This week Shawn Leitner, former Product Manager at Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, returned for another #AskMeAnything session. Shawn discussed his extensive experience working in the public sector as an eCommerce Product Manager. He offered advice to aspiring Product Managers transitioning into the field from various backgrounds.
Meet Shawn Leitner
Shawn Leitner is a former eCommerce Product Manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. He specializes in developing digital product strategies that constantly try to improve the relations of the consumers with the company. For devising these strategies, Shawn thoroughly studies the demands of the customers, ongoing trends in the market, and data-driven analysis.
He works in alliance with business and tech stakeholders to give the best solutions for the company. He has been able to lead and take the product team to greater levels by increasing their influence on important decisions in the company. He has also worked as a Senior Business Analyst for Pay.gov where he developed and implemented high-value initiatives to make the vision and mission of the company a reality. He has experience in coordinating with the in-house development team and also outsourcing operations staff.
How is product work different in the public vs private sector?
Naturally, there are similarities and contrasts. The public sector has a significant budget constraint to it like the private sector is, but in the public sector, product features are not tied to revenue, and that’s the biggest difference.
When roadmapping and prioritizing features and products, you have to be creative in how to prioritize items because they don’t necessarily generate revenue. So you have to look at other metrics, like operational efficiencies, customer satisfaction, etc.
What have you learned as a PM that you wish you’d known when you started in this career?
There are two key aspects of being a PM that I would have told my past self:
- Soft skills to discuss challenges and opportunities with customers and clients, because the only way to build products that people will use/buy is to make the products and features valuable
- Negotiation skills to be able to negotiate not only with the customers and clients but internal stakeholders like engineering, testing, sales, marketing, etc. to ensure that the products and features we build are the ones that the entire organization agrees upon.
How is product management in ecommerce different from other tech companies?
In my opinion, eCommerce is an interesting space because on the outside it appears to be quite mature, but on the inside, it is quite the opposite, so there is still quite a bit of change in the domain. The difference between eCommerce vs. other domains is the fact that it is changing rapidly because of the changes in Fintech and the sheer number of players involved in today’s space. Any number of which you could cobble together to build a product without having to build too much custom code.
Was the transition seamless from BA to PM and what necessary skill set did you develop to attain that role?
The transition from Business Analyst to Product Management was not seamless, but it was a natural fit. There are two key components to this transition:
- As I mentioned earlier, soft skills was a major shift for me, but that can also be attributed to my prior role as a developer, but more importantly
- Help your organization be invested in the role of PM, and not think of you as a Business Analyst anymore, because those roles are significantly different and, depending on the organization, you might encounter some turbulence.
What traits do you look for in the product managers you hire or work with?
I look for two key attributes when hiring or working with PMs:
- Intellectual curiosity – involves challenging the status quo, asking lots of questions and being comfortable in the grey.
- Flexibility – Adapt to changing seas, embracing changes in priorities, able to present business problems to technical teams, explaining very technical items to non-technical or senior management.
What is your advice on moving from Applications Developer to Product Manager role? How can one make this move? How do you build your profile?
I made the move myself, and I enjoyed the transition despite the headwinds. I wanted to be closer to the problem, talk to customers, and be able to be part of solution-making and brainstorming conversations. However, it was a significant undertaking, and it required me to convince those in my organization to make the switch.
I would suggest starting to partner with an in-house Product team (if you have one), read/follow Product leaders (Melissa Perri, Bob Moesta, Matt Barcomb), attend local Meetups or professional organizations, all to increase your network to include more Product people that will give you even more tips.
Moral: Absolutely worth it!!
As a former individual contributor and now tech lead in software industry, what type of company do you suggest I should start my PM career in?
I don’t think the domain matters, nor does the size of the organization. I would recommend a tech organization though (depending on your background or interests) because they typically can move faster and are more invested in the Product Management discipline, at least in my experience.
As I mentioned earlier, local Meetups are a good place to find organizations that are strongly invested in the Product Management discipline. It’s a good way to find exactly how they define “Product Management”, which can have different translations. Startups are also good, depending on your risk profile.
How do you usually sift through numerous customer feedbacks ?
Do you work with the internal stakeholders at the initial stage or do you like take a shot first and then meet with stakeholders later?
As a PM I typically like to look at it first, then branch out to include others – customer (or their proxy), Customer Success, Marketing, maybe Architecture. I have seen many times where a feature is requested or a bug is found, and through some discussions, the customer or user couldn’t reproduce it, we can provide some context or training for it, we learn more about the problem, etc. If it does turn out to be something of value or we should invest in, then we can start to solve it.
Do you believe in measuring product market fit and if yes.. what are you measuring?
I definitely believe in Product Market Fit – I love the book too! Achieving the ideal Product Market Fit is different for each industry/domain for sure, but I would recommend utilizing as much research as possible from third parties. Or, talk to enough people that have had problems to which there seems to be no solution.
Necessity is the mother of invention as they say. These tactics will ensure that you are solving a problem that actually exists, instead of building a technology in search of a problem – here’s looking at you blockchain!
What do you enjoy most about being a PM?
What do I enjoy the most about being a PM? Solving problems, talking to customers, bringing value to the organization, moving the needle. Those are the things that I enjoy doing, and most of us want to ensure that the work we do is making a difference, and a PM role is well-positioned to do that.
As a new Head of Product at a startup, transitioning from an engineering/design role, do you have any tips for somebody learning the ropes of PM and effectively leading a product team as we grow?
I’ve worked with some startups in the past and the pressure to get a product out the door and to get investment is paramount – and rightly so – but please don’t forget about the problem you set out to solve and focus on solely the customer.
Ensure that you have vetted the problem clearly, have a strong value proposition, do some customer discovery, and if you’re lucky to have some people signed up to use your product before you even create it (like Dropbox).
What qualifications or experience do you look for when hiring a PM/APM who doesn’t come from a tech or design background?
Not all Product people have to be former Devs or Designers, I have seen a few good PM/APM candidates come from other areas, like testing and Customer Success teams. The reason they were successful is that their skill set was more customer-focused.
They had customer success because they talked to customers directly and understood the entire customer experience, and testers because they actually used the products (because they were stress testing it or were tasked with trying to break it). So good Product people can come from other areas!
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