This is part two of our new series, Product Thinking. We're featuring regular interviews with super-sharp product managers, leaders and thinkers from a huge range of companies. Our last post was an interview with Den Delimarsky from Microsoft.
Today, we're thrilled to be chatting with Andrew Yu, Product Lead on the Biden campaign and a former PM at LinkedIn.
Hi Andrew! Thanks for joining us. First, can you tell us more about your background, how you got into product work, and how you came to be where you are today?
So, like many product folks, if not all, there’s no traditional background. I didn’t study anything product related in college. But once I graduated, about 10 years ago, I read some of Paul Graham’s essays and there was a lot about product management. At the time, I had studied politics and wanted to go into politics because I wanted to create impact. But then I realized, that’s such a long-term way to try to create impact, through politics. And when I heard about product management, I thought, not only does this sound really interesting from an intellectual point of view, but also you get to have direct, immediate impact. You work at the intersection of all these teams. So for me, having impact was the theme that tied everything together. And I thought, I’ve gotta get from DC out to San Francisco and become a product manager.
How did you get started?
Back then, the only way you could really do it was to first become an engineer. So I tried my hardest to learn how to code. And then I got a job as a software engineer. And mind you, I say that super casually, but at the time it was one of the most difficult things I’d ever done. But I made it through and then transitioned from engineering to product. For me, that was always the goal.
Cool. How’d you learn to code, and what was your journey into product?
Yeah, let’s dig into that! It was a combination of three things. First was just teaching myself to code. The second was talking about it to almost everyone I could. That was key. I went to meetups, I was a complete n00b. I literally remember asking someone, “what is an API?” That’s how fresh I was. And then third, I got hired to code and was able to learn on the job. That was one of the luckiest parts of the whole journey. In your career your get maybe two or three things that are just complete luck. And for me, that was definitely one of them. But part of the reason it happened was because I had been talking about it so much. I was networking a lot. I was just obsessed with it at the the time. And this startup team said, “you know what? We know you want to code, we know you’re this young kid who’s energetic and wants to make it happen. So we’ll actually teach you on the job, if you’ll join and be a ‘do everything’ kind of person.” It was really great.
From there, I got my first product gig, and then I asked myself, ‘what other problem spaces do I wanna work in?’ I moved to an education technology company where I really learned the ins and outs of product management. And then I went to LinkedIn. That’s where I really learned some of the best practices. Their processes and operations are so well established.
And recently I left LinkedIn, and worked on the Biden campaign. It’s been one of the most unique and interesting product experiences I’ve had.
Do you still code? Is it useful as a PM?
That’s a timely question! I hadn’t really been coding since I went into product. It was a means to an end. But I recently started coding again, just for fun. The reality is, you really don’t need to code to be a product manager. It’s not like it used to be. Now you’ve got people coming in from MBA programs, management consulting, all over the place. But there are definitely a big group of PMs who are former engineers.
I would code here and there. I also took a data science class because I knew it was important, especially if I wanted to work in a machine learning space. You need to understand how to implement models.
Can you tell us more about what you’ve been working on with the Biden campaign?
I can tell you as much as I’m allowed to! The short answer is, it’s still going on, although it’s a little less involved now. I’m on the post-election team, addressing the question, ‘what happens after election day?’ That required a lot of setup. There’s a lot of work to be done leading up to it. The team is essentially focused on election protection.
So you’re really in the thick of it!
Yeah. I mean, it was all hands on deck for seven days a week for a couple of weeks.
Really interesting. How was that to work on, given that you’d studied politics, then went into tech, and now you’ve been working kind of at the intersection of those two things?
That’s a great question. In a lot of ways, you caught me at a very specific time in my career. This is not at all what I thought I would be doing. I left LinkedIn in August, and it was one of those things where you make a move and opportunities appear. I left on good terms and I was just looking for my next step. And if I were still working at LinkedIn, or anywhere full-time, I would not have even been open to doing something like this. That was part of why I left — I knew that I was trying to go into the next phase of my career.
I’m a very firm believer that are phases to your career. You have to instigate change, because it won’t happen on its own.
That’s what’s happened my entire career. Questions like, am I going to learn to code, or not? Am I going to move to SF, or not? Am I going to leave this role, or not? And it was just one of those times. Of course it takes a lot of thought and planning ahead of time.
How did you end up joining the Biden campaign?
Because of Twitter. Twitter is the reason we’re even talking, right?! I always knew it was powerful, but when you actually start taking action on Twitter, and you get real outcomes from it, you think, ‘oh okay, there’s so much here that’s untapped!’
This wasn’t even my plan. I was planning to just be in a creative mode, take a break, work on stuff I want to work on. But someone who was involved in the Biden campaign posted a role, I connected with them, and I didn’t end up getting that role but they reached out to me with this one.
Awesome! Do you have advice for people who want to engage more on Twitter? How do they start taking advantage of it?
Yeah! There are two main things that, if you do them, are pretty much bulletproof. You’ll get something out of it. First, focus on giving and contributing above everything else. And what I love about that is, it’s not only altruistic. Not only are you contributing to others, but you’re also helping yourself, building up your brand. I wrote an article about what I call ‘servant networking. You’ve heard of servant leadership, which is about serving not leading. And it’s the same with networking. If you keep giving people stuff, the key is not to expect anything in return. Guaranteed, good things will come back to you. But then again, the whole is to do this mind trick where you truly do not expect anything in return.
One useful way to contribute, though, is to share summaries. I recently saw someone say, “hey, there’s a book that’s really popular right now, I know you don’t have time to read it so here’s a summary.” That’s contributing! That’s serving.
I took the Write of Passage course with David Perell, and it really made me see the internet differently. It was dope. One of the main things he emphasizes is to write so that people can discover you. It helps you connect to people around the world.
The second thing when it comes to Twitter, is this: DM everyone. Everyone is reachable! Maybe people don’t realize that yet. I’ve straight up just started treating Twitter like Slack. It’s a Slack where everyone in the world is on it. So I just DM people, and I’ve managed to get on Zoom calls with people who are way more senior, people that I normally wouldn’t be able to talk to.
That’s great advice! So let’s chat about product management. What do you think is your unique ability that has allowed you to succeed in product roles? How did you develop it?
Good question. I’ve heard a variant of that question recently, which a lot of senior people ask. It’s “what’s your superpower?” And I think what that question is getting at is, how does your judgment work? Why is something your superpower? It’s really interesting to think about.
For me, I think it’s identifying skills gaps and talent gaps, and filling them. Realizing, “oh okay, I’m not great at this thing. Experimentation, for example. So I want to fill that role as well as I possibly can.” Maybe if I can’t fill the role, I can read all about it and learn more. But my unique ability is identifying those gaps, and filling them ASAP.
You can go pretty far being highly personable, a people person. But nothing beats having the skills. So developing the skills, identifying when there are gaps, and filling those gaps ASAP.
When you’re hiring and trying to fill a skill gap of your own, how do you choose the right person?
Yeah, that’s really key. It’s all about having the right team to help you evaluate. Of course, if you’re at a giant company they have processes around this. But if you’re at a startup, maybe you provide your opinion, but someone with different expertise on your team may provide a completely different point of view. So it’s huge to be able to know when you can’t identify something, and know who to ask for an opinion.
Definitely! So, circling back to LinkedIn, what’s something you worked on that you’re really proud of?
I’d say it was the My Network tab. When you open LinkedIn right now, it’s the tab next to the homepage. Basically, our team’s mission was to help people connect to the right people and build their networks. When I joined, that page was just about connecting to other people. By the time I left, we had created an ecosystem where you could discover all the different things on LinkedIn – groups, events, pages, interests, etc. We call them ‘edges,’ — if you follow something, that’s an edge. If you join a group, that’s an edge. If you attend an event, that’s an edge in the LinkedIn graph. So we built that page to connect people to edges. What I’m most proud of is helping to create this entire discovery ecosystem.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in doing that?
We worked with so many teams to make this project happen. The follows team, which is completely separate from the growth team that I was on. We worked with the groups team, the machine learning recommendations team, the team that builds pages. There were so many teams involved, and from the outside it may not look like that. And that’s the goal, for the product not to reflect that. But internally, it involved a lot of collaboration. Every team has their own goals and metrics. So you need a lot of meetings, a lot of alignment, which is really challenging, but really rewarding. You get to see that to build something like this, it takes a lot of human beings.
Definitely. When it comes to making product decisions, how do you know when to trust data and when to trust your intuition?
Well, I’ve heard intuition defined as something that results from having accrued a ton of experience and data. Personally, in terms of Myers-Briggs types I’m an ENFJ, a feeler. I love doing things based on feel. So I had to really train on using data early in my career. In general, the first thing I do is trust the data. In general, over-relying on intuition can go wrong. Usually people rely on what I would call ‘perceived intuition,’ when they don’t actually have it. Intuition is almost a privilege, you build it up after years of experience. I’ve seen certain director-level people at LinkedIn who can make a call because it’s clear to them. They’ve seen so much data already over the years that they know the answer. But you should always trust the data, assuming it’s good data.
What’s your favorite app right now, and why?
Roam Research. It’s hard to explain, it’s not a note-taking app per se. But I live in it now. Here’s what’s interesting about it: products are meant to solve a problem based on a user need. Why I like Roam so much is that it does what some of the best products do, which is show you a need that you didn’t even really know you had. Networked thought, connecting thoughts. I didn’t even realize that was something I would benefit from. I used Evernote for 10 years. I always wanted the ability to pull in blocks of text from other notes. I had this desire, but there was a next step above it that I personally hadn’t seen, which they did, where you can connect different notes to each other — not just reference them, but actually connect them to each other. So I’m obsessed with it. It’s a great tool.
If someone wanted to get started in product and they were just beginning their career, what would you suggest they do next?
I’d say, start by watching as many Product School talks on YouTube as you can. Personally, I’ve given a couple talks there. They have people who are actual product managers, who are talking about the topics they want to talk about. And Product School provides them a platform and exposure. It’s win-win, and as a result they have so much great content. I’ve been watching their product talks for years. And I’ve learned things from specific talks that have been some of the more valuable lessons in my entire product career. I’ve also watched talks, and then ended up working with the people who gave the talk down the road, which is really reinforcing. Also, you can just reach out to these people! After you’ve watched a talk, send someone a DM. Never say, “hey, great talk. I’d love to pick your brain.” But ask specific questions. Like, “hey, regarding experimentation, you said we should do X, Y and Z. I want to clarify something about that.” Be really precise. And people will often respond. That’s my advice!
To hear more from Andrew, check out his Substack. And if you’re enjoying our Product Thinking interviews, make sure you sign up to receive our newsletter below! We have lots more coming up.