5 Minutes with Natalia Salzberg, Product Manager of Macquarie University

Natalia Salzberg is the Product Manager responsible for Technology Projects at Macquarie University. She has successfully transferred the Product Management experience and skills she gained in the corporate world, for the benefit of an internal marketplace at the university.

How did you become a Product Manager?

I started as an Engineer and moved up through the Software Engineering chain to become a Technical Product Manager. As a Software Developer, I felt I didn’t get much of a say in what was being developed – someone else was making these calls. In many instances, I was writing code without knowing what the code was going to be used for. This led me to move towards Technical Product Management when I worked at OzEmail. Technical Product Management tends to have a lot of crossover with New Product Development. Essentially I was wearing both hats, Technical Product Manager and Development Manager.

From there, I moved to Telstra BigPond and worked across all of the value-add BigPond products such as WebMail, Online Hosting and Storage.

The beauty of this role was that the Product Managers at BigPond were very business focussed. It great because instead of delivering a foregone conclusion, I worked on the business feasibility. I determined whether the product could make money, solve a customer problem and how could we roll it out to our customers.

At Macquarie University, the focus is on technology adoption and providing hidden value through technology which is a big change as traditionally it would be foreign to package projects in this way and to report on the outcomes in terms of value.

How are the various ‘constituent’ groups at Macquarie University serviced by Product Management as a discipline?

Internally, we use Personas to identify and relate to our various constituency groups. There are Students, Teaching Faculty Members, Managers, Regulators, Professional Staff and Researchers. We have all of these people around the university that need technology to help improve their worlds. For instance, we have a product called iLab which means students don’t have to come into the university to do their assignments which is a major benefit to students as it cuts out time to commute and provides them with more flexibility to complete their studies.

What process do you use to identify the needs and pain points of those Personas?

It varies from project-to-project as we are not as mature in that respect as we would like to be, given that Product Management methodology is mostly limited to the technology department. We look at previous projects, we use interviews, but generally not surveys as the students are getting overwhelmed with surveys. We talk to the faculty and a subset of the students to work out what the pain points are. It is not the same as you would do in the market as we have to determine our projects a year in advance and they have to meet certain criteria determined by the university executive in order to be approved. We request submissions from the entire university in terms of their desired projects and the rationale and benefit of these. Once these are reviewed we select the ones for further investigation and proceeding through to business case. Sometimes these projects are not reviewed intensely because it is obvious that they need to be addressed because of the impact on a large group of people or it relieves an impediment for students, then it is typically prioritised.”

How do you consolidate or prioritise projects in your backlog?

We use Atlassian’s Jira to sort and prioritise releases. The submission process manages the influx of project requests as opposed to bug fixes. We often gather numerous submissions or issues that can be fixed by a new technology and create one business case for these given the window of a yearly approval meeting rather than deal with the smaller components or individual project teams. It streamlines the usage of our team resources allows for more work to be reviewed and approved at those meetings.”

How is it different working in the Education sector as opposed to the Corporate Sector?

Our market is internal so we don’t express value in traditional ways, like increased sales revenue. Working in a service driven sector like Education, it seems to really be about managing the loud voices.

What advice would you give to a Product Manager trying to get into the Education Sector?

Be prepared to validate your findings and fight the good fight. There are lots of politics, meetings and debate. People in an academic setting love to debate and have an opinion, so it requires patience and perseverance. You have to believe in the cause to help you have the energy to push through the resistance.

You need to be diplomatic, you can’t refer to students as ‘customers’ or course enrolment as ‘sales’. It is a different language and people’s motivations are different and you need to learn how to leverage those to achieve a positive outcome. The hardest thing in the Education sector is dealing with the extended timescales it takes for approvals. This is due to the lack of supporting infrastructure for IT changes, as well as the institutionalisation of the decision making process.

If you keep in mind that you and everyone there is working for the greater good and that everyone generally wants to make the world a better place by supporting the students and researchers to achieve great things, then it helps you to stay the course. Even though the point of views may differ, there are good intentions behind it and that helps me push onwards.

We thank Natalia for sharing her personal insights into her experience with being a Product Manager within an educational institution. Do you have any insights to share about being a Product Manager in your sector?