Valerie Nygaard: “If you build things with an eye toward flexibility — you can end up with something really helpful.”

Google Duplex’s Product Lead comments on how product management merges with other domains, the background good product managers should have, and how to build useful products.
interview-valerie-edited-5f9307369c519222673623.jpg

For over 20 years, Valerie Nygaard has been impressing Silicon Valley with her talents as a product manager. Starting her journey as a computational linguist, she’s now the Product Lead behind the award-winning Google Duplex — an outstanding AI technology that mimics actual human behavior, during tasks like making a hair salon reservation.

Besides her current role at Google, Valerie has also led innovative products at Microsoft and eBay. The evolution from studying pure linguistics to specializing in cutting edge AI-driven products gives Valerie an edge in a field as eclectic as product management.

When creating our product management course, we learned a whole lot about the type of mettle and motivations one might need to become a solid product manager. Valerie provided first-hand insights regarding:

It's always about perfecting what you already have, and then bringing up the people who can complement it.

Are you born a good product manager, or can you become one?

You can become a good product manager. I see a lot of different flavors of really excellent product managers.

You can see people that come from an engineering background, and they bring that analysis, that logic. It allows them to assess what’s possible, and what might be problematic.

I've also seen really good product managers come from design, who are bringing empathy that is really in tune with what is going to resonate with people.

It's really about the kind of person that wants to think in a number of ways. Do you want to have the creativity or you want to have that analysis or that empathy? It's always about perfecting what you already have, and then bringing up the people who can complement it.

Do you look for any specific background in a product manager?

I think it's less about background and more about flexibility. You really need to go into those different modes and be ready to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

You want to have that analytical thinking and you also want that empathy side. A good product manager has to dive deep and investigate the problem, while also understanding what people need.

You have to be able to switch between, “I'm going to go nitty-gritty on details” to “how does this feel?”

So I would say that product management is a cousin to marketing, to engineering, and it can be really close to design. It could even be close to project management.

There are times when you need to figure out positioning in the market and that's when marketing skills come in. There are times when you're facing a deadline and you need to figure out what you got to cut for that first version. That's when your planning backbone comes in handy.

Let’s say people go through your flows but at step 5/7 — they just drop off. So what’s it exactly in your conversion funnel that's making them drop off? That’s when your analytics background is coming into play.

Of course, you also want to have some technical depth which is going to help you steer the team with your engineering counterpart.

...it really is about filling the gaps, as opposed to, taking the credit.

What makes a good product manager?

The point of product management is identifying a customer need, then bringing a team together to solve the problem. So being a good product manager is all about how do you take a group of people that have their individual talents and bring them together to do what’s needed.

That’s always how I think about it. You’re trying to deeply understand what the need is — and you’re trying to put together a team that compliments each other, and can go in one direction.

If you see your role as a product manager as “I’m steering the ship” — you’re kind of missing the point. You might be technically responsible for a strategy or a vision, or you might partner with some other leader, like your engineering lead or your design lead. But, it really is about filling the gaps, as opposed to, taking the credit.

How much of your work involves researching what the market needs?

It can really be different at different companies. However, what’s always at the core is the customer's needs, so you're doing a lot of testing in the market. You need that initial product-market fit to define what's the problem you’re trying to solve.

Then you just go and put your heads down and build. It’s like a cycle. A lot of it is identification, then build, then checking if the product really meets the need — and then build again. On any given day, it can be different.

...you better be saying something that is worth hearing.

Are there drawbacks to working at a startup?

At startups, you have incredible freedom and flexibility, and you can move at an incredible pace. But you also need to do just...everything. If the job that day is to make sure that there is lunch, you either need to make sure there's lunch or make sure somebody is making sure that there is.

There are just a lot of little odds and ends to take care of and you probably don’t have just a project manager or a user researcher. They really don't have a team to do all those things. You just have to be really flexible.

Is product management more rewarding at big companies?

In a big company, there are some things that can slow down a little bit, but a huge advantage is you might have a $100 million marketing campaign. Or you might have reliable people to advise you on legal, privacy, and government policy — things that you need to be mindful of when you're designing a product.

If you are working for companies that have established themselves as market leaders in that space, you have a name to build upon. You are standing on the shoulders of giants. That doesn't mean you're going to be successful. It means if you get someone to listen to you for half a second, you better be saying something that is worth hearing.

10 or 15 years ago, you didn't see startups have a product person as one of the first hires, and now you absolutely do.

Is it a good time to become a product manager today?

This is like the golden age of product management. So when I think about product managers, I think about it as you're taking new technology and you're saying, “okay, how can I apply this in a world?” Or you're taking a problem that has existed for a long time and try to solve it.

So you're coming from either one of those two angles and both of those are exploding right now. Technology is making leaps and bounds, so in terms of the number of opportunities — it's massive. The world is genuinely changing in so many ways right now that there are new problems that crop up that need addressing.

And then finally, there's this third component: you know, 10 or 15 years ago, you didn't see startups have a product person as one of the first hires, and now you absolutely do. So it's a beautiful time to be gaining the skills of being a product manager.

What will your product management course at ELVTR cover?

Typically, for each session, we're going to pick a topic that is core product management. We're going to look at great examples of products you're familiar with and understand who does this exceptionally well.

Then for homework, you'll go home and you'll do a mini version of that topic. What you end up coming away with is a really good understanding of the fundamentals of a product, of how it's thought about in startups and big companies like Google, Microsoft, and eBay.

And also what is the expectation from a Product Manager at any of those companies. Like, how do you pick a Northstar metric? How do you write a vision statement? How do you figure out conversion funnels? I want you to feel like you've got a little bit mastery of each of those topics.

The last thing we're going to do in the course — is we'll do a little bit of a product manager interview. So we'll talk about how you really put yourself in a beautiful, shining light to show what you can do in the world.

If you build things with an eye toward flexibility — you can end up with something that is just really helpful.

What is the thing in your work that you’re really proud of?

One of the things that Google Duplex initially did was, calling businesses and, in a very conversational way, ask whether they’re open for a particular holiday.

So it was easy to understand a customer problem. When you're having a barbecue, or it's the fourth of July, or New Year's Eve, and you need to run to the store, therefore need to know where the open stores are.

But then COVID became a thing. Now, we as a society  have less information overall. Who has face masks? Who has a sanitizer? Who has delivery and who has curbside pickup? What we built in Google Duplex — enabled us to turn that around really well and get information that was suddenly nowhere to be found.

So it's one of those instances where if you build things with an eye toward flexibility — you can end up with something that is just really helpful.