Virtual Postmaster – Helping People Stay in Touch: an Interview with Mark Hull

Written by Published in Conference, Interviews, Product Management

Facebook’s Director of Product Management, Mark Hull, is a keynote speaker for Product Management Festival 2017. Previously leading LinkedIn’s messaging products, Mark now oversees Facebook’s News Feed, the primary online destination for 2 billion users. With a background in journalism and a passion for technology, Mark has carved a career enabling people to stay connected with each other.

You recently moved from LinkedIn to Facebook, and you also have an entrepreneurial background. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey?

I came to product management via a non-traditional route. I did journalism in undergrad and worked for the San Jose Mercury News after graduation. I didn’t have a computer science background, but I had always been interested in technology. This was back in the ‘90s when things were just getting going and people primarily used unix accounts to chat with each other! I had helped put my college newspaper online, and at the Mercury News, I made the stories more interactive by putting them online. We also established online forums that connected people.

I realized I had a passion for technology and how it could bring people together and create positive change through these connections.

I eventually moved to Yahoo, where I could do this by helping build its community and social products. I consult for several companies on various product management areas, and I had co-founded a social lifestyle application startup. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so it was inevitable that I would start something too. My mom’s side was in farming, an area certainly not without risk, and my dad’s side started a chain of lumberyards. So I guess you could say entrepreneurship was in the blood. But I’ll say that starting something on your own is tough! It’s sometimes endless and thankless, but of course, it’s also supremely rewarding. I think, though, I prefer working for a large organization where I have the resources and opportunity to make impact on a massive scale. At Yahoo, we went from 500 people to 15,000 people the time I was there, and I got to work on crazy challenges with amazing people!

Do you have advice for people going through career or job transitions?

If I could give guidance to folks just starting out, I’d say to figure out what excites you. What lights the fire for you? When I hire, I look for people with entrepreneurial spirit and mindset. Are they attuned to the users and data? Are they tenacious, persuasive, passionate? Do they understand technology? Can they hold their own while talking to engineers and designers?

And once you are in your new role, take the time to build relationships, reach out to potential mentors, and develop your network. Don’t underestimate how valuable it is to learn as much as possible about how the company got there. Learn what people have done before you so you can leverage those findings.

Finally, don’t expect you’re going to make high-level impact immediately. Take your time. Be patient. That way, you’ll make smarter decisions.

You can still make an impact and make changes on a smaller scale, with your team for example. But just don’t expect to be moving company-level metrics in your first 30 days.

How do LinkedIn and Facebook differ from a product management perspective?

From a product management standpoint, they are fairly similar. Facebook may be a bit more technology-oriented, but both are concerned about similar challenges; both are highly focused on strategy and ensuring PMs are aligned with it. They differ more on the execution side. Because of its footprint with 1.9 billion users, the scale, speed, and impact at Facebook are crazy. There is heavier emphasis here on how quickly and well we execute because the impact is so significant anytime something is delivered.

You gave many insightful points in your LinkedIn post about how to be a successful leader, including this one, “…invent what you think is needed. Customers and competitors are not your blueprint for a roadmap. Divine knowledge from these areas, anticipate where it will go, and construct a path there.” For your product managers, how have you helped them learn to better “divine” and anticipate their customer’s needs rather than always just responding to the immediate needs?

I think there are two guiding principles. The first is empathize with your users. It is too easy to assume our users can all use technology at the same level as we do. So it’s critical to understand the daily life experience and solve problems that people really have. How can we understand and internalize this with our quantitative and qualitative research.

The second principle is anticipate user needs. What possibilities are out there? We like to talk to our friends; we tend to be around similarly-minded people. I advise traveling and seeing firsthand how usage patterns differ around the world — you might be able to use that knowledge to anticipate trends that will take place locally.

For example, you can see in China that voice messaging is the preferred method of communication on WeChat. Users are constantly on the move, people aren’t disturbed by others playing their voice messages aloud, and it saves them from having to type Chinese characters on a small mobile device keyboard. Does this represent similar interface challenges with communication that are relevant in the US market? What can we learn from this observation?

At Yahoo, I was working on casual (social) games before companies like Zynga existed, and we saw that Korea already had social games in place for years, and they were already using social currency. The minute we saw that, we knew it could resonate with users beyond Korea. The US had the same user needs as the Korean market, and the pieces were beginning to come together — and eventually they did in a multi-billion dollar way. It’s often a matter of understanding whether you can bring something to your market that you already see is working well in a different market.

Want to hear more from Mark? He will be speaking at PMF on “the new product manager – what it will take to be successful tomorrow.” View our schedule for more information on the topics that will be presented at this year’s conference. You can also hear more from Mark from his podcast interview with Ravi Kumar of Yours Productly (and a PMF Ambassador) where he discusses his product philosophy, vital skills that PMs can’t do without, and much more.

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