Product Q&A with Jackie Bavaro
Before Asana was a publicly available product, Jackie Bavaro was guiding the company’s product decisions behind the scenes as the company's first product manager. Asana has now grown to become one of the fastest growing-collaboration software tools out there, with more than 25,000 paying customers - from Uber and Snapchat to Malala Fund and the Seattle Children’s Hospital.
In the meantime, Jackie has grown with the company and is now Asana’s Head of Product Management.
At Asana, Jackie leads the PM team and product roadmap, helping the product management team build Asana to achieve their mission of making coordination effortless so that all teams can accomplish great things.
Prior to Asana, Jackie was a Product Manager at Google, where she worked on Google Data APIs and Google Search. On Google Search, she led three teams: Universal, Images Universal, and Video Universal, making sure that Google delivered the best possible results for queries about places, pictures, and videos.
Prior to Google, Jackie was a Program Manager at Microsoft, leading 5 feature teams within Microsoft Sharepoint: Blogs, Wikis, Alerts, Navigations, and Views.
Jackie is also the co-author of the infamous book that most of you have probably read: Cracking the PM Interview: How to Land a Product Manager Job in Technology.
As a product manager, how are you reacting to competitive products?
How I think about competitors really depends on the product and our goals. In general, at Asana we try to be entirely AWARE of our competitors, but not be REACTIVE to them.
How do you find being PM in Google different from other companies?
Google is a very eng-driven and research-driven culture which affects PMing a lot.
Each team is different, but I was actually encouraged away from thinking about the business to only focus on search quality.
As a PM - how do you stay focused when technology, companies, and customers are changing so fast?
I focus on customer’s core root needs, which I find don’t actually change that fast. For example with Asana, customers need to know who is responsible for what, by when.
So much of our work comes out of that one unchanging insight.
How does a new grad in an engineering role go about building PM skills?
For anyone who wants to transfer into the PM role, the #1 best way to do it is to do the job in your current role at your current company.
The rapport and relationship you’ve already built with your team will give you the best chance to switch into the role. Once you’ve done the job unofficially, you can ask to make it official, and then later on you can use that experience to apply for other PM jobs.
What are the 3 most important traits for any prospective PM hire that’s a “must-have” in your mind?
I’m kinda ad-libbing but I think the 3 most important PM traits are: customer focus, ability to get stuff done, and great collaboration skills.
When building innovative products, does the development process differ vs. when building just another iteration of either an existing product or something that's in the market already?
Focus on your core hypothesis and what milestone you need to hit to learn about it. I think there’s room for innovation in every single product, but it’s also important to not spend too much time reinventing the wheel when you ought to just do the standard thing.
Eg. at Asana our differentiator is that we’re BOTH powerful and easy to use. We’ll innovate on things when they play to that differentiator.
Do you use Asana for your own product management tool? If so, what features do you use most?
For sure! I’m always creating tasks for myself on desktop and mobile, commenting on tasks, creating tasks with due dates so I know when to follow up on things.
But by far my favorite Asana feature is custom templates - you take any repeatable process (eg. employee onboarding, launches, product development, interviews) and make it a template you can re-use with one click. You can even have the tasks automatically assigned so you don’t have to chase people down each time.
For Service Launches at Asana, the PM just creates a new “Launch” based on marketing, UO, data science, etc. Teams are automatically notified and get the tasks to do their part for the launch. We can scale the # of people involved without increasing PM work!
How much validation do you look for from your A/B tests before you feel satisfied that you've confirmed your hypothesis or failed fast?
Such a good question.
#1 - Be realistic about how much data you have. If it’s not enough to detect small changes, it’s better to rely on quantitative methods like UXR.
#2 For “If X then Y”, I look to make sure that I actually moved X enough. If I moved it enough and Y didn’t improve, then that’s enough validation.
One thing I often struggle with as a PM is not always having a clear role / feeling like my contributions are intangible. I'm not actively "building" anything by coding or designing, but rather just organizing resources and prioritizing things. Have you felt this way? How do you concretely articulate your value to yourself?
Not feeling tangible contributions is a huge challenge with PM, and one of the main reasons I see engs who became PMs transfer back to engineering.
Part of it is a mindset shift and to really align yourself with the team and the team’s results. But on a more tactical level, I love looking for tangible opportunities - up strategy docs, tackling small projects that were bothering engs, up blog posts. It’s a balance!
I’m a current undergrad and would love to hear any advice you have for applicants to APM internship/full-time programs?
Great advice here: https://.com/@marcbaselga/landing-an-entry-level-pm-apm-role-4f7451537626
What’s the best way to transition from a technical career to a PM one? Do you think an MBA is a must?
If you can transition in your current company, you don’t need an MBA. But if you can’t, then an MBA is a great way to open up new opportunities.
I've been struggling on connecting long-term vision, mid-term goals, and day-to-day execution. How do you balance and connect them all as a product manager on a daily basis?
I’m a huge fan of proactively planning what percentage of my time I want to spend on different things, and then blocking out my calendar to make space for them.
Any advice on how to manage shifting between strategic/tactical levels? Or how to determine you're in too deep tactically and need get back to focusing on strategy? I find I'm often stuck in the weeds on the ground floor and need to kick myself back up to a 10,000, 50,000, 100,000 feet strategic high-level view.
It’s definitely important to carve out dedicated time to think strategically - otherwise, it always gets crowded out by the tactical work.
You can block off 4 hours and work from a coffee shop as a way to get that space.
I recently read your post about giving feedback. (https://.com/@jackiebo/how-to-give-feedback-so-people-will-listen-f166e26a2195) You mention that it’s important to consider psychological safety as part of the feedback process. Conversely, I’ve read some orgs focus a lot on “rapid-fire” feedback in order to build feedback resiliency. Do you think that is also a valid approach if the audience is okay with that type of feedback?
I love the approach of treating culture as a product, and constantly iterating and experimenting with it. I think that sounds like a great experiment to run, as long as it’s balanced with points of reflection to see if it’s working.
Can you recommend any frameworks for influencing customer roadmaps in B2B settings to keep the focus on the end-users?
It’s important to have the following clear-cut - do your culture, mission, values, and business model align with focusing on the end-user, as well as to what extent.
If you can get that alignment, the individual decisions get much easier.
Which tool did you use at Google for product management? Is Asana's engineering team using Asana as their main product management tool?
We did not use a tool at Google. Everything was in a mishmash of documents and emails.
Part of why I love Asana!
How do you balance releasing features that move the needle (conversion) vs. UX updates or technical debt?
This is one of the key questions of product management!
I love to use a portfolio approach: we decide upfront on the percentage allocation to new features, UX improvements, technical debt, etc., and then fill in each bucket with the highest priority work.
It’s not important to get the exact percentages right, but when you say a out loud like “70%” people will have an immediate feel for whether it’s too high or too low and you can adjust based on your strategy / what leadership thinks is right.
Is there something you wish that you had done differently early in your career when you first started in Product Management? Is there something small that you do everyday that makes a difference long term?
I’m super happy with my career overall, but I wish I’d started on a team with faster iteration cycles so I could fail and learn more quickly.
How can one convince the leadership to change course / product roadmap halfway into the year?
For any kind of “how do I convince…” question, a great way to approach it is to start by really understanding what the person cares about, what they’re worried about, and what they believe.
Then talk about your idea in terms of their values, add data to correct misinformation, and ask if there are cheap ways to validate your idea.
It can help to really introspect and unpack the reasons you believe in the change.
What are you most excited about for your own career in the next couple of years?
I recently hired an amazing new Head of Product (Alex Hood from Intuit) as my boss, and I’m so excited to learn from him.
For the past 7 years I’ve been scaling with Asana as it grows, and I’ve definitely veered quite a bit into the “self-taught” land.
I am transitioning from an Eng role but the responsibilities of a PM are so many that I don't know what should I be focusing on. What are some of the things/skills you should work on when you are looking for a PM role?
There are so many important skills for PMing, and so almost every person will be already great at a few of them based on your background.
Capitalize on your strengths, and bulk up on the area that people will assume you’re the worst: https://pmblog..com/The-Venn-Diagram-of-PM-Skills
What's your take on time estimates at different levels: from concrete engineering ticket estimates to features (or problems) estimates and even to high-level strategic goals. Do you as a PM do estimates or facilitate estimation processes?
It’s super important that Engs own the estimates.
Given my CS background and huge amount of experience at my , I do help out with estimates a lot.
I’m always careful to explain the framing for my estimates and genuinely ask the engineers about why I’m off so I can learn more.
Who in your team prioritizes bugs and who decides how to divide time between bug fixing and feature development?
Usually the PM prioritizes bugs and decides on how to divide time.
For a startup that is beginning to scale, how should a PM change over time to accommodate?
One of the things I’ve found most rewarding in my career, especially since leaving Google, is forming a community with people at other startups. I love bouncing ideas off of other people and learning from the different ways they’ve done things. I’ve been amazed at how collaborative and supportive people at different startups are!
How do you recommend PMs and biz leaders create these community networks?
I asked our founders and VCs to connect me to people at other companies.
On a broader technology level, how do you see the upcoming trends in tech, business and culture interacting with your work?
I’m a huge believer that PMs need to own the ethics of what they’re building.
We won’t always understand the full implications of what we’re building, but when we learn we need to take the step back and think about what we should do to be in alignment with our values.
How do you build upon your customer empathy?
Two articles on this: