Want to give your ears a break? Read the full transcript of our Product Love Podcast episode featuring Emily Wang, the former head of product at Spoke.

Eric Boduch: Welcome, lovers of product. Today I’m here with Emily Wang, head of product at Spoke. Why don’t we kick this off, Emily, with a little overview of your background?

Emily Wang: Sure. Yes. Today I am the head of product at Spoke. We are an early-stage software company, but my path into product, I think like a lot of people’s paths, was sort of not planned out. I remember when I was in business school there was actually a course called Product Management 101. And I looked at it and I was like, “I don’t know what product management is. This doesn’t look that interesting.” I didn’t actually even take it.

Emily Wang: What I did instead actually, out of business school, was start my own company. And I thought it’d be a brilliant idea to take something that I knew a good bit about, which is retail and data, and something that I loved, which is wine. And we built a wine recommendation app. And our biggest differentiator was that we actually got a wine inventory data from brick and mortar stores. So the whole point wasn’t that you had to order it online.

Emily Wang: And like many startup ideas, this one did not scale particularly well, so after I wound it down, sort of sat around and thought, “Well, you know, as a startup founder you have to wear all the hats. You do everything from, obviously the product side of things, but sales and marketing and finance.” And at the end of the day what did I actually love? And the thing that I realized I loved was taking all of these curiosities and insights about a problem and then working with really talented people and rolling up my own sleeves and solving that problem. And when I talk to different people about what types of jobs do that? It turned out it was product management. So my first formal job was a product management job at a company called Teespring.

Emily Wang: Teespring is two-sided marketplace. On one side you have e-commerce with lots of very personalized merchandise. And then on the other side, you have fulfillment and operations because Teaspring actually manufactured the products that we sold. And just really, really loved that, you know? Loved getting into the whole end to end of thinking about our customers, talking to them, you know, shipping the solution, but then actually getting to see the impact of that in the world.

Emily Wang: So from Teaspring, I then went to Intercom, spent about a year and a half there, on our growth team. And then have been with Spoke for now almost a year.

Eric Boduch: So talk to me a little bit more about Intercom. What was it like as a PM at Intercom?

Emily Wang: Yeah. I mean, when I joined Intercom we were just about 200 people. So much smaller than the company is today. And Intercom is, of course, a software platform that has different solutions targeting salespeople and marketing people and customer success. And the growth team sitting in San Francisco was really trying to solve this problem between people coming to Intercom, maybe hearing about Intercom and excited about it, and how do you take that sort of excitement and then bridge it to actually people being in the product knowing how to use it and getting value? And I think what the company had realized is that the product teams focused on, let’s say the inbox product or the messages product. We’re so focused on use cases and workflows inside of those products that they actually rarely had the headspace or even the mandate to think about, “Well, how does a new user encounter your product?”

Emily Wang: And so we thought there was this really awkward, but interesting and important bridge, between somebody signing up for a trial and somebody actually being activated. And that effectively was the mandate of our growth team. And so in some ways, you can think of it as like the new user experience, how do you go from trial to, let’s say, your first three months in. And it was I think a particularly interesting set of challenges to solve for because you had to think about a lot of the go-to-market challenges around positioning, pricing, packaging, but then you also had to deeply understand how the underlying products we’re going to be changing because that would change how you onboard and activate people.

Eric Boduch: Awesome. So talk to me a little bit more about the growth team. How is it structured? What value did it drive for Intercom?

Emily Wang: Yeah. You know we used to say that if the core product teams at Intercom were solving our customers’ problems, then the growth team is really solving the business problems for Intercom but using software to do that. So the business problem, you can imagine is, “Hey. I acquired all of these leads, they seem to be interested.” And then suddenly they sign up, but then they turn, right? And they haven’t even gotten to see value in your product. So again, how do you kind of build that consistent story? How people see value.

Emily Wang: There’s such a thing as like technical onboarding, right? In the case of Intercom, it’s like you have to put this piece of Javascript on your website, you have to send through data. But then there are also things that you have to consider, like your entire team and your workflow has to change, right?

Emily Wang: Every time you introduce a new piece of software, how do you communicate that? How do you get buy-in? How do you get that social proof? I would say like there was a lot of travel involved, remote teams. And in some sense, the San Francisco team was remote from the Dublin teams. So I think one of the hardest challenges that we had to figure out was like, “How do we stay really, really close to the product teams in Dublin?” And you can do as many 7:00 AM calls as you want, but there’s nothing quite like being in person, on a whiteboard, working through problems together.

Eric Boduch: So lots of travel?

Emily Wang: Lots of travel. Yeah. I think at at some point I was maybe going to Dublin once a month. But it’s a great city, Dublin.

Eric Boduch: I was there for the first time and greatly enjoyed it. Love Dublin.

Emily Wang: It really reminds me of Boston. Boston, I had spent nine years in Boston and it has this like, you know, sort of a more historical charm. It certainly has the seasons, but it has this like, vibe.

Eric Boduch: Yeah. And I was there. It was sunny, so I was like … I guess that’s not all the time, but it was beautiful weather. And it’s a great time to enjoy Dublin.

Eric Boduch: So one of the things you write about and talk about is this concept of product principles? Can you talk about what they are and why they’re important?

Emily Wang: Sure. I think a lot of times when people talk about principles, whether product principles, design principles, strategic principles, it comes from this idea that you want to give the rest of the team some guideposts, some guidelines to follow, so that you … Let’s say the leader of a team, you don’t have to be the one involved in every single decision. And as I think about product principles, oftentimes when you’re starting to solve a new set of problems or you encountered a new set of customers, you kind of like intuitively arrive at why one solution works better than another.

Emily Wang: And when teams are really, really small, you kind of just exits you and hustle on this. But I think there’s a big danger when that happens because over time I think what can happen is the team will say, “Well, we made this particular design decision. We made this into a toggle versus a dropdown.” Or you know, “We decided that this should be opt-in versus opt-out. Because so and so said so.” And that is something that absolutely doesn’t scale. And maybe even worse of all, it relies on a single person’s opinion and we as humans are deeply inconsistent, right? Depending on our mood of the day, depending on the thing that we’re reacting to, our opinion on a matter can be entirely different.

Emily Wang: And so I think product principles are really important to get to because they are shorthand in a way of communicating why a company or why team makes decisions in a certain way. So, to give you an example, at Spoke, one of the principles that we follow is this idea of default open. That when you think about actions, when you think about visibility, really anything inside of our web app, is by default accessible to anyone inside of the app. We’ll have user permissions and ways for you to restrict it, but by default, everything is open. And that’s important to us because Spoke at the end of the day is a piece of software to help cross teams collaborate, share information. And if you’re across different teams, oftentimes those interactions are sporadic and casual.

Emily Wang:  So you want to make a product, it’s really, really easy for casual users to get involved in. So every time, we face, let’s say customer ask that says, “Oh. You know, I really, really care about privacy. Can you actually just make everything in my app completely private unless I make it open?” Having this principle and having this principle be something that’s shared across the team, actually enables the sales team to explain to this customer why we might be able to give them a setting, but why by default we would actually be open. And allows the engineers and the designers as their implementing each feature, right? To organically think about how to do it.

Emily Wang: So you get alignment but you get decentralized decision making.

Eric Boduch: So talk to me a little bit about the process you go through in coming up with the principals. And the shelf life for those product principles.

Emily Wang: Yeah, it’s … I think like with many things, in the startup world, it’s not very scientific or clean. I like to say that product principles are actually very organically formed. You might even call it like they’re deductively formed. You maybe find yourself making a set of decisions around how should we handle user actions of this kind, how should we handle user requests of that kind, and over time you come up with patterns, right? You say like, “Oh. I actually always want to enable people to make as many actions as possible.” Or, “Oh. I want to make it super easy for you to bring in outside people.”

Emily Wang: I think when you find yourself explaining, especially to new people on the team time and again, why certain decisions are made, that might actually be a great signal that, in fact, this is like a principal and a heuristic that you yourself follow that you want to extend to the rest of the team. So took our first pass at writing down our product principles at Spoke probably six or eight months after I joined the team. And it really was that very organic inflection point of like, “I think I’ve shared my perspective on this like three times this week, why don’t we actually codify it?”

Emily Wang: And then you had asked about shelf life, I think that … I think to talk about the shelf life of product principles, we sort of almost have to think about the shelf life of more than that inside of a company. Because, you know, in a startup everything is changing so, so quickly. And yet you have to have some level of stability to guide the team.

Emily Wang: So I like to think of this as company missions and company values, I think by and large have an indefinite shelf life. You never really planned for them to change, but of course, if you’re a company that pivots, if you come up with a new product, those values might actually necessitate changing. I think product principles are, in some ways rooted and grounded in like the specific customer set that you’re going after, right? The principles that you would need to serve very, very small SMB customers might be very different by the time you get to an enterprise. And so if your customer set is largely the same, then I think that matches with the shelf life of your principal. So maybe we might say, your product principles have a shelf life of one to maybe two years, and then below that, you have all the processes, right? To run your team. Whether that’s design sprints, engineering sprints, cross-team meetings, and updates. Those processes actually change and need to change quite often. And they might only have a shelf life of six to nine months as your team scales especially.

Eric Boduch: So what are the things at startups that have shelf lives? You know, you’ve talked about principles, the processes that support them, and then all of that is driven, I would expect, from a set of values, right? Do you find those stay consistent most times?

Emily Wang: Yeah. It’s hard to say. I mean there might be valleys that are like internal to an organization. So let’s say, at Spoke, we’ve really valued this idea of transparency. That we really share as much as possible with the company and teams should do the same. It’s actually hard to think about what would necessitate that value ever-changing. So I personally actually haven’t lived through an experience where a company’s values have changed, but that might just be a function of what I’ve seen. I don’t know. What about you? Have you seen this?

Eric Boduch: No. No. I haven’t myself. I was just curious. I think of values driving some of the product principles, product principles, like you said, are in a lot of cases, aligned with the customers and the attributes of customers you’re going after, correct?

Emily Wang: Yeah.

Eric Boduch: And then the processes that support those … And processes inevitably change as the company scales, just out of necessity.

Emily Wang: Right.

Eric Boduch: And so it was just curious if you’ve seen that, but I agree. I think values should stay consistent. I’m kind of they’re like the guiding lights for us. For us at Pendo, there’s a maniacal focus on the customer. By stacked, a few other core values that have been consistent throughout the whole company. We’ve looked early on at tweaking them as we kind of like established who we are, but they’re pretty solid. And the tweaks we had were minor if any. I’ve definitely seen our product principles change as the company has changed and absolutely seen processes change because they have to. If they don’t, you’re not going to be able to scale as quickly.

Emily Wang: When your product principles have changed, how do they get communicated and when do you realize that they’ve changed?

Eric Boduch: You know, I think that comes down to a lot, like what you said, as your customers change. Either the size of your customers, the personas you’re selling to, or a broadening of the marketplace, so to speak. Like when your product offering gets broader, and I think communication in any companies that struggle, right? Especially if you’re growing quickly. It’s always a challenge.

Eric Boduch: So we similarly have a trend. We’re a very transparent company. I think that helps a lot and then over-communicating.

Emily Wang: Yeah. Yeah. I think that on the earlier podcast that you had with Rich, I remember you guys talked quite a bit about how enterprise product management, right? Can be very different in its dynamics than consumer. And I can imagine a world where like, as you start serving larger customers, some of the requests that come out actually run counter to some of your principles. And those might be moments of friction that force a company to decide, “Is this a one-off exception?” Or, ” Are we actually now say our underlying principle has actually changed?”

Eric Boduch: Interesting. So let’s chat a little bit about roadmaps. And how you established roadmaps at the earliest stage of the company, and especially given that you might not have a lot of data to work with them.

Emily Wang: Yeah. I think we now live in this era where the idea of ab testing is so democratized and it’s so … It seems so scientific that it’s almost like you would be lazy to not ask for something. Like, “Oh. We should test this idea before we go out with it.” Or if you’re trying to put something on a roadmap to really be able to quantify the impact.

Emily Wang: But at the end of the day, all we’re really doing is we’re extrapolating, right? We’re saying, “I have some sample of data. Right now and this is how I think users will behave. If I expand it to 100%, this is how I think they’ll behave.” But every time I think that you’re walking into a new problem space or let alone building a new business, you have no historical data. You have nothing to guide you to really say one thing will work better than another.

Emily Wang: And so sometimes I think in these early stages, do CPM, spend a lot of time trying to estimate or assume. You know, “How many customers will adopt this?” And, “If they adopted it, what metrics will change?” And, “If those metrics change, what has been the trickle-down impact on retention or expansion revenue?” And it’s like by the time you’ve gotten to that level of impact, there’s like five core assumptions that you have made off of perhaps very, very little historical evidence, right?

Emily Wang: And people are smart but this many assumptions piled on top of each other really get you to a very unreliable number. And the reality is like, I’m not trying to say that people do an ROI analysis are manipulating the outcome, but data is highly open to interpretation. You know, how many times have people done these sort of like cost-benefit analysis on a list of features and then re-rank them by weighted averages? And then said, “Hmm. This order doesn’t feel right.” And then you adjust and tweak some of the inputs until the order feels right. 

Eric Boduch: You can always manipulate data, right?

Emily Wang: Yeah. And look, no one is saying that that is … That’s inherently like bad, but I do think it’s flawed. And so one thing that I very much encourage our teams to do is if you have this extra hour or two hours to really advocate for an idea, at the stage of our company, you know, instead of trying to quantify the number of engineering hours and are going to go in and the amount of impact on revenue that’s going to have, let’s think through it, in fact, with a couple of different mental models. So what does the logic for doing this? If we build this feature, if we solve this problem, what other opportunities does that open up for us? Right? So that’s really thinking about optimizing for option value down the line.

Emily Wang: Alternately, you can think about things like perishability, right? So if I don’t solve this problem today, is a competitor going to solve it and then take this opportunity away from me? If I don’t solve it today, is a really important customer faculty charm because we know they are already evaluating other vendors? Or is this in fact a problem that we can solve six months down the line? It doesn’t have to happen today. You know, you can also think about this in terms of opportunity cost. So if we think that solving this problem is going to take one design resource and two engineers for two months, what else could you be doing in that time? And so all of this, I sort of lumped together into what I call just logical reasoning, right? It’s time to step back and think through what are all my assumptions? What are all the risks and unknowns? What are the bad things that can happen? And then put together a case for why you should invest in something.

Eric Boduch: Completely agree. And I think people talk now about like being data-inspired or data-guided as opposed to like being data-driven, and we use data-driven. We talk about that a lot of Pendo, and I think there’s a little semantics on the end, you know? But the idea is never to take data at its value entirely, and do make all of your decisions based upon that, without testing that data. Deriving hypothesis from that data, and testing those hypotheses, right?

Eric Boduch: Like I talked to Wyatt, from Patreon, just yesterday and we … I’m sure the podcast will be a week or two before this one. We talked about things like the painted door test. And making sure that your interpretation … Because data, you know, in the large case always needs to be interpreted, is correct, right? And actually spending the time testing that. And I think that’s an important aspect of building out these roadmaps. Do you guys spend a lot of time like saying, “Oh. Our intuition and the data is driving us here, let’s test whether that’s really true, whether it’s pricing or a new feature set or customer demand for x, y, and z.”

Emily Wang: Yeah. Spoke has now been in market for about seven months, right? So we, as a product, as a publicly accessible product, we haven’t been out there for that long. And so-

Eric Boduch: But I’m sure, you did a lot of this at growth at Intercom, right?

Emily Wang: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think like there’s times when you know you’re in a space of optimizing, and I think when you’re in a space of optimizing, almost by definition, you’re trying to see if your current users can do something better. Do something faster, do more of it. Those are really easy ways to run very data-based tests, right? Because your current customer base is people that you can run experiments on. But when you are either a new product and still establishing your footprint or when you’re trying to quite frankly do something like change pricing, testing those things on your existing customers, doesn’t work very well. Because your existing customers have already shifted their mental model to absorb all the things that you’ve told them about how your product works. And they’re going to reactive to pricing changes very differently than the brand new person. And they may or they may or may not be the customers that you’re trying to attract with this new feature or this new set of problems that you’re solving for.

Emily Wang: So in those cases, both at Intercom and at Spoke, I would say we do a lot of user research. The trade-off is the sample size, but I think if you can do really deep qualitative discovery interviews with five, six, seven people and you’re seeing trends in those, and insights and those, that is just as powerful, if not more so, than running some statistically robust test.

Emily Wang: So I think it’s more around aligning the right type of data and the right type of tool to the problems that you’re solving. So new unknown problems, do loads of research. Existing problems that you’re optimizing, ideally do you quantitative data-driven tests?

Eric Boduch: Yeah. I think there’s definitely a mix between the two. Right? And how you manage a product or a product portfolio. That’s very important.

Emily Wang: Yeah.

Eric Boduch: So you work in kind of the AI space now, right?

Emily Wang: Yeah.

Eric Boduch: I use that term loosely because everyone seems to be in the AI space to some extent. And

Eric Boduch: How people define AI tends to be a lot more machine-learning-oriented today, less like rules-based AI.

Emily Wang: Exactly. Yeah. Again, one of the problems that we’re solving at Spoke is this idea that people at a company when their collaborating are oftentimes asking each other for help. That help might be informational help. Like earlier today, I asked you what the wifi password was. And that help might also just be like actual tactile help. You are asking a designer to put together a landing page mockup for you, right? Or you’re asking research to put together a research plan. And a lot of these things are one, highly repetitive and two, are things that software can absolutely automate for you.

Emily Wang: One thing I like to say is, or rather an example I sometimes give is how often this week has somebody asked you a question, let’s say over Slack. And what you did is you took that question and you went to your Dropbox or your Google Drive and you searched. And what you found was a link to a document. And then you Slack them that link back, right?

Emily Wang: And if you found yourself doing that this week, I also like to ask, do you know what else does that? That’s what search engines do. That’s what Google does. You type in a query, it searches and it sends you a link back. And if Google can do that, why have our coworkers be human search engines? The value of the collaboration, the interaction can be so much more than that.

Emily Wang: And so a lot of the AI we talk about is not necessarily, how does Spoke pretend to be a human in your Slack workspace? That’s not what we’re trying to do at all. In some ways, it’s how do we almost automate and help people leapfrog over all of the navigation and the UI clicks that without AI you would have to do?

Eric Boduch: Interesting. So talk to me a little bit more about AI and how you think it’s gonna affect product managers.

Emily Wang: I think that today we live in this really awkward gap where consumers have heard so much about AI and they’ve seen various versions of bots, some which try to be really funny and human and others that just don’t work. But there’s, I think, a really, really high expectation that went a bot comes into the picture or when there’s AI, that it’s suddenly asked performing as a human.

Emily Wang: And by and large, I think that’s just not true. The software, by and large, isn’t able to do that today, at least not with the amount of data that startups are sitting on. You know? Obviously, you can see companies like Google being able to do so much more. But for most of the companies and the apps out there doing something in AI, it’s incremental help. And so for product managers, I think that two things, one, at the end of the day, AI is just another solution. It’s another tool to solve a problem.

Emily Wang: So in some ways, I would say it shouldn’t change the way product managers work and think at all. You’re still trying to understand your customer, their problems. You just now have one more tool in your toolkit to think about how to solve the problem. I think the other way it impacts product managers that are thinking more holistically is I think we have to do a lot more work to think about expectation setting and explaining.

Emily Wang: So if you end up designing a bot that is very anthropomorphic and is very chatty and has lots of personality, then maybe you are continuing to set an expectation that your body behaves as a human does. So I think the core job of a product manager isn’t changing in this world, but I think there are a lot more potential traps that you can fall into if you end up using this tool not in a super wise way.

Eric Boduch: Is it different if you look at consumer and enterprise software?

Emily Wang: That’s a good question. To some extent in the enterprise world, what I’ve seen is users want a lot more control and the stakes are potentially a lot higher, right? In enterprise software, you’re usually building software that is part of someone’s workflow. And so they need to be able to explain why something happened. Spoke can be used by a lot of HR teams to help disseminate information about benefits and company policies. But imagine if suddenly people are asking Spoke, “Hey, can I get a pay raise?”

Emily Wang: And there are these black box algorithms where we either spit out the answer, “Yes, you get 10 percent pay raise or no, you don’t get a pay raise.”

Eric Boduch: They’d be asking every day.

Emily Wang: Yeah, that wouldn’t work very well, right? Because at the end of the day, the HR person or the business person on the other side needs to be able to explain why the answer is a certain way. So I think that amount of control actually still lends itself very well to these rules engines that historically have been set up. So I think we just have to be careful about, what is the balance of trust us, our learning models know better, versus saying, “Here, you have all the control.”

Eric Boduch: You asked yesterday, therefore, that’s why. It can be a quick answer. You asked yesterday, therefore you’re not going to get another one today.

Emily Wang: Yeah.

Eric Boduch: Or our pay review cycle is in October. You’re eligible because you’ve been here for 18 months.

Emily Wang: Exactly. Look, I think that so much of it is, how do you design that user experience? Because for a long time now, we’ve had rules engines have and sort of logic builders, right? Where you basically have some sort of UI. You say if this and this, then that. That’s existed forever.

Emily Wang: What we’re trying to do at Spoke and what I see a lot of these companies doing is, how do we help propose maybe some of those rule sets that you can modify so that you don’t have to sit there and click 20 different buttons and fill out a bunch of different checkmarks and forms? How do we make that process more intuitive, easier. And so again, I think a lot of where you see this initial amount of AI is making the interface, the navigation and the interactions a lot smarter and a lot lighter.

Eric Boduch: So let’s step back a little bit, talk a little bit more about your experience. Tell me what you’ve taken away from each of the jobs you’ve had. And what were the big learnings and how those jobs might have affected you as a leader in product management. And let’s start with your wine startup, right? And move forward from there.

Emily Wang: Wow, that’s a big question. I think with any early startup, it’s the amount of hustle required and the amount of just sheer willingness to make this thing survive is something that I don’t think I could have appreciated until I was in that seat. Every single morning, if you don’t get up and push forward as hard and as fast as you can, no one else will. And that’s a feeling that’s entirely different when you are in a more established company. I certainly have a lot of respect for and admiration for people who are in the founder of roles.

Eric Boduch: I like that. I think that’s a good learning from the startup hustle. And you could think about it as grit too. Corresponding to hustle is great as being able to keep going even when things aren’t quite perfect because there’s a lot of learning at early-stage companies and with early products as I’m sure you’re aware now. So what about the next one?

Emily Wang: Yeah. Well no, I think just one thing to add to that is in some ways we live in a world right now where I think the media celebrates overnight successes, right? Where all of a sudden it’s like, oh, look at Airtable. Look at how quickly they’ve grown and they just came out of nowhere, or even Intercom, but Intercom is seven years in and Airtable is also like six years in.

Emily Wang: It takes a really, really long time and it is a slog and you are fighting for every customer and every feature and every quarter. And so I think that having at least seen some of it in the very early stages is very grounding when you then read all the media about like, “Oh look, this all happened overnight.”

Eric Boduch: And the media sells a story. I’m not a big believer in this whole fake news, but they put their spin on the facts, so to speak, to tell a story to some extent, especially when you’re talking about things like startups and success stories. And I think they do the opposite of that a little bit when things are troubling. It’s like doom and gloom because I think that sells a little bit.

Emily Wang: Sensationalist.

Eric Boduch: Yes. You know, the little sensationalism sells a little bit.

Emily Wang: Yeah. So Teespring was super fascinating because I went into Teespring expecting it to be sort of an e-commerce experience, right? It’s a marketplace, it’s e-commerce, but one of the most interesting things about Teespring is that it was originally a software company that then acquired and built out a manufacturing facility in Kentucky. And when you are in the process of dealing with physical goods, let alone hundreds of hourly workers, the software almost takes a back seat.

Emily Wang: I remember one winter we had recently shipped some change to the way these fulfillment jobs got assigned to the factory, to optimize for how quickly they could get printed and out the door. And there was one day when we got a ton of customer support complaints saying that all of these orders were very, very late and people were complaining about it. And we, of course, looked through the code to make sure that the code wasn’t broken and the code didn’t seem broken.

Emily Wang: We couldn’t figure out what was going on. And so I Slacked someone in Kentucky and I was like, “Hey, we’re trying to figure out what’s going on, but all of these orders are late, the code seems to be fine.” And they were like, “Oh yeah, it’s snowing today so a bunch of people didn’t show up to work.” And I was like, oh. The software doesn’t account for weather and it doesn’t account for human behavior.

Eric Boduch: Especially snow in Kentucky.

Emily Wang: Yeah. And there’s actually a lot of great companies today. Even if you think about Uber and Lyft, let alone like the DoorDashes and Postmates of the world, we talk about the software tech companies. But at the end of the day, it’s humans that have to show up and do the work and the software can’t control the human, and the complexity is just enormous. So I think that after Teespring, one, gained a lot of appreciation for how hard software design and product design can be when there’s a lot of human interactions at play. And I think I, quite frankly, was eager to get back into a world of just more pure software.

Eric Boduch: Got it. So then onto Intercom, right?

Emily Wang: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Probably the most formative thing and maybe the way Intercom has shaped me the most is just this really thoughtful principled way of thinking through product and problems. I think a lot of that comes straight from the founders and the background in product and design that the founders have. But we would spend weeks, if not months, just focused on defining a problem long before it ever got into design.

Emily Wang: And the number of iterations of research that things went through, the amount of internal and intellectual debate to really hone and refine every single word that was used to describe the problem, that level of focus and diligence and just I think professionalism, was something that I had never seen prior to Intercom and certainly is something that I’d love to build out at Spoke.

Emily Wang: It takes a lot of discipline to do that, I think, when you’re at an early stage company, when this desire to make changes quickly, when you know that if you’re not making changes quickly, you’re leaving room for your competitors to come in and do something similar and grab market share from you. It takes so much discipline to say, “But at the end of the day, if we ship crap, then we have bad things out there.

Emily Wang: I think the reality is you have to calibrate because I think one downside, one obvious trade-off is it can be very, very slow to make changes. I think the teams at Intercom are also calibrating on that, but super, super disciplined, thoughtful, rigorous design thinking.

Eric Boduch:  And then that leads to where you are today, which is I’m sure relatively early, so to speak, as far as your learnings, a lot of growth still to go. I’m sure if I ask you this question two years from now, there’s gonna be maybe a different answer, but what have you taken away from your experience so far at the startup you’re at?

Emily Wang: Yeah. A couple of things really drew me to this opportunity at that Spoke. So in some ways, I think of spoke as analogous to Intercom but certainly a very different audience. So where Intercom is building product and building software to help teams interface with external customers. Spoke is really building software to help teams internally collaborate.

Emily Wang: And the idea that if you are joining a new company as a new employee, it’s incredibly hard to navigate, to know where to find things, and quite frankly, even to know who to ask for help. That somehow it’s crazy that when cross-functional teams come together to collaborate, let’s say product design, marketing and sales, there’s still so much miscommunication, there’s still so much of decks and documentation flying everywhere and people somehow still not managing to stay on the same page.

Emily Wang: Those are the problems that we really want to go solve and it’s a huge luxury to get to actually solve a problem that I personally identify with. I think it’s actually pretty rare in the software world that you do that. By and large, you’re solving problems for personas that you are not, which is why you do these very empathetic leaps of discovery.

Emily Wang: And yeah, I certainly think that a lot of how we build product at Spoke is inspired by how I’ve seen product get built by Intercom, a very deep maniacal focus on understanding the problems to be solved. I think Intercom very purely champions a job to be done model whereas a lot of people really champions for the more persona model and I think we take a nice matrix of the two.

Eric Boduch: What’s the advantage of … I’m a big fan of jobs to be done. In fact, I have a podcast that should be publishing soon, which will mean it’s like eight weeks before this one with Bob Molesta who talks a lot about jobs to be done. Ryan Singer, also publishing soon, meaning before you listen to this one, you’ll probably hear Ryan Singer who’s very focused on that too. Talk to me about why you have kind of a hybrid approach there and the advantages of both or the advantages of the hybrid. Love to hear that.

Emily Wang: Yeah. So I think one of the really interesting things about jobs to be done is that it tends to be framed in a particular scenario. So Clayton Christianson has that very traditional one, which is his milkshake example. When I am driving to work or when I have this long commute in the morning and I’m hungry, I want something that is very filling and easy to eat. And so the solution here ends up being a milkshake. But that win in that scenario is incredibly important.

Emily Wang: So it’s trying to really understand what part of someone’s day, what part of someone’s workflow does your solution get used? Because unless you are the iPhone, people are only interacting with your product at various moments of a day.

Eric Boduch: And now with the new iPhone feature, it tells you how much time you’re using things. Maybe it’s going to move more towards that.

Emily Wang: Yeah, maybe. That takes also a lot of discipline. I think it takes deleting Instagram off my phone.

Eric Boduch: So sorry, I didn’t mean to sidetrack us there.

Emily Wang: No, I think that’s actually one of the most interesting things about jobs to be done that personas don’t capture because persona sort of takes this person as though this person and their needs are the same throughout their 24 hours and that’s just not true. And I think the maintenance jobs to be done then loses is that if a salesperson and a marketing person and a CS person all have this job, the way they describe their job is different.

Emily Wang: The way they find their products when they’re searching on Google is entirely different. So I think the intersection is nice because it allows you to speak the language that is relevant for the persona you’re talking to. It allows you to think about designing your solution in a much more almost surgical environment. So you’re not just painting this sort of generalized picture of what a marketing person needs to do.

Eric Boduch: So while the jobs might be similar, the personas impact how they approach it or when.

Emily Wang: Yeah. Take employee onboarding, right? So HR teams and IT teams are two very core teams that adopt a product like Spoke and they both are very important in onboarding a new employee. But the way an HR person talks about new hire onboarding is actually pretty different than the way IT people talk about a new desk setup. Again, the language is different, the way they go through … I guess the way they encounter that task is pretty different, right?

Emily Wang: So HR might look at a new employee end to end. So how do I onboard Eric? And what are all the steps for Eric? Whereas IT might say, “Okay, this Monday I have ten new people starting. How do I go and make sure that they all have their desks set up correctly?”

Eric Boduch: Got it. Okay, cool. Well, let’s talk about trends you see in product management. What upcoming trends do you see?

Emily Wang: It was interesting actually being out at Industry, which is where we met in Cleveland, because so many of the product managers in the audience are not based in San Francisco or based in New York. It almost took that dichotomy to see where maybe some of the trends are and where the differences are.

Emily Wang: One thing that I had noticed is a lot of the speakers and even the thing that I talked about at Industry, one, focus heavily on this idea that product managers all understanding problems of their customers rather than own solution delivery. And then the second thing is this idea of research and design being such a core part of product. I think that a while ago, I don’t know, some ambiguous five, 10 years ago or maybe even not that long ago, I think we heard a lot about how should product managers work with engineers?

Emily Wang: And engineers were always the other counterpart. And I think that now I hear so much more of it as, how do product and design work together? And I think design has really gained a much stronger seat at the table where it’s far less about, can you make this low fidelity mockup pretty? Which I think once upon a time that was sort of how design has a seat at the table. Now, it’s much more around bringing design in as a thought in defining the problem and then, of course, defining that solution.

Emily Wang: So possibly that is one of the biggest shifts that we see. And you actually see that also in hiring. I think that you have now actually in a lot of companies, much stronger design to engineering ratios than you used to. Like in the past you might have one designer supporting 10, 12 engineers. But now, I think even in some of the teams at Intercom, you’ll see one designer maybe matched with five or six engineers.

Eric Boduch: Interesting. I definitely see that. And I think it’s a great trend. The tight coupling of design and product at the earliest stages, not like, oh, we built this, now make it look pretty, put a nice veneer on it or paint this house for us, so to speak.

Emily Wang: Exactly.

Eric Boduch: Or be the interior decorator when the rooms are already all designed.

Emily Wang: Yeah.

Eric Boduch: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s a great trend. So let’s turn this to you a little bit for a couple of final questions. What’s your favorite product and why is that your favorite?

Emily Wang: Yeah. This is actually a really hard question for me to think through. I don’t know why it was so hard, but …

Eric Boduch: It seems to be hard for a lot of people, actually. And I think it’s just because it’s not something that they think about consciously a lot. They use certain things and they love them and then, but they don’t really think about, what’s my favorite and why is it my favorite? So it seems to be a little bit of a struggle. I don’t know. I don’t know that I entirely know why, but that was my hypothesis that I just stated.

Emily Wang: So my litmus test for what was my favorite product ended up being, okay, what are products that I will sometimes get into little fights with people over where I will defend my product choice? And I realized it was Google Maps. This engineer I used to work with at Intercom was like a super Apple fanboy and he would always use Apple Maps.

Eric Boduch: Did he make it to his meetings? Just kidding, people at Apple.

Emily Wang: We actually once took, we went on a team offsite and we took two cars. And one car very logically navigated using Google Maps and our car navigated using Apple Maps and we ended up in a different city than we’re supposed to. And so every time someone loads up Apple Maps, I will just get really riled up and explain why they need to use Google Maps instead.

Emily Wang: So that was kind of my “aha!” like this is actually a product I really emotionally care about. And other than the fact that I trust Google Maps, I think it has completely changed my life in terms of how I travel. I remember as a kid my mom would, before we went anywhere, she would go to Mapquest and she would enter in the address and we’d print out all these maps. Or before we went on a big road trip, my dad would swing by AAA and we’d pick up these huge books that we’d fight over how to orient these maps.

Emily Wang: There was so much planning and very little space for spontaneity. Because if you got to the wrong place, you were just stuck. Now, I travel all around the world. I’m going to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan next week,

Emily Wang: Crazy countries, and I have planned nothing. And I’ve planned nothing in part because I know I can download Google Maps offline, and then I can just wing it and I won’t get lost. And that amount of freedom that this piece of mapping software has given me, is life-changing.

Eric Boduch: Yeah, I have to plan my food in line, you know, that’s just me. That’s interesting. I’m a Waze user myself, which is now Google, but the reason I moved from using Google predominantly to using Waze, was just because it did that realtime traffic, and also the alerts for where there’s police, so if you were on the highway going a little bit faster than you should, you could slow down just to make sure you didn’t get a ticket, and I’m sure that has saved lots of people.

Emily Wang: That’s money.

Eric Boduch: You know, ’cause sometimes there are speed traps there that are a little inappropriate. The speed limit goes down for no reason and there’s a cop sitting there; it’s good that Waze tells you about that.

Eric Boduch: Not advising anyone to speed out there. Not saying I do, or anything, but yes, I’m a big fan of Waze which, obviously, is now being integrated, I guess, into Google. We’ll see how that goes. That’s cool. Yeah. Love how maps have changed things for us. We’re in traffic, we can just take a right turn out of it, too, and it’ll pick it up and it’ll tell you where to go, you know?

Emily Wang: Yeah.

Eric Boduch: It’ll bring you back to your destination, which is awesome.

Emily Wang: It’s freedom. It’s liberating.

Eric Boduch: Almost one final question, usually a final question but we’ll have a little surprise at the end. Let’s start with three words to describe yourself.

Emily Wang: Yeah. I think like many product people, I’m deeply curious. I think my personality, I’m also very enthusiastic, and I like to be very forthright and clear with people.

Eric Boduch: Awesome! Well, thanks. 

About the Author

Eric Boduch is the chief evangelist for Pendo. Previously, he served as the CEO of Brainstorm SMS Technologies LLC (dba SMaSh, Inc.) and was the co-founder and CEO of several other companies. Eric holds a Bachelor of Science from The School of Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Electrical and Computer Engineering and is a graduate of its Executive Management Program.