Understanding why customers have the problems that they do and solving those problems for them is the key reason why we need Product Managers. What kind of advice does The Foundry’s Product Manager, Rachel Ballard, give to the aspiring Product Managers to find these problems and also what would she do in their shoes if she was trying to break into Product? Our Slack Community asked and she responded.
Product Manager at The Foundry on Lighting and Look Development Product Group. Previously Product Manager at the same company for 3D Painting application. Before The Foundry she worked as the Marketing Content and Operations Manager at Luxology that was acquired by The Foundry. Along with her love for product, two of her favorite things in the world are playing the cello/piano and burrito-shaped english bulldogs.
How did you get into the world of product management?
I was part of a small company so I wore many hats. We got acquired by a larger company and I was given the opportunity to look after a bunch of small products (plug-ins and training products). I basically, took them and ran with them and created my own PM function around them. From there I moved on to larger apps inside our company.
What are some of the best approaches you use for user research / inputs?
At The Foundry we have two systems for input. One for external/customer and the other internal. We currently have what we call a “panel” of customers that we regularly meet with to discuss iterative product topics. We also have a panel that is setup and more “innovation” focused where we chat with the leading minds in our industry. In regards to internal, I meet with heads of all the various departments regularly to discuss similar topics and exchange feedback.
What do most young PM’s waste time on? What have most successful PM’s learned early?
I think one of the key things to being a successful PM is understanding why a customer has the problem they do. Extracting unbiased feedback from customers is something that isn’t easy to do and take practice. And for young PM’s, I would think that making the move from being execution-focused to being more strategic and actually being knowledgeable about your customer and industry is the hardest thing to do.
How do you put your skills into action to convince your colleagues to follow processes they shy away from?
That is a tough one. If you read up on the topic “driving your ideas through an organization” you will find some good feedback on where to start and how to get buy in from the people you work with. This is actually a really important skill to have and is worth learning up on.
How to break into product management as a recent product design graduate?
First, there are many recent graduate associate PM positions out there. I would also suggest joining groups or going to meetups in the space. There are a ton out there. And since you have a design background, do you have a portfolio? It’s a good thing to build and then reach out to PM’s for feedback.
What methods do you use to validate that a product or feature is worth building?
The way we decide what to build is stacked like this: toward the end of the year, we do a large amount of research to extract what the major problems are that we want to work on. And then, on an ongoing basis, we meet with our customers to talk about these things and present them with our plans to make sure we are on the right path.
And as soon as it’s possible, we start sharing mockups with them, and then actual product as soon as possible. The key is to keep them in the loop as much as possible so that we don’t go too far down the wrong path.
I think it’s a great thing to have. You will find that becoming a great PM is not easy to do, but the ones that are are the ones that continue to self educate outside of work, which is something a blog is great for. It’s not the only thing you can do to educate yourself, but it also aids in having a public face as PM when job searching, etc.
What product are you working on and what are your day-today activities as a PM?
I’m currently working on a group of creative tools for the Media and Production space. One of them is 3D painting application and the other is a Lighting and Look development app. We basically create artist tools for games, movies, etc. I spend most of my time meeting with all of the internal teams as well as our external customers. And when I’m not doing that, I spend a lot of time analyzing data and giving feedback to help drive the many decisions that need to be made.
Can you talk about your relationship with Experience/Product designers?
I’m involved with the process but mostly as an observer. Our technical PM works closely with the Dev and Design team. I am primarily involved in making sure that things stay aligned with what it is that we should be working on.
I have a bachelor’s degree in CS but I’m more interested in PM. How can I validate this before actually switching to product?
I have never worked in a large organization so I’m not sure how possible this would be for you, but if it was me, I would express my interest in becoming a PM and then ask someone in the PM function if there is a project I could help with, or even take part in the meetings to see if I might be able to add value.
Do you have any favorite/can’t live without tools? Do you see a market gap as far as a PM tool you wish existed?
That’s a really good question. I don’t have a favorite tool but I have often been frustrated by the fact that there are so many products out there that only help with bits and pieces of the process. Plus, it’s always very hard to get sign off and buy-in to use a new piece of software.
Does it bother you when aspiring PM’s reach out just for help or is there a best practice to this?
Not at all. You will find a lot of people that are willing to share their knowledge and help other people out. And for those that don’t, they usually just don’t respond. It’s always good to keep it short and focused on one or two things to be respectful of their time.
Pricing is a complex topic! There is a really great podcast that talks about a pricing strategy that we like to use that helps you understand how much your targets are willing to pay for your product. It’s called Pricing is Product Management.
Where does product management “sit” within your organization?
We actually just did a re-org last year so now PM is its own department that reports into Head of Media & Production (all products under this category) who reports directly into our CPO. We spend a lot of time working directly with our CPO, however.
What is the most valuable type of PM? “Tech guy”, “business guy” or a “sales-man”?
I don’t think that any of them can be called “most valuable”. I would think that each role brings a unique skill set to the table. It’s about mastering the key PM skills regardless of your background.
My advice is since what we use may be very different than what you would need, is to go online and search for PRD templates. Use it as a starting point and then mold it to what you think is needed. And then involve key stakeholders in tailoring it to the needs of the teams that will be using it.
Here is a good resource that helped me understand the PRD back when I was starting out. It’s called How To Write a Good PRD by Marting Cagan.
What is your best advice for “cracking the PM” interview for new PM’s?
There are a TON of resources out there. The one I really liked was one from Charles Du on cracking the PM interview. It really helps you to understand the perspective you need to have when answering common questions posed in a PM interview.
The other thing that is great to do is to go to Glassdoor and read all the feedback given about their interviews. I would also suggest reaching out to PM’s in the company you are interested in working in and asking them for advice. You will be surprised how many people are willing to help.