5 Lessons I Learned as a PM in Silicon Valley

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During the past twelve weeks I was a Product Manager intern at PayPal in San Jose. The summer internship was a bold and important step for me – as an MBA student, I was passionate about working in the exciting tech industry, as well as curious about adjusting myself to the American working culture. All my professional experience being in China before the summer, it would be fascinating to work together with the smart people from all around the world in Silicon Valley.

I had a brief experience as a PM with Alibaba last summer for my pre-MBA internship; to me it was a prelude about being a product manager – what the role is about, and how a PM works in a tech company. This summer I interned at PayPal’s merchant servicing group, which is a software service function at an established internet company. I worked with more seasoned managers and leaders in the Valley. On top of what I have learned at Alibaba, I have applied the first year’s education I received at Wharton to my role and transformed myself into a “real PM” at work. Here are five lessons of the many I have learned as a PM in the summer –

  1. Help your team get inspired.

I once asked my boss in one of our earliest meetings “Why do you need me to articulate the product’s purpose and impact to you?” At the meeting room, my boss made me learn the first value of a PM – she/he should tell the story of a product to various roles in a team, and help the team get inspired. While I was talking about the purpose of the product again and again to my boss, I was not ensuring that we both understand the feature, but ensuring that I can articulate it in a clear, succinct way that people who spend time on making mock-ups, writing codes, creating content…would all understand it, and get pumped about working on a meaningful feature. As the one closest to the business, PM have different skillsets than the other members in the team, and it is the PM’s job to use her/his business skillset to interpret the product and influence the team.

  1. Talk, validate with users in an open mind.

The most exciting part of being a PM is talking with users. It’s nearly one of the most important part of a PM’s job as I see it, since the execution and quality of talking with users really sets your product decisions from broad to focused. Before talking with the actual users, one can usually get so much from dog-fooding, and sometimes the knowledge of her own product/company would become blind spots for a PM to realize pains for users.

I did user research sessions with twelve merchant users of our product in the lab. When talking with each merchant for an hour, I conducted interviews and mapping exercise to get user opinions on pain points, and I used product prototypes to gauge insights on product. Two things are very important in leading such user researches: 1. Talk and validate the hypothesis using structured methods. Take control of the research since people tend to talk on about things they are familiar with, which might not be research objectives. 2. Bring your assumptions to the mock-ups, but talk with users with an open mind. It’s easy for a PM to overlook the “a-ha” moments in users’ narrative if she is obsessed with her assumptions. Mock-ups or prototypes would be a better way to test the product hypothesis specifically, since they are more concrete. In a word, try formulate the study with different study methods, so you can get more thorough user insights.

  1. Always ask about the outcome (rather than the output).

At PayPal a PM usually use “user story” on Rally to plan development needs and manage iterations. A user story should follow the structure of “As a…I want…so that…” as a start. In a good user story, a PM should point out the scope, the function, as well as the acceptance criteria of the product, in an accurate and comprehensive way. A good user story must connect the feature with the business outcome, which often ties with the metrics/measurements closely. The mindset of thinking about outcome (the “so that” and measurement parts) is a great tool for me when I need to make product decisions. A good metaphor is, when you are planning to dig a hole – develop a product, make sure you will plant a tree from it – don’t leave the hole there, harvest a meaningful outcome.

  1. Own the entire product experience; be curious and connect.

Although people talk about PMs as “mini-CEOs” to the products, the implication of the analogy is more about excellent execution, ownership, than a kind of mysterious “power” or control. A good PM should own the entire product experience – from the pain point discovery, ideation, to the actual flow development and UX, and the legal compliance, globalization strategy, the go-to-market strategies, and further iterations from customer feedback data. The chain of tasks, considering phases of product could vary, but one certain thing is that a PM should always be good at working in a multithreading way, peacefully. In the working environment, especially in a big organization, this skillset is translated into curiosity and the ability to connect resources. Since different people and teams are working on various projects for a general strategy, a PM will be the one to break the silos between groups in a big tech company and work to maximize the productivity of an organization. So be curious about people and their projects is not only important for a PM, but also for the company as a organic body.

  1. Stand up, and speak up. Be a leader in your team.

This one is rooted in one of the ceremonies – the “stand-up” is an everyday short meeting of the “three-in-a-box” team to talk about the tasks they did and plans they have. It is great for team members to catch potential problems in teamwork, and identify road-blockers and remove them early to avoid delays. As a PM it is important to glue the team by sticking to such ceremonies and speak up in the stand up. I noticed that even PMs with years of experience could get strange concepts in the industry, and they would ask questions in the stand-up sessions. The way technology develops makes the terms and knowledge evolve fast. Speak up about the question-marks you have, no matter how naive they might sound. Because usually people get embarrassed about asking “silly” questions, and a bigger problem might come from it; when in fact, it is the best situation for clearing the problems up in a team’s setting like a stand-up. As a PM with less “tech skills” than engineers or UEDs, it’s particularly crucial for her/him to ask questions and lead the open, honest discussion in a stand-up every day.

So these are my five lessons learned as a PM in the summer. They might be either cliche or inspirations to you. But I am happy to write those lessons into this piece of article and have you as my reader. Moreover, I really feel grateful to my manager, and my role models of great female leaders. It’s time to go back to school for a second year of MBA. I will explore relevant product lectures at Wharton and welcome to connect with me and have more discussions on product management, being a confident leader, and new technologies.

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