Product Hero: Learnings so far

by Chris Wilcox

Since launching our Product Hero series, we’ve featured interviews with eight of the brightest minds in product management. Before we publish more interviews, we wanted to share what we’ve learned so far, distilled into a few categories – from how these leaders function in their organization to advice for other product managers.

Journey into product management

Each of our product heroes began their careers in other disciplines before moving into a dedicated product management role. If you’re a product manager, this might seem similar to your own career. Steve Selzer of Airbnb and Mike Brown of GenePeeks (formerly of PatientsLikeMe) both began as hybrid engineer-entrepreneurs and Janna Bastow of ProdPad was a customer service representative, for example.

The common thread is their curiosity, empathy, and problem solving skills. All of our heroes mention having a passion for solving problems for other people and deeply understanding their customers. These are innate qualities that cannot be taught. Rose Grabowski of Invaluable is a great example. She comes from a marketing analytics background and was searching for a career that involved many moving pieces and interaction with various departments. Stumbling on a product management description online she thought, “This is cool. You get to be creative. Right-brain, left-brain. You get to work with all sorts of people. You have to solve problems. Yeah, that’s it!”

Partnering with other departments

It is probably no surprise that Engineering is mentioned as the department that our product heroes collaborate with the most. Engineers play an important role in bringing ideas to life and determining the feasibility of building a new feature. After Engineering, our product heroes work most closely with Sales and Marketing on activities like messaging and creating pitch decks.

We heard from Steve Selzer that Airbnb groups many different departments together to promote collaboration: “It’s a multidisciplinary approach with Product, Engineering, Design, and Data Science all working together. Within Design, at our organization, that includes qualitative research and also quantitative data through activities like surveys. We also have Content under Design here.”

Defining success metrics

By the nature of working in different industries with unique products, each of our product heroes use a specific set of KPIs to define success. But all of the metrics we heard these heroes use can be divided into company-level metrics and product-level metrics. On a company scale, they are using revenue numbers and Net Promoter Score (NPS) to understand how their product is performing overall. At the product level, quantitative and qualitative customer research is used to understand what problems need to be solved.

Jonathan Gowins of D+H explains why customer research is important: “There’s a danger with NPS and revenue. That is to measure both of those post-launch. It’s too far down the road once what you have made has been shipped. Then you’re asking for hindsight, and hindsight is 20/20, and so what we want to do also is validate along the way.”

Product roadmapping

The format of our heroes’ product roadmaps takes various forms from Google docs, to more physical documents like posters and whiteboards. Timelines also differ amongst our cohort of interviewees. Keith Anderson at Profitero checks his roadmap against company strategy for the next three to five years and re-prioritizes the map for the next six months during quarterly reviews with stakeholders. While Tim Buntel at XebiaLabs focuses on planning for company strategy and product for two years out with concrete features planned six months in advance.

More important than the product roadmap artifact itself is how it is communicated and used. We heard from each one of our product heroes that involving stakeholders across the company at set intervals (quarterly or monthly) is important to staying focused. This communication with Marketing, Sales, Engineering, and Executive teams helps keep everyone aligned on the same mission, translating business objectives to product features.

Rose Grabowski takes the product roadmap on a roadshow to each department separately. She presents it to Marketing, Sales, and the Technology teams on a regular basis to revise the roadmap every few weeks. Management also looks at the roadmap throughout the year to provide that business strategy lens.

Advice for fellow product managers

Here is some of the most memorable advice and things to consider about the product management field from our heroes:

Keith Anderson, Profitero:

“I would generally say, domain expertise can be helpful. It certainly was for me, but I think what was much more helpful is being relentless about understanding what motivates the people you’re delivering value to. Learning why they’re not getting it elsewhere, and finding what you can do best, or better, or cheaper, to move the market is an even better skill.”

Tim Buntel, XebiaLabs:

“I think the most important thing with product managers is to think about who your people are, who is your tribe. A product manager is really going to be that voice of the customer. That’s a very cliché term now in product management, but make sure that you like the people. You’re going to be their advocate, so you want to be able to really walk a mile in their shoes and be the person who believes in them.”

Vanessa Ferranto, ZipCar:

“Product managers need a deeper level of curiosity; really wanting to understand more about the users. Leadership is also another quality that product managers struggle with – product managers need to have a strong voice in the room.

The way to do that is to ‘arm yourself with data’ – talk to customers and do the market research. I see that as being a key area of improvement for product managers that can strengthen their influence in their roles.”

Jonathan Gowins, D+H:

“A lot of times, product managers don’t think of themselves as designers even though they’re designing a product. They might not be doing the particular UX or the UI, but they’re designing a product one way or another. There are a lot of pressures for product management. There’s no off switch.”

Mike Brown, GenePeeks:

“You have two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionally. Being an extrovert product manager who has to corral a lot of people, it’s sometimes hard to step back and listen, and so that’s something that I continue to work on in my own career. It’s really easy to keep talking until the right words come out, but to really listen to what people have to say is even more important than what you have to say. You’re really there to ask good questions and really take the feedback from a number of people.”


Check out all the interviews in our Product Hero blog series. Know a Product Hero we should showcase? Email us with who we should interview and their contact information.

About Chris Wilcox

Chris is a high-energy marketer focusing on content creation, events, lead generation, and developing deeper, more meaningful relationships with Fresh Tilled Soil's clients. He has...