In our latest Ask me Anything Session, we invited Vassili Samolis, Product Lead at Instagram, to share his experience and views on defining a product manager, succeeding in strategic planning and passing down the trade.
Endeavor Greece recently hosted an Ask Me Anything session with Vassili Samolis from Instagram, to allow fast-growing entrepreneurs the chance to pick the brain of one of Greece’s product management experts.
As a Product Lead, Vassili supports a group of product teams responsible for Instagram’s Business Experience, including ad formats & format automation, delivery and ranking, surface monetization, creator advertising and Instagram’s commerce ad products. He also has previous experience as Head of Product at Pinterest.
The job of a product manager is defined by the success of their team, according to Vassili. Throughout his career, he has found himself doing the UX, being in the market, interviewing business partners, doing code reviews and design. Τhis proves, according to him, that it’s very hard to create rules and standards about what a good product manager is. The success of a product manager differs, based on the conditions of the team and, “if your job is the success of the team, then your job naturally evolves based on the needs of the team at every single point in time.” he explains.
“Our job is the success of the team”
In an effort to provide a clear definition of the role of a product manager, Vassili points out that the job consists of taking inputs from the market, either from UXR or competition or customers in order to inform people on what the company builds, briefing designers to design the product and engineering teams to execute. “However, textbook definition has literally never happened in my career because I’ve been required to flex and support the full team”. He says.
Vassili explains that the alignment of product and corporate strategy really depends on the culture of the company At Instagram, for example, a bottoms-up company, major strategic decisions are being made at the bottom of the pyramid, whereas in other companies, the approach is more top-down. Vassili suggests OKRs as the best tool for setting objectives and key results, thus building a strong strategy. This toolkit was developed by Google product managers 10-15 years ago and the main idea behind it is that you can roll them up at the top. “For example, an objective is to make Instagram available to the next billion people. And then you have key results, which support that incentive. So a key result would be to “launch Instagram light in Africa”, because they have lower bandwidth, or build a version for younger people.” he says.
“If your job is the success of the team, then your job naturally evolves based on the needs of the team at every single point in time”
One ‘beauty’ of OKRs for Vassili, is that you can both roll them up if it’s a bottom-up culture. The second is that they provide a very clear tool of communication of priorities in a team and it’s a tool that is extensible to other business functions. “This is extremely important, since many companies in Greece are tech-enabled, so the business is very central to the success of the company. And with OKRs, you can have an OKR structure across the board.” he points out. “Most of the companies that I’m aware of do one of two things, either half planning or quarterly planning.” he continues. Vassili prefers half planning, since at a startup, priorities tend to change constantly and he has been implementing this tactic both at Pinterest and Instagram. The issue with quarterly planning, according to him, is that you thrash the teams, because planning is expensive and you need to get everyone involved. What is the key to successful half planning? Aligning early on with your leadership on a couple of key priorities that the team cares about. Then, creating the room for them to brainstorm, collect ideas, prioritize between frameworks and eventually, progressively lather those things up as a leader.
The alignment of the leadership team is the key to successful strategic planning, according to Vassili, whereas another common challenge in planning is trying to do too much. “I think that engineers, by training and by culture, they’re just excited to try too many things. And as a result, I’ve seen very frequently teams fail by trying to do too much, either because initially they were very ambitious, or because of the process; they picked up five different escalations that a CEO might have asked for.” he explains.
Vassili finds crucial the definition of guardrail metrics within a team. “For me, as a leader in ads, the budgets are always an engagement. And I know that I can drive as much revenue as I need within certain constraints.” he says and explains that the reason why he chooses to push for a metrics contract is because they create the framework in which then the product and engineering teams can operate autonomously. “You don’t want to keep on going back to your partner teams with every new experiment, you want to launch for every new experience within the app, to have a guardrail that your partners feel comfortable within, which gives you full autonomy and flexibility.” he adds. Vassili also explains that you keep the high bar when trying to measure everything. “And I do fundamentally believe that, if you ask yourself enough times, ‘what are you trying to achieve?’ You can almost always come up with something that is measurable and within a reasonable timeframe ” he adds.
One thing that should be made very clear to all teams, is what the expectation after a strategy planning is. And this alignment can be achieved through OKRs, since they force you to write down what your hypothesis of success is before something happens. Because the most common mistake that Vassili has identified so far, is people having invested interest once an experiment or a product is out, and then trying to justify it, to make it successful. “Especially if you work in environments with big data, I can promise you, there’s always a metric you can point to that says that something worked well. And there’s this theory, “the fixed cost fallacy”, which basically says that it demonstrates that people are behaviorally very attached to things they have worked on. So you’re just trying to remove that human bias by defining beforehand, as a team, what success is and what’s not.”
“If you ask yourself enough times, what are you trying to achieve? You can always come up with something or almost always with something that it’s measurable.”
In addition, any technical product should always sit and stay – from an ownership and accountability standpoint – with the product and engineering team, regardless of whether the company is a tech-enabled company, therefore the business owns the outcomes, or if it’s a primary and tech company. Vassili insists on the ownership of the team, since he believes that if you push this to the business, you’re going to run very quickly into sustainability technical issues. “The engineering team is not going to be incentivized to maintain it or you’re just going to get adverse selection, or you’re not going to get your strongest engineers working on it, and so on and so forth. So I think ownership should always stay, from a technical sustainability standpoint, with a team.” he explains.
“The more you bring people with diverse experiences, especially functionally, the better outputs you can drive.”
Over the past three to five years, there has been an extremely impressive change in the country’s flourishing startup ecosystem, in terms of the companies, the exits, the funds, and increasingly so, the people. “I personally do think we have a long way to go. And the main reason is, there is no toolkit or book you can read to be a great product manager. Product Management is almost like acquiring the tricks of the trade through people who have done it before you.” he says and points out the importance of mentors trying to codify their best practices and their learnings and pass them onto the next generations.
“We don’t work towards milestones, we work towards outcome”
In the case of startups, an exit is expected to bring back the investment to fuel the ecosystem. Exactly the same goes with product leaders. At the same time, Vassili identifies a lot of desire and uncertainty about the role in the market, which is kind of natural, given its thickness. “The number one question I get when I talk to Greek CEOs is ‘Do you know any product managers’ or, ‘I have somebody who I think is a product manager, can you coach them?’
When asked if he would choose the design-first approach versus the content-first approach, Vassili explains that ideally, in any reasonable stage startup, design does both. “It’s not “an either-or”, it’s the words you use and the fonts you use are literally part of the design.” he explains and suggests the case of the first iPod as an example, where one can see a testament of how words and content can be as powerful as the design of the box or the device itself.
These two happened together according to Vassili and the relative importance of each is dependent on the nature of the app that you’re building. “So for example at Instagram, the content design doesn’t matter so much, because if you open up the app, there are very few words. And that’s intentional, because we want to make the app as simple as possible.” he adds. To make that more actionable, Vassili gives one specific advice:
“Do not see this as a trade-off. Content should be part of the design process. Be very explicit with your design counterparts that this is the expectation and this should be part of the design process.”