Love What You Do with Disney’s Product Manager
Having the passion for what you do is very important, as every Product Manager would agree. Loving what you do motivates you to build great products and features, and making your customers happy is what makes you happy.
Product manager at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Digital joined us for a live Q&A session in Slack, to talk about why he loves working at Disney and if it’s all pure magic.
Brandon works as a Product Manager for the Walt Disney Company in the most magical place on earth, Orlando, FL. He manages product design & development for one of Disney’s mobile applications in the eCommerce space, “Shop Disney Parks”. He’s been at Disney for about 4 years. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration.
How did you get your PM job at Disney and do you have any advice for those just starting out in this field?
I started here as an intern. Then became a Project Manager in a department involved with big data. I moved over to Product about two years ago because I wanted to be more connected to the user experience (what we call the “Guest Experience” here at Disney).
I got my internship because I had a previous internship at ESPN (owned by Disney). I got that internship because I networked my butt off and stayed curious. I genuinely engaged with people who were where I wanted to be eventually. When they saw my desire to learn, they were eager to help!
What’s it like working for Disney in the Product Management side?
I’d be lying if I said it was all magic. Honestly, I love every second of it. It can get frustrating to deal with politics just like in any large company, but people are innovative, creative, collaborative, and passionate about the brand. Can’t ask for much more than that!
As a Product Manager, what do you think is an important but often unsexy/neglected part of the job?
Sustainment of the app is critical. To be honest, we don’t do a spectacular job at it. We, like any company, are tempted by immediate opportunities for bottom line increases. New features are much easier to pass through leadership approvals than large amounts thrown at maintaining the functionality of the app.
That being said, having a brand that is as strong and as trusted as Disney, it’s vital that we don’t let the quality of the product slip. It’s a constant fight, but one I’m trying to give more exposure to in this role.
What advice do you have for someone trying to get a job at Disney?
I wish I had a more encouraging answer to share here, but Disney is a really tough company to get into. They treat their employees extremely well, and because of that, we have a lot of people that are here for their entire careers. That makes new opportunities relatively hard to come by. That being said, there are around 69,000 Cast Members (that’s what Disney calls our employees. We’re all part of the show, after all.) in Orlando alone!
So there are certainly opportunities if you know where to look. I’d say the best way to get your foot in the door here is to know someone. For better or for worse, Disney weighs company connections/experience extremely heavily when looking for new hires. I’ve found most people here are willing to chat if you just ask. So don’t be afraid to do that.
With a company as large as Disney do you find it difficult to coordinate products between groups that are treated as wholly separate companies?
Departments run almost like different businesses in and of themselves. This presents a challenge when it comes to getting everyone to buy off on strategy, funding, design, etc. Disney has a lot of processes put in place to try and streamline approvals and get teams working together efficiently, but it is still extremely tricky to do that well.
I’ve found that the best way to ensure all partners remain on the same page is simply to keep them in the loop. Make sure that everyone involved in the product feels like their voice is heard as it is built. If not, you’ll have them kicking and screaming all the way through the final stages of whatever it is you are delivering, if for no other reason than they want to feel like their department was representing the product.
How do you keep your developers motivated?
For my team and me, I try to keep them focused on what makes this product “uniquely Disney.” Who else gets to be in meetings concerning Mickey Mouse, Grumpy the Dwarf, and Ariel the Princess Mermaid? Often as devs get lost in the weeds in sprints, it’s important to pull them back up out of that to remind them that what we are building is enabling families to create lifelong memories together.
What they do directly contribute to the magic that helps people through a lot of what they are going through in life. So in short, I try to keep them focused on the purpose of why they are building what they are building. I’d encourage you to do the same for whatever product it is you are building.
It’s an easy connection to make for Disney, but there are obviously many products out there doing extremely important things to better the world around us. Keep them focused on that before you have them focused on the details of the deliverables.
With so much of creativity and inspiration around, how does your design process in general and ideation and prioritization, in particular, look like?
Awesome question. Sure, it’s a great problem to have to have so much creativity that we don’t know what to work on next. But it’s a problem, nonetheless. Our prioritization of our roadmap lays primarily at the feet of my department.
They give us a lot of say as to where we want the product to go. Everything is vetted through the leadership of course, but we decide what gets worked on and when for the most part. As far as new features go, we try to listen to everyone who wants to share. Whether that be other Lines of Business within the company, Guests, others on the team, whoever.
We try to be as open-minded as we can. Then from there, with our broader strategic vision in mind, we try to pair down what features put us in the best position to deliver on that vision.
What would you say are some of your day-to-day challenges and currently, what are some of the core problems that you are trying to solve?
We have got to figure out how to build a product that is valuable to our Guests. Currently, although we have a great rating on the app store, we are struggling to figure out what differentiates our product from other offerings that Disney has. We have got to figure out what needs of the Guest our app is trying to meet. Then we need to hammer on those until everyone who uses it clearly understands the value they are getting.
Being completely transparent, that’s been extremely difficult to do. Leadership drives a lot of what the broader merchandise and eCommerce strategies are here. We can build an excellent product. But building a product that isn’t meeting the correct needs is something we are struggling with at the moment.
What would you say is your favorite part of your job?
Once I was standing on Mainstreet with my wife waiting for the fireworks, show behind the castle, and in front of me was a family of 4 all looking down at their phones. No one was talking to each other, and they all look completely uninterested in the magical world that was around them.
Then, the fireworks started. The song that accompanied the fireworks was narrated by Jiminy Cricket himself as he spoke about dreaming big and seeing your wishes come true. As soon as those things started, they all looked up from their phones and began to pay attention.
Slowly, throughout the show, they all got a little closer. By the end, each of them had their arms wrapped around each other as they all watched the spectacle in front of them. As the show ended, they were emotional and shared with each other how much they loved each other and were thankful for this vacation together.
I looked at my wife and said, “that is why I love my job.” Yes, I love the product we build. Yes, I love the team I work with. But mostly I love the brand that what we build represents. No one does it like Disney. No one. To be a part of that, in even a small, small way is something I’ll never take for granted for the rest of my career.
Who’s your favorite Disney character?
Pluto. Mickey’s #1 pal.
Did the recent closures for the hurricane affect any of your production or deadlines?
Fortunately, no. My team is based around the world so although things had to shut down here, development kept moving forward for the most part!
Do you believe in hiring for the skillsets or finding the right candidate or is it a mix of both?
I believe firmly in hiring the right candidate. Skills can be taught (for the most part). Team chemistry is everything to me. Especially in a company as “culture driven” as Disney is.
How do you keep your products on the cutting edge? How do you stay out in front of what is already in the market?
I’ll answer this using a quote from Ol’ Walt himself. “Around here, however, we don’t look backward for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
He uses one of my all-time favorite words here, “curiosity.” I’d say, from what I’ve seen, we continue to press boundaries because we refuse to become complacent. That, combined with the discipline of always acting in the best interest of the Guest, and protecting the Guest experience, has allowed us to build some extremely cool, and cutting-edge stuff.
Walt also said, “Never forget, that it all started with a Mouse.” That’s a funny quote, but there is a lot of truth in it. Don’t over complicate it or stray too far from where it all began. People love Mickey Mouse and that’s ok just as it is. Of course, we innovate from what we’ve done in the past, but we try not to reinvent what the Guest already loves about what Walt built.
Where do you go for inspiration when faced with a tough challenge?
For work-related challenges, I literally leave my office and walk into one of our parks. I walk the streets as a guest and experience our product from their point of view. Most of my inspiration comes out of that exercise, and I do it often! I will ride the Hollywood Tower of Terror ride rocking my business casual attire.
There simply is no substitute for experiencing the product from your end user’s point of view. It just so happens my end users are eating ice cream in the parks and meeting Darth Vader. So I certainly am spoiled haha.
Any final advice for aspiring product managers?
I’d say that the best advice I can give is to remain obsessed with the user experience. Don’t get lost in User Stories and Defects. Use your product as if you were a genuine consumer of it. Do you enjoy using it? Is it valuable to you? If you don’t even enjoy using your product, no one else will either. Stay focused on delivering value to your user, and that’s a great place to build everything else from.