53 / When You’re In Product, You’re the Connector
About Nina Foroutan
Nina Foroutan is the Director of Product Development at Forbes where she leads a team of product owners focused on driving content and revenue experiences on Forbes.com. Prior to Forbes, she was a product lead at Hearst Digital Studios launching new brands and building platforms for their partnership with Verizon. Nina has an MBA from Babson College F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business and currently lives in Manhattan.
Little Black Stretchy Pants, by Chip Wilson.
In This Episode
We often talk about product living at the intersection of technology, business, and UX. And that makes sense in a limited, Venn diagram way of thinking: Product as the place where these things converge. But as we have discovered, using a 3-piece diagram to explain what product is all about is a gross oversimplification.
Through her lens as a journalist-turned-product leader, Nina Foroutan, Director of Product Management at Forbes, sees product not at the intersection, but more as the oxygen each requires to sustain itself. In this episode, Nina joins Sean and Paul describing her product leader role as participant in all things product, as she puts it: “in the in-betweens.”
Sometimes her day is technology-focused, on others it’s more on UX, and sometimes it’s more business and data. But one thing is clear: every day is focused on users.
“When you’re in product, you have to be involved in every aspect,” she says, “and understand user pain points and how the solution you’re trying to build helps get to the organization’s business goals.”
Where product truly plays its role, “where it’s actually actionable,” is as facilitator. “When you’re in product, you’re the connector. You’re the reason why and the one who makes it all make sense. That is where product lives.”
Be sure to catch more of our conversation with Nina to get her take on —
- This period of awakening we’re in right now – especially as it relates to hiring for diversity and inclusion and creating an environment that’s accepting of everyone.
- The importance of soft skills, like having the emotional intelligence to remain calm and roll with the punches when everyone else is panicking.
- That in her world content is the product, and technology is the vehicle for delivering the user’s experience with it.
Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.
Paul [00:01:48] Hey, Sean, how’s it going today?
Sean [00:01:50] Going, great, Paul. Can’t wait to get into this interview.
Paul [00:01:53] Now, Nina has a ton of experience in a lot of really interesting, applicable ways, and I think that no matter where you’re at in your product career, you’re going to take something away from this.
Sean [00:02:04] Yeah. You know, leading product at a company that’s been around for one hundred and one years, well before the Internet was even a thing, being at the forefront of content development and storytelling, she’s really got a lot to juggle and she’s got some incredibly practical advice for the audience.
Paul [00:02:18] Yep. How to pivot, how to lead, how to empathize. I think there’s a little bit for anyone looking for some inspiration today.
Sean [00:02:25] I agree. Let’s get after it.
Paul [00:02:27] Let’s get after it.
Paul [00:02:31] Well hello and welcome to the podcast. Today we are super excited to be joined by Nina Foroutan. She’s the director of product management at Forbes, where she leads a team of product owners focused on driving content and revenue experiences on Forbes.com. Prior to Forbes, she was a product lead at Hearst Digital Studios launching new brands and building platforms for their partnership with Verizon. Nina has an MBA from Babson College F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business and currently lives in Manhattan. Nina, thanks so much for joining us today. Welcome.
Nina [00:02:59] Thank you so much for having me. I’m a huge fan of the podcast.
Paul [00:03:03] Oh, thank you so much. You know, I want to sort of begin with the end in mind and just to give us a preview of coming attractions for the conversation I hope we’ll have, you know, you’ve got a ton of great experiences, specific skills in media product management, and I want to talk about all of them. But before we start, I just kind of want to set the stage as an overview of the product manager’s journey. Looking out at your career from 50,000 feet, what are the soft skills and hard skills that you can start to point us towards that we can say, you know, it’s 2021 now, what should we be focused on to maybe take a look at and improve?
Nina [00:03:41] Yeah, that’s a great question and I think every product person kind of has their own path that they’ve created. So there isn’t really like a straight line to product necessarily. But what I’ve seen, I mean, specifically in the way that life is changing for everybody and the way that we work is changing and the pressure to change and adapt to the times more than ever, I think what I’ve seen and what I’ve noticed in myself and in my colleagues and the people that report to me, the soft skills that are really important for product is to be able to stay calm and kind of go with the punches. Having like emotional intelligence is extremely important because you’re kind of the go-to person as a product person in the organization. Everyone kind of relies on you to help drive their goals and their metrics. So when you find yourself in a room with people who are kind of panicking and they need to get something done ASAP, a soft skill is really, you know, excellent communication, being able to stay calm, understanding what their problem is, and talking them through it, helping get to a solution and then being extremely organized because there is so much going on right now that staying organized and clear and transparent on your goals is extremely important.
Nina [00:04:52] And I think tied to that, for hard skills, being able to really cut through the noise and use data that you have available to you to create hypotheses about your users and then use that to kind of get buy-in. So that’s understanding how to use whatever analytics tool your company uses. A lot of people use Google Analytics and then there are data aggregator platforms that are being used. And then it’s, how do you read that report? How do you break through all those numbers to actually come to a meaningful hypothesis that you can bring to the team? So it’s kind of being a little bit savvy on the technical side as far as data and then definitely being able to speak to the design and user experience of your product and tie it back to the end goal at hand. So I think especially in 2021, data is so important, even in a product. You don’t have to be a major in data or engineering, but understanding how data is collected for your product and how to synthesize that in a way that people can understand is extremely important.
Paul [00:05:55] Yeah. You’ve packed so much into such a short amount of time there. I think the EQ and the communication and organization along with the analysis is definitely trending across the board, regardless of the industry you’re in. You oversee a team of product managers, right?
Nina [00:06:09] Yep.
Paul [00:06:09] You’re, you know, maybe a little bit removed from the trenches a bit, but now coaching people on how to become effective product managers, you know, we pride ourselves on the inclusivity and diversity that we’ve built into our teams. And I’m curious how you feel about the state of the industry in terms of representation and equality. Are we making strides or is there more we can do?
Nina [00:06:29] I think we’re kind of in a great awakening, just in general and in the corporate world. People are realizing that you can’t just leave it be. It’s like a very strategic and intentional mission that you have to have as an organization and as a leader in your company. And whether that’s hiring women or hiring for diversity and inclusion, creating an environment that accepts everybody, making sure that from an HR perspective your team members are well equipped when they’re interviewing. How do you make sure that you’re not getting caught in unconscious bias? We have a lot of training at that in my organization. So I think, you know, now more than ever, it’s such an intentional thing. It can’t just happen. And you think that it will just happen itself. It’s extremely intentional and specifically in product, because I think a lot of people are coming from other backgrounds, and especially for women, they may think, “oh, I don’t have what it takes. I need to be extremely technically savvy,” or, “I didn’t go to the right school so I’m not going to get a job at Google or I’m not going to get the job that I want.” And so there is a lot of setting the precedent to create confidence for women in product, and not just women, but other people coming from other areas. I came from journalism. So like, even me being like, “I’m not good enough to be in product; I can’t even imagine being in that world.” And so having someone to look up to or work with to say, “no, you can, and these are the things that you should try to build upon and you can definitely do it,” is really important.
Sean [00:07:55] Yeah. Before the podcast here, I found an article that you had referenced about journalists making great product leaders.
Nina [00:08:02] Right.
Sean [00:08:02] It caused me to read the whole article and talks a lot about empathy and the audience-centric nature of journalism, right?
Nina [00:08:08] Yeah.
Sean [00:08:09] Tell us about how you flipped from being in journalism to being in product leadership. I want to hear that story.
Nina [00:08:14] Definitely. Yeah. I mean, I think as product people, we’re storytellers. And so I think when I graduated college, I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was in the, and I’m going to age myself right now, but it was in 2008 when the world was kind of like at a standstill and there was no idea of where the industries were going to go and grow. So like the Internet was just starting to kind of become mainstream. And I majored in broadcast journalism, which is local news, and that was becoming kind of not very lucrative at the time. I mean, it wasn’t really growing. And with the growth of digital journalism, it was at a point where, like, the digital part wasn’t built out enough to have a lot of opportunities for a career. And then the local TV side of things was kind of stopped because they didn’t really know the future of it. So I really had to figure out, “OK, well, I studied broadcast journalism, my dream of becoming a reporter like Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen right now and so I need to kind of figure it out.”.
Nina [00:09:17] So I think sometimes out of pressure, you kind of forge your own path. And the business manager at my station, WHDH in Boston, he said, “look, media is a business like we have to make money; so we’re at the helm of working with our advertisers and they’re kind of owning what we do. And so if you really want to be in media, go figure out how we make money.” And so that’s how I kind of got into product because from there I went to business school and I understood, “OK, like the content is the product, but then behind that, there’s this whole ecosystem that’s happening.” And once I understood that I kind of knew I had to be in New York because that is like the mecca of media. And I think really by chance, I came in touch with amazing people that started to see where my skills lied. And I honestly think the reason why I got my first product job was because I was super calm. Everybody was dealing with a really intense environment and when I came in, they were like, “wow, you’re just very, very calm, like your energy is what we need.” And so sometimes maybe something it’s about your personality that you have no idea, but that is what gets you in the door.
Sean [00:10:26] Well, I heard you say that your content is your product at Forbes. And so given that context, the content’s the product and the digital tools are just the vehicle for that. Is that the way you see the world?
Nina [00:10:37] I think so. I mean, media publishers are now building internal tools for their writers and their contributors to use. So in a way, like, there isn’t a physical product or a lot of people are building them in-house. So we built our content management system in-house. I know Washington Post did that and Hearst did that. So you do have like a product in that way. But when it comes to the success of your brand, you really are only as good as your content is and your ability to get the right content into the hands of your users.
Sean [00:11:09] No doubt. I have a little different perspective I just want to test out on you.
Nina [00:11:13] Yeah.
Sean [00:11:13] Here’s what I think. I think Forbes is a company that really understands its customers well. You have a core group of people that you are really creating content for and you have to have content that resonates. But the real product in the future has to be the experience that you produce for that group of people around that content. That’s my thinking.
Nina [00:11:34] Yeah.
Sean [00:11:35] It’s going to change because not everybody wants to consume the content in print anymore. And obviously, you’ve already started to pivot and adapt and build all sorts of different channels for people to be able to consume the content that you produce, podcasts and videos, and all sorts of other media. But really, I think at the core of it all is the experience that you produce for that core group of people that Forbes really knows well.
Nina [00:11:58] I totally agree with you. And I think in that way, like, product is not like a tangible thing. It’s like the whole experience, the whole package, the feeling that a user gets when they come to your site. Is it frustration or is it delight? Like that is where product lives. I totally agree with you. You touched on that exactly and it tightens that empathy thing. It’s like, we’re creating emotions for the users and helping them get through the journey of our site and make sure that there’s very little points of contention where they’re like, “oh, this is annoying and it’s not what I want.” But yeah, I totally agree with you. I think it’s the experience that we’re helping build, you know, by little increments of feature updates or new pieces of multimedia on the page.
Sean [00:12:39] For sure. So, Paul, when we were talking before on this theme, like, it’s amazing to me all the different paths we’ve seen back into product, right?
Paul [00:12:48] Yeah. I mean, Nina, you’re exhibit A of just the more people that we talk to, the more we see, again and again, nobody has a product management degree hanging on their wall. Most people that I’ve spoken to who are successful in this role come from journalism or photography or from sales or from some other aspect of business where they were experts in their field, they became passionate about this thing you were talking about, the experience. But it’s not just the users’ experience, right, and you spoke to us earlier about how Forbes has sort of a very hands-on approach to POs on teams and how the product leaders are almost a hybrid scrum master in some teams and how that’s created empathy, not just externally towards users, but also compassion internally towards the developers. You know, the crunch is real and there are times where I can look back very recently where working the weekends is a real thing because you’re passionate about the experiences that you’re creating. And I’m just curious, you know, in your teams, what does that do when you create this closeness between product and development in the teams that deliver the experiences that we’re shipping?
Nina [00:13:58] You know, I think product has a different meaning to different organizations. Some organizations like a Facebook, you have a product owner working on one piece of a feature and they have like 10 engineers at their disposal and they don’t even really know about that workflow. They kind of just do their side. So I think there’s so many different setups. But for us, I think because we are in the business of sharing beautiful stories about success, we really have to be owning that internally. And the way that we are set up is that we have an extreme closeness to our engineering team. And I actually just got off a call where we were kind of discussing, like, “we have so much going on, like how are you guys feeling? You know, what are your sentiments? Do you have any ideas about how we can improve this X, Y, and Z process?” And I think what it does is it creates this idea of like unity and togetherness where you’re all in it together and it actually maybe allows you to take on more than you thought was possible because people actually enjoy working together. Like, I have so many engineers that are like, “I worked all weekend on this one thing because I just knew, like, I wanted to get it done by Monday and I wanted to review it with everybody.” So I think there is something to be said about having a mutual understanding of each others’ work streams. And to that same regard, like, we’ll always have demos with each other and I’ll ask, “Hey, how did you build this on the front end, like can you walk me through it? I’m really interested.” And it just creates more of like a partnership rather than a push-pull type relationship.
Paul [00:15:30] Yeah. You know, I think that’s such a cool parallel because we’ve often said here at ITX that products succeed or fail based on the trust that they’re able to build. But really, teams succeed or fail based on the trust that they have in their leaders, right? What do you think about that, Sean?
Sean [00:15:48] You’re preaching to the choir over here. Trust is the foundation, I think, of all product leadership. If you think about it, you have to earn trust from your users with every new feature that you put out, you have to earn trust from your stakeholders who are paying your team to be there, and you have to trust from your team in order to get the best possible products built, and from each other. So it’s like foundational to all of the work that we do, for sure. So Forbes is a big name. And based on the reputation that you guys have spent one hundred and one years building, you have a lot to lose. So how do you balance the need for innovation with the need to defend that reputation?
Nina [00:16:24] Wow, that’s a great question. I think it starts with great leaders like we have an amazing CEO and an amazing VP of Product who believe that that is very important. That is like a core pillar of Forbes. So I think it really has to start from the top down. You can’t do it in a vacuum. So I think we’re really lucky that that is something that is bought in and believed in by everybody. And I definitely think that there is a little bit of kind of handholding and a little bit of like walking through certain things across an organization that is that old. We have people that have been there over 20 years, many people actually that have been there over 20 years. I’ve never worked in an organization that that was the case. In media these days, things are like a revolving door. So that is like, you have to respect what was before. So it really all ties back to that like humanizing your work every day and understanding like, “I know that this is how you guys really did things back then and I know the print magazine was really important, but we have to shift, we have to move, and here’s why.”.
Nina [00:17:29] And I think this is where data comes in because if you’re working with a stakeholder who has done something one way and now you’re telling them to change, you can’t really just tell them. You have to show them like, “Hey, I promise you doing it this way will increase this KPI by X percent and it will get you closer to your goal.” And so that is where data is coming in these days so much because you really do have to innovate more frequently, I think than ever. And people don’t necessarily always love change. And so I think starting from the top down is extremely important. And then having the data to show what you guys think will work is there to back it up because it’s emotional, you know like it is an emotional thing. People put most of their lives in their work and you’re telling them it’s going to change. You can’t take that lightly and you really have to respect and honor what was and prove what will be.
Sean [00:18:22] I think Forbes has a really solid vision. And from what I heard you say, like respecting that vision, respecting where you’ve come from and where you’re going and being aligned on that, and then adding into that the confidence that comes from knowing that you’re taking measured steps.
Nina [00:18:41] Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. And then also being able to communicate that to your users clearly is really important, too.
Paul [00:18:48] So when you’re making decisions, aligning to the vision, inspiring the teams, creating a data-driven approach to convince the people who are cosigning these pivots that we’re trying to undertake to respond to users’ needs, there’s got to be a framework for making all these decisions, right? It’s impossible to keep the trust in balance, the vision fulfilled, and the data measured all in alignment. And you’ve referenced the Lean Product Playbook as one of your go-to strategies for trying to make sense of all this. And I’m curious, you know, you’ve been at the helm of a fairly significant transformation at Forbes and I think that in making some of those decisions, you must have had to have fallen back on a framework when you needed to contextualize everything. So I’m curious, how has Lean played a factor in your decision making, and do you think it’s as important today as it was when it first came out?
Nina [00:19:46] I do. I think actually through the pandemic, it was proven that it’s important because so many other publishers were having like huge cuts in their staff. And I think that’s because they were like overpacked and overextended what they had because they were basically working within what was currently the situation and not what could be the situation. And so I think on my team and in my organization in general for product and technology, we try to not take on more than we can or more than we need. And that really comes down to understanding, like, what are the high priorities? What is important to us? What are the main things that we need to worry about and what projects tie up to those core pillars? So a lot of people have OKRs, we have some form of that. But I think that’s the most important place to start.
Nina [00:20:37] And working Lean is making sure that we are creating like MVPs of our products and getting them into a testing bucket. So we’re doing a lot of experimentation and proving our concepts. We have 10 percent of the site that we test on and that gets us to have a proof of concept before we spend months and months and many engineers’ time building something. And so we have this kind of system in place that allows us to get a lot done with very little people involved. And I think that is something that you also have to have from the top down. I mean, that has to be something that your manager or your leader of your group believes in and invests in. And you know, product managers as scrum masters seems crazy, but it has definitely been amazing to see our product owners join the team and maybe as like an entry-level start being technical. And because they’re working and writing the tickets and working with the engineers, they’re understanding the frameworks that they’re working with. And so there’s an added bonus to that. And then in that case, they can also solve problems and kind of figure out bugs, maybe on their own. Not that everyone has to do that, but it becomes a more dynamic role than just only focusing on the product itself and nothing outside of it.
Paul [00:21:59] Yeah, I can attest to that one hundred percent. As a former product owner who’s been as close to the backlog to the point where I start referencing user stories by their Jira ticket numbers
Nina [00:22:10] Yeah.
Paul [00:22:10] …from memory, I can attest to how. And I think that teams pick up on that closeness too. You know, that kind of, it’s not just a Lean for the sake of efficient business, it’s also a dependency and a reliance on one another that I’m not just handing this off to you to go to the backroom and come back when it’s done. I’m invested. I’m part of the process. It actually leads me to my last question that I wanted to pick your brain on a second in that there is this holy trinity that we’ve started to conjure up in the product industry called “product living at the center of technology, business, and UX.” And I think we’ve all seen that Venn diagram at this point. What I’ve started to think about in the way that I approach that is that it’s not necessarily at the intersection of those three. It’s really where those three aren’t that product does all of its work. And I’m curious, do you agree with that? Is product in the in-betweens or is it really a little bit of everything?
Nina [00:23:08] Yeah. I think that’s an interesting way to look at it, because it’s kind of like product is the air that all of those things live in because you have to kind of be involved in every aspect and understand the pain points and, you know, the solution that you’re trying to build towards and the user and the business goals. And so, like, you kind of have to be involved in all of it. But I think to your point, like, where product is actually actionable is kind of in the in-between. You’re the connector. You’re the reason why. You’re the person that makes it all make sense, like, “why are we here? Why are we talking about this?” And I think that is where product lives. And I think, product, like the name is thrown around so much. A question I get asked is like, “what is your day-to-day like?” and it is in the in-betweens of each of those pillars that I live each day. Sometimes it’s more technology-focused, sometimes it’s more UX, sometimes it’s more business. Sometimes it’s just data all day; I’m just trying to go through data to get some actionable tasks.
Sean [00:24:09] Yeah. So I agree with both of you guys. I think that that rather simple Venn diagram is a gross oversimplification of what product is about. It doesn’t even include the users. I mean, you could argue that the users are inside the business somewhere, but we know our work is really a lot more complicated than that. So one last question for you from me: I’ve heard you describe yourself pretty openly as, and this plays along with the empathy role, it’s the other side of it, as a mediator and a therapist…
Nina [00:24:40] Yep.
Sean [00:24:40] …As a product leader. I want you to unravel that story for us.
Nina [00:24:44] Yes, so I think product leaders, I’m tying back to my earlier thing. Your personality is like who you become as a product leader. Some people are more data-driven and they’re like the data person, or some people are user experience obsessed. Like if a line is out of place or a button doesn’t work, that is like the end of it and they’re known as that. So I think for me, I have become like the person that, you know, is the fixer almost, like the problem solver organizationally and then also product-wise.
Sean [00:25:15] I like that.
Nina [00:25:16] Yeah, like, I’m often looked to like, “Hey, we have a problem in this project, can you jump in on it and kind of like make sense of things?” And I think at the end of the day, everyone just wants someone to listen to them and to hear them out, acknowledge it, and then be like, “OK, yeah, let’s figure out a solution.” And that’s even for our users. We have a user feedback email and we’ll get emails like, you know, “this ad is really annoying” or “this button doesn’t work” or “I can’t get to the content I’m looking for,” and it’s like our job to hear that and create a response. And so I think that’s where I come in where I’m the mediator, almost, and the therapist. Like I really enjoy helping people. I enjoy helping people feel good about the work that they’re doing, especially now more than ever when people are burned out and they’re working a lot more, I think, than they were when they were in-person, you kind of need someone to say, “Hey, I hear you, I see you; let’s figure this out; it’ll be OK.” So I don’t know if that’s a product thing or if that’s a Nina thing, but it has become my thing now.
Sean [00:26:23] No, I do think it’s a very important skill, not just to get people to talk. Because sometimes it’s hard. It’s like pulling teeth getting all the requirements out, right?
Nina [00:26:30] Yeah.
Sean [00:26:30] But also, like you just said, when there is conflict, keeping it healthy and getting people to talk to each other so you can get to the best possible result. It’s another way of describing therapy, right?
Nina [00:26:40] Yeah. We actually had therapy at work, like we had a couples’ counselor come in and we would do therapy a couple of times a month where it would just be like “I feel…” It was just like deconstructing how to talk to each other.
Sean [00:26:56] That’s fantastic.
Nina [00:26:57] Yeah.
Sean [00:26:57] I lied to you, I have one more question and then I’ll hand it off to Paul for the final question. If you’ve heard the pod, you’ll know this one’s coming. How do you define the word innovation?
Nina [00:27:07] I define the word innovation, and I was waiting for this question so I’m really excited. I define innovation as making life better, I guess simply, just making life better.
Sean [00:27:20] Simple, concise, and I couldn’t agree more.
Paul [00:27:23] Absolutely. Nina, before we let you go, the thing that I would love to be able to share as a takeaway to those listening is what book do you think should be on every product leader’s shelf?
Nina [00:27:36] That’s a great question and I have a very unconventional answer because I just read it, and it’s Chip Wilson’s book. I think it’s called Black Stretchy Pants, but it’s the story of Lululemon and it has become my favorite product book just because of the sheer will and obsession of Chip Wilson to create this perfect brand and the hoops that he’s jumped through. And so it’s a little bit of a memoir slash business book. But the thing that stood out to me that I love about that book is at the beginning of the book, there’s a list of Lululemon’s core mission. And that has kind of changed the way that I do product now because I had to sit down and create, like, “what’s my core mission?” And then I had to create one for, “what is my team’s mission at Forbes?” And I think that just kind of really sets you up from like a great place to start.
Paul [00:28:31] A great recommendation. I’m definitely picking that one up.
Sean [00:28:34] There’s a lot to be said for having a team with a vision, having a clear, crystal clear vision, knowing who you’re solving problems for and what problems you’re solving, can drive amazing results. I agree with that.
Paul [00:28:45] Yep, it’s Archimedes lever, for sure. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences and your insight. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you so much.
Nina [00:28:53] Thank you so much. It’s been awesome.
Paul [00:28:56] All right, cheers.
Sean [00:28:57] Thanks Nina.
Paul [00:29:00] 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.