This week we caught up with Olexandr (Alex) Prokhorenko, product manager at Zuora. Zuora is the world’s leading subscription management platform, empowering businesses to launch subscription models and manage the entire lifecycle of their subscribers.
Steve: How would you define the role of Product Manager?
Alex: I’ve seen product managers often take on different, and sometimes extreme roles, based on the company’s stage and size. In fact, coming from engineering and technical management, I find that the position and toolkit of a Product Manager is loosely defined.
Alex: Over last decade that I have worked in product, I’ve spent several years in startup-size companies (less than 100 employees), and over 5 years growing with Splunk from 300 to 2,000+ employees. Currently I am with Zuora, we are over 500 people.
I want to first quickly comment on the common phrase, “product manager is the CEO of his or her product.” While this is relatively accurate and quite appealing description of the role for startup-sized companies, I largely disagree with it when we’re starting to talk about companies with proven traction and significant growth.
To have an opinion about product decisions does not equate making the decisions. The CEO’s role is not to build a product, but to build a company, which is frankly, is quite a different job. And this is where it gets more complicated but more interesting at the same time: look around at CEOs of larger companies, and how they run their companies based on what specialty they came from: engineering, marketing or sales.
My own definition for project manager role is to assume responsibility — to figure out a real-world problem, gauge its significance, and investigate how we can provide a solution. PMs are multidisciplinary technologists and doers.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, this is not always the case, especially in larger companies. With the fast growing companies, product management tends to touch lots of areas across all lines of business, and often has to be broken into inbound (product-centric, engineering, planning, features, scope, internal blockers & communication) and outbound (field, partners, market, user interviews, etc) specialties.
Steve: Which areas are you responsible for in your company?
Alex: Currently at Zuora my role is within the core platform, I work on 2 out of 6 core pillars: pricing and rating engine. The ultimate goal is to empower our customers and partners to grow their businesses with Zuora. This might sound simple, however, there is large spectrum of businesses out there. The large number of combinations of pricing products and services, results in a growing number of options and factors that can influence one seemingly simple purchase decision.
Now with the economy driving transition of traditional businesses into subscription models, my job is not only to have the most dynamic and advanced, flexible product out there, but make the transition as painless as possible.
Steve: Tell us about the tools you use to optimize your UI/UX and increase conversions.
Alex: My work at Zuora has less UI/UX challenges, however, I’ve seen quite a bit of that while running growth & customer success at Splunk. Most of the end-user facing Web properties were ending up on my plate, serving a wide range of purposes: from support to sales. My job was to build, acquire and retain our users (within the scope of each product).
There are dozens of UI/UX approaches I used to take, but they all boil down to the following:
Brainstorm > Prioritize > Experiment > Graduate (built over the layer of deep analytics)
If you miss “deep analytics” part, you will fail. I’ve seen so many cases of “low-hanging fruits” experiments built solely on the top of generic Google Analytics metrics (pageviews, visitors, bounce) that have shown some initial improvement, but then ended up jeopardizing mission critical workflows. Nobody realized until it was too late.
Let me put it this way: I hate to see an improvement that I cannot explain. Why? Cannot explain means cannot reproduce, cannot sustain and have no idea what else is going on — chaos.
Steve: If you had to give a tip to an aspiring product manager, what would it be?
Alex: If I could pick 3 top skills, they would be time management, teamwork, and product roadmaps.
If you don’t know how to manage your time, you will fail big time. I strongly believe that eventually, one can learn to be a great product manager, but without strong time management skills, it will be nearly impossible.
Teamwork! Hire people who are so good that it makes you uncomfortable. While I’ve seen successful B-players teams, it’s easier and faster to go with A-teams in the long run.
And last, but not least, and going a little tactical. I see too many issues with the road mapping, so much so that I even wrote a blog post outlining the framework I use.
Steve: Let us in on some of your secrets. What are your favorite resources for inspiration and innovative ideas?
Alex: I love this question. I am very into growth hacking, I believe ideation is a significant part of success. While there are many ways to do it, there are two that I often find to work the best for me.
One is to diligently break existing process into parts and replace each part with something else to see if it makes sense. Another way is to participate at startup demo pitches and just listen.
Very quickly your brain will start “participating” and producing ideas reflecting on some (often minor) points or ideas. Once you have listened, go ahead and share your thoughts with the startups. Don’t afraid to “give away” your multi-billion dollar idea. First, it is not, and second, most likely than not, your conversation will let you stimulate your brain more.
Moving on, inspiration is important. However, the ability to distil signal from noise is critical, and I would love to point to my blog post on my ideation thought process.
In the context of running online experiments, I like Sean Ellis’ scoring ICE: Impact, Confidence, Ease. I generally try to balance my experiment portfolio with high impact, and high ease experiments — because I hate spending sprints worth of work, with no action in between. High ease experiences are those fillers that you add when buying something on Amazon to get to $25 for free shipping – sometimes they end up much more useful than the actual purchase.