product, and can craft a document incorporating their narrative. When you do review with them in a stakeholder meeting, you’ll find it’s a smoother process because of the 1:1s you did. Transparency and communication (again make sure these meetings have specific agenda items to cover) will result in faster action.
”How do you plan around and coordinate with the engineering team? Are there specific metrics or reports that you find valuable?”
I’ve found that every development team is a bit different, even within the same organization or company. Typically, planning starts with a funnel of ideas of what you want to build – this can come from a backlog, brainstorming exercises, customer feedback, etc. Then you would go through a prioritization process of which problem or feature is most important to build or deliver in the next cycle. Metrics need to be derived from what goals your team is trying to achieve. Reports – typically data insights that are relevant to help you make prioritization decisions (opportunity size, etc.) are valuable.
”What does Product Mindset mean to you? Do you have a set of guiding principles that you and your product teams use to optimize decision-making and create successful products?”
Product Mindset to me means keeping the users’ needs in mind and making sure what we’re building is adding value to the users or to the company and delivering product-market fit.
Here my guiding principles are:
Make sure you’re always getting user feedback (before, during, and after the feature is built).
Verify you understand how your team fits with the broader ecosystem.
Always be checking and validating if your team is going in the right direction, this can mean validating your Product with users or metrics, or just making sure the Engineering and/or Design team is actually building the right product.
”Any final advice for aspiring Product Managers?”
Everyone is already a Product Manager
If you like to build, buy, bargain, better things & want to work with people & engage with the creative + engineering + process side, just do the Product Management thingy
The tech world needs diverse Product Managers, as the world we live in is diverse from all perspectives
Aspiring managers don’t have to wait to be in the role to start doing the job. You can productize your work already and start learning! Get good at creating a vision, strategy, objective, and key result for your work. Consider how to make your pitch to align with others, and get a clear but simple delivery path to accompany that pitch when people are aligned on the problem / solution. Follow it through delivery, report back on progress, and celebrate wins of those who contributed.
See? Anything can be turned into Product work if you’re committed. There is a lot more involved in it, but this is a great way to do the work without having the title.
Updated: April 10, 2023