Top Product Manager Values with Microsoft Senior PM

Last week, Product School hosted Maria Olekheyko, Senior Product Manager at Microsoft, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Maria has a lot of wisdom on what makes a great PM, including values, skills, and problem-solving skills.

Meet Maria

Maria Olekheyko, Senior Product Manager at Microsoft

Maria Olekheyko is a Microsoft Senior Product Manager with over 15 years of managing teams across the world. She is currently leading Microsoft’s Learn Cloud Games. She started with Microsoft in 2018 as a Program Manager for the Minecraft Education Learning Programs.Before joining Microsoft, she worked as a PM for Learning and Development at EF Education First. Throughout her time with the company, she worked on the development framework for thousands of employees across different global markets and re-evaluated and improved the customer experience after extensive market research.

In terms of hard skills and soft skills what are top qualities that separate an average PM from a great PM according to you?

Soft skills are a must. I’d say a great PM is listening very intently to everything that stakeholders have to say and knows how to navigate this feedback.

What are the top values a PM needs?

a closeup of a cat on the grass looking at a butterfly

Top values are:

  • Intense curiosity
  • Ability to work with data & insights
  • Being comfortable with ambiguity

Need help defining your professional values? Check out Product Templates: PM Career Vision Planner

What do you wish you had known before taking on a PM role?

I wish I had known how to have tougher skin :cara_ligeramente_sonriente: Product Manager is the one who doesn’t manage people directly, however receives all kinds of feedback from all the stakeholders.

When you are hiring a Product Manager, what do you look for in a stand-out candidate?

I think I would like to see the way the candidate thinks through the problem, what questions they have to ask me and approaches to solutions.

What does your day to day look like?

My days are busy: filled with meetings with engineering, producers, customers. A lot of time is spent prioritizing features/backlog/feedback, a lot of time is spent listening or watching customers work with the product + blocked focus time.

What should a PM do daily?

What I do daily is look at the product data, talk to customers or watch focus groups & talk to production team.

Another great read: 10 Weekly Habits of Product Managers That Make a Big Difference

close up of a lined spiral notebook with the word "today" written on it in blue in, followed by a list numbers 1 through 4

Has the Product Manger role or positions reached saturation?

Thank you for your question! If you are talking about Product Manager role within Microsoft – I’d say that we are in the period of transition right now. Microsoft started dividing Program Management & Product Management tracks not so long ago and we have very clear distinctions right now.

Any advice for a new graduate who is starting on the PM journey?

I think prior to joining Microsoft, I joined a local library and read everything that I could find on Product Management. Some of my favorites are Extreme Ownership, Hooked, and others. I think being curious and learning about what’s new on the market is pretty important and will always be my recommendation.

Any tips on how to grow from PM to Senior PM?

I have this principle, whenever I am in the role I am looking for requirements for the next level role and read them very carefully. I try to strategize on how I can get to the next level even being in my current role. Performing on the level that is higher than yours shows the management that you can grow into the role.

Check out this Product Podcast episode: Skills to Take You From PM to CSuite by Facebook VP of Product

How you run discovery and follow up delivery? Any tips for new PMs do a great discovery and truly deliver value for customers?

Discovery is identifying gaps that a new product can cover. I look at what the company has today, what competitors are doing in this space, what customers want and do through jobs done process and then make a bet on a product. I hope we delivered on that gap with the new product that just got released. Check out Cloud Games with Microsoft Learn, this is my product.

person carrying 2 cardboard packages in an indoor space

Just checked out Cloud Games. Looks like an amazing product. Is this integrated with the recruitment process at Microsoft, where the team monitors the activities of a player and use their performance and scores to determine their skill level?

THANK YOU! You are giving me great ideas! We heard that sentiment from a couple of customers that they would like to use it as a hiring program exercise. It is not currently integrated with recruitment. We strive to skill up our big learner community.

I did my certification for PM from Product School, and now I’m working in a product distibution role. How can I position myself as a PM for a new role where I’m actually building the products?

I talk to potential customers a lot and after some of these conversations 4 got hired in Microsoft, not all of them into PM roles. However, what I am trying to highlight is it is important to insert yourself into the roles or processes that you would like to be a part of. I think actually working side by side with someone so that people see how you approach problems will get into the role you would like to be in.

I’d love to move into Product Management at an EdTech company. Do you have any tips about how to combine my background in education and tech to appeal to EdTech roles?

a child seated at a wooden table with a laptop and notebook open in from of them

I think being a PM might mean different thing for each company, as I have not worked for EF in quite some time, it is hard for me to advise particularly about EF PM roles. Having said that, my background is in education and I naturally found myself in Product Management. I find though that being a PM is like being a lifelong learner, rather than an educator. You need to stay curious and this is really what got me into the role. I kept talking to the customers and asking them “Why? Why is this important for you?” This led me to talking about potential changes in the product and then transitioning into a PM role.

Do product bootcamps add significant value to a person’s profile or would you consider a person self-studying the concepts equally eligible to be considered for interviews?

I would say anything that you can add to your CV adds value – the first screening that happens, happens through recruitment, however later on when you are talking to the hiring manager, I believe in reading books but also getting real life experience through connecting to the product.

In order to build product that solves real life problems, what are some good resources and tips that you could suggest?

Talking to people who use the product 🙂 They are the best sources of inspiration!

See our Product Manager Certifications

I’m starting a Product Operations Job. How do I improve existing processes and create more happy moments (automate) within the operations department?

My biggest recommendation is to walk in your customer shoes and to feel the “pain” and then interview the customers and see if you all are on the same page. I love “walking” in customer shoes and then prioritize, prioritize, prioritize and be ruthless about cutting things that don’t work.

What are some of your best strategies, tools or processes etc in working across disciplines for example with designers? E.g giving input into their work, making requests?

group of people seated at a wooden table. All have either a laptop or a tablet device. two members of the group are seated next to each other and looking at a tablet screen together

As a PM you are required to work across disciplines and you would not necessarily be an expert in all these disciplines. I strongly believe in establishing the principles for the product between different disciplines and whenever the request comes up, we always check against the principles, then with design specifically I strongly believe in user focus groups.

What’s next? What is Microsoft doing to stay relevant in the industry?

Microsoft is definitely working on implementing hybrid (mesh) across the board: education, gaming, work and cybersecurity.

What are the key things I should pay attention to as a Product Manager in an early stage company?

  1. Learn the product, make sure you fully understand how it functions and why
  2. Look at the consumption data vs expectations
  3. Talk to the customers that started using the product, talk to the customers that either stopped using the product or never started using it

You might also be interested in: The Difference Between Startup PMs & Big Corporation PMs

Anything else?

Thank you all for all your questions! We will be looking for more wonderful PMs in my team in the next fiscal year (starts on July 1, 2022). If you are looking for a job, stay tuned to hear more and you always can reach out to me directly. I am on WorldWide Learning team (Global Tech Learning).

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