Product Operations goes hand in hand with education, as the power to inform and help others is what makes slick product organizations tick.

We spoke with Duolingo's Senior Product Ops Manager, Justin Goff, before his session at the Product Operations Summit, to talk about his career in both education and Product.

Could you take us through your product journey, from your time as a middle-school teacher to product management at Duolingo?

It’s a long story! And though I’m in a very different career from the one I started out in, no step along the way felt like a particularly big one.

I was a teacher for five years at the start of my career. I spent all five of those years in small international schools where we all wore a lot of hats, and instructional technology was always one of the extra hats I wore.

Over time, I found I was spending more and more of my time on instructional technology, and the last school where I taught actually brought me on specifically to teach English and to help overhaul the school’s technology environment.

I found that I really liked that work - I liked the research, I liked solving problems for students and teachers, and I liked having an opportunity to impact the school in deep, lasting ways.

In 2013, then, with our first kid on the way, my wife and I decided to move back to the US and I decided to try life outside the classroom. I took an offer from one of the vendors I’d worked with, a small K-12 software company called Haiku Learning.

The role was on Haiku’s customer success team - my job basically consisted of helping people like me use our learning management system at their schools.

But, again, this was a small team where we all wore a lot of hats and where we had a lot of interesting problems to solve. I started getting into things like figuring out which of our customers were the most likely to churn, and from that seeing which improvements or bug fixes were the most likely to retain their business.

I transitioned from there into product management gradually over time: I started as the customer success team’s voice in product development, then I took on some product owner work for a development team focused on bugs and small improvements, then I led a larger project to revamp our user-facing analytics dashboards. So in early 2016, when our CEO had to take off his product hat and be CEO full time, he asked me to step in as our first full-time product manager.

It was an interesting spot to be in - I had a lot of autonomy, and the company had put a lot of trust in me, even though I’d never done product management full-time before. At the same time, I also had some experienced product folks around me, they just didn’t have “product manager” in their job titles, so I wasn’t completely on my own.

I’d been in that role for about six months when Haiku Learning was acquired by PowerSchool. I got to be part of the acquisition process, which was fascinating, and the twelve months or so after the acquisition were pretty fascinating, too.

But after that, when the dust settled, there wasn’t a lot left to work on at PowerSchool that I was passionate about, so I started looking around.

Now, I’m a Pittsburgh native and a lifelong language nerd, and Duolingo had been on my radar since the beginning. When I saw that they were hiring for product roles, I jumped on the opportunity, and I’ve been at Duolingo ever since. Three years, in fact.

Tell us more about your time at Duolingo. How did you go from product management to product operations?

After spending a bit of time freshening up our Duolingo for Schools product and working on our since-retired flashcard app (Tinycards RIP) I spent almost two years as the product manager for the Duolingo English Test, an online test of English proficiency for university admissions.

We grew that product by over 100x during my time on the team, taking it from an internal startup to a full-on business unit and a major player in the market.

The team itself doubled in size a few times, as well, and along the way I found myself doing almost as much product operations work as I was doing classic product management. Things like figuring out measurement and testing, establishing product launch processes, communicating across functions and eventually across multiple cross-functional teams, fostering collaboration and cross-pollination, and empowering front-line experts to make great decisions quickly. It wasn’t just about managing the product, it was about helping to build the organization and develop its muscles in a bunch of different areas.

I liked the work and I was pretty good at it, so when there was an opportunity to do something similar for Duolingo’s product organization as a whole, I stepped up.

Your career has had an emphasis on education - what is it that drives your passion for education?

Oh, man, how could you not be passionate about education? What’s the point of life, if not to learn? Carl Sagan said it - “we are a way for the universe to know about itself.” And beyond that, education can be such a powerful force for equality and social justice. When you’re working in education, in any capacity, you get to spend your life making other lives better, every day.

Your mission at Duolingo has been around creating a happier product team, how do you think the pandemic has affected employee wellbeing?

On the whole, we’ve been extremely fortunate. The transition to remote work has gone pretty well. The business is growing, we’re hiring, and we’re meeting real and pressing needs for people all over the world who can’t go to school or who can’t go to testing centers or even just don’t want to sit at home for months with nothing to show for it and want to learn the languages for all the places they can’t travel right now.

But I won’t lie, it’s also been tough. There’s no substitute for spending time together - actual time, actually together. And even when work is going perfectly, even when we’re personally feeling comfortable and safe, we all have this huge emotional weight we’re carrying around with us every day. It’s so important to be patient with one another, to be compassionate.

We’re excited to have you speaking at the Product Operations Summit, do you think we’ll see more companies invest in product operations over the course of the next 5 years?

I hope so. When I think of the companies that really navigate growth well, one thing they have in common is that they approach their tools and their teams and their processes with the same kind of rigor that they apply to their products. It’s not enough to build a great product or even a couple great products - you have to build an organization that can consistently ship great product over time as it grows, and that’s ultimately what I’d say product ops is about.

A 2 part question here, do you think a company has to be product-led to have a product operations function, and what does being product-led mean to you?

You know, there are a lot of definitions of “product-led” out there and I don’t love any of them, not even my own! You kind of know it when you see it.

If I had to define what being product-led means to me, I’d say that a product-led organization is one where success depends primarily on building things that solve real problems for real people. But I also think that a lot of companies that aren’t product-led would say the same about themselves.

With that in mind, I’m honestly having a little trouble imagining what product ops would be like at a company that isn’t product-led. The scope would probably be narrower and the potential for impact a bit lower - at a product-led company, product ops sits right at the heart of the business and the problems we work on are absolutely critical to our success as we grow.

So I guess I’d answer your question with a question. If you’re not already product-led, is it really worth trying building a product ops team to squeeze some extra impact out of your product org?

Who does product ops report into within Duolingo?

Product ops reports into the product organization, along with product management, data science, and user experience research.

As a PM, you utilized machine learning as part of your methodology for disrupting standardized testing for university admissions, how vital do you think it is for product teams to have an understanding of ML/AI?

I think that really depends on the product you’re working on, the domain you’re working in, and the team you’re working with. If you’re working on a problem that’s broadly suited to machine learning and if you have machine learning people on your team, then yeah, you need to understand machine learning. You don’t need to be able to do machine learning, and you don’t need to be an expert, but you need to understand how it works, how to talk to the experts, and how to ask the right questions - just like with every other discipline we touch.

Otherwise, you should still try to understand machine learning because it’s really cool and because then you won’t fall for all the stupid stuff people say about it. But it probably won’t have a direct impact on your work.

What transferable skills do you think help aid the transition from PM to POM?

I actually think of what I’m doing right now as product management, but my product is the team itself, its tools, and its processes. It’s less quantitative and more qualitative than what I was doing as a PM, more like B2B product management than B2C, but it’s still product management - I’m still doing user research, understanding problems, helping come up with solutions, measuring results. If you’re a PM who’s also a great listener and has a knack for systems and processes, then you’ve already got the core skills to be a POM.

One of the key topics at the summit will be defining product ops - as an emerging role it can look different from one organization to another, how do you define the product ops function?

I define product ops in two ways. One is the one I’ve just said: product ops is like product management, but your product is the product team itself, its tools, and its processes. Another one you alluded to above: product ops helps a product team get happier and more effective as it grows. I think that, done right, it should be a high-leverage role: you’re multiplying the output of a function that’s critical to the company’s growth.

Your presentation at the event is titled ‘product therapy’ can you tell us a little more about what you are going to be sharing?

Product therapy is essentially a user research process that uses confidential, low-stakes interviews to surface the unspoken problems we’re facing and get them out into the open where they can be solved. It’s a key ingredient in making our team happier and more effective - it creates a rich little feedback loop so that we’re always improving as a team.

In a previous role you were also responsible for customer success, another function that is rising in prominence, why do you think it’s essential for product & CS to be aligned and what is the case for combining the roles?

Customer success is an important function for a wide range of businesses, but it’s especially critical for B2B SaaS businesses that live or die based on whether they can keep churn low and whether they can increase revenue per customer.

If you’re a PM in that context, do everything in your power to get them thinking like product managers. They’re on the front lines, they’re with customers all the time. Learn how to ask them the right questions, teach them how to ask customers the right questions, involve them in decisions about the product, bring them into brainstorming sessions with your designers and your engineers.

With that said, I don’t think I would ever combine CS and PM. I’m wary of over-specialized PMs or conceptions of product management that over-represent any one of the functions you need for a given team or a given product. To me, that would defeat the purpose of having a PM - the point is to have a generalist who can help guide all these brilliant folks with deep functional expertise in things like engineering, design, and customer success.

Be sure to check out Justin's session at the Product Operations Summit on February 9th!