Big Tech vs Small Companies with fmr Rover Sr PM

This week Product School hosted Alyssa Levitz, former Sr Product Manager at Rover for an #AskMeAnything session. Alyssa has an extensive background in product management with years of experience in big named companies like Facebook and Microsoft. She discussed her transition to a small company and eventually a move to become a business owner.

alyssa levitz ama

Meet Alyssa Levitz

Alyssa is a Product Manager that works with her team to build great consumer experiences, using qualitative and quantitative data and empathy. Currently, she is working on starting her own business, but previously, she was the Senior Product Manager at Rover, defining a strategic framework and owning a roadmap to increase pet sitter value, retention, and satisfaction on Rover.
Alyssa worked as a Product Manager at Facebook, where she built experiences and APIs for third-party developers to provide their customers with easy ways to share content back to Facebook; data analysis, user research, customer feedback, and long-term external partnerships informed the roadmap. Alyssa also built the first version of Facebook’s Camera Effects Platform’s Frame Studio.

How do you write product requirements documents? What format do you use to document the user flow and how do you refine it with the design team?

Writing up the product requirements is a collaborative process with the design team (and engineering, too, but I’ll focus on design, as that was your question). At a high level, the PM is going to write up the use cases and business objectives; the designers will document how that translates into user flows and screens. Depending on the individuals, the work may shift between the two of you (e.g., I documented a lot of the existing user flows to enable the designers to focus on refining the UX and UI).

Could you talk about the prioritization framework you use as a PM?

If I were to categorize my framework, I’d say it’s a “matrix” — what are the different things that are important to making the decision, and how important is each — with a dose of “finger to the wind” at the end of the process.

Things to take into account:

  • design effort
  • engineering effort
  • whether there’s a way that the ops or marketing team can solve the problem themselves
  • how much it is likely to move the metrics you care about
  • whether it requires collaboration/coordination with other teams in the organization
  • whether it’s solving the most important problem
  • whether you’re going to learn something from it

The list goes on and on!

So the prioritization is really an exercise in understanding what’s most important to your organization.

man sitting at computer

What would you say the growth area of product management is at the moment? In the customer need area there is a lot of buzz around quantitative research / data mining to uncover “hidden treasures”.

For better or worse, I try to avoid too much of what’s “trendy” in PMing. In my opinion, having a balance of skills is most important, especially early on in your career. Once you’ve established yourself, you can go deeper into a particular area. Every PM needs qualitative and quantitative skills, plus the ability to execute against goal metrics.

How do you find balance in your schedule between necessary team meetings, brainstorming sessions, and grooming sessions- plus all the work?

  1. Ask yourself how important those recurring meetings are, and whether they have the right attendees and agenda. Once a quarter, do a critical look at your calendar and combine/cancel meetings as it makes sense to do so.
  2. The biggest clue that you’re not using your time effectively (and/or you’re overloaded and need to talk with your manager about it) is that you’re doing all the solo work in the evenings.

What’s your strategy for keeping the organization focused on metrics, and all on the same team?

I’ve only ever worked in software companies, but this kind of problem can happen across disciplines/departments even at software companies. The key is to reiterate what your objectives/metrics are, and how that fits into what the other departments are doing and care about. You’re going to feel insane for how often you’re repeating yourself, but it’s absolutely necessary. It’s also important as your doing this “evangelizing” to get feedback: “Is this an accurate representation of what you’re trying to achieve? Does it make sense why I care about X?”

What do you know now that you wish you would have known at the beginning of your career?

I wish I’d known earlier how OK and expected it was to share my own opinion. I thought that PMs were purely synthesizers of information and that sharing my opinion would be arrogant and aggressive. Even early in careers, PMs are expected to have their own opinions to help drive the direction of the team.

I like one of Amazon’s mottos though, to keep yourself in check: Strong opinions, loosely held. Especially at the beginning of your career (or whenever you’re switching teams or companies), be humble and open to new ideas and information.

How you decide to integrate a new feature in an existing product?

The short answer is: Does the product NEED it? What problem is the product trying to solve, and how well does it meet that need? If it doesn’t do it well, where is it falling short? If it does meet the need — are there “nearby” problems that you could expand the problem to solve?

Can you shed some light on how you made the switch from environment engineering to software engineering/PM?

Like many PMs, I got here through luck and connections. I graduated from college in 2011, when the job market wasn’t great. I was excited to go into environmental consulting, but the firms just weren’t hiring. I had an “almost offer,” where a firm told me that I would be given a job as long as Congress passed the budget they needed them to.

I didn’t want to wait for that chance, and so took the opportunity at my school to interview at some software companies, including Microsoft. I initially thought that I’d be there for a couple of years before getting back into something environmental, but as I said in my little intro — I found that PMing was a career that worked really well for me!

How did you end up working on something of your own?

I’d worked at a large-large company (Microsoft), a large company (Facebook), and then a medium-small company (Rover). I gained so much experience from being in such different environments that I was excited to try yet a different environment. I’m still looking at some at jobs with established companies in case there’s something that seems like a good fit, but I’m also enjoying spending time learning at my own pace, exactly what I want to learn, without the external pressures of an organization around me.

people working in an office

Can you please share your challenges, as a PM, when it comes to partnering with 3rd parties like suppliers/vendors?

Communication, communication, communication. What are your requirements and timeline; what are theirs? Check-in as often as you need to in order to stay on the same page (as long as it’s still productive, don’t want meetings for the sake of meetings!). One of the biggest pitfalls is that both of you are subject to things outside your control, where organizational goals might change and for no real fault, one or both of you may have to back out on promises. It’s a delicate dance of not doing too much work without seeing progress from them (so you don’t do “throw-away” work), but enough work that they are convinced of YOUR commitment.

What is the best route to land a product management job without any tech industry experience?

There’s no “best” — but find opportunities along the way that teach you some of the skills that PMs need so that when you’re interviewing and then starting your first job, your varied experiences combine together to give you a well-rounded skill set that will help you hit the ground running.

You may be interested in: How to Land Your First PM Job

I was wondering how you interacted with qualitative feedback? (tools, practices etc.)

Qualitative feedback is incredibly helpful but must be taken with a grain of salt depending on the source. E.g., feedback from customer support channels, or reviews from app stores, is necessarily skewed negative. E.g., prompted verbal responses during user testing are much more thoughtful than what people’s reactions in real life are going to be.

Basically – it’s one of the many things to take into account when building your roadmap. Try to get as many sources of qual feedback as you can to build a well-rounded perspective on your product.

How should a PM maintain customer engagement at the time of crisis when the demand decreases drastically due to external factors beyond the control of the company?

There’s no right answer here across the board. It depends on your company’s business model and cash flow among many other things. There are some companies that have done what seems to me to be a good job generating goodwill (and/or PR) that will hopefully bring customers back when the time is right.

For example, can you make part of your product free to everyone, or parents with kids staying at home, or first responders? Can you somehow defer payments from your customers?

Do you ever feel like you still have a lot to learn as a PM?

Everyone always has something to learn, and if they say they don’t, they’re lying, arrogant, and/or not doing the right amount of introspection. A good manager should make it clear to you what your areas of growth are, and make it safe and easy for you to get the opportunities to work on them.

Did you miss this event? Check out our events page to sign up for the next #AskMeAnything session!

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