Sometimes the biggest challenge is saying “No” – Giovanni Iachello, Head of Data Products at LinkedIn

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Managing a product with 433 million users in over 200 countries is not an easy job. But it’s what 2016 Product Management Festival (PMF) Keynote Giovanni Iachello, Head of International and Data Products at LinkedIn, does every day.

Giovanni has a passion for innovating how people live, work and communicate. At PMF this year he will give a talk called “Relationships matter”. Learn how LinkedIn, as a high tech company, have put the simple truth that “humans are social” at the center of their business model and Product Management practice.


PMF: It’s really interesting, especially for PMpms early in their career to find out how one can reach a position as yours. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey?

Giovanni: Product Managers at LinkedIn are responsible not just for the development of a product but also for setting and meeting business targets and for developing the product strategy. It is one of the leading functions within the organization and that is what made it attractive to me.

The backgrounds of PMs are varied, and often include past entrepreneurship, management consulting, and many of the PMs at LinkedIn have undergraduate degrees in Engineering and perhaps an MBA. We also “grow” PMs internally through a robust Associate Product Managers program where we go out and hire directly out of college.

That said, of our two founders, Reid studied philosophy and Allen has a background in theater. That shows that what really matters is the ability to combine business savvy with product creativity and (some) technical expertise.

I have a technical background – computer science degree, engineer in a startup. After my PhD, I decided that teaching was not my thing and entered management consulting almost by chance, because I liked the fast paced environment and the people I met. Despite a great experience serving top corporations, I realized that I wanted to be part of a more dynamic industry and headed back to my tech roots. I interviewed in a few companies and again the people I met made me choose LinkedIn. I landed in Business Operations, a typical transition for ex-consultants and bankers looking to move into tech, where I led the Consumer product strategy team. From there, I was pulled into product by the then head of International product.


PMF: What have been some of your biggest challenges as product manager and how did you overcome them?

Giovanni: There are many!

I think the biggest challenge bar none is prioritizing among many good ideas, and being able to say “no”. As a PM you are chronically faced with fewer resources than you’d like, and you always have lots of things you would like to try and build. It’s easy to be sucked into the day to day running of feature development, but part of the growth in the role is realizing that choosing what to work on (what value does it bring to your user?) is more important than how you get there (what technology, what design…).

The second challenge is turning vague problems (“Go figure out what we should do in India”) into an actual plan and product. It is exhilarating and at the same time fraught with potential mistakes. From hiring the wrong person to underestimating the dynamics of the marketplace you want to enter, any number of things can go wrong. Being entrusted with company resources and leading a team of people only increases the pressure to “be right”. However, regardless of what anybody will tell you, making mistakes is part of the job. It is critical to learn quickly from them and course correct. This is why at LinkedIn one of our values is “take intelligent risks”.

The third item I would mention, less of a challenge perhaps, and more as a critical success criterion, is building and inspiring a great team. Building software is unlike many other industries in that there is an enormous difference in the speed and quality of the results between a great, motivated person who is bought into the vision and somebody who is not.

Because most of what we do in this business is new, experience that can be learned on the job is often less important than vision and smart thinking. Similarly, speed and vision are critical. Because of the complexity of the development process and the number of people involved, the basic hustle to move knowledge quickly between teams and people can create great leverage. Making sure that your team shares your vision and is willing to go above and beyond is a multiplier of its ability to succeed.


PMF: You mentioned LinkedIn is diverse, how many nationalities are in the team? 

Giovanni: The international R&D team at LinkedIn has 100+ people, spans 3 continents and 4 sites (Silicon Valley, Dublin, Bangalore and Beijing), and has 30+ nationalities.  The largest representation are China and India, which happen to be two of the top markets for LinkedIn’s international expansion.

The top two groups are Engineering and Localization Managers (who translate our site). We have 10 Product Managers dedicated to adapting LinkedIn to the needs of our international users.


PMF: How big is the data in LinkedIn?

The scale of LinkedIn is “large”. To better serve our 433+M members, we run more than 5000 A/B experiments every year, compute 1700+ metrics for each experiment. At any moment in time, you as a user may be experiencing the site in one of 100+ experimental setups.


PMF: What are the biggest challenges in your company? 

Giovanni: The main challenge at LinkedIn, given the amount of smart people on the team, is focusing and prioritizing on the right products and features. Because of our vision of building the Global Economic Graph, we are constantly adapting the product to make sure it adapts to different ways of doing business and how professionals operate around the world.  For example, our user demographic in emerging markets is much younger than in the Untied States or Europe and so we need to tailor the product around the needs of career starters and students.

The other big challenge is that LinkedIn works in 24 languages, so all of our relevance and search algorithms need to “understand” anything from Chinese to Norwegian. This is the reason why international and “data products” both report to me.


PMF: Is there any cool “feature” you’d like to highlight? 

One of the most interesting products we built recently for the Chinese market involved LinkedIn offering a “validation” signal to the users of Alipay, a mobile wallet. Alipay uses the strength of one’s LinkedIn profile to improve their Credit Score on its payments platform. It turns out that being connected to a network of colleagues makes it very hard to forge one’s profile information.


PMF: The Microsoft acquisition is really big news. Could you tell us how this will change the product itself?

Giovanni: Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the news or the impact of the product at this point. I’ll just say I am excited about the opportunities this deal opens up.

If you want to meet Giovanni Iachello in person, join the next edition of Product Management Festival in Zurich on November 16-17, 2016.



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