How to Be Okay With Ambiguity with Microsoft Product Leader

This week, Product School hosted Alan Yu, Product Leader at Microsoft, for a special #AskMeAnything session. In this session, Alan gives some excellent answers regarding roadmap planning, metrics, getting a PM job, and why learning to be okay with ambiguity is essential for Product Managers.

Meet Alan

Alan Yu, Product Leader at Microsoft

Alan is a Microsoft Product Leader who is driven to make a significant contribution to the challenges faced in the tech industry. In his current role, he is working on the Azure Data Studio, SQL Server, Notebooks, and the mssql extension. He is also a Volunteer Product Management Teacher with the Microsoft LEAP Engineering Apprenticeships and a Chair of their Korean Diversity Board.

Before joining Microsoft, he held various internships with some big-name corporations. He first spent two years as a Research Intern with the University of Washington Bioengineering department. After that he moved on to Weyerhaeuser, working on Software Engineering. Next, he joined Microsoft as a Program Manager Intern before his last internship where he worked on Software Engineering at T-Mobile.

How far ahead do you plan your roadmap? And how do you showcase that roadmap to stakeholders?

For me, when I set the vision for a product I work on, it’s important to me that the roadmap is adaptable to changing requirements or competitor landscape. Without enough data, it’s hard to know that a roadmap will be concrete unless you have convincing data to pull from. It’s important to pivot if customer signals are showing you are going in the wrong direction.

When possible, I ensure that there is documentation on the roadmap that anyone can access, and if possible, will also share with our community (in particular for open source projects).

Check out: Product Templates: Roadmaps

yellow road sign against green tree background. winding road ahead

What is the difference between working as a Product Manager for developer-facing products like Azure Data Studio vs non-technical products like MS Office?

One of the key differences is where both products are in the product life cycle.

MS Office has been around for a very long time with high adoption and dependencies across many industries. This means that change can take more time as there are many approvals to go through to ensure it doesn’t break customer experiences for many edge cases.

Azure Data Studio is a product that recently went GA and is all available on Github. It’s an exciting time because we can work on features in a hackathon and potentially get the experience out to customers the same day. Both are important experiences and have different requirements, but I’m personally enjoying this.

Read next: Become a Technical Product Manager Using No-Code Tools

What are the key metrics you use to track management of your products?

In general, I like to categorize metrics between 3 main things:

  1. Money
  2. Usage
  3. Customer satisfaction

For many of the products I work on, due to the nature of the tools being free, my focus is on increasing MAU and increasing CSAT. Of course, we still have to make money, but that’s where we work with other PMs that are more focused on that side of the business.

bird's eye view of a wooden table with a graph and measurement tools on top of it

How did you transition from software engineering to Product?

The biggest challenge I noticed when software engineers/CS students transition to product is learning to be okay with ambiguity. You’ll be given vague tasks such as “how do we increase usage of this feature,” and traditionally we’ve had a grade or test to show success, but now you have to define your own success and methods to reach that goal.

One piece of advice that helped accelerate my career a few months into the company was “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.” This was such liberating advice that it encouraged me to try my crazy ideas, and it turns out they usually ended up being the right ones (for the most part :guiño: )

I’ve had multiple PM internships, and I get through multiple round interviews for PM or APM but just don’t get the offer. Any advice to get unstuck?

First of all, congrats on getting the multiple-round interviews. It’s a competitive market, and you are so close to getting it!

I know this is more generic advice, but generally I reach out to interviewers/recruiters after I don’t move on in the process and ask for feedback in a kind manner. If they don’t respond, then it is what it is, but sometimes you’ll find someone who has the time to share if someone else answered the design question slightly better than you. This field is all about the relationships you build. I encourage you to reach out and hopefully you’ll get some answers/feedback.

Prep for your next interview! The Ultimate List of Product Manager Interview Questions

How do you collaborate with designers? How do you set metrics for a UX experience?

As a UX PM, designers are critical for our projects. We work with them on being clear on customer scenarios so that they can understand if there are research studies we need to do or what Figma mockups we need to help tell the story to our leadership/teams.

Sometimes, my favorite experience is to be on a call with designer, engineer, and myself and just brainstorm without distractions. In general, I like to include as many people as I can in defining metrics as it makes them feel heard and I can understand what success means in each discipline. I will propose metrics, and I am open to having my mind being changed.

ux of mobile apps drawn out on paper

How do you break into Product Management without having a computer science background?

I have been teaching folks without computer science backgrounds for about 2 years now through Microsoft LEAP. The thing I hear every time is that apprentices have a lot of imposter syndrome about not being technical enough. I can assure you that at Microsoft, we are looking to hire people who have diverse life experiences.

As a PM, communication and empathy are essential skills that can’t easily be taught. If you have the willingness to learn, be wrong, be okay with ambiguity, and help others grow, you’ll find that these characteristics are something that can be fostered in other disciplines. It’s up to you to decide which ones you need to work on.

What types of testing did you do to grow adoption for Azure?

PMs have to use their own product :cara_ligeramente_sonriente: Otherwise, we can’t empathize with our users.

User testing is a critical part of our jobs, especially for those keynotes and demos, but we also assist with user research testing, helping build test cases for engineers on features, and so on. For Azure Data Studio, we listen to our users through Github feedback, emails, customer calls, and get features out that our customers want. That has helped increase our adoption.

You might also be interested in: Product Management Skills: User Research

I have heard that in some places Product Managers at Microsoft are called as Program Managers. How can I make sure I am interviewing for a non-technical Product role (and not a program/project role)?

I have some opinions on this, but to be clear, all PMs at Microsoft are given an HR title of Program Manager.

It is on you to make sure that through your questions, 1:1’s, interviews, etc. that you can discern from a team’s roadmap whether you will be doing more Product Manager vs TPM related job responsibilities. I also want to be clear that at times you will need to go in between both roles depending on the product life cycle and team composition, especially for smaller PM teams.

code on a screen

Can you share what tools you use to arrive at the product metrics, especially around customer feedback?

We have Kusto queries that power telemetry dashboards through various internal tooling, PowerBI, etc. We also use Github to get info such as number of bugs reported or number of upvotes.

Any final advice?

I know breaking into Product Management or building your influence as PM is a difficult path and things can be very ambiguous. I want to assure you that we are still figuring all this out even many years as a PM, and it takes a willingness to try your crazy ideas and be okay with being wrong, as long as you are learning from it. You belong in this discipline and your life experiences/skills are valid.

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