Disney's PM Director on Lean Startup and the Media Industry

path to pm
Stephen CognettaStephen CognettaLast updated

Sanaz Alexander is a product manager at the Disney ABC Television Group Software Solutions team based in Burbank, CA. At Disney, she is currently working on software for Disney's broadcast operations team and streaming services and manages a team of 12 designers, developers, and QA professionals. In this Path to PM blog post, Sanaz and I discuss applying lean startup principles to media products.

How did you break into product management?
I started my career as an investment banker covering technology companies. I worked on M&A, IPOs, capital raises, restructurings, and other financial transactions. In my role, I met with management teams of small and large companies and learned about their growth and monetization strategies, revenue models and technology platforms. I became interested in joining a company and helping to implement these strategies rather than simply advise on financial decisions.

You’ve moved quite a bit in your PM journey, from Zynga to the first PM at a startup, and now you’re a PM at Disney. How has your PM experience changed as you moved through these companies?
Zynga was a product management driven organization and I was the “CEO” of the features my team was releasing. In my role, I learned a great deal about best practices for leading a product team. Zynga is also very data driven and I spent about 30% of my time testing and reporting on the performance of the features I was building.

As I moved to be the first PM at a number of series A startups in the Los Angeles area, I brought these best practices with me. At these smaller companies, I was responsible for the everyday activities of product management such as talking to customers, gathering and writing requirements, working closely with designers and developers, etc… But I was also responsible for building the product and engineering teams and implementing a lot of the processes and structure I had learned at Zynga into a green field opportunity. I was responsible for implementing agile frameworks, hiring and managing the product, design and engineering teams, bringing in a culture of hypothesis testing and establishing best practices for requirement gathering and writing. At the various startups, I also worked closely with the CEO and management teams to strategize our growth initiatives and implement these strategies into products.

I have now brought all of these experiences to my role at Disney where I am responsible for working quickly with a lean startup mentality in a much larger and more mature organization.

What were some of your major lessons learned as the first PM at a company?
The most important lesson I have learned as a startup PM is to measure twice and cut once. Too many companies build a product without any input from customers and lack a product market fit. This is the reason most startups fail. At the same time, many startups build features based on ideas from founders rather than by implementing a test-driven, iterative process. This leads not only to wasted time and resources but also disrupts the development cycle when a founder changes her mind about what to build. I have learned to take direction from customers or potential customers and to always validate my ideas through testing.

What’s uniquely challenging about being a PM in the media space?
The most challenging aspect of working as a PM at a large media company is a lack of access to direct end users. For example, we are building a streaming service for Hulu and other DMVPDs (Digital Multichannel Video Programming Distributors), but do not have access to interviewing and testing with the actual end-users of the service. Working within a large bureaucratic organization also means there are always several layers of stakeholders to align with in order to build a specific feature. As a PM you have to be tenacious and good at navigating through layers of management to get in front of the right people to help guide your product decisions.

How do you answer the “what’s your favorite product” question?
My favorite product is Hotel Tonight. I love it for its:

  • Ease of use
  • Integration with iOS and mobile-first approach to design
  • Filtering (of hotels) which makes it stand out against its competitors

If you were applying for product management careers all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
I would use my three requirements for choosing a company to work with:

  1. A company which has already achieved (or has a good strategy for achieving) product market fit.
  2. A company I can add a lot of value to based on my skills.
  3. A team that I can continue to learn from and develop myself as a PM.

Sanaz is one of Exponent's PM Coaches. If you're seeking 1:1 PM interview coaching, you can purchase a session here.

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