This week our #AskMeAnything session welcomed Sarah Morgan, Senior Product Manager at EverTrue, to talk about Product Management at EverTrue and the different routes for making the PM transition.
Sarah began her professional career in financial services as an Advisor Services Associate. Shortly after, she started attaining various Software Specialist and Engineering positions in Information Services until she took up the role of Senior Quality Assurance Analyst at Deloitte.
In recent years, Sarah has also been responsible for communication and collaboration as Product Manager at various enterprises, ultimately serving at EverTrue, a leading advancement software that connects institutional data with dynamic insights from LinkedIn, Facebook, Zillow and more.
Sarah is also a featured speaker at Product School where she shares her experience and innovative approach to building successful products and solving hard customer problems creatively and elegantly. She ventures to keep building innovative, engaging, interactive and customer-driven features and products that users love.
How do you approach project delays and still meet deadlines?
Great question, and a very tricky one. I will say that we do not always meet deadlines, but staying tightly engaged with all your stakeholders along the way helps a lot because you can communicate and set expectations.
In the event that you have to make a cut somewhere, having that tight relationship helps you solicit the feedback you need to make the tough decisions. Also, be sure your team is well aware of your commitments and bought in on delivering them!
How did you go about the product design phase for EverTrue? Given that it surfaces insights from different sources.
We take an iterative approach to new product design, starting with the problem we are trying to solve. We validate the problem via interviews and research and then start with lower fidelity designs/workflows. We continually evolve these with stakeholders in the loop and try to start very small with feature delivery so we can iterate quickly.
What would you say are the most important skills for a Product Manager, based on your experience?
Good listening abilities, flexibility, and empathy are the things I rely on the most with emphasis on listening. You have to REALLY hear what people are saying to be able to dig deeper into the root of the problem so you take action on the right things.
What are the things you consider first whenever a new feature is to be released?
For releases, we consider if we are introducing any breaking changes to our existing customers so that we can be sure they are informed first of all. We also want to be sure that it’s going to be exciting for sales/marketing, that they are in the loop and have what they need to communicate outward.
I also want to be sure that internally my CSM/Ops teams have appropriate training/documentation to provide any support needed for the new features. We also use in-app cues to let our users know about new releases.
How do you tackle misalignment between various stakeholders of the product team?
This is always a balancing act, but transparency in all of your decision making will help a lot. You want to allow stakeholders insight into your roadmap and priorities, and always be able to answer questions about those. You also have to be an advocate for your own roadmap and resources when you are running into dependencies internally – this is when you have to put on your lawyer hat and go to bat for what you need.
Remember that’s it’s often a give and take and you need to help others get unblocked as much as you need to unblock your own team. Building consensus across stakeholders with competing agendas is challenging and requires a lot of good communication!
Splunk, Tableau, Mixpanel or Home Grown Solution for collecting user data in b2b product space?
I’ve used all of these, and my personal opinion is that you need to know why you are collecting data if you want data to be useful. Too often product people are collecting data for the sake of data collection – start with the answers you need and then think about the tools/data that helps you get there, not the other way around.
As someone new to the field, what should one highlight in the job search? How would you suggest us to build our resume when we have a stronger focus on strategy rather than on technical side?
Highlight a customer-centric approach to problem-solving! Product people are often the only voice the customer has, so being able to adopt that mindset is critical. I also look for good communication skills as well as some exposure to working across stakeholders. There is no right or wrong patch to product management, you can make your experience tell the story you want!
Lots of PMs are more strategically focused, so don’t worry about that. Highlight your strengths and look for roles that will be a good fit (e.g. if SQL skills are required, maybe not the best fit) but don’t be afraid to apply for jobs outside of your comfort zone. You’ll be amazed at how much you can learn on the job.
In your opinion, What are some of the caveats that a Product Manager should think of when doing a customer interview?
For newer product managers, one of the hardest things is managing customer expectations. Customers can get excited when sharing ideas with you and then expect their input to show up in your next release. You have to frame these conversations carefully so as not to be misleading.
It can also be hard to keep these convos on track, I find that every time I do an interview I feel a little more comfortable so just get out there and spend as much time with your customers as you can.
Many people enter as PMs from adjacent roles. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make during your journey from an analyst to a PM?
To be honest, I thought product managers had much more autonomous decisions making about the roadmap and feature development than they really do. You’re going to spend more synthesizing information from an overwhelming number of signals and making decisions based on that then you ever will dreaming up big, disruptive ideas. I always say my best “ideas” come from other people – it’s knowing how to identify and reframe the good ones to suit your whole user base that’s the real challenge.
Could you share some experience and advice on how to share responsibilities between Product Management, design, business development, project management and COO? We’re struggling to find PMs role in the organization.
This may be a disappointing answer, but I think “product” has a different definition at each organization. I tend to believe that the product should ultimately own the roadmap and prioritization and definition of features. However, I’ve found it to be much more effective when I present these plans as a conversation and allow the other stakeholders to advocate for their own agendas rather than trying to “OWN” the decisions if that makes sense.
How did you get your PM break?
I got lucky (like many PMs I know). I interviewed at a company that did not have a very formal product organization, and they liked my attitude towards building software and working with engineering teams. I tried and failed to make the move internally at a company so I looked outside of my organization to find a role that suited me.
I am an MBA student and want to know what should be my first step towards my goal of becoming a PM.
It will depend a bit on your background prior to your MBA – I did business school after working in software for a while, but if you haven’t been in the product space much I have seen a lot of people start more on the business analyst side. I think the first thing to do is to find a role that will let you get up close and personal with the industry and its users, once you have a mastery of that you’re in a better position to become the voice of the customer in a product org.
What would you say a UX designer needs to focus most on in order to become a PM later?
I think the big challenge in that move is getting a higher-level view of the customer problems you are solving. I think a UX start for a PM is a great move, but you’ll have to learn how to abstract plans out to suit your whole customer base and prioritize them in a way that keeps you competitive and impactful.
Do you see challenges being different for B2B vs a B2C product?
Full disclosure, I’ve worked mostly in B2B. One of the things I can take for granted that a B2C PM cannot is that my users often HAVE to use my products. That means we can weight function over form in ways a B2C PM may not be able to.
For example, if I am presenting a user with data, the completeness of the data may be what my users need to get their job done, and I may decide to get that data to them in a way that isn’t as friendly as it could be if we spent more time on the design. I can do this because my users are contracted into my platform and I have the luxury of iterating on it without seeing a big drop off in usage.
With at-will customers, you have to be more focused on the impact you will have across a broad user base when you may not have your users locked in, and the personas may be more disparate than in an enterprise product.
I am a Healthcare IT professional looking to get into PM. My schooling is more clinical but I have been working as an Analyst on an EMR for 10+ years. What would you say is a good way to get the foot int the door?
I think you’re positioned well to transition into this sort of role. Start thinking about who the different stakeholders are and what kinds of problems they are challenged with on the day today. See if you can get involved in some of the projects that are user-focused and establish yourself as a subject matter expert who can also make critical decisions and thinking creatively about solving problems so you can highlight that you can reach beyond the data to understand the big picture.
I think when you want to make an internal move, showcasing how willing you are to take on work outside of your current role is a very positive thing to highlight and will help get you noticed as someone who will get things done.
If you were to start a new job as a product manager, what are some things you would do in the first days to acquaint yourself to the company, product and people?
Great question! I am a big believer in spending a week or two kinds of doing internal interviews and not trying to make any big sweeping changes right off the bat. Meet your stakeholders and ask them what they want from you, what they are struggling with, and what is working well. I truly believe you have to custom fit your approach to product management to fit an organization and team, if you take a dogmatic approach and try to force something that worked with your last team onto your new team, you may be met with resistance and be left wondering why it’s not working.
Also, get to know your users as soon as possible, go on demos, join training sessions, anything you can do to learn the users and the product will be time well spent!
Could you please provide an example where you had to solve the conflict being a PO?
There will always be a natural tension between priorities on your roadmap and people advocating for them. My most recent challenge has been with a feature our sales team really wants and would like to see prioritized over some work we are currently doing. While this conflict is not (and likely won’t be) “resolved” I continue to meet with sales and talk to them about their ideas and share with them the work we are doing and why.
The worst thing you can do is shut down lines of communication because you are tired of hearing the same thing, or people are being pushy. Just keep being transparent and sharing your process – you may have to do this forever but it’s worth it. Also, know when to say no. I’ve found that a firm “no” with appropriate backing data/reasoning goes a long way and is more satisfying than “not today” if you know it’s something you are never going to do.
As a PM (and when interviewing) when do you go for big, bold ideas vs incremental updates?
I think there is a time and place for both. When I started my career I felt like everything had to be big, bold, impactful features but realized that sometimes the most impactful things you can deliver are not the “biggest”. I think more importantly, what are the problems you’re trying to solve? Do they require a massive, bold, feature or change?
I have gravitated to simple, elegant, efficient approaches to problem-solving. That being said, don’t fall into the trap of being a feature factory where you’re doing tinkering all over the place. I like to plan my sprint/quarters with clear themes and goals in mind so we are making big impact in an area even if it’s with small changes. Flailing around all over the place will be frustrating and not a fun way to work for you or your team.
How do you manage communication when you’re weeks behind deadline and the PR has been released?
Over-communicate as much as possible and make yourself available for conversations even if they are unpleasant. Try as hard as possible not to surprise anyone with a delay. People will be more receptive if they have the heads up on delays.
Any tips on how to master first communication to anyone which lead to pitch ideas and sell your product?
Don’t lead with the pitch, ask questions first, then share a bit about yourself, then introduce your idea if it’s the right audience.
For B2B products, are there any PM metrics that are more important than others? How do you know if users like your product if they have to use it?
We still focus on usage metrics heavily, as well as doing use surveys and tracking our NPS scores. These are all good ways of keeping a general sense of how our users are feeling, and I do try to spend a lot of time with users, especially unhappy ones, to figure out what we can do to make them more satisfied.
I’m a QA professional myself looking to transition into PM. What skills do you think I should work on more that aligns with the PM role? Also, will a MBA help in the transition?
Big fan of QA! For me, getting comfortable with customers and understanding the bigger strategic picture were the things I had to work on the most. While I have an MBA, I don’t think it’s a requirement to be a good PM. I really believe you can use internal resources, or Product Manager training like Product School to help backfill anything you need to excel.
Do you have any last tips for aspiring PMs?
For aspiring PMs, dive in and pitch in where you can. I have answered support calls, done sales demos, and manned booths at conferences. Everything I’ve done has taught me something about the industry and my users, so roll up your sleeves and don’t get hung up about the job description – a good PM will be a jack of all trades and a resource for the rest of the company. Not only is it fun, it’s good for your job security to be a go-to colleague.