Few people get to experience product management at large, successful tech companies and decide to share their expertise and outlook with others who want to get started in the field. One of them is my good friend Anna Buldakova, a seasoned product manager.
Anna sat down with Scott Eblen, Director of Product Management at Twitter, to discuss if technical background is a requirement for Product Managers, what is the difference between Google and small startups, and how to create a good vision and strategy.
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About skills for Product Managers
When you were in the university, were you focused on your studies or also trying to find entrepreneurship opportunities?
I played in a jazz ensemble and in a marching band; I conducted a pit orchestra for a musical comedy that was written by the students. Those were all great experiences and opportunities that are hard to pursue post-university. I see a ton of new-grad candidates who already have a startup under their belt but I’d really encourage people to experiment with what would be hard to do later in life: play sports, do theater. You’re going to have a chance to work later, starting two years earlier with a company isn’t something you necessarily should be doing.
What were your favorite subjects in the university?
I studied Computer Science at Princeton but what I really liked is that it was a liberal arts curriculum, not just engineering, math, and science courses. I was required to take a diverse set of classes. The one I really loved was Art 101. I distinctly remember the exam question where we were asked to compare a modern painting by Piet Mondrian to a Bernini sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It was all about finding analogies and connections, and in some way product managers are doing the same by saying “we are the Uber of x” or “the eBay of y”.
Which part of your education you think was the most beneficial for you, creative one or the technical one?
I really value the creative part, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Technology has changed so much since I graduated and it will continue to evolve, but creative & soft skills are enduring. At that time computer science was required for a lot of the roles so I’m glad I did that because it got me into product management. Thankfully, now a lot of companies don’t make it a hard requirement which is a good expansion of the pool of applicants that we can appeal to.
Do you think product managers not having a technical background is a good trend?
I would say having a technical background is a good thing; but not having a computer science degree isn’t a bad thing. With a product manager, I want to find someone who can debate in a healthy fashion with engineers, and I think they can acquire those skills by doing some development themselves, by having worked with engineers in different capacities. Having done specific coursework doesn’t always qualify them to do that.
Makes sense. I hear more and more from senior people that technical education is not a requirement anymore.
One of the reasons is that you realize that product isn’t the hard part; people are the hard part. With the diversity of backgrounds, you’re more likely to find people who can bring unique and creative solutions to those problems.
Finding ways to motivate and inspire people or align groups of people to solve problems has nothing to do with computer science. One of the most important things for aligning people is a narrative: having a clear and compelling story that people can rally around. If you can tell a story that people can then tell to their friends, family, coworkers, then it makes them excited, they feel like they can convey why they are doing what they are doing.
How do you develop such a skill as storytelling?
I think it’s really important to read fiction and non-fiction on a regular basis because it’s a good opportunity to understand new mindsets and spend some time on thinking how to tell a story.
Empathy is another essential skill for a product manager. You can only do so much user research or data analysis, but you simply can’t understand what that person was thinking when they were using your product. Reading fiction can give you a glimpse into other perspectives and doing things in a different way that you haven’t considered.
One more thing to say here. I often hear product managers asking “what book should I read”. There are a couple of really standard books like Ben Horowitz’s “Hard things about hard things”, which give you a very narrow perspective on what you should do. Reading non standard books is the only way to get ahead. It allows you to find other solutions that your peers don’t see. To find your next book to read you should talk to people, especially outside of technology, ask what they found interesting or thought-provoking. And then just get recommendations and look for new things to try.
What was the most inspiring book that you read last year?
One really interesting one from the product perspective was Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton where Lin-Manuel Miranda got his inspiration for the famous musical. It was a really interesting insight into first principles thinking as the founding fathers were trying to craft the government, and there were few resources to suggest how it should be structured. If you don’t have Wikipedia to consult with or two dozen peers you can call on the phone, what are the approaches to build something that will last?
I also enjoyed the book called “How to do nothing” by Jenny Odell, a Stanford professor and an artist; she talks a lot about some negative aspects of the attention economy.
About the difference between being a PM at a large company vs startup
What was your first job?
After university my first job was at Microsoft, it was called “a Program Manager” which is essentially a Product Manager. I spent two and a half years there, and during this entire time there was only one launch. Anyway, you learn a lot of good processes at a big company: seeing how to do annual planning, triage bugs and features, work with different stakeholders — it gives you a really great foundation for subsequent roles.
After Microsoft, I joined a startup called Library House, and it was a great contrast. At Microsoft I never saw a sale firsthand, while at Library House I was involved in pitches. Being in the room when a sales manager was closing a deal, seeing what the buyer’s concerns were and how to overcome them was really useful for my career.
Do you think that Product Managers should have an understanding of the sales process, especially if they work in b2b?
An understanding of disciplines outside the product is incredibly valuable. When people get more senior in their careers, they have more interactions with other functions so your understanding of marketing, PR and, of course, engineering will make you a more effective product manager. Imagine that you are in a startup, and a CEO needs to make resource allocations across product and other disciplines. If you can’t argue the pros and cons of other disciplines’ requests, your work is at a disadvantage.
Thinking about your experience in startups vs. Google and Microsoft, what is the key difference in terms of PM responsibilities?
In big companies the function and the process are well defined. I’ve seen opportunities to tweak both of those but there’s a little more constraint in terms of what you do, whereas in startups you just need to do whatever it takes to make the business successful. When I was a Head of Product at Nutmeg, an online investment platform in the UK, there was a week in a year when we had a ton of sales coming through, and everyone from developers to our CEO and our founder were actually on the phone supporting customers. It obviously would never happen at Google or Twitter.
How can a startup compete with a large company in terms of talent?
I think it’s really about spending time with the job candidates, understanding their motivations and seeing if you can match them. It’s not worth shoehorning a candidate in if they’re not a fit for the business. The other thing is mission. This is actually something I saw in Twitter when I first joined. There were a lot of acquisition rumors, the stock was way down but the mission that Jack Dorsey articulated and the notion of building a platform that could really connect people helped to still attract and retain great candidates.
About transitioning to a Director role
How did you start transitioning into more senior roles?
One of my first managers at Google said: “Always make sure that you’re feeling a little bit uncomfortable as you move, it means that you’re challenging and pushing yourself”. When I talked to Nutmeg about the Chief Product Officer role, there were a lot of things that were uncomfortable, there were disciplines that I hadn’t managed before but embracing and just going with that was a big step forward. When I came to Twitter, this experience helped me feel much more confident.
You were an individual contributor at Google, how did you persuade Nutmeg that you will be good at managing people?
At Google I had a lot of different managers, and I’d seen things that worked really well and things that didn’t, and I tried to write up my thoughts about that on a regular basis. So when Nutmeg reached out to me, I was able to articulate ideas about the good and the bad in organizations, organizational design and process.
And how did you find this opportunity, or did it find you?
I was headhunted into that role. I think it’s helpful to have conversations with recruiters occasionally. They give you a pulse of what’s out there and a sense of “Am I doing what’s best for me?”. As a people manager, your reaction might be “no, I don’t want my people talking to other companies” but it is useful as it reminds your employees what is good about their current role. And if they really want things that your company can’t offer, you ultimately want to help them find a role that is a better match.
What was the most difficult for you in this transition?
One of the biggest challenges I had was working with other disciplines. When we sat down with the CFO or the Head of Marketing, these were the disciplines that I hadn’t had much firsthand experience with. Trying to figure out how to both explain and sell our product team’s efforts to these disciplines and understand how they were interacting with each other was not so straightforward. We had people who worked in old-school banks for 20 or 30 years, their mindset was quite different, so I had to spend a lot of time with them to understand how they think about business, product and my discipline. It was difficult but also critically important. For example, when the budget decision comes up about “do we spend a million pounds on a TV campaign, or hire more researchers or designers”, it’s not just about my role, it’s about how those things work together and what’s best for the business overall.
When you transition to a more senior role, sometimes you might feel under water. How did you deal with it?
Process. People often think of it as some sort of bureaucracy but it can be incredibly beneficial if done well. One thing that I distinctly recall is that I initially overfocused on making product decisions as opposed to setting up and enabling the team to make product decisions of a certain quality. I thought a lot more about this at Twitter. One way to make a team really effective is to be very clear about what metric they are trying to move and what are the guardrails or certain principles that you care about, and then give the team the autonomy to achieve those goals within the guardrails that you set up. And, of course, this should all align with the product vision.
How does vision relate to the strategy?
Strategy has two pieces: one is how your business is going to evolve — what you’re doing, how you’re doing it. The second one is the understanding of what’s changing in the world. The clearest example is Nokia in 2007: if you were just focusing on your phones and how you’re going to change them, but you weren’t thinking about how the iPhones were changing the market, that obviously made a huge difference in the strategy. A part of our strategy at Nutmeg was thinking how payments were changing, how banks were changing, how attitudes towards cash or talking openly about money were changing. Those were really important things that we needed to think about when we were setting the strategy. An interesting exercise is to look back 3 to 5 years in your industry and ask “who were the competitors, what were the trends that everyone was talking about back then”. And then try to extrapolate some of that forwards because it gives you a little bit of perspective about what that time frame was like and what were some of the differences over that time frame.
How do you align your team on the strategy and the vision, how do you make sure that everyone feels heard?
Roadmaps are bread and butter for product managers to align the team. Have two or three key problems that the team is working on, and focus on the narrative of solving that problem. At Nutmeg our goal was to sell confidence in financial choices, instead of selling investment products. So there was a “confidence” work stream in the roadmap that covered, for example, transparency about what was happening with the investments.
To make the vision more understandable and concrete at Nutmeg, we created a deck of vignettes which were single screenshots accompanied by some narrative about customer feelings and outcomes. This was compelling and memorable but avoided unnecessary detail which would have been time consuming and distracting from the overall message.
To the second part of the question, if you are listening to everyone, they are more likely to buy into your vision and strategy. Twitter started doing a lot more of silent meetings where we’ll start with a document, spend the first 10–15 minutes reading it, and everyone will leave a bunch of comments. You will see specific places where people left comments and then follow up with specific conversations. This allows for much more equitable discussions.
What if you hear everyone but as a leader don’t agree with what people are saying?
That’s tough. I think at some point it’s important to let the team make decisions and have some autonomy. If you always step in to override, I don’t think you set that team up for success. It also depends on how bad you think the mistake is. If it’s two slightly different approaches or two relatively small features, give the team the chance to try. Maybe you’re wrong, maybe they’re wrong but it can be a learning experience for everyone. Obviously if the team is doing something that you believe would imperil the business then it’s your responsibility to step in, but it’s important to have some self-awareness and ask yourself: “Am I doing this every single time or is this once a year occasion where I’m stepping in to alter the course of things”. If you do step in, to the earlier point about goals and guardrails approach, you should think if there is a different guardrail or a different target that could have helped us avoid this problem.
To your point about self-awareness and reflection, how do you find the next opportunities for professional growth?
Speaking is a great opportunity provided that you’re actually taking the time to think and write some new ideas for these talks. It’s a chance to get feedback from a large crowd of peers, and it also exposes you to other perspectives because usually after you speak, people will come up and ask you questions. Writing is similar, I wish I did more of that. Twitter is a nice micro opportunity: there’s a ton of product leaders, and just engaging in a conversation gives you some exposure and feedback. Finally finding opportunities to meet and talk to other product managers is helpful as well.
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