A product manager’s specific role will vary from one company to the next. Still, all product managers must balance many aspects of their job, including customers’ needs, a vision for new products, and the project team. So what tools and strategies are needed to create a successful career as a product manager? What are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Product Manager”? In this interview series, we are talking to Product Managers, founders, and authors who can answer these questions with stories and insights from their experiences. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Kuzin.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers find it fascinating to trace the evolution of a person’s career trajectory. Can you give me a brief rundown of your career history, from your very first job to the position you hold now?
I started off at Capital One, on their teams that built credit card technology under regulatory scrutiny, like Capital One’s ‘close my account’ internal APIs - aka things that can’t go down, even for a few minutes, without a legal problem. Then, during COVID, a data science director on my team walked by my house and ended up staying for an (outdoor) beer, and mentioned a bright former intern who had left Capital One to start a computer vision startup. Long story short, I ended up leaving Capital One to go work with that former intern in New York as the first hire at All Vision Technologies. There, we won a SBIR II contract with NASA and the US Space Force, and we built out a platform to detect satellite and space junk collisions using LiDAR data. After that project came to a close, I started with Kensho to run the Scribe product (and started painting more seriously on the side). Over the last year, we’ve 10x our number of clients and 5x revenue and still have a long way to go before being the number one AI and human-edited transcription service in the world.
Most of the product leaders I’ve talked to sort of “fell into” product management and have become passionate about the job. What was the main event in your life that led you to this path?
The first week of my first job out of college, my team had an outage incident. The people pulled into the situation room to find a solution were legal, our top engineers, and product. I thought then, “I want to put myself in a position to be in that room next time.” I spent the next year doing all of the grunt work that my product manager would hand off to me like writing tickets, and de-duping our product board. Then I was offered a PM (Product Manager) role the following year.
I’ve often heard from people who work in the product manager capacity that it’s hard to explain what they do to family and friends. What do you say when someone asks, “so, what do you do for a living?”
This isn’t hard for me. I’m lucky that in a customer-facing role, I can say “I’m in charge of the team that does voice-to-text AI at Kensho, like when you talk to Siri and the words come up.” People have been increasingly interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and it’s been great being in this space as new popular technologies like generative art and ChatGPT have come out.
So many people have tried using both and I’ve loved breaking down the behind-the-scenes of the tools we use every day. I’m passionate about federating knowledge of artificial intelligence and speaking about it in a way everyone can understand. We all interact with hundreds of AI models every day, and I believe everyone should know when they’re interacting with one, and what impact that has on them.
Let’s pretend money and social status don’t exist—what is most important to you about your work? What is the North Star in your career?
It’s fulfilling to work in a research environment where we’re implementing AI tools and researching new AI capabilities. When we get to go to conferences and present our work, that’s my favorite part of the job. Recently at Interspeech, our team’s work was cited by Meta. That’s cool! I love pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with technology and being a part of the conversation about the future of AI.
Can you tell me a story from your professional experience that makes you a little emotional—a moment when you knew you were in the right line of work?
We’re working on a free version of Scribe for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, partnering with an organization focused on supporting that group to make sure that what we build suits their needs. I had a colleague who was deaf when I worked at the Smithsonian, and it would have been a more inclusive environment if he could have had the tool we’re building while waiting for his ASL translator to join our meetings. Increasing the impact and scale of our work is the type of work I’m l proud of.
What are the qualities that you think make someone a great fit for product management? And conversely, what are some traits that would make you hesitate to recommend this profession?
You can have any background and be a good PM. It tends to be a better fit when your background is aligned with your team’s objective. A CS background for a technical product that is by developers for developers. A media background for a product in journalism. A banking background for a financial product. This isn’t a rule, but the best PMs I’ve worked with had 2-3 years minimum of relevant industry experience before working in product management. This prior role informs how you work with people and helps set strategy for your product.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together, and can you recall an anecdote that illustrates the dynamic?
Kensho Scribe is the strongest team I’ve worked with, because every member of the team has come in with both passion for our work in AI and a high degree of competence. I do very little basic oversight work like, “Is X finished yet?” because work status and blockers are proactively communicated to the team.
A lot of theory around project management focuses on frameworks and methodologies. Can you recall a situation you’ve dealt with where you’ve had to toss these things by the wayside and come up with a unique solution to a problem?
When I started at Scribe, I joined a team that didn’t have a formal PM. Of course, product work had been happening, shared among developers and C-suite strategists. Because so many people had been putting thought into the direction of Scribe, I knew coming into this role and starting out with ‘my big strategy’ wouldn’t honor the work they’d been doing for years.
So, I started out by getting all of the backlog items for Scribe that had been building up for a long time plus my initial ideas on to a single Google sheet with over 250 rows. Then, I used the RICE (reach, impact, confidence, and effort) framework on every row to fill out 1250 cells of RICE information to give us a quantitative way to rank-order all of the backlog items. This helped me make sure none of the prior work was lost, but maintained the team’s focus on prioritizing the highest value work first.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Product Manager” and why?
1. A degree of boldness. You can be a great PM as an introvert or if you fear public speaking. But, you can’t dread making bold decisions and backing them up with action.
2. Strong communication skills. This is as basic to hear as it is central to the role. One piece of value I can give here is that you need to communicate in multiple directions and with multiple different people who have different goals. Before going into that conversation, you need to know how what you’re presenting aligns to their goals and adjust your conversational approach.
3. Uncommonly good judgment: This is something that JJ Rorie discusses at length in her book, Immutable: 5 Truths of Great Product Managers. She shares that the key to making the best decisions is to be aware of your own and other’s biases so you can combat them in your decision making. You also need to be comfortable making decisions, sometimes quickly, in an ambiguous environment. Boldness comes into play here too, as well as the confidence to say when you don’t know something.
4. The drive to stay well informed. Your number one responsibility is to be the expert on your space, your customer, and their problem. You can’t be well informed without trustworthy and current data.
5. Time Management. As a product manager, you do parts of a number of jobs like business analyst, project manager, copywriter, design critic, and QA. Teammates need to talk to you when you're busy with something else, and you’ll have to make well informed decisions that impact the direction of work for a whole team. You can not do this without excellent time management skills. I recommend responding to emails and slacks in time blocks throughout the day and rewriting your to-do list each morning.
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