Trailblazing Women in Product Management: Diane Levin, VP of Marketing and Product Development at New York Power Authority

For our next installment of the Women in Product Management series, I interviewed Diane Levin, VP of Marketing and Product Development at New York Power Authority.

How did you get into product management?

I’ve always been the ‘save the world’ kind of gal, so, out of college I went to Washington D.C. and worked in a consulting organization. Then, I found myself wanting to manage the consulting organization as much as I wanted to do the consulting work, so that’s when I decided to go to Stanford for my MBA. I was thinking about getting a PhD in economics, but I have a lot of ‘make-it-happen’ energy. What led me to product management was wanting to see opportunity and to make things happen. Product Management is the perfect role, because we look at what does the market need, how can we fill that need and how do we get it out there in the market. That role of the mini CEO is very appealing to me. After Stanford, I went directly into product management for Hewlett Packard for four years. That was like getting a second MBA. It was a great training ground and I learned how to work with manufacturing, engineering, and marketing multi-functional teams.

What do you like the most about product management?

I like that holistic view and the creativity. I am focused on meeting customer needs and the creativity that comes from coordinating with internal stakeholders to get to a solution that helps the customers and the company. It isn’t easy as there are a lot of different viewpoints, but over time, there is a synthesis that people can support. I think that’s just super fun.

What do you find the most challenging?

The short-term versus long-term tradeoffs are difficult. I enjoy creating new organizational structure and have been hired to create product management as a new function. This has additional complexities outside of the standard product management challenges. What is the value of product management? Why can’t people have product management assignments on the side? To shift an organization from a project to a product orientation can be difficult, particularly when the products are services as opposed to software. The economics of product management are pretty different in services.

Where is the return on investment? How do you get yourself allied? You need to be strategic and get two years ahead of the market, but why are we funding you for the next six months? In theory, a product roadmap with effective milestones can support this discussion. The reality can be more challenging.

What are you looking for when you’re hiring Product Managers for your team?

I look for people who have that external-facing thirst to create solutions that are customer-oriented. I think if you’re customer-oriented that is extremely important and hard to teach. I look for a balance of strategic and analytic skills. It’s not like sales. You have to be a little cooler and find out what is really happening and why, what’s underneath that. That kind of analytic curiosity combined with that strategic approach. What is our differentiation and how can we address the problem? We can always do it technically, but are we creating something that’s going to ultimately lead to a sustainable advantage for the company? The people that thrive are those who have good interpersonal skills and enjoy talking to everybody in the organization.

What advice would you give anyone going into product management?

It’s important to establish relationships within the organization at all levels and all departments and really listen. It’s important to be articulate about the role of product management in the organization. Spend the time to make sure that there is alignment about what is product management, what is sales, and how do they all fit together. I think laying that groundwork in terms of charter and roles is super important. Then, getting at the understanding of the customer. That is the place of power for product management. The strength comes in saying I talked to ten customers and this is what they said. That is the source of power for product management. Know the customers, know the competition, and bring that knowledge and share that knowledge internally.

Any guiding motto?

Meet customer needs. Most organizations want to do what they want to do and then find someone that wants to buy it. If you go and talk to customers, they will tell you what they want. If you do that, they will buy it. It’s not rocket science, but doing what is wanted versus what we think is needed is always hard.

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