Some product leaders enter this career because they want to be involved with product directly, while others jump in by happenstance. In nontech roles such as teaching, the ability to make an impact with certain products comes from a different vantage point. How can future PMs utilize these experiences to enhance their products? BetterLesson SVP Amber Orenstein shares how her teaching background provided a different perspective to building quality edtech products.
On the Development of Edtech Tools
Amber had a career as a math teacher before she started in the edtech industry and then edtech product. She explains how teachers think and helped through edtech tools.
“A lot of teachers are scrappy and resourceful. So I used to, like most teachers, scrape the internet for high-quality free things, both for me to use and for my kids to use. I was always in a high-need area, and a lot of my students were oftentimes below grade level. My goal was always to catch them up as quickly as possible, and so I would use different online resources, whether it was videos from learnZillion, or Khan Academy, or like various sort of open source math games, to build custom playlists for my students to do. This was before adaptive, personalized learning had really taken off. …
“Adaptive, personalized learning essentially takes an assessment, like a test of some kind, diagnoses the needs of a student, and then prescribes content to them. Then on an ongoing basis, the better the assessment is, it takes in that data and continuously adapts learning experiences for the needs of the kid. I did not have any of those tools when I was a teacher, so I essentially did that myself. I was like my own little machine-learning algorithm and looked at their data, and then they gave me a little playlist to do. What was cool is that when the kids were doing their playlist, I could actually pull small groups for students one-on-one, and then provide them with small group targeted instruction, instead of the whole group trying to find a one-size-fits-most because my kids had so many different needs.”
On Enabling Teachers for Success — with Efficacy
How do you get to the heart of enabling teachers using edtech products to feel successful and see the impact of the work they’re doing? One word: Data. Amber shares how BetterLesson is utilizing data to showcase the effectiveness of their product and prompt more teacher-focused edtech products to do the same.
“Most of the tech industry has gotten very data-savvy in the past few years. You see that with all sorts of interesting companies popping up, and the demand on edtech companies to provide an impact of efficacy. Did this product actually lead to student outcomes, professional development, professional learning? The space that I work in now with BetterLesson has really frankly not been held to account for that so far. I’d like to see that change.
Our teams are working really hard all the time to gather feedback from our users, from our prospects from the market, from participants in our live services, and from folks who use our asynchronous resources. We’re always taking in that feedback and building out, increasingly focusing on development. Our major initiatives this year focused on not only development of content, but development of reporting of impact because we want the buyers of our products, we want superintendents and assistant superintendents to know this professional learning experience works. Yes, [the teachers] had fun and they liked it, but also they’re confident to implement these things. They’ve implemented this number of strategies, they’re actually taking this and doing it because we want to be able to show impact in a way that I don’t think this part of the industry has been held accountable for yet.”
On Getting Into Product Through a Nonlinear Path
As you have read, Amber did not have a linear path into product management and product leadership. Nonetheless, she is making a major impact on the edtech industry. She believes that a nonlinear path isn’t a barrier but an opportunity.
“If you really want to work in product, I think getting to know a problem and getting to know a market is key. Companies don’t need subject matter experts. They need market experts, they need people who understand the market, not just the problems and the user pain points, but what are people going to pay to actually address those pain points? I think that is really, really important and a key distinction. I also think when we think about product, there’s really those three core disciplines: tech, design, and business. Being able to sort of decide which lever to pull first is key. For me, I wish someone had told me I probably didn’t need to do a full-stack coding boot camp when I was a brand new PM. That was probably cruel and unusual to do that myself. Knowing how to code was super helpful and made me be nicer to my engineering team and have more empathy for them.
The paths are all different. The biggest thing is, don’t be afraid. If you are, let’s say a teacher, where you were like several moves away, remember product management is a mid-level role. Even if it looks like it’s like an entry-level PM, at entry-level, PM is the mid-level role at a company. So don’t be afraid to start in a different part of the company so you can learn the business instead of the user, the market instead of just the user. Getting to know the market and the business is key because as a PM, you are an agent of the business. You’re making decisions that impact the P&L; you might own the P&L, depending on the size of the company. To get to know the business, I started in customer success. There’s no way I could have gone from teaching to product because I knew a ton about teaching but I knew nothing about the market. I didn’t know how much money people spend on solutions. I didn’t know much about the patterns or cycles of buying. I didn’t know anything about the technology.
I had a PM report to me in my last role who had been a teacher. She had actually gone to a full engineering program and she was an engineer at the company. She walked up to my desk one day, and she said, Hey, I have some interest in product. I said, do you want to start tomorrow? She’s like, how? Well, you are a teacher, you’ve got great context. You’re an engineer who built our software so you understand how it works. Tell me three ideas you have and how we can make it better. It was really easy to hire her because I knew she had both the context and the hard kind of technical knowledge of the product.
Don’t be afraid to take a nonlinear path and to make a few stops if you want to be a PM that helps you address the business design or the tech demands. Don’t try to slingshot into PM; try to find the right stop in between.”