Working With Complex Products

This week, Product School hosted Reshma Nichani, Product Leader at Facebookfor a special #AskMeAnything session. Reshma answered questions regarding PM at big companies in tech, understanding problems before coming up with solutions, and working with complex products.

Meet Reshma

i, Product Leader at Facebook

Reshma is a Product Leader currently working at Facebook. She has over 15 years of experience across ads, enterprise, consumer products, and retail. During her time at Google as the Head of Go-To-Market Strategy and Operations, she helped drive the GTM pivot strategy and delivered growth of 20x of the 12-year old Google Maps Enterprise business.

She also founded, built, and grew Google’s first-party accessories efforts into a multi-million dollar business. Before this, she was a Senior Product Manager for Mobile at Microsoft. She evaluated the company’s position in the smartphone OEM & OS space. As a Founding member of Microsoft Retail Stores, Reshma established and grew mobile, accessories, and music categories for the Microsoft retail stores.

What’s the best way you’ve found to do initial discovery for customer segmentation before a product launches?

Mandarin broken into pieces

Ideally, you would understand the segment and its problems well before developing any concept for a product. Not doing this work upfront results in solutions looking for problems. This happens a lot actually! But it never yields great outcomes. I think falling in love with a problem and then empathizing with the folks who have it, is the first step to getting to a good product outcome.

You’ve worked at some of the biggest companies in tech. How have these different companies and roles shaped your product philosophy over the years?

The one thing that applies no matter where I’ve been is to adopt a beginner’s mind and not assume anything when I start on a team or project. Focus on first principles, building trust with the people I’m working with, and asking questions in an open way (I recommend the book Humble Inquiry for great ways to do this). This is all useful no matter what.

And last but not least, if you focus on impact (versus activities to get there – for example, don’t feel too excited that you created a bunch of processes if they don’t get you to the right outcome, that’s all that matters). And if you can get that impact by leveraging the talents of your colleagues, even better – of course in a way that helps them also shine and do their best work!

What advice would you give to someone trying to transition from a Software background into Product? Is it not advisable without an MBA or switching internally?

I would say that actually, an SW background in many ways is an easier path to PM. But what I think matters more is what kind of work you want to do in the realm of PM, because they vary so much. Some PMs work entirely with Eng and are less cross-functional. Others are very business-oriented (as has been my experience).

woman thinking

So titles aside, I’d spend some time thinking about what you want day-to-day, and then fit that into a PM “archetype” if you will (as I mentioned a few examples above). With your background, you should have a great shot at securing a PM role, and I don’t think MBA is required at all (to be clear, I don’t have one!). Switching internally is generally a good thing to consider because you can see how you like it without taking on too much risk.

Read also: Transitioning to Product Management From ANY Background

How does it feel like to work with complex and enterprise products such as the ones at Facebook?

I have found it’s helpful to appreciate all the nuances when dealing with complex products. What I mean is that, for example, the space I work in is an ecosystem of mobile operators globally, Facebook, and end-users. Solving one stakeholders’ problem often comes at a cost for another. But the magic happens when you can find the win-win-win across all. And we tend to find that when we focus on the user, empathize with them, do what’s right for them, and then have the right business case to support the decision for both FB and our partners.

The other component here is that we internally also work with a lot of stakeholders, and the same rules apply. So really understanding the perspectives of eng, design, partnerships, and crafting a compelling narrative for a product strategy/decision that acknowledges “all of the things” has been hugely helpful.

What are the top 3 practices that you recommend us to follow?

open cardboard box with the work "brain" on it, with pieces of yellow paper being thrown in
  1. Understand the space you’re in with a very open mind. If you have some experience, lean on it but don’t be married to it. Listen to the POVs of your colleagues, of customers, go back to first principles, then make an assessment.
  2. Then be extremely clear about what your POV is, why it is, and have compelling data (data can be qual and quant) to back it up, evangelize it with your team, get feedback, adjust and then make a call with a full understanding of risks and tradeoffs.
  3. And finally, really ask yourself why you want to pursue a given role and make sure it’s for the right reasons (ie. make sure you enjoy the day-to-day) because ultimately this is what will allow you to do your best work!

If you were to go back to being a new grad coming out of college, how would you prepare for a career in PM?

If I were just starting out I’d try and get a wide breadth of PM experiences and then decide which type of PM role I’d like to go deep in. There’s a good book called Range that makes the case for this type of approach.

From your Microsoft Mobile strategy experience, what did you learn the most that stayed with you (especially since Microsoft didn’t do well in that area)?

Yes, when I was there there was little openness to the fact that competition was heating up, and what I learned was the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (this is a Nicholas Taleb quote I love). Which is to say that just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t. So always being really open to how a market can evolve and behaviors can change is something I’m always mindful of.

You might also be interested in: Emerging Markets: A Guide for Product Managers

How should a Senior PM distribute their time in strategy, tactical communication, cross-functional product negotiations, and technical knowledge of the problem domain?

I think this shifts as you gain more experience in a role or a team, even as a Senior PM. No matter what my level has been, I always start with a focus on execution – understand what has been going on and just pitch in and contribute, get to know the team, and build trust.

man conducting with his hands. he is wearing a white button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing tattoo sleeves on both arms

As that happens I can understand context, form my own view, and then start to influence strategy. As for cross-functional stuff and communication, that’s just table stakes part of the role at all times. Domain expertise comes with time, but as a PM you’re like a conductor and you want to help the orchestra (your colleagues) play the most beautiful music possible (shout out to Naomi Gleit, our Product VP for that analogy). So acknowledging, leveraging, and appreciating the talents and domain knowledge of your peers can help get you there and continue to help as you go.

What are some techniques you use to find, better understand, and then prioritize the problems you solve?

The biggest thing is to go deep into a space, talk to people, read about it, and get deep with the problem yourself. Take time to find the customer insights, look at what’s already in the market, and ask yourself why any idea you’re considering might be better than existing alternatives. And importantly, why do you have the right to succeed – sometimes a company has it in their DNA, and sometimes they just don’t. So that’s also a helpful factor to consider.

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