Product Management in the Biotech Industry with 23andMe Sr PM

This week our #AskMeAnything session welcomed Alison Kung, Senior Product Manager at 23andMe. Alison discussed Biotech product management about managing and leading the Ancestry product team as well as her experience switching from eCommerce to Biotech.

Meet Alison Kung

Alison is a data-driven Product leader, blending successful leadership with nonprofit program management experience to deliver customer-centric products. Currently, she is a Senior Product Manager at 23andMe, empowering people with access to and understanding of their genetic results. 

An inspiring speaker, Alison enjoys sharing her expertise in strategy development and user research to help other professionals deliver impactful products.

What frameworks do you use for prioritization roadmap (taking into account potentially different features, bug requests, random requests from stakeholders etc.)?

Recognizing that my current team/product doesn’t have that many stakeholders, I generally use the RICE method for my prioritization roadmap. We also have OKRs at 23andMe, so the first question we usually ask is how does the feature affect or drive an OKR.

Otherwise, for bugs, we look primarily at the impact it has on the % of customers and to our “health” metrics, which are the metrics each team chooses to evaluate how well their set of features is doing.

How do you find or evaluate which product ideas or futures will sit well with prospective customers?

There are numerous ways to test product ideas based on the idea and what we’re hoping to achieve. The first thing we figure out is the % of customers this affects. Because we are dealing with Ancestry results, there are some really clear use cases that we bucket our customers into. From there, we work with Consumer Insights and/or User Research to determine if we need to conduct a CI or UX study.

This is typically for brand new features versus iterations on current features. We also have used painted doors if we’re trying to figure out if someone is likely to purchase something.

Moving from eCommerce to Biotech, how much specific domain knowledge would you say you need to make this change successfully?

It definitely helped that I have an undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, but I see PM peers who have just been able to carry over their consumer-facing experience and apply it to our product.

We all have to learn the basics and how the genetics impact the results we provide, but I think any consumer-facing PM experience can be relevant for a role like mine. It’d be different if I was working on the Research side.

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What is your process like at 23andMe working across Triad of Dev, UX and PM? When do UX and PM start to work together with roadmap planning? What tools do you use for managing roadmap and product lifecycle management?

It starts with the daily conversations we have by all sitting together. This seems so simple, but I’ve realized that not all companies have their teams sit together. This has also been crucial at 23andMe, where we’re constantly working on multiple features while working on strategy at the same time.

For roadmap planning at 23andMe, we have a very cross-collaborative process where Product, Design, Engineering, and Research all review product priorities and determine which features are possible for each quarter based on the yearly plan.

The PM leads the conversation, but we put forward the outcomes we are hoping to achieve and brainstorm with the group. The PM also translates the company strategy and figures out the MVPs and test plans. For tools, we honestly just use Google docs and sheets.

How can someone prepare for PM interviews? Also, what do the interview rounds look like?

When I was applying and interviewing last time around, I found that it was very useful as an introduction to read “Cracking the PM Interview.” The book does a great job of explaining the fundamentals along with how to interview for different types of companies.

On top of preparing for the typical behavioral questions, it was most useful to practice product sense and execution questions using “Decode and Conquer” by Lewis Lin. I suggest googling the Facebook interview and CIRCLES method.

Because every company varies, I studied for Facebook and felt ready. Generally, companies will have a screening with the recruiter, then with the hiring manager, followed up with one to two in-person interviews that cover behavioral, product sense, and execution questions.

The game-changer was practicing answering these questions with PM friends, not just reading the Q&A from these books.

What challenges and entry barriers did you face transitioning from eCommerce to Biotech?

I definitely struggled when I first started at 23andMe. On top of the normal challenges that come with switching to a new job, it took me a while to understand the industry, customers and their needs, and inter-workings of a customer experience fueled by scientific algorithms.

The culture at 23andMe is fantastic in that my peers were great at onboarding me, but I think it took me longer than it would have taken a Biotech Product Manager to figure out how to deliver value. I struggled with figuring out how to take my eCommerce learnings and applying them to Biotech, but it’s important to remember that how a customer interacts with a website is generally the same across the board.

When did you set about immersing yourself in the Biotech industry knowledge, before or after the job?

It helped me to get the job by knowing the 23andMe product really well, which I studied and luckily had been a customer for two years before I applied. Otherwise, everything else I’ve learned has been on the job. It’s required reading current news (such as signing up for daily newsletters) or talking to people on other teams, such as Business Development and Research.

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As a career switcher, how did you land your first product management role?

To be honest, I applied to many roles when I was nearing graduation from business school. The first thing I did was to reach out to contacts, alumni or people I looked up on LinkedIn to conduct informational interviews. I talked to various PMs to learn what it’s like to be a PM at their companies and to find out how receptive they would be in taking a career switcher.

At the same time, I also applied to as many associate PM or PM roles that asked only for a year or two of experience. They’re not easy to find, but that was what I ultimately landed- an Associate PM role at a big company, where I was lucky enough to find a manager who was willing to train and take on someone like me.

During the interview process, I realized that my story in taking relevant courses, having leadership roles in school and also doing an internship in eCommerce was what got my resume noticed.

What do you look for in a potential PM just starting out? Do you have any APM roles?

Depending on the maturity and needs of a company’s product team, they may choose to have APM roles. I have found they are not easy to find, and typically, like at 23andMe, they’re usually used as a vehicle to funnel exemplary internal candidates who know the product and operations already.

Of course, if a team is willing and looking for someone starting out, I typically look for someone who has demonstrated a passion for product by taking on side projects, whether at their current job or outside of it. I have found that a lot of people say they want to be Product Managers without actually getting to know what that means or trying it out in some sense or form.

How did your MBA degree play in a role for career switching?

For me personally, I think my MBA was crucial in allowing me to career switch. My undergrad education and first job experience did not teach much in terms of how a business works, and how to formulate and communicate a strategy.

I had never taken finance, accounting or marketing class before business school, so my MBA brought me up to speed and more importantly, allowed me to be a successful PM starting out. Not every MBA is like this, but my experience taught me frameworks and communication skills (I used to tremble while presenting, and I had never created a deck before business school).

How challenging is the product development sector in biotech and pharma industries compared to tech companies? And what are the challenges a life science scientist would come across to put their feet in the product sector? What kind of disruption can we expect in biotech sector on product scale?

I wouldn’t say it’s more or less challenging in biotech compared to traditional tech companies. We just deal with different data and customers.

My former boss at 23andMe was a neuroscience Ph.D. that moved into Product, so it’s definitely possible. I think it’s the same as any other career switcher, where you have to learn how Product works and how a Product Manager adds value. As long as you’re passionate about Product and look for many ways to gain the knowledge beyond your own company, it’s achievable to make the switch. It’s also about landing on the right opportunity too.

As for what kind of disruption we can expect in biotech from a product perspective, I think you’ll see more and more of an integration between health and tech. People generally are looking to live healthier lives, so the more data we capture and analyze, the more you’ll see companies developing ways to make an impact on their daily lives. At the end of the day, as PMs, we’re trying to fulfill customer needs, so we’ll see where that takes us.

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UX Design vs Product design and development- what are the differences and similarities here? Could someone working to break into UX also do product design? Can you speak a bit to the overlap and differences from one careers switcher to another?

I’m not the best person to answer this, but this highly depends on the company and how they define UX design vs product design. For example, when I was at Macy’s, they had a creative designer and a UX person, but that was starting to merge when I left.

At 23andMe, we only have product designers who are responsible for both the creative (specs) and user interactions. Based on my understanding, people do move from UX to product design, but you just have to make sure to learn the design principles and how to use the same tools as a product designer.

What do you think is unique about you that led you to lead the product team at 23andme? How do you stand out and do things differently?

In many ways, all of my career advances as a PM have been due to being in the right place at the right time. Still, on top of the right opportunity coming along, I’ve always made sure to manage up and to demonstrate that I care about the company and our customers as a whole versus just thinking of my team or product scope. A lot of this has come from my MBA experience, which allows me to think about the marketing, finance, and operational aspects of our consumer business.

I imagine with certain tech products, introducing new features for customers is faster than with genetic products/services like those offered by 23andMe. Am I right? If yes, then what does your day to day look like? I am trying to gauge whether product management in some industries is very different than others.

It depends on what you’re trying to achieve with the feature, but that’s generally true. For example, it took a year to launch an updated Size filter with groupings (i.e. Men’s Pant Sizes broken down into Waist and Inseam) at Macy’s because it required me to create an internal tool to do the mappings. The data systems were complex and messy, so it took a long time to get the data in a place to launch the feature to the customer.

Otherwise, because there’s a huge research and algorithm development component at 23andMe, we can’t launch results till those steps occur. Still, my day-to-day is a mix of working with research on the reports/results in progress, tracking customer behavior with current features to identify improvements, launching the new results and iterations of the customer experience, while managing and developing my team.

It’s different from my eCommerce role due to the Research component, but it’s also not too different because both roles had upstream teams that we depended on to launch features to customers.

How do you validate new concepts at 23andMe? Are you able to run experiments like A/B tests? Does sensitivity on personal data make that process very difficult?

Yes, the PMs perform extensive A/B testing. We don’t actually run tests on people’s results, but instead, they’re run on how the customer experience and results are presented. Before A/B tests are done on customers, we will usually dogfood them internally and sometimes with our Beta program if it makes sense.

We have very high-security standards (ISO 27001 certified) and uphold our customers’ privacy as an utmost priority. We’re also the only direct to consumer genetic test to be FDA-approved and regulated, so we have a lot of testing in place before customers see anything. Our A/B tests are also performed on our signed-in experience, so you have to login in order to view them.

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