Sean [00:00:18] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.
Paul [00:00:28] Hey Sean, how’s it going?
Sean [00:00:30] It’s going good, Paul. I’m excited to interview Alicia Dixon. She’s got an incredibly diverse background.
Paul [00:00:35] I’m excited, too. I think her thoughts on how product managers stay relevant are really spot-on.
Sean [00:00:40] I love doing these interviews with actual, practical people in the trenches doing the product work, especially at places like Hilton, where she’s spent the last five-plus years.
Paul [00:00:49] Yeah, she’s really brought a ton of energy and enthusiasm. She’s a real cheerleader for the products that she’s shipping and it’s really refreshing to hear what makes her tick.
Sean [00:00:59] Let’s get after this one.
Paul [00:01:00] Let’s get after it.
Paul [00:01:04] Well hello, everyone. Welcome to the podcast. We’re excited today to be joined by Alicia Dixon. She has over two decades of experience building products and creating technology solutions for consumers and enterprises. Her specialty is software product management, where she enjoys focusing on new product development, product strategy, and market research. Alicia’s held management positions at leading companies including Hilton, U.P.S., Dell, and Fruit of the Loom. Alicia, we’re so excited to have you today. Welcome.
Alicia [00:01:31] Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Paul [00:01:33] Excellent. Well, I’ve got a bit of a tee-up for this question, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts. So in product management, especially in our podcast, we tend to focus a lot on the strategy side of things, on product leadership, on leading teams, and developing a practice. But I’ve found in learning about your writing and listening to your talks, you’re really all about doing product. You’ve made your voice heard as a pragmatic, hands-on product manager, and you’re talking about big ideas in the tactical product management space. So what don’t you see being talked about in the product community that you think needs more attention?
Alicia [00:02:09] So the thing that I think is inherent about anyone who is interested in being in the product community is that we’re all such high achievers and go-getters and we really want to do well and we strive for success. The downside of that is that the job descriptions for product managers stink because they expect you to be Superman or Superwoman and have all of these boxes ticked of saying, “I can do all these things and every product manager can 100 percent do every skill that you could ever want as a product person,” and that’s just not realistic. So I think what really needs to be talked about is the fact that not every product management role is the same and some product management roles need skills that others don’t. Instead of us writing these job descriptions that are just like copied and pasted from the last one, it’s really important to know what skills does that team specifically need. And then also, I think we should take the pressure off people not to feel like they should have to… Like if you’re really good at design but not really good on the technical side, don’t make somebody feel the pressure to always make up for that skill. I’m a big believer in the strength finder and playing up to your strengths. So that’s my personal opinion. I don’t know that a lot of people would agree with me, but that’s my soapbox for the day. I’ll stand on that one.
Paul [00:03:23] That’s great. I think there’s a ton of real practical wisdom in that. We’ve found in job postings and trying to fill out a strategy for building our practice, that there is a need for just, you know, very technical folks at times and then very creative folks at times. So how do you figure out how to build a training practice that mimics what we’re talking about, what we’re observing in reality? Like we’ve got these general skills that every product manager needs, but you do find these niches from time to time, and it’s difficult to know where that balance is. What do you think we can do as leaders to help round out our teams better?
Alicia [00:03:58] Well, I think it’s a couple of things. One is being intentional about what the team needs are. Two, it’s taking more time to help people develop individually to know, like, what they are and are not good at so that they know, “like, OK, this might be an area that we can find someone else to compliment you on, so you don’t have to worry about it; focus on this part that you’re really strong with.” And then the third thing would be to break down those courses and those classes from being everything under the sun to being more focused in the targeted areas. Those are just a couple thoughts.
Sean [00:04:30] Yeah, it’s hard because it’s like a Venn diagram, right? As you’re building a team of people, you have to pay attention to what the individual needs for growth are, what the team’s needs for growth are, and if you have multiple teams it’s even more complicated, and then what the overall organization’s needs are now and what they’re going to be six months from now and in a year.
Alicia [00:04:46] Right.
Sean [00:04:47] You’re constantly thinking about that capacity, because like you’ve said, we’ve found the same thing in our organization: there’s no such thing as the perfect product leader who knows everything about all the different aspects. It’s just too complicated of a space.
Alicia [00:05:00] Right, exactly.
Paul [00:05:02] That’s a good tee-up for where I wanted to pick your brain on next. I’ve heard you talk about, you know, DEI initiatives, you’ve written about Girls Who Code, and on your social channels, you’ve not been quiet about the need to break out of homogenous channels to ensure that a multitude of voices are being heard. What are some unexpected or intangible benefits that we gain by leading or speaking into the need for inclusivity in the product space?
Alicia [00:05:28] So it’s very interesting that I actually hadn’t put two and two together that I had been vocal on that topic until you brought it up. And I’m like, “am I? Oh, yeah. I guess I am.” But it’s more of me speaking to, “ok, this is what I’m seeing, this is what I think needs to be talked about.”.
Paul [00:05:45] Yeah.
Alicia [00:05:45] So bringing attention to a conversation in my mind. So it’s almost more of a “hey, do you guys see what I’m seeing? Can we talk about this a little bit more?” So I don’t know that there are intangible benefits besides getting people to think about it and move forward and hopefully make progress. But as far as specific, like, any benefits that I’ve gotten out of it, I think maybe a sense of altruism. But I think as an industry, having the conversations just makes us better that we’re not sweeping things under the rug and not thinking about them.
Sean [00:06:18] The reality is, many of us are building products for an incredibly diverse audience. But the people building the products aren’t as diverse.
Alicia [00:06:27] That’s true. Yes.
Sean [00:06:28] So we’re naturally going to be incorporating the biases that we don’t even know we have because we’re not living in the same world as the users. That’s why we find it’s so important to get in front of users and to do more user research and to get out there. But I think we’ve got to be a little more purposeful as an industry about diversity and inclusion in our ranks and getting people trained up and growing people in our space so that we can get a more equilibrium, you know, around this very real problem that we have.
Alicia [00:06:56] Right. Well, that reminds me. So, Paul, in your question, you brought up the unexpected or intangible benefits. I think maybe bring it back to the tangible benefits of return on investment of, if you can make sure you’re addressing these biases as early in your development process as possible and hopefully remove them, you’re going to, if you approach things well, avoid some very costly PR mistakes that could have really damaged your company and cost a lot of money and maybe even lawsuits down the road. So there’s definitely an economic side to addressing the problems as well.
Paul [00:07:29] Yeah, defensively, but even more on the proactive stance, you expand your addressable market just by speaking to more people, right?
Alicia [00:07:37] Totally. Yeah.
Paul [00:07:38] Yeah.
Sean [00:07:39] We just build better products.
Alicia [00:07:40] Well, that too.
Paul [00:07:42] So you’re obviously passionate about the products you’re working on, whether it’s at the start-up phase or in enterprise. I want to go back to your roots a little bit. You started out in the fashion industry, right?
Alicia [00:07:52] Yes. I started as a technical designer working on little boys’ and infant’s clothing at Kids R US, which was a subsidiary of Toys R US. So my first love was making clothes.
Paul [00:08:03] What about that do you carry with you today? What transfers from fashion to products?
Alicia [00:08:08] A couple of things. Definitely the builder sense, the wanting to make things, and also really getting a sense of joy out of seeing someone use or wear what I worked on. But also the connectivity to the end-user, or in fashion, the person who’s purchasing the garment, because you have to really put yourself in the shoes of, “all right, this is for a mother with a newborn, so she’s going to have difficulty trying to unsnap this so I should put the snaps here instead of there.” So it was the same thing that I’m doing in product now of, you know, understanding the user and knowing what their problems are and solving for those problems. So it seems like it’s very disconnected, but there’s actually a continuity there.
Paul [00:08:49] I love that. It’s all about the empathy.
Alicia [00:08:51] Yeah, totally.
Paul [00:08:51] You got to walk a mile in their shoes.
Alicia [00:08:53] Yes.
Sean [00:08:54] I think there’s something to be said there around product people. I think, on your teams, I’ve found that product teams that have a diverse set of people with different backgrounds produce better products. Maybe there’s a creativity thing.
Alicia [00:09:07] I totally agree with that. Yes.
Sean [00:09:09] You know, and having a background in the fashion industry brings a sense of empathy and concern for a different population that wouldn’t have existed on my team without it, right?
Alicia [00:09:16] So, yeah. Different backgrounds, not just from disciplines, but also economic backgrounds, even geographic. I was born and raised on the East Coast, I’d have had the chance to live in several other states, but I definitely feel when I live in Dallas, for example, the vibe is different than when I’m in Washington, D.C. now. So just all those different things can contribute to a different perspective that someone has and can bring to the table.
Sean [00:09:43] That’s interesting. So with all the changes that are going on in our economy, you just mentioned geographic diversity in terms of where people are from or where they even live today. Like, we’re going to see a big change in the work landscape. We’ve already seen it.
Alicia [00:09:58] Totally.
Sean [00:09:58] In terms of where people sit.
Alicia [00:09:59] Yeah, I was reading an article yesterday about how Silicon Valley and San Francisco are having issues with the rent percentages dropping because so many people are flying to less expensive cities because it’s so costly to live there.
Sean [00:10:14] Why wouldn’t they?
Alicia [00:10:15] Yeah.
Sean [00:10:15] It’s gonna make the talent pool much more geographically diverse across the board. It’ll play out interestingly.
Alicia [00:10:22] I think it’ll be very interesting. You know, there’s two camps. There’s the camp of having everything in a microcosm where everybody’s together and kind of lifts everybody up and there’s a sharing of thoughts and the innovation and the cycles of change. And then there’s the thought of, “OK, well, that’s a bubble and it’s not realistic to the rest of the world and you’re not giving other people a fair chance to come to the table.” So I could argue both sides. I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to watch it and see how things play out.
Paul [00:10:51] I don’t think it has to be either-or. It can be both-and. I think that you know, there is a time where getting people in a room and letting ideas collide and having that constructive tension does breed better ideas. But I find it that’s better for acute situations where you need to have a kick-off or a brainstorm or a workshop. But I think for most of the work that we do, by and large, we’re in a day-to-day, we’re in a routine where we can be more diverse, geographically and distributed, and get what we need to done. I’ve found, you know, over the course of this strange time in history, I’ve actually been more productive than I ever have been before just because we’re living at work, right. We’re not working from home.
Alicia [00:11:30] Yeah. Yes, we totally are.
Paul [00:11:32] So I want to talk about something that might be a bit taboo for product management podcast. I want to talk about how relevant product managers are. I think you shed some interesting light on this in comments that you’ve made. Developers are learning UX principles. Designers are learning to code. Why do we still need product managers? What can we do to address some of the other parts of the organization that might be encroaching on what we consider traditional product management thinking to stay relevant?
Alicia [00:12:01] So I’ll answer the question based on today, but also I’ll say I could see that in the future product management could go away. But today, I think the issue is that even though those disciplines are all learning other components or skill sets that are in complementary areas, their jobs are very specialized and very focused and it’s very difficult to, when you’re every day down at this focused level to all of a sudden think at the greater level of the business. So that is the place where I think product management plays in, is that you are driving the business and looking at it holistically and connecting all those specialties. So from there, I think it’s still necessary. Until people get better at switching from their states of flow from all those specialties to general, somebody needs to do that and focus on that, being at the general level. But if we can get to a place where all those specialties can talk to each other and everyone’s really working on the goal and not their individual KPI, product management, yeah, it could go away.
Paul [00:12:58] Yeah. I love that you bring it back to flow. I think that that’s really what it comes down to, that center of the Venn diagram, that Sean mentioned.
Alicia [00:13:04] Yeah.
Paul [00:13:04] You know, we’re living at the intersection of everything and it’s very hard to stay in flow in that center of the Venn diagram.
Alicia [00:13:13] It is hard to say it flow and that goes back to the first question that you asked me in my first comment of different people have different skillsets and things that are their strengths and that they do really well. And if I’m really good at design and I can spend hours and not realize that they’ve gone by doing design but I might not be able to really crunch numbers very well. Then, do you want me struggling through crunching numbers? Maybe not.
Paul [00:13:36] Right.
Sean [00:13:36] There’s always gonna be a bias for wanting to take most advantage of your strengths and the skills that you’re best at.
Alicia [00:13:43] Right.
Sean [00:13:43] I think the best product leaders can see that in themselves in particular and know when to pull the plug on that and go get the right resources and the right skills, even if it’s not their own, to get to the right place for the product.
Alicia [00:13:56] Yeah. So there are a couple of challenges there. First, seeing it in yourself, and then learning how to recognize the talent of others, right. So those are things that I think we’re all working on growing with.
Sean [00:14:07] So I have a question for you. It’s not on the stuff that we discussed beforehand, but you’ve been in product for a long time so you’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry. And you’ve worked on small things and you’ve worked on really big enterprise things for brands that we’ve all heard of. What are the key differences between leading a big product with lots of teams and people and leading small products? What are some of the struggles that you’ve seen at that level?
Alicia [00:14:28] So, yes, I have had the opportunity to work in both some very small companies and very large enterprises. In my experience, I’ve seen that the elements of what you do day-to-day are very much similar, but what changes is like how much you have to roll up your sleeves and help out. At a smaller company, you’re more of a jack of all trades, versus a larger company, a lot of times you’re playing the center of the communication and really just disseminating knowledge from different groups that weren’t sharing it because they’re just siloed and not talking. So the mechanics a lot of times are the same, but it’s the execution that changes when you go from small to larger.
Sean [00:15:06] Cool.
Paul [00:15:06] So, you know, jumping off that, there’s a lot of ambition in the product space, if I could put it that way. I think in the past decade we’ve seen an explosion in the market for product managers. In the Scrum practices, you’ve seen product owners spin out their careers. And, as of the time of this recording, we’re catching you at a transition point in your career. You know, what makes a successful product manager? Not in the sense of the skills that we’ve talked about and the Venn diagram, but what do you think in terms of mindset? I’m thinking of, there is sort of an attribute of every successful product manager that I’ve met. They all have this common thread and it’s difficult to put a name to it. But I’m wondering if you can help maybe shed some light on what you’ve seen in a theme in successful product managers that you run into.
Alicia [00:15:51] Yeah. So I think the common thread is ambition. A lot of product managers are working towards upwardly mobile careers. So the thing that a lot of product managers really do to make themselves successful is aligning themselves with growth-oriented companies that are midsized that have a really high growth trajectory in order to make sure that they get that halo effect of, “the company was successful, so this product person must know what they’re doing,” so they just automatically get more accolades, more cachet, just because they were at the right place at the right time. Whereas if you were to go work for a large enterprise, you might not get that same type of high regard. But definitely ambition is something that brings people together. But I think it’s important, at least my personal view is that in product we push everybody to the same model of success and I think that’s wrong. I feel that people should set their own definition of, “this is what I want to do, this is what’s gonna make me successful.” I like being close to the actual building part. So for me, being a VP may not happen. Maybe one day I’ll change and it might come. But for somebody else, their goal is to, you know, be a CEO somewhere. So they’re making a pass through product to learn the skills and then they’ll keep moving up to other roles. But I don’t think one is right and one is wrong. I think everybody individually needs to figure out, “where do I want to go? Where am I happy? What makes me want to go to work every day?” And then, you know, define success for themselves.
Paul [00:17:17] Yeah. You’ve talked about objective-based roadmaps and using OKRs as a road mapping tool. Do you ever use OKRs yourself professionally?
Alicia [00:17:24] For my own career?
Paul [00:17:26] Yeah.
Alicia [00:17:26] No, I’m not that deliberate. My Myers-Briggs is INFP and I know a lot of people think it’s junk science, but it really defines me to a T. so I’m very much more, “my gut told me to do it, it feels good, I’m going this way.” So that’s probably why my career hasn’t been the straight-up climb that other people have had.
Paul [00:17:47] Well, as an INTJ, I can confess, I’ve tried to fool the test and answer questions wrong deliberately and every time it comes out the same way.
Alicia [00:17:54] OK. OK.
Alicia [00:17:56] There’s got to be something to it. I’m sure Sean has thoughts on that.
Sean [00:18:00] Oh, I have lots of thoughts on that.
Alicia [00:18:02] Oh, share.
Sean [00:18:03] It could be a whole other pod. I think they’re all, you know, DISC, Myers-Briggs, all those, I think they’re useful because they cause you to stop and think about how you’re communicating, how you like to be communicated with, and if you try to analyze the people you’re talking to, or your user base if you’re product leader, it causes the entire team pause to think about that user and how they might want to be communicated with. But I think it’s impossible for them to be perfect because they’re so context-dependent. Like how you’re going to behave in any given context is going to change based on numerous factors. But they’re useful.
Alicia [00:18:36] That’s very true. Because of my Myers-Briggs type, I share things that I have done in my career that my type says that I shouldn’t be doing, but I do them and I’ve been successful with them. So you absolutely can’t use them as a rulebook of, here’s what your life should be, but they can give you some guidance at a high level.
Paul [00:18:55] All models are wrong.
Sean [00:18:58] “All models are wrong, some models are useful,” George Box, the most famous statistician that I know of. That’s true. Context is determinant. That’s the key. So you can’t predict perfectly with a model like that.
Alicia [00:19:07] Yeah, I completely agree. Yeah.
Sean [00:19:09] Something else you said earlier in the interview here that struck me, and I’m not sure why it struck me, probably because I read this article a couple of days ago and I just went and found it, is an article on toxic intellectualization.
Alicia [00:19:19] All right. That’s an interesting term. I have not seen this article. What does that mean?
Sean [00:19:23] I’ll put it in the notes. There seems to be, in a lot of corners, overthinking and delaying actual action. And your take on product leadership, you know, being about doing, getting in the weeds, and just getting it done. And I do think that there’s a lot of thinking going on around product leadership and how to do it and how to set up your strategy, how to set up your vision. And you said something about, “I don’t think there is a perfect way, you know, I think each team needs to get in there, dig in, and do it.” And you got to figure out the right parameters. And all the knowledge is good, because all models are useful, or most models are useful, but they’re all wrong. Anyway, I just thought I’d bring that up because I think that’s…
Alicia [00:19:58] Well, I mean, I’m sure somewhere at Harvard they’re doing business cases of successful teams and what frameworks they use. And I would bet that most of those successful teams didn’t start with the framework. They started with a, “let’s get something done,” and that’s what they worked towards. So I don’t know.
Sean [00:20:16] There’s probably another bias in there. Survivorship bias.
Alicia [00:20:19] Absolutely. Yeah.
Paul [00:20:20] So I want to start to get a little bit more into, you know, we’ve talked about your roots in the fashion industry and your joy seeing people find value in the things that you build, whether it’s a key card or toddlers’ clothes. What makes you, you know, excited about the future of what we do as product leaders? What makes you tick in looking ahead over the next three, five, 10 years as a product manager or product leader? And what can we do to focus more on developing those skills that really attract the kind of people that take joy in helping others?
Alicia [00:20:53] OK. So there are two questions in there that I’ll see if I can answer both. So as far as what I see happening over the next horizon… Moore’s Law and all that, blah, blah, blah, technology keeps growing exponentially. But it comes down to solutions that help make people’s lives easier, value-adding, so if you put out a product and it helps someone save money or save time or even just it’s a thing of beauty and it can be appreciated and it makes someone feel better, those are the products that end up being successful. So as long as we focus on creating things that add value, I think there’s a long horizon for a product to continue. The second part of the question, I’m sorry, I already forgot it. Can you repeat it?
Paul [00:21:34] Yeah. You know, we tend to attract a type of personality, well, a few different types of leaders that are either technical or creative, I think, if you want to put them in very broad buckets. But I think a common theme is what you just said. It’s finding joy in improving people’s lives, whether in saving time or money or just making something beautiful. What can we do as vocal leaders in the industry to track more people who maybe don’t understand what we do to appreciate this practice a little bit more?
Alicia [00:22:02] Oh, right. Yeah. So to appreciate the product management practice?
Paul [00:22:06] Yeah.
Alicia [00:22:06] That’s a tough one because I’ve always said product management is kind of a thankless job and you have to have your own intrinsic satisfaction to say, you know, “job well done, congratulations,” but your question is important because it’s like, in order for us to continue to exist as product managers, other people have to see the value that we’re contributing to keep us around. So I guess we have to come up with some kind of measure, some kind of metric, to show this is what we delivered and here’s how we made a difference and contributed.
Paul [00:22:33] It kind of reminds me of just about every conversation I’ve had with product managers. Nobody that I’ve met went to school for product management. I know that there are degrees and certificates to become certified as a product manager, but nearly everyone that I’ve talked to in the industry started out in industrial design or video games or some circuitous route and they found themselves here. And it’s interesting to me how consistent that inconsistency is. I think, within our own practice, we’ve got backgrounds that just span the gamut and, you know, product managers are a weird bunch.
Alicia [00:23:07] Yeah, I definitely agree with what you say. That is the one consistency, and even, there was a group of people a couple years ago, I can’t remember what year it was exactly, that tried to standardize product management. And they put together the product management body of knowledge, like the [inaudible], and it didn’t take off. Because even though they spent years working on it, it still didn’t resonate with everybody. So it’s a big, challenging question that I don’t think we’re going to answer in this podcast. But somebody…
Sean [00:23:35] That goes back to that over-intellectualization that I was talking about earlier. Like, there’s a lot of people involved in the process. Like you have people that are funding, you have people building the products, you have the people that we’re building the products for. The market’s changing, you know, to build a great product, there’s so many different moving parts. It’s hard to write that down in formula. And if you could write one formula, that’s exactly what everybody’d be doing. We’d all be doing the same thing and we’d get the exact same result.
Alicia [00:23:57] Right, yeah. So how would there be any differentiation between one thing and the next if we’re all doing it the same way? Right, yeah.
Sean [00:24:05] So we can’t spend too much time thinking about it. We have to spend some of that time doing it and getting it out the door. And I think that’s the key here. All right. So we always ask our guests, what’s inspiring you these days? What are your sources of product leadership knowledge, like what’s the latest book you’ve read or…?
Alicia [00:24:21] The latest book that I’ve read? So I have purchased and I’m getting really excited to read Marty Cagan’s new book, when It comes out, Empowered.
Sean [00:24:28] Empowered, yeah.
Alicia [00:24:29] But recently, the things that I’ve been reading have not been product management-centric because of the fact that I’ve read so many of them and I kind of got overloaded with it. Like, the last thing I read was It’s About Damn Time by Arlan Hamilton, which is a great read about becoming a venture capitalist and her journey into that. And then before that, I read Elaine Welteroth, who is the executive editor of Teen Vogue, I read her memoir. So I’ve kind of been like focused on what some successful African-American women have done and what their paths have been kind of to get a little bit of inspiration. So that’s what I’ve been looking at lately.
Paul [00:25:04] Excellent. Some great recommendations. Last question that we always ask. I’m going to put you on the spot. What do you define the term innovation by?
Alicia [00:25:14] That is definitely putting somebody on the spot. So one of the things, we started this conversation talking about my background in fashion and one of the things, the keys when you study fashion design and merchandizing, is they say, “everything that was old is new again.” So that sticks in my head. OK, innovation, you came up with a new way of doing it, but the idea itself wasn’t that new. So innovation is just the cycle of coming up with a new way to do an old thing.
Paul [00:25:38] Yeah. But there’s nothing new under the sun.
Alicia [00:25:41] But there’s nothing new under the sun.
Paul [00:25:44] Well, Alicia, this has been a pleasure. I have really appreciated the time that you’ve taken to spend with us and share your thoughts on where we’re going as an industry and what we can do to build better products. So thanks for joining us today. We really appreciate having you.
Alicia [00:25:59] Thank you for inviting me and I appreciate that we had this fun conversation.
Paul [00:26:03] Excellent.
Paul [00:26:06] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency in listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.