For our next installment of the Women in Product Management Series, I interviewed Lori Anderson, VP Technical Product Management at McGraw-Hill Education
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How does a teacher in the inner city of New Orleans become a VP of Product Management at McGraw-Hill Education?
That was the journey I learned about when I spoke with Lori Anderson as part of our Women in Product Management series.
Lori took a long winding road into product management. Her early years as a marketing professional, followed by being a 4th grade teacher with Teach for America in the inner city of New Orleans, led her to ALEKS Corporation where she has been able to combine her skills and passion for education.
She joined ALEKS in 2006 when it was a start-up with ~40 employees, and immersed herself in the ALEKS products and customers for the Higher Education, School, and Consumer education markets. (ALEKS stands for Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces. It is a Web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system primarily for Math and Chemistry.) ALEKS was acquired by McGraw-Hill Education in 2013, and Lori continues to work on the ALEKS products, along with some of MHE’s other digital learning products.
“As soon as I found ALEKS, it was a perfect fit for me. It combined marketing and educational technology, and as a startup company, it offered a lot of opportunity to just do whatever needed to be done. I like that kind of role. I think Product Management has a lot of that: we assess what needs to be done to meet the customers’ needs and figure out how to pull all the parts from different areas of an organization together to create a successful product.
I definitely have the foundational skills to be a product manager; it just took a while for me to realize that was what I was really good at and ultimately going to do for the long-term. When I joined ALEKS, I was in marketing, but then quickly evolved into product development. I got thrust into a fire drill product development project, did a great job with what was put on me, and realized that I really liked it (and it felt intuitive). I love being an advocate for the customer, doing user-centered design, and getting to talk with and better understand my customers. “From that initial product development project, I evolved into user experience, which I believe is very closely interwoven with successful product management. For a while, I was simultaneously the Marketing Director and the UX Director, which was a great opportunity to both build and then sell the products we created. I eventually shed my marketing responsibilities to do Product Management full time. That’s what I do today, and it’s evolved from working on just one product line to many.”
Having a close knowledge of the customer and then being able to use that information to actually make decisions is the biggest step into Product Management.
“I think a huge part of product management is to know what the customer wants and not guess. Product Managers need to meet their customers, empathize with their needs, and be able to speak on their behalf in development discussions. We have checks and balances in place to verify that what I think the customer wants is in fact what the customer wants.
In my previous marketing role, I was frequently at conferences and customer events meeting with teachers and figuring out how to describe and create our products in a way that would resonate with my end users. Having been a teacher, I think I also have insight regarding what it’s like to use educational technology in a hectic classroom where teaching is just one of the demands placed on teachers. So when we are making a decision about a feature or functionality, I have been able to say, ‘the market’s not going to want that; they really need this. This is their biggest pressing problem.’ Having a close knowledge of the customer and then being able to use that information to actually make decisions is the biggest step into Product Management.
In order to have the voice of the customer constant in the development process, I established a user research group. We were doing user-centered design without much of a user research presence. So I pulled someone from customer support, pulled in the receptionist, and pulled in whoever had hunger and talent and who was willing to learn that new skill to form a team. I learned it myself by going to UX conferences, reading about best practices, and being a research participant myself. We started doing moderated user testing, and quickly evolved our best practices to do it effectively and efficiently. We’ve gotten really good at that and have since built up a team here at ALEKS and throughout McGraw-Hill Education that is able to do customer research and keep our development honest.”
When I asked Lori about missteps along the way, she reflected on trying to do everything at once.
“Delegating is something where I’ve had the false belief earlier in my career that it was faster if I did it myself. That belief isn’t sustainable and certainly not scalable. Being able to delegate is a skill that I have continually worked at and it’s allowed me to create more best practices with a greater scale than me just trying to do everything on my own.
Other missteps were around user research. I believe we can use research to tell any story we want if we’re not being honest about it. We did research on a particular feature in our student interface, and we were deciding if we should proceed with option A or option B. Option B was definitely a lot harder, required more development time, and felt like it might be more of a fringe scenario than the common use case. Looking at available resources and time to market, I decided to go with option A, rationalizing that option A would meet the minimum viable product for the initial milestone, and we could always come back to option B.
Had I really been honest with myself and looked at the research, option A was never actually an option. There really was only option B and we should have just built option B the first time around to avoid any kind of customer disturbance. I interpreted the data a little bit too close to the hypothesis that I wanted it to be. So sure enough, once we launched that particular feature, we had to come back and build option B because option A didn’t meet the customers’ need.”
What do you find most interesting about the role of a Product Manager?
“I love getting to work with all the different areas of development. At McGraw-Hill, the Technical Product Manager role is a leadership role. It’s a balance of leading the team, being the conscience of the product, and ensuring the product is successful. I work with my stakeholders to envision the product that will meet customers’ needs, obtain commitments from the development teams to build that product, and then empower the development teams to make the right and best decisions along the development path to deliver a high quality product.
I want my teams to be autonomous and think like the customer. I’ve done activities to get the development teams, engineers, and Q.A. into the field (i.e. classrooms) where they’re observing students and teachers using our products and competitors’ products. I try to get team members, like an engineer who wouldn’t normally go out into the field, in front of the customer to observe how the customer succeeds or fails with the software we’ve just built. Engineers get to see the customers’ pain points. No matter how bulletproof we think the software is, we’re continually surprised to see how people actually use it in ways we never intended. Educators are super creative in how they adapt our learning programs to fit their unique needs.”
Lori has over 20 employees on her team including product managers, business analysts and people doing UX, research, technical writing, and training. Empowerment is the key to their success.
Sharing the ‘why’ with teams and then empowering them to actually make the day-to-day decisions on how they’re going to execute the work, has been a really successful exercise here at McGraw-Hill.
“We do agile development, and the teams are empowered and autonomous. It’s important to share the vision of what’s needed with the teams so they can then creatively develop the most efficient and high quality path to meet the customers’ needs. It’s not enough to just share the ‘what’ of what’s needed in terms of requirements, but to also share the ‘why’ it’s needed and the value it will create for the end user. Team members need to know why the feature needs to do B instead of A, as in the case of the misstep example I highlighted earlier. When the teams understand the why, it’s meaningful work. The why drives teams to go above and beyond into the wee hours of the night to meet their customers’ needs.
We have a culture at McGraw-Hill of delivering on our commitments. In the education market, we have market-specific timelines that we have to honor: Back-to-school is a major milestone every August. After the academic year begins, instructors and students don’t want to see big changes in their learning programs, so we have limited windows to release major software changes and we have to get them right the first time. The teams understand this. It doesn’t mean we don’t release iterative improvements throughout the year, but we’re not going to do a big dramatic change and disrupt the customer in the middle of the year just because we think it’s a great improvement. We’re going to wait until users want and need it, and when it’s most appropriate for them.”
Time For The Lightening Round
What do you look for when you’re hiring new product managers?
“I look for people who have demonstrated grit. What did they want to accomplish in their last position and how did they go about achieving it despite obstacles? Cultural fit is important. I want to make sure that this is somebody my teams and I want to work with day in and day out to meet our customers’ needs and have fun while doing it.”
What’s most challenging about your role?
“Doing all the different roles at once while still staying close to the customers’ needs; being the team leader and the conscience of the product. Now in my leadership role, my focus is more on the long term vision and strategy for our products, as opposed to just delivering the next cycle of development. Coaching and mentoring my teams are also priorities. In any one day, there are at least fifteen things I could do, and it can be a challenge to choose the A drawer priorities that are most important for the product, over the B and C drawer priorities that can wait.”
What advice do you have for Product Managers entering the field?
“Gain expertise about the product. If you’re going lead product development for an education company for example, learn the products that you will support. Make sure the products are ones you can be a rabid advocate for. I think it would be tough to be an effective product manager for a product that I was just lukewarm about.
Be nice. There’s enough grumpiness in the world and I feel like being upbeat, positive, and kind helps me be a better leader that others want to work with. Not to the point where it is being fake or inauthentic, but when I’m at my best, I make a choice to be positive.
As a woman in product management, I also think speaking up and being direct with my words have served me well. If you’re sitting at the development table, open your mouth and contribute.”
Any Motto or Guiding Principle?
“A guiding principle is to incorporate user research and testing into the development process. It’s a good check on my expertise and keeps me humble. It keeps me close to the customer and it enables me to be an effective Product Manager to meet the needs of my customers. Don’t underestimate the power of user testing; it only can give you more strength to tell the product story that needs to be told.”