Product School

Season 8 - Episode 7

The Future of Online Community by VP of Product at Amazon

Fundamentally a people person, VP of Product at Amazon’s Twitch Stephanie Neill knows how to lead a team and maintain user empathy to build great products. In this talk, she explains how she identifies what “good” looks like, walks us through how she supports her team, and gives us a glimpse into the future she sees for online community interactions.

VP of Product at Amazon's Twitch Stephanie Neill
Let’s start from the very beginning. You’ve worn lots of different hats. But how did you actually get that first PM job?

Through the skin of my teeth, I’ll say. I actually graduated with an International Relations Global business degree from the University of Southern California, right into the Big Recession. So there was very little out there generally across tech or other industries.

After the US government declined me joining foreign service, which had been my plan since basically birth, coming from a government family, I had to find a career to fall back on. And somehow, I got my foot in the door with a tiny little stealth startup, which no longer exists of course. They were building Facebook community apps, and this was Facebook groups before they really productized Facebook groups. I started doing some PM and UX work under the title community manager.

I did that for about nine months before I was like, I really have to find something that I can make a living on and start to build a career on. Cause you know, tiny startup, you could tell it wasn’t gonna last forever. So I interviewed like crazy and with my meager nine months of experience, diddling around with the Facebook apps, and I landed a project coordinator role.

It was a summer contract, so three months contract, and I was so grateful to get it so I just threw my all into it and really showed up as part of the team, to the point where they couldn’t let me go. It paid off and eventually, they converted me to a Junior Product Manager and I was very grateful. It all started there.

Even though you were community manager, the title didn’t define who you are. You hustled to get a yes.

Yes. Make yourself indispensable.

So many years later, you are the VP of Product at Twitch. Tell us a little bit more about the company and your product team.

Oh, sure. Twitch is the world’s largest online streaming platform. I like the unofficial mission, which is a place where people come and find their people and build communities. It’s huge, wildly popular and only becoming more and more mainstream and well-known. I work primarily in the monetization group on the commerce products, and I lead a team of 13 Product Managers, junior to principal. And our mission is to help creators make a living doing what they love and building sustainable communities.

Back in the day, there were these mainstream media that would send content to an audience that would consume the content, and that’s it. Now consumers are also creators.

Yes, absolutely. There’s an inextricable loop. And there are layers to the communities online, where some people are laid back and they’re just there for the creator. They’re there to just observe, sort of more similar to TV. But then there’s a huge swath of people who are really leaned in and they want to interact. They want to interact with the creator, they want to interact with each other, and that builds a real sense of community and belonging and identity with one another. And that’s really special.

With the millions of users that are interacting with the platform on a daily basis, how do you make sure that they actually feel that connection and they’re not overwhelmed by the amount of people?

Speaking from the monetization group, there’s a contribution recognition loop that we build for, right? Basically everyone who contributes on Twitch is doing so because they want to support their creator. That’s why they’re there. Twitch is ostensibly a free product. So it’s really about making sure that we are prioritizing people for that connection through the product.

I haven’t seen that many products at that scale that actually do this donation system. You don’t have to pay, you pay because you really want to help the creator.

Yeah. And as I said, it’s making the community sustainable. Because otherwise the creator’s got to go get a day job and they’re not going to be streaming. Maybe it gets to the point where they don’t have the time or the energy, and they’re not able to do what they really love, which is streaming and interacting with folks. So that’s what we’re here to do.

Speaking of day jobs, what does your day-to-day look like?

My day-to-day is pretty typical. If you’re familiar with Connie Kwan’s Hierarchy of Product Needs, I love that. I love a good graphic, what can I say? And my day-to-day maps to that actually fairly well.

I spend a lot of time in the future thinking about what good looks like, thinking about what is our company mission, what is our big, hairy, audacious goal, and what are the different pathways product pathways we can take to get there? And then how can I de-risk testing out those pathways such that we will ultimately get there?

If I had to boil it down, I basically wake up every day asking myself, am I setting my team up for success? Am I pointing them in the right direction? Are we all aligned? Do we all know what good looks like? And am I empowering them to learn and discover and try things in order to actually get us there.

How was that transition from builder to people manager for you?

For me, it was actually surprisingly easy because I applied a lot of product principles to how I manage teams. And I also just really love people. I am so inspired and curious and interested in people and helping people. So I think those two things kind of combined. It made it a very natural-feeling transition.

The way I think about empowering my teams today is: am I providing clarity of what good looks like? Do they truly understand it such to the point that we are aligned around it? Because you can understand that theoretically, but then it breaks down. So is it clear, do they understand and believe in it? And then are they set up for success?

I think about setting them up for success, I think about what scaffolding am I building such that they are staying on the right track, but they have enough space to be creative and innovate and try and fail and win, and all the everything in between.

Are there any particular rituals that you follow to make sure that everyone has the same definition of good?

Yeah. We have quarterly product strategy check-ins where we’re not talking about, what are you doing specifically? We’re talking about, okay, what did you learn? How does it change your strategy, if at all? And what are you going to do moving forward? And how are we performing against commonly understood success metrics?

Those are probably the bigger, the biggest ways. But other than that, it’s being really engaged, getting really involved with the team, understanding the way they think and how they approach the problems that they’re there to solve. And being there when they need the help shining a light on their blind spots and watching their six.

The question about “what did you learn,” is really powerful because it focuses on the wins and on the opportunity ahead, not so much on the snapshot of “what did you do.” What are you learning these days?

I just finished working with a cohort of students, Product Managers to-be, through Product School. I actually learned a lot from that because I had a roster of 16 or 17 students and they were from all over the world. And that was the first time that I had worked with product development folks or people adjacent to product development from Dubai or France. I had been fairly US-centric prior to that. So that was fascinating.

What I’m actively learning? So I’m actually trying to learn Arabic through Duolingo. I spoke it as a kid. I think I mentioned I come from a government family, and we mostly lived in the Middle East, so I was fairly fluent as a kid, but I haven’t spoken it in 20 plus years. So trying to get back a bit to my roots and also I just love the Duolingo app.

What are key skills for PMs? Let’s break it down by people who need to get that first PM job, and then we can talk more about the people who are in the system already.

Yeah. So for people who want to break into Product Management, I’m guessing you probably have some kind of experience. And it’s really about honing your value proposition to the company and to the fit for the position. Take whatever experience you have, even if it’s just college experience, frankly, and think about how you can position it such that, you’re squarely focused on that company’s mission.

And you’re thinking about what are the objectives that the company has. And then what, from your background suits you for helping to drive those outcomes? Which is, changing the user behavior to result in business results. So what value do you bring?

And then as you’re a little bit further along in Product Management, I think empathy for your customer, staying really customer centric. Especially as PMs, because we deal with stakeholders all the time, it’s so easy to fall back into business jargon and talking about dollars per thousand hours watched. And things that are outputs, they’re not actual outcomes for your customers. Building and sustaining that empathy for customers, as well as for stakeholders, and baking that into the product.

You’ve worked in marketing and community management. There are so many different pathways and it’s really encouraging for the next generation to see that it is possible.

Yes, yes, absolutely. Anyone, if you’re a person who just really is passionate about getting stuff done and having impact, your position is in Product Management, because in Product Management, you are accountable. You have ownership of success, you have ownership of failure, you get to work with all types of people. You get to define what good looks like. You get to do all of that. As long as you love to make things happen and get stuff done you’d be a great Product Manager.

So now that you are on the other side of the table as a hiring manager, how do you go about hiring PMs?

There’s a few different things. I mean, obviously relevant experience. Where I am, we do need more experienced PMs, for the type of work that we have in this specific role. Relevant background experience, focus on outcomes over outputs, customer centric, people who believe in design. I think there are some Product Managers out there who think it’s just about PM and engineering relationships, and that if you can work with an engineer to deliver, you’re going to be golden.

But design is an incredibly important function that I think often gets overlooked still to this day. Although I think it’s better than it used to be, so I look for Product Managers who understand the value of design. It’s not just solving the problem right. It’s, are we solving the right problem?

And then a lot of cultural factors as well. Like, are they empathetic? Are they self-aware, do they think about the future? Do they have a drive to own success?

From the outside a lot of people will say, I want to be a Product Manager because it sounds so cool. But at the same time, you also have deliver.

No, that’s very true. You got to have some amount of hustle and accountability, passion to make things happen for our customers. To sum it up, that’s probably it.

I agree with your point about design. We don’t see enough folks trying to break into product from design, unfortunately.

Yeah. I have two designers in my org that I’m trying to convince to sway into Product Management.

It’s a superpower. You have that ability to feel the user while also being able to connect with other stakeholders. And nowadays you don’t have to be so technical.

Yes, yes. A hundred percent. And also I believe the skills that you’re describing, those can be learned if you have the drive. So it’s really looking for that special drive. It’s an internal thing that I feel like if you have it, you can recognize it. So that makes it easier to find great product people.

In product, we have a lot of responsibility, but sometimes we don’t have the authority. How do you go about making sure that your voice is heard?

Twitch is a pretty product-led company. So I don’t really have any problems for my function, being heard either through myself or my team, or partner PM teams.

But I will say in government it was much harder. In government, they very much had Product Managers who were really doing project work, et cetera. And then they had program managers who had no technical experience. So it was much harder to come in.

And I think being a Diplomat’s daughter, I learned the art of helping people see a shared vision, and understand shared objectives, seeing the overlap in the Venn Diagram to mobilize people to work together. It is influence, it is working without authority. And it’s definitely a skill to learn, and it is learnable. But it’s really about helping get people aligned by seeing how they’ll get what they want out of it.

I always say being a PM is like being a diplomat, but I want to validate that with someone who’s actually seen a diplomat.

Oh yeah, yeah. Sometimes I think to myself, have I just been a Product Manager, my whole life? Just every little thing that I’m doing, I’m always sort of like managing with core principles.

Traditionally we’ve seen companies like Google or Amazon trying to kind of do their own internal tooling and a lot of smaller startups also relying on third party apps. Now that you are under the Amazon umbrella, does Twitch uses internal Amazon products and tools?

We rely mostly on G suite, Atlassian, and Figma. We do use Chime when we have to, when we have to talk to other Amazon folks and stuff like that, but otherwise we’re more akin to that start-up mode that you talked about, rather than sort of the corporate dogfooding.

You said you try to spend a lot of time thinking about the future. What does the future look like for Twitch?

Ooh, good question. I like to think a lot about how community interaction is going to change, and how it can become more interactive and experiential, and less of a flat experience. I also like to think about the creator economy and how that is really going to change.

Creators are the next big piece in the gig economy. And I think creators are going to have more and more control over their audience over their monetization options. We just need to lean into that and see how Twitch can help provide what creators need to 5-10 years from now.

It’s a huge movement. It’s a valid option now to become your own PM. You can build an audience and directly access the consumer.

Creators are entertainers, so there’s something special there that people need. Even if you get on stream and just talk about Product Management, that’s cool too, but you have to be engaging.

On Twitch there’s these players who focus on winning prizes and they’re really good at them, but they might not be the best entertainers. And then you have this breed of creators who are really good at entertaining the audience, even though they might not be the best players. And the entertainers are also making money and getting big audiences.

Yeah. That’s more the sense of community. I mean, definitely a large swath of our viewers are still really interested in just the play of the game, so sort of the former you were talking about. But the latter, that’s really the magic of Twitch. We help those people find their people, and build their communities, and have fun together.

What would be like a good way for someone to get started on Twitch?

Going back to one of your earlier questions, know what you want to provide. Know what you want to offer people. What’s special about you that you can bring? I would also say, don’t take it too lightly. It’s hard work. It’s long hours of streaming. It’s tough. It’s a grind to really get started, but once you start to make traction it can be really, really special and magical.

Do you envision a future where the creator has to be on multiple platforms, or is there going to be a moment where the creator can use one platform and communicate with the audience in different formats?

I think that’s a possibility. I also think that right now there’s different tools to meet different needs that not all creators have. Twitch is here to meet the most necessary needs of the creators. The way we think about it is, let’s build the best service possible for our creators to continue coming back and continue building their communities with us. But at least right now, it is complimentary and we should just make it easy. And also just understand that there are different services to meet different aspects of needs for different creators.

I always like to wrap up interviews with a question about advice to your younger self. That person that was getting that first community manager job, what would you say based on everything that you know today?

Probably the best advice I wish I had when I was younger, which now is core to how I manage people, is work backward from what you want as far out as you can see.

Like, can you read your obituary? Or you’re having your retirement party. What are people saying, what are the accomplishments? What do you want to hear about you? What are the values you displayed? What are the things you accomplished, what’s the community you built? And then use that to help guide the decisions that you’re making day-to-day.

Because especially as you start to get further in your career, you will get more and more opportunities. And if you don’t have that guiding north star, it’s hard to know which opportunities are the right ones, or which ones present the right type of the right type of risk for you. So work backwards from as far as you can see.

Sounds to me like be a PM of your own life.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

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