How to be a Product Manager
What do you do here at Valon?
ALBERT: Currently, I'm a Product Manager (PM) working within Escrow. We’re building new products to help our homeowners manage their escrow accounts.
JONTÉ: I'm a Product Manager on our Experience team. We think about how to deliver a great product experience for our homeowners and for all the teams at Valon that serve homeowners.
How'd you find yourself working in this field?
ALBERT: I graduated college as an electrical engineer, and I worked as a product engineer for a few years before jumping into the startup world.
I worked on a variety of startups: everything from building telecommunications that provided Internet to rural parts of America to building my own startup in China. (I built a platform that allowed people to place their orders at restaurants using QR codes, way before Covid made them mainstream.) Eventually, I came back to the United States and joined Instagram as a Product Manager.
After four and a half years, I decided I wanted to go somewhere smaller. I wanted to bet on myself and work at a place where there was more scope and ownership. It was also an opportunity to transition from commerce and social media to improving the home ownership experience, which is really impactful for people in this country.
That’s how I ended up here at Valon. Building a startup was really tough. So, when I came here, met the team, and saw how well-run Valon was, I was excited to get involved.
JONTÉ: The first part of my career was in technical consulting, where I focused on building new products in cybersecurity. It was very different from fintech. That was my first opportunity to think about how technology might transform an industry.
One of my first official product management opportunities was working at a company that was building software for the trucking industry, an industry that not many technology companies were focusing on. I found it compelling, I was building products for everyday Americans and for small businesses that were quite literally moving our economy.
My way into that role was through a referral from a friend that worked there. I’m sensitive to the fact that not everyone has these same connections, and I’m passionate about helping others gain access to their first role in PM along with the skills to be successful. That’s why I’m putting this info out there!
What's something you feel like you've learned in your time here at Valon?
ALBERT: For me, talking with homeowners and our servicing team members directly and often is the most important thing when it comes to building product.
When you're at a big tech company, people are often obfuscated by data. Because the company is so big, you primarily understand how users are feeling through experiments and data. There are teams of people that talk to users and summarize findings for you, isolating you from the people you’re building for. Here at Valon, a lot of insight is gained through data, of course, but PMs are responsible for directly talking to homeowners. For example, when we were building a self-serve experience tool, we interviewed many homeowners for their input.
JONTÉ: We’re lucky to work with people on our servicing team who have decades of experience in the mortgage industry and a deep empathy for our homeowners. The feedback that we hear from that team drives a lot of our work.
Despite working at a couple other fintechs, I feel like I’ve gotten a college course in the mortgage servicing industry since joining Valon. The area of mortgage and mortgage servicing is so incredibly complex, and I’ve enjoyed learning about interactions with government sponsored entities, financial institutions or investors, and homeowners.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in product?
ALBERT: One thing people often ask is: do you need a technical background to be a Product Manager? I don’t think you do, even though it's helpful. There are many ways to succeed as a PM, as long as you know your strengths and optimize for that. Some PMs are more design-minded and know how to build a great user experience.
To train your product sense, I would do this often: when you interact with products every day, whether you’re browsing on a shopping app or using a coffee maker, think about how you would improve the experience. What are the problems that the people who built the product were trying to solve? Build product intuition through observation.
JONTÉ: Definitely think about your experiences and how they map into product management responsibilities. Invest time in developing creative potential–I’ve found that that leads to valuable insights about your strengths and ultimately great and transformational products for customers. Be curious about the products and services that you use, especially ones that excite you. If you can understand why you're excited, you can begin to build your individual sense for what makes a product great.
What kind of qualities would you look for in a good product manager?
ALBERT: I look for people that constantly invest in their own growth and are willing to get their hands dirty—they don't feel like anything is beneath them.
JONTÉ: Product management is incredibly interdisciplinary. I’ve found that the most successful product managers are people who have had experience in many different functions and/or industries in their career.
What’s a challenge you've been able to tackle in your role?
ALBERT: A big push for us is figuring out how to be more efficient than the market standard. The business operations team helped us break down what people were spending a lot of time doing. From there, we could identify what projects we wanted to build to streamline the major processes.
With better tooling and products, our operations team could be more effective, and we could service more loans with the existing team that we have today. Six months ago, we started to seriously expand the tools in our ecosystem. Today, we have a lot of functionality that allows our operations teams to efficiently service loans, solve insurance problems, and receive payments as we grow as a business.
JONTÉ: Improving our loan transfer experience has been an important learning experience for me. As a homeowner, you have very little agency in the process of your loan being transferred to Valon. You essentially get a letter in the mail, maybe an email, that says, “Hey, you're gonna be working with Valon!” And your question is, who is Valon?
Then, imagine you're caring for a sick family member or you've just started a new job when this transfer happens. You didn’t choose the transfer schedule, and you may feel overwhelmed by suddenly having additional work to do just to keep paying your mortgage. That can be a stressful experience. Approaching building this product in an empathy-forward way really helped me to understand the importance of Valon’s mission to empower homeowners. We aim to put the right tools in their hands at the right time, to reduce the burden placed on homeowners with great, truly helpful technology.
Where do you look for inspiration?
ALBERT: Inspiration can come from anywhere! I recently saw an article about a Japanese app that gamified the inspection of manhole covers. Instead of having city inspectors go and inspect every single manhole cover, they built a game where citizens could take photos of manhole covers and tag where they found it in exchange for points. After launching the app, the city governments were able to inspect every manhole cover via photos within a week.
Those kinds of product interactions and insights are always really exciting to me.
JONTÉ: There's this website called Product Hunt that I love to browse. There are so many people across the world who are trying out new things and solving problems that I never knew existed. The website allows basically anyone to post something cool that they've built and get feedback from the community. People can comment, encourage one another, and vote—the most exciting products rise to the top.
Like many of my colleagues at Valon, I love reviewing feedback from our homeowners. We’re really grateful for the stories our homeowners share, and it directly influences which features we choose to build and how we build them.
Reading those reviews, observing how people use our products—that listening process allows us to have great “Aha!” moments. If we can build trust with homeowners, we can work with them to solve their problems.
What do you do for fun?
ALBERT: I love to play pickup basketball with my friends here in New York every week. I also recently got my WSET 2—a certification in wine. When I’m not at work, I spend a lot of time with my friends discovering new wines.
JONTÉ: I love watching movies. Knives Out was one of my favorite movies of the past couple years. I also love getting my friends together here in San Francisco. I'm lucky enough to live in a place that has a lot of natural beauty both inside the city and within a short drive away. Ski season is right around the corner!
If you’re interested in joining Albert and Jonté as part of Valon’s team, check out our open career opportunities.