April 25, 2022

Listening to Your Customers to Build Better Products

Listening to your customers is critical to successful product management. Sasha Freese, Head of Product at Indico Data, joins us for this episode of Product Chats to discuss how to listen. Sasha is an expert at driving product-led growth through customer feedback, and is here to show you exactly how it's done.

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  • What a product manager's average day looks like [03:35]
  • Different ways of listening to your customers [04:58]
  • How to transition your career into product [07:06]
  • The top 5 skills to look for when hiring for product roles [08:56]
  • How to succeed as a company's first product manager [12:46]
  • Finding a great product mentor [15:30]
  • Building new products vs managing existing products [20:18]
  • How to prioritize what you should build [25:05]


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Kayla: Thanks for tuning into Product Chats. On today's episode, I talk with Sasha Freese, who is the head of product at Indico Data. And we talk about moving from library science to product management. We talk about mentorship and also being the first PM. So hope you enjoy the show and don't forget to leave us a review.

Kayla: Hey, Sasha. Thanks so much for coming on today.

Sasha: Hi Kayla. Thanks for having me.

Kayla: Yeah, well in a minute or less, can you tell us about yourself?

Sasha: Sure. So currently I'm the senior director of product at Indico Data. It is a product that uses machine learning to solve the unstructured data problem within organizations, but where it all started.

Sasha: When I graduated college, I wanted to go into law actually, and I took a year off. And during that time, the recession hit and my mom begged me to not go to law school. She didn't think that was going to be worthwhile. And so during that time, I thought about what I wanted to do. The thing that attracted me to law was doing something different every day.

Sasha: And so I did a 180 and I ended up getting my master's in library science in archiving in particular, which is, you know, really looking at data and seeing, you know, how can you make it worthwhile for the future? I got out of that. I worked at the Library of Congress, which was sort peaking for a library scientist.

Sasha: And after that I decided I wanted to do something completely different. So I worked at Fidelity Investments and then I worked for a higher education company called Cengage Learning. I focused on XML to JSON pipelines. We were building a new platform for a mathematics solution. And during that time I was kind of plucked and offered a product management role, having never done it and only being familiar with it, you know, through this platform that we were building and I fell in love with.

Sasha: I loved everything about it. I loved being included in the conversations. I loved who I got to partner with. And, you know, from there, I started to own the assessments platform for that company. I left and I started working for True Fit, a company that offers size recommendations and, you know, we were blossoming the company.

Sasha: And so I got to be part of building their next offerings, which were around style recommendations and outfit recommendations. Learned a lot about, you know, data science and how to partner with them. And from there I moved on to Indico and you know, here we are. Yeah.

Kayla: Well, that's really interesting to see kind of how your journey just, you kind of probably just leaned into those things right. And rather than being like, no, I have to go into law. It was like, what are these other things that life is offering me? And let me just take those steps.

Sasha: Totally. It's a lot of introspection on, you know, what do you like about these things for me? I wanted something different every day. I didn't want to do something like finance, which was my other sort of option.

Sasha: You know, I wanted new problems. I wanted to be part of change. And, you know, I think that product management really gets to do a lot of that. And it doesn't require, you know, three expensive years of law school to do it.

Kayla: Yes. And with that, right. You talk about wanting to do something different every day. Can you tell us a little bit about what your day to day looks like and what themes kind of run through every day?

Sasha: Sure. So I'd say that thematically, you know, there's two main parts. One is sort of the customer portion of your day, where you're focused on hearing from your customers directly or from, you know, folks internally who deal with customers every day, such as your customer success folks, solutions engineering, solutions consulting, and the other part is working with, you know, engineering and those counterparts to ensure that you're delivering the product that you want, and to make sure that everybody's bought into the processes and the features and everything.

Sasha: So I would say that. Day to day every day is different, depending on where you're at in a process development cycle and where, you know, what sort of product challenges and solutions you're coming up with. So for us right now, we're looking at the end of the quarter. And so really gearing up towards our next quarterly release.

Sasha: So less of my time is spent with engineering and more of my time is spent on that customer side to really make sure that for our next quarterly goals, we're really fulfilling the needs that they have.

Kayla: And with those needs, like how do you, are you doing user interviews? What are those different pieces of listening to your customers and making sure that you're meeting their needs?

Sasha: Yeah, it is a lot. It's not even necessarily customer interviews in the formal sense. I think that those are really helpful, especially when you have a feature in mind. For us at Indico right now, we're really trying to build out and into the future into places that machine learning hasn't really gone.

Sasha: And there's not answers in the field for, you know, this is how people interact with models. This is how they interact with the output of models. So we're going out and we're just having conversations around what's working well and what's not, sometimes those happen more informally than, you know, having something really structured where you send them, you know, questions ahead of time.

Sasha: Participating in QPRs is a big part of it. You know, customers, oftentimes if you're the person that they don't see as often, they'll tell you things and share things that they wouldn't necessarily share on a regular basis in a user interview or with their CS person. And then we do a lot actually out in the field with people who are not necessarily our customers.

Sasha: So we do a lot of user testing with people who are in, you know, the BFSI space, which is where we focus and try to say, how would somebody who's not familiar with these tools. Who's not familiar with, you know, intelligent automation work with these sorts of things. How do we overcome sort of that curve or the uncanny valley that people experience?

Sasha: So, yeah, I would say that we do both. We really try to focus in on the ad hoc conversations, the formal user interviews, and then really getting in with folks who are not customers to figure out how to get that adoption to be easier.

Kayla: And speaking of speaking to your customer right. And understanding your customer, you started out right in library science and kind of worked your way into machine learning.

Kayla: So as someone who wants to potentially if there's someone who's listening to this who wants to potentially transition into a different market, right. What are some pieces of advice you would give? Cause obviously your background isn't in machine learning, you aren't a data scientist. What does that look like?

Sasha: I mean, I think you kind of captured it earlier, which is leaning in, you know, being willing to go on the ride a little bit, being willing to not be the smartest person in the room. When I got my first role at True Fit, that was really involved with data science and making recommendations. And even at that time, they were making changes to what type of machine learning, they were using what processes they were adopting. It was a lot about meeting people where they were at as well. So you come, you know, if you've worked in product management, you come with a certain set of skills that are transferable in terms of, you know, really being able to hear people and synthesize that.

Sasha: And how does it meet the product and what you're ultimately trying to achieve? For us there. I don't have a data science background. I don't have an engineering background, but it was a lot about hearing where we could succeed. And where you know, I was pushing too hard for what I wanted machine learning to be able to accomplish in this day and age.

Sasha: And we really instantiated, you know, the product management, data science relationship. At that organization slowly but surely I think there was some distrust that I would overstep my boundaries and, you know, try to do too much of the how and not enough of the what. And over time, you know, we got to a really good place.

Sasha: And I think that's really informed how we build that relationship where I'm at now at Indico.

Kayla: And off of that when you're hiring, what are those skills what are the top five skills you look for when you're growing out your team?

Sasha: I don't know if it's necessarily skills that I look for as much as qualities.

Sasha: I think there's some things that are a little bit innate when it comes to product management, there's being smart and there's being kind, you know, those two things will get you a long way, especially because product is really working with people every day. That's the peak in the pit of your daily life as a product person.

Sasha: After that, I think it really is those strong communication skills. Are you able to truly listen to what people are telling you, move beyond your bias, the best you can. We're all human. So sometimes that's easy and sometimes that's not. And then can you synthesize that into something that is a, you know, is a problem statement rather than a solution to a problem. I think one of the biggest challenges in general is being able to come up with a problem statement rather than just an immediate solution, like to not bandaid something. And I think that people who can really do that are the ones who really truly succeeded in product management and really change the game.

Kayla: I think that's something that's talked about with product all the time. Right. Actually listening to the problem rather than solutioning and understanding like going back to your point, right? Understanding your customer you're even though you're not, don't have a background in AI, you don't have a background in machine learning, you're able to understand your customer and what challenges they deal with.

Sasha: Yeah. And sometimes it's, I'm sure customers would not necessarily be with my product hat on, you know, kind of understanding their problems better than they do. A lot of times customers are incentivized to get to the next best thing as quickly as possible. And, you know, to a certain extent, anybody who works in business is, but with product, we want the next best thing to be wide reaching.

Sasha: You know, that's the best possible scenario. Of course there are always going to be things that you need that really pinpoint a problem and solve that individual problem. But the more we can make things easier and resolve problems, you know, I think being able to think that way and then advocate for that is, is really powerful.

Kayla: I think to that also, right, a customer just has their own perspective. And the cool thing is you have access to all these customers and all this data, right. To be able to see the bigger picture. And so maybe there's things you're seeing in that data or things you're seeing with other customers that kind of run through that just one customer doesn't understand, but you're able to see, hey, what is this bigger picture? What are our customers like? What's their problem? And how does this align with what we're trying to build out?

Sasha: Yeah. And I think being able to pull that thread using what you have at hand. And I know for me being someplace where, you know, I started as the first product manager at my current company where maybe you don't have all that data.

Sasha: Maybe you don't have all those tools in place day one. So how are you able to get to kind of those threads? How are you able to synthesize that? Who do you talk to? How do you validate it? The rest will come. The data will come. You know, the quantitative information will come as you begin to build your product and add in those other tools.

Sasha: But I think it's sometimes a little bit of MacGyvering in order to figure out, you know, what do people need and how do you know? It's the big challenge, right? For all of us.

Kayla: Yep. And I want to go back to something. So you mentioned you're the first PM. So I want to kind of dive into that. Tell us a little bit about what it's like to be the first PM.

Kayla: And we're going to kind of dive into a little bit in a little bit about launching products, but let's talk about what it takes, what resources you use, what things you did to be successful and set yourself up for success.

Sasha: Sure. So the first thing I'll say is being the first PM is the best thing that could happen to somebody in a product management role.

Sasha: It really makes you hone your skills as an individual. I know for myself, I am somebody who loves to talk things out to validate, you know, maybe too much sometimes, but you know, for me, I like to have a wide set of information before I make a decision. And that doesn't mean it takes a lot of time. It just means I need to sit with something overnight, for instance, before we get there.

Sasha: And as this, the only product person, you have to get input from people who are not sitting in the same place that you are. Whereas previously at large organizations, you'd have peers to be like, here's a challenge that I'm having. What do you think? I think it's really relying on mentorship and building those relationships, both inside the organization and outside of the organization.

Sasha: I think being able to tap into your network is super important. If you're the first person, you know, there is a lot of listening to podcasts. Who else has gone through this and how did it go from for them? And then I think you come to a place where I think there's some people who just feel totally confident in who they are and can make decisions like that.

Sasha: But for me, it was really a process of coming to trust myself and, you know, my brain and my gut in some of these decisions and how to advocate appropriately as kind of the sole product voice with people who all want the product to succeed. But you're coming from different seats depending on where you're at in the organization.

Sasha: I would say it was a tremendous, it is a tremendous growing experience, but it's really great to see what your team can grow to and how they can build and, you know, take a little pride and in your part in that.

Kayla: And I want to tap back into something you said about mentorship. I think that's so important in any industry, right around making sure that you have the resources that you need, and yes, you have to go out and find potentially mentors.

Kayla: Right. But in the end it allows you kind of to have a role to follow or someone to bounce ideas off of. So like when obviously you mentioned your network, what did you actually do when you were going out and trying to find mentorship? Were you looking for a specific person were you what did that look like?

Sasha: Yeah. So for me it was, I talked to quite a few people. I actually talked to some of the senior leadership in my organization and said, you know, do you all know anybody who's been in this position because it's great if I talk to you guys, but you're in it everyday with me. So seeing some of these bigger picture things.

Sasha: Yeah. I might not necessarily want to talk to you about being the people who have to see me every day. So I, you know, I try to leverage not only people within my organization who might have, you know, great people in their network. And I got to chat with, you know, quite a few people who had been in a similar position as me as the first product person, but I really tried to focus on finding somebody who also had been a woman in this space.

Sasha: I think that having somebody who's gone through this as has a woman who's had to advocate, there are some other challenges that come up and there are some ways that, you know, communication and advocating for things to change and even some of the stuff around confidence. And how do you build that? Not that those things are always based on gender, but it felt really comforting to me to talk to women who had been in the same space and learn from their learnings, what they had gone through and what they would have done differently and what they would do the same.

Sasha: I would say that, you know, I have a lot of folks that were already in my network that I could reach out to do this with. And then also trying to find new people who had worked with my team before was a big part of it.

Kayla: I think you bring up a great point, right? About finding mentors that you feel comfortable with.

Kayla: Right? Like I agree with you. We're a minority as women in tech. And so it's really important to find like a powerful female to mentor you. And there's something just like empowering about connecting with other women. And I think just like finding different ways of mentorship. So whether it's like people internally who have done things or can add things, or maybe there's like a woman in product who you've just seen kind of flourish in her career and you're like, hey, it seems like you started out as like the first PM.

Kayla: Are you open to mentoring me?

Sasha: Yeah. And I think that cold reach out really can yield the most dividends to you. It's really scary. And it's, it wasn't something that I was necessarily comfortable with when I started. And I had a friend who I was talking to about this, where, you know, I was like, I'm talking to all these people, but they're not nailing it for me.

Sasha: They're not, you know, they don't know the same struggles that I have. The baggage that I carry with me from everywhere that I've been and, you know, doing that cold reach out, I think I've had the most fruitful conversations with folks and those have been some of the best because there isn't that lineage or connection to you.

Sasha: They can just be open and honest. And so can you, in a way that you know, is not necessarily going to tie back to your day to day performance or year to year performance.

Kayla: I think you bring up a great point with that also, right? Of like it's getting that outside perspective. Someone who doesn't have like ideas or judgements and I have so many women are open to mentoring other women in tech, right? There's no shortage of, because we all started somewhere and most of us just fell into tech. And so it's just people are so much more willing. You just have to put yourself out there. And I think that goes to in product, right.

Kayla: Interviewing customers. You have to put yourself out there. It's the same skillset. It's just, you're using it in a different way.

Sasha: Yeah. And I mean, I'll just say for me, you know, somebody who might want to hear this. For me in my day to day at work, I feel like I'm pretty extroverted. There's a lot of motivation for me to get out there.

Sasha: And then for some reason, for me to find a mentor, because it was so personal, it didn't feel the same. It didn't have that same extroverted quality to it. And the biggest hump was just doing it for the first time and getting that positive reaction. You realize people do want to help. And that absolutely, I would do it for somebody who reached out to me.

Sasha: But, you know, I think sometimes it's easy to think about it's vulnerable and I think it's hard to kind of come over that crest sometimes, but I think it's worth it. It's been worth it to me. So I would definitely tell people to do the same.

Kayla: So with that, I kind of want to go back on that's something you mentioned as something that's really important as a first PM.

Kayla: And so something I want to dive into a bit around being the first PM is building out a product. So let's talk a little bit about like building out a product or a product already exists. And how do you like prioritize as the first PM?

Sasha: Sure. So I've been in both, I built out new products. And there's a completely different challenge set there than there is coming into an existing product.

Sasha: And then especially getting like a legacy existing product, which is also where I started, you know, my first PM role. I started with building out a new platform and being responsible for something that was sparkly and shiny and you know, used our latest microservices architecture. And then when that was done, I did a hard transition to supporting a legacy piece of infrastructure, legacy piece of tech.

Sasha: And it was amazing to see how different it was between like the shiny new thing that everybody was so excited about. Everybody wanted to talk to you about when you had, you know, all these eyes on you to something that wasn't, but I would say that, you know, for me, the challenges tend to be relatively the same.

Sasha: It's just the pre-work that you have to do as a product person to get your idea across the threshold to be developed. So at True Fit, as I mentioned, they had a product that was in market, had been in market for a decade. And we were looking to add on the second and the third. So there was a recommendation tool, you know, there's certain challenges in the retail space around conversion.

Sasha: And so we were really saying, how can we get people into more categories? If you like jeans, how can you get to shirts? And this is a huge problem out in retail. And if we could crack this nut, it would be amazing. And then as a follow on to that, how do you make people feel comfortable in what they're buying online and putting outfits together?

Sasha: Like, how do I know these things will go together? How do I start feeling confident in my own style? And for us there wasn't anything out in the market that was doing those things. You know, there's, this is what I did in the photo shoot. This is how I know these things go together, but there's not really anything that is individualized.

Sasha: And so as we started looking into what is the market for this? What do people want? Well, it turns out the market opportunity was huge because there hadn't been anybody who'd sort of implanted themselves into it. The competition was not there and that can be both a blessing and a curse, you know? It's been a unique problem in my career at least to, to be in that space.

Sasha: And then from there, it's really saying what's going to appeal to people? And how do you know? And if nobody's gone into that space, you're starting that research from nothing. Like how do I answer these questions? And then how do I answer the next set of questions after that? I was really fortunate to have that data science team who is not only focused on you know, how to build algorithms and make those recommendations, but also how do we do quantitative user research to better understand these areas?

Sasha: And I was really fortunate to be given those resources as somebody starting out, because I think that can be one of the biggest challenges is who supports you as you're going to market with something new. From there, you know, it's about build and iteration, all kind of the same things that you always get to.

Sasha: But during those times where you're really trying to get to the point where you get engineering resources to build your product, you get that product marketing enablement person to help you really shape the vision for how you go to market with it. I really think that the most challenging parts are developing the case for why this is important and how, you know, you can build the right thing.

Sasha: So yeah, I would say that's, you know, building something and going to market for the first time. The biggest challenges for me, you know, we've talked about a whole other set of challenges with finding, you know, your product market fit and things like that. But even before you get to those things, I think that there's some big questions when you're building something new for the very first time, you know, kind of in the world.

Kayla: So something I want to touch on that you mentioned was the iteration. So how do you figure out, right? You've built out a product and there's so many areas and you're the first PM. How do you, or at your current company, but like, how do you figure out what to actually iterate on and what you're going to prioritize?

Sasha: Well, I think this is like the the big question, right. For anybody. And it changes all the time. I would say you know, interestingly enough, like we just had a conversation about this today at Indico where we're heading to a new phase of maturation and how we want to prioritize what we build and how, you know, as we've grown and scaled, because you know, we're doing triple double approach to our scale right now.

Sasha: How do we talk about this now that there's so many more people that are part of the conversation? So previously the people who were interacting with customers, you know, our co-founder, our CEO was our only sales person for awhile. It's me, the one who's trying to synthesize and pull out.

Sasha: And we're just kind of getting to the point where we're moving onto that next phase where we need to have these more structured conversations with a broader audience to really say, how do we get beyond these solutions? Because it was easy to kind of do that while we were small and a totally different set of people than we are today.

Sasha: And. I think it changes and the data that you need changes and how you get that data changes. What goes from being strictly qualitative and you get to be really hands-on because you have a small set of customers ends up being a qualitative quantitative mix so that you can validate what you're hearing.

Sasha: And then ultimately at some point it becomes like mostly quantitative with the qualitative attributes that help you dig into your data more. And, currently, we're kind of in that middle space of doing the qualitative quantitative split for really the first time.

Kayla: So with that, you've been talking about growth and being the first PM.

Kayla: What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring product leader?

Sasha: Be patient. I, you know, I think for me that is, it means a lot of different things to me. I know. Especially starting out. I was so hungry for more. And, you know, as I mentioned, when I started in product management, I didn't know it was a thing, but when I got here, I was like, this is it.

Sasha: This is it for me. And like, how do I get more? How can I be heard better? How can I advocate? And I think the biggest thing that I had to learn is like being patient and meeting people where they're at. Even if you want to influence and advocate and things like that. If you're 10 steps ahead of somebody, or you're talking about your features for three years from now, and people are like, but what about tomorrow with this problem I have?

Sasha: They're all things that kind of just require your patience and your understanding. And I think it goes a long way for building those relationships with people if you just are willing to go along with the process, as long as you trust the people that you're working with, that they'll, you know, get to where we need to go.

Kayla: With that, I know, so it's important to be patient as a product leader, but I'm guessing you're not patient about who you're hiring and at the rate you're hiring. So what roles are you hiring for?

Sasha: We're looking for just about everybody at Indico. In my organization we're looking for product managers, both people who are technical and nontechnical.

Sasha: We are also looking for project managers. Scrum masters. We're currently hiring for a UX researcher. We're looking for somebody, you know, who leans more on the qualitative side for that for the time being. But yeah, it basically any role that you can think of, we're looking for right now as we scale out and continue to grow.

Sasha: So if you're interested in getting started in the machine learning space and in intelligent automation, you know, hit my line.

Kayla: So on hitting your line, last question. Where can people find you?

Sasha: You can find me on LinkedIn, Sasha Freese. I luckily have a pretty rare name. So there won't be too many other of us that show up. That's the best place to reach me.

Sasha: You know, you can always reach out via email. I'll have that information that I provide to you that people can ping me on. Yeah, those are the best two places.

Kayla: Awesome.

Kayla: Well, thanks for coming on today.

Sasha: Thank you so much for having me.

Kayla: Thanks again to Sasha for joining us on today's episode of Product Chats.

Kayla: If you want more product management resources, head to canny.io/ blog and we'll see you next time. .