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Career Stories

How to Design a Career You Love, According to a Senior Product Manager Who Did Just That

smiling person with shoulder-length hair sitting in an office
Zinnia Horne, a senior product manager at WW.
| Courtesy of WW

Zinnia Horne can trace the start of her career back to a chance encounter with an older student in her Stanford dorm. The fellow student, a former Google intern, encouraged Horne to pursue an internship at the tech giant. She took that advice and then did it one better by securing a full-time role as a user operations associate.

“Working at Google solidified my interest in working on improving products for users at scale and exposed me to the different methods for gathering user feedback and delighting users with quality products,” Horne says.

She went on to earn an MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania before joining Facebook’s product operations team, where she was able to see firsthand the day-to-day responsibilities of product managers. But the most important learning experience came at a workshop hosted by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

“They advocate for applying design thinking to managing your career and life decisions,” she says. “I fell in love with this approach because design thinking is all about testing your way forward versus feeling like you need a final solution. Completing the exercises led me to realize that I wanted to work at a wellness company.”

So when she had the chance to join WW (formerly Weight Watchers) as a product manager in 2018, she jumped at it—and has been there ever since.

Here, Zinnia shares WW’s approach to product development, what it takes to succeed as a PM, and the connection between mindfulness and being a good leader.

What attracted you to work as a product manager, and specifically at WW?

When I worked at Facebook and Google, I learned that product managers were charged with identifying the most important user problems to solve and then leading teams to rapidly develop and iterate on solutions, all with the end goal to maximize value for users and the business. Strategic acumen, ability to understand and factor in different perspectives, effective communication across disparate stakeholder groups, and data analysis were all skills that I wanted to apply as a product manager.

My interest in wellness has evolved over the years. While at Google, I worked part time as a marketer at a juice cleanse business, I co-authored a book on mindfulness leadership called Show Up as Your Best Self, and I worked part-time as a fitness instructor in San Francisco. Throughout my career exploration, I ultimately wanted to land at a company directly focused on improving consumer wellness.

Once I interviewed with the WW team, the combination of the passionate team, scientific approach to wellness, and focus on becoming the wellness partner for all consumers convinced me that working at WW was the right next step for me.

What do you like best about the company culture at WW?

One of the best things about WW is that it is full of mission-driven people. Several employees have had their weight loss journeys, while others simply feel a deep connection to actively working to help reduce global obesity and improve global wellness. I always feel like we’re on a journey together to build great products for members. Even in challenging meetings, you feel like everyone is here for the right purpose. Because everyone is so mission-driven, we take understanding our consumers seriously. It’s inspiring to know that all roles across the business care so deeply about our members’ needs.

What are you responsible for in your role?

At the moment, I balance my time between two areas. The first is Connect, which is WW’s members-only, in-app social network, created in 2015. The second is the new Digital360, which was created to support members who need more guidance and flexibility than our current offerings. As the PM for these products, I partner closely with teams across WW, including engineering, UX and visual design, UX research, science, marketing, and operations.

What is WW’s approach to product development?

We like to get multiple perspectives involved early and often throughout the product development process to ensure we’re considering the needs of the business and our members. In addition to the standard involvement of the product, design, UX research, and engineering teams, we also include the science, brand, content, and business development teams in our early product development process.

At the outset of the year, product managers develop a strategic vision for our products by reviewing past research and data in connection with the business and product priorities. From there, we carefully craft our “how might we” (HMW) questions. For example, how might we help members feel celebrated for making progress toward their weight loss goals? These questions are our way of ensuring that we keep members at the center of what we do and stay focused on the problem rather than jump to solutions too early. After we’ve aligned on our member problems or HMWs, we host ideation sessions and do design exercises to get everyone’s creative juices flowing.

The next step is for the design team to create concepts and for the product and engineering teams to start to scope the estimated level of effort for different solution ideas. From there we refine our roadmap by considering the reach, impact, and effort of different solutions. As we learn more from our members throughout the year, we continually refine our priority list.

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

I’m working on building the main landing page and experience for our new product, Digital360. I’m someone who tends to think about the future a lot and likes to build the next new thing so this project has been incredibly exciting. I’ve been a part of several iterations, and now that we’re so close to unveiling it to members, I’m thankful to truly have the experience of building a product from scratch.

Working on Digital360 has been inspiring because it’s an entirely new offering, so there’s so much room for interpretation. We’re constantly listening to our members and we want to provide them with the latest and greatest technology and solutions that fit their needs. To create a product in an incredibly tumultuous year that hopefully brings the awesomeness of WW and provides even more personalized solutions to even more people has been mentally challenging and stressful at times, but also incredibly fun and rewarding.

What skills and traits does it take to succeed as a product manager?

There are so many types of successful product managers. However, several skills are universally beneficial. Product managers have to be skilled communicators. You have to be able to influence and motivate your team. It’s incredibly hard to lead a team if they don’t trust the direction in which you’re heading. PMs also have to listen effectively to ensure people feel seen and heard and quickly digest and interpret information.

Beyond skills, there are traits that PMs need to navigate the inevitable choppy waters of their company. First, embrace change. Change comes daily and it needs to roll off your back quickly so you can absorb the evolving circumstances and move on to continuing to deliver value to your members and the business.

Be tenacious and resilient. Roadblocks are going to show up in various forms. Successful product managers take a beat to process new challenges and then effect positive change.

Be a creative problem solver. As PMs, we are pulled in many directions and requirements frequently come from different parts of the org. Complex situations require creative adaptation and improvement.

Finally, have a vision. People are always looking to you for comfort in what’s happening now, assurance that things will be okay in the future, and directions for how they can contribute. You can’t be stuck in the weeds during these times, you need to keep your eye on a positive future.

What are one or two lessons you learned while earning an MBA that have helped you in your career?

One of my biggest takeaways from business school was a framework on how to diagnose an ineffective team and how to apply clear tactics to improve a mediocre team to become incredibly effective. As a product manager, you are almost always on a team or multiple teams at the same time. For example, I lead a team of design, UX, and engineering partners and I’m on a team of other product managers. Being able to understand what is needed to elevate a team is a great skill to apply as a leader and as a team member.

My second key takeaway from business school is the importance of mindfulness as a tool for being an effective leader. I was assigned an executive coach who helped me see the connection between mindfulness and becoming a better leader. There are so many benefits to mindfulness practices including stress management, enhanced sleep, emotional regulation, and increased focus. I tested several techniques and created a suite of mindfulness techniques that help me stay grounded and show up effectively as a product manager for my team.

What misconceptions do people have about what it means to work in product?

One misconception is that PMs get to make all the decisions. It is true that a PM has a relatively final say on a product’s roadmap and prioritizes what engineers spend their time on. However, many other opinions need to be considered as the product develops. A key role that the product manager plays is ensuring that people’s voices feel heard and included in the development process.

A second misconception is that PMs always have enough information to make key decisions, since we must take into account a myriad of inputs like UX research, competitive insights, market research, and user analytics. However, in many situations, you still may not have all the information you want to decide what’s next for the product so you have to become comfortable with taking the most sensible next step. Once you take that step you will gather more information to continue to course correct. Getting comfortable with not having all the information enables you to move more quickly, which is incredibly important to make an impact on your users.

What advice do you have for those who want to follow a similar career path as yours?

Create career hypothesis statements and make the effort to constantly test and iterate. Try to test it out as much as you can in your current role, but also know that sometimes you have to leap to test your next hypothesis.

Here are some examples of how I tested my career hypotheses. To test if I wanted to work in tech, I took a public relations internship at Google. This helped me see that I did want to work in tech, but that I wanted a role that was more data driven. To test if I wanted to work in the food industry, I worked part-time as a marketer for a juice cleanse business. This helped me learn more about the food industry and being an entrepreneur. To test my interests in people and program management, I led a team at Facebook and managed the intern program for the department. Both roles helped me learn that there were elements I enjoyed, but that I wanted to be closer to working on user issues in my next endeavor.

Make sure to carve out at least one hour monthly to evaluate any current hypotheses, both for your career and your personal development. You can find inspiration for career hypotheses by regularly reading descriptions of jobs you think you may want. This helps you get a sense of roles across industries and how different companies approach the same roles, plus keep a steady pulse on how roles change over time.

Also, find ways to get enriching information regularly. One approach is to pick a specific focus area each month and immerse yourself in the content for that skill. Alternatively, work your way through a podcast or a book list based on a topic you’re interested in.