Different Transitions into PM with Zillow Senior Product Manager

This week, Product School hosted Alexander Shashko, Sr Product Manager at Zillow, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Alexander answered questions on the technical skills needed by PMs, tactical vs strategic, and what to do when your revenue goes down.

Alexander Shashko, Senior Product Manager at Zillow

Meet Alexander

Alexander is a Senior Product Manager with expertise in data science, transportation, and strategy. Currently working at Zillow, he develops a Machine Learning-based pricing model for Zillow Offers, leading a scientist and ML Engineers team.

Before this, Alexander was a Senior Manager at Voom, an on-demand helicopter service company; he built a roadmap and lead the development of network planning and analytics tools with internal and external teams for multiple countries. During his time at Amazon as a Senior Product Manager, he developed topology planning tools from idea to launch, unlocking $200MM in incremental annual revenue and shipping world-class optimization, prediction, and sensitivity analysis tools. 

How is Zillow looking ahead to provide users with more value, and drive users to your platform as opposed to some of your competition?

Good question! I cannot fully represent Zillow plans here, but I can see two directions:

  1. Keep improving listing quality, provide better recommendations, and connect with better agents to keep adding value to Z visitors. Network effects also part of it.
  2. As a part of Zillow 2.0, we are becoming part of the transaction. You can buy and sell home from Z, get a mortgage, etc. We want to make real estate transactions as smooth as possible

I work in professional services org and I want to pursue Product management. Is this a common path that you see in the market, moving from services to a PM role?

I am not sure there is a one single or common path to PM. I worked in consulting before and know some people with professional services background. It is definitely possible but you need to show ownership and desire for impact.

What is your favorite digital product? 

Hmm! I guess it changes all the time. Lately, got excited about Spotify recommendation system, especially as they move to lossless audio tier.

We just starting to build our own apps (on Salesforce), and we don’t have any product management capability for now. What your best advice for me on what NOT to do ?

Do not build anything for yourself (unless you are Steve Jobs and know people will follow). Start with the customer pain.

What’s the hardest part about being a PM? What’s the biggest pain point for you in your role? In other words, what keeps you up at night?

Hardest part for me is to remember that you are not the builder (engineers and scientists are). The biggest pain point is prioritization of my own time as we have to say no to reasonable proposals sometimes.

I usually try to get a decent sleep at night, so mostly bugs in prod that affect customers.

Were you involved at all in crafting the elevator pitch for Zillow how did you approach this when pitching investors ?

No, Zillow was founded in 2004. But, two-sided marketplaces are a good value propositions. I would probably start with TAM and identifying growth strategy. Usually, it’s more difficult to attract one side than the other, so you need to have a plan to kickstart before the network effects kick in.

white and grey concrete building near swimming pool under clear sky during daytime

What are some technical skills you think all Product Managers should have?

Hmm. I’d say it depends on the product and team/company. You definitely need more tech skills to develop a distributed systems product than some consumer goods. Generally, you need to be able to communicate effectively with your dev team and with your customers. But they probably did not hire you to actually code…

You might also be interested in: Product Managers and Technical Skills…What’s The Deal?

How often do you have to, in your PM role, switch between wearing a strategic vs tactical hat? Which atttibutes of a good PM would come in handy for each of these outlooks at Zillow?

All the time. You own the vision and roadmap for the product (so strategy is important) but you also care about the execution and remove blockers.
I’d say, teamwork and ability to bring everyone together is really important for Z. You need to deliver results in the end, but we also care how you did that.

What would you build a big solution that works for a small population or a small solution that works for masses and why?

Hmm. Interesting question. Need more data – (how big/small)
I think it helps to develop some generalist approach (be good at both) before you can figure out where you can add more value. But, most PMs dream of starting our own company that should probably fall in the first category…

Can writers transition to product management?

I have seen people with very different background. You need to show passion for tech and building products. If you launch an app or blog for writers and get customers that might be a great story to tell the companies.

Any recommendations about a new product that you use but is not used by many?

Does anyone still use RSS? I often try and use different productivity tools (latest – Tab Manager Plus extension) and I can see they are not very popular in app stores.

What are some of the few important things an Associate Product Manager should focus on while starting their journey?

Talk with different people and learn as much as possible (you can see very different approaches might lead to success). Be nice with your dev team. Deliver results. See if you like this job.

Check out: Everything You Need to Know about APM Programs

Any advice on transitioning to another PM position in a completely different sector?

It’s usually way easier to do within the same company. However, most skills are perfectly transferable and you can get 80% there by learning the main metrics for the new sector and how they make money. Then, network and have a story for hiring manager on how you can hit the ground running in this different sector.

What are some of the things that you look at when suddenly one day you see the revenue going down?

You segment by revenue streams/markets/etc. until you find the source and then then find the optimal solution to fix it. I’d check Facebook execution interview prep and/or consulting cases.

My 5-yr goal is to build products that makes a huge impact. What advice would you have for me in terms of next steps in my career?

Yes, the scope will probably be different: a narrow problem with larger $ at stake for a large company. I think next steps are guided by your longer term goals. If you prefer stability and consistent growth you go to a large company. If you want to launch your startup one day you might want to join a small team and grow with them.

How do start about thinking on implementing something completely new?

That’s the most exciting part!

Seriously, you might want to start with the customer and confirm this is the right solution for the problem (why no one did it before?) Then you need to figure out what MVP will allow to test this hypothesis with minimal resources. You need to know which decisions are one-way doors and where you can be more opportunistic.

Any last words of advice?

Treat you career as a product (some would argue this is the most important product). Find what are the customer needs and how they change over time, build your brand and communication strategy, and keep improving it.

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