AMA with Microsoft Principal Product Manager, Brendyn Alexander on Friday June 17th at 10:30 PT

# AskMeAnything session with Brendyn Alexander, Principal Product Manager at Microsoft happening Friday, June 17th, 10:30 AM PT

Welcome to our bi-weekly AMA session at Launch! with Brendyn Alexander, Principal Product Manager at Microsoft. A Product Manager’s forte is asking great questions. Take this opportunity to practice a core PM skill as you get your burning PM questions answered.
Please make sure to follow the outlined rules to ensure we all have an enjoyable and seamless session :slight_smile:

Meet The Speaker

Brendyn is a customer-obsessed leader who loves to build inclusive products. He is currently building at Microsoft as a Principal PM for their Web Defense Services. Brendyn is a proud member of the LGBTQ+ and Neurodiverse communities advocating inclusivity through products and practice.
Read full bio

AMA Guidelines :

  • This is a 48 hr text-based live-chat event that happens every other Friday

  • Drop your questions when the thread goes live and get notified when the speaker joins Friday 10:30 PT :watch:

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  • Please don’t ask more than one question, so everyone can get a chance :wink:

  • See if someone asked a similar question first and feel free to upvote with a :heart:

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Posts not following these guidelines may be removed to keep the Q&A flowing.

The content in this AMA is for educational purposes only and does not include any specific facts of the company the presenter is currently working for. The opinions expressed in this AMA are solely those of the presenter based on personal experiences.

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Hey Brendyn! Glad to have you with us today!
My question is: how to launch a new feature/improvement when the change is all on the Back-end?

When the User can’t really see the improvement, what do you feel is the best way to let them know the Product is getting better?

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Hi @BrendynA pleasure to have you here with us!

As a PM who focuses on building inclusive products - how do you make sure you keep DE&I a part of the conversation throughout the product life-cycle? What does that look like?

And what would you say is your biggest challenge working in web defense services?

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Hi Brendyn Thanks for being here!

I love that you’re dedicated to building inclusive products. Can you tell us a bit more about how you advocate for the users who may not always be at the forefront of the conversation?

Also, how do you run discovery and follow-up delivery? Do you have any tips for new PMs to carry out excellent discovery and truly deliver value for customers?

Thank you so much!

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Hi Brandon,

Thanks for your time. Can you describe what you thing the ideal roadmap contains/looks like? How long are yours typically?

Thanks,

Deborah

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Apologies for the misspelling of your name Brendyn!

Hi everyone! I’m tuning in here on this gray but beautiful day in Seattle :slightly_smiling_face: I’m excited to read your questions. Thanks for attending, being open to learning, and for your patience as I dive in and share my thoughts.

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Hi Brendyn,

  1. What are the qualities that you look for during Product Interview Qts? What are some ways a candidate can acknowledge product bias and solve for them?
  2. What are the soft/hard skills that stand out and helps to identify an excellent PM?
    Thanks for taking the time!
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Hi Henrique! Thanks for this question. I’ve worked on multiple backend products so greatly appreciate the chance to address this topic.

As PMs, our most fundamental job is to keep the customer and solving their problems at the center of all the work our teams do. Every solution–whether implemented on the frontend or backend–should map to a known customer problem. So, I’d start there.

What is the customer problem your backend solution is solving? Why was it important enough for the team to dedicate engineering resources over other problems you could have solved? What user experiences are impacted by those backend changes? A story you can tell to customers will naturally evolve from those questions.

For instance, say your team is implementing a backend caching solution to improve requests per second your service can handle. That may be rooted in a reliability problem customers have experienced–so the story may be something like “We noticed every Monday that traffic to our application increased by 10x which significantly increased load times for customers [<-- customer problem]. We got feedback from over 10,000 of you asking us to do something about that [<-- why it’s important to solve now]. We listened, and are excited to share that we’ve implemented new performance optimizations to ensure your load times stay under 500ms no matter when you access our app. [<-- a backend solution solving their UX problem]”

It’s true customers aren’t going to be interested in backend optimizations or changes if we frame them purely as such. But if we connect them to a customer experience problem, we can tell a great story that makes them care :slight_smile: I hope that helps!

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Hi Zaina! Great questions.

For the first question about DE&I, as is typical for me, the answer comes down to our customers. While DE&I is often talked about as a requirement from a moral perspective (which I agree with), we as PMs have a responsibility to apply DE&I from a business and product POV. If we fail to consider and take into account the diversity of customers who will use our product, we will deliver products which do not work for all of them.

So, I think about DE&I throughout the entire product lifecycle:

  • Identifying customer problems: What are the demographics of the customers whose problems we’re aiming to solve with our product? Are we taking care to include them as we do quantitative and qualitative research? Are we representing their unique problems in our analyses?
  • Identifying solutions: For the unique set of problems, are we engaging with the right customers to validate and test them? Are we tailoring aspects of our solutions to the needs of unique customer segments?
  • Executing solutions: As we build, are we prioritizing the needs of all our unique customer segments? Are we including representatives from each segment in our beta testing programs? Are we considering the feedback of all segments?
  • Launching solutions: Are we targeting our marketing and storytelling in a way that appeals to and reaches each unique customer segment? Are we measuring success in ways which surface how we’re doing with each unique segment?

In each of these phases, the work of keeping DE&I in mind boils down to always seeking out our biases and trying to offset them with data representative of all our customers. Then there’s what I’d term the “executional how” of DE&I. As you create docs, setup meetings, collaborate with your teammates, etc. to create these solutions for customers, are you leading by example? Are you putting your diversity out there proudly and unapologetically? Are you considering how your outputs may be interacted with by people of different abilities? Are you creating space for people with different personalities and approaches to contribute to the project?

That’s just a slice of applicable thoughts on the topic, but I hope it helps :slight_smile:

As for the biggest challenge in Web Defense, hands down it’s the “infinite game” aspect of that space. I compare it to virology. Scientists are never done coming up with vaccines for viruses like the Flu and Covid which plague us. The viruses constantly evolve. It’s the same with malicious actors. We’ll come up with a solution and they’ll work around it eventually. So, there’s a tireless treadmill of effort to stay ahead and build systems that help us stay ahead long enough to keep staying ahead. And while we’re doing this, real people are impacted–often severely–by these malicious actors. On a positive note, though, helping people defend themselves from these selfish, malicious actors is a great source of energy to get up every day and get back on the treadmill :slight_smile:

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Hi Nikki! I love the inclusivity focused questions. I have so much to learn here still, but I’ll share what I’ve gleaned thus far in my career.

I do my best to advocate for customers not at the forefront of the conversation by (1) engaging with experts who can help me understand who I might be missing; and (2) finding data to justify why it’s critical to address these customers.

For instance, 1 in 7 people in the world (over a billion people!) have a disability. 70% of these disabilities are unseen. If we think about any user base of a sufficient size, that means we’re always going to have products which need to be tailored in some way to folks with different abilities. And if we think about solutions for those folks in terms of how they help everyone, they’re easier to sell. I think of this whenever I come to a street crossing in Seattle: the slope that blends the sidewalk into the street is an ADA requirement for folks using wheelchairs, but we all benefit from it. Same with captions, a tool designed for folks who are hard of hearing but useful to anyone in a noisy room. All that is to say, it’s easier to sell the value of inclusive features when we show that everyone can benefit from them at one time or another and that those who benefit from them all the time are a significant portion of the population.

If we add to that the quantification of spending power of people of not just different abilities, but different races, genders, sexual orientations, etc. we add a powerful mechanism for appealing to the business side of justifying investing in inclusive experiences. That said, not every product will serve every type of customer, so it’s important to identify the highest impact areas of inclusivity and push for those first. Prioritization is a huge part of PMing as we live in a world of scarcity. I know that’s not really a simple answer, but I hope it helps.

In terms of discovery, I may be wrong, but I’m taking that to mean problem and solution discovery. Here, I lean on both qualitative and quantitative feedback and iterating across consistent touchpoints with customers throughout the entire product development lifecycle. All of this can be expensive, though, so I like to rely too on becoming a user of the product I’m building–and encouraging the team building it to do so, as well–so we can supplement customer signal with our instincts as users ourselves. I may have some bias here, though, as I’ve traditionally worked in large corporations who have dedicated user research, design, and other experts who can help with problem and solution discovery. At the core of it all, though, is constant engagement with your customers.

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No problem :slight_smile: It’s a strange spelling!

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Before we go, do you have any final advice for aspiring Product Managers, @BrendynA ?

And if you want to take a few more minutes to respond to more questions, feel free!

But also, THANK YOU so much for your time and wisdom! It was a pleasure having you on the channel today :rocket:

If you want to see the transcript of this AMA or any of our previous sessions, check out our blog later this week here. We also share talks and insights on all things Product Management :fire:

Hope you all have a great day! :starz:

Hi Deborah! Great question, roadmaps are the bread and butter of building great products. They bring me joy when they’re well defined :slight_smile:

The best roadmaps I’ve seen present the long-term picture of what needs to be done to solve customer problems but provide the most clarity on what needs to be done in the short to mid-term to do so. They’re prioritized, with every item mapped to the customer problem it’s solving (and supporting data) so the team can answer why they’re doing what they’re doing in the order they’re doing it. The best roadmaps are also centralized and tracked so the team can orient around a single source of shared truth. On a meta level, the best roadmaps are also open to change. We want to lock on a roadmap in the short term to avoid randomizing the team and to deliver complete customer value in a given timeframe, but product development is based on a feedback loop so we don’t want to hold too firmly to a mid-to-long-term view of the roadmap that doesn’t adapt to changing customer needs.

In terms of length, I’m taking that to mean time. This will vary based on the type of product you’re working on, but for me in the software space, I aim for a concrete, detailed roadmap for 6 months. Specifying too much detail for items beyond that timeframe risks investing energy in feature priorities which may change as you ship solutions to customers and learn from them.

I hope that helps! :slight_smile:

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It is a great answer, thanks so much!

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For overall advice, find areas you’re passionate about or which you’re already a customer of the product, and use your energy and excitement to try and make the world a better place for as many people as you can through those products. When we build products which solve customer problems, they’ll use them and pay for the value they add. Approach every day with an open mind and learn as much and continually as you can. Change is the only constant :slight_smile:

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Hi Pushpita! Great questions, interviewing is a critical topic for a business. PMs shape the products to meet customer needs, so it’s important we get hiring right.

In terms of qualities, at the core are curiosity and collaboration. Great PMs are self-motivated learners and sharers. They have an inner energy and passion for identifying and driving through tough problems to clarity of understanding and bringing those around them along on that journey. Practically, I look to understand skills like communication (speaking and writing), storytelling, collaboration, time management, dealing with ambiguity, resilience, positivity, pushing for quality, and leadership of others. Hard skills will depend on the product area. I work in technical spaces, so I look for architectural competence, an ability to learn about and engage engineers on technical aspects, and things of that nature.

In terms of a candidate solving for product bias (I’m going to assume in some sample interview context), I think this comes back to customer and business problems and goals. Bias is omnipresent and relative in terms of its positive or negative impact on a product. So, as an interviewee, it’s important to clarify business constraints, who the customers are, what are the most important problems to solve, then ensure the solutions bias toward those aspects. I hope that helps! :slight_smile:

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Hey everyone! If you missed this AMA with Microsoft Principal PM Brendyn Alexander, take a moment to check out this blog post where we’ve consolidated all the questions and answers. Brendyn shared some really great insights into everything from DE&I, to roadmaps, to Web Defense.

Thank you again for your insights @BrendynA! Reminder that we host AMA sessions biweekly, so make sure to tune in to the next one :fire:

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