On my first day as a product manager student intern at Tech Matters, I sheepishly asked my mentor Derek, “What exactly is a product manager?” I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do know it was so beautifully said that I can at least tell you the gist of it: a product manager represents the user, their needs, and desires to the rest of the team. That’s when I knew I was right where I needed to be for the summer. I’ve long been interested in bridging technology, policy, and society, but to better understand the many ways technology can be leveraged for good, I first wanted to understand all the contours of technology as it interacts with people and communities.
Building on previous experiences in academia and the government, this summer I got to explore technology from a non-profit, start-up-y perspective. Learning how even in a space that does rely on private sector incentives, we can still build human-centered technology. For example, our team consistently centered the fact that most of our technical platform’s users were non-technical. We also had to confront the engineering challenges that resulted from our decision to prioritize data privacy. Not only that, but because of the cool global mission Terraso is a part of with 1000 Landscapes, I also got to expand my worldview, all while indulging in the most multi-disciplinary work I’ve ever been a part of. Beyond my primary interactions with technology and environmentalism, I also dabbled in finance, community organizing, capacity building, and a plethora of map-related activities!
Driving these learning experiences, of course, was my main goal of learning how to be a product manager. One of the first activities I was involved in was our Usability Studies. The whole summer, I observed how Hana and Derek shaped each user interview to center what our co-design partners had to say. Watching them give our users abundant space to discuss their challenges, needs, and even their dreams, I realized that product management is all about authentically representing the user to the rest of our work team. I was impressed with how much care they took to avoid making their own assumptions, and to make sure every decision was backed by not just one, not just two, but three or more validating requests from our co-design partners, to really understand what our partners were asking for. Their patience and active listening skills were things that I tried my best to hone and channel throughout my summer, and will carry with me for the rest of my life.
While I knew these usability studies were critical for identifying needs Terraso as a product had yet to address, I was still a little lost at the beginning of my internship. All these user interviews, internal conversations about features in development, and general conversations with our co-design partners all seemed to be running on different timelines.
Thankfully, learning how to write product specs helped bring everything together for me. Realizing that Terraso was simply a culmination of dozens of much tinier projects, all born from product specs, allowed me to reorient myself in my role. I learned that product specs help ground the product manager, who in turn helps frame the direction of the rest of our team. Also, product specs helped me bridge the short-term advances we had been making through usability studies and design discussions with the long-term goals of Terraso.
I have much more to learn about the art of effective product specs, but through writing and reviewing them with my team, I challenged some of my own assumptions. For example, I’ll admit that when Derek told me about the User Stories component (a User Story is written as a hypothetical scenario from the POV of the user, imagining the exact ways the user will interact with the product spec’s proposed product), I was hesitant to take it seriously. It felt like a creative writing exercise for a not-very-creative plotline (every sentence usually begins with something along the lines of “As a user, I should be able to…”, so it felt very formulaic and redundant). However, I very quickly, very fortunately, learned that User Stories are actually one of the main ways our engineers are able to connect with the user-side of the product they’re building. All of a sudden, something I had been skeptical of became a key I had been seeking all along — the bridge between the user and the technology! I came to Tech Matters this summer seeking ways to humanize the technology we build — not only were User Stories a way to do that through product specs, but I realized Product Management was a role that empowered me to be that bridge myself.
So much of what I learned and accomplished this summer was only possible because of the insanely wonderful people I got to work with at Tech Matters. I am beyond grateful for my time with the Terraso team, and can’t wait to apply my learnings to my next adventure!