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Developing Digital Products with CNN Product Manager Alex Crumpler

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This week, Product School‘s #AskMeAnything session welcomed CNN Product Manager, Alex Crumpler!

Alex dives into his role at CNN and provides detailed insights on managing product teams, landing a Product Management job and developing digital products. Curious about how Product Managers have broken into and mastered their roles? Then join our Product Management Slack Community and ask them!

Alex Crumpler’s Bio

 alex crumpler Developing digital products CNN product management

Alex Crumpler is a storytelling thought leader guiding a high-performing cross-functional team that builds best-in-class experiences across CNN‘s core news platform. Alex came to CNN from Sharecare in 2016, where he spent over five years growing the startup, steering the social media strategy and moving forward the company’s personalized digital health offerings. Prior to Sharecare, he held several media positions in the web video and content publishing spaces for HowStuffWorks.com. He has a decade of technology leadership in small and large companies and a passion for growing teams.

Developing Digital Products at CNN

The products you ship have the potential to go to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of users. How do you ensure that you’re incorporating user feedback into what you ship & how do you organize and make sense of user feedback on such a massive scale?

We use a variety of tools, from Optimizely to Applause. We even eat our own dog food by walking around the organization getting feedback from folks that may not be included in developing the digital products that we are building. Our audience research division is also an invaluable partner that is constantly giving us data and user insights on weekly basis to help us steer our products evolution.

You had a hand in developing digital products for CNN Live Stories mobile and I see that your goals were around increasing engagement and reducing exit rates. What kinds of tools did you use to get these results? How did you prioritize what features to test when it came to this project or other mobile projects at CNN?

This product was simply amazing to build. We used user research and metrics from a legacy product to hone in on the problems that our audience was having with the old experience, before making the new one.

Since we built this product from scratch, back-end to front-end, which organically helped prioritize what was most important. Then, once we got a foundation, we put our code into production and iteratively kept adding to it until there was cross-functional recognition that that product was ready for our consumers to see it.

How has the flash briefing skill on Alexa contributed to CNN’s viewership? Do you know if it added net new readers, or are existing readers just consuming CNN content through this new distribution channel?

While I am not super close to this specific product, I can say that we have an “off-platform” team that works on these types of products. I know that we recognized that voice has a play in our news space and with the rise of the smart speaker market, we wanted to be where our customers are and are going.

How do you measure and define the product KPIs at CNN?

My cross-functional team and I sit down and hash those out. Also, the business at a top level has defined certain KPIs that all teams need to ladder up to.

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What product, tool or view have you put out that you are most proud of?

I am going to have to answer this in two ways…

  1. If consumer-facing, then the Live Story product. We basically built a company in 9 months with a small, nimble and passionate team.
  2. If in a leadership setting, then I would say my Read team at CNN. While still in progress, we’ve become the model of the way other teams should be working at CNN Digital. We are bought in, passionate, empowered, accountable and self-organizing.

Can you throw some light on your approach of storytelling as a PM since business, tech, marketing and design have different understandings of the story to be built?

It all starts with a cross-functional strategic group. At CNN, my team is composed of one lead from each of our SBUs. Think product, delivery, engineering, design/UX, editorial, business operations, research. We each have a stake in the product and discuss the product as a team. Everyone has a voice and builds together the narrative of how we want the product to take shape.

Has working at CNN become more challenging since the last presidential elections?

The biggest opportunity that we have faced at CNN Digital is moving from a service-oriented model to a more cross-functional model. The presidential election has had no impact on the day-to-day from a Product Manager point of view.

Landing a Product Management Job

How did you land your first product job? What did you do to prepare yourself?

I stumbled into my first product job by working for a startup where it organically happened. I was simply asked to wear the “hat”. Maybe take a chance with a startup that needs someone to wear multiple hats. Leverage your technical background to take a technical PM job and be open with your leadership that you want to evolve into a non-technical product manager.

Do you believe Project Managers should take additional courses or certificates to become Product Managers, or is it possible to do it with the knowledge they have?

I am a continual learner so if you think you have a gap that needs some formal training or structure then go for it. I personally don’t think a product manager certificate will land you a product job. A better approach would be to take a more formal product course and learn by doing, meaning if you can, shadow a PM in your organization or ask for more PM duties.

I’d like to know what is the main experience employers look for in PMs? Scrum certification or experience, CS degrees, PM certifications?

In my experience, we look to hire a person and not for the position. Are you a people person with a passion for solving problems? That is what my team and I look for. Any organization is going to teach you their secret sauce. My perspective is that you don’t need those certificates for a product role. PMs come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. I personally look for PMs with high levels of emotional intelligence and intellectual humility.

Which is better for personal growth, Project Manager or Product Manager?

My perspective is that both roles offer their unique challenges and opportunities. Think about the roles in this way…Do you have a passion for speaking with your customers and ideation or a desire to do delivery of those ideas or solutions?

I have a social & content background and I highlight this in my resume, but I haven’t found that it has helped me thus far. In your experience, should this be highlighted, or should one stick to highlighting PM and technical experience only, as most jobs require more technical experience? How can content and product overlap?

I think it is how you articulate it. Just think that in social, you are interfacing with your customers in a very out-front way. Pump up your ability working with any social analytics tools and weave that into a narrative that you produce social content (or products), leverage analytics to see how they are performing and then make adjustments to the end product. If you say it this way, then you are sending a message that you have an iterative and continuous improvement mindset which is imperative to have as a PM.

What is your advice or suggestion for a PM who wants to make a transition from a small startup to a large one?

I dig this question very much because I grappled with the same question when I made the transition. The way I articulated the move in my head was that I thought of where I wanted to go in my career and made a connection that I needed enterprise-level experience. I would just make sure that the culture at the enterprise-level has some startup characteristics to it so it is not such a shock to the system if you know what I mean.

I have a tech background but lack any product experience. How should I prepare my resume to apply for a PM role and do hiring managers show interest in product certifications from a school like Product School?

I think the valuable work that Product School offers provides a good foundational skill set that makes you marketable. If coming from a technical background, I would say that I see those folks recognizing that they may need some more public speaking or people management skills.

Not to say that a technical background doesn’t come with that, just highlighting that in my experience, from what’ve I seen. As a PM, you are the face of the team and will be interfacing with many people and teams across the organization and beyond. As a PM, you have to be very comfortable talking to people and guiding direct and indirect reports towards a northern light.

I know you mentioned you hire based on humility and who the person is, but I’m afraid employers can’t see that when they look at a resume. How can I get that initial interview to show them my personality and who I am?

So true and great question. Maybe think about different ways of presenting the information on your resume. For example, like presenting it in a more visual and creative way. This would show me that you may be an out of the box thinker and explore new ways of doing things.

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Product Management Resources and Skills

What are some of the qualities of the best Product Managers you have ever come across? What really set them apart?

On my goodness…phenomenal question!

  1. Transparent
  2. Humble
  3. Positive

What’s your favorite book or author on Product Management?

Here’s a short list of some of my favorite Product Management Books:

  1. Dream Teams
  2. Product Leadership
  3. Sprint
  4. Creative Confidence

Can you offer a few tips to assist with implementing new processes and efficiencies for a growing cross-functional product team?

You’ve hit on a passion of mine. I would advise one to simply be open with your team that “hey, we are trying this new thing, let’s see if it works” and be open to including everyone on your team. If you build in team equity around an initiative, then it’ll be that much easier to get going.

Any final advice?

Quick parting thought. I hope each of you aspires to be leaders as part of your product journey. It is very important that you guide, coach, and always be positive to keep your team(s) moving forward. Here’s a good quick read on Product Leadership vs Product Management and Balancing Perspectives.

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