Adrienne Tan 00:07
Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today. My name is Adrienne Tan, and I’m a host at ThisIsHCD.com. Today I’m talking to Rebecca Cooper, Product Manager at SafetyCulture, And Mandy Rogers, a Digital Product Manager at Transport for New South Wales. It’s commonly known that product management is a tough gig. Some liken the work product managers do to herding opinionated cats, so it’s always nice to receive recognition from your peers for the work they’ve done. These wonderful women received accolades from their team and managers, and subsequently gained the Australian Leading Women in Product awards in 2019. We thought we’d chat to Rebecca and Mandy today to learn what great product work they’ve done to receive the recognition from their peers and the broader product community in Australia. Thank you for joining us today, Rebecca and Mandy. Before we begin, I’d like us to just talk about a little bit of your experiences in product – how you got there, how long you’ve been in product, what you like about product? Who’d like to start?
Mandy Rogers 01:16
I’m Mandy Rogers, and I work for Transport for New South Wales. I’m currently the product manager for the transportNSW.info website. And I’ve been working on the product for probably about six years now in different kinds of roles. I was the user experience manager, and then in that role I was probably more of a product owner. Then I stepped into the product management role. I’m actually in a small product team, but embedded in the delivery team. We work in an agile environment; we release to customers every two weeks. It’s a very fast paced environment. So we’re constantly on the go, go, go, go, go delivering new features and tools, and things like the metro service being rolled out across the network. It touches our website. Basically anything public transport touches me at some point.
Excellent. What about you, Rebecca?
Rebecca Cooper 02:07
So I’m Rebecca Cooper. I just recently got promoted this week to Group Product Manager, which feels crazy because I’ve only been in product for three years. I work for a company called SafetyCulture. SafetyCulture is a realm of different things, but we kind of made our mark in the industry to do inspections, in particular for health, safety, quality. And so I look after the inspections part of iAuditor today. Before working in product, I actually worked in customer support for a tech company as well, so lived and breathed what our customers pains are day to day. Because of that, it made me realize how much I wanted to be a product manager because I can actually make an impact on those problems rather than just tell them, ‘I’ll pass on your feedback’.
Excellent. That’s really interesting to hear that you’ve been promoted because today we’ll be talking about product leadership. I’d love to understand and delve deeper into how you transition essentially from a product manager to a group product manager and what that might mean. Now, we’re talking to you because you won the 2019 Leading Women in Product award that was given by Brainmates. We had so many different entries and our judges chose your applications – Mandy for innovator, and Rebecca for leader. So it’d be really great to go through and talk about how that came to bear. What did you do that generated attention and accolades from your peers, because your peers had to say something nice about you and submit the application on your behalf. We know that product management is such a difficult realm to work in. We work so hard and yet sometimes we don’t get the recognition we deserve, so it’s really nice to see that you got recognition. But tell us how you got the recognition? Shall we start with you, Mandy?
Sure. Well, I was I was quite surprised that I got nominated for the award. Actually, I didn’t know anything about it. It was announced to me during our daily standup that the team had gone behind my back and put in a nomination for me. They actually shared the nomination application with me, though, and it actually brought tears to my eyes reading about some of the really nice things that people said about me. So it’s not that I go looking for attention or accolades, but I’m pretty passionate about the things that I do in my job, so I guess that draws attention in itself. I’m pretty focused on – this is reading the application, reading some of the ideas that came through, they mainly said that I’m really customer focused, and that’s because I really take my time to understand the product. I know it really well and I understand the customers that use our product. So we’re constantly trying to do more and more customer research, usability testing, looking at Google Analytics, going out and testing at the local station to see how products are being held by customers. Just making sure that I know everything I can about my product so I can make good decisions. So I think that they can see my passion, and that’s probably what led them to nominate me for the award.
That’s excellent. What about you, Rebecca?
It’s actually really interesting, because as you were speaking, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but that was the same for me.’ So I did know that I was getting nominated for the award, but I only knew because both my boss, the Head of Product, and our Head of People and Culture at the time reached out to me and said, ‘We want to nominate you for this award. So we’d love to get your input on all of the things that you’ve done so that we can at least give the right information.’ So while I did know, it was still a surprise and came from them, which was amazing. And yeah, it was very much the same thing: my customer focus, because customer is just at the heart of absolutely everything that we do. But in particular, I think because of my background, it really resonates with me that everything I think about is about the customer. And then the other thing is definitely the passion. I am 100% of the mindset that no task is too big that I can’t handle it. Which sometimes gets me in trouble, but I think because of that I’m just so driven to try and solve problems and get things done. And if there’s no one doing it, that’s not something to stop me. I will pick it up and I will do it. So I think that is what has driven me to the nomination, but also for people to see that if there is something that is falling down I’m willing to just get my hands dirty and try to solve that problem or fix that issue.
That’s excellent. You both talk about customer research and being champions of the customer. How do you balance that drive for making sure that the customer is at the center of your decisions versus the business constraints, the business issues and the business goals as well? How do you balance both those items?
It’s hard. It’s a balancing act, 100% a balancing act. Obviously if we wanted to give our customers absolutely everything that they wanted, we probably wouldn’t make any money as a business and therefore we wouldn’t be around. So it’s really important to try and juggle the needs of the customer with the needs of the business. Sometimes you have to do things because they’re good for the business. But if they’re good for the business, then you always need to make sure that whatever it is that you’re building or delivering still has the customer in mind. If you hinder the customer’s experience, then they’re going to churn, they’re going to leave. So therefore you need to – say that the thing that you need to do is increase your monthly active users. You could really easily do that by annoying your customers and getting them log back into the product, and for one month you might have a spike in monthly active users. But then the next month you have no users because you’ve done something that’s absolutely destroyed their experience. So you always need to be thinking about what the customer experience is, even if it’s a business objective that you’re trying to meet.
Excellent. What about you in the public service, Mandy?
Yeah. So working for transport, we’re not trying to make money, as such – we’re not selling anything. So we, in that case, are constantly focused on getting the customer experience right. A lot of people have high expectations these days, so we want to try and fulfill those. We do have a lot of challenges though. It’s web development, and we’re integrating with things like third party APIs where we don’t always have control over, so we have to make sacrifices. And we always try to balance that and problem solve. So if we find a problem, we might look at other ways we can do something so that we can try and maintain as much of a customer focus as possible and keep the user experience okay without having to completely sacrifice everything. It’s one of our big challenges that we face every day, dealing with technology constraints. We just try and do the best that we can.
In terms of customer feedback, though – I mean, you work in government, you work in transport. What’s the feedback been like? Are people enamored with your product or do you see a lot of complaints? And then how do you deal with those complaints?
We do get a lot of customer feedback. A lot of it, I would say, is probably around the data. And there is a program of work where we’re trying to improve the data. Most people are more concerned about why their bus didn’t show up, those sorts of things – things that I don’t have complete control over. However, we do have the teams within the same division who are constantly striving to try and improve data quality across the network. It is pretty uncommon to get positive feedback, I have to say, but we do occasionally get it and that’s really nice when people sort of say, ‘Hey, we really love what you did in the last release’ or something. So that’s really nice. But we just look at customer feedback and look at if there’s any trends or any things that are spiking, and then we see if there’s something that’s changed, if we have to fix something, or if there actually is a problem that we need to go and fix. We definitely keep track of all of that and make sure that we prioritize with everything else.
Excellent. Again I’m going to harp back on the customer experience, and you’re so focused on designing that pleasant, engaging experience for your customers. Do you guys work with user experience designers, and where does the boundary lie between what they do and what you do as a product manager?
So at SafetyCulture, definitely we work side-by-side – I actually sit next to two designers. We are very fortunate that I actually have two designers in my team. The reason for that is one of the things that we’ve found is that designers working in a pair is just working really well for us. We have one who’s really strong at UX and one that’s really strong in UI. They’re actually both teaching each other their strengths, which is amazing. And it’s not going to be like that forever, because obviously it’s a luxury to have that much design resource, but it’s working really well for us at the moment. And so I sit side-by-side, and the way that it works for us is I determine as the product manager what the roadmap is – why we’re solving a problem that we’re solving – and then they determine how we actually solve that problem. So they get really deep into what the customers’ needs are, whereas I get really deep into the reason why we want to solve this problem for a customer.
Excellent. What about you, Mandy?
We actually never had a design team in-house until a year ago, and I really struggled with that, because we would just get some vendors who would come in and do the work for us, and we really needed people who were on the floor all the time. So now, I can happily say that, not only did I get one year ago, the team’s now grown to four. So we’ve got four designers and I oversee everything that they do. We have a daily stand-up every morning to talk about what it is that they’re working on. I’ll basically brief them on what it is that we’re trying to solve. They’ll go away and do any research that needs to happen, present it back to me or the team, there might be business analysts involved as well. We work out what we think the best user flow is, they might go and then prototype it, work with developers to see what’s achievable and technically feasible. Basically, it’s a full collaboration. I oversee it all, but it’s fully collaborative within the entire team with technical people, business analysts and the designers themselves doing that competitor analysis and bringing it back, and then testing it on customers as well. It’s that whole iterative design process until we get it right.
Is it fair to say that for both of you that you’re essentially identifying the problems that you want solved, and your designers are then going to look at ways to solve it? Or is that a little bit different for you, Mandy?
Yeah, not always. Yes, sometimes. Sometimes we get to decide what it is on the website that we want to do, but often it comes down to us from another department. And we don’t necessarily – for example, we didn’t get to design an API, for instance. We get what we’re given and we deal with what it is. And it might be just something that we need to – for example, when they rolled out contactless payments across the transport network so you can pay with your credit card, they needed a way for the customer to be able to login to view their credit card, the breakdown of their fares, basically. So that was the brief that we got given. We got to then go away and work out what exactly that looked like, but within the constraints of the technology that we had. We got given a problem to solve, but then we defined within the boundaries of the technology what we could do to make it the best user experience possible.
Excellent. And it’s good because what we’re seeing is – Rebecca, you’re from a small company, a startup-ish company – scale-up company, how’s that?
I would say say scale up. We are about 320 people globally, and about 150 people in our Sydney team.
Yeah, that’s that’s definitely much bigger than the last time we spoke. And what about you, Mandy? How big is this team that you work in?
The delivery team that I’m embedded in? It sort of ranges – we might scale up and down depending, but we sit around 30 people in the team. As I said, we’ve got UX and UI designers, we’ve got business analysts, we’ve got tech leads, developers, testers, and then a project manager-slash-scrum master to pull it all together. That’s the size of my team, but it can be bigger or smaller, depending on workload.
And it’s not very often, like I say, that you have someone from a scale-up and a government organization talking about product management, so I’d like to just touch on that a little bit. Maybe you can talk about what it’s like doing product in government and what it’s like doing it in scale-up? Then maybe we could pick out the pros and cons, identify the differences?
It was only about three years ago that we actually started on this journey. It was 2016, actually. Prior to that, we had three different websites – a desktop, a mobile, and a text-only website – and it was all outsourced to two separate vendors. We needed to have one single website for all of transport, because there was the Sydney trains website, the transport info website, there was a buses website. So we needed to have a single source of truth for customers, basically. And in order to do that, we had to rebuild the site from the ground up. We needed it to be scalable and flexible. We needed to put it in the cloud. So we completely transformed the way we worked. And that’s when we started using the Agile methodology. That’s when we brought in a product manager to lead the team, but we were learning as we went. We had a scrum master who came in – a scrum coach who actually had to teach us everything from scratch, because we didn’t know anything about Agile. We’d only ever done waterfall, where you do this 300-page specification document, send it off to Germany to get something built, brought it back to start testing, and by the time you delivered you, you wanted the next stuff and we had to wait. So we actually really embraced Agile, set up a really good team – a mixture of people who had worked in Agile before and those who’d never – you know, the existing team members – and we were really quick to get on board. We’re now like the poster child within transport because we just – can I swear? – get shit done. We get shit done. People come to us and they’re really pleased with the pace and the velocity that we can get things done, because we’re just a really high-functioning team now. We’ve been doing it for a while.
That’s amazing. That’s so good to hear, that you can get a well-functioning team in a really large, complex, bureaucratic organization, so cheers to you.
It’s actually quite similar in that regard. The way in which our teams work is still very similar as well. I would say the biggest difference is that SafetyCulture is definitely a product-led company. Our COO got up and stood in front of the company today and said, ‘We’re a product-led company.’ The whole business understands that, and so product management has a really fundamental role in our organization. We have about eight product teams, I believe – roughly around 80 to 90 engineers in total. And so the way in which it sounds like it works at Transport for New South Wales is very similar to how it works at SafetyCulture in regards to the way that the teams are set up. The biggest difference is probably that it’s chaos in terms of we’ve got eight different teams all trying to work on the same product running in different directions. Everyone’s got different goals that they need to meet, which all align to our company objectives, but everyone just steps on each other’s toes a lot. And so we’re trying to figure out the best way for us to all work together and unlock ourselves from the interdependencies that we have while also trying to deliver great product, basically. So it does become really difficult, especially when you’re in a product-led company and everything is about the product, and everyone is working towards something on the product, but the product is one thing. And so you end up with a lot of, ‘Okay, well, if you’re making this change on your roadmap, then we need to discuss what that means for our team.’ We miss a lot of things as well. But it is really great, because it does mean that product management is really at the forefront of leadership at a product-led company.
And how does your COO define ‘product-led’? I mean, I hear this term a lot and I’ve got my own definition and you might too, Mandy, but what is your COO’s?
I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but I would hope that he would say product-led means that the product is what sells our product. We don’t sell hopes and dreams; we sell what we have in the product today. And if it wasn’t for the product, then we would have no business, basically. So when he talks about product-led, he means that we are selling the product that is built today. And we will take the feedback from our customers and what they need for the future, and we will work on that so that we can retain those customers in the future, but today the product is what it is today.
Excellent. So that’s really nicely summarized. Can I make some assumptions that your sales people can’t sell and promise all these fancy features in the roadmap?
You could make that assumption.
Would I be wrong?
I think, like all sales teams, we we still definitely talk about what our roadmap is. We talk about what are the things that we are going to deliver – 100% customers want to know that. They want to know that, if it’s something that is critical to them, it is at least on the roadmap and something that we’re considering. So we do definitely have to talk about those things. But we’re not selling something that doesn’t make sense for the rest of our customers. So we’ll never build something that’s just for one specific customer. We need to make sure that what we are building actually aligns with our strategy, with our roadmaps, with what the majority of our customers want. I think that’s the difference.
While you have the mic, we talked about you becoming Group Product Manager. How did you do that? What were the steps to become a group product manager? What advice would you give others?
I feel like it happened way too quickly. But as my boss told me the other day, I’m just being silly. I think I have a bit of imposter syndrome on that. But anyway, the way that it happened was I started at SafetyCulture just as a product manager. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m just notorious for taking things on. Sometimes that definitely is to my detriment and sometimes I overwork myself, and that is a problem and something that I’m working on for myself. But the thing that’s good about that is that it shows people that I can actually do things that are outside of my remit. And so I did that; I took on every challenge that I possibly could take on. We had people leave from the team and I just took over their work on top of my work. I do not recommend people doing that, but it is definitely what helped me show that I could do more than just what my one team, one responsibility was. And so as a result of that, because I had just taken on the work and the role of a senior product manager, I was lucky enough that my boss recognized that and so I was promoted to Senior Product Manager. Since then, I’ve just taken on more responsibility because I just love to. I’m starting to set myself and my team up so that we can bring in more product managers who will actually work – I say underneath me, but it’s really alongside – so that we can have more teams and we can start to scale out our product team as well. The way that it’s working now, we all report to the Head of Product, and that’s just not scalable. We want to go from having six product managers to having 12, and just keep doubling that within the next couple of years. As a result, we needed to work out what that structure was going to look like. I already knew what it would mean for my teams and the part of the product that I was looking after. I made that very known that that’s what I wanted to do, and it aligned very well with what my Head of Product wanted too. So we’re setting ourselves up for the future, by all means, but it does mean that I will now have the teams that I currently look after – I look after two teams. We’re going to get product managers for both of those teams, I’m bringing on an associate product manager as well, and we’re going to just continue to grow those out. So the difference is that I used to look after just one team and one small feature set. Now I look after almost a whole vertical of our product and I will oversee that in all aspects – whether it’s aligning with go to market, it’s making sure that our monthly active users is healthy, and it’s also making sure that we’re delivering on what we’ve said that we’ll deliver on and execution and all of those kinds of things. So it encompasses a lot more than just my one small little dot on the product.
Excellent. Well, congratulations. And Mandy, you talked about moving from a PO role to a PM role. What was that like? Is that seen as a career advancement at Transport?
I think so. Yes, it was. Yes. So as I said, I was the User Experience Manager but I was basically the product owner. So when stories were being completed, they were being demoed to me and I would be marking them as done, basically. So stepping into the product manager role was a step up for me, because then I got to own the roadmap as well, whereas before I was really just in the delivery space. But what it’s meant is I’ve become the product manager and the product owner. Nobody else took that over, so I’m owning the strategy and the roadmap, as well as helping the team to deliver as the product owner as well. So I’m kind of that whole circular motion from from the start right through to the end. But I love it. I really do enjoy it.
It sounds like both of you took on extra work to demonstrate your capability and your desire for a new role. Is that sustainable, taking on more?
Not forever, no.
And so what are your steps to alleviate some of that?
As long as you’ve got a business where they listen to you. So if more staff are being added into your role – for me, I think taking on the product manager role, it has made me extremely busy. But I’ve recently got a product manager who’s now reporting to me, so he is taking on some of the work that I would normally do. That was expressed that I’m too busy in meetings, and I can’t get everything done. My organization listened and was able to provide me with some of the support. That’s actually quite new, so we’re still working out ways of working. But I think that as long as they recognize that the support is needed, especially when the roadmap keeps growing outwards, as they give you more things to deliver, that the company supports you and gives you what you need.
It’s definitely not sustainable. But, much like Mandy mentioned, I think I’m very fortunate to work (1) for an organization but also (2) for a manager that can really understand when someone takes on too much and we can work out the contingency plan. So as long as it’s not forever. I was just trying to remember what that saying was, which I still can’t remember – something about do the job you want, not the job you’re in, which is very true. You need to be able to show that you can actually do the role that you want to get to that next level. And it’s hard to show that without doing a lot of the things that you need to do. But obviously, you can’t let go of the things that you do today, because that needs to be done as well. So yeah, I think it’s definitely not sustainable. You have to be smart, you have to know that you’re in the right organization that will actually back you to be able to do the next job and then also backfill your current position. Otherwise, you’ll just burn.
Yeah. And in terms of leadership, what do you think we can do to encourage more women into product leadership?
It’s a good question, especially because right now I work in a product team of all men. It’s okay, though, because we have a new female product manager starting very soon. But it’s just very interesting, because I was always of the opinion that product management would actually be more of a female job. And this is, I know, a stereotype. And engineering would kind of be more of like that male position. But actually, as it’s turning out now, things are just flipping on their head completely. I think the biggest thing for women is to just realize that you can do it too. That’s the one thing for me. I refuse to believe that I can’t do something that a man can do. I think that comes out a lot in everything that I do. The other thing as well is that product management is hard, but it’s something that, if you’ve got the soft skills, I think you can learn the hard skills. If you feel like you’ve got the right kind of personality to actually deal with that challenge, then just go for it, because you can learn the rest. I went into product management with no idea about strategy, no idea about P&Ls, no idea about monthly active users, or how to use any of the software that helps me get any of that information. And then I look at where I am now. It’s just because I learned all of those things. If you’re interested, just do it. If you’re worried because you’re surrounded by a group of men, don’t be, because you provide something more in those conversations than they do – just because you think differently, you’ve got a different perspective. So don’t ever let that deter you from getting into product – or any role.
Do you have an example where you might have thought differently to your male peer?
I can’t off the top of my head think of a specific example. But I can definitely tell you that I leave every single one of our product team meetings feeling like I fight with everyone in those meetings. It was only today that I realized – it’s not fighting, but I am always debating everything that said. And it was only today that I realized that it is because I think differently to how everyone else in that room thinks. Not on everything, obviously, but I think that that’s the reason why I’m always feeling like I’m the one challenging people all the time, or I’m that annoying person in the back that’s just like, ‘Wait, can you just talk about that again because I’m not sure I agree’. So I can’t think of a specific example, but it’s definitely obvious that I think differently.
Thank you. What about you, Mandy?
Yeah, I agree 100% with Rebecca. Women with soft skills – I was going to bring that one up. I think that women are really good at listening, right? And I think that’s a really big part of a product manager’s job. You’ve got to listen to what your customers want. You’ve got to listen to what the business wants. You’ve got to listen to what your stakeholders want. And you don’t have to make all the tough decisions on your own. I fully encourage collaboration within the team and I’m constantly asking for people’s opinions. You don’t have to have all the answers. If you’re not technical enough, then ask somebody who’s technical. If you’re not creative enough, then ask someone who’s more creative. Now, I love that the job is a little bit of everything and I’m probably a little bit of everything. I love my little creative side, and I like my little technical side, but I’m not the most technical person in the room. So I encourage women to just give it a go. I mean, there’s great training courses out there – Brainmates! I’ve done the Brainmates course for product and I thought it was excellent. When I started in the role, I didn’t actually have the foundation of what a product manager is. I was kind of already doing a lot of that stuff, but that gave me the structure I needed. So get out there and get some training, just jump into the role. As long as you understand your customer and your product and you back it up with your analytics to prove things, then you can make this make the right decision. So give it a go.
Excellent. Any final last words?
Just do it. Sorry, I might have stolen that from a certain shoe company. No, but in all seriousness, I get so many people reach out to me – probably weekly – saying, ‘Oh, can we go for a coffee? I’m really interested in getting into product management, I want to know what I need to do.’ And my answer is just try and get as involved as you possibly can. I think a lot of people are just scared of getting out there and just trying for opportunities. But if you don’t try, you’re not going to get into product. It’s such an amazing job. It is stressful, but it is amazing. You get validation of the things that you do well from your customers, and because you’re solving problems, and because you’re seeing that the business is succeeding because of the things that you’re doing. I feel like I’m a sales person for product management right now, but my advice and my final words are: if you’re interested, just get out there and get as involved as you possibly can.
Excellent. Thank you.
It’s a very rewarding job. I’d like to say that as well. I look at the the trip planner that we have; 7 million trip plans are run every month. So to know that that many customers are coming to our website and finding the results for their journey to and from work, it really makes me happy to see that I can do something well. A lot of the customers are returning customers, so we must be doing something right. I fully endorse product management, go for it.
Excellent. Thank you so much for your advice and your stories. I hope that people take something out of this podcast. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you’d like to be a part of the conversation or community, pop on over to thisishcd.com, where you can request to join the Slack community, and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers and product leaders around the world. Or you can choose to join the HCD newsletter, where you can win books and get regular updates. Subscribe to content on Apple Podcasts or Spotify and listen to any of our other podcasts. We have several: Getting Started in Design and Bringing Design Closer with Gerry Scullion; The Power of 10 with Andy Polaine; Decoding Culture with Dr John Curran; EthnoPod with Jay Hasbrouck; and, of course ProdPod with myself, Adrienne Tan. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.