Product management work changes from company to company and from one industry to the next. A key factor influencing the work is the size of the organization. Product managers at a large company like Microsoft will have a different scope of responsibilities than a product manager in a small startup. To explore these differences and other aspects of product management, I interviewed Ellen Chisa, a product manager who has worked for companies of different scales. We got connected with each other because we were both listed among the top-40 product management influencers by Product Management Year in Review. Her educational background is in engineering and she has started her MBA at the Harvard Business School. She was a program manager at Microsoft (which is a “product manager” at other companies) and also a product manager for Kickstarter. She is currently the VP of Product at a startup, Lola Travel, in Boston. In the past she taught product management courses and workshops, including the product management bootcamp at General Assembly.
In this interview, you will learn:
- Differences working as a product manager in large and small companies.
- What is rewarding about the work in organizations of very different sizes.
- The challenges product managers can expect based on size of the company.
During the discussion with Ellen I made an error attributing the quote, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late,” to the wrong person. Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn Founder, made this important statement. My apologies to Reid!
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
What was most rewarding in your work as product (program) manager at Microsoft? At Microsoft the role is aligned with marketing and involves getting into the technical details for what should be developed. Their product managers must have very good technical skills. The most rewarding aspect of working in a large organization with a large customer base is the number of people your work impacts. You may be making a small change to a product but that change impacts a very large number of users, making their day better. Also, you get a lot of practice with the fundamentals of product management because you have time to go through the process the way it is supposed to be done, considering the problem more deeply, who are the stakeholders, who do I need to coordinate with, etc.
What are some challenges product managers face in large enterprises? I never could tell the impact I was making in the organization versus other product managers. The scope of control is limited. The requirements are pretty specific by the time they get to a product manager. Also, I would see some stakeholders infrequently compared to a start-up environment. For example, I would have a legal review once a year and not coordinate with the legal team outside of that review.
Now for the other side of the spectrum – what is your role at the startup and what do you like? The startup is Lola Travel. I started as an intern as part of my Harvard Business School MBA program. My technical and business background was what they needed. The role is so much fun because you have large impacts on the product. We rapidly iterate product versions, getting customer feedback between each one. This creates a near-continuous feedback loop which I find rewarding. I see how my work is directly making a difference in the product and to customers.
What are the challenges working in the startup? I tend to be a perfectionist and have to decide what are the most important aspects of a product to address and which ones must wait. It is also a balance between deciding when some part of the product is “good enough” and when another one must be excellent. We try to keep the focus on the user when making these decisions and judging what will help the user the most. Contrasting this with a large organization like Microsoft, in the startup if I decide something is not really “good enough” we can create an improved version and quickly get it into customers’ hands, but I couldn’t do that at Microsoft. In the large organization, it might be another year or more before the next version of a product is released.
Comparing and contrasting the large company and startup, what should a young product manager ask themselves to evaluate the choices? Consider:
- What you want to learn next and what are the skills of those you will be working with.
- The scale of work you will be involved with – making small changes to large products with huge numbers of customers or large changes to smaller products that impact a smaller number of customers.
- The level of influence you want your work to have in the organization.
- Ellen’s blog
- Ellen’s LinkedIn profile
- Lola travel – service to manage all your travel needs
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” – Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper, computer programming visionary.
Listen Now to the Interview
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Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.