Nina Foroutan is a Director of Product at Forbes. We chatted to Nina about moving from her background in journalism, to working at a 101 year-old company, and how she manages international and cross-cultural teams.
Question [00:00:15] When you tell your family members that you’re a Director of Product, or a Product Manager, do they understand what you do?
Nina [0:19] My grandfather and some of my older family members, they don’t really understand what it is. They don’t really getthat when you go online and you search something on Google and you click on a site and you read it, there’s so many different pieces of infrastructure that go into that.
And so I try to explain to my grandfather, it’s the same thing as a building a road or building a bridge. There’s all these pieces that have to come together. There’s money involved, there’s budgeting, there’s design…So I try to break it down so they can understand. But I think the concept of product and how it relates to different industries is so much broader now than it was when it first came out. It’s not just computers, product is being applied to the financial world. It’s being applied to media, it’s being applied to a lot of organizations that you wouldn’t think about having a strong product group within them.
Question [00:01:40] What’s your opinion on the challenges of current education for product managers? Because the path isn’t as clear as it is for, say, medicine. Would you agree with that?
Nina [2:00] I do, yeah. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism and I got my master’s in business. And so that kind of connection gave me the pathway to go into product in media. So it’s kind of like the business side of things and then the content side of things. And it was kind of a perfect combination, but there was no product major. I think probably the closest thing would have been computer science, and a lot of people kind of make that jump.
But I think the cool thing about product is that if you’re curious and you want to learn, there’s so many resources. Like Product School is an amazing resource. You can go on Google now and you can search ‘product management books’ and you can have education at your fingertips!
So I think it is difficult in a way that there’s no cut and dry path. But the silver lining is that there is no cut and dry path. So you can make it your own. You can define whatever product management means to you. And you don’t have to be great at every part of product management. If you’re not great at the analytics part, but you’re amazing at the user design part and the user thinking part, you’re still going to be valuable in an organization. So I think the beauty of it is that you can kind of make it your own.
Question [03:42] What’s your typical day-to-day like as Director of Product at Forbes?
Nina [03:57] So, Forbes media is so interesting to work in because they are 101 years old, and they have been at the forefront of really telling stories of people who have found great success in their lives. And talking about the different ways that they’ve achieved that and being a resource to young kids or chief marketing officers, they have the content side down. We’re in an era where they’re evolving what it means to be a digital organization.
So my day-to-day mostly is really facilitating conversation between different parts of the organization. We don’t have a product like you would think of like at Google or Apple. We don’t have a really physical product that’s tangible. Our content is our product. So we’re always thinking about, and my team especially, is how do we deliver the content to our users in a way that is delightful to them and that they value.
And then how do we also bring value to our advertisers on our page? How do we connect them to these users? So my day-to-day is really in meetings mostly. Talking to our revenue team, talking to our design team, talking to the chief product officer and asking them, what do you see as your goal right now? What is your Q1 goal? What is valuable to you? And asking a lot of questions, a lot of whys. Why do you think that’s the solution to that? Or why do you think that’s the most important thing? And really helping them kind of get to the heart of what it means to deliver on forbes.com. And then going to my team and sitting down and brainstorming and pulling numbers from the previous feature that we released.
Also doing a lot of testing. We test on 10% of our website. So doing a lot of hypothesizing and a lot of testing. But my day-to-day is mostly in these conversations, kind of acting like a little bit of like a mediator or a therapist. Really trying to get to the heart of everyone’s needs and creating open dialogue. I think for a lot of product managers that is probably the bulk of their job. Getting people to talk and answer questions, and getting people to talk to each other on different sides of the organization.
Question [07:00] Is there an added amount of pressure when you’re working for a business like Forbes, as opposed to maybe a smaller company that doesn’t have such an established name?
Nina [07:13] I think each one has its own difficulties, because I worked in a startup environment and the difficulty there is that you have to really prove yourself. You have to prove yourself to investors and prove yourself to your community, to your end-user. The beauty of being at Forbes, the brand name is so reputable that you don’t have to do a lot of that kind of work to get people to listen or to pay attention to your brand. But the really cool thing about working in an organization, especially one that’s not traditionally a product or technology company, is that you are working with people that are trying to evolve what it means to be a brand. What their brand means to the technology department, what it means to the user.
So there is a responsibility to uphold the brand. But because we’ve been around for so long, we have a little bit of leeway there. It really is mostly focused on how do we continue to keep the reputation of the brand, but also be a little bit innovative. How do we uphold that, but be a little bit risky with some of the things that we’re trying to do? I think for media companies, a lot of that risk is going from a free platform to a subscription model. We’re a really strong brand and people have been going to our site and consuming our content, but what if we ask them to pay for it? What does that mean and what does that look like? And I think that’s really a forefront of the media organization.
Or any content organization that has content for free. It’s kind of going that route. You have to really be okay with not knowing exactly if things will work, and then helping people kind of ease into that mindset. I mean, I think I’m really lucky to be at a company that has established their brand. Because I think the hardest thing is getting people to care about your brand. With a lot of new companies, there’s, you know, a million that try and maybe five that succeed in that. So I think it makes my job easier.
Question [19:32] Were you well versed in technical skills before getting into product, or did you have to learn on the job?
Nina: [19:53] I think having an understanding of web technologies is important. I never took any formal courses or learnings on the technical side and I don’t really know any coding language. I studied SQL a little bit because some parts of my jobs have asked for that. Or if you would just want to get things done yourself it’s helpful if you know a little HTML.
It’s so awesome that there’s so many resources online these days where, if you really want to learn, there’s just different sites that will teach you and it’s either free or there’s minimal costs. But when I was at Hearst, I actually was the technical project manager there and then transferred into a product role. And so I actually was working with engineers directly and asked them questions and, you know, what does this mean?
And I learned about, you know, there’s a backend and there’s a front end and there’s a framework on the front end that we have to consider. And so I think a lot of people think that if they’re not technical, they’re not going to be good at product. But it’s really about understanding your product on a high level. Fundamentally. If you want to work at a company and the product has an app, read up about the app, like what type of platforms are there, what’s new in that world. But for me, I think it’s a nice thing to have, if you are technical. But you don’t need to, I don’t think it’s a requirement. If you are interested in a lot of it, you can learn on the job by working with engineers.
Question [25:03] We’ve been lucky enough to have you as a featured speaker, and now you’re also an instructor. What are the things you enjoy the most about that?
Nina [25:32] I get so much value and I love Product School and I’m so happy I found you guys and got connected to your community. I just feel like I have been in everyone’s shoes when they’re not really sure what direction to go in, whether they’re already in a career and they’re trying to make a move, or they are just graduating and they’re trying to transition into a career. I get so much value because I think that everyone should help. And everyone does help.
And I actually had a lot of people that I reached out to when I moved to New York city from Boston. I just cold message them on LinkedIn and I just said, “Hey, what you do is cool. Can I buy your coffee?” And every single person said yes to me. I think it’s a really difficult thing, as a young person or any person to reach out and ask for help.
And so Product School is a great mechanism to help people, encourage them …it’s a little bit easier than just cold messaging someone! Having a dedicated community and someone to talk to and someone that’s compassionate and open to answering your questions, I think is game changing. I wish I had that when I was just graduating. I had nothing. There was no real community at all for the types of people that would want to be in product. I think those people were doing some other job. And now product is so, so big and so global.
Question [27:24] You actually manage a cross functional and global multicultural team, What kind of challenges does that present? What were the main things that you had to focus on there?
Nina [27:52] I think on a very basic level, time zones. I think that is just the most simple roadblock. You can’t have meetings too late, you can’t have meetings on certain days of the week. We have a team right now in Jordan and they are off on Mondays, and they work on Sundays. So there’s some cultural elements there that you have to be mindful of.
But the beauty of it is that we have Slack and we have Zoom and we have all these great tools that we can use to connect. We can see each other’s faces even if we’re hundreds of miles away. I think the biggest thing that I tried when I was managing a team, and that I still continue to do when I’m managing a multicultural team is to be empathetic to areas where they might feel uncomfortable.
I know that we’ve had a lot of calls with some of our engineers in Jordan, or in Ukraine where maybe they’ve been quiet on calls and I’ve had to separately be like, ‘Hey, like, do you guys have any questions?’ It’s like a very polite culture. It’s very different than my team, we’re kind of like, let’s get it done. New York city, like, come on. And they’re like, ‘yeah, we have questions but we don’t want to interrupt.’ So I’m like, okay, well I’m going to pause now after every meeting is done and say, ‘Hey guys on the call, do you have any questions.’
It’s really about being aware and noticing areas where you can add value to their experience.
We’ll be back next week with Fredrik Lindberg from Spotify with even more of the latest insights from the Product Management world.