Anna is a Product Manager with six years of experience in the field. She started her career as a Project Manager in the IT industry and now pursues a product management path. She was building products in the B2B segment and is now focused on consumer-facing products. We got to talk to Anna at quite an interesting moment in her career: she just left her position as Product Lead at Boku (formerly Fortumo) and joined Fintech company Riverty as a Product Manager.
We at Eleken design SaaS products and believe that the product mindset of the team is an important factor in building digital platforms and apps. So we could not miss the opportunity to talk to an experienced product person and ask her about her career journey and share some insights about what impacts the success of digital solutions.
Hey Anna! It’s nice to have you with us. May you please tell our readers a little bit about your journey to becoming a Product Manager and how it all started?
Hi! To be honest, I think my path in product management started as early as I interacted with the IT world in high school. Now it sounds a little funny but I took part in an Informatics school competition and I realized that it is a combination of things that I love! Math, logic, analytical thinking, and creativity combined gave birth to my new passion. Those early achievements in school competitions sparked my interest in the IT field.
During my university years, I did not waste time. I started with a free internship to just get a taste of work in IT. This experience helped me to understand the field from the inside, build a network, and learn about different professions and career paths. At the same time, I was taking programming courses and participated in IT events. I met a lot of IT professionals, worked with different people, and eventually, I realized that I want to try myself as a project manager.
The first years of my career were a bit explorative and I collected every experience I could. In those early days, I worked as a Project Manager at a digital design agency in Kyiv for a while. There I actually learned more about user-centric design, how digital products are built, how to make proper UX research, and how to empathize with customers.
After I moved to Estonia to pursue my Master's degree, I decided to look for a product management job, since I felt I have the right skills and experience for this position. I found my first job in Estonia as a Product Manager at Estonian mobile payment company Fortumo and started building fintech products. There she was promoted to the Product Lead position.
And soon after you made an interesting shift from being a Product Lead to a Product Manager. Why did you choose to go back to product management?
I simply did not want to miss an amazing opportunity to build consumer-facing products from scratch. I believe that to become a great Product Lead you have to get enough experience in different product types. But I will definitely be back on the leadership track in the future.
What is the difference between these two roles?
I am pretty sure that roles and responsibilities vary from one company to another. As a Product Lead, I was responsible for:
- leading a team of product managers
- making sure that they have everything needed to succeed in their job
- setting up the strategy
- helping to solve any obstacles
- getting aligned with stakeholders
The Product Manager collaborates closely with both the Product Lead and the product team and is responsible for one part of the product that the Product Lead oversees.
What is in your current scope as a Product Manager at Riverty?
At Riverty, I am responsible for consumer touchpoints of a financial payment product. It means that we are building a new product that has a consumer-facing part and also solves consumers’ problems. By consumer, I mean the common folk, like us. So, my job is to make sure that:
- all problems of consumers are actually solved
- the experience of consumers with every product touchpoint is seamless, transparent, and enjoyable while using our product
- when we launch in new markets we provide consumers of that market with an experience suitable for them
Honestly, I am quite obsessed with my mission on this product because I help people with their day-to-day pains making their lives easier and more enjoyable. In addition, I am thrilled by the fact that the product is new. The first MVP was launched only this summer, so there are tons of opportunities to explore, hypotheses to validate, and metrics to measure. And I love growing together with the product and the team.
What are your main challenges as a Product Manager?
First of all, we will roll out products to new markets such as Sweden, Norway, and Germany. I need to study these markets to be able to deliver products that fit the market and that users will find useful.
Secondly, I need to find ways how to get qualitative and quantitative insights from consumers. Since the product is at the MVP stage, there is a task to get an analytical dashboard to quantify consumer behavior.
On the other side, I want to learn consumers’ feedback on using the product, do user testing, and interview potential consumers before going to market. Since the product is B2B2C (business-to-business-to-consumer) there is no direct way for me to reach out to consumers, so there is a challenge to get in touch with them.
But over the last 6 months at the company, I found ways to get some consumer insights that led to data-driven decisions on product features. For example, we use the VWO recording tool to record user sessions and then analyze consumers’ behavior and find patterns that indicate their confusion.
As a design agency, we are curious to learn more about the relationship between design and Product Management. How do you collaborate with designers?
I may be a little biased here because I love working with designers! They were always the best partners in crime and I involve designers in my thought process, prioritization, and day-to-day work as much as I can. UX professionals, as well as Product Managers, are the ones to know everything about the product’s clients, advocate for them, and define the product strategy. I love to have a close relationship with the design team to bounce ideas and hypotheses, brainstorm, and gather requirements.
Of course, there is a bureaucratic part to it such as creating tickets and commenting on Figma files. But what I want everyone to understand is that design is not a standalone part of a product, but is fuel to the engine which keeps it running. Designers should not receive specific tasks only and then produce results, the design flow should be a natural flow that sheds light on each and every roadmap item and provide necessary insights to drive it further.
We totally agree that design is essential for product development. In your opinion, what drives the success of products?
Failed products are products that do not serve the customers, for whom they were designed. In most cases, it happens because the whole product was built on the assumption that something might work for the customer without any validation.
If you examine the failed product patterns, you might see that tremendous work was done to get it live, the opportunity cost was enormous, managers came up with ideas and engineers started to build something. However, usually, there were some typical mistakes like:
- not including engineers and designers at the ideation stage
- not doing research and validation of the idea with the product’s prospective users
- not building a prototype and testing it with users
- not learning from the received feedback
- or even basing the whole product development on the assumptions born in managers’ heads.
I believe that a product mindset is key to the success of the product. By the definition, product mindset refers to creating meaningful value for customers. This should be the first thing the whole product team works on. In teams with such a mindset, every member is eager to deliver value, not just a feature.
From my experience, teams that possess a true product mindset have certain practices:
- They ask themselves “why” something is planned to be delivered.
- They are data-driven and rely on quantitative and qualitative variables to justify decisions.
- They use the MVP approach not even when it comes to the product's final result, but also to the MVP features and release parts that can bring value at first and are all nice-to-haves later to add value.
These qualities are not naturally given to the teams: they require the right coaching, experience, company culture, and vision. I am so honored and pleased by the fact that at my previous job, I had a chance to work with people possessing a product mindset and learn from them, so now it is a natural part of my competency.
Failing fast is a pillar of a product mindset. In order to have that product team need to be eager to deliver an asset in live to get feedback from the users, validate if it is even worth driving further, what should change, maybe the audience chosen is not right at all or the features that were prioritized do not solve any problems.
You work in international companies, can share some insights about the cultural specifics?
I have worked both in international companies in Europe and in local companies in Ukraine that work with international clients. A lot of differences between these two experiences were in the essence of work culture.
For example, in Estonia, the work-life balance is very supported by the government and also the management of the company. When I started working in Estonia and was still a student, by the labor law I was entitled to thirty calendar days of study leave, which is a vacation that is used for studies despite having regular yearly vacation days. Even though I was not overusing them, I found them very helpful when I needed to complete my Master's thesis and when I was doing my exchange semester in Switzerland while working remotely. I am also very grateful to my manager who always encouraged me to take some study leaves and advise the same to all working students.
When I joined Riverty I was surprised at how people take work-life balance seriously in Nordic countries. Once I scheduled a call with a Norwegian colleague at 4 pm on Friday, he texted me that at this time the whole Oslo office is dead and people are off work to pick up kids from school and do family things. Although, some of them might resume work at 10 pm after the kids are in bed. So everything that is written in books is true.
Can you please compare working in a startup and in a big corporation?
I think it all comes down to the company size. Working in a startup versus a corporation is two different but fulfilling experiences. In a startup or company that developed after the startup, each employee is taking full ownership of the culture and is encouraged to be proactive and do even more than expected. In a corporation, you have your own responsibility which might be ten times smaller than in a startup, but you will have the full focus and resources spent on one specific aspect of the product.
What do you read? What resources help you grow professionally?
I read a lot when I do my day-to-day work. For example, when I do not know a term or concept I will google it and read as much until I understand the high-level meaning of it. I talk to people in the field, which helps me to learn about their challenges and different perspectives on the role.
At the moment I read “Inspired” by Marty Cagan and before that, I watched some lectures of his on YouTube about how product-driven organizations work. Would definitely recommend it.
From my bookshelf, I can recommend such books as:
- The Agile Samurai: How Agile Masters Deliver Great Software (Pragmatic Programmers) by Jonathan Rasmusson.
- EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products by Marty Cagan
- The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.
What would you recommend to aspiring product managers?
- When choosing the first company you work for, research the product type and domain it belongs to. Do not start with a domain that you are not passionate about. For example, if you do not like financial topics, do not go to fintech. It is important that you use, love, and are obsessed with the product you build. In addition, later in your career, you will be hired not only because of your product management skills but also for the domain knowledge that you gathered. You're first company choice will more or less define your whole future career. So choose wisely!
- Ask questions! I know it might sound cliche but this skill is crucial for this role. I have been recently involved in a candidate interview for the Product Manager role. That candidate did not get many votes because he did not ask questions. One of the skills a PM must have is curiosity. Your ability to ask questions shows that you are eager to learn and you have the potential to succeed in the role.
- Decide for yourself why you want to be a Product Manager. For that you will have to do some research, talk to people and learn that this job it has its flaws, like any other. Product Management is quite an independent role where you need to come up with many things on your own and find and prioritize thousands of problems. For that you would need to fully own your timeline, spend it wisely, and control, and prioritize your backlog while being flexible with leading the team, making research, and gathering information on the product daily. It is not easy and it is not for everyone.
Thank you Anna for the interesting conversation and insights into the product field!
Thanks for the talk! Good luck to you and your readers!