This week Product School hosted Zachary Wagner, Senior VP of Product Strategy and Operations at EVERFI, for an #AskMeAnything session. Zachary touched on the Product atmosphere at EVERFI and what frameworks utilized to develop product strategy.
Meet Zachary Wagner
As Senior Vice President of Product Strategy and Operations, Zach is responsible for driving operational excellence across an 80 person team of Product Managers, project managers, learning designers, visual designers, and developers. With a long history in both the Education and Technology space, Zach is also responsible for leading innovation efforts and strategic product portfolio growth, ensuring alignment with topline business and impact goals.
During his tenure at EVERFI, Zach has led the expansion of the K12 product line from 3 products with an annual reach of around 500,000 students, to 25 products with an annual reach of over 3 million students across the U.S. and Canada. His work has been at the center of key partnerships with the NHL, NFL, United Way, Navy Seals Foundation, MassMutual, and Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn. He holds a Master’s in Education from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Philosophy and Art from Vassar College.
When you’ve hired for EVERFI in the past what skillsets for PMs are you looking for? What can help candidates stand out in interviews?
One of the fundamental skillsets for any product manager is communication. As a product manager, your responsibility is to be able to separate the signal from the noise and demonstrate the value of decisions you’re making based on that synthesis. The last thing you want is for people to be confused about your decision-making, so I look for people who can demonstrate how to tell a coherent story.
I would also like to understand your process for developing product strategy into roadmaps and whether you use a “play book” in any way.
There are a lot of different frameworks and processes you can use in developing a roadmap that delivers on product strategy. We don’t use a “playbook” per se. Truthfully, developing a roadmap can be just as iterative as developing a product. You have to test a lot of different formats to see what works in communicating the right level of information to your stakeholders.
This year we experimented with a new process based on conversations we had with some larger product companies. We break our process into what needs to happen on a yearly, quarterly, and monthly basis.
- At the yearly level, we set our product strategy. This should stay at a fairly high altitude and consist of the 1-3 objectives and metrics you intend for your product.
- At the quarterly level, we set the roadmap, which I would define as the core activities that need to happen to satisfy your product strategy and objectives.
- At the monthly level, we do roadmap reviews to understand how we are executing against our roadmap. This is the opportunity to identify any risks and make any trade-offs that need to happen based on new opportunities.
In an organization where the concept of product management is alien, how can we introduce the product management practice without bursting any bubbles?
I highly doubt you’re alone in this! Product management is such an evolving function and I think a lot of times unless a company was founded by a product person, product management looks a lot more like project management. That’s not a bad thing, and project management is certainly critical, but you do have to find ways to communicate the difference.
How you go about doing this will depend on a lot of variables, including the responsibility purview of existing functions, the size of the firm, and the talent you have on the bench. I would think about what “crawl, walk, run” looks like in the context of your own company.
What is your definition of Product Operations?
Product operations is definitely a newer function within product management. For us, it’s about creating and fine-tuning the systems, practices, and metrics by which we produce high-quality products.
How do you collect and analyze customer feedback at EVERFI? What tools do you use, and do your PMs conduct customer interviews / how often?
Our frontline teams are sometimes the best for synthesizing and sharing customer feedback. We’re always trying to get better about optimizing the channels for getting the right feedback back to us. We primarily use Salesforce for our Sales and CS team to share customer feedback indirectly, or we’ll use one of our monthly roadmap reviews.
We also do have our PMs conduct customer interviews and often sit in on sales calls. That happens a few times a month. The closer your PMs can get to your customers, the better.
In your opinion, what role does domain expertise play in how successful a product manager is?
Domain expertise is an important building block and will help you short-circuit a lot of information synthesis that would otherwise require many conversations. However, domain expertise is also a skill that can be attained over time. It’s helpful if you’re transitioning into a PM role, but once you’re there, I’d really focus on the functional aspects of product management as a discipline. Learning to gather feedback, create value through products that solve emerging customer needs–that’s where the expertise of product management really lives.
Could you describe how “getting to know your customer” differs in the education industry compared to other verticals?
I think it looks the same actually. Every user has a problem they’re trying to solve or a job they’re trying to do.
If you were a new PM in a large organisation working with a team which had several moving parts – and were hired during the execution phase (design has been firmed up, some features have already been built) – what would you do in the first few days?
I’d start by understanding the rationale behind the decisions that have already been made. I’d talk to all team members and understand their part in the process. Get the whole picture before you begin executing. It’s rare that all requirements are so neatly wrapped as to not have any ambiguity. Understanding the big picture and everything that went into the requirements will help with navigating that ambiguity during execution.
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