Must Love Data: A Conversation with Product Manager, Rehgan Avon

Rehgan Avon is the product manager at Open Data Group, founder and co-coordinator of the Women in Analytics Conference, and an overall bad ass. She graduated from The Ohio State University in 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering with a specialization in Data Analytics. During her time at OSU, she launched the Big Data and Analytics Association and hosted the inaugural Women in Analytics Conference to showcase women doing amazing things in the analytics space. After graduation, Rehgan became the lead data engineer and analyst at Clarivoy before taking on the role of product manager.

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I first met Rehgan at ProductTank Columbus and was impressed with her knowledge and advice on product management. I was curious how someone with an engineering degree and data and analytics background fell into product management — and what recommendations she had for someone looking to make a similar transition. Here’s a look at what Rehgan had to say.

You’re more of a data person, but found your calling in Product Management (PM). How and why did you make that transition?

There are two parts to my transition story. In my career, I have worked predominantly in startups and often find myself leaning towards the void in an organization. At a previous company, I realized there was a serious need for product discipline, and naturally gravitated towards alleviating that problem. In doing this, I fell in love with Product Management.

Also, as an engineer and analyst, I spent my life building things. I realized that sometimes companies pour hard work and time into building beautiful things that ultimately don’t solve the problem that’s challenging users. Product managers ensure this doesn’t happen as much as possible.

How has being data-focused helped you with Product Management?

Being data-focused has helped tremendously in terms of mathematical functions. Take for example, the concept of gradient descent, which is basically a mathematical representation of product validation. The parallel here is to get to the optimal outcome as quickly as possible. To put that in terms of product management, you want the maximum value out of the solution. Value can be defined a bunch of ways, but for simplicity, let’s assume this means high customer retention or another similar metric.

To get to the optimal outcome, you must initialize the solution. For PMs, this means creating a minimum viable product (MVP) to then start testing. Once initialized, you must determine the steepest slope to your optimal outcome to get there the fastest. This would be paralleled to finding the most impactful improvement based on data received from feedback sessions or market research. So, you must calculate the steepest slope (biggest return for improvements) and head in that direction, then reevaluate or continue testing (product iteration).

The function here is “value” and the variables are the features / solution.

Some people are better at initializing a point than others. This means that if your competition has more experience and background, their initialization point may be closer to the desired outcome. Or their method to evaluate progress to the outcome through research and feedback may be more accurate. It’s all a race to the optimal outcome for the problem at hand, who can provide the best solution the fastest (and cheapest I guess).

For those also looking to transition to PM, what advice do you have for them?

This is somewhat dependent on the product. For example, hardware and software may have the same methodologies, but different audiences with specific challenges and goals. Overall, my advice would be to familiarize yourself with core product management philosophies: understand the problem you are trying to solve, who you are trying to solve it for, and intimately understand the product that solves their problem. These three core components are critical.

It is also important to have a well-established vision for the product. A strong vision enables product managers to effectively solve the problem, understand the product’s value proposition, and engage in ongoing market research to discover strong business opportunities. These skills are critical no matter the product.

How have you gone about establishing a product discipline — or improving an existing product discipline — at a company you’ve worked at?

I have always worked with startups, so my focus has been establishing a product discipline. As a PM, the discipline is yours to set. Initializing a product discipline may be much easier than improving an existing one, but you don’t have the time, money or resources of a larger company. You can successfully make the argument to spend money on market research at a large enterprise company, but that may not be viable for a startup. So, you must rethink your approach.

People often think being product-centric requires the most expensive and sophisticated software and tools. Although those things are beneficial, it’s important to make the most out of the opportunities and resources you have. Product discipline, to me, means seeking validation in the market. The “how” you do it depends on the situation, but just doing it is critical.

For example, at Open Data Group, I am sent into the field constantly. I listen to demos and consume the qualitative data on user pain points and the current solutions that exist. Many product managers are exposed to this information, but aren’t disciplined in capturing that data. My advice is to capture as much as you can — even if it’s using something as simple as a Google form. That way, you can learn what interests your customers and prospects and look back at that data when making product decisions.

What advice would you give to startups looking to create a strong product discipline?

This goes back to just start somewhere. Your top priority is to truly understand the problem you’re solving and who your potential and/or current customers are. I suggest creating a process map of your ideal customer and rate the pain points along the process. Consider what options they have in today’s market to solve each pain point. Take Uber, for example. If I need a ride, what other options do I have? I could walk, ride my bike, carpool with a friend, take the bus, etc. Thinking through your customer’s current process will help you figure out the main value your product should offer. Dependent on your product, this process could be more complicated, but mapping it out is the same.

I would also suggest policing when people immediately recommend a solution without first completing the process map. Companies want to build quickly, but often the problem isn’t explained. The problem must be well-defined or you’ll waste time and money building a product that misses the mark. It may be tempting to jump right into product development, but I promise that it’s more valuable to define the problem well before starting anything else.

How can PMs get buy-in for their ideas and establish the cultural belief that product discipline matters?

Education. The people in your company — engineers, designers, etc. — are smart. The work they do every day is not easy. The only way you can get buy-in is to truly understand what you’re doing as the PM, and then explain why the work you’re doing matters. They may not fully understand how a potential product will impact the market, your users, or your organization’s bottom line. Don’t be afraid to initiate these conversations with other internal teams early and often. That way, everyone is on the same page and you can work more collaboratively to create a product that makes a difference.

It’s also incredibly important to get and stay close to customers. How do you prioritize this and how do you accomplish customer validation?

Getting and staying close to customers is critical. I sit in on most sales conversations and demos, I am traveling to meet potential clients in person, and am a part of the conversation every time. It is so important to be present in those conversations, especially when evaluating a market or continuing to build a product.

When you’re seeking customer feedback, how do you as the PM decide which features are worth pursuing and prioritizing?

It’s about finding the biggest problems that are most impactful for customer success. As a customer, I may want to achieve a specific outcome, but a certain obstacle prevents me from doing this. As a product manager, you must weigh the existing opportunities — the best opportunity lies in the biggest pain point with the least amount of viable options to solve it.

Also, many companies start to solve a problem on their own and then realize their solution isn’t scalable. So, they begin evaluating software built to solve that problem. As a PM, keep your eye on other solutions that exist (or companies that build solutions in-house) and have a clear understanding of why your solution is better for a segment of the market.

Connect with Rehgan on LinkedIn.

About the Author

Caitlin Zucal is the Marketing Coordinator at AWH. A graduate of The Ohio State University, she received her degree in International Studies with a concentration in Public Relations and Business. Caitlin is a passionate storyteller and enjoys combining creativity and analytical skills for the enhancement of marketing and product development.

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