Challenges in product – Merissa Silk "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs November 11 2021 False Product management, The Product Experience, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 8829 Product Management 35.316

Challenges in product – Merissa Silk

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Over the last 15 years, chief product and technology officer, Merissa Silk, has gone from New York media to Australian finance to German fintechs, with a number of stops in between. In this episode, she joins us on the podcast to talk about what she’s learned along the way, including:

  • Working in different cultures and industries,
  • Influencing executives,
  • Knowing if you want to be a people manager, and more!

Featured Links: Follow Merissa on LinkedIn and Twitter|Merissa’s article ‘Bringing product thinking to any team‘ | Merissa’s article ‘How to win at remote product management – Covid 19 edition‘ | Merissa’s article ‘Experiment like a boss‘ | Merissa’s New Feature Template form  | Roman Pichler’s Decision Making Chart  | Ken Norton’s blog post,  ‘It’s time to fight for a dual product management career path

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Episode transcript

Randy Silver: 

Lily, so you’re b sed in a beautiful part of the w rld. But have you ever worked o tside of the Southwest in the U ? Well,

Lily Smith: 

I did do a short stint in London. But there wasn’t enough greenery for me too many roads, too many cars, too many people. And what about you, Randy?

Randy Silver: 

I’ve moved around a bit more than you Oh, started off in New York. Then I went to Seattle for a while, then I came over to London. And I’ve gone back and forth between New York and London a couple of times. But you know, I really got my start doing product when I moved back here to London, oh, god way too long ago for me to admit to,

Lily Smith: 

and you have been there for ages. But that’s one of the reasons why it was great to chat with Marissa silk for this episode. She started in New York, but she also worked in Australia, and is now in Europe. And it was great to get her perspective on how different products is in each of these places, and in the differences that she’s had in the roles throughout her career as well.

Randy Silver: 

And we covered a whole bunch of other things with her. We talked about taking online management, sexism, and ageism, and you know, actually a whole lot more.

Lily Smith: 

So let’s stop jabbering on and Cue the music. The product experience is brought to you

Randy Silver: 

by mind the product. Every week, we talk to the best product people from around the globe about how we can improve our practice, and build products that people

Lily Smith: 

love. Because it mind the product calm to catch up on past episodes, and to discover an extensive library of great content and videos,

Randy Silver: 

browse for free, or become a minor product member to unlock premium articles, unseen videos, ama’s roundtables, discounts to our conferences around the world training opportunities.

Lily Smith: 

Mind the product also offers free product tank meetups in more than 200 cities. And there’s probably one way you Hi, Marissa, thank you so much for joining us on the product experience. It’s great to be talking to you today. Hi, I’m so happy to be here. Okay, so before we get started, it would be really great if you could give us a quick intro into your background, how you got into products and what you’re up to these days.

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah, sure, happy to. So I’m Melissa Silk. And I’m the current chief product and tech officer at a fin tech company in Berlin called funding port. I’m originally from New York, but I’ve been overseas since 2014, first in Sydney, and more recently here in Berlin. And I like to say that product management chose me. I think like a lot of product, people who have been doing this for a long time. We started with titles that maybe were project manager or production manager or things kind of in that arena. And my early career was kind of half product management part project management part, front end web development in the very early days. And I always had this kind of role where I was at the centre of collaboration and the centre of work that was being done. And I had this natural way of working cross functionally where I kind of spotted these opportunities inside an organisation where I thought, oh, it’d be better if I sat next to this person, and then this person, talk to this person, and let me facilitate that. And suddenly, I worked out that my projects and my work was happening much more easily than some of my peers. And then fast forward a few years later, and a mentor, when I was working at Elle Magazine, was kind of like, hey, Marissa, you know, like, what do you want for your career? Do you want a technical path? Or do you want a different kind of path? Like, what do you like doing? And I explained that I really liked working with people. And I liked facilitating these kinds of collaborations, and I liked the problem solving elements. She was kind of like, Well, I think you should Google product manager because that’s the job you want. And you know, now fast forward 10 years, and she was totally spot on. This is absolutely a job I want it. I don’t think I could stop doing it if I wanted.

Lily Smith: 

And you’ve had quite a varied career as well and worked in different countries doing product management. And that was one of the topics we were going to cover this evening is how product is different in different countries. So give us a kind of quick intro into the different countries that you’ve worked in as well.

Melissa Silk: 

Sure. So working in tech has been a really cool opportunity because it’s allowed me to make moves repeatedly across the world. And not a lot of careers allow for that. So I really appreciate that part of the job. But I’ve been a product person in the US in New York, in Sydney and Australia and here in Berlin in Germany. And I can say that the scene is very different as you move location to location,

Lily Smith: 

which which place has been your favourite place to do product? Oh, that’s not a fair question, really.

Randy Silver: 

So let’s not go there. What is the difference? Because we We hear about like the Silicon Valley ideal a lot of the time, and a lot of us don’t work there. No, none of us work there. And we’ve seen it very different. And you, Lilian are both based in the UK. And we have a view on how it is practically on the ground here. But what what are the differences you’ve observed between the US, Australia and Europe?

Melissa Silk: 

Sure. So the short version, and let’s keep in mind that my product experience in the US is from New York and not not from Silicon Valley. And this is very different. And I worked in online media in the US, which is super fast paced, and I would say that it was like 100%, cowboy style product management, I worked, for example, for Elle Magazine, and the New York Daily News, and we had huge audiences. And so if we could roll stuff out on a weekly or bi weekly basis, we would reach like 10s of millions of users instantly, who would give us feedback being like, we love it, we hate it, you’re terrible. And if you know something wasn’t performing, or is getting negative comments on social media, for example, we would just roll it back. So we roll stuff out, and we roll it back and roll stuff out and roll it back. And that was kind of how it worked. And then I moved to Australia, and I took a job at a traditional financial institution, which is like the complete polar opposite of what news media is like in the US, you know, they were super risk averse. Everything was validated five times before I even saw a user. And so I got I jumped from one total extreme to the other. And then I made moves here to Germany. And it lives somewhere in the middle, I would say,

Randy Silver: 

how did you make that move in the first place from the US to Australia, from media to financial.

Melissa Silk: 

I think it was an accident, I want to say thanks to the LinkedIn algorithms, because I got a job at the Commonwealth Bank. That was like a total dream opportunity for me. So they had spun up a new team inside their digital org. And it was basically for strategic products work to validate new kinds of products concepts working as part of, or alongside their innovation lab. And I got to do really cool strategic research there.

Lily Smith: 

And the difference between the experience that you had in New York versus your experience in Australia, do you think that that was mainly down to the type of business that you were working in? Or was the approach that way inclined Anyway, you know, if you’re a FinTech in New York, you tend to be a bit more gunho as well, or

Melissa Silk: 

so I think the risk aversion definitely differs in news versus FinTech or financial services, that’s for sure true. But product management is fundamentally different in Australia. And I think that this is because of cultural differences. So like in Australia, Product Management is a lot more inclusive, I would say, as a practice. So it’s all about bringing other people in the company on the journey with you. It’s about including your users or your potential users in your product development process. And so yeah, some of the like need for validation, or desire for validation comes from a risk of a risk averse kind of attitude that also comes from this inclusive culture. And so for example, a lot of my like, performance KPIs is it as a pm in New York was just about users and traffic and revenue and getting stuff out quickly. But in Australia, my KPIs were half about the deliverables and half about how I had gotten my job done. And they probably would have waited, like the ways of working KPIs even higher than the PErforM like the outcome ones.

Randy Silver: 

Oh, wow, that sounds really interesting. So that leads into another topic we’re going to talk about, which was about influencing executives. And I’m wondering, what’s the difference that you saw in doing it in in these different locations? Was it from a cultural perspective? Or is it just the the maturity of the discipline and the different places that lead to differences?

Melissa Silk: 

It’s hard for me to know. But I can share my experience for sure. So coming from New York executives, were all about having people come to them with solutions. So if something went wrong, or something was going to be delayed, they didn’t want to hear about it. They wanted you to come to them after you’d already fixed it. Right? So, hey, we messed this thing up, and it broke some stuff. But you know, like, it’s fine, because it’s totally live in okay now, and we didn’t lose any traffic. And that’s like what executives want to hear. They want to hear that this thing that happened was already resolved. In Australia, it’s totally different. And really, this idea of bringing people on the journey exists at every single level of operations. So executives want you to proactively meet with them. They create space for that they want to be taken on the journey. They want to hear how and why you made decisions about certain product topics. They want to hear the results of the research. They want to Watch interviews with users. I mean, it’s like really, really, really inclusive every single step of the way.

Lily Smith: 

And how have you found that difference in Berlin?

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah. So things are really different here, I think because the market is less mature. So software development, here is, is a totally different ballgame. And things like data and validation. And talking to users, I think is still in its early stages here. Which means that a lot of executives are interacting with product people differently, meaning that the person who founded a startup, for example, or the person who’s at the executive level is the ones still prescribing product features to their PMS, who are basically there for executional function only. And this is really hard for someone like me, who came to Berlin after I already had like 10 or 12 years of experience.

Lily Smith: 

So if we told if we’re thinking about, you know, how we work with execs in different types of product teams, and the different challenges that we face as product people working with execs, it sounds like you’ve had very different experiences, like in New York, they’re just like, don’t want to know, just want to be kept in the loop after the thought, if you I mean, and then Australia kind of much more inclusive, but then in Berlin, perhaps kind of just not as aware of like the best product practices. Is that a fair summary? Yeah, I think so. That’s a great job. Thank you. So when we think about how we, you know, as product people sort of tried the best to work with the execs that we have? And what kind of skills did you learn for working with these different types of management teams that you would recommend to practice? If you were just getting into product now? Like, what what’s good to be aware of when you’re working with leadership?

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah, I think, well, I probably could do better myself when starting off with with a new set of executives. And probably what I would advise to other product people is to come in and really ask how they want to be included. And when they want something to be escalated, and what kinds of decisions they want to make versus ones that you are allowed to make. I’ll be honest, and saying I’ve never once done this, but I will keep that in mind for my next effort. And I think that in part, maybe the best advice I have is for someone working in a market that’s a bit more like Berlin, where you have executives who just aren’t used to really talented product people or aren’t used to what that job is really about. And I think it’s about starting to ask questions in a way that’s gentle. And also, I probably should take my own advice. Here too. But I think, you know, for me, being a product person is all about being curious and asking questions like, why are we doing that? And why do you think that’s a good idea? And how do we know that this is what users want? And I really like to talk to users and observe data and use these things to make my decisions. But if you come like really aggressively and an executive, and you’re like, why are we doing this? Which is honestly something that I do? You know, it’s not, it’s not well received, I’ll be really honest about that. But he might, you know, come a little more gently and say, like, hey, why is this important to you? Or why do you think that this solves a problem, or, you know, what gave you the idea for this feature or something and try to build a bit of empathy with them to hear where they’re coming from. And then, if you have, if you have that sort of starting point, have an open conversation that maybe you can ask your hard product questions.

Randy Silver: 

I’m going to give a shout out to one of our former guests, Ruben Pickler, who has this really great decision matrix on his website, that when do you need agreement? When do you need to delegate and things like that? And I’m going to put a link to that in the in the show notes. But Marissa, it sounds like you have dealt with a lot of different personality types, just different individuals and culturally, can you give a story about one time you dealt with someone that gave you a bit of a problem and how you changed your approach with them?

Melissa Silk: 

Sounds like every product job I’ve ever had. It’s a people oriented job. I think sometimes when you start your career, you don’t realise that that’s what it’s about, but it really is about the people. Yeah, so I think maybe one of my most favourite stories is like early earlier in my career when I didn’t have so much technical knowledge. But I think after you get a few years of product under your belt, you start to think that you know things and you don’t but but you have this confidence you think you know stuff and I remember kind of starting this argument with one of the tech leads in my team about something and I was I really wanted to work like this and do this and I was being really pretty prescriptive about stuff. And he was kind of like, No, just now. Which is why people are like in New York, I think sometimes, because they really want you to fight for it, right? So I went away and I thought about my, my request, and I came back and it was kind of like, okay, like, let’s let’s do this again, let me try to explain where I’m coming from. And then maybe we can have a discussion about it. And he shut me down again. He was like, no, we’re not, we’re not doing that. Go Go away. Okay, okay. So I went away, and I thought about it again. And then I sort of got this smarter idea where I thought, Okay, I’m gonna just tell him like, what I want the end result to be, I’m going to talk to him about like, what the goal here is, okay, like To achieve this, how do you think we can make that happen? And suddenly, he was like, totally willing to engage in this dialogue. And we had a conversation, we had this back and forth, and we were able to come to some agreement, and I wrote some tickets and went back to my desk. I mean, it was so cool. And of course, now when I think back on that, that’s a much better way to approach someone, especially a counterpart that’s over your head and seniority and expertise, and also has a totally different technical background to you. Right. And I think that this approach of telling someone what the end result is, rather than telling them how you want to get there is great for product people. It’s also great advice for executives working with product people.

Lily Smith: 

Yeah, absolutely. And I had a very similar experience, my product career too. And so when you’re not in an environment where the product team is being empowered, what kind of tools and techniques have you used to try and get your work done?

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah, that’s a great question I am, it’s tough because sometimes it’s hard to tell where your sphere of influence as a product person starts and ends. And so if you want to do things in a certain way, like you want to talk to users, and when you ask for budget or time to do this, and you’re told no, you might, you know, go back to your computer and like, feel sad, and under motivated and think, okay, I’m never gonna get anything done here. But that’s not actually the case. And so I really tried to think for myself, and also when I do mentoring to help my mentees think through like, okay, we’re actually is the start and end of my sphere of influence? And how can you get some of the people in your team to start thinking like a product person. And one of the best examples I like to give is largely about interacting with people in sales, or even with your executive team. Because oftentimes, people in these business roles come to you. They’re like, build this new feature for me just like this. And maybe they even sketch a drawing of it. For you, I’ve had that I’ve had that done here. And, you know, you kind of think, well, well, it’s my job to actually like, figure out how it should look and how it should work and how it should solve a problem. I don’t want to build your feature. So you might be inclined to say no, like, I was told by my my tech lead in the past, that this actually isn’t the isn’t the best way forward. So I like to use really small tricks like templates, where it helps you engage with your stakeholders in a way that helps them think through things a little bit more like you do. So maybe the first time you do it with them, and then afterwards, you can kind of send them away. But oftentimes, the prompts are things like, you know, what’s your idea? And why do you think it’s a good idea? And do you have any supporting evidence for this? And how many users do you think would benefit? And, you know, do you think it solves a problem for them? And what is that problem? And you just try and take them from that kind of solution space and turn them around into more of a product? mindset or problem solving mindset?

Randy Silver: 

Is there any template that you come back to on a regular basis for that? Or is it no always situational?

Melissa Silk: 

No, I have I have a one pager that I’ve dragged along with me, company to company. But I think that it’s like, if you google this kind of problem products thinking template, you will find plenty of examples. Online, I’m sure that that’s where I got mine in the first place. I can’t imagine this is a thing invented. But I think it’s all about trying to pivot people around to figure out if it solves a problem, and how big of a problem they think it is. That’s kind of the core of this template.

Randy Silver: 

I’m sorry, I need to dig into this a little bit more. I know. So without necessarily asking you to share and what kind of things are on the one pager?

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah, so it really is these kinds of questions like, What’s your idea? Can you explain it to me? If you want to draw a picture, please do that? Because that, like helps your stakeholder, get those things out of their system? And then you can start to ask them questions like, you know, does this solve a user problem? Can you describe it? How many users do you think that this impacts what’s the risk of not doing Have you seen other products in our space that are doing the same or doing the same kind of thing? Right? It’s one page. And I think what’s funny is sometimes in like the PR, of this template, right, because in some teams like my current team, we’re calling it a new feature requests. In the past, I’ve called it and ideas Canvas really depends on your environment. And I think a lot of a lot of the success of this template is what you call it, and how you position it with those other team members.

Randy Silver: 

And is it just a reference that you come back to? Or is it something that you actively sit down? give to them? Let them see have them fill it out?

Melissa Silk: 

Oh, no, I really give it to them and ask them to fill it out the first time I sit down and do it with them. But largely, it’s the same kinds of questions that I would ask them at a meeting, and it prevents me from having to have a meeting.

Randy Silver: 

How did they react to it? I think, well, I’ve had mixed results, I’ll be honest. We all have it, okay.

Melissa Silk: 

So some stakeholders, you know, get kind of fussy, and they’re like, Why do I have to do this? And I’m kind of like, well, you can go away and think about this and like prepare your answers, and it’s probably going to be better quality, or you can sit down and we’re gonna have the exact same conversation right now. Are you prepared to answer all these things? Oh, no, maybe not. Okay, then why don’t you take to go and take my template and have a think about these things. And then we can have, you know, a conversation when you’re done. So sometimes people, you know, they just want you to mirror the enthusiasm back to them. Right. And I think that that goes a long way. So if you have this template, and ultimately, your goal is to send someone away, so you don’t have to have a meeting. That’s cool. But I think a small amount of enthusiasm for their ideas goes a long way. In this scenario, that sounds great. I would love to hear more about it. It would really help me out if you fill in this template.

Randy Silver: 

And then if do they come to the realisation sometimes that it’s not as good as they think? Or how do you let them down when it’s not a priority?

Melissa Silk: 

I have to say that 80% of the time, they don’t come back. So it does its own job. If they do come back with an idea, and we have a meeting and we talk it over, then usually what I do is like gesture wildly at our roadmap. And I’m like, great, where do you think that this fits in with these other things, you know, and sometimes they’re like, oh, all the way over here. And you’re like future column or so where I know, we’re never gonna get to that thing. Or sometimes they’re like, actually, I think that this has a much bigger reach or bigger impact than this. And I want to chat about like the overall priority of it. And that’s like, a totally different conversation. But that rarely happens, actually.

Lily Smith: 

Yeah, that sounds like a great a great technique, and very, very useful. So Marissa, as you’ve developed your product career over the years and progressed through product, and what have been some of the things that you found challenging that you didn’t necessarily think would be a challenge?

Randy Silver: 

Sure.

Melissa Silk: 

So when I was working at the New York Daily News, we were like sort of scaling a suite of products, we had a number of mobile applications, we had a mobile website, we had our desktop website. And this was like, a time pre API’s. So when you wanted to launch a product on, you know, a new viewport, it was really challenging, actually. So that’s why we had this really hard to manage suite of products. And I asked if I could hire some more product people to support me. And my intention here was that I was going to hire people with different skill sets that would complement mine. So it would be it would be like a really well rounded and well balanced team. And I think that I had good intentions when I made these two hires. But I really like wasn’t ready to give up control over the like, really small product decisions that a person takes for granted that they make every single day. And I didn’t realise how difficult it was going to be. So I thought, Okay, this person has more marketing expertise, they can handle go to market and this person has more design skills, and I never designer in my team at the time, so they can support with some of the product design topics. But really, what I should have done is say, hey, you take this product, and you take this product, and let’s have like defined boundaries between what we have ownership over. But I was too like young and stupid, and I really wasn’t ready to manage other product people because I didn’t have that much self awareness about my own craft. And so as you might expect, this was a terrible situation. Like I was unhappy. I didn’t like working with them. They didn’t like working with me. And I think everyone is really miserable. And so when I decided to leave the Daily News and I moved to Australia, I went back to an IC role. And I was a senior product person leading a cross functional team and I did Have or want any line management responsibilities. And this was back to my happy place. And I spent a couple of years in that kind of icy role. And I thought, okay, my career stalled out, I’m going to be a senior product manager forever. And this is a shame because very few companies have a career path for people who want to be individual contributors. So you see some companies emerging with this principle distinguished track, I had to look up distinguish product person at some point, but I thought, What a cool title, I would like that one. But in a lot of companies, if you want to level up your career, and you want to get promoted, and you want the recognition, you have to manage people. And I think that this really does product managers in particular, a disservice. Because it’s really tough to switch from this mindset of managing a cross functional team and making these really deep, both detailed and strategic level decisions for your product to suddenly having to like, give up the reins and let other product people do that. And not a lot of product, people want to do that. Or some product people are resistant like I was. And I really wish that, like at the time this was already like 2013. It was a long time ago. And I wish that a manager had taken me aside and been like, hey, Marissa, do you know what it means to manage other people? Do you know what your job is? When you manage other people? Do you know how your job changes when they come on board. And nobody had that conversation for me and I really didn’t get it

Randy Silver: 

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Lily Smith: 

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Randy Silver: 

Okay, so I’m working at a company right now where I’m helping to create the career matrix for people. And this was exactly the situation I sorted out, which is, we need to make something that’s a y shaped career path where you get to a certain level, say, senior product manager. And then beyond that, you have to make a decision. And it’s not necessarily a permanent decision, you can go back and forth. But you’re either going into that head of group level type thing where you’re managing a team, or you’re going to that principal distinguished path, where you’re more of an individual contributor. So we know what it looks like, from that group, VP, director, whatever path because you’re just managing bigger and bigger teams and taking strategies for things. What does it actually mean to be a principal or a distinguished product manager? What is it that that makes you ready for that? And how should you know your chief product and Technology Officer now? How do you cater for that now?

Melissa Silk: 

So thanks for thanks for the tough question, Randy. And I’m also going to make reference to gonna reference Ken Norton’s newsletter from a few weeks ago that was exactly on this topic, and it was a great read. So I recommend everyone take a look at it.

Randy Silver: 

And I totally stole that as I was doing this matrix.

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah, for sure. I mean, his y shaped diagram is perfect. So um, when I think about principal Product Manager sort of levelling up as an IC, product person, I really think about solving harder problems are solving more strategic problems. And actually, this is kind of how I saw my role at commbank. I had a senior pm title, but I was really working on really challenging, kind of, they called it like MIDI problems. They like to say, MIDI problems in Australia, which I think is great. But I had, you know, an executive who came to me who said, Hey, we want to find a way for customers to, you know, for the bank to proactively communicate with customers and a mobile app experience sorted out, right, and a product person with three years of experience or five years of experience doesn’t know how to do that. But someone who’s been doing it for 710 12 years definitely knows exactly how they want to get those answers, right, they might not have an exact path to find, I didn’t have an exact path to find. But I had this vision of what the end result was going to look like and sort of a high level view of the steps that I was going to take in order to get there. And that got me a tonne of buy in from executives, not just in the digital team, but across the business. And I think this is what being a principal pm is all about. It’s about solving harder problems in like a less structured way. or less? What’s the word supported kind of way. So I was working on this thing. And I was literally sitting in a corner of the bank by myself doing my own thing, I was responsible for every single aspect of this initiative that I was working on. And that was really cool. And I felt a tonne of autonomy and a tonne of empowerment. And I really felt like the work I was doing had an impact. But Randy, you asked it. Yeah, the second part of that question, I didn’t get there yet.

Randy Silver: 

Sorry. You have to secondary. So now you’re leading the product and technology organisation? This is probably just as applicable for devs. As is for product people. How do you cater for it? Now that you’re in charge of all these people?

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah, and you’re right. So I do see the same thing happening in engineering. And actually, I think that way more companies have principal or IC tracks for technical people, I think that product is copying this and it’s slow, slow to get there. So yeah, I have some I have one product person reporting into me, I have a bunch of engineers, I have a designer, and trying to do career coaching and development for each one of them is, you know, challenging. And trying to make sure that we’re not pushing people down a path that they they don’t want is also really hard. So when I joined funding port, and we were creating our like org chart, I was very adamant from the start, hey, we have this icy track. So next to the lead function is this principle function. And not everyone should have people management responsibilities. Not everyone wants that. And I think that finding a way to have these conversations with people as they’re starting to level up and figure out, hey, where do you like to spend your time? Do you want the people management responsibilities? Do you want to be a mentor? Do you want to be a line manager, these things are really different, right? Because you can be a senior level engineer, Principal level engineer, and you can have mentoring responsibilities and not be someone’s y manager. And I think plenty of people would be totally happy with that. I would have been happy with that for sure. And I think it’s about asking those hard questions like, do you really want to be responsible for this other person’s career development, because that’s what being a manager is about. Whereas like, being a mentor is really different.

Lily Smith: 

I guess there is still a ceiling, though, with the individual contributor route. And that you wouldn’t typically see someone that’s gone down that path, or my assumption is that you wouldn’t typically see someone that’s gone down that path, end up becoming a Chief Product officer, and kind of rise to that level and be able to contribute in this C suite. So there is still a limit to what you can do. If you go down that route, and don’t take on the people management side of things.

Melissa Silk: 

I think that that’s I mean, that’s true, right? You wouldn’t expect to see, like a lone wolf sitting at the top. I wouldn’t want to work in that org. So that’s totally, that’s true, really. But I think that it’s a different measure of success. So, you know, it really depends on what motivates you, and what drives you to come to work every day. If you know, you’re really happy solving tough problems and working in a cross functional team, that maybe it doesn’t matter to you that you’re never going to end up with a C level title. And I think that that’s totally okay. And I think you have to be honest with yourself about what, what you really want in your career. Because it’s kind of old fashioned or old school to think like, okay, I level up and I level up and I get this management level position. And I have people reporting it to me, and then I become an executive. For that’s like the classic path. But it’s not the only path. And not everyone is motivated by that kind of thing.

Lily Smith: 

Yeah, and actually thinking about it, if you do want influence at that level, there is always more of a kind of consultative role. And you know, there are lots of very, very good product consultants out there that work with a C suite. And so I guess that’s, that’s an option as well.

Randy Silver: 

Yeah. And what I’ve seen is that it tends to be around people who are good at something very specific. So if it’s a niche area, or regular, highly regulated area where there’s a lot of specialised knowledge, those people are absolutely worth it. But yeah, you’re never going to be a CPO. But that’s okay. You need to save you don’t want to be.

Lily Smith: 

I think one of the things that’s really interesting about this, and the topic that we were talking about earlier was, you know, we’re talking about how there are some execs that are difficult to work with because they don’t necessarily get better products best practice. So, you know, is there a responsibility for the people who do know how to do product and to actually take on those exact roles and then be the person that empowers the teams below them, but anyway, Maybe that’s a slightly different topic.

Melissa Silk: 

So, I mean, for a lot of product people, they never have the chance to report into someone who’s also a product person. Actually, in my career, I’ve never reported into another product manager. And I think that this can be really challenging because when you have a one on one and you’re having trouble, they really don’t understand why you’re having a hard time, unless you’ve done the job. And you’ve sat at the intersection of all of these different teams, and you’re trying to juggle priorities and do detailed work and strategic work all at once you just don’t get how hard it is. And so for someone like me, you’re right. I mean, and I’ve shared these stories about how I was resistant to people management earlier in my career. And I was and I wasn’t ready. But fast forward all of these years later. And you’re right, really, I feel like I have a responsibility to like the discipline, to a certain extent, to level up and take less experienced product managers along with me and teach them and train them in the craft and explain some of the history of how product management has evolved and where it’s going. And you know, how to do the job in in, you know, how it should be done, right. And I think they have this responsibility. So the truth is that I feel kind of like you. I mean, at the end of the day, I like solving problems, I like doing the product work. And this is the good and the bad of the situation at fundingport where a small team and I both lead all of these people. And I also do day to day product work. And so this is how I’m handling it for now. But I really see my my role now is sort of helping to train and bring up the next generation.

Randy Silver: 

So what’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who’s just moving into their first product management leadership role? I didn’t ask for the perfect advice, just one piece?

Melissa Silk: 

Honestly, I would, I would really ask them to think about whether or not they’re up for managing other products, people and if they’re willing to give up, like the decision making responsibilities, because that’s really what it means. And I wasn’t ready for it. And I really wish someone had asked me that question.

Lily Smith: 

One of the other things we were going to talk about this evening was your experience of discrimination in the workplace as well, and ways in which you have experienced discrimination. So tell us a bit about what that’s been like throughout your career. Sure.

Melissa Silk: 

So I was a young person, like a woman and I always looked super young. I mean, I think I still a pretty young. But I always asked good questions, and I got a lot of stuff done. And this always got me pretty good attention in my my jobs, management like to me, because somehow I’ve achieved stuff better than the others. And he just gave me more work. And in my first job, for example, they called me the kid. And this could have been seen as like really discriminatory, but I kind of liked it. It was okay. And they used it as a term of affection. Probably that wouldn’t fly now. But it was all right. At that moment, but, you know, this was sort of how I how I started out. And I don’t think that I experienced too much active discrimination. In New York, to be honest, I think that I had a lot of great managers who saw something in me and they invested in me. And I think that this really helped me get ahead in my product career faster than some of my peers. And when I moved from New York to Sydney, I noticed something. There were there were women, my age, and in the office, there were pregnant women in the office, I have to admit that like being a professional in New York and working in news media, for example, I never saw a pregnant woman at work ever really see you barely see a pregnant woman anywhere. And I barely even saw women at work, honestly. And suddenly, here I was in Sydney. And there were, you know, equal number of men and women at work. And there were equal number of women in leadership positions in my team at a bank. This was completely baffling for me. And so even though I personally didn’t face too much discrimination at home, I was really surprised to see this totally different set of people in my workplace on a on a day to day basis. And this really helped to establish a new normal for me, and it really helped me understand, hey, like, you can be a woman who gets older and levels of her career and ends up being like a really big shot in a place like a huge bank. And then I moved to Germany, and I have to admit that I was sort of like, pushed out of my happy place. It’s really the tech industry. Here is is really far behind when it comes to things like gender diversity or diversity of any kind. And suddenly, it was, you know, I was the only woman in a team were the only woman in a company. I was the only woman trying to get at management level positions. And I found it really challenging. The way that you earn trust in these different geographies is also very different. I think I struggled more with this as a woman and a woman who was older than a lot of my counterparts in the startup scene here in Berlin.

Lily Smith: 

Yeah, I think it’s really interesting when, you know, you say you were called the kid, and you kind of thought it was fine. And, and maybe funny, but then actually, you realise later, hang on, that was like normalising just, like bad behaviour. Or brushing it off, you kind of brush it off, and then you go into a different environment and suddenly realise, actually, that probably wasn’t okay. And I think, you know, as a as a woman, as well, I’ve definitely experienced situations like that. And it can be enlightening, but you only realise after the fact, which is quite tricky. So, but I feel like you know, there is everything is heading in the right direction with diversity and in tech. And one of the things I love about my in the product actually, is when you go to the conference, and you see so many very different people, but they all kind of feel we all like feel the same as well, because we’re all product people.

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah, it’s really nice to be a part of that community. But I think it’s also challenging or for me, I found it really challenging here in Berlin, because startup scene is quite young and quite immature. A lot of co founders that I interview with, for, you know, leaders, product leadership, jobs are 10 years younger than me, maybe more

Randy Silver: 

even say, 10 years old,

Melissa Silk: 

10 years younger than I am, and, you know, I have a job where I need to ask questions, right? So, you know, hey, why did you make this decision? Or, you know, why did you decide to expand your business into this market, or whatever. And if you’re young and not that experienced, and you also feel very, like emotionally attached to your business, you don’t like someone coming in and asking those kinds of questions makes you defensive, or that’s at least been my experience. And that’s a lot worse, I think, when the person is a woman, and that person is a foreigner, and that person is 10 years older than you. And I get passed up for a lot of jobs. I think for this reason, I have this feeling like, I don’t pass the do I want to have a beer with this person test, which is still like the yardstick for how you know management people get hired here.

Lily Smith: 

Yeah, that’s interesting. And I don’t know if there are any answers there other than to, you know, keep for campaigning for awareness. Basically, Randy, any any comments,

Unknown: 

definitely say something more positive than that.

Lily Smith: 

I just thought that was a real downer.

Randy Silver: 

I have no hair and grey hair. And I’m frustrated too. So I got nothing on this.

Lily Smith: 

So Marissa, aside from just starting your own business, and being the boss that, you know, not not needing to hire not needing to be hired, but hiring yourself? And is there anything that people can do to try and improve the situation?

Melissa Silk: 

Yeah, it’s a tough one. And the short answer is education and awareness, of course, but like, what does this mean on a on a practical level? So for me, when I’m interviewing for jobs, or doing mentoring here in Berlin, I try really hard to explain what I see my job to be, this is what a product person is, and this sort of product person does. And this is how a product person does their job, just to try and sort of help set the expectation for what I aim to do if I were to join a business. And I think that the more that the whole tech scene here can become informed about what product management is about, or about what some of these cross functional roles are about, you know, even at a higher level, right? Because building software is a team sport, we need to work together. And you can build better products if you have different people in the mix, like applying their expertise and their perspectives and, you know, asking different kinds of questions. And I think the more that we talk about this, and we talk about these kinds of expectations of what a product person does and what makes a good product In the end, you know, I think that this can help, I hope open the industry to different types of people.

Lily Smith: 

That’s awesome. Marissa, thank you so much. We’ve kept you far longer than we should have done. And but it’s been really great talking to you and hearing about your experiences and your advice. Thank you.

Randy Silver: 

Thanks for having me. It was so nice to talk to Marissa. It made me really, really homesick for New York, though.

Lily Smith: 

She was really great to chat to and I love how kind of honest and open she is about all of her experience. And, yeah, really fantastic to just have a conversation with a fellow product person who’s done a whole load of interesting and different things. And

Randy Silver: 

you know what, there’s an awful lot of you listening right now who’ve done interesting things. And if you’ve learned a lesson, and there’s something you want to share with other people do get in touch with us. You can submit yourself or some somebody else for guests a lot on the product experience. Put through the link in our Twitter bio. Hope to talk to you soon.

Lily Smith: 

haste, me, Lily Smith and

Randy Silver: 

me Randy silver.

Lily Smith: 

Emily Tate is our producer. And Luke Smith is our editor.

Randy Silver: 

Our theme music is from Humbard baseband power. That’s p au. Thanks to Ana kittler, who runs product tank and MTP engage in Hamburg and plays bass in the band for letting us use their music. Connect with your local product community via product tank or regular free meetups in over 200 cities worldwide.

Lily Smith: 

If there’s not one Nagy you can consider starting one yourself. To find out more go to mind the product.com forward slash product tank. Product tech

Randy Silver: 

is a global community of meetups driven by and for product people. We offer expert talks group discussion and a safe environment for product people to come together and share greetings and tips.

[buzzsprout episode='8942675' player='true'] Over the last 15 years, chief product and technology officer, Merissa Silk, has gone from New York media to Australian finance to German fintechs, with a number of stops in between. In this episode, she joins us on the podcast to talk about what she's learned along the way, including:
  • Working in different cultures and industries,
  • Influencing executives,
  • Knowing if you want to be a people manager, and more!
Featured Links: Follow Merissa on LinkedIn and Twitter|Merissa's article 'Bringing product thinking to any team' | Merissa's article 'How to win at remote product management - Covid 19 edition' | Merissa's article 'Experiment like a boss' | Merissa's New Feature Template form  | Roman Pichler's Decision Making Chart  | Ken Norton's blog post,  'It's time to fight for a dual product management career path'

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Episode transcript

Randy Silver:  Lily, so you're b sed in a beautiful part of the w rld. But have you ever worked o tside of the Southwest in the U ? Well, Lily Smith:  I did do a short stint in London. But there wasn't enough greenery for me too many roads, too many cars, too many people. And what about you, Randy? Randy Silver:  I've moved around a bit more than you Oh, started off in New York. Then I went to Seattle for a while, then I came over to London. And I've gone back and forth between New York and London a couple of times. But you know, I really got my start doing product when I moved back here to London, oh, god way too long ago for me to admit to, Lily Smith:  and you have been there for ages. But that's one of the reasons why it was great to chat with Marissa silk for this episode. She started in New York, but she also worked in Australia, and is now in Europe. And it was great to get her perspective on how different products is in each of these places, and in the differences that she's had in the roles throughout her career as well. Randy Silver:  And we covered a whole bunch of other things with her. We talked about taking online management, sexism, and ageism, and you know, actually a whole lot more. Lily Smith:  So let's stop jabbering on and Cue the music. The product experience is brought to you Randy Silver:  by mind the product. Every week, we talk to the best product people from around the globe about how we can improve our practice, and build products that people Lily Smith:  love. Because it mind the product calm to catch up on past episodes, and to discover an extensive library of great content and videos, Randy Silver:  browse for free, or become a minor product member to unlock premium articles, unseen videos, ama's roundtables, discounts to our conferences around the world training opportunities. Lily Smith:  Mind the product also offers free product tank meetups in more than 200 cities. And there's probably one way you Hi, Marissa, thank you so much for joining us on the product experience. It's great to be talking to you today. Hi, I'm so happy to be here. Okay, so before we get started, it would be really great if you could give us a quick intro into your background, how you got into products and what you're up to these days. Melissa Silk:  Yeah, sure, happy to. So I'm Melissa Silk. And I'm the current chief product and tech officer at a fin tech company in Berlin called funding port. I'm originally from New York, but I've been overseas since 2014, first in Sydney, and more recently here in Berlin. And I like to say that product management chose me. I think like a lot of product, people who have been doing this for a long time. We started with titles that maybe were project manager or production manager or things kind of in that arena. And my early career was kind of half product management part project management part, front end web development in the very early days. And I always had this kind of role where I was at the centre of collaboration and the centre of work that was being done. And I had this natural way of working cross functionally where I kind of spotted these opportunities inside an organisation where I thought, oh, it'd be better if I sat next to this person, and then this person, talk to this person, and let me facilitate that. And suddenly, I worked out that my projects and my work was happening much more easily than some of my peers. And then fast forward a few years later, and a mentor, when I was working at Elle Magazine, was kind of like, hey, Marissa, you know, like, what do you want for your career? Do you want a technical path? Or do you want a different kind of path? Like, what do you like doing? And I explained that I really liked working with people. And I liked facilitating these kinds of collaborations, and I liked the problem solving elements. She was kind of like, Well, I think you should Google product manager because that's the job you want. And you know, now fast forward 10 years, and she was totally spot on. This is absolutely a job I want it. I don't think I could stop doing it if I wanted. Lily Smith:  And you've had quite a varied career as well and worked in different countries doing product management. And that was one of the topics we were going to cover this evening is how product is different in different countries. So give us a kind of quick intro into the different countries that you've worked in as well. Melissa Silk:  Sure. So working in tech has been a really cool opportunity because it's allowed me to make moves repeatedly across the world. And not a lot of careers allow for that. So I really appreciate that part of the job. But I've been a product person in the US in New York, in Sydney and Australia and here in Berlin in Germany. And I can say that the scene is very different as you move location to location, Lily Smith:  which which place has been your favourite place to do product? Oh, that's not a fair question, really. Randy Silver:  So let's not go there. What is the difference? Because we We hear about like the Silicon Valley ideal a lot of the time, and a lot of us don't work there. No, none of us work there. And we've seen it very different. And you, Lilian are both based in the UK. And we have a view on how it is practically on the ground here. But what what are the differences you've observed between the US, Australia and Europe? Melissa Silk:  Sure. So the short version, and let's keep in mind that my product experience in the US is from New York and not not from Silicon Valley. And this is very different. And I worked in online media in the US, which is super fast paced, and I would say that it was like 100%, cowboy style product management, I worked, for example, for Elle Magazine, and the New York Daily News, and we had huge audiences. And so if we could roll stuff out on a weekly or bi weekly basis, we would reach like 10s of millions of users instantly, who would give us feedback being like, we love it, we hate it, you're terrible. And if you know something wasn't performing, or is getting negative comments on social media, for example, we would just roll it back. So we roll stuff out, and we roll it back and roll stuff out and roll it back. And that was kind of how it worked. And then I moved to Australia, and I took a job at a traditional financial institution, which is like the complete polar opposite of what news media is like in the US, you know, they were super risk averse. Everything was validated five times before I even saw a user. And so I got I jumped from one total extreme to the other. And then I made moves here to Germany. And it lives somewhere in the middle, I would say, Randy Silver:  how did you make that move in the first place from the US to Australia, from media to financial. Melissa Silk:  I think it was an accident, I want to say thanks to the LinkedIn algorithms, because I got a job at the Commonwealth Bank. That was like a total dream opportunity for me. So they had spun up a new team inside their digital org. And it was basically for strategic products work to validate new kinds of products concepts working as part of, or alongside their innovation lab. And I got to do really cool strategic research there. Lily Smith:  And the difference between the experience that you had in New York versus your experience in Australia, do you think that that was mainly down to the type of business that you were working in? Or was the approach that way inclined Anyway, you know, if you're a FinTech in New York, you tend to be a bit more gunho as well, or Melissa Silk:  so I think the risk aversion definitely differs in news versus FinTech or financial services, that's for sure true. But product management is fundamentally different in Australia. And I think that this is because of cultural differences. So like in Australia, Product Management is a lot more inclusive, I would say, as a practice. So it's all about bringing other people in the company on the journey with you. It's about including your users or your potential users in your product development process. And so yeah, some of the like need for validation, or desire for validation comes from a risk of a risk averse kind of attitude that also comes from this inclusive culture. And so for example, a lot of my like, performance KPIs is it as a pm in New York was just about users and traffic and revenue and getting stuff out quickly. But in Australia, my KPIs were half about the deliverables and half about how I had gotten my job done. And they probably would have waited, like the ways of working KPIs even higher than the PErforM like the outcome ones. Randy Silver:  Oh, wow, that sounds really interesting. So that leads into another topic we're going to talk about, which was about influencing executives. And I'm wondering, what's the difference that you saw in doing it in in these different locations? Was it from a cultural perspective? Or is it just the the maturity of the discipline and the different places that lead to differences? Melissa Silk:  It's hard for me to know. But I can share my experience for sure. So coming from New York executives, were all about having people come to them with solutions. So if something went wrong, or something was going to be delayed, they didn't want to hear about it. They wanted you to come to them after you'd already fixed it. Right? So, hey, we messed this thing up, and it broke some stuff. But you know, like, it's fine, because it's totally live in okay now, and we didn't lose any traffic. And that's like what executives want to hear. They want to hear that this thing that happened was already resolved. In Australia, it's totally different. And really, this idea of bringing people on the journey exists at every single level of operations. So executives want you to proactively meet with them. They create space for that they want to be taken on the journey. They want to hear how and why you made decisions about certain product topics. They want to hear the results of the research. They want to Watch interviews with users. I mean, it's like really, really, really inclusive every single step of the way. Lily Smith:  And how have you found that difference in Berlin? Melissa Silk:  Yeah. So things are really different here, I think because the market is less mature. So software development, here is, is a totally different ballgame. And things like data and validation. And talking to users, I think is still in its early stages here. Which means that a lot of executives are interacting with product people differently, meaning that the person who founded a startup, for example, or the person who's at the executive level is the ones still prescribing product features to their PMS, who are basically there for executional function only. And this is really hard for someone like me, who came to Berlin after I already had like 10 or 12 years of experience. Lily Smith:  So if we told if we're thinking about, you know, how we work with execs in different types of product teams, and the different challenges that we face as product people working with execs, it sounds like you've had very different experiences, like in New York, they're just like, don't want to know, just want to be kept in the loop after the thought, if you I mean, and then Australia kind of much more inclusive, but then in Berlin, perhaps kind of just not as aware of like the best product practices. Is that a fair summary? Yeah, I think so. That's a great job. Thank you. So when we think about how we, you know, as product people sort of tried the best to work with the execs that we have? And what kind of skills did you learn for working with these different types of management teams that you would recommend to practice? If you were just getting into product now? Like, what what's good to be aware of when you're working with leadership? Melissa Silk:  Yeah, I think, well, I probably could do better myself when starting off with with a new set of executives. And probably what I would advise to other product people is to come in and really ask how they want to be included. And when they want something to be escalated, and what kinds of decisions they want to make versus ones that you are allowed to make. I'll be honest, and saying I've never once done this, but I will keep that in mind for my next effort. And I think that in part, maybe the best advice I have is for someone working in a market that's a bit more like Berlin, where you have executives who just aren't used to really talented product people or aren't used to what that job is really about. And I think it's about starting to ask questions in a way that's gentle. And also, I probably should take my own advice. Here too. But I think, you know, for me, being a product person is all about being curious and asking questions like, why are we doing that? And why do you think that's a good idea? And how do we know that this is what users want? And I really like to talk to users and observe data and use these things to make my decisions. But if you come like really aggressively and an executive, and you're like, why are we doing this? Which is honestly something that I do? You know, it's not, it's not well received, I'll be really honest about that. But he might, you know, come a little more gently and say, like, hey, why is this important to you? Or why do you think that this solves a problem, or, you know, what gave you the idea for this feature or something and try to build a bit of empathy with them to hear where they're coming from. And then, if you have, if you have that sort of starting point, have an open conversation that maybe you can ask your hard product questions. Randy Silver:  I'm going to give a shout out to one of our former guests, Ruben Pickler, who has this really great decision matrix on his website, that when do you need agreement? When do you need to delegate and things like that? And I'm going to put a link to that in the in the show notes. But Marissa, it sounds like you have dealt with a lot of different personality types, just different individuals and culturally, can you give a story about one time you dealt with someone that gave you a bit of a problem and how you changed your approach with them? Melissa Silk:  Sounds like every product job I've ever had. It's a people oriented job. I think sometimes when you start your career, you don't realise that that's what it's about, but it really is about the people. Yeah, so I think maybe one of my most favourite stories is like early earlier in my career when I didn't have so much technical knowledge. But I think after you get a few years of product under your belt, you start to think that you know things and you don't but but you have this confidence you think you know stuff and I remember kind of starting this argument with one of the tech leads in my team about something and I was I really wanted to work like this and do this and I was being really pretty prescriptive about stuff. And he was kind of like, No, just now. Which is why people are like in New York, I think sometimes, because they really want you to fight for it, right? So I went away and I thought about my, my request, and I came back and it was kind of like, okay, like, let's let's do this again, let me try to explain where I'm coming from. And then maybe we can have a discussion about it. And he shut me down again. He was like, no, we're not, we're not doing that. Go Go away. Okay, okay. So I went away, and I thought about it again. And then I sort of got this smarter idea where I thought, Okay, I'm gonna just tell him like, what I want the end result to be, I'm going to talk to him about like, what the goal here is, okay, like To achieve this, how do you think we can make that happen? And suddenly, he was like, totally willing to engage in this dialogue. And we had a conversation, we had this back and forth, and we were able to come to some agreement, and I wrote some tickets and went back to my desk. I mean, it was so cool. And of course, now when I think back on that, that's a much better way to approach someone, especially a counterpart that's over your head and seniority and expertise, and also has a totally different technical background to you. Right. And I think that this approach of telling someone what the end result is, rather than telling them how you want to get there is great for product people. It's also great advice for executives working with product people. Lily Smith:  Yeah, absolutely. And I had a very similar experience, my product career too. And so when you're not in an environment where the product team is being empowered, what kind of tools and techniques have you used to try and get your work done? Melissa Silk:  Yeah, that's a great question I am, it's tough because sometimes it's hard to tell where your sphere of influence as a product person starts and ends. And so if you want to do things in a certain way, like you want to talk to users, and when you ask for budget or time to do this, and you're told no, you might, you know, go back to your computer and like, feel sad, and under motivated and think, okay, I'm never gonna get anything done here. But that's not actually the case. And so I really tried to think for myself, and also when I do mentoring to help my mentees think through like, okay, we're actually is the start and end of my sphere of influence? And how can you get some of the people in your team to start thinking like a product person. And one of the best examples I like to give is largely about interacting with people in sales, or even with your executive team. Because oftentimes, people in these business roles come to you. They're like, build this new feature for me just like this. And maybe they even sketch a drawing of it. For you, I've had that I've had that done here. And, you know, you kind of think, well, well, it's my job to actually like, figure out how it should look and how it should work and how it should solve a problem. I don't want to build your feature. So you might be inclined to say no, like, I was told by my my tech lead in the past, that this actually isn't the isn't the best way forward. So I like to use really small tricks like templates, where it helps you engage with your stakeholders in a way that helps them think through things a little bit more like you do. So maybe the first time you do it with them, and then afterwards, you can kind of send them away. But oftentimes, the prompts are things like, you know, what's your idea? And why do you think it's a good idea? And do you have any supporting evidence for this? And how many users do you think would benefit? And, you know, do you think it solves a problem for them? And what is that problem? And you just try and take them from that kind of solution space and turn them around into more of a product? mindset or problem solving mindset? Randy Silver:  Is there any template that you come back to on a regular basis for that? Or is it no always situational? Melissa Silk:  No, I have I have a one pager that I've dragged along with me, company to company. But I think that it's like, if you google this kind of problem products thinking template, you will find plenty of examples. Online, I'm sure that that's where I got mine in the first place. I can't imagine this is a thing invented. But I think it's all about trying to pivot people around to figure out if it solves a problem, and how big of a problem they think it is. That's kind of the core of this template. Randy Silver:  I'm sorry, I need to dig into this a little bit more. I know. So without necessarily asking you to share and what kind of things are on the one pager? Melissa Silk:  Yeah, so it really is these kinds of questions like, What's your idea? Can you explain it to me? If you want to draw a picture, please do that? Because that, like helps your stakeholder, get those things out of their system? And then you can start to ask them questions like, you know, does this solve a user problem? Can you describe it? How many users do you think that this impacts what's the risk of not doing Have you seen other products in our space that are doing the same or doing the same kind of thing? Right? It's one page. And I think what's funny is sometimes in like the PR, of this template, right, because in some teams like my current team, we're calling it a new feature requests. In the past, I've called it and ideas Canvas really depends on your environment. And I think a lot of a lot of the success of this template is what you call it, and how you position it with those other team members. Randy Silver:  And is it just a reference that you come back to? Or is it something that you actively sit down? give to them? Let them see have them fill it out? Melissa Silk:  Oh, no, I really give it to them and ask them to fill it out the first time I sit down and do it with them. But largely, it's the same kinds of questions that I would ask them at a meeting, and it prevents me from having to have a meeting. Randy Silver:  How did they react to it? I think, well, I've had mixed results, I'll be honest. We all have it, okay. Melissa Silk:  So some stakeholders, you know, get kind of fussy, and they're like, Why do I have to do this? And I'm kind of like, well, you can go away and think about this and like prepare your answers, and it's probably going to be better quality, or you can sit down and we're gonna have the exact same conversation right now. Are you prepared to answer all these things? Oh, no, maybe not. Okay, then why don't you take to go and take my template and have a think about these things. And then we can have, you know, a conversation when you're done. So sometimes people, you know, they just want you to mirror the enthusiasm back to them. Right. And I think that that goes a long way. So if you have this template, and ultimately, your goal is to send someone away, so you don't have to have a meeting. That's cool. But I think a small amount of enthusiasm for their ideas goes a long way. In this scenario, that sounds great. I would love to hear more about it. It would really help me out if you fill in this template. Randy Silver:  And then if do they come to the realisation sometimes that it's not as good as they think? Or how do you let them down when it's not a priority? Melissa Silk:  I have to say that 80% of the time, they don't come back. So it does its own job. If they do come back with an idea, and we have a meeting and we talk it over, then usually what I do is like gesture wildly at our roadmap. And I'm like, great, where do you think that this fits in with these other things, you know, and sometimes they're like, oh, all the way over here. And you're like future column or so where I know, we're never gonna get to that thing. Or sometimes they're like, actually, I think that this has a much bigger reach or bigger impact than this. And I want to chat about like the overall priority of it. And that's like, a totally different conversation. But that rarely happens, actually. Lily Smith:  Yeah, that sounds like a great a great technique, and very, very useful. So Marissa, as you've developed your product career over the years and progressed through product, and what have been some of the things that you found challenging that you didn't necessarily think would be a challenge? Randy Silver:  Sure. Melissa Silk:  So when I was working at the New York Daily News, we were like sort of scaling a suite of products, we had a number of mobile applications, we had a mobile website, we had our desktop website. And this was like, a time pre API's. So when you wanted to launch a product on, you know, a new viewport, it was really challenging, actually. So that's why we had this really hard to manage suite of products. And I asked if I could hire some more product people to support me. And my intention here was that I was going to hire people with different skill sets that would complement mine. So it would be it would be like a really well rounded and well balanced team. And I think that I had good intentions when I made these two hires. But I really like wasn't ready to give up control over the like, really small product decisions that a person takes for granted that they make every single day. And I didn't realise how difficult it was going to be. So I thought, Okay, this person has more marketing expertise, they can handle go to market and this person has more design skills, and I never designer in my team at the time, so they can support with some of the product design topics. But really, what I should have done is say, hey, you take this product, and you take this product, and let's have like defined boundaries between what we have ownership over. But I was too like young and stupid, and I really wasn't ready to manage other product people because I didn't have that much self awareness about my own craft. And so as you might expect, this was a terrible situation. Like I was unhappy. I didn't like working with them. They didn't like working with me. And I think everyone is really miserable. And so when I decided to leave the Daily News and I moved to Australia, I went back to an IC role. And I was a senior product person leading a cross functional team and I did Have or want any line management responsibilities. And this was back to my happy place. And I spent a couple of years in that kind of icy role. And I thought, okay, my career stalled out, I'm going to be a senior product manager forever. And this is a shame because very few companies have a career path for people who want to be individual contributors. So you see some companies emerging with this principle distinguished track, I had to look up distinguish product person at some point, but I thought, What a cool title, I would like that one. But in a lot of companies, if you want to level up your career, and you want to get promoted, and you want the recognition, you have to manage people. And I think that this really does product managers in particular, a disservice. Because it's really tough to switch from this mindset of managing a cross functional team and making these really deep, both detailed and strategic level decisions for your product to suddenly having to like, give up the reins and let other product people do that. And not a lot of product, people want to do that. Or some product people are resistant like I was. And I really wish that, like at the time this was already like 2013. It was a long time ago. And I wish that a manager had taken me aside and been like, hey, Marissa, do you know what it means to manage other people? Do you know what your job is? When you manage other people? Do you know how your job changes when they come on board. And nobody had that conversation for me and I really didn't get it Randy Silver:  usually makes it easy to build an embed micro surveys into your product, to learn about your customers in real time. product teams at companies such as square, Adobe and Dropbox, use user leap to gather qualitative insights as easily as they get quantitative once and automatically analyse the results. So teams can take quick action, Lily Smith:  if you're part of an agile product team that believes in building better products, and I sure hope you are by obtaining insights from users, then give us a try for free by visiting us elite.com. That is user leap.com. Randy Silver:  Okay, so I'm working at a company right now where I'm helping to create the career matrix for people. And this was exactly the situation I sorted out, which is, we need to make something that's a y shaped career path where you get to a certain level, say, senior product manager. And then beyond that, you have to make a decision. And it's not necessarily a permanent decision, you can go back and forth. But you're either going into that head of group level type thing where you're managing a team, or you're going to that principal distinguished path, where you're more of an individual contributor. So we know what it looks like, from that group, VP, director, whatever path because you're just managing bigger and bigger teams and taking strategies for things. What does it actually mean to be a principal or a distinguished product manager? What is it that that makes you ready for that? And how should you know your chief product and Technology Officer now? How do you cater for that now? Melissa Silk:  So thanks for thanks for the tough question, Randy. And I'm also going to make reference to gonna reference Ken Norton's newsletter from a few weeks ago that was exactly on this topic, and it was a great read. So I recommend everyone take a look at it. Randy Silver:  And I totally stole that as I was doing this matrix. Melissa Silk:  Yeah, for sure. I mean, his y shaped diagram is perfect. So um, when I think about principal Product Manager sort of levelling up as an IC, product person, I really think about solving harder problems are solving more strategic problems. And actually, this is kind of how I saw my role at commbank. I had a senior pm title, but I was really working on really challenging, kind of, they called it like MIDI problems. They like to say, MIDI problems in Australia, which I think is great. But I had, you know, an executive who came to me who said, Hey, we want to find a way for customers to, you know, for the bank to proactively communicate with customers and a mobile app experience sorted out, right, and a product person with three years of experience or five years of experience doesn't know how to do that. But someone who's been doing it for 710 12 years definitely knows exactly how they want to get those answers, right, they might not have an exact path to find, I didn't have an exact path to find. But I had this vision of what the end result was going to look like and sort of a high level view of the steps that I was going to take in order to get there. And that got me a tonne of buy in from executives, not just in the digital team, but across the business. And I think this is what being a principal pm is all about. It's about solving harder problems in like a less structured way. or less? What's the word supported kind of way. So I was working on this thing. And I was literally sitting in a corner of the bank by myself doing my own thing, I was responsible for every single aspect of this initiative that I was working on. And that was really cool. And I felt a tonne of autonomy and a tonne of empowerment. And I really felt like the work I was doing had an impact. But Randy, you asked it. Yeah, the second part of that question, I didn't get there yet. Randy Silver:  Sorry. You have to secondary. So now you're leading the product and technology organisation? This is probably just as applicable for devs. As is for product people. How do you cater for it? Now that you're in charge of all these people? Melissa Silk:  Yeah, and you're right. So I do see the same thing happening in engineering. And actually, I think that way more companies have principal or IC tracks for technical people, I think that product is copying this and it's slow, slow to get there. So yeah, I have some I have one product person reporting into me, I have a bunch of engineers, I have a designer, and trying to do career coaching and development for each one of them is, you know, challenging. And trying to make sure that we're not pushing people down a path that they they don't want is also really hard. So when I joined funding port, and we were creating our like org chart, I was very adamant from the start, hey, we have this icy track. So next to the lead function is this principle function. And not everyone should have people management responsibilities. Not everyone wants that. And I think that finding a way to have these conversations with people as they're starting to level up and figure out, hey, where do you like to spend your time? Do you want the people management responsibilities? Do you want to be a mentor? Do you want to be a line manager, these things are really different, right? Because you can be a senior level engineer, Principal level engineer, and you can have mentoring responsibilities and not be someone's y manager. And I think plenty of people would be totally happy with that. I would have been happy with that for sure. And I think it's about asking those hard questions like, do you really want to be responsible for this other person's career development, because that's what being a manager is about. Whereas like, being a mentor is really different. Lily Smith:  I guess there is still a ceiling, though, with the individual contributor route. And that you wouldn't typically see someone that's gone down that path, or my assumption is that you wouldn't typically see someone that's gone down that path, end up becoming a Chief Product officer, and kind of rise to that level and be able to contribute in this C suite. So there is still a limit to what you can do. If you go down that route, and don't take on the people management side of things. Melissa Silk:  I think that that's I mean, that's true, right? You wouldn't expect to see, like a lone wolf sitting at the top. I wouldn't want to work in that org. So that's totally, that's true, really. But I think that it's a different measure of success. So, you know, it really depends on what motivates you, and what drives you to come to work every day. If you know, you're really happy solving tough problems and working in a cross functional team, that maybe it doesn't matter to you that you're never going to end up with a C level title. And I think that that's totally okay. And I think you have to be honest with yourself about what, what you really want in your career. Because it's kind of old fashioned or old school to think like, okay, I level up and I level up and I get this management level position. And I have people reporting it to me, and then I become an executive. For that's like the classic path. But it's not the only path. And not everyone is motivated by that kind of thing. Lily Smith:  Yeah, and actually thinking about it, if you do want influence at that level, there is always more of a kind of consultative role. And you know, there are lots of very, very good product consultants out there that work with a C suite. And so I guess that's, that's an option as well. Randy Silver:  Yeah. And what I've seen is that it tends to be around people who are good at something very specific. So if it's a niche area, or regular, highly regulated area where there's a lot of specialised knowledge, those people are absolutely worth it. But yeah, you're never going to be a CPO. But that's okay. You need to save you don't want to be. Lily Smith:  I think one of the things that's really interesting about this, and the topic that we were talking about earlier was, you know, we're talking about how there are some execs that are difficult to work with because they don't necessarily get better products best practice. So, you know, is there a responsibility for the people who do know how to do product and to actually take on those exact roles and then be the person that empowers the teams below them, but anyway, Maybe that's a slightly different topic. Melissa Silk:  So, I mean, for a lot of product people, they never have the chance to report into someone who's also a product person. Actually, in my career, I've never reported into another product manager. And I think that this can be really challenging because when you have a one on one and you're having trouble, they really don't understand why you're having a hard time, unless you've done the job. And you've sat at the intersection of all of these different teams, and you're trying to juggle priorities and do detailed work and strategic work all at once you just don't get how hard it is. And so for someone like me, you're right. I mean, and I've shared these stories about how I was resistant to people management earlier in my career. And I was and I wasn't ready. But fast forward all of these years later. And you're right, really, I feel like I have a responsibility to like the discipline, to a certain extent, to level up and take less experienced product managers along with me and teach them and train them in the craft and explain some of the history of how product management has evolved and where it's going. And you know, how to do the job in in, you know, how it should be done, right. And I think they have this responsibility. So the truth is that I feel kind of like you. I mean, at the end of the day, I like solving problems, I like doing the product work. And this is the good and the bad of the situation at fundingport where a small team and I both lead all of these people. And I also do day to day product work. And so this is how I'm handling it for now. But I really see my my role now is sort of helping to train and bring up the next generation. Randy Silver:  So what's one piece of advice you would give to someone who's just moving into their first product management leadership role? I didn't ask for the perfect advice, just one piece? Melissa Silk:  Honestly, I would, I would really ask them to think about whether or not they're up for managing other products, people and if they're willing to give up, like the decision making responsibilities, because that's really what it means. And I wasn't ready for it. And I really wish someone had asked me that question. Lily Smith:  One of the other things we were going to talk about this evening was your experience of discrimination in the workplace as well, and ways in which you have experienced discrimination. So tell us a bit about what that's been like throughout your career. Sure. Melissa Silk:  So I was a young person, like a woman and I always looked super young. I mean, I think I still a pretty young. But I always asked good questions, and I got a lot of stuff done. And this always got me pretty good attention in my my jobs, management like to me, because somehow I've achieved stuff better than the others. And he just gave me more work. And in my first job, for example, they called me the kid. And this could have been seen as like really discriminatory, but I kind of liked it. It was okay. And they used it as a term of affection. Probably that wouldn't fly now. But it was all right. At that moment, but, you know, this was sort of how I how I started out. And I don't think that I experienced too much active discrimination. In New York, to be honest, I think that I had a lot of great managers who saw something in me and they invested in me. And I think that this really helped me get ahead in my product career faster than some of my peers. And when I moved from New York to Sydney, I noticed something. There were there were women, my age, and in the office, there were pregnant women in the office, I have to admit that like being a professional in New York and working in news media, for example, I never saw a pregnant woman at work ever really see you barely see a pregnant woman anywhere. And I barely even saw women at work, honestly. And suddenly, here I was in Sydney. And there were, you know, equal number of men and women at work. And there were equal number of women in leadership positions in my team at a bank. This was completely baffling for me. And so even though I personally didn't face too much discrimination at home, I was really surprised to see this totally different set of people in my workplace on a on a day to day basis. And this really helped to establish a new normal for me, and it really helped me understand, hey, like, you can be a woman who gets older and levels of her career and ends up being like a really big shot in a place like a huge bank. And then I moved to Germany, and I have to admit that I was sort of like, pushed out of my happy place. It's really the tech industry. Here is is really far behind when it comes to things like gender diversity or diversity of any kind. And suddenly, it was, you know, I was the only woman in a team were the only woman in a company. I was the only woman trying to get at management level positions. And I found it really challenging. The way that you earn trust in these different geographies is also very different. I think I struggled more with this as a woman and a woman who was older than a lot of my counterparts in the startup scene here in Berlin. Lily Smith:  Yeah, I think it's really interesting when, you know, you say you were called the kid, and you kind of thought it was fine. And, and maybe funny, but then actually, you realise later, hang on, that was like normalising just, like bad behaviour. Or brushing it off, you kind of brush it off, and then you go into a different environment and suddenly realise, actually, that probably wasn't okay. And I think, you know, as a as a woman, as well, I've definitely experienced situations like that. And it can be enlightening, but you only realise after the fact, which is quite tricky. So, but I feel like you know, there is everything is heading in the right direction with diversity and in tech. And one of the things I love about my in the product actually, is when you go to the conference, and you see so many very different people, but they all kind of feel we all like feel the same as well, because we're all product people. Melissa Silk:  Yeah, it's really nice to be a part of that community. But I think it's also challenging or for me, I found it really challenging here in Berlin, because startup scene is quite young and quite immature. A lot of co founders that I interview with, for, you know, leaders, product leadership, jobs are 10 years younger than me, maybe more Randy Silver:  even say, 10 years old, Melissa Silk:  10 years younger than I am, and, you know, I have a job where I need to ask questions, right? So, you know, hey, why did you make this decision? Or, you know, why did you decide to expand your business into this market, or whatever. And if you're young and not that experienced, and you also feel very, like emotionally attached to your business, you don't like someone coming in and asking those kinds of questions makes you defensive, or that's at least been my experience. And that's a lot worse, I think, when the person is a woman, and that person is a foreigner, and that person is 10 years older than you. And I get passed up for a lot of jobs. I think for this reason, I have this feeling like, I don't pass the do I want to have a beer with this person test, which is still like the yardstick for how you know management people get hired here. Lily Smith:  Yeah, that's interesting. And I don't know if there are any answers there other than to, you know, keep for campaigning for awareness. Basically, Randy, any any comments, Unknown:  definitely say something more positive than that. Lily Smith:  I just thought that was a real downer. Randy Silver:  I have no hair and grey hair. And I'm frustrated too. So I got nothing on this. Lily Smith:  So Marissa, aside from just starting your own business, and being the boss that, you know, not not needing to hire not needing to be hired, but hiring yourself? And is there anything that people can do to try and improve the situation? Melissa Silk:  Yeah, it's a tough one. And the short answer is education and awareness, of course, but like, what does this mean on a on a practical level? So for me, when I'm interviewing for jobs, or doing mentoring here in Berlin, I try really hard to explain what I see my job to be, this is what a product person is, and this sort of product person does. And this is how a product person does their job, just to try and sort of help set the expectation for what I aim to do if I were to join a business. And I think that the more that the whole tech scene here can become informed about what product management is about, or about what some of these cross functional roles are about, you know, even at a higher level, right? Because building software is a team sport, we need to work together. And you can build better products if you have different people in the mix, like applying their expertise and their perspectives and, you know, asking different kinds of questions. And I think the more that we talk about this, and we talk about these kinds of expectations of what a product person does and what makes a good product In the end, you know, I think that this can help, I hope open the industry to different types of people. Lily Smith:  That's awesome. Marissa, thank you so much. We've kept you far longer than we should have done. And but it's been really great talking to you and hearing about your experiences and your advice. Thank you. Randy Silver:  Thanks for having me. It was so nice to talk to Marissa. It made me really, really homesick for New York, though. Lily Smith:  She was really great to chat to and I love how kind of honest and open she is about all of her experience. And, yeah, really fantastic to just have a conversation with a fellow product person who's done a whole load of interesting and different things. And Randy Silver:  you know what, there's an awful lot of you listening right now who've done interesting things. And if you've learned a lesson, and there's something you want to share with other people do get in touch with us. You can submit yourself or some somebody else for guests a lot on the product experience. Put through the link in our Twitter bio. Hope to talk to you soon. Lily Smith:  haste, me, Lily Smith and Randy Silver:  me Randy silver. Lily Smith:  Emily Tate is our producer. And Luke Smith is our editor. Randy Silver:  Our theme music is from Humbard baseband power. That's p au. Thanks to Ana kittler, who runs product tank and MTP engage in Hamburg and plays bass in the band for letting us use their music. Connect with your local product community via product tank or regular free meetups in over 200 cities worldwide. Lily Smith:  If there's not one Nagy you can consider starting one yourself. To find out more go to mind the product.com forward slash product tank. Product tech Randy Silver:  is a global community of meetups driven by and for product people. We offer expert talks group discussion and a safe environment for product people to come together and share greetings and tips.