Talking Shop with Facebook PMs

Earlier this week, members of the BC Grad Tech Club had the fantastic opportunity to visit Facebook’s Cambridge office to breakfast with Facebookers involved with the Rotational Product Manager Program.  We learned about the opportunities at Facebook and generally talked shop about what Product Management means at Facebook and how a company with 1.3 billion monthly active users can create a product that can be pushed out globally and still feels incredibly personal and tailored to the individual.  The RPM program is a fantastic opportunity and we are incredibly grateful to Facebookers Ashley Chinn, Greg Marra, and Layla Amjadi for sharing their morning, their insights, and their breakfast with us!

Grad Techers David LoVerme, Nicole Gonzalez, and Marin Rowe in Facebook's Cambridge office

Grad Techers David LoVerme, Nicole Gonzalez, and Marin Rowe in Facebook’s Cambridge office

Even as an experienced product manager myself, I learned a great deal in just a few minutes talking with our friends from Facebook and they were kind enough to allow me to share what I learned here on BCGradTechClub.net.  Over the last year I have talked to hundreds of product managers and gotten a myriad of different answers when I asked what a PM does.  One of the best and most accessible descriptions I have heard came during the breakfast from Facebooker Greg Marra.  “A Product Manager is like a conductor of an orchestra,” he said, even though the conductor doesn’t actually play any of the individual instruments, he or she brings everyone together and coordinates each individual part so that the end result is better than it would be otherwise.  Likewise, a product manager’s job is to synthesize the team so that each individual member can focus on putting their best foot forward.  While some companies have their PM team sit together, at Facebook, each PM is assigned to a Product Team consisting of about 10 engineers, a product designer, an analyst, and a product manager.  Within the team, the PM’s role varies throughout the life cycle of the product but is always related to defining the course and keeping the team on track. At Facebook, product teams follow an iterative cycle of Understand–>Explore–>Execute.  While the team operates as a whole, responsibility for identifying the problem to solve, identifying possible approaches and narrowing in on one, and working with engineering to build it lives with the Product Manager.  Along the way, the PM must plan, set milestones, define goals, and define success.

Interestingly, however, while it really seems like the PM is the leader of the team (after all manager is in the job title!) he or she has no direct reports.  I’ve often heard said, a PM has a lot of influence but no real authority.  Direct reports or not, a PM must deliver and therefore, setting the right vision and rallying everyone to the cause is crucial.  PM’s must be able to adapt their language and mannerisms to their audience, speaking the language of business with executives, technology with engineers, and data with analysts.  Regardless of background, Layla joked, business people are going to think you are tech geeks and engineers are going to think you are business only but if you recognize and accept this and can prove yourself as just a little more savvy than the average bear you will win the respect of everyone and gain the influence you need.  Flexibility, intellectual curiosity, and “strong opinions loosely held” are key to the success in the role.

Grad Tech President David LoVerme at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters on Grad TechTrek West 2014

Grad Tech President David LoVerme at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters on Grad TechTrek West 2014

One of the most eye opening things about our visit was getting a glimpse into the culture of Facebook the company.  With 1.3 Billion users, Facebook is ubiquitous.  Everyone knows the social network and everyone has an opinion.  Lost sometimes, however, is the fact that it is a real company led by incredibly talented and passionate people.  The company’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.  They have a poster on the wall asking the question “Are we a tech company?” without a definite answer but rather as a means to stimulate real self-examination.  Everything the company does is to fulfill the goal of helping people connect to each other and it is the Product Manager’s role to ensure that every product or feature serves this purpose.  The company seeks people with a curiosity about the world who love to learn, are highly proactive, have a high energy level, and who are positive and yet maintain a healthy dissatisfaction about the status quo.

After spending the morning with Greg, Layla, and Ashley, it is no surprise that Facebook is such a highly sought after and successful company.  Having met them and knowing the other BC Eagles and friends of the Grad Tech Club we have in Cambridge, Austin, and of course Menlo Park the company is ripe with highly talented and passionate people and I am very excited to see what the future holds!

-David LoVerme is a 2nd Year MBA at Boston College and the President of the Grad Tech Club

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