In our CareMinds series, we're all about showcasing the many paths to success in health tech product development. Today, we have the pleasure of sharing Laura Furman's unique story. Laura, currently a senior product manager at Oura, kicked off her leadership journey with Students Agencies.
Laura opens up about her everyday work. She emphasizes the importance of AI and machine learning tools in her role, particularly during the product discovery phase, contributing significantly to the product's development.
We hope you find Laura's story as captivating as we did. Happy reading!
Is Product Development a Bold Claim or a Logical Step?
Conventional wisdom may suggest that early experiences become less relevant as a professional journey progresses. However, Laura finds that her involvement with Student Agencies continually resurfaces as an integral part of her career. Student Agencies is a non-profit educational institution that provided Laura with first-hand business management experience during her college years. It comprised several diverse, student-run businesses, offering services from real estate property management to tutoring, marketing, and even a full-service moving company.
In this unique setting, Laura served as the general manager of one business for a year before stepping up to become the corporation's president. Although not directly related to product management, this entrepreneurial experience provided Laura with an invaluable perspective on running a business from top to bottom, including direct customer interaction and budgeting.
In her role as president of Student Agencies, she created the first CTO role, utilizing the skills of the engineering students to enhance business performance. Despite the annual turnover inherent to the student-run structure, Laura credits an experienced CEO's guidance for the continuity of the businesses. This end-to-end entrepreneurship experience, she believes, is a great asset for anyone entering product management, as it provides a comprehensive understanding of business strategy.
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Transitioning to Product Management: A Personal Account
Laura embarked on her career journey with uncertainty, opting for the retail industry as her starting point. She joined Gap's management rotational program, and was tasked with e-commerce merchandising. Her role entailed strategizing the customer experience on Gap's website, from product discovery to checkout.
As she delved deeper into her role, Laura identified a problem within one of the categories she was managing. This challenge provided an opportunity for her to explore business analytics extensively. She carefully examined every SKU, tracked trends across the assortment, and used this data to analyze the state of the business.
The most significant shift in her career occurred when she led a design sprint to rectify the problem in her managed category. This experience lit up her path towards product management, leading her to investigate job descriptions and key skills required for a product manager role. With several skills already under her belt and a drive to fill the gaps in her resume through projects and side assignments, she was ready to transition into product management.
The Evolving Role of a Product Manager
The core of a product manager’s role is being the voice of the customer. It's about understanding their needs, not just through face-to-face discussions but also through data analysis. As you step into it, remember that it's not only about the customer's desires, but also about striking the right balance with the business's expectations.
When you craft your strategy, your ability to bring people onboard will be invaluable. Drawing from Laura's experiences and skills in debate and negotiation, you'll find that seeing multiple perspectives and effectively persuading others to join your journey can be a game changer. Additionally, remember that growing to be a product manager involves constant learning and iteration. You’d have to negate lengthy product road maps and promote a culture of continual testing and analysis.
Tools and Resources for Aspiring Product Managers
Taking the reins on your professional growth can be an empowering experience. One effective strategy to foster continuous learning is to dedicate each quarter to a specific focus area. This could start with understanding data analytics, mastering SQL, and becoming adept with tools such as Google BigQuery and Looker. This disciplined approach provides an opportunity to delve deeper into each field, enhancing your overall skillset.
Secondly, the value of mentorship in your journey cannot be overstated. A supportive and knowledgeable mentor can accelerate your growth, guide you through uncharted territory, and provide you with essential industry insights. Building connections within your organization is a beneficial way to learn from others and gain diverse perspectives.
Lastly, don't let the fear of appearing unknowledgeable hold you back from asking questions. It's a common misconception that asking basic questions exposes a lack of knowledge. In reality, it often leads to constructive conversations and enhances understanding. It's essential to comprehend the bigger picture, particularly in understanding the system architecture. Spending time with engineers to grasp how different components of the system interconnect can provide invaluable insights. This broader understanding will be key in interpreting project estimates accurately.
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How AI and Machine Learning Are Impacting Product Development
Mercari, a popular Japanese peer-to-peer marketplace akin to eBay, has an intriguing blend of challenges and experiences. The platform accommodates a broad array of categories, including clothing, technology, home goods, and handmade crafts. With this vast spectrum of products, one interesting challenge is managing User Generated Content (UGC). The diversity in UGC listings and searches can lead to discrepancies and inconsistencies due to differences in syntax, which in turn could reduce the visibility of items in search results, thereby affecting sales.
One notable project tackled at Mercari was enhancing the search and listing experience based on the brand and category of an item. The goal was to pre-populate custom attribute fields specific to the item type being listed. For instance, if a user is listing an iPhone, they could specify the model and size, allowing potential buyers to filter down their searches effectively. This approach was particularly useful in more subjective categories like clothing, where the search could be as specific as 'straight leg jeans.'
To add another layer of sophistication, machine learning was brought into the mix. This technology helped predict necessary custom attribute fields based on the brand and category. It also fed these attributes into Mercari's search taxonomy to optimize search results. Towards the end, the project began to utilize computer vision to guess the category and subcategory of clothing based on the photo. While this presented new challenges due to the variety of user-submitted photos, it also offered a fascinating direction for further enhancing user experience on the platform.
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Sure AI and ML Complement Product Development, But How Can Managers Put Them to Effective Use?
First, from a day-to-day operational perspective, AI could serve as a sounding board, albeit it may not replace the nuanced understanding and context that comes from someone deeply familiar with the product. The idea here is that AI tools might not fully grasp the complexity of the product and its dynamics like a human member of the team who is immersed in the project.
The second application is more exciting: using AI tools to create prototypes. This could be especially beneficial for non-technical PMs who don't have coding skills. They could potentially leverage AI to write code and thus develop prototypes, enhancing their ability to demonstrate their ideas beyond mere words. While there's skepticism that AI could generate a feature-ready piece of code given the uniqueness and standards of any given codebase, using AI to create initial prototypes could be an innovative approach that empowers PMs to delve more into the technical side.
It is also believed that AI could streamline the process of creating a prototype, saving valuable time. This makes AI an attractive tool in the product management space, not just for its potential to enhance the overall workflow, but also to empower product managers with new capabilities.
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Laura's journey to AA three years prior was primarily driven by a long-standing personal passion for health and wellness. After reading "Why We Sleep" by Matt Walker, she developed an interest in the importance of sleep for mental performance and overall wellbeing. Tracking sleep with an "Oura" ring and studying the data became an obsession, eventually leading her to a position within the company. Her shared vision with the company's CEO, who viewed sleep as the foundational pillar of health much like personal training, created a strong connection.
Her career transition strategy involved balancing industry experience and role skills as two vital variables. Initially, she drew upon her retail industry experience while developing necessary product skills. In the next move to AA, she utilized these newly acquired skills despite not having prior industry experience. Laura believed that possessing either industry experience or role-specific skills could facilitate a successful transition.
Laura's perspective emphasizes seeing personal strengths as valuable contributions to her role and not being discouraged by perceived shortcomings. This outlook, particularly essential in product management, is about leveraging unique experiences and skills to meet new challenges in different industries. She also understands the importance of this mindset in successfully navigating work within a remote team, such as the Finnish-based company AA.
Understanding and Improving Predictable Delivery
Working across different time zones and geographies is challenging. While Laura has experience in this from her time at Merri, dealing with a 10-hour time difference at her current company has brought new challenges. She has realized the importance of well-prepared and efficient meetings, especially given that her early morning is the end of the workday for her colleagues in Finland. A critical success factor in such settings is robust asynchronous communication, making sure everyone is fully prepared and discussions are fruitful. In addition, they have implemented a system of reviewing and improving their workflow at the end of every cycle, accepting the reality of time differences but striving to make it better with each iteration.
One key learning Laura shared is the downside of over-relying on Slack for communication. It can create confusion, lead to critical information being missed, and ultimately decrease overall happiness within the team. Instead, they have focused on making communication more structured and traceable, using tools like Sigma, Jira, and Confluence to comment directly on project documents, ensuring a clear source of truth. If there is an excessive use of Slack, it's often a sign that the project is experiencing chaos and needs attention.
When it comes to product improvement, Laura's approach is guided by lessons from her mentor from Google. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) should be ambitious, and achieving 70% of an OKR is a commendable feat. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are used more at the feature level, measuring specific outcomes. She emphasizes the importance of treating the development of a feature as a hypothesis - if they do X, they should see Y outcome in the data. This approach then allows them to review and learn from the outcome, guiding the development of future features.
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Here are the most important points from our conversation with Laura Furman:
- Early experiences matter
Laura's involvement with Student Agencies during her college years, a non-profit educational institution that provided first-hand business management experience, played a crucial role in shaping her professional journey.
- Transitioning is possible with the right skills and drive
Despite starting in a seemingly unrelated field (retail industry), Laura managed to transition to product management by building on the skills she had and bridging gaps through projects and side assignments.
- Adaptability and continual learning are key in product management
The product manager's role is not stagnant; it evolves with customer needs and business expectations. It also involves continuous learning, testing, and analyzing to stay ahead.
- AI and ML are powerful tools in product development
These technologies not only assist in operational efficiency but also empower product managers, especially those with limited technical skills, to visualize and prototype their ideas.
- Personal strengths and unique perspectives are valuable asset
Even if you lack industry experience, personal strengths, skills, and a fresh perspective can be instrumental in succeeding in new roles and different industries.
PODCAST #16. BEHIND THE SCENES OF HEALTHCARE: HOW DOES PRODUCT MANAGEMENT DRIVE CHANGE?
PODCAST #15. ENGINEERING LEADERSHIP: HOW TO INTEGRATE TEAM COACHING & HEALTHTECH PRODUCT MANAGEMENT & OKRS
PODCAST #14. HOW TO EXCEL IN STRATEGIC PLANNING FOR EFFECTIVE PRODUCT MANAGEMENT: TIPS FROM AN INDUSTRY EXPERT & OKRS
PODCAST #13. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PRODUCT MANAGEMENT: UNLOCKING HUMAN INSIGHTS & OKRS
PODCAST #12. THE PRODUCT MANAGER'S PATH TO HAELTH TECH INNOVATION: PRODUCT STRATEGY, LEADERSHIP & OKRS
The APP Solutions launched a podcast, CareMinds, where you can hear from respected experts in healthcare and Health Tech.
Who is a successful product manager in the healthcare domain? Which skills and qualities are crucial? How important is this role in moving a successful business to new achievements? Responsibilities and KPIs?
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