A day in the life of...a director of digital product management
Published: 10 April 2017 By Ben Davis
Muriel Alvarez is Director of Product Management at Work & Co, an agency responsible for work such as Virgin America's fantastic 2014 website redesign and 2016 app.
In this week's Day in The Life, Muriel explains what character and skills her role demands.
If you're looking for a new challenge, why not check out the Econsultancy digital jobs board.
Econsultancy: Please describe your job: What do you do?
Muriel Alvarez: I’m a Director of Product Management at Work & Co. We’re a digital product agency with nearly 200 people across offices in New York, Portland and Rio de Janeiro.
Every day, I work with insanely talented designers, engineers, and fellow product managers. We all have a common goal: creating and launching great digital experiences that will move the needle for our clients’ business and that people also love to use. Our clients include Apple, Google, Facebook, Nike, Marriott, Chase and Planned Parenthood.
In my job, I’ve got three main responsibilities: (1) strategize with clients on the smartest ways to drive their businesses; (2) work with teams to create beautiful, fun-to-use digital experiences that serve both business and customer needs; and (3) keep everyone focused on getting our work shipped and into the hands of millions of people.
The last point is really key. We believe that our products are successful only if they’re being used and adding value to people’s lives.
E: Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
MA: One of the big reasons I came Work & Co is that where I am in the organizational hierarchy doesn’t really matter. Officially, I report to one of the partners of the company. But in reality, that makes little difference to what I do day in and day out because we’re all part of a team.
For example, in a meeting recently several of us were looking at concepts for a new website. The problem we were trying to solve was how to make the site more personable, and less intimidating for users. Everyone shared ideas. We pushed and critiqued each other. At the end of that half hour, we made progress. That’s what’s important.
E: What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
MA: Being a great product manager requires a pretty specific set of skills and personality traits. You don’t need an MBA or engineering degree --I studied history in college-- but you do need to understand technology, design, and business and know how to speak those languages.
Other critical skills are: being extremely organized, communicating clearly, keeping calm under pressure and an ability to see the larger picture while also being obsessed with the details. These skills can be improved with experience. I work at them every day.
Then there are equally important traits that come only from genuinely being interested in solving a problem --such as asking the right questions, knowing how to uncover people’s behaviors and motivations, being unafraid to make mistakes, and staying focused.
E: Tell us about a typical working day…
MA: The first thing I do is review my scheduled meetings with internal teams and clients. I prioritize the two or three most important things to get done, so that I can adjust in case something unplanned comes up (and something usually does!)
Product managers are communicators so I talk to many people throughout the course of a day. I speak to clients constantly. We might gather around a designer or engineer’s computer to review sketches or prototypes, talk through our technology approach, or look at in-progress code.
We check to ensure that what we’re creating for clients is both beautiful, functional, and on-brand. Our meetings aren’t formal; we continuously discuss what’s working and what can be improved. We also talk through implications from user research.
At least a few times a week, I check in with other product managers I mentor to see how they’re doing and what help they need. I also try to carve out time that I can spend alone at my computer to research information for the team, update project Trello boards, and complete other work.
E: What do you love about your job? What sucks?
MA: The moments when I feel deeply satisfied are when people with different agendas, skillsets, and experiences put heads together and make progress --no matter how large or small-- that moves our work closer to launching.
When I was a younger product manager, I believed that keeping to a plan and delivering a website was everything. Now I realize that building relationships, making our teams stronger and more collaborative is hugely rewarding, so I spend as much time focusing on that too. When people can let their guard down, push each other to be better, go through tense and hard situations, and come out of it smiling and laughing at each others’ jokes, those times make me super happy.
The single thing that’s hardest about my role is facing a range of competing priorities that come with building a product. On any given project, a ton of wrenches get thrown in your way. It can be easy to become distracted or lose focus, so unless you’re able to handle a lot of real-time changes, being a PM is probably not for you.
The Virgin America app
E: What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
MA: Measuring success is different for each project, but we try to keep it simple and not come up with a million KPIs that maybe only a few can understand, measure, and analyze. If we’re building an app for a brand that sells something, how we define success should ladder up to a few goals: getting customers to buy, and making them satisfied with the brand and the experience it provides.
E: What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
MA: I don’t have any favorite tools per se, but I use tools that help me communicate with my teams and clients. Currently, Slack and Trello are two I use every day.
E: How did you get started in the digital industry, and where might you go from here?
MA: I started out by building HTML websites as a freelancer. I honestly wasn’t great at coding, but that experience exposed me to many other parts that go into building and delivering digital products. Within a year, I realized I didn’t want to be responsible for only a few isolated parts of the process. I wanted to be able to see things through from start to finish, which is why I moved on to product management.
All told, I’ve been in the digital field for over a decade, managing projects and products for a broad range of clients --from Ford to Facebook. I have a lot more to learn, and hopefully more people to work with, so I’ll keep doing this for a while.
E: Which brands do you think are doing digital well?
MA: My barometer for brands that are doing well in digital is whether or not their products are ones that millions of people --myself included-- find useful every day, such as HBO, Facebook, Caviar and The New York Times (especially their cooking app).
I also find fascinating how digital technologies can empower people to take control of their own healthcare --everything from wearable devices that can perform tests without having to step foot in a doctor’s office to tools now making it easier for patients to access and share their medical records. There are a handful of startups tackling challenging problems in that space.
E: Do you have any advice for people who want to work in the digital industry?
MA: Use digital products. Know what works and what doesn’t and why. Try to pick up skills that you don’t have – like learning how to code. Don’t be someone who’s hard to work with. Being successful in the industry means you’ll work with many different people of varying skills and viewpoints and you’ll have a much easier time contributing to the end product if you’re respectful and empathetic to others.
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