How to Change the World with Product: A Guide for PMs

“The night is dark and full of terrors.” Has any phrase seemed to be so appropriate for 2020? Wildfires, political unrest, social inequality, a global pandemic…this year feels like a gift that keeps on giving! We’re all at the point in the year when the novelty of working from home has started to lose its novelty, and keeping a happy face in the midst of *waves arms* everything, is starting to take a toll.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who wants to take action. But unless you’re already working in a company which is directly impacting the issues you care about the most, it can be difficult to know which direction to choose. Sure, you can make donations to your favorite charities, and you can make efforts in your day-to-day life to reduce your single-use plastic consumption, but long term positive global change can feel like a moonshot.

Luckily, if there’s anything product people are built for, it’s moonshot ideas!

moon GIF

If you’re feeling stuck, desperately wanting good things to happen in the future but not knowing how to make them happen, then you’re in good company. And you’re in the right place.

At CES 2020, climate change tech was a highlight of the event, with 6 startups being highlighted as the most innovative.

Here, we’re going to look at the following:

  • The global issues product people care about the most
  • New startups which are working towards positive change
  • How to change your career path to an impactful one
  • Talking to PMs who are working towards global and social good

Product People Care About Big Problems

Product professionals naturally care about solving problems, because it’s what the job is all about! Product Management is about facing problems or pain points, no matter how big or small, and building the right solutions for them.

But what about the biggest problems that the world is facing? How do product people respond to those?

Last year we ran a survey on The Future of Product Management. One of the things we asked was ‘what global problem would you like to contribute to solving as a product professional?‘ The results of which you can see below;

What global problem would you like to contribute to solving as a product professional?

Climate change, health, and poverty are the main topics that most surveyed product people want to be able to impact.

Global warming remains the most important issue on product people’s minds overall, perhaps because it’s the problem which seems to be the most ‘fixable’, with lots of small problems to be fixed on a local level, alongside the significant structural and governmental changes which need to be made.

Alongside global issues, product people are motivated to combat smaller scale issues affecting their own local communities.

Startups and Projects To Watch

We’d like to take the opportunity here to highlight those startups and initiatives which are using their powers of innovation to make their vision for a better world come into reality:

  1. OLIO: A soon-to-launch food sharing app that lets users share excess food with their neighbours, tackling food waste, hunger, and helping communities be more eco-friendly. They recently closed a $6M Series A funding round.
  2. Rubicon Global: Dubbed ‘the Uber for garbage’, this unicorn is tackling waste and helping individuals, companies, and cities to be more sustainable in the way they recycle. They have launched RubiconConnect, a desktop and mobile app which lets businesses more easily control their waste pickup.
  3. AquaSpy: This Australia based soil moisture monitoring system helps to manage water waste in agriculture.
  4. TransMetrics: This Eastern European startup provides cargo companies with data solutions to help make their operations more efficient, and therefore more eco-friendly. So far they have analyzed more than 1.2 billion shipments.
  5. A Starting Point: In a bid to make political discourse more accessible and less cluttered with misinformation, this US startup provides a video platform and app which allows elected officials from both sides to answer common questions in two minutes or less.
  6. Women In Tech: There are a whole host of projects, communities, and initiatives which promote women in the technology industry, and they deserve a list of their own. Women in Tech is the global movement with chapters worldwide.
  7. CILAR: Standing for the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism. Top tech leaders in Canada formed this coalition to influence and encourage the business landscape of Canada to be more than just ‘not-racist’, but to be actively anti-racist by confronting systemic racism.
  8. K Health: This free app uses AI technology and over a million verified sources to help users get a quick diagnosis, and connects them to an affordable healthcare professional.

This is just a tiny snapshot of the work being done across the tech industry at the moment, with hundreds more

How To Change Your Career Path To An Impactful One

If you’re very lucky, you’re already working on a product that you love, with a development team that holds the same impactful product vision as you do. Whether that involves lowering carbon emissions in a particular industry, creating an app that helps everyday people make better choices, or working with a city to tackle local issues.

But maybe you’re an aspiring Product Manager who is still looking to land their first role, or you’re stuck working on a product that doesn’t face the causes you care about the most.

(It goes without saying that you don’t have to make facing these issues your day job. If you’re already doing something that you enjoy, don’t feel pressured to change. Later on, we’ll go into how you can make a difference alongside your 9-5 work.)

Here are the steps to take if you want to make your life’s work all about positive social and global change:

  1. Think about which issue matters to you the most. This can be hard when it seems like everything is equally important at once! If it helps, write out a list of the changes you most want to see happen in the next 30 years. If there’s an overarching theme, you may have found your industry already.
  2. Look at how your own strengths and experiences can benefit the cause. You may have worked in an industry or discipline which aligns with the problem you want to face. For example, PMs who have worked on FitBit may have already dipped their toes into the HealthTech world.
  3. Find projects which align with your goals on a local and global level. Make a list of the main companies which tackle the same problem you want to solve. It could be a branch of a larger company. For example, Microsoft have a number of initiatives that actively work on aspects of corporate sustainability and responsibility.
  4. Aim both low and high. When thinking of companies to apply to, don’t worry about getting your dream job on your first try. Using the example of Microsoft, if there’s a project you desperately want to work on, but which currently isn’t hiring, go for a different role within Microsoft. In the future you’ll be more likely to be given the opportunity to transition. That being said, if you’re slightly under-experienced for your dream job, go for it! If you’re passionate about the product and have at least the minimum skills required, you’ve still got a good chance.
  5. Network and find a mentor. If you know of someone fairly influential, or at least actively working in the space you’re aiming for, reach out see if they’d be open to mentoring you. Product professionals are famous lovers of giving back to the community, and there’s no harm in asking.
  6. Keep up to date on industry trends. Social media can be a great tool for useful information, if you’re looking in the right places. Find industry and product leaders who are outspoken on the issues you care about, and who run the companies/projects/initiatives that you also want to work on. Follow them on LinkedIn or Twitter to stay up to date.

PMs Who Are Working on Positive Change

Our community is full of fantastic product people who are harnessing their skills and energy for positive change, be it in their work or in their spare time. We got to speak to a few about their efforts;

Alexander Hipp, Product Manager at N26 and Co-Founder of Riptide

Alexander Hipp

Alexander Hipp, who appeared on our podcast earlier this year, is a Product Manager at N26 in Barcelona and co-founder of the well-loved PM Library.

He’s also passionate about the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans, which is why he co-founded Riptide, a company which aims to turn ocean plastic into products.

How would you summarize your mission at Riptide?

We create and share solutions to reduce plastic waste in our oceans. By developing and marketing eco-friendly and sustainable products made from ocean plastic, we contribute to an enhanced circular economy and draw attention to the problem of marine pollution. 

When did you decide that you were going to actively tackle ocean pollution?

I believe that some of the smartest people on this planet work in the tech industry. A lot of them are spending their time and knowledge on problems that solely help companies to sell more stuff to their users that they don’t necessarily need. Instead the could work on solving the really big problems humanity is facing like climate change, pollution, poverty, etc.

The 20th century has been the century of growth and rapid expansion, let’s make the 21st the century of meaning and values. We are not going to change the world with Riptide but if we can help to educate and showcase that you don’t need to be a big corporate to drive change, we already won. Living in Barcelona and close to the beach (that is still pretty clean in comparison to the hotspots for ocean pollution like beaches in Thailand or the Maldives) has also changed my perception on ocean pollution as well. The beaches and sea in the Mediterranean sea are still quite good but if we don’t protect them, that can change quickly.  

Graph of social issues in product

What can professional people do to tackle the issues they care about, outside of founding their own company?

The most important thing is educate yourself. What is currently happening with our waste, what are the companies and products that support our environment rather than destroy it. Be more conscious of what and from where you are buying. Don’t user single-use plastics and most important spread the word. Last weekend I took part in the World Cleanup Days and presented Riptide. Another talk was about the production and quality of chocolate production. I learned so much in those 20 minutes and will see chocolate now in a very different light. If we get every person on the planet to think more about their own eco footprint and how they can improve it we have already won a lot. 

Feel free to check out our website https://www.riptide.eco/ or follow us on social media. We are currently also building our own physical product made from recycled ocean plastic: https://www.riptide.eco/our-products.

Feel free to contact me or send questions to alex@riptide.eco

Louise Bernstein, Group Product Manager at HubSpot and Speaker for the Ada Lovelace Initiative

Louise Bernstein

Louise Bernstein is a Group Product Manager at HubSpot, where she works hard to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and included within her teams. With the Ada Lovelace Initiative, which connects female Transition Year students with female role models, she promotes the inclusion of women in STEM.

What do you see as the biggest problem facing women in tech today?

Tech has a branding problem which hampers women being attracted into tech in the first place. While tech companies are seen as fun to work for, the technical roles within them are perceived as solitary (picture a lone wolf coder) and inaccessible, separate disciplines to other career paths. Instead we need to position tech as a creative, social discipline that women would thrive in, and how tech can be moved into from an existing career path. We need to shout about the wide array of stimulating roles that fall under the umbrella of ‘tech’, and how those roles benefit from people’s SME in all business disciplines, design, behavioural physiology, you name it.

We also need to break the stereotype of tech roles being solitary, because if our teams are not problem solving by talking with our customers (with empathy) and amongst a diverse set of colleges throughout the day (with psychological safety), nothing gets solved well. We need to turn the old tech brand on its head so more women see themselves at home and thriving in this world. 

What projects can product people take on to combat gender inequality (things like Ada Lovelace Initiative etc)

There is so much in this question from gender neutral job descriptions to flexible working hours to showcasing how gender balance makes economic sense. I do a lot of talking in schools and universities to break down stereotypes about tech and showcase the creative opportunities women/girls could have in shaping the future of tech.

I am still stunned how few know about roles outside of engineering. There are many projects you can take on, but so much can be done through day-to-day actions that shape the culture within in a team/workplace – amplifying another woman’s voice if she has been spoken over, creating an environment where people can bring their full selves to work by normalizing and celebrating diversity and where people operate with psychological safety.  

What positive changes would you personally like to see happen for women, LGBT+, POC, and others in the next 10 years? 

Philosophically – When diversity is understood as a strategic and economic advantage, not only because it’s the right thing to do.

Action – Paid maternity and paternity/secondary carer leave in the US.  

Louise Bernstein giving a talk

Do you have any words of encouragement for women looking to get into Product?

There is a large woman-shaped jigsaw piece missing from how our future is being shaped! We are immersed in tech ALL day, yet women are a small percentage of the people that influence how that tech impacts our lives. Not only do we need you, but if you want to drive positive change for how people run their day in their workplace or at home, technology is your fastest way to do that. Come on in, the water’s warm!

Taking Action: Your Next Steps

If you’re feeling inspired and ready to start working on the problems that inspire you to action, it’s time to think about your next steps. Here are some ideas:

  1. Launch your very own side project. (We’ve also been over how to crowdfund it.)
  2. Join our Product Management community to start networking and find like-minded PMs.
  3. Look out for different hackathons aimed at global issues to join if you have some tech skills.
Proddy Awards

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