This week, Product School hosted Mischa Stephens, Sr. Product Manager at PlayStation, for an exclusive #AskMeAnything session. Mischa talked about transitioning into Product Management from a non-tech background, the importance of empathy, and how to get into the gaming industry.
Mischa Stephens is a user experience champion, having built hardware and software products in industries spanning music, advertising, news media, events, and gaming. Currently, he’s working on building the next generation of gaming experiences for the PlayStation 5 console and is pretty pumped about it. Before PlayStation, he worked at Google, YouTube, TechCrunch, Eventbrite, and others. He majored in English Literature and Psychology so he loves to talk about anything from fiction and creative writing to Product Strategy and the Jobs To Be Done / ODI framework.
How did you land jobs as PM in such big companies coming from a non-technical background?
I had experience on the front lines of customer service, I developed deep understanding and empathy for the customer problems and journey from having worked in that capacity. I turned that empathy into product knowledge and started my own company where I could build my own products to solve the problems I was seeing. That gave me Product Management experience when no one else was willing to hire me (since I didn’t have that role in my background). Once I had that, I could get PM job offers.
What are your go to tools when you start onboarding at a company?
No specific tools, more of an open and energetic mindset. First thing I do is meet with everyone (I mean everyone) for casual coffee chats in order to gain a full understanding of what everyone’s roles & responsibilities are.
What was your framework for user research in the pandemic era? What were your biggest learnings?
The pandemic made people much more comfortable to be at home and do all the things they normally would do outside rather than in their home. This includes socializing and playing. But it also makes people restless and crave attention in new ways.
As I mention above, it is essential to develop empathy for your users, get into their mindset, and think how they think. You must conduct interviews with them (whether it’s in person, or it’s via video call) to gain a human understanding of their journey, their goals, and the problems they face in trying to achieve those goals. When you do enough interviews, you can turn this into data and start probing deeper into the data to find broader insights that can be applied to more users than just the ones you interviewed.
How did you make the transition to a PM in gaming? And what are the top 3 things you deal with day to day?
The transition specifically into gaming is not straightforward and a bit more luck-based. I was working at Eventbrite on the intersection of hardware, partner-facing tooling, and consumer UX, and turned out that was the right combination for what PlayStation was looking for (as they sit at that intersection as well).
This also answers the 2nd part of your question, as those are the 3 things I deal with day-to-day:
- How to build great tools that solve needs for partners so more partners will be willing/able to use those tools
- What are the consumer experiences that will be powered by those tools
- What is the best way to communicate the functionalities of these to those parties.
You might also be interested in: Hey! Listen!…Here’s How to Be a Gaming PM
What events would you recommend for people trying to make contacts in gaming?
GDC (Game Developers Conference)
I want to work in the gaming industry but I’m not quite sure which direction to go into. Is there any advice you can give to make my decision easier?
A lot of people ask this type of question (whether they personally should change their direction and go into Product Management). There is no answer I can give you to this question, it can only be answered by you, and by the knowledge you gain for yourself about what a Product Manager does day-to-day. From that knowledge you can then make the decision for yourself whether it is the right direction for you.
This is like asking someone “should I get married” or “should I have children”. You must first get a solid understanding of what your life will look like as a Product Manager, weigh all the pros and cons of making that transition, and then make the decision based on that data. This is also the process of being a Product Manager: you gather info and data, weigh pros & cons/cost & benefits, and then make a decision based on that data.
Check out: Is Product Management Right for You?
What would your advice be to someone who’s looking to move from SaaS into the gaming software industry as a PM?
Gain experience building complex tools. This is a huge demand not just in gaming but across the board.
If you can show you are good at collecting and prioritizing requirements for complex tools that will be used by internal/external stakeholders, that will be in high demand. That is the definition of the job in SaaS, so proving aptitude in doing that will make you marketable in gaming (plenty of tools to be built in gaming, how do you think all those gaming storefronts operate and get filled with game SKUs?).
When you are interviewing PM candidates, what are the things you look for in their answers?
- Volume of experience demonstrating deep understanding for customer problems (not just saying “I really understand customers and their problems”, but actually demonstrating that understanding and how that has been turned into measurable action)
- Deep understanding of how to look at data to identify problems and prioritize solutions (giving examples of when/how data was used, showing proactive drive to use data in this way)
- Highly organized mind and methods (this should come across clearly in the way a resume is laid out and cover letter is written)
Get more tips: The Ultimate List of Product Manager Interview Questions
How do I find a PM role where I can utilize my knowledge and skills in both hardware AND software?
You will have to do lots of LinkedIn hunting. Pick a company doing things that excite you and start clicking from one profile to the next and look at their job titles. Then do job searches for that title to see what’s available.
Any final advice?
Don’t think about “how should I become a Product Manager,” think instead about “how can I find out the problems my customers are having and how can I best solve those problems.” Build your mind as a product creator and problem solver, then you will be a Product Manager and the job will follow from that.