Top Skills of a Successful PM with Skyscanner Director of Product
This week, #AskMeAnything welcomed Doron Hallis, Director of Product Management at Skyscanner! Doron is a senior executive with extensive product and business development experience in e-commerce, technology, travel and all that lies between. Read on to hear his responses to community questions about his PM skills and experiences. Have some questions that you would like advice on? Then join us next time!
Doron has been a Product Manager in both large multinational corporations and small start-ups. In his 11 years of Product Management, he has done both B2C and B2B, front-end and back-end, as well as forging and managing many product partnerships. He has a particularly keen interest in the travel industry and for many years was a key part of the team behind Expedia’s proprietary flight shopping engine. Today, Doron is Director of Product Management at Skyscanner where he manages a team of Product Managers working on the core flight search engine. He spends most of his time driving the strategy of the search engine and recruiting and retaining the best product talent.
What is your advice for young professionals trying to break in Product Management?
I think it depends on the background. We typically hire entry-level from universities and it’s mainly about intellect and having a well-rounded skill-set. As PMs, we deal with a wide range of stakeholders from many disciplines, so it’s really important to be able to understand the users and empathize with the stakeholders. We also typically like to see excellent analytical skills, as much of the day job is around data. Other than that, we have PMs from every possible background. One of my best people has a background in linguistics. We also have scientists, historians and of course ex-software engineers.
Who helped you most in your career and how?
I would say that was probably my first manager, when I was still an engineer, who pointed me in the right direction after it was clear that coding was not my forte.
When hiring a PM, what information should the best candidate’s resume contain?
I’d like to see solid experience managing a meaningful product with clear evidence of working with Lean principles. Our PMs are very autonomous, so we need to see evidence of working very autonomously on holistic products in a lean fashion.
What are three things I should work on getting or highlight on my resume?
Analytics is a great place to start, as that is a large part of the day job. Growth hacking is also an excellent entry point, as it also involves working lean, and “getting one’s hands dirty”. Strong evidence of managing initiatives with many moving parts in a multidisciplinary environment is also a good idea, although it’s important to stress that Product Management is not Project Management.
What advice do you have for breaking into a product role in an industry like travel?
There is no silver bullet when targeting an industry. Networking is a great place to start. You can seek out people from the travel industry at events and through LinkedIn. Another option is to really study the industry and start blogging about current affairs in the industry. I know someone who developed such a high standard, that he ended up being headhunted directly by a travel company.
It also depends on what stage you are at in your career. If grad level, many big companies like Expedia and Skyscanner have grad recruitment programs. If you have experience, you can always find a role in the industry within your field and then upskill from inside the company. I have seen several cases where this has succeeded.
How did you transition from B2B to B2C? What are some challenges you faced in the transition?
That’s an excellent question. I guess I was lucky in a way. When I moved into B2C they were more interested in my core product skills than whether I was consumer facing. So therefore it’s important to highlight transferable skills.
How much coding is helpful to be a Product Manager?
I haven’t found it too helpful other than writing the occasional Excel macro. However, understanding programming logic and being able to speak to engineers in their language is very helpful!
What areas of Computer Science should I develop to become a PM?
PM work is about prioritizing, analyzing and communicating. Prioritization is always about making hard trade-offs. That comes with experience, but you can read a lot of case studies on hard choices PMs have had to make and that will help you get into those shoes.
Analysis is really about being able to synthesize a lot of data and make decisions based on it and communication is something you should already have a good grasp of. Also, shadowing a PM is another great idea. We have a program like that at Skyscanner and have recently transitioned an engineer into an entry-level PM role on the basis of the shadowing experience.
With the importance of analytics to PMs, what do you think about the current state of being a Product Manager and a Data Scientist?
I think it’s very valuable indeed. However, just like people with coding backgrounds, I don’t think you need to code in order to succeed, but understanding the ML concepts in order to solve customer problems is a great asset and will serve you well as a PM.
What are the top 5 PM skills to present stories and showcase your potential to be successful?
4. Multidisciplinary view of the world
5. Customer empathy
What were the greatest challenges you faced transitioning from engineering to PM?
Without a doubt, there is a tendency for engineers to offer solutions. As PMs, we are here to provide the “What” and the “Why”, never the “How”. It took me a while to stop trying to solution. In addition, engineers also have a tendency to underestimate the complexity of a given task, so as a new PM, initially I would provide unhelpful cues to the engineers about what I was asking for was so easy. This is also a mistake.
How do your teams handle dependencies between all the other teams at the company?
This is exactly why I highlighted communication as the top PM skill. It’s all about communication. At Skyscanner, we work in a Tribes and Squads model. We embed the different disciplines directly into the squad unit so that we can minimize the dependencies, but these still exist and we always have a very full diary working with other teams to prioritize and align everyone.
I don’t think it’s exceptionally valuable to go deep on every new “hot flavor” as a PM. The core skills I mentioned before are what we test for when hiring PMs. Having said that, reading avidly and keeping a high-level knowledge of what’s going on is helpful, as once a solution to a problem is using a new concept, it is possible to use the basic knowledge to find the right resource to go deeper. Going deep is usually done by a different discipline, like engineering or data science.
When you say much of your day job is around data, what tasks does that entail?
As a Product Director, most of my day job is around management, but my team does a lot of analysis. A good example is collecting data from our web analytics tool to understand the level of accuracy of the prices on Skyscanner. That data then helps to prioritize solutions to improve the accuracy of our product.
How does a PM collect feedback from end users?
There are many ways:
1. Talking to consumers
2. Having feedback buttons from within the application
3. Analytics that aggregate consumer behavior. Through these analytics we can find issues with the product that we can fix before a user actively provides feedback
Do you have any techniques or examples of how your product teams have created successful feedback systems?
The fundamental thing to start with is to think as a customer. This is easy to do at Skyscanner, as we are all customers and it is easy to empathize with the customer. We also have a user-satisfaction team with whom we work very closely with, who get a lot of feedback from Twitter, Facebook and the like.
We also have a feedback button on every page and we get a lot of feedback from all over the world which is very helpful. Finally, we have “Exposure Hours” where we have real users come to the office and we watch them interact with the product.
What are the traits you want to see in an up and coming Product Manager?
Definitely a customer-first mentality. Companies that do not put the customer first will not prevail. In addition, the ability to take large problems and break them down into manageable pieces is super important. I also want to see very structured communication and basing everything communicated on facts.
What have you found to be the most difficult part of your PM role?
The hardest thing is keeping everyone happy. Product Management is always about trade-offs and these trade-offs are sometimes unpopular. Managing that conflict is hard…
What is one skill that helped you be successful as a PM?
Definitely big picture thinking while having the ability to get into the weeds. Think of it as like an internal zoom-in/zoom-out button.
Do you tend to lean towards hiring PMs with an engineering background? Or do you also consider those with a business background?
Depends on experience. I like having people with quant degrees at the entry level, as that sets them up well. When hiring experienced people, the background is a lot less important than the actual PM experience.
I am currently a software engineer trying to break into product management. What would you look for on my resume?
Think of work you did as a developer when you prioritized, managed and communicated with stakeholders and had to make hard tradeoffs.
Any advice for remote teams and how to lead without being present?
Videoconferences are wonderful. We have a team distributed throughout Europe and we use Zoom which works really well. Every meeting has a Zoom link and people participate no matter where they are. Having said that, we do travel and like to have periodic face time.
It also helps when there are many remote people and not just one or two who tend to feel excluded. As a leader, it’s important to visit my remote teams periodically and also to document heavily and over-communicate in general.
What is your favorite part of your job as a PM?
I love having both business and engineering to deal with on a daily basis. I love working with many disciplines.
How involved are you in Product decisions?
I try to keep my PMs very autonomous on a day to day level. However, at the strategic level when planning ahead and making really big bets, I get very involved.
What are some good books you found helpful during your early PM days?
Can you briefly go over your interview process for potential Product Manager?
We focus about 50:50 on cultural fit and product skills. We do that by doing a couple of cases studies as part of the interview process which involves real-life prioritization decisions within our problem space. We test for structured answers, good use of data and good time management. Experienced candidates also have a deep-dive into their PM experience.
Do you have any advice on communicating technical data to non-technical remote business types?
We use Confluence and document everything but it is hard and the more technical the task, the harder it becomes. Face to face meetings with stakeholders and a lot of handholding is priceless.
What are my chances of transitioning into a Product Management role from a Software Project Management role?
Within your company, absolutely and I have seen that happen countless times. It’s a lot harder to move into a new discipline and change companies at the same time. Regardless, you would probably need to take a more junior role.
How do you re-build a broken communication in a team?
I always ask for help from an external facilitator and have a team refresh meeting which is mediated by the facilitator. A proper retro is done and the idea is to reboot.
What’s the culture like at Skyscanner? How do Product Managers at Skyscanner differ from other companies?
At Skyscanner, the customer is above everything else. Therefore, we will never engage in dark patterns of tricking customers into buying something they don’t need or designing our product in a way that results in a degradation of the customer experience even if it means more revenue for us. This is very unique and makes it a very rewarding place to work.
Any final advice?
I would highly recommend following Product Management resources on Medium. There is a lot to learn from these articles. Also, reach out to people via LinkedIn and go to PM community events. If you already are a PM, always keep your customer in mind. If you always do what’s best for the customer, the product will succeed. Good luck, everyone!