Refresh meets Alexandra: A good product comes from a mix of skills and viewpoints
Alexandra Lung is a Senior Product Manager at Pivotal Labs. She has a background in business, product, and engineering and is passionate about building products that achieve true impact. She mentors teams in crafting user experiences that solve real user problems and in developing products that help the business grow exponentially.
She will be on Product Stage at Refresh Conference and share her key learnings to build the right thing and empower teams to take the right decisions.
Alexandra, tell us a little bit about yourself, who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re currently doing?
I am currently working with companies from different industries and coaching their teams in building new products and new users experiences.
It’s been quite a long way and a mix of different experiences that got me here. I have an engineering degree. I’ve never worked as an engineer but I’ve always been very passionate about tech and innovation. My previous missions spanned between business strategy, product management, marketings, presales and finance in both tech and non-tech environnements. This gave me a full view of what it takes for a business to either fail or be successful.
Do you have a vision that you are pursuing?
My vision on life is: Enjoy! Find out what you love and do it! Pursue your passions and have fun while doing it.
My vision on product management… Well, I could talk about it for hours! To keep it short, the world is changing, products are changing and product management is changing as well. Learn how to adapt, communicate and collaborate better every day and don’t forget to take a big step back from time to time and ask yourself: What are we really trying to achieve here? What is success for this product?
You have been working in different fields, from tech to communication to finance. How does this affect your work? Do you benefit from these different backgrounds? If so, how?
I’ve been working in different fields and on different positions and I benefit greatly from it every day. It provides me with a wider view on things and it helps anticipate different risks and read beyond business stakes and beyond technical complexity. It also made me understand that there is no perfect definition of what a PM should be or do. The right thing to do will vary depending on the industry, the type of product and it’s lifestage. But having worked on strategy, communication, financial plans, pricing models and sales, helps me make product decisions faster and in a more informed way.
What are the benefits of having worked with software and non-software products? Do you think you follow a different approach than someone who is focused on only one of them?
Software and non-software product management are seen as two different worlds, and the role of a PM will vary widely from company to company and from product to product.
But at the end of the day the objective is to launch and grow a successful product and these two worlds have a lot to learn from each other.
I encourage PMs to work on different types of products as this gives a whole spectrum of problems and opportunities and helps gain perspective and good reflexes on aspects that are crucial for product success.
What powerful skill-sets Product Managers need to have in order to build products that achieve true impact?
First of all, I would say, be empathic: With the users, with the stakeholders, with the team. This will help you understand the persons around you and their drivers and will allow you to communicate effectively.
Another very important one: Know how to say NO, and know how to back it up. I’ve seen products failing because PMs or Heads of Product would never say NO.
Saying NO is quite a hard task because we want people to like us and we have a natural tendency to please people, but in so many cases it is completely unproductive if not fatal for our product. And also, know HOW to say NO. Don’t be blunt, or aggressive or defensive. Have the right arguments, have a clear product vision and strategy and have data backup your decisions.
Be passionate about what you are doing but don’t let that stop you from taking some distance during decision making. Love what you do and show it, share it and contagiate people around you. But when taking decisions, be cold headed. A good PM knows how to measure risk and cost versus impact and how to take a step back and ask the question: What are we really trying to achieve here? What is success for this product?
Last but not least, be data driven. The most compelling arguments are backed by business drivers and figures. Data will help you take informed decisions for your product and course correct quickly. Data will also help you be a trusted partner for your stakeholders and investors. Know how to use it wisely.
How do you adapt to changing situations?
In my current position, change comes pretty automatically as I work with new teams and new companies every 4 months.
How I think about it is that change might be hard at times, but it will always be rewarding in the end. Change comes with new challenges and with growth and this is something that drives me as an individual. A question that I try to ask myself every time when starting a new activity (and sometimes for old activities) is: I have a pretty good idea of how to do this. But how can I do this better? In this way, there is constant little change. And it drives growth.
How can Product Managers constantly improve their skills?
Be open to learn and improve your craft all the time. I’ve been practicing for 10 years and I still learn new things every single day. Be humble and open to soak in new ideas, new practices and tools.
And more importantly: Take challenges! Get out of your comfort zone, do things that are hard, that are way over your head. This will make you grow at a superspeed.
How do you empower teams?
I advocate to our stakeholders for the team to work with a veto of autonomy. The balanced teams I work with, have all the skills and the autonomy to take decisions in order to create a successful product.
Each of the team members takes an active part in every stage of the product ‘crafting’ process and this is empowering for the team by itself. For example, our engineers are engaged in user research and have a say in de risking the main hypothesis. They perfectly know why we are building what we are building and they know they are doing something meaningful because they are part of solving the problems they heard from the users themselves.
Also, I use facilitation techniques and workshops to make everyone’s opinions heard and to create the space for us to take decisions effectively as a team.
I am convinced that a good product comes from a mix of skills and viewpoints and the perfect intersection of technical feasibility.
User fit and business outcomes come only from mixed teams where all the members are empowered to do things right and to do the right thing.
Last but not least some fire questions. Please complete the following sentences:
I should do more often …
… take more time to reflect on my practices and try new tools; we never do this enough.
Never be afraid of …
… giving a try to doing what people say it’s ‘impossible’.
Success is …
… a product people love and a job you love.
Failure is …
… when we cannot make the user needs heard. When the team doesn’t have the space to do the right thing.
Refresh Conference is a product, design and front-end conference. It will take place on September 7 for the fourth time already and will bring 20 great speakers and 700 attendees to Tallinn, Estonia. Refresh provides inspiration for building great product experiences and design on the web.
Author: Katharina Sowa
Social Media Marketing & Content