Top Product Managers and why you need them - Mixpanel

Top Product Managers and why you need them

Emi Tabb

Yardley Ip is the General Manager at Trulia, a Zillow Group brand, and co-founder of Women in Product, an organization that supports women builders and leaders in product through mentorship, events, and community-building. She joined us at our Women in Product Office Hours last October to talk to us about data-driven products and the diverse audiences they can serve.

Recently, we caught up with her to get her thoughts on the top-of-mind issues facing people in product. In our interview, she gave us answers to two of the questions we hear most frequently in product Q&As: “How can PMs carve out the career they’ve always wanted in product management?” and “How can product leaders identify and attract stand-out talent that doesn’t always stand out on paper?”

What prompted you to make the transition from engineering to product?

I started my career as an engineer working at Apple. We were launching exciting products–Mac Mini, OS X, and iMac. I enjoyed the work and the variety in my days. I wrote code for new products, worked with R&D and hardware engineers on prototypes, and traveled to manufacturing factories worldwide to roll out new products.

But, over time I realized I was more interested in consumer feedback, how business decisions were made, and how product requirements were developed. I wanted to be a part of the strategic and product decision process, so I pursued my MBA and then switched to product management.

What skills and traits do you value most in other product managers?

When it comes to candidates for a product management team, I am ultimately looking for an effective motivator and leader who not only sets the bar high but gives their co-workers the support they need to reach it.

They have to have a passion for problem-solving. On a day-to-day basis, they dig into the details of what has worked in the past and what hasn’t and then work with the team to assess the ‘why’ behind the successes and failures of particular products, features, and initiatives.

The most important trait of product managers is customer empathy. If they can feel their customers’ pain points immediately, they’re more likely to be able to resolve them.

I look for people with strong instincts about solutions, but who rigorously test their hypotheses and learn from those tests.

What mistakes do you see hiring managers make when it comes to finding PMs?

A person’s background will not accurately predict her contributions to the team. The biggest, and, unfortunately, most common mistake I see is hiring people based purely on education or past work experience. I have mentored countless people who can succeed purely based on their passion and ability to learn quickly.

Too many companies lose out on fantastic candidates because they don’t look like a fit on paper. That’s why hiring managers need to thoroughly vet the candidate’s potential. If the candidate’s potential is high and her manager invests time in her growth, the team will gain a valuable addition.    

How have the skills and projects you’ve prioritized shaped the direction of your career? As a manager, what guidance do you offer PMs who are having to make that decision for themselves?

Most PMs are presented with dozens of opportunities throughout their career, and while having those choices is exciting, it can also make it hard to have direction. And to succeed, PMs need to focus on skill sets that not only apply to their current job but also support them in their next one.

So, PMs have to decide when to develop deep expertise in a particular skill or industry and where to experiment and broaden their skill set within their current role. I encourage PMs to work with their managers to ensure they have a clear path with milestones they have to hit along the way.

There is no way to know for sure the best possible route, but I suggest focusing on what you want to accomplish, evaluating where you need to improve, and then taking whatever imperfect data you have to help you make the most sound decision you can.

What motivated you to start Women In Product?

The inspiration behind Women in Product came from a dinner among a group of women who were all PMs. At some point during the conversation, we came to the realization that none of us had ever been to a product management conference before. This unfortunate fact inspired us to take action, which served as the impetus for Women in Product. What started as a way to create community among women in product management has blossomed into this opportunity to bring people together to help each other grow their product and leadership skills.

What advice would you give to women in product who are just starting out?  

For women in product that are just starting out, my best advice is to find a sponsor. Mentorship is a critical element of any successful career, but sponsorship goes a step further. A sponsor advocates for their mentees and will go to bat for them in order to propel their career forward. Unlike a mentor, a career sponsor can’t be asked for – you need to earn their trust, and the reward is much greater.

What about women in product looking to secure leadership positions?

First, don’t sell yourself short. Believe in yourself and what you accomplished to get wherever you are–especially if it’s in a new role.

Second, don’t write yourself off when you make a decision that fails. As hard as it can be, it’s important to see failure as an experiment and use the findings moving forward.

And lastly, remember that true leadership is earned. Just because you lack the leader title doesn’t mean you can’t act like one. Start building trust with your team early, so you have what it takes when an opportunity opens up.

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