Learning in Product – Ellen Chisa (ProductTank NYC)

BY TREMIS SKEETE ON MARCH 9, 2017

Ellen Chisa has an educational background in engineering and is currently working on her MBA at Harvard Business School. She has worked for companies like Microsoft and Kickstarter, and is currently the VP of Product at Lola. They connect travelers to travel agents for hotels, restaurants, and any other travelling needs. In her ProductTank NYC presentation, she explains the importance of learning and becoming a better product manager.

How Do You Know if You’re a Good Product Manager?

There is a generic checklist of skills needed for being a good product manager, including things like writing your own code, coming up with A/B or A/A tests, or doing multi-armed bandit tests. However, there will always be new things to learn. No matter how many things you check off of the list, someone will always be able to find something you haven’t learned yet, so Ellen argues that you shouldn’t focus on your checklist.

How Do You Get Better?

In fact, Ellen doesn’t even think you should focus on how to get better. There will always be things that you don’t know, and it will always be beneficial to learn those new things, but it’s much more important to establish what you already know and create your knowledge baseline.

Set Your Baseline

Product managers tend to sit somewhere between technology, design, and business, in terms of their skill sets. While most people assume that all product managers sit right in the middle of those three areas, knowing a little bit about each, that is not the case. Where a product manager’s skill set lies depends largely on their educational and/or professional background.

If they come from an engineering background, their skills and knowledge will most likely lean towards technology. They tend to be very good at product development, coding, and A/B testing. If someone starts out as a designer, they will be more skilled in design and they will most likely be better with user interviews, scenarios, and sketches. Likewise, a product manager with a marketing or business strategy background will be better at the business side, having skills like account management, funnel analysis, and marketing.

Finally, some product managers don’t come from any of these backgrounds. There tends to be three distinct areas of expertise in product management right now, but many people are entering the field from new areas, which only enriches the discipline more.

How Others Perceive You

While it is extremely important to know where your expertise lies, it is also important to know how your team members perceive you. Ellen explains that since she went to school for engineering, most people assumed she was a great engineer and therefore was most skilled in the technology area. However, she identifies much more as a designer. She is better at (and enjoys) sitting down with users and getting their feedback about their personal experience with the product, and solving issues they experience.

Soft Skills

A fourth set of skills that Ellen explains as being important for product managers to have are less technical and more social. They are keeping the team motivated, communicating with the team about plans both in person and in writing, and being liked by both the team and management. Granted, you don’t always have to be popular, but it is important to know when you do.

How Do You Decide What’s Next?

When figuring out where to go next, you first need to examine where you are currently struggling. There are three main areas that most product managers tend to struggle, and they are the same areas that product managers tend to be skilled at. They are technology, design, and business. If you are experiencing difficulties with shipping your product, you most likely have an issue in technology. If you have an issue with user acquisition or retention, your problem most likely lies in design. If you’re having trouble with your company relationship, your issue is most likely in business. If you’re having trouble with your team or product, your problem could lie in a combination of all three areas.

What Will Your Company Need Next?

If you aren’t experiencing issues in any of these areas, you should be focusing on where you can improve. This is when you need to start asking questions like what skill sets could you add to your team, what major products do you have upcoming, what stage is your company at, and has your team been at that stage before. It can also be possible that you’re working at a larger company and not having a direct impact on the day-to-day business. That is when you can focus more on your own personal skills.

Play to Your Strengths

The first option you have in this scenario is to build up what you are already good at. Think about the things that everyone always asks you for help with. If you’re already good at those things, and everyone already trusts you with them, it will be much easier to improve on them. You can also think about what you would genuinely enjoy learning about. If you have an interest or passion in something, you will not only have a better time learning about it, but you will be better at implementing it too.

Even Out Your Weaknesses

On the flipside, there are the things you avoid doing, hope other people don’t ask you to do, or ask coworkers to do for you. Unfortunately, there is no great way to overcome these things. You just need to take them one step at a time. Eventually, though, you will get more confident in them, and won’t avoid them as much. You may even turn a weakness into a strength.

How Do You Learn It?

Ellen suggests that there are many ways to build up strengths and even out weaknesses. You need to know what works best for you. You can get formal education like colleges courses, you can get a new job (or new project at your current job) and learn by experience, you can pay a teacher or coach to teach you, you can take online classes, or you can do your own independent research.

Five Questions to Ask Yourself

In order to figure out what medium to use in your education, Ellen gives five questions to ask yourself.

  1. First, how do you prefer to learn, or what works best for you? If you know that you prefer college classes over independent research, you will have more success in college.
  2. Is the knowledge you’re seeking tactical or strategic? Tactical means you’re learning something to meet a specific goal, whereas strategic means you’re learning to better prepare you for the future.
  3. Is this knowledge adjacent to what you’re already skilled at? This relates back to playing to your strengths, versus evening out your weaknesses.
  4. How much do you need this knowledge to succeed? Are you learning this new skill to avoid being fired, or simply to enhance your skill set?
  5. Finally, do you need credibility in this skill? Some companies require the piece of paper proving your competencies, while others do not.

How You Learn is a Continuum

Ultimately, everyone learns differently, and every situation is different. What you prefer to do, what is successful for you, and what is available to you, can all be different. That is why how you learn falls on a spectrum, ranging from school to self-directed. Everyone falls on the spectrum, and you can move along the spectrum at any time. Understanding where you fall on the spectrum will immensely help you as a product manager and will help you improve. Ellen emphasizes that you shouldn’t be worrying about whether or not you’re a good product manager. You should be worrying about how to become a better one.

Tremis Skeete

About TREMIS SKEETE

Tremis is a Technical Product Manager at NexTier Innovations, a management consultancy specializing in Multi-Dimensional Analytics, Project Portfolio Intelligence, and Enterprise Cyber and Infrastructure Security. He comes from a Computer Science background and has 15+ years of experience working with design teams building web sites, applications, intranets, and graphic communications across multiple platforms. Tremis is also a co-organizer and microsite manager for ProductTank NYC. To find out more, visit http://producttank.nyc.

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