Meet Tricia Cervenan, Product Management Instructor at General Assembly Seattle

Tricia Cervenan

Creating Order Among Chaos

Tricia Cervenan is an instructor for General Assembly’s part-time Product Management course in Seattle. She has been developing products for more than eight years, collaborating with companies of all sizes in financial services, media, sports, retail, technology, and more. Tricia currently helps clients solve software problems at the product agency L4 Digital. Read Tricia’s articles “A Beginner’s Guide to Lean Practices and Lean Startup Methodology,” and "A Beginner's Guide to User Interviews."

How would you define product management in two sentences?

We help teams and companies understand what problems are worth solving for the business and its customers. We also take in a lot of information and recommendations and make decisions about what direction to head in.

What do you love about product management?

I love that we have to adapt to different teams and problems and the solution is never the same. A lot of people get stressed out in those types of environments, but it’s where I’m happiest. My superpower is creating order among chaos.

What’s an example that embodies the best of what product management can and should accomplish in real life?

As product managers, if we do our jobs right, most of the time we won’t come out looking like we’ve done much work at all. That said, one of my favorite examples is one Eric Ries talks about in his book The Lean Startup. The mobile recipe app Food on the Table didn’t even start building a software product until it had tested with customers for months using a manual process. It was eventually bought by Scripps and is now

Why should someone learn product management at GA?

At GA, I teach students not only how to solve problems that come their way using a basic toolkit, but also how to look for more tools to add to their toolkit. Because GA employs instructors who are still in the industry, students get the benefit of learning from people from a variety of backgrounds. This can give them a more well-rounded education.

What does a superstar product management student look like?

For me, a superstar student opens their mind to information in front of them. Product managers look at the world much differently than the rest of their teams. We focus on problems, not solutions. We want to know why something is, not how it works. This is a new way of thinking for people who transition from other positions on technical teams. So, it’s important to be able to let previous ways of software development stand to the side while trying to learn this new approach.

What personal qualities will set someone up for success in the field?

They must be comfortable and able to make decisions — that is the thing we do most of the time. They must also be empathetic. We are a stand-in for users, customers, stakeholders, and our development teams — depending on who we are talking to. We need to be able to share the feelings of any of those people throughout a project.

What was your path to becoming a teacher and leader in product management?

I became a teacher because I wanted to help people understand the fundamentals of product management but also learn how to build their toolkits on their own once they left the course. So many teams are floundering, building solutions to problems that don’t exist or building something at the whim of the highest-paid person in the org. I felt that it was important to have an impact on the next generation of product leaders, helping them learn to solve real customer problems and understand how to involve their users in the development process.

Why did the opportunity to teach at GA appeal to you?

I joined because I was passionate about helping others. The GA team helped me learn how to teach adult learners in a way that would keep them engaged and retain the information over the long term.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

It’s important for budding product managers to learn how to make decisions and evaluate new approaches and ideas so that they can choose the right way for a given situation or team. My philosophy is to teach “the why” behind the methodologies, processes, and techniques so that students can choose the right tool for the task once they get into the field.

What has been your favorite memory as a GA instructor?

My favorite memory is when a quiet student with little software development experience got up to do their final presentation and really sold the pain around why their product mattered to the market. The entire class became bought in instantly about why it was important that this problem get solved.

How do you help struggling students break through to meet or go beyond their minimum GA course requirements?

Every person is different. I evaluate each student’s needs and determine a solution from there. Sometimes I provide more one-on-one coaching. Other times I provide alternate approaches to reach about or assign additional homework.

How do you push high-achieving students to go beyond the minimum GA course requirements?

When students are exceeding expectations, I start asking tougher questions and adding more complexity to the problem they are solving. Product management is not a systematic job, so I will challenge students by bringing in variance to the environment in which their product exists.

What are some free resources and tools a student can use to stay up to speed with the industry?

The internet has so many opinions, methodologies, and best practices. Follow other product managers on Twitter and Medium to get started.

What is the best way to get practical, real-world experience in product management?

Start doing the job at your current company. Use your skills in meetings with product teams, take on some of the work they might do if they are too busy, and offer to help with user interviews or get involved in conducting an experiment to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Then, when a position opens up, you will be uniquely qualified to move into the role.