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21 min read

Product Marketing Life [podcast]: Irina Adriana Barbu


We got together with Shopify’s Product Marketing Lead, Irina Adriana Barbu, and picked her brains about everything from the importance of learning to say ‘no’ and context shifting, to her advice on what to do when you feel overwhelmed, and what challenges PMMs might face in the future.

Full transcript:

Bryony Pearce - PMA  0:01

Hi everyone, and welcome to the Product Marketing Life podcast brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name’s Bryony Pearce and I’m the Content Manager here at PMA. This week’s pod’s sponsored by the Product Marketing Festival. For those of you who haven’t heard about it yet, it’ll be coming to a screen near you between June 8th and June 14th, and will featuring headline acts from companies like Amazon, Uber, Adobe and Facebook, talking about everything from research all the way through to optimization. To get your ticket, just head over to the site, festival.productmarketingalliance.com. Back to today’s show...to give you a glimpse into the world of other product marketers in this show, we'll be talking to Irina Adriana Barbu, Product Marketing Lead at Shopify, about what a day in her shoes looks like. Irina joined Shopify back in July 2019, and before that, spent just under a year and a half at Wave, and almost three years at Intellect Technologies as a senior PMM. As many product marketers know, there isn't really such thing as a standard day in this industry, and because of that, we're going to be focusing on Irina's most recent working day, before we get stuck into 'a day in the life of' though, welcome to the show, Irina.

Irina Barbu  0:44

Hi, thanks for having me.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  0:45

Oh it's been our absolute pleasure. Before we get into kind of the 'day in the life of' questions, to give a bit of context, could I just ask you to kind of everyone a bit of an outline into your role at Shopify?

Irina Barbu  0:56

Yeah, so I'll start by letting you guys know what Shopify is. So Shopify is an all in one commerce platform where merchants can start, run, and grow successful businesses. Our mission is to make commerce better for everyone, that includes entrepreneurs who are just starting out and they're looking to bring their business idea to life all the way to large brands with a retail presence around the world. So at Shopify, I actually work with the pre-commerce team and I help guide the team on defining the big problems we are solving for our merchants, how we think about positioning our products, how we bring our products to market, and the ways in which we create engagement and increased adoption of our core product.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  1:41

And then one last question before we kind of get stuck in, what sort of launch or cycle phase would you say that you're in at the moment?

Irina Barbu  1:49

So as a product marketer, you're actually going to find that you're managing a portfolio of products that are at varying stages of maturity and obviously require different approaches. So what that means is as a PMM, you're always constantly context shifting between different stages of go-to-market and the customer journey. Right now for me, I'm particularly focused on go-to-market. So I'm working with my team at Shopify to define the problem and opportunity in the market, and really dig deep to understand how we can help our merchants. That involves a lot of research and data and customer interviews and a great deal of testing and experimentation before we can make a big bet in any one direction.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  2:31

And then, so thank you for that background. One thing that's really prominent in product marketing is just the sheer variety of the role. And while I've been running the kind of adjacent podcast series we've got, the insider series, there's one question that no one's really able to answer, because every day is just so different. Having said that, it's an area lots of product marketers are really keen to kind of get a glimpse into. So I was wondering if you could just share with us what your day looked like yesterday. So what kind of meetings you were in, what tasks you were working on, what teams you were interacting with and that kind of thing.

Irina Barbu  3:02

So there is no typical day in the life of a PMM. And no day looks the same as the last. We're such a cross-functional craft, and we're often shape-shifting to address the biggest opportunities for our products and for our customers. However, you're actually often gonna find us engaging with very similar teams, regardless of where our products sit. So we're often engaging with our product management teams to understand and inform the product development process. We work really closely with our UX designers and our UX researchers to get a better view of our customers. And we work together to craft a really delightful experience in our product that nicely reinforces and delivers on that positioning that we're bringing to market as our products launch. We also work really closely with data and research analysts to understand the state of our business, our market, the performance of our products, and really get a big numbers view of how we're performing. We work with all functions within marketing from brand to demand generation to growth and customer lifecycle to build a marketing or launch plan that can help us either build awareness for a new product that we're launching or drive engagement and adoption of an existing product. And we're also often working with our salesforce and customer success team and more enterprise or mid-market-focused businesses. And we're enabling them with tools and artifacts to effectively describe the value that our product offers to customers. So ultimately, as a product marketer, there is no consistency in your day and you really need to be that cross-functional leader, you're understanding the needs of your business and you're bridging the gap so that your products are successful and that changes not only based on the maturity of your product lines, the scope of your product but the evolution of your business altogether. So it's often going to involve a lot of meetings throughout the day. It involves a lot of context shifting and a large breadth of knowledge across different functions in your business. But to me to tie that all together, the only constant that you often see within any given day of a product marketer is customer empathy. So as product marketers, it's really crucial for us to put the customer at the center of everything we do, whether we're in meetings or defining strategy, or executing launch tactics, we must be that voice of that customer and bring their hopes or fears, their challenges, and their wins into focus for our teams so that we can effectively provide value through our product. So to do this, it's important to actually talk to your customers, try to fit in at least one customer interaction or touchpoint in your day, in whatever way you can. So you can build that empathy and understanding of your customer. And there are so many ways to do this. Just try jumping on a sales demo, listen in to a customer support call, attend some conferences, get involved in customer research, or simply call and schedule a visit with your customers and really get to understand their world and empathize with their problems.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  6:14

And then in terms of all these meetings you have with the other kind of business departments, how does that work for you? Is it quite structured in that you'll have meetings in the diary? Or is it kind of desk drops? Ad hoc meetings or what does that look like?

Irina Barbu  6:26

It's a mix of both structured and drop-ins. I think, the more indispensable you become to your partners across the business, the more you'll find people coming to you for answers. So a lot of that comes back to understanding your business and spending that time with your stakeholders through structured syncs throughout the week, but also understanding your customer so you can give back to those teams as well. So the drop-ins are nice, but you definitely need to structure them so that they're not taking up all of your time.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  7:02

And then would you say you enjoy the variety of your days and the fact that there are no two days the same? Is that a part of product marketing you're in favor of?

Irina Barbu  7:12

Yeah, I absolutely love the variety and the sheer volume of the role. I think that we have a lot of moving pieces and a really large reach of our role in the day to day activities. It lets us be aware of how things come together, for our customers and for the business, for our market. And we can use all that information and our expertise to decide on where personally we're going to have the greatest impact. So I think that it really provides a huge opportunity for us to really understand the business very well.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  7:48

And I guess for people who are new to the industry, that kind of lack of day to day structure could maybe take a bit of getting used to, do you have any advice for people who might be struggling with that here there and everywhere element of the role?

Irina Barbu  8:00

Yeah, so the best advice I can give is to learn how to context shift effectively. We hit on this earlier because we're really cross-functional in our reach and the variety of our product portfolio it's important for you to learn how to go high and low and distinguish when you need to focus on driving macro strategy and when you need to focus on micro tactic. You'll also need to learn how to feel comfortable in the unknown. In the past, I've seen many people on the teams that I've managed, use structure as a crutch. And it's important that you release this fear as quickly as possible so that you can start to see the opportunity within the unknown and begin to carve out those areas where you can have the greatest impact.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  8:44

Okay, awesome. Well, thank you for that insight into kind of 'a day in the life of' you. For the next part of the pod I'm just going to move on to some more generic product marketing questions, to help others understand a bit more about you, your drivers, learnings, and things like that. So first off, if you could go back to the start of your product marketing career, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?

Irina Barbu  9:07

So this is a good one. And I think the best piece of advice I could give myself or to anyone that's really new in their career is to learn how to say no. And there's definitely an art to how you say no, and you'll need to learn to do it respectfully. But there's great power in what that no represents. And the earlier you can understand how to do it, the better. To me, the no is a signal to your stakeholders and your partners across the business that you've done the homework, you have the expertise and you've made a decision on what you or your team is going to prioritize. And to do that effectively, you really need to understand what's behind the ask that's coming your way. You need to understand what you might be saying no to might be a great opportunity if you took the time to actually understand the details. You might not have all the information to say no properly, and you might be missing out on a perspective that can change what you've currently prioritized. So a lot of it comes down to trade-offs, regardless of the size of your team or your budget, you'll always have more good ideas than days to execute. So you'll need to understand the impact of how you're prioritizing and really feel confident in the decision you've made without changing focus too often for your team.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  10:25

And is that something you'd say you just kind of get better at with practice? Or is that something you need to kind of come into the industry with or?

Irina Barbu  10:31

You definitely get better at it. I don't know too many people who right off the bat have the confidence to say no, right away. You need to like I said, feel really confident in your expertise that you're prioritizing something that's going to drive the outcomes that you're looking to drive. I think that it comes with seniority as you've definitely seen more and had more experiences you can call back to some of those instances and you've also earned that trust with your team or your organization to be able to say no. And for that no to be taken seriously.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  11:13

And then you mentioned you kind of got better at it obviously throughout your career. But is there anything that you still struggle to say no to?

Irina Barbu  11:21

Not often, I'm actually really good at saying no and I think that it's because in a role that has so much breadth and variety, you can quickly become distracted and have a very limited impact if you say yes to everything. So it's really important for you to feel confident in what you have prioritized and know that it's going to have the impact that you're looking to drive, otherwise you're going to dilute all the programs you're running and you won't be as effective in your job.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  11:57

Yeah, and I guess in a way as well there's a bit of maybe a misconception around the word no because sometimes saying no doesn't necessarily mean a flat out 'no, I won't do this' it's maybe a 'no not right now' or like there's always kind of context around the no. So sometimes maybe it's a bit of a mental barrier to get over that no isn't maybe as blunt or as harsh as people might think it is.

Irina Barbu  12:20

Definitely, yeah. So just because you're saying no, it's never a definitive no. So there are no bad ideas. If you don't have the time to prioritize that in the current scenario, that doesn't mean you're never going to actually prioritize that type of access coming your way. So, like we kind of talked about earlier, it's so important to understand exactly what the ask is before you say no, and then you can understand if it's a 'no, not right now', or 'hey, can we think about this in a different way?'

Bryony Pearce - PMA  12:54

Yeah, sure. And then next up, can you think of any sort of mantra or belief or tip that's most influenced your product marketing journey?

Irina Barbu  13:04

I think that there's probably two. One is to talk to customers, and really build your customer empathy. I've been lucky enough to work with companies that have had customer-centricity really ingrained within the culture. So it's really become part of what I really believe as well. And that's to really, really put your customer at the center of everything you do. So the earlier you can get closer to your customers, the more you can learn about them, the more successful I think you'll be in your role. And then the second is to have strong opinions loosely held, I think it's important for you to take all the information that you know, and all the expertise that you have, and be able to form a very strong opinion on the outcomes you'd like to drive or the decisions that you'd like to make, the approaches you're going to take and how you either position or launch or talk to customers. So it's so important to have really strong opinions. But it's even more important to be able to change when new information comes in. So the statement 'have strong opinions loosely held' really resonated with me early on.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  14:23

And then you mentioned you've worked at a few companies that have that really customer-centric approach. Have you ever worked at any companies that don't have that customer-centric approach? And if so, what was that like as a product marketer?

Irina Barbu  14:35

I've been fortunate not to. So it's been really great to have that opportunity to work with the best in class companies that really have that focus. And I think honestly, it's probably a key ingredient to their success.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  14:51

Yep, for sure. And then can you think of any bad examples of best practices or bits of advice that you hear in the industry but wouldn't recommend others to follow?

Irina Barbu  15:03

Yeah, so as product marketers, I think we're too reliant on frameworks. I think we have a framework for just about everything. We have a go-to-market framework, sales or buying process, enablement frameworks, product adoption frameworks, customer feedback frameworks, the list goes on and on and on. And it really boxes in thinking for product marketers. So although it's important to learn and understand these frameworks, it's even more important to know how to tailor these concepts and to suit your unique business opportunities or even create something that is industry first. In my mind, I think the worst scenario is to become a checklist marketer and just execute off of an old launch checklist because that's the one we used that one time or do things simply because it's next on the list, it's a very lazy and tactics based approach and doesn't often tie back to a solid strategy or understanding of the opportunity in front of you. And I think different products, different experiences, different programs, they warrant new approaches. And it's not always going to make sense for you to create the same artifact or run the same program. We as product marketers need to take that strategy first approach and really guide our teams on the best ways to unlock the opportunity. And you'll often find that when you're truly doing something that is differentiated, whether it's your product or your approach, you often won't find frameworks or best practices to guide you. And this is your opportunity to bring something new and innovative to the table.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  16:39

And I guess as well the thing with frameworks and templates, although they might be good for like a starting base, or a groundwork, especially for people that may be new to the industry, is that just because a template or framework works for a company in a certain industry with a certain product, it doesn't mean that it's necessarily going to apply well into your setting and there are so many different variables I guess to take into account with that kind of thing that can make it in some ways dangerous to just take a one size fits all approach to all these different templates.

Irina Barbu  17:09

Definitely, one size definitely does not fit all. And it really influences how much impact you're gonna have with what it is that you're running or driving for the business. These templates really have, or frameworks have a way of instructing product marketers and giving them the baseline but without tailoring them or building on top of them you're going to be really stuck in an old way of thinking and your approach is going to lack. I really think it's the difference between a good product marketer and an excellent product marketer who can really understand how those frameworks can be changed to suit the current opportunity.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  17:58

And I guess the same kind of apply with internal processes. And I mean that within product marketing, and outside product marketing. So for example, I've worked with companies, even sales, for example, they'll have their set way of doing things. So they'll do that for every single roll out, for every single call, for every single pitch. And again, like everything's on a product by product, or launch by launch case, like no two launches will be the same, the same way no two products are the same. So no two processes could be the same in a way if that makes sense?

Irina Barbu  18:28

Definitely, I think having that ability to change and evolve it just shows how the product is actually different. And how the value actually changes for customers. So having that same stamp and repeat model might be effective, but it's not going to be authentic. And I think for people to actually truly describe or position the value of a product, whether that be the sales team, or you as a product marketer, that's initially defining that value, it's so so so important for you to be able to tailor something unique for that opportunity in front of you.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  19:10

And then for people who are listening who might be looking to move up the product marketing ladder, if they could only focus on one skill, what should that skill be and why?

Irina Barbu  19:21

So I think I'm gonna cheat and I'm gonna use two skills. And the first skill is to become that cross-functional leader. We talked about this earlier and I think that the role naturally lends itself to be that cross-functional leader and hinge different teams together, so that they can execute against a shared value proposition in the market. And it's important for you to understand how to do that. And the most effective way to do that is to learn how to lead through influence, you'll often find that the teams that you're working with, don't directly report to you. So you need to understand how to become a priority within their plans, within their strategy, and really influence through impact and understanding of your customer, your market, your product, and give back to those teams so that they can take your opinions and programs seriously. The second is to be ruthless with your prioritization. So another thing that we talked about earlier, which was learning how to say no, and understanding and feeling confident in how you've prioritized so that you can focus on the task at hand.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  20:38

And then, in many ways, following up on that cross-functional element, product marketing can maybe be quite an overwhelming role, especially when you say when all the other teams in the business start to understand the value that product marketing brings, you get a lot of inbound requests, and it's kind of a catch 22 and in that it's great people obviously understand the value that you bring to the table. But then also quite daunting having all these kind of different areas coming to you. When you ever or if you ever feel overwhelmed or unfocused in those kinds of scenarios, is there anything that you do or tell yourself to regain composure?

Irina Barbu  21:14

Yeah, so I first try and remember to forgive myself. And I think that product marketers by nature are over-achievers. We have so many pieces to organize and prioritize. We have so many opportunities where we can have a big impact and make it easy and it makes it easy for us to feel overwhelmed. So it's important to take a step back and really understand what is happening, what's coming to you, all the moving pieces that you have in your day, and understand that you're a human being and you need to give yourself the same level of empathy and understanding that you hopefully give to others. In leading teams, I've definitely seen how hard people can be on themselves and how easy it is to take on too much work and feel overwhelmed. It's important to confide in your colleagues and your friends, your mentors, your leads, and let them know how it is you're feeling, they can help unblock you, they can help you better prioritize and there's something so humanizing about being vulnerable and letting people know that you need help.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  22:32

And I guess as well, I had a podcast with Sarah Din not too long ago from Survey Monkey, and she was saying how sometimes the further you get up the ladder, the more it feels like you just have to be able to own everything like you should be able to do everything yourself, which can also be quite dangerous as well. And it's obviously not the case like just because you are kind of moving up the ladder and higher up it doesn't mean you can't turn to people and you can't delegate and ask for help or show those vulnerabilities, which I guess ties into that as well.

Irina Barbu  23:00

Definitely, I think at the end of the day, we're all humans and to build that trust with each other, we really need to make sure that we're being vulnerable and open. No one is perfect. And it's important to show when you might be struggling as a leader so that you give your team the tools to address those problems themselves. So when you feel lack of focus, and you might be struggling or feeling overwhelmed, it's important to talk through it and showcase to others how it is you're approaching it so that you can give them the tools to use within their own roles or within their own lives.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  23:40

Yep, totally. And then next up, I'm sure this one will be probably your worst nightmare. But if hypothetically, your work hours were chopped in half tomorrow, where would you spend that remaining time you had left?

Irina Barbu  23:52

So I'm a huge believer that the work expands to fit the time available. So if my workweek were to be cut in half, I don't think I'd spend my time any differently I think we can get really high quality and really impactful work out in half the time if we really applied ourselves to it. And giving a project or an initiative more time doesn't often equal a better quality product, we have to be conscious of the time horizons that we give to our initiatives.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  24:32

That's so true as well. So sometimes I think about it like with PMA, you'll have so much on and you'll feel maxed out and then something else comes into play and then something else and at the time you think there's no chance in hell am I ever going to be able to do that, but somehow, like it does get done and as you say, you do find the time and yeah, I agree that sometimes time can be too much of a focus point and you will find a way whatever happens.

Irina Barbu  24:58

Yeah, and I think you also need to understand where you can get something out the door quickly because it's something that needs to get done, but it doesn't have that same level of impact and where you actually need to dig in and give more of your focus because it's going to have more impact or has larger dependencies on it. So it's also equally important to understand what is good enough and where you can actually dig deep and get to excellent.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  25:30

Yeah. And then final few questions. What aspects of product marketing would you say you're most curious about?

Irina Barbu  25:39

So I actually am really interested in pricing and packaging. They've always been a huge focus of mine in every role I've held so far. And I think it's interesting on a macro level to see how pricing and packaging influence the way product marketing shows up. So having worked at enterprise SaaS-based organizations like Intellect and with freemium business models like at Wave, I've really had the chance to experience the spectrum of product marketing, and how the craft changes based on the business or pricing model. With enterprise SaaS, you'll see that the focus for product marketing is so heavily skewed towards sales enablement and market strategy. We often spend a great deal of our time differentiating between buyers and our users and creating programs to help nurture customers through their evaluation of our products. And that often means that we're spending a lot of time immersed in the sales process early in the customer’s journey. We're often executing on account-based marketing programs or inserting proof points within sales dialogues, or even tailoring marketing programs to unique opportunity sets that the sales team is actually working on. As where with freemium the products or products that have more of a self serve touchless sales component, customer evaluation happens more within the product. So our focus as a product marketer really shifts towards experiences and messaging that help guide the customer to immediate value in the product. The product here has to do the heavy lifting. And it becomes more important for PMMs to partner closer than ever with product, with UX, with content or in product copy teams to build the experience from the onset.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  27:30

And then when it comes to pricing and packaging I guess that's one area, and it's the impression I've gathered anyway, that it's not something that all product marketers necessarily have a say in. How would you say that you kind of upskilled and immersed yourself in that area like where did you go to to learn about it?

Irina Barbu  27:44

So I think I learned a lot by doing and listening to the experts that I've worked with in the past. There's definitely a really deep numbers focus in how we think about pricing and there's a lot of forecasting and kind of technical aptitude that you need to do pricing very, very well. However, it's also a positioning exercise. So when we start to think about the opportunity to position our pricing and packaging, around outcomes for our customers, product marketing really does need to have a great or strong voice in those conversations, so that we can properly showcase the value that the customers will experience.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  28:32

Okay, and then the final question. What do you think the biggest problem that the industry faces either now or in the future?

Irina Barbu  28:40

So on an industry level, I think it's really interesting to start to see how this balance between personalization and privacy is going to net out. I think that a lot of companies are building products, specifically technology products, that are very personalized and prescriptive for customers based on their unique attributes and needs. So it's going to be interesting to see in the years to come, how that evolves, what the market response is to that, and how the balance between privacy helps influence this conversation.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  29:25

Okay, awesome. Well, that's all my questions for today. Thank you so much for taking some time out and giving us a bit of a glimpse into your day-to-day. It's been really nice speaking to you. So thanks again.

Irina Barbu  29:35

Thanks again Bryony. This was awesome.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  29:37

It's been my pleasure.

Written by:

Bryony Pearce

Bryony Pearce

Bryony's the Head of Content here at Product Marketing Alliance and you'll find her behind most things written!

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Product Marketing Life [podcast]: Irina Adriana Barbu