Houston voices

Houston expert reflects on why product management and user experience are key for tech startups

Liu Idea Lab's Carol Tyger shares her experience on product managing for a tech startup. Getty Images

Consider planning a wedding. An impossible task of delivering a grand, completely personal event for all sorts of guests at a minimal cost.

At first, my fiance and I were freaking out because we heard that wedding planning is full of hidden costs and impossible expectations. But then the light bulb went off: that sounds a lot like my job as a product manager (PM). I can be the PM of my own wedding! I knew I wanted to provide a kick-ass party (great experience) for every guest (users) with limited resources (efficiently maximizing value).

Relying on my product manager skills, my fiancé and I started off by considering our goals and removing assumptions. I even conducted some user interviews by asking my friends what they value in weddings. Then we defined the "Wedding Minimum Viable Product (MVP)" and organized ourselves like a software team with a backlog and kanban board.

In the end, the wedding was a huge success. It felt just like a major software product release…from the planning to the execution. Product management is all about making a great user experience, maximizing value and working efficiently. In other words, it is a foundation for getting things done that can be applied to almost any situation.

Ultimately, as a product manager, you build an entrepreneurial mindset that can be applied to any future role. At the bare minimum, the PM is responsible for providing detailed requests for the tech team to build. But to be a great PM, it takes a lot more.

You rely on empathy. Product managers are the voice of the user for both the business and the tech team. To understand the user, you conduct user interviews, gather market analysis and collaborate with internal groups – exploring all corners of the organization – to determine user needs. Skilled product managers don't directly ask users what they want, but instead, understand through observation. You will be using various types of user data before and after software releases to forecast and measure the impact of innovations made.

You strengthen soft skills. It doesn't matter how technical you are if you don't have good rapport within the organization. The basics begin with communicating effectively, remaining flexible, acknowledging bad decisions and being comfortable with the unknown. The best product managers have built enough trust throughout the organization to lead at a senior level despite not having direct authority.

You strategize. You must understand the users, software cycle, and business needs well enough to plan months – even years – ahead while listening to and setting expectations with everyone involved. You will be blazing trails and solving new problems. The company will rely on you to operate with integrity while continuously innovating. Your entrepreneurial mindset will make setting the strategy second nature.

The entrepreneurial mindset and product management responsibilities hone skills that are not only transferable to future roles, but to your life in general. Whether you are preparing for a major software release or planning a fantastic party, your entrepreneurial mindset and product management skills will help you succeed.

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Carol Tyger is Lilie's product management expert-in-residence and was head of product at Spruce, a Houston-founded managed marketplace for apartment residents to book services such as housekeeping.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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Building Houston

 
 

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

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