Angela Wise is a product manager at Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company. The computer science alumna (B.A. ’06, M.C.S. ’07) said she knew in high school that she wanted to work in software, although she didn’t have a good sense of what that meant when she arrived at Rice University.
“The first couple of years were hard; CS was tougher than I expected. It didn’t come naturally to me, and I didn’t hit my stride until junior or senior year. Luckily, it’s a flexible curriculum and you can choose upper level courses in areas you want to learn more about or that play to your strengths,” she said.
Wise was taking a software engineering course with Stephen Wong when she realized her strengths lie more in the business side of product development than the technical side.
She said, “The whole class functioned as a team to develop a solution for a specific customer. I kept asking Dr. Wong questions like, ‘Why are we doing this in this way?’ and ‘The customer didn’t really ask for this feature, so why are we working on it?’ and he encouraged me to go deeper into what was essentially the role of product manager (PM) for that project.”
After wrapping up her master’s degree in computer science, Wise spent almost five years as a Microsoft program manager. Then she headed to Harvard Business School. Following HBS, she worked as an Uber product lead and headed up product management for Sprig, a startup focused on the preparation and delivery of thoughtfully-sourced ready-to-eat meals.
Based on her experience, Wise says a really good product manager can take customer needs and translate them into something that can be engineered. “A PM who understands engineering concepts is valuable in deeply technical products, like self-driving cars.”
She said a PM with the ability to dive into the technical details of a project can more easily earn the trust and respect of his or her engineering team.
“When I can demonstrate to the engineering team that I understand what they are doing, we execute better together. They trust me to know enough to ask for the right things.”
Wise identified three skills that are critical for a PM, making the discipline more appropriate for people who prefer a broad skill set as opposed to a deep skill set.
“The most important skill for a PM is the ability to work well with your engineering team, to understand their challenges, costs and risks,” she said.
“Second, you need to be able to understand the customer, speak their language and understand their needs – even if they don’t communicate them very well. Finally, you have to understand the business and market dynamics at play. The hard part is balancing priorities between the engineering team, the customer, and the business.”
She said most companies want a PM who can understand each of the three stakeholder communities, but junior PMs who haven’t yet developed context for the business aspect can succeed by increasing analytics and people skills.
“The business side is something I couldn’t articulate well until after HBS. You have to understand your company’s place in the market, the market dynamics at play, and how your product fits.”
Wise recommends that PMs who want to excel in their careers invest in building and communicating context.
“A great PM optimizes for leverage — teaching your decision-making heuristic instead of trying to make every decision. Your team should reiterate the strategy you communicated, especially when you aren’t in the room,” she said.
Even with great product management, startups can be risky. Wise said her former company, Sprig, was one such example.
“Sprig is a good lesson - even a well-funded startup with a high-performing team can fail. We raised $57M from Greylock and Social Capital, and I’d been there since the early days. When we shut down, I was a bit shaken - I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next.
“I was still drawn to transportation and logistics, which I discovered working for Uber and Sprig. And I was thinking about autonomy. Sprig was beloved by its users but failed to make the unit economics work –-we had to pay the people running the service more than customers were willing to pay for the product. We didn’t want to compromise on the quality of the food, but were not able to eke out the operational efficiencies we hoped. Automation was an interesting potential solution.”
When Wise considered her interests in autonomy, transportation, and logistics, it became clear that her next role should be in a company that was working to transform the economics of operational businesses.
“Autonomy will change the way our communities operate. The impact will stretch far beyond transportation. I think it will be one of the technological revolutions of our time.”
Wise herself is driven to ship products quickly and feels the more frequently a team ships the more likely they will ship high quality product.
“For me a good day is a day we ship great product. But in the end, the two questions you have to answer are: does it solve a problem for the customer, and does it drive value for the business?”