Getting Candid with Michelle Parsons
This week I had a wonderful opportunity to interview Michelle Parsons, Chief Product Officer at Hinge. Michelle has previously led Product Teams at Netflix, Spotify and Kayak.
Michelle is a product leader with expertise in search, discovery, and personalization at leading consumer tech organizations. She has a passion for finding elegant and implementable solutions to big problems and creating impactful, user-centric products. She is a firm believer in inspiring and empowering her team to ask the right questions and use creativity and data to find solutions to user problems. Her experiences have turned her into a serial optimizer with a keen ability to translate data into bold strategic visions that teams can confidently organize around to create meaningful impact.
In this interview, Michelle talks about her idea of an ideal product, her journey into Product, her experiences across companies and industries, books on Product that she would recommend everyone to read and gives a peek into a day in her life.
When did you realize Product was your calling? And how did you start your journey in the field?
I started my journey into Product in a pretty unconventional way. I was pre-med in undergrad and I had been focused, throughout most of my adolescence, on becoming a doctor. I just saw doctors as some of the most intelligent people in the community, really giving back to those around them and having positive impacts on people’s futures. Coming from a single mother household, I saw how hard my mom worked. I wanted to do something that would transform me, my family, and the things that I was able to give back to others.
Over the years as I worked closely with doctors in the healthcare system, I saw firsthand a lot of the gaps that existed, specifically for those who are less privileged and underserved. I didn’t think that these gaps could be solved by simply adding more doctors to the problem. I really started to have an existential crisis — do I really want to dedicate more time to this, do I want to take out loans and spend more of my energy here, can I really even afford to do this?
After I graduated, I took time to reflect on what I truly wanted to do and I joined Teach for America, where I taught high school science. Very early on I realized that I loved being a teacher and helping my students understand complex topics and reach their goals. If you extrapolate out a lot of the skill sets that I developed running a classroom, there are a lot of parallels between the skill sets, goals and outcomes that you’re trying to achieve as a product manager. In the classroom, you’re setting a lofty goal or vision for where you want your students to get to by the end of the year and you’re tracking progress through their test scores (or metrics). You’re creating learning plans, or a roadmap, for how they’ll get to that end goal by some determined time frame and measuring this using a series of lessons and activities mapped to different objectives along the way. While the impact that I had on individual students was profound, what I realized was that I was not able to really scale that beyond those in my classroom.
That’s when I started to explore education technology. Product management was not a career option that I even knew existed at the time. It wasn’t until my very first job in the technology space, which was a little ed-tech startup, that I discovered Product Management. I joined as an analyst on our content team but very quickly started gravitating towards this team of designers, UX researchers and product managers who were all working together to solve really big and complex problems. I am very inquisitive by nature. I am always asking questions, trying to understand things around me. And so I started asking that team questions, probably too many questions! And eventually, the product lead said “here you can help!” At the time, we were a small startup of 30 people, and there was more than enough of something to do. I was tasked with talking to our customers to understand how they were using our product, what pain points they had, and how we could improve it to meet their needs more effectively. I constructed emails, surveys, spoke to users and eventually constructed a presentation of my findings to share with the product team. From there, I slowly started to build up my skill set within the product world, working on smaller problems, learning the whats and hows of engineering, improving my design thinking. All of this with the help of a lot of people around me who offered their time and mentorship.
Over time, I just continued to hone areas that I had less experience with to ensure that I was always growing, always learning. I loved it. I was good at it. I think to a degree because of my background in science, I had this ability to think in a systems-oriented and hypothesis-driven manner, and some of what makes for a good product manager is being able to understand all the components and how they fit together. You don’t need to be an engineer. But if you have a good understanding of how the system works, where the data is stored, how that comes through in the front end of the UI, it makes it a lot more collaborative with your engineering partners, to be able to think through solutions together.
Having led product teams, across a lot of companies in a lot of industries, what are the differences and the similarities that you see in user behaviour, product building or the whole experience in general?
Industry aside, the approach to product management differs depending on what organization you’re in. Are they a tech-driven organization? Are they a marketing-driven organization? Are they a product-driven organization? So depending on how your organization is structured, you might have a Chief Technology Officer who all the product people report up into as well as the engineers, you might have a Chief Product Officer or a Chief Operating Officer whom all these teams roll up into. So structurally who is making decisions and what they use to inform those decisions can differ and has cascading impacts. At Kayak, for example, there was no Chief Product Officer. Everyone ultimately reported to the Chief Technology Officer and as a result, it was a very technology-driven organization.
The size of the organization also plays a role in what the role and responsibilities of a PM are. Are you a startup? mid-stage? well established? That determines the types of tools that you have, the team structures and what types of problems you’re going to be solving. Whether you are building from the ground up or focused on incremental improvements.
Size and type of organization also plays a role in how you might determine what success looks like, how you make decisions and what types of resources you have to approach product work.
Regardless of the type of organization, most product teams I’ve either been a part of or know about are squarely focused on the end-user. Working to solve core problems that users are encountering or unlocking the potential of how users might be able to leverage your product or service. Leveraging insights and data to inform decisions, like what are our customers saying directly to us or how are they using our product today? What can we extrapolate from that and what solutions can we dream up to solve those pain points or meet those opportunities? That’s definitely been a constant across my journey.
What do you think makes a product stand out?
To me, it’s very clear, it is a product that is simple. Products that intentionally put the user first. And you can tell whether or not a product is putting the business or the user first by how they are approaching the user. A great example of this is Hinge. We are focused on our users. We’re focused on, above all else, helping our users get out on great dates. And we intentionally are focused on that as our core metric, not things like revenue or sessions or time spent. And you can see that in the product by how we design the flows to have users focus on one person at a time. You can look at products like Spotify, they’re giving away a lot of their products for free. And they’ve made intentional decisions over time to allow for the greater utility of that free product, only keeping back features that are adding service above and beyond what a baseline product does well.
Simply put it’s keeping it focused and keeping it user-centric. And it’s very clear when that happens.
What would be your advice to the budding leaders in today’s age?
I think there are two main things that I can draw from my past experiences. The first: have a growth mindset. I think that the folks who I come across, drawing from my own experiences, those that are intentional about growing, learning and speaking up when they don’t know, asking for help have strong potential to be good leaders. It’s important for several reasons, especially within the product space. Products change so quickly, the industry changes so rapidly, technology evolves, and you’re going to encounter things that you just do not know. For example, I had never internationalized a product from scratch. I reached out to my network and just said, ‘Hey, I just don’t know much about this area. I have a general baseline understanding, but I need to go deeper.’ Orienting towards a growth mindset, seeking knowledge from others who are in your field, either directly or indirectly, trying to understand and absorb as much of that as possible is so helpful. I think it also shows grit, it shows your dedication to both yourself and to your craft.
I think secondly, for leadership specifically, it’s getting mentors — mentors that will help you hone a particular skill set that you are trying to develop, maybe it’s data analytics, maybe it’s hypothesis generation, maybe it’s leading a brand new team, maybe it’s working through conflict — getting these mentors who cannot spend time with you, maybe it’s an hour a month or an hour a quarter, but really utilizing that time to go deep, be vulnerable about your gaps, and leveraging their past experiences to grow. Leadership is one of those things that you don’t get explicitly taught usually but sometimes absorbed through observing those around you and developed by finding someone who can help you hone those skills.
What is the one book that you would recommend everyone to read?
From a product perspective, I love Inspired by Marty Cagan. Continuous Discovery Habits, a new book by Teresa Torres, is also a great compliment to Inspired. I’m a really big Teresa Torres fan girl, honestly. I think that there’s a lot to be said about her framework around opportunity-solution trees, and her general philosophy around product discovery and outcomes orientation.
What does a day in your life look like?
Hinge has a fast-growing startup culture. We’re growing rapidly. Not to mention there have been some big shifts in the industry, especially with the pandemic. We have worked over the past year to continue to grow our team and create an organizational structure that would allow us to move quickly and empower the individual teams that are working to solve our users’ biggest pain points.
A lot of my time is utilised on one on one alignment meetings with my team, offering coaching and mentorship to my product managers, ensuring that I can help give guidance, point them in the right directions, connect them with the right people in the organization and also focus on what’s next. Do we have the right metrics? Are our roadmaps prioritized in the right ways? Are the individual teams running towards their own goals and outcomes? Do we have cohesion across the individual parts of the organization? Do we feel like one product team?
And I also spend a lot of time focused on building culture within my team. Do people feel safe and empowered? Do they feel like a group of peers and colleagues and friends and not competitors? How do I help grow the individuals on my team?
I also spend a lot of my time with our executive team, thinking of the future of our business. What are some of the opportunities that we see, or worse, unexpected things that could be lurking around the corner. We just launched the new Voice Prompts feature late last year, and it had incredibly positive outcomes for our users. But as a result of what we were seeing, we had to shift a couple of things around, in order to quickly adapt to further enhance the experience. And so, a lot of my time goes into those types of problems and unexpected opportunities as well.