Tech, process, people: 5 Chicago product leaders share what makes their teams unique

by Michael Hines
February 19, 2019

A company’s product development process is shaped in large part by the technologies its team uses and by the methodologies they follow. However, a company’s mission, vision and end user play just as large a role as SQL or scrum in shaping how a team approaches the product development process. We recently spoke with leaders at five Chicago tech companies to learn more about how their missions and visions, along with their teams’ unique makeups, shape the product development process.


Clearcover Chicago product team jobs

Clearcover is an automotive insurance company with a digital-first approach that uses machine learning, artificial intelligence and data analytics to simplify both the insurance purchasing and the claims process. VP of Product Adam Fischer’s team takes a unique and practical approach to solving problems, which is driven by their commitment to do more with less to keep costs low for their customers.


What sets your product team apart from others in the industry?

First, we imagine what the world would be like if it were made entirely of ice cream, and then we design solutions for that.

Just kidding.

As a scrappy startup, we don’t have the luxury of $500 million product and technology budgets like our competitors, so that means we always find a way to do more with less. We are constantly pushed to deliver the best customer experience on a tight budget. Even as we grow, we’ll always stick to the mantra of doing more with less, because the more we can save, the more our customers can save.

Even as we grow, we’ll always stick to the mantra of doing more with less.”


How does that impact your product development process?

Take the Clearcover UX lab for example. We wanted to get directional feedback on which parts of our experience users were focusing their eyes on most. Instead of investing in expensive eye-tracking technology, we taped two iPhones together back to back and used FaceTime instead. Same goes for our Clearcover Jeep. It’s super important for us to get our claims submission process right — especially the claims photography process. In order to simulate this in live user testing, we bought a toy Jeep to see how users physically move around the vehicle as they take photos.


Avant product team jobs

Avant is an online lender whose platform uses big data and machine learning to offer personal loans to consumers who cannot access credit via traditional lending institutions. While the online lending space is becoming increasingly crowded, Technical Product Director Eric Lee said the diverse background of his team and their willingness to constantly evolve the product development process helps them stay ahead of the pack.


What sets your product team apart from others in the industry?

We value and seek out individuals who can bring different perspectives to the product organization. Our current team consists of people from engineering, operations, customer service, consulting and other non-tech backgrounds. We are also a very flat organization, which gives team members a sense of ownership of their work, especially since they are able to make decisions without jumping through hoops. Data informs everything we do and ensures all team members are united and focused on the long-term vision of the platform and company. We encourage everyone to be skilled in SQL and offer support to help teammates get there if needed.

We iterate not only on our product but on our product development processes as well.”


How does that impact your product development process?

We iterate not only on our product but on our product development processes as well. Our process is always evolving as we continue to adopt best practices and learnings from past experiences, as well as adjust to team growth. Our diverse group of data-driven product managers, who bring a breadth of expertise, facilitate a culture of respect and trust that everyone is making ­the best decision. Each team has flexibility so they can try out new processes and learn by doing. Trust and autonomy are critical for a growing product group, and we believe our diverse team allows us to be successful.


Networked Insights Chicago product jobs

Networked Insights’ artificial intelligence-powered social media analytics tools are designed to help marketers and agencies better understand, and connect with, consumers. Networked Insights was acquired by American Family Insurance in late 2017, and VP of Product Development Maria Richer said her team has been at the forefront of developing processes for working with its new parent company.


What sets your product team apart from others in the industry?

The culture of the team is truly at the crux of their success. The principles they operate on are collaboration, communication, honesty and transparency. They want each other to succeed and do whatever is needed to make sure it happens. The acquisition by American Family Insurance in December of 2017 had an impact on their work. They’re tasked with not just building products but with being leaders who infuse the organization with new ways of working.

Before the acquisition, the discovery, strategy, design and execution phases were all within the role of the product owner. Now, with a larger organization, they’ve had to adjust these to match the additional teams, departments and processes in place. They are still leveraging scrum but also include some American Family processes to create a truly effective hybrid methodology.

The culture of the team is truly at the crux of their success.”


How does that impact your product development process?

Networked Insights’ implementation of agile is based on the understanding that it is not a religion but rather a framework that must meet the needs of the team, company and culture. Scrum is used in varying degrees based on who the participants are, the different processes they’d like to continue using and the cross-functional team member makeup.

Part of the challenge and opportunity for the product development team is to be a part of the digital transformation of AmFam and act as leaders and students. It’s an exciting time for us as we continue to use the combined hybrid product development methodology to build game-changing products, in addition to supporting the organization’s move into a faster, more data driven world.


Narrative Science Chicago product team jobs

Narrative Science’s platform uses artificial intelligence and natural language generation technologies to turn large data sets into stories written in plain English with actionable insights. Chief Product Officer Mauro Mujica-Parodi III said part of what makes his team unique is its focus on recruiting candidates who excel at a very specific type of problem solving.


What sets your product team apart from others in the industry?

We develop artificial intelligence capabilities that don’t yet exist in the market. Therefore, our product management team must be excellent at conceptual problem solving. We have found that product leaders who thrive at Narrative Science come from a highly rigorous background within industries like finance and consulting, have a strong point of view loosely held and the ability to communicate complexity easily.

Our product management team must be excellent at conceptual problem solving.”


How do the above impact your product development process?

We are launching a new product, Lexio, which is a significant shift for our company. Narrative Science has traditionally sold custom solutions to large enterprises. With Lexio, we are launching a SaaS product starting with the commercial market. Today’s market requires SaaS companies to be product-led, and we hold our product managers accountable for their products. Our mentality is that, if we fail, it’s on product management. If we succeed, it is due to the collective team. We firmly believe our product management approach is necessary to be able to move fast with Lexio.


Pangea Money Transfer Chicago product jobs

Pangea Money Transfer’s website and mobile app let users send money to 15 countries across Latin America and Asia. Given that the company operates in a highly regulated space, and that its users are often sending money to family and close friends, it’s no surprise VP of Shafiq Shariff said excellent product execution is critical to Pangea.


What sets your product team apart from others in the industry?

We separate product thinking into constant improvement of both our direction and velocity. For direction, we embrace design thinking — deeply exploring the problem space of our users before proposing solutions. We bring current and potential customers in for focus groups every month to test new concepts, prototypes and products, and learn so much about the underlying needs for sending money abroad each time.

For velocity, we believe in software development “flow,” believing that well-understood hypotheses become refined requirements, which translate to great user stories that lead to efficiently releasing high-value features that impact our customers. Finally, we are obsessive about outcomes, measuring every material change to know conclusively that we are always making the experience better for our users.

We separate product thinking into constant improvement of both our direction and velocity. ”


How does that impact your product development process?

After observing that a very large percentage of our customers were making multiple transfers each month, we became the first consumer remittance app to launch an automatic transfers feature. Joel, our product manager for that feature, wrote a comprehensive product brief defining the “why,” and breaking the vision of the product into incremental “slices” that then moved through development. As we tested our very first slices with users at our offices, we received feedback that radically changed our design for the feature, leading to a far more streamlined experience for our users. Now, we’re watching A/B test results like hawks, tweaking as needed to ensure that any impact to conversion is more than improved by opt-ins and retention. So far, it’s looking great.


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