Product Hero is our bi-weekly series to highlight outstanding members of the product management community. These industry leaders share tips on processes, team building, how to be a better product manager, and who they are outside of their careers. This week our product hero is Marco Marandiz, Product Manager at HomeAway.com.
C. Todd: Today I’m joined by Marco Marandiz who is a product consultant and has built products like HoverCards and Instant Logo Search. Our readers might recognize Marco from his Medium article “I’m Done Pretending SF Tech Is Visionary,” which we’ll touch on later. Thanks for taking the time Marco. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your journey into product design?
Marco: I have a degree in computer science, and while I was working toward that degree, I was developing for different teams from bio-med to banking. In the process, I got tired of doing things that never saw the light of day, so I started asking ‘why’ and never stopped asking. I started getting positions where I had to interface with the teams that were making the decisions about what was being built and I would start fighting back asking, “Is this really the best direction we could go? Is there a smaller or better thing we can actually build?”
That process exposed me to product management. When you’re doing product management, a lot of it is interfacing with a designer’s understanding of how a product solves problems and how that will be portrayed to the person who’s going to use it.
Then, when I started doing some consulting, design became a necessity. I had to really pick up those skills quickly. From my perspective, design and development are very closely knit and even though sometimes you have to take a high level approach, they’re very much interrelated.
C. Todd: Yeah. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that. In terms of the skills that make you a good designer, how does that help make you a good product person and vice versa?
Marco: As a designer, I think it’s important to care about what you’re building and who it’s for – taking more than just a shallow approach to understanding the user’s perspective. Just having an understanding of behavior is not enough. Sure, understand their behavior, but look more closely at how they interact with the product so you solve their problem in a more effective way.
I think this whole idea of empathy needs to be present from the top, in designing the experience, through product management, and down to the developers. Product management should always be thinking, “What is this product we’re making? How is it actually valuable?” Development, the people who are actually making it happen, should also have a voice and be able to say, “I don’t feel like what we’re building is actually good for the person.” If you’re creating a feature or optimizing one, and you know the goal is to make somebody spend 10 or 15 more minutes on your product, even though that won’t actually add value to their life – that needs to be considered all the way through.
C. Todd: You’ve mentioned that triangle and I’ve heard that before: design, product management, development and they mash up to the feasibility, viability, desirability matrix that we often see. Can you talk a little bit about that from your experience, and maybe tell us a story or two? How did that relationship, that triangle, work – either positively or negatively from some of your experience working either as a consultant or on product teams?
Marco: One good example was when I was working for Capital One. I was on a small team as a product developer that was actually operating more like a startup inside Capital One. I was the one asking why, and I was also uncomfortable with us making certain choices. As a whole, our team wanted to help people make better financial decisions. The product had desirability for the people that were going to be using it. It had feasibility – the developers were able to make it happen. But then we had problems with viability. The bank didn’t want us to create a product that helped people save money in a way that would negatively impact the bank’s revenue.
We were trying to teach people to have better spending and saving habits, how to pay off their debt, how to really understand the way that they deal with their money – but that doesn’t help the bank’s long-term goal. They make money through interest. They make money through revolving credit card balances.
I don’t think it was a situation where Capital One was consciously aware that they were trying to shut this down. However, I think the executive team could have seen our work as doing good for their customers – building trust with them – and not solely looking at how this could lose them money.
Individually, I think these people are moral and idealistic and want to do good things in the world, but their job, their responsibility in their position is to make the company money. Of course one of the results of design and product management needs to be making money. But when the product is projected to take a long time to have a return on investment or potentially no return at all, there’s no incentive to focus on that product. It’s the nature of the abyss we’re in.
C. Todd: Speaking of that visionary, human-centered approach, you recently published a Medium post that went around about Silicon Valley not being very visionary. For those who haven’t read your post yet, give us the sound bite of what drove you to write that and the message you wanted to get across.
Marco: I wrote it for myself because I’m at a point in my career where I’ve done consulting work, I’ve done my own little consumer apps here and there and all of it was vaguely unsatisfying. I was doing work that was paying me, but it wasn’t something that I really found meaning in. Then when I started looking for a new PM gig, I’d interview with places and realize, “No, I don’t want to be the founding PM for your baby food delivery subscription box using chatbots.” I mean it was literally the most buzzwords you could think about in one job description.
I needed to express my ideals so that when I interview for a job, I could say this company is doing something that I believe in – something that excites me. I just wrote it and I didn’t really think about the nuances much. Then it started picking up on Medium. My friend Bridget Todd at Medium saw it. She flagged it for publishing on Medium’s Twitter. Then Startup Grind picked it up. Recode republished it and before I knew it, hundreds of thousands of people had read it.
The point of the article is that Silicon Valley has the brightest minds, the most capable, intelligent, and educated people there are. From an engineering and psychology standpoint, these people are very sharp and though we’re not necessarily wasting our intelligence, we’re using it for things that only serve the people within our own economic and social standings, which is this bubble of Silicon Valley. I’m sure it’s applicable to the London, New York, and Boston startup scenes.
C. Todd: There’s been talk about the “Shut In Economy” – that we’ve created all these different products and services that allow you to live basically like you’re in a nursing home. You don’t do anything. You just have your food delivered. You have your clothes taken care of. All these other things that you just don’t need to do anymore because there are some products or service that will take care of it for you.
Marco: Yes, these products are just serving the economic elite, but there are real problems out there. You don’t have to come up with a solution that changes the whole education system or the whole healthcare institution. However, many startups get funded and become stale almost immediately because they hit a roadblock and the founders don’t care enough to work through the adversity. I was trying to encourage people to think more deeply about what motivates them to follow through in their startup.
C. Todd: I think this refers to the phrase “thinking small” in your post. What does that mean to you? How could a product person go beyond thinking small and start thinking bigger?
Marco: I think product people are trained to think small. It seems like a large majority of conversations I have with experienced PMs is like, “Oh, you are thinking too big. You have to sit in this place where you’re not too into the weeds and the details, but also not too high level on what you want the impact to be.” We’re trained to think about the opportunities in front of us. I don’t think that’s an inherently bad thing, but just looking at the opportunities doesn’t provide the necessary context to assess whether something is needed or even useful.
It makes sense to think small after you’ve identified a specific problem that is worth pursuing, and I’m not talking about creating something for perks. For example, DoorDash is a perk. I’ve never used it but I know people that have, and it’s nothing you need. I can go to In-N-Out and grab my food or I can order it to my house through DoorDash. There doesn’t need to always be competitors in the ‘perk’ space. But, I can totally understand why there is. The economic elite holds all the world’s money so even if you start serving a very small need, it might be a very lucrative one.
There’s a good chance that your parents or grandparents, or at least a friend of yours, didn’t start from an economically elite circumstance, so why not look a little broader and say, “How can I get more people into this social status that I happen to thrive in?”
C. Todd: Yeah. What are some of the things that product managers could do today to start thinking about, “Hey, here’s what we could do to be a little more visionary with our product.” How do they think about changing that even if it’s just something small?
Marco: The first thing I would do is ask myself a couple reflective questions. How can I have more impact? How does my work have more value and meaning in the real world? I would say the approach there is to see what the actual impact is on people’s lives. Don’t look at your metrics as the end of the line.
Say I boosted daily active users last month by 4%. Is that good? It’s good for your product if your product strategy, your metrics, and the impact it has on people is all coherent and aligned. If Snapchat gets people to use their product 10% more this month than they did last month, that’s good for the business and probably for the product strategies because now they make more money because they can sell more ad space, but what does it do for a 13-year-old that’s on Snapchat who’s now spending 10% more time scrolling through stories on Snapchat? How does it affect the people who don’t have Snapchat, but are defined by the social context of not having it because they’re not old enough yet?
These types of apps are creating a need for social validation. Is that something that’s really good? I think that Snapchat and Facebook and all these products can be good but I think it just takes a little more thinking and not going after the low hanging fruit for profit. Obviously, advertising is an easy way to make money. Is there another business model that may not be as obvious, but will make comparable revenue without creating poor habits for our society?
C. Todd: Yeah. That is interesting. When we had coffee you had talked about your cousin that deletes his Instagram posts that haven’t reached a hundred likes. There’s a level of social validation. Going back to the impact on the end user’s life and probably something that we would call unintended consequences, can you talk a little more about those types of things that you’ve observed and how a product manager would think about or deal with this if suddenly you are faced with situations you never expected? Say more about that.
Marco: Yeah. As a product manager, you can be proud of what you created but if it is having these unintended consequences, you have to be honest with yourself and not take it personally or get too sensitive about it. I feel like when I have conversations with people about this, they feel like I’m just crapping all over their hard work and the skill set that they developed. Well, really, the reason we got into building things was because we wanted it to be useful for people.
If the social utility is marginal for some, and actually significantly negative for others, you should allow yourself to admit that a bad decision was made and say, “Okay. Let’s pivot this feature or this product or maybe this doesn’t actually fit into our product mission, into our product vision.”
I keep bringing this stuff up because it’s all about coherence. As a person, you are an individual that is fighting against addiction to your smartphone. We live in a consumer world, and the least we can do as product people is to try not to be part of the problem. You can work somewhere that is grossing billions of dollars every year and be a voice for long-term thinking for the good of humanity. I mean it sounds really idealistic, but it’s not that hard to do. You’re at your job because they respect you, so your coworkers will listen to you. It’s about ensuring that your inner life isn’t different from your outer actions. Even at home and at work, be the same person.
C. Todd: Let’s talk about your decisions. Back to your product and design days, what are some of the big mistakes you’ve made? You look back and you’re like, “Oh, man, if I could do that over I would totally do that differently.”
Marco: Reflecting on it, I think one is around assuming product market fit. Make sure to ask the right questions. We wanted to grow one of our products called HoverCards. We wanted to create a better experience but really we just optimized, we re-skinned or improved on the experience that was already there when there wasn’t a perfect product market fit. We didn’t have a product that people were drooling over.
Sometimes we default to, “I can make it look better or I can make the interaction a little smoother” but we should really be asking is, “Is this the product that people actually want? Is this the product that people will actually use?”
C. Todd: Is this the experience they need that’s going to solve their problem and delight them at the same time?
Marco: Yeah. I think that’s probably a pretty common mistake people make early on when working in product – people are using it which means that I don’t have to tweak it to make it better. People are using it so I’m scratching part of their itch. But how do I make this more relatable to other people, too? How do I reposition or frame my product in a way that addresses more people’s issues in a way that is actually valuable?
That’s a very different question. “How do I redo the user experience? How do I redo the UI? How do I change the color?” As a PM and a designer, that’s the easier question to ask. It’s probably the first question to ask by accident. I would say, take more time to make sure you’re asking the right questions, and use the data to find the real answer. Data is a common trope in product. “Rely on the data. Always look at the data.” It’s very valuable, but data on its own isn’t helpful without qualitative research. You need to ask the right questions. You need to really understand who’s using it and what you are not fulfilling as much as what you are fulfilling.
C. Todd: Cool. One last question before we go. What’s missing in the product management conversation right now? What aren’t we talking about? You certainly did a great job as a provoking man around thinking small versus big thinking and being more visionary. What else beyond that is missing in the product management conversation?
Marco: I think the missing pieces are humanity and morality – we should really see those as requirements of being a product manager. You need to be strong in that. You need to really know who you are when you’re getting into this. I’m going to generalize, but we have two sides: our human, spiritual, and emotional side and we have our technological and scientific side.
When you have science and technology advancing independently of the spiritual or emotional side of our human nature, that is rampant materialism. That’s what we see embodied in Silicon Valley right now. People care about getting a new product, getting a new phone, having a new car, being able to find social validation on the internet.
On the other side, if we look solely at religious or spiritual matters and ignore our scientific minds, that becomes fanaticism. That fanaticism is something that we’ve been evolving out of for hundreds of years. I think these things together, scientific advancement and development of our emotional spiritual capacity, allow us to create products for the world that we can stand behind.
We are better when we connect with who we really are inside, and the values that we’ve developed within our families – our true empathy, and our compassion. All these things need to be brought into product on a holistic scale – not just in the development or in your team or your company culture – but also think about the guy at home who rolls over and uses his phone in the morning. What is his experience? What is that really like? What is your product doing for that person?
I think there needs to be a much more holistic approach to product management. It sounds almost hippyish but I think it will balance itself out over time.
C. Todd: That’s a great point to end on. Thanks Marco for being a strong voice in the product management community. You’re awesome!
- On what’s missing from the product conversation today: humanity and morality. Product managers need to think about the social implications for increased use of their product. Is this good for the user? Is this good for society?
- Getting product managers to “think bigger”: There’s a good chance that your parents or grandparents, or at least a friend of yours, didn’t start from an economically elite circumstance, so why not look a little broader and say, “How can I get more people into this social status that I happen to thrive in?”
- Connect with Marco on Twitter and keep up to date on his latest pieces on Medium.