Unconventional Advice for Transitioning to Head of Product - Department of Product: Machine Learning, Coaching, and Cultural Challenges

Aviral Vaid

Hatched by Aviral Vaid

Jun 13, 2024

4 min read


Unconventional Advice for Transitioning to Head of Product - Department of Product: Machine Learning, Coaching, and Cultural Challenges

As you transition into the role of Head of Product, you will find yourself facing new challenges that go beyond the hands-on craft of product management. You will now need to focus on coaching your product managers, building alignment, and cultivating the right product culture for your teams to succeed. This shift requires a different set of skills and a broader perspective.

Coaching is a skill that every good product manager should already be honing. Even though you may not have direct reports, it is important to coach your product team, peers, and stakeholders on what good product practice looks like. The best Heads of Product I've worked with are not only great at casting a wide net, but they also consider the future. They think about the next generation of leaders and try to solve their problems.

To build breadth in your role, it is advisable to go broad when it comes to knowledge and competencies. Becoming more of a generalist will allow you to see the bigger picture and understand how different parts of the product ecosystem fit together. However, it is equally important to maintain depth in your thinking. One way to achieve this is by breaking your thinking into horizons. Consider the impact and priorities for the present (horizon one), the next year (horizon two), and even five to ten years into the future. This habit will help you develop a strategic mindset and make better long-term decisions.

As a Head of Product, you will face paradoxes on a daily basis. One such paradox is whether to prioritize morale and retention or to go all-in and risk losing people. It is important to find a balance and consider the impact of your decisions on both short-term and long-term goals. Remember, "culture eats strategy for breakfast." Building and maintaining a strong product culture will be one of your most challenging tasks as a leader. You will need to tackle cultural issues within your organization, such as understanding branding, valuing outcomes over outputs, and avoiding the pitfalls of the "build trap."

Now, let's shift our focus to the intersection of machine learning and user experience (UX). Machine learning algorithms are often black boxes, making it difficult to explain how they work. This presents a UX problem because users need to trust the results of the model. One way to build trust is by showing blatant errors once in a while and still maintaining overall trustworthiness. To achieve this, it is crucial to think in advance about the data and components of the model that users may want to see. Presenting results in a clear, believable, and actionable way will help build user trust.

There are several techniques you can employ to enhance the user experience of machine learning outputs. Backdating is one such technique where historical data is used to produce past predictions that can be verified against known values. By showing users the types of data you considered in your model, you help them see that the decisions are based on variables they would consider themselves. Simplifying and only showing select results can facilitate decision-making for users. Additionally, you may consider defining a new metric or presenting results in ranges or grades instead of precise values. The key takeaway here is that the user experience side of machine learning should not be underestimated. Even the best model is useless if users can't understand, trust, or act upon its output.

In conclusion, transitioning to the role of Head of Product requires a shift in focus from the hands-on craft of product management to coaching, strategic thinking, and building a strong product culture. Additionally, when dealing with machine learning, it is important to prioritize the user experience and build trust through clear and actionable results. Here are three actionable pieces of advice to keep in mind:

  • 1. Continuously hone your coaching skills and provide guidance to your product team, peers, and stakeholders.
  • 2. Develop a strategic mindset by thinking in different horizons and considering the impact of your decisions in the short-term and long-term.
  • 3. Pay attention to the user experience of machine learning outputs, ensuring clarity, believability, and actionability.

By following these advice, you will be better equipped to navigate the challenges of being a Head of Product and drive success for your product teams.

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