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Thought Leadership Series: Interview with Product Manager Paddy Underwood

Welcome to the first-ever Talented Recruiting Thought Leadership Interview, where we have in-depth conversations with leaders in Product & Design. For my first interview, I spoke with Paddy Underwood, a Product Manager at Facebook who began his career as a lawyer and eventually found himself is drawn into the exciting, fast-paced and very impactful world of Product Management in tech. 

It was great to reconnect with Paddy (Thanks Paddy! It was so great to connect with you!), and I walked away with a few key takeaways about being a PM in tech:

  • Being a PM means you get to have an incredible level of autonomy and ownership. At Facebook in particular, being a PM can sometimes feel like having your own start-up company.  

  • It’s the ultimate cross-functional role. You will be working with Engineers, Product Designers, User Researchers, etc, so knowing how to communicate with a diverse group of people within a company is a critical component to the job. 

  • There are many diverse pathways to becoming a PM (hint: you don’t have to be an Engineer), but what is required is an inherent passion and curiosity about how products are thought up, built and launched.

For the full interview- keep on reading! 

TR: You’ve had an interesting career trajectory, beginning with being a lawyer and now working in product management. Tell me about what drew you to the world of product? 

Paddy: My journey into product started before I went to law school. While growing up, I taught myself to code, and discovered that I loved to build websites and simple software. During college, I studied History & Economics and decided to go to law school. During law school, in addition to some really amazing legal opportunities, such as working at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Attorney's Office, I landed an internship in the Facebook legal department working on product, privacy, and ads.

Facebook then hired me out of law school to join the company as a lawyer. I was immediately drawn to a role called Product Counsel - so for every new feature that is being built, you are collaborating with the product team to meet legal and compliance obligations while also ensuring a good customer experience. I realized pretty quickly that I was really drawn to the Product side of the business.

TR: Tell me about how that transition - going from the Legal team to Product - formally happened. Was it a gradual process or an immediate transition?

Paddy: Facebook encourages people to move around the company - team to team, and also across functions. As a trained lawyer, I had a lot to learn about product to make the move. So I started leading projects at hackathons, spent time with Product and Engineering counterparts on product problem-solving initiatives that were in the scope of my role on the Legal team, and eventually found an advocate in the Product organization who sponsored my transfer to PM. With some solid experience and support from Facebook’s Product leadership, I interviewed for PM and quickly made the switch.

Since I moved to product six years ago, I’ve worked on many different product problems at Facebook. Initially, I led Facebook’s privacy product team launching the Privacy Checkup family of products and making new, safer privacy setting defaults. Later, on News Feed, my team created new ways to share and have conversations and built an internal-facing platform to make it fast and easy for Facebook teams to build great experiences in News Feed. And for the last year on Libra, Facebook’s cryptocurrency project, building a custodial wallet that our customers can use directly from Messenger, WhatsApp, or as a standalone app.

TR: How is the Product Management role structured at Facebook?

Paddy: At the end of the day, PMs at Facebook are responsible for ensuring their teams are successful. This means making sure the team has a great strategy, products that solve real problems for people, and excellent execution. PMs spend their days working with a diverse team of experts like designers, engineers, researchers, data scientists, and marketers making sure the team is firing on all cylinders. We have a saying at Facebook - “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” - this is especially true for PMs.

TR: What makes being a PM at Facebook unique to other tech companies?

Paddy: The scale of the products we are building is a major differentiator. Newsfeed has nearly 2 billion monthly active users. At Facebook you have the opportunity and the responsibility of building products that affect the daily lives of people around the world. This is simultaneously exhilarating and humbling. Also, the company culture at Facebook is unique. Facebook empowers product teams to set their own goals and strategy, to experiment, try things, and -- famously -- to “move fast.” Each product team has a lot of autonomy and ownership over the Products they are working on. 

Given the immense diversity of people who use our products, teams at Facebook are excellent at using data and user research to make sure we’re focusing on solving the most important problems for people and validating that products we build are actually solving those problems. Facebook invests a lot of time and energy in amazing data and research tools to enable every team at the company to do this.

TR: How is accountability thought about and executed at Facebook? 

Paddy: We have our performance review cycle - which is driven by peer feedback. The three biggest factors are measured in our performance cycle for PMs: 1. What did you measurably do to improve your product; 2. What did you do to help the overall organization be more impactful (i.e. did you help recruit great PMs to join your team? What else have you done at Facebook to impact the entire company? etc); 3. What do your peers and teammates think of your contribution to the team’s success?

TR: What does your day to day job consist of? 

Paddy: There is no average day - but I try to spend time every day working on product and business strategy - thinking and working with my team; working on product definition and design; and execution (working cross-functionally to ensure products are being built, that we are analyzing data, etc). So basically: strategy, product definition, and execution are things I’m doing every day. I also make sure that the team is never blocked and we are on the same page with other important stakeholder teams -- this is critical in a large product organization like Facebook.

TR: On average - how many meetings do you have every day?

Paddy: PMs have a lot of meetings -- a big component of our job is communication. That said, over time, I’ve significantly reduced the amount of meetings I have every day. I’ve learned to be protective of my time and make sure I have time to do heads down creative work. One really important skill for a PM is scaled communication. For example, instead of doing 15 separate 1on1s during the week, make one post at the beginning of the week detailing your top three objectives for the week and share it with your peers. Encourage your peers to do the same. Good process can eliminate needless meetings. 

TR: What attributes and skill sets (both “hard” and “soft”) are vital to being a good PM?

Paddy: Hard skills that are important include product and business strategy, understand customer needs and problems, taste in consumer experiences, data and measurement techniques, and project management. On soft skills, I focus on influence, coaching, giving/receiving feedback, and communication.

TR: What advice would you have for someone who is just starting out in the PM tech space?

Paddy: You can move to PM from many roles. No matter what your job title is today, look for opportunities to push the product forward. Some other things I’d recommend: 

  • Build in your spare time

  • Make time to practice strategic thinking and product thinking

  • Get a mentor

  • When choosing a team, optimize for learning and growth, not sexy features or brand

  • There are many types of PMs (technical, design, consumer, data-driven, growth, etc.), find your strengths, what you enjoy, and find roles where those are the key skills

TR: What advice would you give to other companies in terms of making sure that Product Managers have a key seat at the decision-making table? 

Paddy: PMs are an awesome organizational tool. If your company sells products or services at any scale, explore adding a Product Management role. If you have PMs already, empower them to really own and drive their product or business. Give them autonomy. You’ll get better output from teams when they own their destiny and are held accountable for success.

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