How to Navigate Ambiguity as a PM with Grammarly’s Product Leader

This week, Product School hosted Brooke Robson, Product Leader at Grammarly, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Brooke gave some wise advice on how to be a great PM, navigating ambiguity, and prioritization for roadmap decisions.

Meet Brooke

Brooke Robson, Product Leader at Grammarly

Brooke Robson is a Product Leader currently working on consumer growth at Grammarly. Prior to this, she was at Medable where she was a part of the Product Team building with analytics and machine learning. During her time there she also focused on business development with the executive team as well as analyzing and improving their marketing strategy. She also previously spent time as a Consultant at Oliver Wyman.

What hard and soft skills are most important for a person preparing to become a PM?

PMs need to have a mix of both hard and soft skills. Not all PMs need to have a technical background, I think it’s critical for PMs to be able to work effectively with technical stakeholders.

  • Key soft skills: Communication, Ability to Influence
  • Key hard skills: Data Fluency, Product Execution

This is a helpful article from Ravi Meta.

What are the factors that differentiate a good PM and a great PM ?

What differentiates a good vs great PM varies throughout your career. A great IC PM will need different skills than a great PM manager. Regardless, I believe all great PMs need these two things: (1) the ability to navigate ambiguity and (2) the ability to drive strategic impact.

For more on this, read: Characteristics of Exceptional Product Managers

What has been your approach to navigating ambiguity?

person with black blindfold on against green background. their hands are held up as if to feel what's in front of them

I’ve found the best place to start is understanding what kind of ambiguity you are facing, and being open with your manager on how to best tackle it.

There are different types of ambiguity. For example, ambiguity on the strategic direction, the target user, or the best way to implement something. I recommend starting with a list of open questions and ranking them in order of priority. Are there some questions that are deal breakers? What would lead to a no-go decision?

Any suggestion on how new college graduates / freshers can do some projects related to Product Management? To start practicing Product Management even before finding the right job.

Getting into Product Management can be difficult, especially without experience. It’s the classic chicken/egg problem. Many big tech companies offer Associate Product Management roles. Those are great places to start if you can land an APM job.

If not, I find it helpful to start with a personal project. What’s a problem you have in your life? Sketch an app or website. In interviews, it’s beneficial to have an example of how you’ve applied product thinking and approached problems.

What were the metrics adopted for the analytics and ML products at Grammarly?

Metrics can vary by product and team, depending on your goals. For my team, we focus on retention and monetization. Some key metrics for us are:

  • % of users reaching aha moment
  • 4-week new user retention
  • Weekly active users
  • Upgrade rates
  • Renewal rates

Read next: These Are the Metrics Great Product Managers Track

Does your team use product data to drive roadmap decisions? Backup gut-driven decisions? Or both?

person in indoor office space sitting at table with laptop on it and looking out window pensively

Yes, we use data to drive our roadmap decisions. One of the biggest challenges is prioritizing. Data is a helpful tool to ensure everyone is using the same criteria to prioritize. If you don’t have the data available, how can you increase your confidence in the opportunity size, certainty, or user pain point? User feedback, marketing sizing, or UXR testing can be a helpful starting point.

How do you balance which types of use cases to invest in further as Grammarly grows?

Deciding where to invest is a prioritization question. Prioritization can be more art than science since you have to balance team goals, quantitative metrics, and the company vision. We consider the distribution of users across different use cases, different roles, and different product offerings. There’s also a question of when to invest in your existing users or when to invest in a new product or feature to help reach new users.

Relevant to this topic: Complete Guide to Feature Prioritization for Fast-Growing Startups

What do you recommend to people entering into a Product role for the first time? Are there any additional qualifications that you recommend?

It’s always helpful to have a technical background, but it’s not necessary. At a minimum, I recommend for all PMs to have taken at least one CS course. There are some great courses online these days. I recommend CS50x from Harvard.

What tools do you use at Grammarly for road-mapping and story management?  Target Process? JIRA, things like that.

We primarily use Google Docs, Jira, and Confluence at Grammarly. I personally prefer to start with a GDoc to create a project overview, explaining the vision and goals. All tasks are then created and tracked in Jira.

Could you please describe your main tasks in terms of percentage of time you spend on them on a weekly basis?

It varies week to week. As a PM manager, it is also different than when I was an IC. As a manager who still does some IC work, this is a rough split of how I spend my time:

  • 40% People management and team management
  • 20% Product execution and IC work
  • 5% working with design and content
  • 5% work with eng
  • 10% writing specs and project management
  • 20% Cross-functional strategic planning
  • 10% Data investigations and deep dives
  • 10% buffer for unexpected tasks

Any final tips?

My biggest piece of advice if you’re looking to make a switch in PM or early in your career is to talk to other PMs! There are different specializations within Product Management, and the role of PM can vary a lot from company to company. Learn what excites you the most!

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