Mari Bolton is the Head of Analytics at Skip, and a former Product Manager at Fitbit. She’s also an alum of our Product Management Certification in San Francisco.
We caught up with her to catch up on graduate life, how she found the Product School experience, and where she hopes her career in Product will take her. She also has some excellent advice for how Product Managers can get better at data analysis, and face the challenges of 2020.
What got you started on your Product career? Is tech something you were always interested in?
In 2015, I joined a 15-person Product Team within a 90-person tech consulting firm in Bethesda, MD. Since I was strong in SQL, Excel, and command line, having done analytics and database integration for clients such as Office Depot, Arrow Electronics, and Humana, I was assigned the responsibility of being PM of Deployment Engineering for a SaaS product we were building.
I was especially fortunate to receive mentorship and training from everyone on the team including the Senior PM, Customer Success Manager, Engineering Lead, and the entire engineering team with whom I worked closely. I fondly recall our “hackathons” and sitting on the floor in the WeWork satellite office in NYC while eating pizza and furiously brainstorming solutions for our SaaS clients.
I’ve indeed always been interested in tech. I had dreamt of moving to San Francisco and joining the tech revolution since I was 17 years old. In 2017, my now-husband and I rented a moving truck and drove across the country from Washington, DC to San Francisco and started the next chapter of our careers working for FICO and Fitbit, respectively. A few years later and he’s still at FICO, and I’m now nine months into working for an e-scooter startup called Skip.
Can you describe your current role as Head of Anayltics?
Currently, I’m the Head of Analytics at Skip. The role is highly technical and expansive across all things data, and is also strategically placed within the Product Team. With this hybrid setup, I’m empowered to do both the analytics work to discover and track opportunities as well as contribute to spec documents and run user research.
You were also a Product Manager at Fitbit. What was that role like?
During my two years at Fitbit, I was embedded as an analytics platforms focused Product Manager. A large portion of my time was spent with stakeholders figuring out how to align metrics and use them to drive improvements across the thousands of employees and contractors within the Customer Support organization.
The remainder of my time was spent on data science and engineering efforts, building scalable and real-time reporting solutions and integrating app, support, social media, review, and other data to assess the performance of Fitbit products as they were released into the fitness wearables ecosystem.
At Fitbit, you worked on improving customer retention. Can you give us any insight on how you did that?
With a high volume of customer support ticket data from channels including chat, phone calls, and emails, there were endless possibilities for figuring out what impacted retention for customers who ended up reaching out to Fitbit Customer Support. I learned that one of the best ways to sculpt an effective approach is to dive deep into the details and expand customer empathy by following customers’ journeys, frustrations, joys, and disappointments as the data illustrated.
Once I had a nuanced perspective of customer pain points, I vigorously pursued ways to pre-empt such moments by closing the feedback loop with other teams within the company and helping guide their roadmaps.
Why does data analysis play such a key role in product development, and how can PMs use it better?
I strongly hold that data analysis should be the backbone for any endeavor in product development. Not only does data analysis tell us the magnitude of the problems we are scoping, but it also turns unknown unknowns into focus areas. My advice for all PMs is to learn and use SQL or at least the basic concepts of databases and how to extract and pivot data from large datasets.
Without this skill, PMs often have to “wait in line” and bottleneck at the data team or any other data gatekeepers, despite the fact they could possess the key themselves. In addition, I encourage those who partake in data analysis to always look beyond the average and remember that the devil is in the details.
What do you think are the major challenges facing Product Managers in 2020?
Adaptability to wildly uncertain circumstances will be a major challenge facing PMs in 2020. With the COVID-19 crisis under way, not only can no one foresee trends happening one month in advance, but no one knows how shelter-in-place will impact future behavior and consumption habits of customers for years to come.
It will become more and more important to build extremely strong value propositions and then to iterate on them as hypotheses appear and fade from the foreground. It especially helps during these times to be detached from outcomes, and to safely let go and move on when a new product or feature isn’t received well at a given time.
What inspired you to pursue a certification in Product Management?
No matter what city I live in, I always seek ways to get involved in the community. In Washington, DC I did videography for Sofar Sounds and found a community in the music scene. In San Francisco, after working with and under incredible PMs who I wanted to emulate, I decided to invest into more formal education in Product Management. Thus, I found and completed Product School’s certification programs.
What was your experience like with your instructor?
My instructor for the Product Management Certification course was Alex Shih, who currently works at Airbnb. Not only was he a brilliant PM and thought leader in the space, but he’s also a genuinely compassionate and empathetic human being.
I especially appreciate his lessons in learning how to see products through the lens of the user and customer and all the subtle considerations at play that PMs shouldn’t overlook when building products and features.
How did your experience with traditional education compare to your Product School experience?
I completed my MBA from Georgetown McDonough School of Business in 2014. Compared to my MBA experience, the Product School experience was much more hands on and intimate, especially with the final project and in-class exercises. I love that the focus for Product School was not on finding the “right answers” but on honing the skills necessary to evaluate and execute on potential solutions.
Every Product has a ‘Why’, but what’s your ‘Why’ for being a Product Manager?
My “why” is to build products that make lives better, not just make a profit. In the days of IPOs and ultra high valuations, unwittingly building meaningless products can be a real hidden danger. I hope to not only combat these trends, but also to serve as an example for young people who are still unsure of what careers they want to pursue. Needless to say, we need more women in tech charting the course for the future.
Where do you hope your career will take you in the future?
I’m not on a quest for any paycheck amount or job title. I think one beautiful aspect of Product Management, especially in technology, is that the future is constantly being built and shaped by people who work tirelessly to identify, champion, and execute on visions. Each day is brand new and opportunities sprout up at every corner. Therefore, I don’t know what the future holds and I only hope that my career continues to help open doors for those around me.
If you had to sum up Product Management in 3 words, what would they be?
As a hobby, I’m an avid video gamer, so in gamer phraseology my sum up of Product Management in 3 words would be: “Git gud, ya’ll!”