How to become a Product Manager and how to succeed in product management? Our community presented these questions and more to the Product Manager at Twitter, Phil Getzen, in a live chat AMA. His advice is to become the expert of your product because the faster you can answer questions about your product, the faster you become the go to person for product decisions. More advice from Phil below.
Product Manager at Twitter leading media consumption @TwitterBoston. Previously a Program Manager at Microsoft. Founder of Gique and TempoRun. Holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science Engineering.
Did working at Microsoft help transfer over skill sets that would be relevant to what you’re looking for next step wise?
Yes, definitely. Each place has been unique with different learnings along the way. I started out as a computer science major and embarked on building an iOS app with some friends called TempoRun that categorized music into levels based on BPM so you could always run at a consistent pace.
During this development, I learned I enjoyed defining how the product worked, how it was designed, and how to market/make the product successful. I also realized I didn’t want to spend all day, every day writing code. The first time I ever heard of product management was when I was a junior in college. From there, I worked as a software engineer intern at a small local Medicaid company that sold software to schools to process Medicaid claims. There I learned the importance of building healthy relationships with your peers and creating an atmosphere of learning.
After this, I got an internship as a PM at Microsoft working on app virtualization software, which is technically complex, but not really what I’m interested in. I ended up taking a full-time offer out of college to work on a similar team working with enterprise management software called Intune. I learned a lot there about what I did and didn’t enjoy in a professional setting, how to communicate more effectively, and the importance of becoming a product expert.
Finally, I am now at Twitter which has been the most enjoyable experience so far. I’ve learned how to delegate responsibility, trust and value my talented engineering team, and become a better thought leader, looking to define and refine our vision around video.
What are the top 3 things to always be mindful of when leading a team as a PM?
This will vary across every PM, but for me, they are communication, clear vision and open mindset. To run an effective team, you need to be able to communicate at a personal level and build relationships with engineers and other stakeholders. Having a clear vision of where you’re headed keeps your team motivated and focused on delivering products, and having an open mindset around your process and work will serve you well. Being able to admit when and where you messed up is critical for success in a product.
Can you tell about the “strategic planning” process you endure?
I plan in different levels. At the year(s) level, I’m looking broadly at what our vision is, where we’re headed, and how we can be impactful in a market that may not exist yet. At the quarter level, I’m planning concrete work with loose details on how they should function with the expectation that they will change. At the week level, I’m working with my Engineering Manager counterpart to plan specific tasks for engineers to focus on to make sure we’re delivering at a rate consistent with quarterly planning.
Do you have any frameworks for determining ROI on new products/features that don’t necessarily have a baseline?
This is something that can be difficult for new experiences you’re building. Having a healthy mix of experimentation, User Experience testing and gut-based investments is important. If you’re building a brand new product, for example, it may make sense to examine the market and any existing research, and make a bet, rather than A/B testing.
Sometimes it’s not possible to test your hypotheses with experimentation, so making a bet and iterating is key.
What books/materials would you recommend for people making a transition from Project Management to Product?
There are so many good ones out there, but a personal favorite is Cracking the PM Interview. While it’s about interviewing, there is so much core PM knowledge, and it helped me transition from a program to product manager.
Is it necessary to be a coder to land a position at a company such as Twitter?
You certainly don’t need to know how to code to be a product manager. Especially at Twitter, we look for qualified and capable candidates, not degrees. For a product management position, you should be comfortable working with engineers and be knowledgeable enough technically to represent your team in discussions across the company. Dedication to learning your product space is key to being a good PM.
What’s the process when you are developing features?
- Identify a problem that exists within your space.
- Evaluate the customer impact of solving that problem.
- Present the problem/impact to other stakeholders and those you need to buy in.
- Build a set of user stories and requirements and build a user research plan.
- Get a level of effort from the engineers.
- Build a prototype.
- UX test it.
- A/B test it.
- Iterate and ship.
What are the differences of a PM who works in Enterprise Applications vs. Consumer Applications?
Yes! They are very different regarding the work, but the core values of a PM are the same IMO. It’s essentially a different mindset on who your customers are. In enterprise, it’s likely a business which you need to reconcile with the needs of your users. In consumer (especially for my team), the customer and user are the same. I love consumer products, but I know lots of people who love enterprise.
What advice do you have for designers who are trying to transition into management?
I have never been in a designer role, but I am always thankful for designers and researchers because my role isn’t possible without them. Advice I would give would be to understanding the problems your users face and extending that to understand the market, business needs, and development process. PMing is a little bit of everything.
Do you have any suggestions on how to gain more experience in Product Management?
Read books, talk to PMs, and go outside to learn about how people interact with the things they use/do everyday. Think about the products you use in your own life. What problems are they solving for you? How can they be better? What would you do differently? Do other people face the same problem?
How do you filter all the feature requests coming from your user base to find the most appealing one?
I find one of the strongest skills a PM can have is the ability to say “no.” You have to have a clear vision of where you’re going and how that fits into the company and user success. If something comes up that isn’t a part of that, you should feel empowered to say no.
Do you have any tips for breaking down epics into manageable smaller chunks?
Estimation is hard. There are many different ways to do it, and none of them are perfect. This is still something I experiment with all the time. It depends on what sort of relationship you have with your team. Developing a weekly sprint cadence that is very personal and self-owned can help. It’s also important to trust the engineers on your team to manage their epics as part of the development process.
How can I successfully transition as a PM for larger tech companies when I come from a more non-traditional background?
I started out by doing a small startup in college which I used to propel me through initial interviews at Microsoft. I know that at Twitter, we look for action moreover than credentials. Working on a side project or concretely demonstrating things you’ve built will go a long way here. Regarding getting in front of an audience, continue to build your network.
Go to different events in your area, reach out to people at a company you’re interested in, and make yourself known. Recruiters can be a double edged sword, the easiest way to recruit is thru existing networks and referrals. That’s not ideal as we miss a lot of awesome candidates this way, but getting yourself out there can offset some of that.
What metrics are important to your team to track? Do those include “counter” metrics?
This is going to vary by team, but there is a philosophy we try to stick to. Your team metrics should indicate what success looks like from a customer perspective and contribute to high-level business perspectives.
How do you typically go about writing specs and including wire frames in that process?
To me, it’s less about the tool and more about the process and content. I start out with a problem statement and summary of why we think it’s important to solve the problem, followed by customer impact, user stories and requirements, and a section for success metrics. I try to keep it to 1-2 pages, and if it’s longer than that, it should probably be split up into multiple features. Being able to easily collaborate is an important aspect of the tools you choose to use.
What do you wish you had known on day one as a Product Manager?
Become the expert of your product. This means asking lots of questions to ramp up quickly. The faster you can answer questions about your product, the faster you become the go to person for product decisions. This is vitally important as you’ll need to get buy-in from many different stakeholders, and building that relationship early aids in that process.
After completing your quarterly level what are the typical deliverables you are expected to serve up the chain?
I structure my plans at the project level of solving a customer problem. For example, problem is users have a hard time discovering videos. The project is recommended videos when a user watches a video or something like that.
What does a technical skill set mean to you?
Technical skill set to me is anything relating to a background in tech. What I think is helpful is the ability to work across many groups of people including engineers. I don’t need to know how a method was implemented in code, but I should be able to understand the basic technology and architecture behind my product and relay that to others and make decisions based on my understanding.
Can you share some best practices for user interviews? How do you identify potential customers to reach out to?
Our audience for research will be tuned towards what we are trying to study. Often, it’s helpful to narrow down your research group to focus on a specific area or behavior. For example, if you’re an NBA team and you’re trying to understand what will get more fans into the building, it’s not as helpful to survey people who have no interest in basketball. You should define your range of participants based on your needs.
When hiring a Product Manager what are the qualities or skill sets you look for?
I’m mostly looking for the following: good communication skills, the ability to work through problems (not just solve them), how they work with engineers, designers, and other stakeholders, past projects, their perspective on diversity & inclusion, ability to brainstorm in the problem space they’re interviewing for. Things I don’t care much about: certifications/degrees, domain expertise (to an extent, should still be knowledgeable, but for context, I had no video expertise starting in this role), where they went to school (if at all).
What things does a software engineer (no MBA degree) need to keep in mind while trying to move to product?
I graduated in CS and also don’t have an MBA. I think an MBA can help, but most of the PM’s I know don’t have one. The biggest thing I could say is to understand your users and the problems they face. Everything we build (or should build) can be rooted in a problem that someone faces. Start with the problem and figure out what other problems exist around it, and continue to build stories around addressing that problem. Then start thinking about a solution.
How can one ensure full commitment from the cross-functional teams?
Can you talk a bit about Data Science Product Managers?
I don’t know too much here, but there’s a lot of overlap between a data scientist and a PM. I spend a lot of time looking at and analyzing data to make informed decisions. I think the gap you need to make as a DS is to understand where your analysis leads and how it contributes to a product.
Any advice on looking for a mentor or building up a board of mentors to help you with different aspects of your career?
Product School seems to be full of people with good ideas, great place to look. I would also suggest Twitter. If there’s someone you follow that you look up to, strike up a conversation and see where it leads. Mentors are very important IMO. If you’re already working somewhere, check to see if there is a mentor program, if not, start one.
What piece of advice would you give to yourself ten years ago?
“Just chill out, man. It’ll all work out.”
How do you manage to keep others notified of project status?
It depends on the audience. For broad audiences, email still works best. For stakeholders that are not necessarily part of the product process (like marketing, trust, and safety, etc.), I hold syncs once in awhile to keep everyone on the same page. For people close to the product, we do standups daily and share docs.
Aside from SQL, what other “technical skills” could I develop to get into a product manager mindset?
Work to understand how the things you use everyday work. As a PM, we spend a lot of time defining the “what,” but understanding the “how” can help inform those decisions.
Any advice for aspiring product managers?
Be confident. We’re all product managers in our own lives. Identify problems that, if solved, can generate a large impact. Communicate well and fearlessly. Keep an open and growth mindset. Take feedback seriously, but understand it’s not always actionable, you need to find your own voice, not be a sounding board for everyone else. Push for diversity and inclusion on your teams. A good product has many perspectives. And above all, be empathetic to your users. Every success starts with a single user.
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