The Allison Cassing Hypothesis: When You Follow Your Interests, Your Work Will Be More Enjoyable

Allison Cassing is the User Researcher for the H2R Product Science Team. She brings with her years of product management experience focused on data and insights. She has a deep interest in user experience and motivation.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about what Allison’s learned over the course of her career in product management and user research, and how to make sure you’re focused on the right questions.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Allison Cassing Hypothesis: When You Follow Your Interests, Your Work Will Be More Enjoyable How did Allison’s initial interest in fashion and PR lead to a career in user research? What was her experience like creating charts used in congressional hearings as a research assistant for the Federal Reserve? How did she transition to the analytics team at MediaMath? How did she shift over to the product team?

What did Allison learn from automating her own job at MediaMath? How did they navigate delivering a key product to customers that wasn’t exactly perfect when it launched? How do you get customers to make a big change when you’re updating reporting they rely on every day? How do you figure out what to deliver when and what user data do you look at?

How do you work with account managers as a product team and manage that relationship? How do you foster effective collaboration if you’re not in a leadership position on your team? What did Allison do to bring what she learned at MediaMath into the product development process at Newsela? Why do you need to take it slow with change when you first come into an organization?

Why do the same words have different meanings in different companies, and what can you do to help gel with a new organization? How do you identify the why behind product requests? What did Allison learn about why research goals are so important, no matter how many people you talk to? How do you know if you’re asking the right questions?

How did Allison join the H2R Product Science Team, and what does she do now? What lessons has she learned consulting with so many different companies? Why are third-parties recruiters so helpful when you’re doing user research? How do you prepare for interviews and find comfort in the process? Why is it important to establish a cadence with interviews so you talk to someone every week? What’s the difference between a discovery interview and a usability test?

Quotes From This Episode

“Doing an interview is always better than not doing an interview.” – Allison Cassing

“When I didn’t have a clear view of what research question I was asking I didn’t know what to do with the information I got back.” – Allison Cassing

“I wish I had questioned more when I was told this is the project—I was just so excited by it… looking back I wish I had put on my product hat and asked why.” – Allison Cassing


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science podcast where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly Hester-Reilly: This week on the Product Science podcast, I’m super excited to share Allison Cassing. Allison is actually a member of the H2R Product Science team. She and I worked together I guess several years ago at this point at MediaMath during its high growth days. She was already there when I joined and then we both left for different companies and stayed in touch and then I brought her… asked her if she wanted to come and be part of this team because I love working with Allison. I’m super excited to share with my listeners. So Allison, welcome to the Product Science podcast.
Allison Cassing: Yeah, thanks Holly. Happy to be here.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Do you want to start with a little bit of how you got into product management? Because I know it wasn’t an obvious path for you.
Allison Cassing: Sure. Yeah. Maybe I’ll start in college. I studied economics and statistics in college but always had an interest in fashion and lifestyle so I would go to my econ and stat classes and then I interned a lot in fashion and PR and that was through the summers and in my off time during school years and then when I was leaving my university I wanted to be a fashion assistant in a magazine. That was kind of my dream job and I sent out a ton of resumes and cover letters and didn’t get any responses and one of my professors-
Holly Hester-Reilly: [crosstalk 00:01:55].
Allison Cassing: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Sorry. I was going to ask you a silly question here. Was that before or after The Devil Wears Prada movie?
Allison Cassing: Oh that’s a good question. I think it was before but maybe after the book.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yep. Okay. Okay. So you want it to be like… it’s okay. So you sent a bunch of letters. I think that’s a hard to get job, right? Like a lot of people want that.
Allison Cassing: Yeah and it’s a lot of connections I think often is helpful and I had my internships, but I wasn’t steeped at things. I didn’t go to school in New York. I wasn’t around all the time so I sent out all these resumes. I didn’t get any responses. I even sent hard copies to the offices because I thought, “Oh this will make me different than just an email.” But then a professor of mine from the University of Chicago sent an email saying, “Oh, the Federal Reserve is still looking for research assistants if anyone wants this.” It was kind of an email to a lot of people and I thought, huh, okay. I kind of just want a job at this point and that sounds reasonably interesting. I’d never really thought that that would be what I wanted to do but I was like, huh, that sounds interesting, sure. I’ll apply to this.
Allison Cassing: I applied and they brought me in for an interview. I met with a bunch of the different sections and when… I got the job in the industrial output section. I worked there for two years as a research assistant and that was a lot of data scraping and some low level programming to scrape data from websites and we collected tons of information to put out the Industrial Production Index so that’s what that group did.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And what is the Industrial Production Index?
Allison Cassing: It’s a measure of what the industrial production is in the United States each month. We’re looking at… I particularly focused on aircraft, so we were looking at aircraft production, but we take tons of information about steel production. There was paper and pulp, like all the… there were a bunch of RAs in my group and they were focused on different areas. We collected all of that, put it through some machine that the economist ran and popped out the Industrial Production Index number. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Basically that’s like when you go to like a major… what is the U.S.’s number on this. Like how much of this we produce a year. You were like crunching numbers in there, helping [crosstalk 00:04:24].
Allison Cassing: Right. Yeah. I was there from 2008 to 2010. That was during or like the recession time and I feel like people always ask me like, what was it like to be there? Like was it so crazy? And it wasn’t like pages were flying out of printers and like everyone was running around, but it was different. All of the models that we used were different because things were changing so much from what it had been for so long, so that was the biggest impact on my time there. But I guess the big part of being at the FED is I was… so I worked in industrial output but also was tasked with, oh I forget my exact title, but it was something like the chart RA.
Allison Cassing: I made a lot of charts for the economists across the board for internal presentations and then also congressional presentations that the chairman would do. I learned some like basic charting program. It’s called, what’s it called, [theme 00:05:34]? It’s something that like no one else uses but I would make a bunch of charts for these presentations. Economists would tell us what numbers they wanted and what they wanted it to look like, what was the story they were trying to tell and we would put together these charts. That was cool. I got to go to a congressional presentation sit behind Ben Bernanke, you can see me probably on [CCN] circa 2010 back there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow, and did you see your charts in that congressional presentation?
Allison Cassing: Indeed. Yeah. So that’s-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Really, really cool. I have a couple of questions for you about the charts because I know that listeners will learn as we get through this that Allison has always had a heavy data focus and understanding of data and how we communicate it, which I’ve always thought was so valuable and so I’m curious at that point in time the kinds of charts that were being asked for and put together by people who worked at the FED. How did that… I’m wondering if you can kind of compare for us like their understanding of how to communicate meaning with data compared to the people we typically come across in the business world. Is it similar or is it different? Were these like the best of the best? Where they like really boring? Like what did that look like?
Allison Cassing: Often pretty standard so there were, I remember when I took over this position. There was like the 15 charts that we always do and it’s a line of GDP and then maybe a forecast line. Like very standard but then I remember we did one where we had to color the differences. We were showing deficits versus surplus and it was green and red and that was a fancy new one but I think generally they were pretty standard and people were pretty used to looking at them but this was definitely the seed for my future love of database because it was decades of data and you could put it in a chart and people would understand like what the story was, which I thought was so cool. Like that was the moment where I was like, oh, this visualization is so powerful as opposed to looking at a spreadsheet, which you’re never going to understand what that is without visualizing like when did that spike happen or how long was it flat for? It’s much easier to see when it’s on a chart.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. Did you read books about data visualization or when did you start learning more about [crosstalk 00:08:13]?
Allison Cassing: Not yet. That comes when I moved to New York and-
Holly Hester-Reilly: To tell us more, what happens next?
Allison Cassing: An RA at the FED is about two or three years and then the idea is that you’ll go off and get your PhD and then you’ll come back. I think is the ideal situation. I was not interested in a PhD. After two years decided it was time to go do something else and always wanted to live in New York and called out my friend and said, “I’m thinking about moving to New York.” And she said, “I have a room in my apartment, you can come live here.” And I was like, “Perfect, I’m on my way.” I came to New York without a job and spent many days in the Whole Foods in Tribeca using their WiFi and sending off my resume to lots and lots of different places.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wait, did your friend live in Tribeca?
Allison Cassing: She lived in the financial district.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay. All right. I was like, whoa. Awesome. All right.
Allison Cassing: Yeah and then I applied for all sorts of jobs. Anything with the word analyst in it because I was looking at things that my past experience would lean towards but I also really wanted to be in advertising. I kind of… like back of my mind, I was like, maybe I want to be a copywriter. I was kind of interested in advertising. I had no creative experience in ways of copywriting but one of the things I was thinking is like, oh, if I get in like as a project manager or something, maybe I can like be a part of it even if I’m not exactly the creative but-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay. I got to ask you about pop culture again. Was Mad Men popular yet?
Allison Cassing: It must’ve been because flash forward to when we were at MediaMath, I was in an ad where we spoofed Mad Men.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I mean I remember that. Yeah.
Allison Cassing: [crosstalk] it must have been about-
Holly Hester-Reilly: I feel like it must’ve been. Yeah. It was already around and that ad where you spoofed to Mad Men was taken before I joined MediaMath like it was very recent and I remember like, yeah, everyone looks so cool.
Allison Cassing: That’s one of the weirder like things I’ve done in my career is pose for an advertisement that appeared in a magazine.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, we’ll have to put that in the show notes if that’s still available.
Allison Cassing: I have a copy. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay. Awesome.
Allison Cassing: I think it was called analyst’s job. I found this job, I think it said something about like a data analyst, but it had a visualization piece to it. It was making charts for a digital advertising company. It was MediaMath and I read the description of this job and I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is so perfect for me.” It’s numbers but it’s advertising and it’s charts and I loved all the charts stuff I was doing at the FED, so I applied, had no idea what the company did. Went to their website, could not figure out what this company was. Went through interviews, got hired at MediaMath.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Just want to mention for those of our listeners who are not aware, Allison is not alone. Most people at that point in time… what that must have been what, like 2010, 2011.
Allison Cassing: [crosstalk 00:11:32].
Holly Hester-Reilly: At that point in time, most people looked at a website for a company in the ad tech space and were like, no idea what this place does. Something in advertising that’s all.
Allison Cassing: Yeah. And I remember it was mind blowing to me when I was, I think… I don’t know if this happened during the interview, probably did or in the orientation when I was told there are some advertisements on websites that are pre-sold, but then there’s all this remnant inventory and that’s where we live. Like when you load the New York Times, that bottom left advertisement is decided in real time for you the individual user and that like blew my mind. It’s like how do we do that? But that’s what the company did.
Allison Cassing: I joined there, I was on the analytics team. I think I was an analyst on the analytics team and I did a lot of… I use a third party called, what was it? Spot something. Is this funny how funny-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Spotfire.
Allison Cassing: Spotfire. I was like that was my whole life for [crosstalk 00:12:33].
Holly Hester-Reilly: I know. It is funny and I would-
Allison Cassing: [crosstalk] remember.
Holly Hester-Reilly: To be fair, I wouldn’t have remembered it if you hadn’t said spot but then I was like, oh Spotfire. I remember her talking about that and show me things from it.
Allison Cassing: It’s not Spotify. I made charts for our clients using this third party tool and that was a lot of my job as well as like digging into client data. We often would hear this phrase, the numbers are off and that was… it’s not a helpful phrase. Like why are the numbers off? What did you expect versus what you’re seeing? But it was a lot of like diving in like why are we seeing either discrepancies or like if we’re seeing a spike here, like can we explain why that exists there for you?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. One thing I’m wondering if we could situate for our listeners is at that point in time, how old is MediaMath as a company and how much of this is done manually?
Allison Cassing: The [inaudible] into data was fairly manual in ways of, I learned SQL at MediaMath. It was a lot of, I think I dry… so I was around a hundred in weights of employee number at MediaMath and we were still a little scrappy in ways of there were cron jobs that ran to do a lot of data processing and sometimes they wouldn’t run and we wouldn’t always know why, but I don’t know if that’s totally true. I feel like, so my husband worked there too and I feel like there was a day he deleted the cron tab and that was like biggest day of his career but they were able to recover.
Allison Cassing: There was a sophisticated data team at the time, but right off the bat I didn’t interact with the data team quite as much as I would later when I started. They were just the people. I think they had the office upstairs at that point and it was like the rare sighting of a data engineer for me. Like I worked just with the output of all of these things.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. One of the reasons I wanted to sort of dive into that a little bit is that I think it’s really interesting when we were at MediaMath and I joined in 2012 so like two years after you as employee number 140 or so. The Lean Startup hadn’t come out yet, the book, and the early principles that would come together in Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup were definitely available. We went to [Marty Cagan’s 00:15:29] training. I’m trying to remember, there’s a precursor to The Lean Startup that… oh Steve Blank, The Four Steps to the Epiphany was out. Like a lot of things about customer development and iterative development were available, but it hadn’t yet taken the startup world.
Holly Hester-Reilly: It hadn’t yet overtake into the edges of the startup world the way it has today so I think our listeners might think, “Oh those are really classic techniques.” But actually I feel like at that point in time it was kind of scrappy in a good way that the history of their platform, the terminal one platform which managed the… which was the place where people would come to set up what they wanted to advertise and go to get this data and things. What I learned after I got there is that it really came together in a very lean startup kind of fashion of like first we’re going to have people doing it and then we’re going to automate it. I find it really fascinating. Your first job there was really kind of some of the things that later got automated, right? And then you got to be a person doing that part.
Allison Cassing: Right, and that’s… so 2007 MediaMath was founded. I joined in 2010. Yeah. Initially I was building these third party or I use these third party tools to build client facing charts and that was… it was a platform that they were signing into. It was called [MathClarity] and it was totally separate from the trading platform so you had two places you would log in. One for your reporting and one for your other work and for a while that was manual too. On one platform in particular, I remember if clients would change something on the interface then we had people inside who would get an alert and then they would go change it in a different platform so it looked more seamless than it was on the back end for sure, and then through opening international offices and just some changes in personnel.
Allison Cassing: I was shifted over to the product team, which was a newly forming team. So that was probably after a year or so. My boss left and my boss’s boss went to open the London office and so I was kind of stranded but not really because they made sure that I found a good home in the product team. They said, you already own this client facing reporting, you’re building it. We think it makes sense to be on the product team and I was like, I don’t even… what does the product team do? I didn’t really understand what the product team did and for a while I kind of just continued on building my stuff but under the product world and then I was put under the product manager for data. I think I started reporting to him and then I learned this was like another like eye opening moment.
Allison Cassing: I remember when I took one of my stat classes about distributions, different like distributions that existed like blew my mind. I was like, what all these things have existed and I had no idea that they’re like controlling the way that things work or like they describe the way that the world works. That was a big eye opening moment for me and then coming to MediaMath product team, it was like I learned how to write user stories and work with engineers. That was a totally new thing. It was no longer me doing the work. All of a sudden we’ve decided we’re going to build this reporting outside of your third party system. That was my first intro into what is it to be a product manager.
Holly Hester-Reilly: You were essentially a user of the software that would come to be, but you were also the doer, the manual doer of it and then you kind of automated your own job and moved into the different role, right? I think that’s so cool, and then a couple of other things that… just because I have contexts that come to mind for me is like I know by the time that I joined the team you were reporting to the data product manager and I think the product team had like six people. Like there was the VP of product, there were like two senior product managers and then like a couple of regular level product managers, which you and I were.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Something else had happened around this time that I think I hear people talk about all the time in tech product management is, well we called it the new beta but a lot of people call it a migration or a replatforming or all of these other words but basically they had pulled together over the first couple of years of… once they started doing the tech in-house for some things, they had a flash flex version of it with kind of an API, I like to say. Like the API was there, but there were a lot of things still happening on the front end instead and at the point in time that I got there, they were working on redesigning and rebuilding it on HTML5 and I remember that you led what would reporting look like on there and I think that really was, I mean, such a critical thing for the company to get right. I’m kind of curious like how you felt that… how did you go about doing that? Because that’s like a really gnarly problem, right?
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m always hearing people when I go out and I teach and I talk to people think that they couldn’t possibly like create a new one at the same time as the old one exists and have people go to more than one place because that’ll be a really bad experience. Like, oh my God, two logins. No, no, no, no, no, no. We have to wait until we have only one login to even give it to a customer. Like did you hear things like that inside MediaMath and what were the responses and what did you think of what was happening because you were new to product two, what was that like for you?
Allison Cassing: Yeah. I was really deep in MathClarity. It was my everything and I heard everything that was wrong with it from internal and external. I feel like I had a good understanding of what people liked and didn’t like about what existed and I think more than having two logins being an issue, I remember people were so nervous about MathClarity going away, so the old system going away because they were so reliant on that old system. They couldn’t fathom that the new system would maybe be better and serve their needs and because the day we turned off MathClarity was like, that’s a big moment in my immediate [Math] career and yeah… I think there was a lot of thought about if we want people to not have to go to two places, let’s make sure that the new place serves their needs.
Allison Cassing: That was a lot of how we thought about prioritizing, like what will the early reporting be, because we didn’t wait until we had a full suite of reports. We had tons of reports in MathClarity, but we weren’t going to wait until we had that full suite in the new system before we released it. It was a lot of thoughts about like, well what’s most important in people’s day to day? And I know you had the same thing, like you were working on the trading part of it and a lot of it was, what do people use the most and what’s most important.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about how you found that out. For example, I remember that you picked… that there were some, like maybe it was one report, maybe it was two. I don’t remember how many, but that some reports came out and that was the first version of reporting in [T1 beta 00:23:37], which we called the new version of the platform. How did you pick which ones are coming first? How’d you find out which was used the most? What did that look like?
Allison Cassing: That was one thing, I had data on what people opened in MathClarity. I was able to see what reports were used most frequently. That was one piece of data and then the other was what people were doing. One was the performance report. That’s just like how much money do you spend? How many clicks did you get? How many conversions did you get? Kind of the basic that you would imagine and then another big one was where are you running? That was a pretty huge one is the list of sites that you’re running on in performance cut by those sites. For us those were two different reports and those were the ones that we prioritize. Then we kind of stopped and we thought, do we need to make more reports or should we prioritize letting people build their own reports? And that is in my memory, the next thing we did.
Allison Cassing: I think we built those two reports and then we built a report builder for people because that seemed to be the higher value rather than making charts for a bunch of different things that we were getting to the point where people wanted to ingest their own data into their own systems. They didn’t necessarily want to look at our charts all the time. It was less about a pretty charts that were telling people. As much as that hurts with my heart, because I love making pretty charts. People didn’t want to always look at our pretty charts. They often just wanted to take the data into their own system because a lot of our clients were using many different systems and they needed to pull all the data together in one place and that was not what our platform did. That was something they were doing in their own thing.
Holly Hester-Reilly: How did you learn this is what clients were doing? Was it through sales people? Was it through direct conversations? What did that learning process look like?
Allison Cassing: A little bit of both. I think the account managers were really… many of them were very close with their clients, so they were privy to all the different companies. It wasn’t like they wouldn’t tell them that they were using another platform and then also getting on the phone with people and asking, what are you doing with this? Like even if they were looking at the performance report, it might be the case that they were actually just opening the performance report to export the data. It was phone calls and then we tagged along on some account manager visits also where luckily a lot of our account manager, as I mentioned, they had really good relationships so people were pretty open with sharing all of their tasks and we were able to get a firsthand view of that but I remember many phone conversations and little windowless offices with clients having them walk me through what they were doing.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, there was definitely a lot. I remember too of seeing people walk through how they use the platform the way it was, right? And getting… then taking from that, well, and I remember we would have conversations on the product team and with design where we would really try to get at not just like what were they doing and how do we recreate it but what do they need out of this and how do we make the best version? And I want to call that out just because I think to us at the time and that might’ve seemed like really obvious but it’s not something that I see happening everywhere in product teams, in teams doing migrations. I think that that was one of the things that also was really valuable that you were doing.
Holly Hester-Reilly: One other thought that came to mind for me in there was the account managers sharing and taking us along on things. I hear from a lot of people sort of like, oh the account managers just want to own the relationship entirely or they won’t let us in. Do you remember a point in time at MediaMath where that was the case and or was that never the case and how did that sort of evolve?
Allison Cassing: I don’t remember that being the case, but one of the things that had been in place for as long as I can remember is T1 user breakfast. That user maybe is a little bit of misnomer because it wasn’t external users. Is that what we called a T1 user breakfast?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I remember the breakfast.
Allison Cassing: It’s where all sales and account, I think we did it every other week and we would then-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Every other Friday morning.
Allison Cassing: Every other Friday morning and the product team would bring breakfast. Like we always… we spent a little bit of time in our team meeting deciding who would bring coffee and who would bring the treats and then we would show it. We’d meet with sales and account and really whoever in the organization wanted to come but it was mostly focused on sales and accounts and show them things that were coming up. Ask for feedback. What had they heard? Sometimes it was just conversations and we got a lot of great information that way and I think also built a lot of trust with the rest of the organization because we weren’t sitting alone in like a product cave.
Allison Cassing: We were regularly talking to everyone and clearly taking their input and putting it into like they saw things they said come out in our product. I feel like that was a way that we built trust with them and they were very willing to bring us along because they knew it might make its way into the product if this customer says this thing and we hear in other places too, then it’s likely that we might solve their problem for them in short order.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I think that was such a powerful practice that was already there when I got there but that I really took on as something that I wanted to make sure that when my teams were doing things we always were sharing. One of the things that I also kind of vividly remember is the feel like when we were in LaGrange or LaGrange, I forget how you pronounce that word, but-
Allison Cassing: [crosstalk 00:29:58].
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I just remember like times when the user breakfast had so many people that some of them were like sitting on the floor, like sitting at the side of chair.
Allison Cassing: Yeah, up on the [crosstalk 00:30:09].
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. It really had this feel of like we’re all together here like having our breakfast and like digging in on like how does this work and helping each other understand to get to the best outcome and I just feel like… like I never had that feel to be honest. Like I don’t really remember meetings of that size where there was that kind of like we’re digging in together feel while I was at Shutterstock, and so I just like… there was something about that set up and that particular room was more of a lounge than a conference room and it lent itself to that feel but I think that had an effect too on how people shared because people share differently in different environments.
Allison Cassing: Yeah, that’s for sure true, and that’s something… jumping forward, so I moved to Newsela an ad tech company and brought that great practice with me that after a little bit of time I asked could I start this meeting? We called it teacher’s lounge and it was very similar. It was the product team bringing things in either just conversations or it could be really early stage or it could be we’re about to release this next week. Like let’s do a final walkthrough all together. That I again, like with essentially account managers had a very similar impact. I think that they were on the inside and they knew what was going on and they had a real impact.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah and you were actually just telling us recently that you felt like that helped change the whole dynamic of people understanding and being aligned once you brought that… tried that forum. Is there any thoughts that you can share on like if our listener of ours is not a… in the bureaucracy, not called a leader on their team but they want to make this happen. Like were there any hurdles you overcame bringing that into a place that didn’t have it? What did that look like?
Allison Cassing: I think explaining why I thought it was important was a helpful piece. It’s also depending on who it is, we were working with a lot of teachers who had left the classroom who didn’t know what a product team was. Didn’t know what a product team did. I think making it clear that like I think this will be a great thing for the organization, not just for the relationship between these two teams, but this’ll be something that will build a relationship across the organization. I didn’t run into any real issues aside from, I did wait a little bit because I feel like when I got to Newsela, I had come from MediaMath. We were pretty functional product team with a lot of, I was deep in JIRA. I’m still a JIRA fan and I got to Newsela and I was like where’s JIRA? We don’t use JIRA here. I was like the second product manager and they were like, no we just use GitHub. We use GitHub and… I don’t think this is going to work for me.
Allison Cassing: I brought it up a few times as the company was starting to get big enough that like it was starting to get traction. One of the engineers was interested in it but there were some things at Newsela I feel like I was told initially like, let’s just wait a second. There’s a lot of things changing right now. Like let’s not throw too much at the group. I do feel like teacher’s lounge was a little bit after I’d settled in because it’s… I wouldn’t say I came in and I was like we need to change everything. I know the way things should be because I didn’t, I was learning that whole industry. Like I didn’t know education, I didn’t know what Newsela was doing in ways of like, I didn’t know that industry super well yet, but I did know product.
Allison Cassing: I came in with some thoughts about like what tools we needed and I feel like my boss kind of… like I want to do sprints. We weren’t doing sprints yet and I was like how can we work if we’re not working in sprints? This is crazy but he was like let’s just like go a little slower. Like you can do sprints but maybe just work with the team for a little bit and I think that was good advice because I definitely didn’t come in with, I feel like… I hear about leaders in particular who come in, they’re like, well I’m coming in to fix this thing so here I am changing all these things, and that wasn’t at all the attitude I came in with but I can see how it might’ve come off that way had I come in and wanted to change a lot of things or bring a lot of new tools in.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. They weren’t using sprints. What were they doing? Because I know there’s more than one version of not using sprints. There’s like the Waterfall version and there’s still like super Kanban version and then there’s other things in between.
Allison Cassing: It was like milestones, I think is how we work. It was more like Kanban sort of like we’ll do all the work in this group.
Holly Hester-Reilly: How long were those groups though?
Allison Cassing: I don’t remember to be honest.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay. I think that’s the… like to me stepping back for a second to like product principles geekery. To me I think the key thing is less like whether you call it a sprint or something else, it’s more like how big are those groups and how many days pass between the change of one? You know, like.
Allison Cassing: Yeah, and you know, some of that might’ve been my own like, I just didn’t know how… like I learned product at MediaMath so I didn’t know how to do other product. Like I thought products… I mean I knew about other types but I hadn’t experienced it and I’d never had the real opportunity to like try it out, see how that works. Whereas that was something at Newsela that it was like, oh we can try these things out and we really did. I think that the product team was as I said, I think there were two product managers when I started and then the head of product and then we hired a third shortly after me and that was kind of our team for a while and for better or worse, we tried a lot of things and I think we can both be great because you try a lot of things but it can also be a little like whiplashy because you try a lot of things.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. For me MediaMath was my third tech company job where I did a product type of function. They weren’t the first… they weren’t always called products. It was product somewhere else and then the one before that I just called myself the, like COO or something because it was a five person team but MediaMath was the place where I learned how to do product at scale. When I joined there were 140 people in the company and I think I left shortly before you so we were probably both around the same size when we left. For me I think it was at like 900 people and so by that point in time there’s hundreds of engineers and MediaMath was the only place where I did product at that kind of scale and so when I had a similar experience of when I got to Shutterstock and they had a similar scale and I started realizing that there are all these places where in products we think we know what someone’s talking about because they use the same word as us and it turns out that the word does not have the same meaning inside this company.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Like there was a lot of that and since then as well that I’ve learned and so when I work with people who are like mid career, I’m always telling them, I’m like, I had this conversation with somebody just the other day like interviewing for a new job like you should just ask people like what is the definition of this word here? Like how do you do this thing? What does it mean to be in product? And like just tell them the reason you’re asking is because you know it’s different in a lot of places. You’re not an idiot. You just like, you want to know what it means here because we can say the same words because we read the same books, but what it means in practice is so different at different companies.
Allison Cassing: Yeah. Absolutely and responsibility can really vary based on, yeah, what the team around you is and largely who starts I think. Like who was there at the beginning and how the things build from there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I think so too. Tell us a little more about your journey at Newsela. Are there interesting stories from that that you would want to share? Were you involved in data visualization there or did you step away from that?
Allison Cassing: So not really. I think that was something I kind of came in thinking that would be more of my role because there is a teacher analytics dashboard component and I did redo it but that was… actually that was an interesting project because I came in and that was something that I was told like work on a redo, the teacher analytics and I was pumped because this was like, this is my wheelhouse. I love the data piece. I like making data really consumable to people and I heard all the issues that people had brought up with the dashboard they had today and the reports they had today. I heard what they wanted, I heard what they didn’t have today. I heard what they liked about it but part of it too just felt like I think I wish I had questioned more initially when I was told this is the project we’re going to do because I was just immediately so excited by it that I… like looking back I wish I had put on my product hat and asked why.
Allison Cassing: Like why are we working on this project right now? Is it really that people can’t do what they need to do or are they just asking for more because they like think it would be cool or I think part of it honestly is it looked a little dated. The company just wanted to refresh. They wanted it to look more modern, which is like a little bit what we prioritized and I… yeah, I wish I had used a lot more product research up front because even though I talk to so many teachers and this is like… working at HR has really, I feel like I’ve seen this driven home so many times. Like know what your research goal is.
Allison Cassing: Like I talk to so many teachers which is like, I love the user research part. Obviously that’s like where I am now. I love talking to people. I love learning about how they do things and what their situation is, what challenges they have and at Newsela I really did. I talked to a ton of people. I also had a bunch of former teachers on staff so I could talk to them all the time, but what I didn’t have a clear view of I think is like, what question am I asking? Not just like what can we do better? That’s not the right question to ask I think, but that was the question I kind of went out with was like, what would you want to see? Which is just that led me in a million directions and I didn’t know what to do with the information I got back.
Allison Cassing: I wish I had started that project a little differently because we did update things. We made it… we just threw a lot of data at people, is what it kind of ended up being. We had some sort of fancy looking charts and we added a lot of it information but I think I would’ve done it differently if I like getting through the other side of the project I think I might’ve just thrown a spreadsheet at them honestly rather than trying to make this fancy looking table.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I think that’s a really good lesson that a lot of us have some point where we learn or learn again… It’s like sometimes you just… especially when you have the pressure from the leadership of the company and they want things to look pretty and there’s a lot of reason that it can be fun to jump on that project, right?
Allison Cassing: Yeah, absolutely.
Holly Hester-Reilly: It can be fun to jump on the redesign. Like most people on the product side of things and the design side of things enjoy redesigning stuff because they always think that we can do it better than we did.
Allison Cassing: Right.
Holly Hester-Reilly: But the challenge is figuring out how valuable is that redesign and is it going to be worth the cost and I think that’s kind of what I’m hearing from you and I know that I think you didn’t have a lot of insight into the business maybe, I don’t know. How much insight did you have into what the business goals out of that were and how that would be measured?
Allison Cassing: I think that wasn’t something that came until much later and part of that was like the maturity of the product organization at the time. Like we were kind of… there was a lot of good work done on gut feeling early on and then we get to the point where we need to start tracking metrics and like really paying attention to all of that and I think some of this work was planned maybe before we thought through all of that, but I think that kind of rather than being set all up front, I think the project upfront was kind of like we need to redesign this part of the website rather than like we need to drop our teachers. Like teachers should only spend half the time in the analytics that they are today. Something like that. Like…
Holly Hester-Reilly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, like having a metric or a reason you’re doing it.
Allison Cassing: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah.
Allison Cassing: I feel like that stuff came out over time but that was a huge project that lasted a really long time and there wasn’t much like partial release going on. It was kind of like we got to do a big switch over, which is a really scary moment because we had beta testers that it was… I also think I would change the way I did that release where I find a way to get like the test groups out earlier and like smaller pieces because there’s a real appetite for being a part of something new with those users. People were excited to be a part of like what’s coming, but at the same time they need to do their job, so if you interfere with that, that’s the fear it’s like teachers don’t have much time so if you just messed up their day because you’re testing something on them, that’s a real bad thing for users.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That makes sense. Let’s kind of go from there to what you do now. What kind of happened next for you?
Allison Cassing: Yes. I moved to Portland, Oregon. Newsela was in New York and then my husband got a job in Portland and we moved to Portland and I again moved without a job and had really been doing some thinking at the end of Newsela, like is product really what I want to continue with or do I want to do something totally outside of software and technology or what I want to focus more on user research or analytics. That was something I kind of thought like what I want to be like a product analytics person, which now is like data science and beyond some of my, like I know enough SQL to be dangerous, but I am not that data scientist.
Allison Cassing: I really started thinking like, well where do I want to focus my time? And I talked to all of these teachers. I love talking to the teachers. I loved being immersed in all of that and being able to use what I had heard, which I did frequently at Newsela because I would be out in the classroom and someone would bring something up in a meeting and I’d be like, well I don’t know if that’s always the case like I saw this thing in a classroom and that would make us rethink like, oh okay so maybe that won’t do what we thought. We assumed everyone worked like this and I would often have these counterpoints where I was like, oh well I saw this funny thing like we should maybe explore what’s going on there.
Allison Cassing: Thought I was interested in more user research, maybe stepping a little bit away from more of the traditional product role and then you and I chatted and you were actually looking for someone to help with user research on a project so I was able to jump in there and really I’ve learned a lot. It’s a lot of what I was already doing as a product manager doing their own user research. I’ve never had a user research team anywhere I’ve worked. It’s always been me and the designer figuring out we do the recruiting, we do the incentive payments, we do the scheduling. Like that’s always been something I’ve had to do as a product manager and I like that now that’s all of what I do. That’s like where I really get to focus a lot of my time is thinking and thinking much more about like well what are we asking and why are we asking it? What do we want to learn and what are the best questions to do that because when you’re a product manager it can be really hard to have the time to focus on that.
Allison Cassing: As important as we know it all is. We had grand plans of doing… like every Thursday we’ll do user interviews, but like work comes along and you just don’t have time to schedule and recruit and write those tests and make sure you have something because you just have the product manager stuff and like you have a million meetings to go to and then you try and do your work in those like 30 minute slots when you’re not in a meeting.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes.
Allison Cassing: Like getting interviews done when they weren’t the top priority of like, oh, we have to test this right now? That’s always hard, so I really like that I get to focus on that now and then work with other people and collaborate as to how that will help the product learnings for different organizations.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I mean I really love that you do that too because it’s so awesome to do it together but tell us a little bit, I think sort of as we’re wrapping up, what are some of your favorite either tools or lessons that you find yourself teaching again and again to our clients as you’re walking them down the let’s do user research together and really get you deep into what it is because we don’t just do research for people. We do it with them to teach them how to do it themselves and so what are the… I know you’ve also sort of evolved a bit as a coach, right? What are some of the lessons you find yourself teaching again and again?
Allison Cassing: Yeah, let’s see. One is, it’s not bad to use a third party recruiter. That’s a big one. Just coming from what I’ve done previously, if you can and some of them are not very expensive at all. We use User Interviews a lot and they’re great. That can make your life way easier just logistically. I’m thinking of one of our clients who was spending a lot of time reviewing recruits and potential participants and then once we started using User Interviews with them it’s been probably hours of their week that they’ve gotten back. Just logistically that could be a great thing. If you don’t have a pool of users you can easily tap another, and this is… I mean this is kind of obvious, but the more interviews you do, the more comfortable you will be.
Allison Cassing: It will be uncomfortable for those first, especially like the first handful of interviews, it will feel uncomfortable if you’ve never done interviews before, but being prepared and we always prepare a script so that you have something to lean back on. You don’t have to come up with these questions off the cuff nor really should you. You should know what you want to ask and why, but it’ll be hard. Doing an interview is always better than not doing an interview even if it goes a little… it’s a little rockier, it goes a little like off the path.
Allison Cassing: You will almost for sure learn something that you didn’t know before. I think just like doing it and making it a cadence is really helpful. Like every week if you can, and it’s helpful to have someone to help you with this of course, but if it just becomes practice that every week we’re going to talk to someone that’ll get you more comfortable more quickly.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, definitely. Are there some things you’ve noticed maybe when you work with a client who has either consumed or done research in the past, but it was always like a big project and now we’re teaching them how to do it continuously week by week. Are there things you’ve noticed that have sort of been ahas for them about how that changes the structure of what they do with the research or how they use it in their work?
Allison Cassing: Yeah, I think one thing is just getting to know your user more deeply. I’m thinking some people when they do research… I’ll call it research. I was going to say I think often it’s usability, so we’re testing prototypes. I think that’s a lot of what people do when they’re doing research is they’re not necessarily just I’ll speak for myself. I feel like this is how I was. For some times it’s like a lot of the user interaction I would have is like testing prototypes. It’s not just general discussions about like what’s your situation and what challenges are you facing and what do you wish you could achieve.
Allison Cassing: I think having conversations that aren’t about a particular new feature can be really useful because that’s where some of the bigger ideas can come from. If I’m not asking you like particularly about this new thing that I have, you learn a lot just about how the person… who the person is more generally.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. A lot of times we call those the discovery interviews versus the usability tests, right?
Allison Cassing: Yes.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I find myself… I completely agree with what you’re saying and, I end up in a lot more of these conversations with people early on who are deciding whether to work with us and I find myself all the time explaining why we do so many discovery interviews and what it’s for and how many problems it solves and like it’s… I think you’re totally right. That’s a big piece that a lot of people think that they can just… the research is testing prototypes. It’s usability testing and that’s all it is and you’re missing so much if that’s all you’re doing.
Allison Cassing: Yeah, that’s… I’m thinking of a team that they tested a good amount. They did usability tests on new features and things, but they’d never seen people just use their site as it existed because that wasn’t a prototype that they were testing. That was the thing that was already out in the world. So that was just like a missing piece of information that… when we were doing these things every week, that was one of the things that came up. It was like, well, we have time. Would this be something that would be useful for you? Of course it is.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And that’s how you learnt, right?
Allison Cassing: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That they hadn’t even done it.
Allison Cassing: Right, yes.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I remember that thinking like there was kind of an assumption that it had been done. Right.
Allison Cassing: Right.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Awesome. Well, I think we better wrap up because our listeners might be like, might’ve thought that this would be a certain length so I don’t exactly promise that, but I’m curious if you have any final thoughts in particular for people that maybe are trying to figure out what’s the right part of the tech industry for them because not everybody is a product manager. Not everybody should stay a product manager forever. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what that’s been like for you.
Allison Cassing: Yeah, I think some of it is thinking about what parts. What do I want to say? Now let’s talk about flow state. Like where do you find that you can spend time or energy and it doesn’t feel like work so much. Like what’s easier and that’s kind of what I gravitated towards both with data and the user research. These are the parts that for me aren’t as challenging and I think also another thing I’ve just noticed about the way that I work is I like spending a little bit more time by myself and as a product manager you are on a lot and I’ve just found that this has been a better fit for me where I have a little bit more time that’s just kind of solo work. Even though it’s with people. I interview people all the time, but it’s different than being the point person on a team.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. The one on one or the three person conversation is a lot more intimate and feels very different from the like 10 person meeting.
Allison Cassing: Running all the meetings. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, exactly. It takes a different kind of energy for sure. Well thank you for sharing that. I love that. I think that’s a really important thing is just to really think about what parts of our days were the happiest in. What parts of our days we love and kind of look around and see if there’s something that gives you more of that.
Allison Cassing: Yeah, absolutely.
Holly Hester-Reilly: If people want to find you, how can they follow Allison?
Allison Cassing: I was like [crosstalk 00:56:15].
Holly Hester-Reilly: You’re like, no, you can’t. Yep. That’s pretty much, that’s-
Allison Cassing: After working in digital advertising, I try and keep myself off… no but that’s true. I think I’m on LinkedIn. I’m not on Twitter. That scram is boring.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s fine but if people do want to reach out to Allison and ask for questions or to, I don’t know, hire her. Not hire her away from me, but ask her more about what she could do, what her kind of work could do or things like that. You can reach out to her on LinkedIn or probably send you an email. Would that be-
Allison Cassing: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly:
Allison Cassing: Yes.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That will get you Allison. Thank you so much for your time today. This has been a pleasure and I’m super excited to-
Allison Cassing: Yeah, thank you Holly.
Holly Hester-Reilly: …share it with our listeners. Thanks Allison.
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