How do you build products that add meaningful value to the way we live, connect and discover?
We sat down with Michelle Parsons, Chief Product Officer at Hinge, who took us through curation vs authenticity in product, the importance of a strong product vision, changing up the product leadership approach, and more.
Here we’ve got the highlights from the Q&A, but if you want to listen to the whole thing, simply click below and enjoy all the insights. 👇
Q: Could you share with us your experiences with feedback and what you’ve learned from it?
A: When I was working for Kayak as a fairly new PM, we had just been acquired by Priceline and we were building out their product organization. With any kind of acquisition, you have a lot of more expectations in front of you. When I joined the team, I had spent the previous part of my career in the ad tech space which is very different from consumer tech, with different tools and resources so I had to learn everything as I went.
I came from a science background, so when I joined Kayak I was able to get a handle on the vast array of complexities and problems and approach them in a systematic way. As a result, I was able to get a lot done and I was able to identify the problems, work with the teams and have significant outcomes. During my time at Kayak, I was getting a lot of positive feedback like “Hey, Michelle, you're doing really excellent work”, “Can you take this on? Can you take that on?” and I felt great.
I was sitting in Los Angeles at one of the travel conventions when I opened up an email for my boss at the time, and it was just the top, “I'm unsure if you can do your job.” It was a sobering moment for me because I had been getting all this positive feedback and impactful outcomes. The metrics were moving, I was getting stuff done, and I felt really good about the things that I was doing and executing. As I read her email, I sat there silent for a bit because I had never gotten that type of harsh negative feedback. You start to think “Where do I go from here? How do I even respond?”.
It turned out that we had a brand new designer who had just started and in my typical fashion of how I'd been used to working with people and how quickly I had been used to operating, I left her with a bulleted list of things she needed to do. I didn’t give her enough of the context, background and support that a true partner really would need to be very successful and ultimately I left her without success.
I do think there was a lack of building trust. You have to fundamentally build from the ground up, especially with new people in an environment where you're trying to move things fast, and you're constantly pivoting.
At that moment, as bad as I felt, I just took a pause to tell myself I know that I'm not bad at my job but what are the areas I can improve in and why am I getting this feedback. You have to ensure people have a shared context and they feel like partners, collaborators, and that’s how you evolve and you grow. A turning point for me was that I need to put more care and focus on this part because it's an equally important part of a successful product management career, not just the metrics, not just shifting.
Q: What advice would you give to people looking to do some self-reflection?
A: I self-reflect a lot, I moved cities so many times and also changed careers. You don't have to reflect on your entire life, it's about asking yourself “Hey, am I feeling fulfilled? Do I feel like my ambitions and my goals? Are my hopes manifesting?.
I often also ask myself, “How do I want to grow? What types of things and impact do I want to have on the people around me? I would encourage you to start there and ask yourself what are your goals and match those goals.
The hard part is to define your goals. What do you like to do? What are you enjoying? Are the things you're doing today laddering back up to those or not? If those two things are not congruent, then how do you move forward from there? That can be paralyzing but just stopping and creating a plan helps take a lot of that fear and the risk out of it.
Q: Do you have any advice on how to break down problems?
A: When I mentor I get asked questions about how to solve problems or how I’ve approached them before. It all comes down to: what's the problem you're trying to solve and have we broken it down enough.
Breaking down problems can be complex. They’re often a manifestation or a culmination of a lot of different variables. Being able to isolate the variables and pull those things apart, is the first step.
It's one of the most challenging steps, which is why when I coach my PMs and I lead teams, I'm hyper-focused on deconstructing all of the variables because we can then use all the variables to build it back up. Then we can figure out which of the variables are the most important and prioritize them. If we didn't break it down, we weren't gonna approach the problem head-on and not fully understand it.
That's how I approach a lot of things, even my own life and my career. When I was asking myself what I needed to learn next, what were the big problems facing my career and stifling my growth. It turns out I needed to get experience with personalization, recommendation and algorithms. I wasn't going to get that at Kayak, because the company just wasn't there at the time.
Even though I don't have experience in algorithms, machine learning, and recommendation systems, I know that I want to add these skills to my toolkit. I needed to figure out where the right place was to go next, in order to give me the space to learn and influence it.
Q: What was the next stage of your career?
A: After I spent about two and a half years at Kayak, I joined Spotify. I was there for about a year and a half, primarily focused on our recommendations platform team, which was very new to me. I had never worked with a machine learning engineer before but it was an amazing learning experience.
I got in-depth knowledge of how backend system systems work, how data systems work, and how all of that together and independently can contribute to the amazing experiences you and I use every single day. My experience having worked at Spotify with recommender PMs and teams directly helped me form deeper relationships with those teams.
My next move was at Netflix where I lead our Kids and Family team, across all of our platforms and globally, owning the end-to-end vision and roadmap for what kids and family products look like at Netflix. How do we help connect kids all across the globe, with the stories they know and love, and introduce them to new favorites? This was really exciting because it was bringing me back to my education space and it's a little bit different from the general approach Netflix took to product. The way we prove value at Netflix to our general population is to always have something new for you to discover.
Ultimately, our ability to partner with our algorithm and our recommendations team was critical in our success because we had to shift the entire foundation of Netflix for kids and then prove value. Not only do you have to invest a lot of time, but also you have to convince all of the executives because it's an investment in resources, time and money.
When I left Netflix and I joined Hinge, the same problems that excited me early on in my career about helping people connect and driving meaningful connections were something I couldn't stay away from. There's something about bringing people together in the most vulnerable and ultimately meaningful ways. It's also so nuanced connecting and dealing with the uncertainty and the vulnerability and sometimes the games, like “do I text them first, they text me first”, it's such an interesting problem to solve in my mind.
Q: Do you have any advice for leaders looking to build cohesive teams?
A: Ultimately, it comes down to us being able to develop deeper and better empathy. In the Kayak example, I had to empathize with my new colleagues who have just joined. I went back and I asked myself how I would have liked to be treated. I was using myself as a carbon copy, I told myself “that's totally fine, three bullets is enough, I'm gonna be able to go dig in and roll my sleeves up and go figure it out” but that's my personality.
That's not necessarily the personality of every single person that I come across and I had to learn that early on because the way that I approach and respond to things is different than everybody else. We're all unique individuals with our own personalities, experiences, biases and perspectives and so empathy-building has been something I continue to invest in time and time again.
I continue to always seek feedback. I do that regularly, not just at review sessions. How do I then take that feedback and try to implement it? It's hard to change. We're all creatures of habit but it's important, especially as you’re working, coaching and leading with others in different departments, to be able to help develop that in yourself and build it in your team.
One of the most challenging pieces was to find partnerships with our content and marketing teams at Netflix, which had different metrics than ours. Their metric is how do I get kids to discover the new show we're creating, investing in and spending a lot of time and energy building and creating. My metric was something completely different. It took a long time for us to build that shared understanding and shared context that both of our goals could be met working together.
There's going to be some short-term trade-off but both sides have to be willing to compromise. I've been able to over time, continue to hone that and continue to build trust and value. Building that trust is the foundation of everything.
Q: What are the benefits of being part of a cohesive team?
A: You're going to get further with more people rowing the boat. As the product manager, you're the captain of the boat and your role is to help navigate people but if people don't know where they're navigating, or trying to navigate without support, then you're not going to get anywhere.
If you're standing at the front of the ship, and you're not saying very clearly and explicitly where you're going and why you're going there, you're going to have people navigating in different directions.
Slow everything down. The collaboration, the tight integration of different functions, skill sets, perspectives and pushback is going to make the product you ultimately end up coming out with that much stronger and more impactful for your users because it forces everybody to consider alternative viewpoints and options which in turn might unlock something you hadn't considered.
Q: How do you work towards promoting authenticity? What are some of the things you've learned?
A: Two of the hardest challenges are promoting authenticity and the idea of ghosting, two things that have been created by the advent of social media to a degree. As a society, we have evolved into short-term satisfaction and as a result, everything also becomes a little bit more superfluous around us.
The recent whistleblower from Facebook even talks a lot about this. There's a lot there around curation and how people are trying to present themselves vs. their true selves so they can fit in with other people and this fosters a sense of non-authenticity.
What we want to try to convey is: everybody is unique, we all have flaws, we all have blemishes, and that's what makes us amazing and unique. We're focused on trying to help people evolve from the selfie to self-expression and take pride, joy and feel safe about expressing themselves.
We've taken a variety of steps into this. We've recently launched a couple of features that tried to help elevate personality but they're still in development so I can't say exactly what they are. Our focus here is that we know showcasing personality is one of the most important drivers for successful relationships and assessing that earlier on in your journey is going to ultimately lead to better outcomes and less ghosting.
Ghosting is on top of our list of things we want to measure, track and reduce actively. We believe that that single piece can have equally if not more impact on how positive people feel about their experience on hand and the ecosystem at large.
I push my team to ensure we're focusing on looking at the big picture, breaking it down to little problems and prioritizing the variables.