One of the things that I love about the Product Management community here in Seattle is how close-knit we are, so when I reached out to Tricia Cervenan, a fellow Product Manager and General Assembly instructor, for her thoughts on the industry, the role, and what it means to her, I was not disappointed. I met Tricia a few years back at a panel discussion for General Assembly’s and have worked closely with her during our classes to help mold and modify the curriculum to best fit the needs of our students. I’m happy to have her as a returning judge for each of my courses, and more happy to mark her among my very close colleagues in the business!
In her own words:
Tricia Cervenan is a product manager at L4 Digital and part-time instructor at General Assembly. She has shipped over 15 digital products and is most proud of the teams she’s help to build while doing so. Tricia is a co-organizer for App Camp for Girls Seattle where she teaches 8th and 9th grade girls confidence and coding while taking them through the process of building iOS apps in a week. When she’s not building software or working with those new to the industry, Tricia finds joy in long distance cycling, world travel and a good cup of coffee.
What does “Product Management” mean to you?
Product Management is about being able to make decisions, describe the vision of the work you’re doing, and hold the vision for the team as they do the work to build the product. That means being able to take in information, recommendations and goals from all involved (users, team members, and stakeholders) and determine next steps.
How did you wind up becoming a Product Manager?
I was doing landing page optimization at a mortgage company and moonlighting at the Apple Store as an iPhone Expert right after the meltdown in 2007/2008. My team leader at the mortgage company said to me in a one-on-one, “we should build an app,” and I quickly responded with “I’ll do it.” So the project started out with myself and two developers figuring out, together, how to create something from nothing. Four years later we had a team of almost twenty people and had released eight apps together.
What one piece of advice would you have to someone who wants to be a Product Manager?
Practice your listening skills and learn how to be an active listener and use every opportunity you have to hone this skill. We have to take in information from a lot of sources. Since our goals are often to prove or disprove our assumptions, we have to be open to all the information the world is giving us as we work on our products. We can only do that if we are listening and being hyper aware and present with our interactions.
What is the most commonly overlooked ability that separates the “1%” Product Manager from the rest?
I believe the ability to listen is what separates the best product managers from everyone else. This is not a skill everyone has. The people who are best this position, are the ones who can stop talking and really hear what their users, customers, team, and stakeholders are saying. It’s also in those moments of listening, that product managers can pick up on the things that people are not saying. The micro expressions, the mannerisms, and the silences can encourage us to ask more “whys” and dig deeper to truly understand someone’s experiences.
What’s the best advice you’ve personally received or read that positively affected your approach to Product Management?
A few years ago I was trying to figure out how to talk my company into no longer building features that only one customer had asked for when I read the Lean Product Management Manifesto by Melissa Perri. In it, she used the language, “customer problems”. I had similar language I was using but it wasn’t as targeted as that phrase. What resonated was that it proposes the idea that what we as Product Managers should be doing is discovering and solving problems, not simply creating value. There are products and features out there that create value without necessarily solving a problem. That value can be important, but what if, instead, we focused on real, validated problems that people have? Then the solutions we help create can be ten times more impactful than simply creating value.
For example, there are lots of people, I am certain, that find real value in each of the new ways that every new weather app displays the temperature. But imagine if instead of finding new ways to present the information, product teams sought out real, hard problems people have with the weather? I, for one, would love to see someone help us more accurately predict inclement weather.
This approach, of solving customer problems, has really helped me communicate more clearly with my teams and stakeholders the necessity of validating our assumptions and running experiments.
As a Product Management instructor and coach, what do you think is the one most important aspect of the role that many non-PMs don’t understand?
This job is extremely ambiguous. How we approach situations varies based on the team, the company, and the product we’re working on. There isn’t one process or methodology to rule them all. We are constantly evaluating what the right tool is to pull out of our toolkit to help our team move forward. We often don’t know what we’re going to be doing that day when we get to work. Because of that, our problem solving, decision making and communication skills are paramount over being an expert in one particular field or technology.
Why do you think that so many companies struggle with the concept of user-centered design and development?
I think there are lots of reasons companies struggle with this. One reason that I have seen close up is decision makers succumbing to the recency effect or confirmation bias and being heavily influenced by the one customer or potential customer they chatted with last. I saw one manager in particular who would go out to trade shows and speak with prospects who would say, “if you would build feature X, Y, Z, I will give you hundreds of thousands of dollars of my budget.” Then this manager would return to the team and change the roadmap based on that conversation. From their perspective, they were listening to users. What the manager didn’t realize, is that user-centered design and development is not building what people ask for, rather it’s bringing them into the development process, asking more questions and observing their behavior. The team can then use this information, along with their collective creativity, to create innovative solutions users are willing to pay for. As it turns out, in this particular example, that prospect never did give this company hundreds of thousands of dollars, because the solution they suggested wasn’t for a real problem that needed solving.
What are some of the things that we as Product Managers can do to help those interested in the role to better understand and perform when they land such a role?
I’ve been in this career for almost ten years now. When I have younger product managers come to me for advice it’s usually with a look of pure angst. They tell me they feel like they walked into this role, everyone seems to know what they are doing and they are at a disadvantage and failing because they don’t know enough. So I think the best thing those of us who are experienced can do is to be honest with each other that EVERYONE “falls into” this role. Years ago, there wasn’t a school you could attend or a degree to be earned.
Also, every product management role is different, so you can’t compare yourself to how others do it. I’d love to see us help build each other’s confidence more and acknowledge that success in this role can be more than well written user stories and an effective sprint planning meeting. Success can also be teams working better together, engaged users having loyalty to our products even when we fail, and finding solutions for really hard problems (even if someone else on our team iterates on it and makes it spectacular).
What do you find to be the biggest challenges in creating culture change in an organization, and how can Product Managers overcome these to become the change agents they often need to be?
Oftentimes new folks are put into this position because they “bring a fresh perspective.” Unfortunately, someone who is new doesn’t have the trust and credibility with the team to implement change. So when a Product Manager is hired to “fix” a team, it can be a recipe for disaster if it isn’t done with care.
The first step for success is to have conversations with the people on the team to learn and understand what they truly value. There’s a really great methodology that Russ Laraway from Candor, Inc. has for managers and their direct reports that Product Managers can borrow techniques from. Specifically, understanding where each team member has been, where they are going, and what’s important to each of them will help Product Managers get closer to achieving that allusive “influence without authority” we’re so often tasked with.
Second, Product Managers need the support of their leaders. Since teams don’t generally report to us, it’s often the case that we run into conflicts where team members have directives from their managers that may not completely align with the changes we’d like to make. Thus, it’s important to have those same conversations mentioned above with each influential leader in an organization.
By taking the time to understand each person who impacts and who is impacted by our work, Product Managers can make better decisions about process, communication tactics, and methods for creating change. Change is hard for most people, and it is more likely that someone can walk through the steps to create change faster when they trust that the person who is leading the charge has their best interest at heart.
What’s the most important thing that YOU have learned from your teaching experiences with General Assembly?
For me, teaching has helped me articulate my views on forming teams and building products much more clearly and quickly than I had in the past. Because my students have been so diverse in backgrounds, experience, and career path, I get a wide range of feedback that allows for constant iteration.