Product School

The Value of Ambiguity in Product by Airbnb Product Lead

Victoria Ku

Victoria Ku

March 20, 2022

In this episode of the Product Podcast, we hear from Victoria Ku, Airbnb Product Lead. Victoria learned Product Management from some of the best mentors in the field. She contributed her learnings with the community through her work on The Product Manifesto, a collaborative effort to create a guiding principles for Product in the 21st century.

Below, Victoria talks about the value of understanding the problem before solving it, why she thinks it’s a good thing that Product Management is an ambiguous profession, what she learned from burning out early in her career, and what it was like creating The Product Manifesto (you can check out the full Product Manifesto here!

Victoria Ku, Airbnb Product Lead

We’re going to be diving into The Product Manifesto, which is an exciting project. If you haven’t checked out Product Manifesto, yet head to the link, Victoria, first of all, I would love to learn a little bit more about your personal story. How did you get started in product and what has your journey been like?

Yeah. About eight to ten years ago I started a health tech startup. And this was before health tech became a thing in the pandemic. So it was very challenging, but I learned so much from it. That’s ironically when I quit corporate as well. And I did that for about three years really building the product myself, being every part of the product and then realizing that I needed employment and financial help. 

So I was able to join Airbnb about seven years ago and did kind of the same thing, where I was building venture products, new products at Airbnb, and trying to create users and really understand the user base who I was working for. It’s been been a journey since then where now I’m a payments Product Manager.

Read next: The Difference Between Startup PMs and Big Corporation PMs

Great. And what does being a payments Product Manager involve? What’s a typical day like for you, if there is such a thing?

Well, there’s lots of meetings. But a payments Product Manager is very specialized in the world of payments. There are some aspects of Product Management that are generalizable, such as what we’ll talk about today: understanding the problem, generating solutions. 

And payments is the industry. So there’s a lot of specialized information about what goes on in the backend. So what happens when you swipe a credit card? When do you use eWallets? How does that work? What about crypto? Those kind of industry-specific questions like how guests will pay for a trip at Airbnb are my area of expertise.

Amazing, so let’s dive right into Product Manifesto, which is the main menu of the day. How did you get started with Product Manifesto? What was it that really drew you to the project?

Yeah. I’ve been really lucky where I’ve had amazing mentorship and really great teachers over the years teaching me how to do Product Management the correct way. There is the day to day that we see and observe, and then there’s also the more strategic, more visionary aspect of Product Management that in my opinion really requires good mentorship, good leadership and teaching. 

And so I’m lucky that I had those teachers. My mentor at Airbnb was arguably one of the best Product Managers in the industry. And she taught me almost everything that I know. And I wanted to impart some of that knowledge back to the community and be able to give back to the community what she gave to me, in every single way that I learned. 

So whether it was communication, whether it was how to handle crises, or even just the expectations of a good, strong Product Management, I wanted that to be documented. And the Product Manifesto was a great way to to do that.

While we’re on the topic of mentorship: If there’s not a mentor / mentee relationship that happens organically through work, how do you recommend someone go about accessing that kind of relationship?

Yeah, that’s a great question. And there are several ways. I’d love to take a step back really quickly and say that in any good career, you require a mentor for teaching, and also a sponsor for someone who’s managing your career. 

Specifically for mentorship, which is learning how to do the job really well, it could be organic such as having questions. Having really deep, thoughtful, philosophical questions, and really knowing the right person to ask those questions to. So if you notice that someone’s very strong in Product Management—able to influence, has the ability to think critically and be listened to in times of crisis and in times of planning, that person could potentially be a great mentor. And I would start out just by asking them questions. 

Another way is also just being really frank and saying, “Hey, I would love to meet with you one on one. You know, maybe every other week or so as a mentor / mentee relationship. That way I can learn from you.” 

Both are good strategies, but really it comes down to good Product Leadership is often busy. So having the right questions set up to ask them and getting their guidance. So that you’re using the time wisely.

Check out: How to Become a PM Mentor

Let’s take another few steps back back to the Agile Product Manifesto, which was sort of the original mentorship document that taught the tech industry how to do how to do tech, how to do products in the modern day. Obviously if it was perfect for the here and now we wouldn’t need Product Manifesto. So what do you think are the gaps in the Agile Manifesto that makes it not quite perfect for modern Product Managers?

Yeah. In my day-to-day experience, while agile is a great framework, I’ve noticed that it can fall apart when you’re working in a large cross-functional organization. And that’s been because the complexity and the interoperability, the dependency on other teams, is very high. And you’re very dependent on them to also implement the same frameworks for agile. 

And that’s not always the case, right? Especially during hyper growth, someone might be using Trello, someone might be using Jira, and that kind of interoperability doesn’t exist. That’s area where I see agile failing. 

Another area is also if not everybody is working on the complete agile framework, in that maybe some people are working on this project and some people are working on that project, you’re not truly adhering to agile. You’re having this hybrid model. 

And so the timing of how to complete and execute projects is also dependent on everybody working under the same exact framework. Hybrid models, they just tend to be a little bit more challenging. I’d say that the impact is that culture can be impacted, people can be frustrated, and at worst it can also create attrition issues.

A crash course: Agile Product Management – A Study Guide for PMs

Absolutely. So what would you say are some of the other major challenges that Product Managers face that perhaps guidance from the Manifesto could help solve?

Yeah, one of the more obvious areas I see are, sometimes in companies, the stakeholders that you work with don’t know how to work with Product Managers. There’s this kind of this understanding that you are there and maybe you’re in a project manager role, or maybe you take on the program manager role, or even you start out with the product ownership role which is more day to day. 

And there’s not this heavy utilization of the potential of Product Management, which is: Vision setting. Strategy. Really understanding the problem and creating the structure of success for teams to move forward with. I think that’s an area where it can be frustrating for Product Managers. 

Especially new ones when they come into an environment, and let’s say an eng manager is just like “Great, can you go sort all the bugs?” And it’s like, yes, absolutely, I can do that. But let me show you what else I can do. 

So that’s one area. Another area is just the career aspect can be also challenging if you don’t know how to manage a career. Product Management is inherently a generalist role. At worst, you’re kind of plugging all the cracks in the dam, and at the best you’re leading the team forward almost a general manager or even mini CEO. As well as the janitor. But I would say that managing a career can be challenging because it’s such a general role. And really knowing how to think about the role, from the one year mark, the three year mark, and the five year mark is important.

The ambiguity is part of the beauty of Product Management, but it’s also one of the challenges. Do you see the ambiguity of Product Management as that something that’s going to continue to be a huge benefit to Product Managers? Or is Product Management going to become a little bit more defined as it continues to grow? 

That’s a great question. And I would say that over time, especially when there are frameworks like Agile and Product Manifesto being created, the role of a Product Manager will probably be more structured. You see this because startups have more of this fluid role of the Product Manager, but then in corporate you see more of a structure. Sometimes there are APM or Associate Product Manager roles that lead into Product Leadership roles. So I would say that it’s going to get more structured. 

But I do think that maintaining the ambiguity is actually beneficial for everyone. Part of a general role’s strength is being able to capture a wide variety of talent. So people with all sorts of backgrounds people who aren’t necessarily trained as Product Managers from the get-go, these people will all find that ambiguity to be very attractive and be able to come into the industry with a fresh perspective and learn what they need to learn, but also contribute what they’ve been trained to do in a completely different environment.

How would you say that the Manifesto lends itself to that being open to interpretation and that ambiguity? Because we don’t want to sort of come out like Moses with the commandments and say, you must do A, B and C and then you’re a Product Manager. How does the Manifesto manage to balance that guidance and that mentorship without being, that A, B and C list of things you need to do?

Yeah, for sure. Being dogmatic is not a great thing. I think what the Product Manifesto aims to do is to create structure in a chaotic and artistic creative environment. Initially as a new Product Manager, that’s when you need the structure the most. So if you do need to have an understanding of what the pillars for success are, then you have an area that you can look to. And if you know it and need a refresher, you also have an area that you can fall back on and be like, “What was, what was that one principle that I needed to read up on during, during crises? What is that one framework that that person used during this crisis”? And then if you’re a senior Product Manager really understanding where to leverage during specific scenarios. 

If I could summarize that, it’s really about understanding what principles you need to employ under which scenarios. As a new Product Manager, you’ll eat that up. You’ll listen to everything that everyone’s saying. You’ll be essentially tuning your mental models to understand what every framework is, and over time you’ll utilize certain principles to your advantage. And I think that’s what the Product Manifesto really aims to do.

And speaking of the principles, is there any particular principle that you find yourself implementing in your day to day?

Yeah, absolutely. This is a very obvious one, but it also needs to be said. A strong foundational element of Product Management is understanding the problem. And as people who love to be problem solvers, which I think anyone in product and really anyone in Silicon Valley is, there is this rush to create the solution. Because that’s fun, that’s creative. 

But really articulating the problem is the root of all success, and it can be forgotten. It can be glossed over. So the great part of Product Manifesto is that’s where we start: really understanding the problem. And from there, where do we go? Once you understand the problem, then any number of solutions that you generate could fix the problem, if you understood it completely. And that’s one of those basic principles that sounds really easy. But it’s quite hard to do, especially when it comes down to timing and resources.

We’ve talked a little bit already about how there is no right way and wrong way to do Product Management as it’s open to interpretation for everyone. We say that, but sometimes there is a wrong way to do Product Management. Are there any mistakes that you’ve made throughout your career that you wish you could go back and say, “Victoria, don’t do that.”

Absolutely. And it’s a rite of passage. I think the mistakes and the failures, they’re what help you learn. And they have helped me become the Product Manager that I am today and able to give back to the community the experience that I’ve gained. 

I would say that there’s this deference to the problem. As a new Product Manager, I absolutely burned myself out trying to take too much on. I was trying to plug all the holes in the dam. I thought the better Product Manager I was, the more problems I could solve on my own. 

And the scenario was that we were undergoing hypergrowth at Airbnb. I was without an Eng manager partner. And so I had started taking on the role of an Eng manager in addition to my role as a Product Manager. And there are only so many hours in a day. I was doing way too much. 

I ended up not realizing that I had inadvertently taken on so much and I had no time in my calendar. And I was kind of taking on the emotional weight as well of being a people manager to some degree. And I burned myself out. And once you’re in burnout, it’s very difficult to come back. It’s not so much, take a vacation and come back and you’re healed. It really affects your psyche. And so that was a poignant lesson. 

From then on, I had to take a step back and be like, “Okay, what’s expected of me? Here’s the strategy that I’m going to use. I’m gonna deviate from my strategy under these scenarios. This is where I can be adaptive. And this is where I can be a little bit more rigid.” And then really hold myself to those goals that I set for myself and not rush head in with a solution without understanding the problem. That’s a very poignant lesson. I think that one can be used by anyone, not just Product Managers. Burnout is real. And I’m glad that I had that lesson early on.

Another great read: Common Product Prioritization Mistakes

It’s definitely real. We all went through that phase where stress meant success, where the more tired you were, the more hours you were working, it means you matter. Now we’re de-glamorizing stress. What’s the best way to recognize the early signs of burnout before you are so deep in it that you’re having to claw your way out? What’s the difference between regular stress and burnout?

Yeah. I would say one of the first signs that I started noticing was a feeling of dread. So on Fridays and Saturdays I’d be so relieved, but then on Sundays I would have this slight feeling of, “Oh, I don’t want Mondays to come. Ugh, that means I have to go to work. I’m not ready to face the day. I don’t feel capable to handle the stress.” That feeling of dread really snuck up on me. And now when I start feeling that I’m like, “Oh, okay, there’s a sign. That’s my body telling me that we need to create some changes.” 

So I would start with that. I would also say that another feeling is a feeling of injustice. And that was very specific to me. Burnout is not that feeling of productivity where you’re like, “Oh my God, not enough hours in a day, but I’m enjoying this so much!”

Burnout is like, “I can’t do this.” But I am somehow being forced somewhere, either myself, or circumstances. But somewhere there is a push and I’m digging against the gravel. Right. I would say that feeling of injustice or lack of control is also one to keep track of, because if it’s just a weekend or if it’s just a week, that’s not a big deal, but over time that one will eat away at you and that one’s dangerous because it’s very hard to come back from that in a healthy way.

Yeah. The hole is more difficult to crawl out of than it is to fall into, for sure. You’ve been in helping us to build the Product Manifesto alongside your day job. What has that process been like? How have you portioned out the time to join the working group and build this thing?

Yeah. It’s been great to meet other people in the industry. What I love is collaborating with all of the different players of the The Product Manifesto. So Mayank is leading this, from Facebook, and having the working session was actually really fun. Because you’re getting to share how you think with other industry leaders. And so I would say that leaning into that discovery and stimulus that’s different from your day job has been really rewarding. I would also add I’m actually a first time mom and I have a newborn at home. Yeah. So it’s been challenging in the sense where I’m like, Oh boy. How does one juggle this? 

Leaning into that side of myself, like in this case, I get to use my business hat again. I get to use it in a way that’s not for work, and not completely as a mother, but I’m working on something that’s important to me that also makes me a healthy human. It makes me stimulated and if I can’t lean into a session, I’ll have to be really obvious and I’ll have to say upfront, I can’t do it at this hour, but what I can do is work asynchronously if you’re okay with that. And setting expectations. So that’s how you manage expectations as well and keep yourself healthy and prevent burnout.

Well, congratulations on being a new mum as well, by the way.

Thank you.

One of the things that’s been so fun for us in working with this working group and building this Manifesto is how everyone loves it. Everyone’s really enjoying it. So I guess my next question would be, once the Manifesto is launched and it’s out there and it’s in the hands of the people, what will be your main takeaways having been one of the people building it?

Yeah. I would say, like all important things, it’s not gonna be a hundred percent successful from the get go. The great thing about going from zero to one is you get to see people react to something that you’ve been a part of. And that’s really amazing, and it can be very scary as well. But that’s the important thing, is that iterative cycles are important for a Product Manifesto. And we’re starting with version one, but I suspect there’s gonna thousands of versions by the end of a few years where people are contributing their experience and contributing their opinions backed by data. 

So that’s the important thing. I think that’s the part that’s really exciting, is we’re just starting. And it’s gonna be an awesome journey to see the Manifesto change with the times and update itself and be contributed on by thousands in the community.

Speaking of version one: What is a Minimum Lovable Product?

And another one of the really cool things about how we’ve been building the Manifesto is that we’ve been doing it very publicly. The roadmap is fully available on the website for anyone to go and take a peek at what we’re doing. It’s all very open windows everywhere. What it been like building something that we’re treating a product in front of an audience of Product People? Because I imagine it’s a little bit like having to cook a meal for Gordon Ramsey.

Yeah. It’s been exciting in the sense where obviously the principles are meant to be generalizable. And we’re not trying to be dogmatic. We’re trying to create structure from chaos. But at the same time, I love that those who are really experienced have been giving their opinion on, “This seems a little too general,” or “This doesn’t seem valuable when you put it like this,” or “This needs a little bit more detail in order for it to be more useful.” 

And I love that feedback because it’s important. Details matter. But at the same time, unless you’re in the weeds, it’s not wise to give advice that’s too detailed. Right. So in that sense, Product Manifesto has a lot of potential and it’s been really exciting to start from there.

One of the misconceptions about resources for Product Managers is that they’re often geared towards entry level Product Managers, sort of your first few years of Product, or even how to get your first job in Product. But I know one of the main goals of the Manifesto is to be for not just all Product Managers, but everyone involved in Product. How do you think the Manifesto achieves being useful for entry level, mid-level, senior, CEOs, entrepreneurs…how does it it manage that?

Absolutely. There are questions in there that aim to address leveling, and the problems that you would solve in different levels. For example, starting up an organization. That’s something that a more senior Product Manager, if they needed more guidance, that would be an area where they could tap into. 

There’s also the managing of the career. I said that’s one of the challenges before of a Product Manager. There’s a lot of resources to learning the day-to-day, but once you get to a more senior level where you’re tasked with creating a five year plan, and a strategy that goes with it, and like, “Oh yeah. How do you execute given that are less resources or different timing structures?” 

And so those are more complex problems that the principles also aim to solve. And really great Product Managers have opined on those principles, so I encourage everyone to read those if you’re curious. But yeah, the questions do address different levels, and so it’s really exciting that that the Product Manifesto can be comprehensive in that way.

What are you the most hopeful for in the future of the tech industry?

With the structurizing of the chaos, which is in general a good thing—I think too much structure can be bad, but we’re not there yet—we’re in the beginning stages. Where I think if we have just a little bit more structure, we’re really empowering the players of the tech industry to truly create solutions. 

And we’re talking, not covering the symptoms of problems that everyday humans have. But truly creating solutions that everyday humans have and making life better for everyone. I think San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and people in the tech industry in general, are really set up well to do that. People want to do that, but creating that structure will empower them to be even better at their jobs.

And maybe in ten, twenty years, we’ll see the quality of life really increase for everyday people. I say that because while we’re in a pandemic, while everything’s going on in the world, it can be easy to be discouraged by where we are. 

I see this as a two steps forward and a one step back sort of so scenario and with The Product Manifesto and actions like that in the tech industry, maybe we’ll be four or five steps forward in the future. And that optimism really makes me want to do my job even better and more furiously. I want to get us to that world where the future is super empowering. And people’s lives are better, and there’s less inequality. And I think that might be a bit principled and maybe naive, but I think that we can truly get there.

Curious about the future of tech and Product Management? Check out The Future of Product Management Report 2022

In a pandemic, I think a bit of optimistic naivety is something we all need. What a fantastic and hopeful note to end on. Thank you so much. You’ve been a dream guest. 

Thank you for having me. Product School, you guys are doing a great job. I really appreciate being a part of it.

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