This week, Product School hosted Melissa Hutchins, Product Leader at Expedia, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Melissa dropped wisdom about how to communicate with stakeholders, get clarity on projects, and putting yourself in the customer’s shoes.
Melissa Hutchins is an Expedia Product Leader working to create the best user experience possible. She is currently leading the BEX Lodging Shopping team where she advocates for her customer by leveraging data and insights to make the best decisions for maximum impact. Before this, she was a PM working on their EG Employee Travel Discounts program. Melissa has also spent time empowering young women leaders as an active member of GenHERation.
What advice would you give for someone with a tech background trying to transition to PM in the tech industry?
As far as transitioning from a tech background into a PM role, you have an upper hand in the sense that you already have a large relevant skill set to bring to the table. The thing I would focus on is gaining as much of a Product mindset as you can. Product Managers are primarily utilizing a user-centric approach and always focusing first on the customer. That shift in mindset is imperative for being a successful PM!
What has been the most frequent cause of miscommunication between stakeholders (especially between technical and non-technical ones)?
I’ve often seen the most miscommunication between PMs and engineering when there aren’t enough clarification questions ask from the initial phases of a project. For example, the PM didn’t fully understand the technical architecture of a system but was hesitant to ask for a high level explanation (usually in fear of asking an “obvious” question).
The golden rule I have for avoiding miscommunication is having CLARITY over COMFORT even if it feels daunting in the moment. Being sure to clarify any uncertainties with engineers/technical when they first come up so you’re on the same page with you team
Product has 2 major phases: 1. Gathering feedback, requirements and creating the user stories (basically everything pre development). 2. Actual development. What are best practices for PMs in the development phase?
I believe what has helped me the most in the development phase of a project is making sure is making sure I’m fully on the same page with engineering for what’s required from their side to accomplish our product goals (understanding the technical details).
I’d also make sure to build awareness of any potential blockers that might come up in the development phase. As a PM, you could do all the planning in the world but down the line in the development, there are unexpected challenges that may be out of your control (example larger org. changes). Being aware of any blockers from the get-go and proactively adjusting in ambiguous (often unexpected) situations.
How do you identify impactful solutions to your product?
If I’m ever finding myself to be stuck in creating solutions, I will always go back to the core problem, make sure to separate my own biases and put myself in the users’ reality. It’s the job of a PM to put your users first and foremost, even if we may have different needs.
How can I showcase I’m ready for Senior PM work?
Making the shift to a Senior PM would involve becoming more active in not only your Product team but also broader stakeholders including Design and Engineering. You’ll need to showcase yourself as someone a junior PM (for example) can come to for advice. I would seek out mentorship opportunities and ways to display your leadership skills in the Product space.
Which idea/feature validation method do you prefer to use most and why?
My primary method of confirming success of an idea/feature is through the customer data being collected in the testing/launch phase. While the Metrics will vary depending on the goal, having those metrics clearly defined prior to any test and then highlighting customer data based on those metrics is my primary gauge of product success.
I am aiming for a lateral transfer into Product from engineering. What would be the best way for me to hone and showcase my product-related skillset to my Product Manager to get an opportunity to work on some tasks?
Awesome to hear you’re interest in Product
If you’re comfortable, I would first talk with your manager to see what opportunities exist within your company to make this transition into a Product role. I think having transparency in your career goals with leadership is extremely important for both you and leaders. However, if you don’t feel comfortable for whatever reason, I’d look for open PM roles within your company and if the info is available, reach out to the hiring manager letting them know you’re interested in making this transition. Be sure to highlight your Product skills and express your eagerness to grow more in this space! It’s much easier in my opinion for an Engineer to make the transition into Product than it is in the reverse as there are so many relevant technical skills to be utilized in a Product position.
What motivated you to become a Product Manager?
It really all started out of curiosity! I always had a very entrepreneurial mindset and really loved solving problems as well as seeing the impact it had on my users. This initially started from a small startup I had when I was younger. I had no idea that Product Management was even a job until I got out of college and attended a PM seminar that really sparked my interest! I’ll add in the link to my recent Product School Webinar that details my Journey into Product Management. Check it out if you have time
What do you like the most about your job?
A loaded question! There are many things I love about building products but the key ones would be:
- I’m constantly being forced outside of my comfort zones and pushed to embrace/learn from my “failures.”
- Seeing the impact from our users and effectively solving problems they may not have even been aware of! Really just creating the best possibly experience and seeing the results in real-time
How do Product Managers in Expedia interact with Product Marketing team?
At Expedia, I’ve built Products/Product Features for Lodging Shopping specifically (Expedia.com), so most of the work didn’t involve Marketing. We’d build new features, test them and decide whether or not we’d roll-out the Control (existing experience) or the Variant (change being made).
This may be different in various areas of the company but we mainly are focusing on how to create the best user experience possible and making it available asap. We are not really involved much on the marketing side of things unless we’re doing something like an email campaign or analyzing why a feature may not have resonated with our users (example: bounce rate, engagement).
What strategies do you use to show the most value when demo-ing new product features?
Super important question! I always want to be sure to get super crisp on the Why and the What for our new product/product features. Why are we doing this? What is the goal? What are the gaps that we’re not solving today?
Really going back to the core problem our customer is facing in the current experience. Once I have those identified and clear, I will always try to tie whatever we’re doing back to how it solves the initial Why & What questions. For example, if I’m presenting the product value or making a product pitch, I’ll summarize at the end Why this solution ties back to our customer goals.
Is it normal for PM’s to analyze every interaction they have with products outside or work?
Totally normal! I find myself doing this all the time. Especially if I’m reacting strongly to a particular experience (positively or… not so positively ).I find this useful to bring into my own work as it’s become almost an instinct to put myself in the customers shoes when considering the impact our product will have on the overall user experience/what emotions we might drive.
Have you ever launched a new feature or a product that has failed to deliver on goals and expectations? How did you recover from it? What’s your process for dealing with this kind of situation?
So short answer… yes!
One experience I had was running a feature that was extremely successful on one of our lodging brands (hotels.com) but wasn’t currently on Expedia.com. I won’t say what exact feature but basically everyone around me was telling me just to roll it out on Expedia seeing that it’d already shown huge wins for hotels.com. I erred on the side of caution and advocated to run a test first before rolling out and I’m glad I did! The feature ended up performing slightly negatively when run on Expedia even though it was a big winner for hotels.com. The takeaway here is to limit the amount of assumptions you’re making. Making assumptions that your product will lean one way or another (without testing first) is incredibly risky! While we lost a little bit on the A/B test, it would’ve been way worse/more complicated if I decided to roll out first.As far as recovering, my best advice would be to:
- Take ownership – if a feature fails or doesn’t turn out as expected, people will be looking to you to provide data and quick action to prevent any further bad experiences.
- Be open and transparent – share the data behind the results and frame this as a useful learning as opposed to a “failure”.
- Have a plan forward – be sure to follow up with action items as well as key learnings you’ll apply towards future iterations.