This week our #AskMeAnything session welcomed Christine Hettinger, former Product Manager at Havenly!
Meet Christine Hettinger
Christine Hettinger is currently a Senior Product Manager at Guild Education. Previously, she was working with Havenly as a Product Manager. Christine started her career in the Marketing realm and made the transition into Product Management internally at Ibotta. Curious about how Product Managers have broken into and mastered their roles? Then join our Product Management Slack Community and ask them!
The Product Management Career
Would you mind sharing what you most like and dislike about your job as a PM?
Sure! I think what I most like about being a PM is the constant problem solving you get to do. Working at startups means that you are always working with a lot of constraints, whether it be the number of engineers on your team, designer capacity, funding, ops limitations, etc. I think working within those constraints results in some very fun and interesting problem-solving.
I think what I find most difficult as a PM, is the need to be ahead so you’re able to steer the engineering team in the right direction, but constantly feeling behind. Balancing the number of meetings I attend and being ruthless in prioritizing my time is a constant struggle.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given during your career as a Product Manager?
I think the advice to involve stakeholders early and often is the best advice I’ve ever been given. When I first started out, I tried to do everything in a vacuum and all by myself and needless to say I failed miserably. What I failed to realize is that others in the organization typically love getting involved in product decisions (whether it’s running a survey for you, pulling metrics, or just weighing in), and not only do you leave with a better solution than what you may have started with, but also with a bunch of cheerleaders who are truly bought into the solution.
Could you share some failures you overcame as a Product Manager and how did you handle those scenarios?
Definitely. I will say one failure that sticks out in my mind was early on in my career when I was more of an “order taker.” I had a severe case of imposter syndrome and was intimidated by working with the executive team so closely for the first time and would just take their ideas at face value and have the engineering team build them.
What I have learned over time is:
- You will be much more respected if you take the time to validate assumptions, ask the stakeholder what problem this aims to solve (particularly if they are the CEO or similar level this can be very hard but very important to do) and if they would be open to testing some other solutions.
- Your engineers will be happier in the long term. There’s nothing an engineer hates more than hearing the story “we’re building this because X stakeholder wants it.”
I have been a Product Manager for 2 years and I’m wondering what is the best way to boost my career?
This is a good question. I think, if in terms of boosting your career you mean getting a promotion from PM to Senior PM or Director of PM, it’s about being really honest with where you are, where you want to go, and what’s stopping you from getting there. For me, the “what’s stopping me from getting there” was a number of things, and I’ll be really specific about them.
At Ibotta, I had grown with the company, from being fresh out of college to nearly 30 years old. In that situation, I struggled with internal perceptions that I wasn’t actually as senior as I was. In that case, I worked with my manager to start product demos so I was able to speak in front of the entire company. I took outside speaking opportunities to practice my speaking skills and took ownership over my area of the roadmap even though I was the most junior person on the team.
Sometimes, you might find yourself in a situation where you have a manager that is not helping grow your career. In those cases, I’ve worked really hard to find a good mentor that was going to push me outside my comfort zone, be brutally honest with me, and give me outside perspective to keep me grounded.
Product Management Skills
How much time do you spend on marketing, sales, tech, operations, etc?
I really like this question because I don’t think there is one right answer in how a PM should be splitting their time. In all of my previous PM roles, we have been split up by “theme” or stage in the funnel, so someone who is focused on conversion will spend a larger chunk of their time focusing and working with the marketing team, whereas someone who is focused on internal tools will be heavily involved in operations.
In my previous role at Havenly (I’ve only been at Guild a week so I can’t yet speak to that!), I spent about 50% of my time working with tech, 30% of my time working with ops, and about 20% of my time interfacing with external partners (i.e. Airbnb). But I want to note that depending on your role within the PM team, these %’s can look entirely different.
What Product Manager muscles have you developed from being a Product Manager at 3 different places?
I love this question!
- Gaining trust from the team (stakeholders & engineers) – and I think I developed this over time just by truly hearing out their concerns. If people know you are taking a holistic view and are considering their concerns, you will gain a lot of trust and respect quickly.
- Getting shit done. At Havenly, we built a ton of features over my time there, and I was able to get alignment, scope, and create story maps (create user stories/JIRA tickets with the help of the engineering team) really quickly.
- Picking my battles. Knowing what is worth fighting for and what isn’t is important. There are some things that are shovel-ready and can be implemented just as the stakeholder has suggested, but there are others that are really worth validating and spending the time to unpack.
I am fairly new to the Product Manager role and wanted to know how to overcome the balancing act that comes with the job without getting burnt out?
This one is tricky. On the one hand, you want to work hard and prove yourself, but on the other hand, you need to make sure you have enough energy to take on the next project once this one finishes. My best advice is to try to set up boundaries as much as you can. There are weekends I’ve worked from home, there are days I’ve stayed at the office until 8, but it’s not the norm, and I know it can’t be.
I would also say a common mistake I see other Product Managers making is taking on too much. It’s okay to delegate, it’s okay to ask for help, and it’s okay to tell your manager when you know the quality will suffer due to the number of things on your plate. A perfectly valid thing to always ask is “can you help me prioritize this list?”
Would you recommend any certifications like ‘Certified Scrum Product Owner’ to enhance one’s ability to be an effective Product Manager?
I’m a little biased in this, but I highly recommend learning SQL. Being able to pull your own data, find a user to test it with, quickly fact check something, is incredibly empowering and keeps you from being blocked by the analytics team (which is a common problem in my experience), which in turn slows down the decision making process to act or not act on something.
With a number of gigs under your belt, do you have any advice about how to quickly come up to speed in a new environment, company, or team? Any “go to” tools, habits, or techniques?
Meet with as many people as you can and get invited to meetings. These can both be really awkward but, as someone who is going through this now, I’ve found it to be really effective!
Attending meetings, you’ll get to:
- Get a good read on the culture. What role does Product Management play and how do other PM’s navigate their meetings?
- Get a good read on who cares about what, and what everyone seems to be aligned on.
- Get a good understanding of who is an important stakeholder for what, and who might be hard to get buy-in from when you need it.
Setting up meetings with people you’ll:
- Get awkward intros out of the way. People will know you exist and why you’re here!
- Get a diverse perspective on any number of things. I like to ask: “what makes a successful PM at X company,” “what is the number one thing you think can be improved in X focus area,” and “how can I be a good product partner to you and your team.”
- Get to understand how each person fits into your day-to-day.
During planning meetings, do you have any advice about how to keep the team focused while also making sure they don’t feel like their ideas are not welcome?
If you don’t already, I might suggest having these meetings at a higher level first (typically with the leadership team) to understand what the goals are for the quarter or year and then work backward from there.
We just held a “How might we” session where, in a structured way with startup post-it notes, we were all able to contribute ideas on how we might improve a part of our process where we know users are getting stuck. From there we set the vision (we will have been successful if…), metrics, and research plan.
From there you can then start to suss out tactics on a gird from the effort to impact. Sometimes it can help to have smaller meetings and then come together as a larger group. When the group is too large, it can be hard to make any real progress. If you have a Technology Lead/Engineering Manager, Head of UX or Lead Designer, I would start by inviting them to the executive planning meetings. They can then be the ambassador for their respective teams instead of putting the weight all on you. We started doing that and it helped immensely.
Can you recommend or share key metrics you’ve been measured by or against as a PM? I’ve heard this can be a bit tricky, and I am curious to learn what you’ve experienced or can suggest.
As a Product Manager, I’ve always been measured against the metrics related to my focus area. For example, when I was a PM focused on getting users to pay for a design package (convert), I was measured on what % of users were converting and how far away I was from that goal.
I definitely suggest aligning what you’re measured against with your key focus area. Some soft goals we’ve had as a team is to run more A/B tests, talk to users more often, iterate instead of stopping at MVP, but I’ve never really been measured against those.
Product Management Transition
I’m curious about your transition from Marketing to Product: What was the most crucial skill you had to add to your marketing skill set to enable it?
I think the relentless testing and not being afraid to try things and fail was the most valuable skill I gained from my marketing career. Testing (and failing) marketing campaign tests is not unlike testing (and failing) a new product idea, so I think that curiosity and resilience have served me well.
What is your advice to those looking to transition into Product Management? How do we get experience without being directly in the PM role now?
I transitioned into Product Management from the analytics team, but there’s no one right career path to get you there. How I was eventually able to transition over is that I volunteered for a project that (at the time I didn’t realize) required a lot of Product Management skills and process. For me, we as a company were struggling with the infrastructure that we had, and because I was pretty tenured at the company, I volunteered (with the blessing and endorsement from my manager) to explore improving this.
If you have a good relationship with your manager, my recommendation is to let him/her know what your career goals are and that given the opportunity, you’d like to dip your toes in a Product Management project. Hopefully, they will be all for it. I will say with other PM’s that I’ve worked with it does seem like it is easier to transition into the role if you already have a good track record at your current company.