Some PM Career Advice (PM News #1 Snippets)

Advice from a PM at Airbnb & the inventor of the hashtag

hey! Anthony here. For PM News Issue #1, I interviewed Chris Messina & Luba Yudasina. Luba is a software engineer turned PM at Airbnb. Chris is a product designer and the inventor of the hashtag, with previous roles at Google and Uber.

Here are 4 highlights from my interview with them:

Modern companies want to know about your thought process. They want to know whether it’s efficient.

Did you spend lots of time, money, effort working on a final solution before you really understood what you were doing? Because from a company’s point-of-view, it’s very expensive to put people on projects. They either have to create a large initiative to make it worthwhile or they can make it a 20% project for people to do when they have availability.

They also want to understand your intention behind your projects.

Do you understand the problem deeply? Does your solution actually address the problem you set out to solve?

Chris used Instagram’s Threads app as an example.

It was made as a little side project by one of the members of the team. They used their knowledge of the Instagram product and the data and engagement surrounding their Close Friends feature, and they saw an opportunity where messaging to Close Friends can be made into a core part of the product. So they went ahead and built it as a side project and launched it.

Threads is a great example of stripping a product into it’s bare essentials . You make it super straightforward and simple so that you can experiment with whether people will actually like it or want to use it. And with that data, you make the decision on whether or not it’s worth pursuing.

The alternative to that approach would be rebuilding an entire photo-sharing app, which could take lots of resources. And you might not even learn anything because what you’ve built is too big and lacks focus. Companies want to know your process for discovering and learning insights based on the amount of effort that you’re putting in.

So when you’re presenting your portfolio for a product job, keep these questions in mind:

  • What was the problem that you were trying to solve for?

  • How did you evolve your understanding of the problem?

  • What were the measurements that you used to evaluate your progress along the way?

  • How did you measure them?

  • How good was your data?

  • What were the conversations that you had?

  • How far did you get down the path of really understanding your problem before you even started building?

  • Once you started building, what were the results?

  • What did you build?

  • What experiments did you do?

  • Who was involved?

  • What conversations did you have to evaluate your solutions?

  • And finally, what was the ultimate impact as a result of putting those products out into the marketplace?

Ultimately, what big tech companies want, from a product perspective, is someone with a method.

They want to know that if they hire you, there will be a structural process to the way that you work. They want to know that if you’re assigned to build an AR app, then your process is going to be translatable to that context, even if that’s not what you usually work on.

They want to know that you have the product skills to ask the right questions and to evaluate your work, as opposed to being tied to one form of execution. Your process should be generalizable to tackle any problem and erect a testable solution and product.

One advice that I have for professionals with any number of years of tenure is this: Your career is in your own hands.

If you want to get a certain opportunity, whether it be a product manager opportunity or something else, you should be proactive about trying to get experienced within that role before you even jump into the role.

You want to show people that “Hey, I can do this. I'm really excited about it. This is something that I want.” And you want to prove to yourself that this role is something you actually enjoy doing.

Once you start doing the job, it’s much easier to ask, “Look, I'm doing the work required for this role and I’m showing results. How do we make the transition official?”

PM roles are very collaborative, it requires a lot of leadership skills. And even though you’re not managing anyone directly, you're essentially managing a lot of different people in different functions. And you’re influencing them indirectly.

You have to showcase that you can take, maybe a small product to start with, from ideation to finish. And that you can execute on it. And that you can inspire people and work with them to actually make it happen.

I would say it's generally a bit easier to be a PM with a technical background, if you're in a tech company.

The fact that I can speak to engineers in the same language definitely helps. But I don't want to discourage anyone who doesn't necessarily have an engineering experience from transitioning into the PM role. Because there are a lot of great PMs that are not necessarily technical.

For me, having the ability to understand engineering problems, asking the right questions when engineers are talking about implementation constraints or product estimates that you might not necessarily agree with has helped. You can be on the same page with them and together come up with a better  way to build the product. 

You’ll also know how to not step on any engineers’ toes because you’ve been in that position before.

Through some successful projects that I had already done within Airbnb.

For some of the projects, I had to work with and lead people in other functions, and collaborate with a few different departments. This showed, “Hey, I also have great organizational and leadership skills outside of being an engineer.”

To give you a better perspective, as an entry level engineer, you’re doing a bunch of small tasks that are already well scoped out. You don’t really have room for working on bigger projects, leading people and convincing them that they should do a certain thing.

It was a combination of building up my reputation in the company before transitioning and building that story of growth using the projects that already lead from a technical PM perspective. Yes, I was “explicitly” an engineer on those projects but I was also a leader in them.

These were a few of the questions and answers from the interview. Some other topics we talked about:

  • The 2 ways to increase your total compensation as a PM

  • How to climb the product ranks all the way to Chief of Product, vertically & horizontally

  • Luba’s advice on how she builds relationships at Airbnb

  • Chris Messina’s advice on curing imposter syndrome

  • How to build your network to position yourself for product career growth

  • Companies Chris recommends to work for to improve your growth

  • And more…

For the full interview 👉 PM News: Issue #1

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Have a great rest of your day.