Defining Strategy with Amazon’s Product Manager
Virgilia is currently leading the charge for Strategy and Product Management at Amazon Business. She has gained some serious Product Management experience before joining the Amazon team. She worked as a Senior PM at both Weight Watchers and Audible, and on top of that, she’s also the Founder of Network of Women, the Co-Founder of GenJuice, an avid writer, and a Product Management Instructor. Curious about how Product Managers have broken into and mastered their roles? Then join our Product Management Slack Community and ask them!
These questions were all submitted by Product School’s Slack Community.
Amazon Product Management
What is your work as a PM at Amazon like and are there any differences with your previous PM positions?
For sure! Even within Amazon, it depends on the team. In some PM positions, you’re doing product, program and product marketing. I would say traditional PM roles here you’re literally responsible for P&L, as well as, detailed PM work.
As a strategy leader at Amazon, how do you reconcile your own vision of where the product should go with the “on the ground” PMs who own their discrete product areas?
It’s one in the same. We have to think about the vision 3–5 years out as a team. Each individual organizational team must align their work with that vision. Work backward from there 🙂
What is your thought process of creating a product strategy in your current company?
You should start with a positioning document. Think about what vision you’re trying to achieve, what are the metric-driven goals you are setting, which stakeholders need to sign off, who your target customers are, why are you the best-suited company to solve this problem, and think through all the questions your stakeholders may ask you and begin answering them.
How much time do you spend writing PSD at Amazon? Is this a common instrument at your company?
We don’t have a PSD at Amazon, however, we do spend a significant amount of time on other strategy documents. Depending upon on the team, we will go straight to epics.
How do you approach product/feature experimentation? Does Amazon have a particular function for experimenting with the product’s business model, features, pricing or is that split in finance/marketing/product?
Again totally depends on the team, however, I’ve seen it be most successful when product works directly with UX and engineering to do experiments. A cohort-based analysis is a good place to start, as well as, a/b testing and using tools like usertesting.com.
Does Amazon have PMs only for AI products (Echo, Alexa) or do you try to integrate AI as much as possible in all your products?
Yes, they have PMs for everything.
What are some of the most used frameworks or theoretical tools used for designing and/or tracking product strategy at Amazon?
We use a concept called Working Backwards. Please search for that concept, there’s an amazing blog post detailing everything about it.
How often do you talk to end users in your current role? Or do you rely more on surveys, facilitated focus groups, and previous user feedback rather than direct conversation to understand needs?
As difficult as it is, I try to dedicate 25% of my week to something related to understanding the customer.
Product Management Skills
What learning path do you recommend for getting more educated with strategic thinking? (Not just theory, but also practical know-how)
Read read read. My favorites will depend on what type of strategy you’re looking to learn more about. However, for instance, First Round Review is great for overall business whileSean Ellis’ Growth Blog is wonderful for strategy.
For PM’s starting out in startups, how would you suggest creating a user journey for an app that hasn’t been released yet?
What’s the device? What’s the problem you are trying to solve? Do you have any analogous products or companies you like from a usability standpoint? Do you have prospective customers you can gain feedback from?
While defining a product roadmap, how do you tackle risks? Whether users would actually be interested in a feature? Do you do internal A/B test on some users to first determine if the feature is worth investing into and then finalize into a roadmap?
Definitely a lot of testing either qualitative or quantitative or a mix of both. Its a combination of that and a mix of our gut feel 😉
How do you decide what is the next big product idea or what to launch next? And how do you convince management on it?
I know I sound like a broken record, however, if you know your customer in and out you will be able to figure out that big idea. Think about what would make their lives easier, what causes the most pain, and aim to solve that. Convince management by showcasing your metrics and how it aligns to their overall company vision.
As a strategist, how do you decide whether to go deep or to go wide? For example, what’s the best way to decide if a company has to focus on fewer markets and monopolize as opposed to expanding into other geographic areas to have a wider addressable market?
Get it right in your first target market. It’s important to get the quality in place and product marketing fit before expanding too fast.
How do you create processes in an interconnected suite of products where multiple PMs’ roles, areas of ownership, responsibilities, and expertise are clearly defined? Do they report into CTO, CPO, CEO or others?
Every company is so different. It depends on the organization size and complexity. I’ve seen product and growth work under CPO or CTO. CEO if it’s a tiny company.
Do Product Managers manage risk? And what sorts of risk are the most common?
You work with your engineering partner to manage both technical and operational risks.Honestly, it depends on your company and product but could be anything from technical limitations to customer adoption.
What types of questions should PMs be asking their CTO throughout the process?
How do they account for tech debt alongside new feature development?
What are your favorite metrics to measure strategic success in Product Management?
How do you manage encroaching delivery and deadlines when QA and testing aren’t sufficient?
Back in QA into your delivery timelines for devs. Have them do as much manual testing if not automated. Note that down as a risk.
Product Management for Beginners
What are the best resources (audio or books) to learn about Product Management?
Hard Thing About Hard Things is one of my faves!
For someone who is new to Product Management, what would you say are good first steps to take to get into the field? I have applied to roles before and have been turned down not for lack of passion, but for lack of experience. Do you know of companies that hire entry-level PMs? Is that even a thing?
Great question!! You will get through, don’t give up. I’d recommend honing down on the following skills: data analysis, SQL, and customer interviews or user research. Also, just think about a problem you want to solve, small or big, and begin sketching a mockup yourself. Ask around to see if there are any startups who need help and learn from the ground up. There is no traditional path to becoming a PM. You can reframe your experience to speak towards being true to the customer while solving a business problem.
How do you show that you can do the work during an interview? Is there a task I can do that will leave a mark of surprise?
Use the whiteboard and if they don’t have one, request it or a big sheet of paper. Diagram out all scenarios. Even for user stories or personas. Be as visual as possible when communicating your ideas.
Let’s rewind back to when you first started as a PM. Or when you reflect upon an early PM’s journey when they first begin — what is the biggest mistake you see them make?
Being afraid to make mistakes and view failure as negative. You will get no credit for success and all the blame for failure. Learn to have a backbone and treat failed experiments or launches as learning opportunities.
As a PM that interacts daily with Engineering teams and leaders, what did you find built the most credibility when you first started?
I’m not technical by background but after doing product for 8 years, I have learned that the best thing I can do is ask a lot of questions. That’s the best way to break complex problems down into tangible tidbits.
What are other career growth paths for Product Managers besides Director or VP of Product?
The world is yours! Founder, CEO, General Manager, COO.
What are some paradigms or concepts in Product Management that will fundamentally change in the next decade? What things will PMs look back to and say, “gosh, we used to do things like that?!”
Having to defend who we are to people outside tech 😉
What would you recommend for aspiring PMs who have management consulting experience and have not done any PM related work? Would an MBA with a concentration in innovative entrepreneurship add value?
I came from management consulting! I reframed my experience into being strategic and delivery orientated. Focusing on the pain points of my clients and working cross-functionally to deliver solutions that scale.
What was a difficult Product Manager interview question you had? And how did you answer it?
Honestly, I don’t remember but I do know the deeper you’re asked to dive into scenarios you may not have worked on in years takes a lot of honest understanding to what you personally contributed to the feature and how you measured it.
This article was originally published on The Product School blog. We teach product management, data analytics, coding, digital marketing, UX design and product leadership courses in 17 campuses across the US, UK and Canada and the world. To learn more about our upcoming courses and how to apply, visit our course page.
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