Innovators

A case for working at a telecom veteran instead of the next hot startup: A senior Verizon PM gives her side

Emi Tabb

It takes some imagination to think beyond the mystery that surrounds innovation in the enterprise. Whispers about bureaucracy that stops creativity in its tracks. Recountings of days spent seeking approval for projects that only move the company an inch over the starting line in its “race” for “digital transformation.”

Fables like these have passed through Silicon Valley circles so many times that they now seem cliche. But they have influence. They linger. And they can taint opportunities, making startup talent feel like they have to take a leap of faith in order to accept an offer from an established company.

For the product managers who have found themselves in that last camp, Tricia Morizio offers a much-needed counter-narrative about innovation in the enterprise. Tricia’s story is grounded in personal experience – not hearsay. It is a story about complex technical problems and fast-paced, data-informed product teams and where she found them: inside the Fortune 15.

What does tech miss about product management at scale?

A little over a year ago, Tricia jumped shiny startup ship and took a senior product management role at Verizon. There, she leads a cross-functional team dedicated to building the mobile app that supports Fios, the company’s fiber-optic internet, television, and digital voice service.

The My Fios mobile app serves an auxiliary role to the core product, Fios. The app allows customers to manage their account, test their Wi-Fi speed, troubleshoot, and solve hiccups in their service digitally, instead of immediately calling customer support. It’s this distinct function of their product and its positioning within the larger Fios organization that have made it difficult for Tricia and her team to answer a question that many startup PMs might find elementary: How are we performing?

Unlike many B2C apps, the My Fios mobile team can’t rely on a single North Star metric. Their data is complicated by the needs and habits of their users, who vary widely in regard to comfort with digital and motivations for using the mobile app. On top of that, the My Fios team has to analyze data from multiple groups within the massive Verizon organization in order to make sense of their own.

“We have small business owners who use our app every day just to test their connection. We also have customers who only come to our app when they need to diagnose a potential issue with their service. So having a sudden spike in our daily active users or session times isn’t necessarily a positive indicator.

At the same time, we want more users to seek support digitally to help them get what they need from us all in one place, instantly, so our technical and customer support experts can focus on the more complex issues that require their human intervention. So our monthly active user metric is only relevant when we break users down by actions taken on the app and monitor customer behavior shifting from our call centers to digital. And that isn’t always easy.”

But Tricia embraces the challenge. Her educational background in economics and political science has instilled a fascination with the underlying causes of things—why people behave the way they do and how technology shapes that behavior. As a result, she has deep empathy for her users and a willingness to unpack complexity when managing both product and people.

That’s part of what Tricia finds compelling about her role at Verizon. “We have room to work creatively and solve business problems on a massive scale. We have opportunities to think micro and macro—to consider context and pay attention to detail.”

For the My Fios team at Verizon, “Strategy is execution.” That’s what excites Tricia most about coming to work. “I think people assume that my job is to build fancy decks or that large companies just burn through money on consultants and external agencies. But when it comes to our team, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We own our strategy. We have to meet leadership’s expectations for high-quality user experiences while working within very real business constraints. We don’t have the luxury of a blank slate.”

What counts as a success metric for a support app?

Tricia and her team execute their primary task – building out the My Fios app – with a larger aim in mind: driving the digital organization’s mobile growth strategy. “In the past few years, we’ve started to double down to make mobile our key customer experience. We want customers to think of mobile as the primary mode of interacting with us. No other way.”

To achieve that goal, the Fios Digital teams implemented a three-pronged pod model. Design, business, and engineering experts each have a seat at the table in product decisions – from initial ideation through the end of the product lifecycle. “We operate in small working groups because it lets us make decisions faster and keeps the entire team consistently engaged.”

The cross-functional model that the My Fios mobile team uses is an experiment borne out of Verizon’s shift to digital. “In that sense, my team’s success means more than just a win for us; our success provides a case for developing and scaling this model throughout Verizon. So it’s very important that we do well and that we can communicate that with the wider organization.”

But measuring success is complicated. Tricia explains, “When customers buy Fios, they pay for fiber-optic internet and entertainment—not our mobile app. Of course, we want to make My Fios and other digital channels competitive differentiators, so that the ease of doing business with us becomes a deciding factor in our customers’ provider choice. But today, we’re still an added benefit.”

Tricia and her team are working to make the My Fios app more engaging, so fewer customers only come to them when they have a problem. “But we walk a fine line. Right now, we want to offer customers exactly what they need, without getting in the way of what led them to buy Fios in the first place.”

That aim shapes how Tricia and her team interpret their data. To toe that line, the My Fios team has to spend a significant amount of time analyzing different types and sources of data—sometimes from separate organizations—to get a sense of their progress.

“We track our MAUs and consider that metric when thinking about success, but our primary goal is not to just drive customers to the app; it has to be purposeful. Like I said, if customers interact with us every day, it’s probably not a good thing.”

Retention metrics are similarly fraught. “We like to see our customers coming back to digital when they need service. We try to incentivize that with our onboarding flows and ongoing education about our capabilities. But again, we don’t want customers to consistently use the app only because they are having problems. We want there to be that ‘value-add’ factor as well – whether it’s redeeming our loyalty program points or making it easy to manage your household parental controls.”

Some of the metrics that Tricia and her team use to do that also impact other organizations. “Our power users check the strength of their network throughout the day. We want to make sure they’re seeing the speeds they subscribe to and not receiving errors, so we monitor the results of speed tests and troubleshooting tools.” Then, they share that data with other Fios teams who can make the appropriate changes on their end.

While the My Fios team does focus on these power users when designing their user experiences, they have to maintain a holistic view on user engagement.

“We try to understand the different behaviors of our users so we can model our experiences around our most valuable customers – the ones who come back to us digitally, the ones who interact with our app instead of calling, the ones who will become lifelong customers. But we also have to care for the user who comes to us for help – that initial experience has to be memorable so she comes back again the next time she needs to.”

Tricia acknowledges that what success looks like for the My Fios team and how to measure it will continue to change. “To be completely candid, I’m in ongoing conversations with leadership and my team about how to define our KPIs. It’s one of the more challenging aspects of participating in a digital transformation at an established company. We can’t – and don’t have to – pretend to know it all.”

How can a product manager build a mobile app for a user who only has a landline?

Throughout our conversation, Tricia qualifies a few of her statements with phrases like: “this is based on my experience and the information I’ve gathered so far” or “some people disagree with me about this stance.” This is consistent with how she approaches her work. “I make a point not to attach myself to particular ideas about our users or our product.” Instead, she commits herself fully to the process of challenging assumptions and testing hypotheses. She expects her team to do the same.

“Making a product that appeals to Verizon’s incredibly diverse customer base is hard. Bringing customers who only have a landline over to digital is hard. Assuming we know how to serve all these groups doesn’t serve us, the company, or Verizon customers. I don’t pretend to get everything right, but I try to constantly push myself to think outside of my day-to-day – my frustrations, concerns, and even my wins – and think critically about how our users will experience what we build.”

Tricia encourages the entire My Fios team to take this approach when they make tweaks to user experiences and onboarding. They often come back to the same question: “How can we cater to a group of people at completely different stages in their customer lifecycle – the customer who has chosen Verizon for thirty years and the one who has just joined us?”

That’s hard to do when factors like age, region, and income directly impact what customers look for in their products. “We have older customers who might only have a home landline service. Then we have millennials and baby boomers alike who are completely integrated into digital. They need lightning-speed internet. They need connectivity that never goes down. Then, we have customers who operate their business over our network, so their livelihood depends on the speed and reliability of our service. For them, tools available on My Fios like speed tests, troubleshooters, and Wi-Fi analysis are imperative. Other customers might never use them.”

The team constantly thinks about how to communicate with each cohort and how to build tools that don’t only benefit one segment of their users. “Our customer base runs the gamut: all ages, all regions, all different levels of engagement with the digital world. As much as possible, we try to consider all of them equally in our design process—even customers who don’t use digital—so that someday, maybe they will.”

But bringing more of these customers into the app isn’t just a business goal for Tricia—it fits within a larger conceptual puzzle that she’s constantly pushing herself to consider: how to include more people in the digital age.

“Solving the problems we face as a digital team at a telecom veteran requires pushing my team and myself to think beyond the biases that naturally arise from our respective backgrounds, experiences, and identities. Most of my team is very technical, and we often have to remind ourselves that we are not our customers. We are not the majority. We are not America.”

That becomes readily apparent in the My Fios team meetings. “When we review customer data or feedback, someone might ask questions like, ‘Why would someone try to log into the app in this context?’ or ‘How come they approached their issue like this?’ or even, ‘Why do they still have a landline?’ These questions are ultimately indicative of a bigger issue – a need for those completely integrated into the world of tech to pull our heads out of the sand.”

“I think digital inclusion is one of the most pressing responsibilities that we as a society have to figure out. It goes without saying that technology has improved many aspects of our world. The internet, for example, has really democratized knowledge and put it in the hands of many who didn’t previously have access. But advancements in tech do not benefit everyone equally.”

Part of the reason Tricia joined Verizon is because she believes that the company plays a unique role in expanding connectivity. “On the surface, my team might just want to get more digital users, but I would argue that connection is a requirement for success in our world. The people who get left behind in this arena will be left behind in life. So, as individuals, as a team, and as a company, we have to try to bring them along through product development, education, and accessible services.”

These problems are not easy to reckon with, and Tricia recognizes that. “It’s easy to ignore these concepts. To say, ‘We’re doing well enough.’ But when we look at boardrooms, executive leadership, and even product teams, we need to be as diverse as our users. So we have to ask: How does that translate into our product? Having that level of introspection on an individual level can have a ripple effect across a team and even a company. Because whether we recognize it or not, what we build is a reflection of who we are, where we come from, what we value, and who we want to service.”

The Fios Digital team is still a relatively new department with its own share of growing pains, like any new team. As she explains, “We have a unique opportunity because we’re at the crossroads of this transition. We’re proud to mix veteran employee talent with deep industry knowledge and technical product people like myself. Our mix of experiences and skills often allow us to challenge the status quo – it creates a healthy push and pull in our digital transformation.”

In that vein of diversity, Verizon recently released a documentary with National Geographic that helps viewers better understand digital inclusion in the United States. “These topics don’t come up in the day-to-day for product managers, but it’s important to have a sense, an opinion about these macro concepts in order to develop an awareness of how they impact our work.”

What should startup product managers know about life in the enterprise?

Constantly alternating between short-term execution and long-term vision is just one in a laundry list of skills that product managers need to make the shift to the enterprise. Tricia came from a smaller tech company herself, and frequently hires people coming from similarly “agile” teams. “I threw myself into the deep end, so I have full confidence in other product managers to do the same.”

Being able to swim in the deep end is a skill necessary for product management unto itself. It forced Tricia to step out of her comfort zone as a manager, communicate differently with leadership, and develop a deeper understanding of her audience – both when building products and work relationships. When thinking back on the past year at Verizon, three lessons immediately come to mind.

“No one will ask you what you’re building, so step-up and talk about why it matters.”

Product managers that don’t seek out opportunities to talk about their work often get lost in companies with thousands of employees. “At a larger company, your work doesn’t always speak for itself. You have to talk about it. You have to advocate for it. And if you’re a manager, you have to advocate for your team, too.”

Tricia readily admits that this can feel uncomfortable – even painful at first. “It doesn’t come naturally to me to immediately start speaking to my strengths and accomplishments. Fortunately, my leadership has always encouraged me to stay true to who I am, so I can do that in a way that makes sense for me.”

But when Tricia finds an opportunity to demonstrate those strengths to a larger audience, she takes it. “Sometimes that looks like demoing a feature my team built to senior leadership. I recognize that executives won’t always think about our mobile app unless we prompt them to. So I volunteer to present at high-profile meetings. I deliver reports on our impact that no one asked for.”

Tricia calls it “getting your hands dirty.” It’s the first piece of advice she gives her junior product managers when they join the company. “I always encourage PMs to give themselves the opportunity to flex what they’ve learned and, sometimes, what they’re still trying to get a handle on. The truth is, they’ll never feel totally ready. They’ll never have enough confidence, resources, data, foresight – any of it. So I always tell them to just go for it. The only way to learn something entirely new is by stumbling.”

Tricia takes her own advice. The Signal actually reached out to her after she was included in the speaker lineup for the Product Management Festival. “I don’t like public speaking, but I like the challenge and the opportunity to share my message.” Clearly, her tactics are working. When she takes one opportunity, it leads to another.

“Tell the story of your product in a way that will resonate with your audience.”

Seizing opportunities to share and present is only one piece of the puzzle. Product managers also need to have a sense for storytelling, an ability to convey the progress they’ve made within a narrative that will resonate with leadership.

Tricia hammers this point home with own team, especially among product managers that come from startups. “PMs with a startup background – myself included – are used to caring about the exact same things as our leadership. That isn’t necessarily the case at a larger company. So we have to be intentional about bridging that divide.”

Thinking deeply about what different stakeholders care about has helped Tricia tell better stories – ones that make sense to each audience. “Part of my job is showing leadership why mobile matters and why it matters to move customers to mobile. Then, I have to demonstrate how the My Fios team drives that shift – how our cross-functional teams can build better user experiences and how those user experiences convert more customers to mobile. And then I have to tie all that together in a way that demonstrates the importance of what we do.”

“Always be prepared for someone to say yes.”

If a product manager can strike the right chord with the leadership team, they will likely give them the go-ahead to move forward with the project they presented. “That kind of autonomy is a double-edged sword,” according to Tricia.

On the one hand, it has proven important to the success of her team. “Because we have complete responsibility and authority over our product, we feel accountable to our end results. We are more invested in, and excited about our product because we—and we alone—are responsible for it.”

However, less direction can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially for product managers coming from a fast-paced startup environment. “The leadership team at a startup is likely to have a strong opinion not only about what product managers do but also how they go about doing it. It makes sense since there is probably only one product. But leadership at a larger company will probably just say yes or no. And once given a ‘yes,’ the product team has to answer a much more difficult question: how do we accomplish this?”

Verizon may have complexity like any large company, but because My Fios is a relatively new product, the team can act nimbly with little interference or roadblocks.  “We have the chance to experiment and make mistakes. And then, we have the chance to remedy them – often with innovative solutions that can only result from trial and error. Not all product managers have that opportunity. I’m thankful that I do.”

Tricia’s narrative is a departure from what many of us assume about innovation in the enterprise. Her lead role at Verizon allows her to make more complex, tactical decisions, dive into the weeds with cross-functional teams, and partner with every aspect of the business to solve problems on a large scale. She is able to take on the kinds of problems that arise when a team has to build products for people that are different from themselves. And she gets the satisfaction of knowing that even the smallest improvements that her team makes will have an impact on millions of customer experiences.

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