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24 min read

Product Marketing Life [podcast]: Laura Jones


Global Head of Product Marketing at Uber, Laura Jones, takes us on deep dive into the world of design thinking as a bonafide expert in the field, including how she became interested in the concept, how it’s been a useful tool in her successful career as a PMM and how she continues to put it to use wherever possible in her role day-to-day, plus she shares useful tools and tips for beginners and answers questions from the PMA Slack community.

Full transcript:

Bryony Pearce - PMA  0:01

Hi everyone, and welcome to the Product Marketing Life podcast, which is brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name’s Bryony Pearce and I’m the Content Manager here at PMA.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Product Marketing Core...meta, we know. PMMC is our very own product marketing certification program, and it covers the A to Z of product marketing essentials. With 11 modules, 68 chapters, 87 exam questions, 10+ hours’ worth of learning and official PMA certification, it’s a course not to be missed. Head to https://pmmalliance.co/PMMC for more info.

As part of this series, we’re connecting with product marketers all over the world about topics they’re super passionate about, and in this episode, we’ll be speaking to Laura Jones, the Global Head of Product Marketing at Uber, about design thinking.

Laura’s been at Uber since June 2015 and manages a team of 65+ product marketers, and before joining Uber, she spent almost four years at another global giant, Google. I’ll let Laura dig into her current role more herself, but for now, welcome to the show Laura!

Laura Jones  0:41

Thanks so much. I'm so happy to be here.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  0:43

It's great to have you here. I guess could we just kick off with a bit of a background into you, your role, and then Uber?

Laura Jones  0:51

Yeah, so I've been at Uber for almost five years and have been lucky enough to really kind of build the product marketing team from the ground up. And so over that time, I've gotten to hire some of the best product marketers out there and brought this team together. We span all of Uber’s product offerings from Rides to UberEats to our bikes and scooters and all the way through to autonomous vehicles and flying cars. So it's a pretty exciting role that we all get to play here at Uber.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  1:23

And then before I kind of dive into the whole design thinking element of the pod, obviously there's such a large team out of curiosity, how is that kind of structured?

Laura Jones  1:32

Yeah, so we really map our structure to the product team. Initially, product marketing rolled up into the Chief Product Officer until we had marketing as its own proper organization, which actually took a few years as often it does with these growing tech companies. So our heritage has always been mapping ourselves to the product team and as such, we have a team embedded with the Rides product team, with the Eats product team, and right on through, and that really enables us to align all of our work with the cross-functional group that's developing the product roadmap.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  2:07

Okay, cool. And then moving on to obviously design thinking, how did you first come across this? Is it something that you were taught or you stumbled across online? Or?

Laura Jones  2:17

Yeah, it's a great question. When I was looking to kind of jumpstart my career, in my early 20s I had been in management consulting and was feeling a little just kind of in need of some inspiration, wanted to bring some more creativity into my work and I was thinking about graduate programs that I might enroll in and that's when I found out about the Stanford design school, otherwise known as the D school. And yeah, just kind of happened across it through word of mouth, and this was a long time ago, 2007 if you can believe it. And at the time, the D school was just a trailer with a little plastic sign out front on the Stanford campus, and I went and I had this sense that inside the trailer was something that was going to change my life. And in the end, I applied to Stanford for the business school program and spent... I think I became famous for being the only person or the first person, I guess, that had ever applied to Stanford Business School only to go to the D school, and ended up spending pretty much all of my time at the D school, in the early days there and really learned there from the best, the original crew, from IDEO, and from a lot of the places that first developed this methodology. And that set me off into a lifelong passion for applying design thinking into real-life business challenges.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  3:45

And then I guess for anyone who's brand new to the design thinking concept itself, can you just give us a bit of a breakdown as to what it actually is?

Laura Jones  3:54

Yeah, it's a great question. I think design as a word has a lot of baggage and a lot of intimidation. It feels inaccessible or something that only some people can do. And what I love about design thinking is that it kind of hypothesizes that creativity is a skill that can be learned, and design thinking itself, I like to describe as kind of an approach to innovation that focuses on the user. It's something that you can learn about, read about, practice, and over time sharpen your ability to come up with really effective and great ideas and products and marketing campaigns that are all centered around core user needs. So I really think of it as design being an approach or a process, rather than an esoteric concept that lives somewhere, that's inaccessible to us mortals.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  4:49

And then if we were dive into it, what would you say are the principles of design thinking?

Laura Jones  4:55

Yeah, when I was at Stanford, it was kind of taught in I guess the early design thinking 1.0 model where it was a very structured process around key phases. So, empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, iterate and visualize typically through the now iconic Double Diamond. As it has evolved, as the methodology has evolved, as the literature has evolved, as people have practiced it in so many different fields from medicine to fashion design to consumer packaged goods to tech, I think design thinking has now evolved in and of itself and now I do think of it... I like your word principles as less of a firmly sequenced process and more as just a set of principles, things like having a bias for action or showing rather than telling or, being really focused on finding the insight and being mindful of mode. Are you opening up possibilities or are you trying to focus in on a single solution? So now, when I teach it to folks on my team, or when I go back to Stanford to teach, I like to introduce both, think of both the idealized process that has those neatly defined phases and then the more field-ready approach where you have a toolkit of different practices and different types of thinking that you can bring through a problem that's a bit more modular and a bit more flexible.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  6:22

And then you kind of touched on it there anyway, so if people are coming, like new recruits to the product marketing team, they come in, and they're brand new to this design thinking concept, is this something that's just kind of nurtured into that onboarding, to get them familiar with it?

Laura Jones  6:35

Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, I think this is an area that I always aspire to do more on. And I think at various junctures both at Google and Uber, we've been more or less formal about the way we teach it. Now, what's lucky about both Google and Uber is that really the entire product org is structured around this approach. And so anytime we kick off a new product workstream it always starts with insights. And then it always goes into point of view development in the form of a PRD and then ideation. So this is all baked into the way we work. But in terms of formalized education, at junctures, I can't say I'm great about doing this every six months, but I have aspired to and on some occasions, actually accomplished having a cadence of training, where myself or folks from our UX design team will partner together and run training workshops. So we've done a number of those at Uber and certainly did many of those and it's a bit more formalized, and to this day still at Google, this design thinking training program. But for folks who joined at a time when that's not just around the corner often, we'll refer them to resources and certainly, because this is my passion and my own fundamental approach to all product marketing, it's baked into, as you said, all of the onboarding materials we have and what we call our product marketing playbook that is kind of the founding document of the team and that really starts to outline how we expect product marketers to bring the design thinking approach and certainly each person's manager will be working with them on a daily basis to make sure that their work is insights-driven and that it's reflecting all of these principles that are fundamental to the way we practice.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  8:28

And is this something that's kind of company-wide at Uber or is it like a product marketing thing or?

Laura Jones  8:34

Yeah, it's a great question. I think the entire product org really has rallied around you know, whether we call it design thinking or user-centered design, in fact, the entire structure of the team and the way we work is reflective of that being kind of a founding principle of the product org. It was very lucky that again, some of the people that were early on at Uber came from other companies that really valued this as an approach. And so, the fact that product marketing is at the table across the product development lifecycle, that we're there even before we know what we're building, is in and of itself, I think a reflection of the fact that there's recognition that user insights need to be at the core of all of our products. Similarly, the existence and the centrality of our UX research team also points to that so often at the early phases of the product development lifecycle in planning, you'll see product marketing partnering with UX research, data science and marketing and consumer research, to paint a 360-degree view of the consumer and really start to hone in on what are the key needs that we should be building for? And then those same insights that inform the product roadmap are carried through as we work on the go to market plan, as we brief in marketing campaigns, all of those foundational insights are the same ones that underpin not only the product but actually the communications and marketing materials as well.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  10:08

And then you mentioned the kind of six monthly workshops or near enough to six-month workshops, what's the flow of them? Like, what's the structure? What kind of stuff will you do in those workshops?

Laura Jones  10:18

Yeah, it's a great question. So, again, because I learned about design thinking at Stanford, I really internalized a lot of the early lessons there and I'd say every training I've done is modeled off of the iconic wallet exercise. And this I think now has a law of its own at least in the valley. And design thinking is often taught, not so much at the D school, but when the D school is out doing exec-ed or teaching another group of students about design thinking, at that time we love to do what we call the wallet exercise which is giving a brief to the team if you will, and these are kind of small sub-teams within a group to say, "Your task is to redesign the wallet" and to give a one or two-hour time box window in which a group of folks would need to go through the entire design thinking process, and go through each of those phases and go through kind of all of the key activities that you might go through over the course of many months in a tech company as you're really designing a product, or over the course of a few weeks in the context of a sprint. But to condense that all into really the shortest possible time, give a very seemingly simple task like redesign the wallet that's very open-ended and really take people through the experience of doing user interviews, going through empathy mapping, designing a POV, going through a brainstorm, sticker voting, prototyping, testing, and coming up with the final product. And so you get that sense in an activity like that, of the pace and the urgency, and really the galvanizing effect on a team that occurs when you're all single-mindedly focused on an end goal and in delighting the user with what you produce. And so that model is at the foundation of everything, this idea of learning by doing. And so to bring this back to what I do at Uber, typically what we'll do is try to find a relevant challenge area, so for example, redesign the commute or something that speaks to a business challenge that's relevant to our industry. And again, with that accessible user base, so if we're talking about redesigning the commute, I can interview you and learn all about your commute and redesign your commute without having to go do some lengthy research. So it just gives people that muscle memory of like, what does it feel like to ask questions and listen? And what does it feel like to try to solve a problem in a group? And then what does it feel like to go back to a user with the prototype you've designed and have them beat it up and give feedback? And really get out of your own head and really solve someone else's problems without bringing all of your own biases to bear.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  13:17

And then it sounds like the kind of design thinking concept can be applied to lots of different scenarios, activities, projects, would you say there any product marketing activities or projects, for example, that are more so suited to applying this design thinking concept than others?

Laura Jones  13:36

Yeah, I think it's not that it's more or less suited, I think that what I would find is that it's more obvious in some cases than others. So one thing that I hear a lot as I'll introduce people to this way of thinking is, "Gee this sounds like it would work really well if I happen to be hired, right in the beginning of planning, and I can go out and faithfully replicate this process, I can collect these insights, I can package them up, I can lead the cross-functional team through this point of view development. And then we can do a lot of brainstorms. But gee, what happens if I'm hired the day after the brainstorm? And all of a sudden I come in and the team already knows what they're going to build. And it's already been codified. And now I've missed out on part of it, how do I practice this?" And this is where I go back to that earlier concept of letting go of the formalized process and instead thinking of this as an approach or a series of mindsets even that you would bring to work, and I think the best example I can give of this is from very early in my marketing career right after I graduated from Business School. So my first job out of business school, I went to work at Visa and in one of my first weeks my boss said, "Gee, I want you to present some of our kind of consumer insights to the whole company, or rather to the whole marketing org", and he kind of handed me a giant stack of reports and it looked daunting, and if I'm being honest, maybe even a little boring, I was gonna have to go through all of these reports and summarise them. And it just felt like the work I had tried to get away from when I left consulting. And instead of kind of trudging through and doing it the way that I would have normally done that, made a PowerPoint deck with some facts and figures, I kind of stepped back and I said, "You know what, I'm a design thinker, I need to approach this differently". And I really challenged myself to say, "Okay, what's the purpose of this presentation?" and thinking about, "Who's the audience?" and what I realized is that, you know, the audience is my peers, my co-workers, and the purpose is to really inspire and shape their thinking. So the most important thing I really needed to do was capture their attention. And whether they remembered the exact facts or figures, the most important thing was that they would get the feeling and that deep empathy for how our user's feeling, and this was 2009 so it was right in the heart of a pretty bad recession, we're in the financial services industry, and there was a real deficit of trust amongst consumers. So instead of making a normal PowerPoint, I decided to make a short video and set it to music, and did some pull quotes from the consumer research, I did manage to get some charts in there, but they were highly abstracted. Basically, it was a five-chapter story just going through the five key mindsets of consumers and it really had a human scrappy feel to it. And I'll never forget, I get up to present and everyone's expecting this kind of wonky presentation on all the facts and figures and instead I dim the lights and hit play and again, at the time Visa was a pretty conservative environment. And I think everyone was just like, "Who is this person and what is she doing?", but I think it was effective in that it did really capture people's attention, it wasn't what they expected, and it left them with a really indelible impression of what the consumer mindset was. And for me, this is a great example of like, was that design thinking? I don't know, it might have been, it might not have been, but it achieved the objective of having a bias for action, and doing something that's surprising to change someone's behavior, and really bring that deep sense of empathy. And I always kind of come away with, if I was successful in changing someone's mind, or better yet changing their behavior, then I successfully executed design thinking.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  17:38

Okay, that's a really interesting example as well. Do you have any other examples? Maybe more recently at Uber or Google, again, like how you apply this design thinking?

Laura Jones  17:47

Yeah, so one of my favorite projects at Uber where we did this was when we redesigned our driver app, and so I think all of us out there know what it feels like to be an Uber rider. We do this all the time. But in order to think about how we could make our driver app better, it really required us to, again, move out of our own heads and really get into empathy mode and spend deep, deep time and gather a deep understanding of our users, of our drivers rather. So we did a few things. I think one of the most important and pivotal ones was we sent our team of product marketers, and UX researchers, and product managers all around the world and they did drive alongs with our drivers, first with the old app and then as we started to build iterations on the new app with different builds of the new app, and we actually enrolled 500 drivers around the world as beta drivers and they had access to our what we call our 'buganizer', which is our bug reporting system. And they were emailing and g-chatting our product managers and really just sharing real-time feedback and input and by gathering all this information, we were able to build something that was really reflective of their needs. And meanwhile thinking about, "Hey, we're also going to have to bring this product to market", we started to film some of these drive alongs and really collected a lot of artifacts and visual reference materials from this beta process so that as we started to move from product development into go-to-market, we were able to tell a story to drivers that really reflected this journey we've been on and helped instill trust because we knew that drivers would feel skeptical and averse to change, it's really hard when an app that you rely on every day doesn't work as it used to. So we needed them to believe that this change was really for the better, done in their interest to make their lives easier ultimately. And so by sharing the story of this kind of co-creation journey, we were not only able to build a better product, but we were also able to have a better launch and more effective product marketing, because we were able to tell the story of this being an app that we really built together, for drivers with drivers.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  20:02

Okay, cool that's really interesting thank you. I guess for anyone who's listening to this now thinking maybe they're new to design thinking, they want to go away, and they want to implement design thinking to their setup. How would they go about doing that? What would your kind of next step plan be for them?

Laura Jones  20:18

Yeah, great question. I mean, a few thoughts, first from a resources standpoint, there's some great books and resources out there, and the kind of godfathers of the industry, David Kelley and Tom Kelley, have co-written some books, including The Art of Innovation, Jake Knapp, who was a colleague at Google, wrote Sprint, which I think is one of the best books out there on the process. And then IDEO has a tonne of amazing resources online, including some online courses that you can do to learn about the process. And then as you move out of learning about design thinking, understanding the practice of it to applying it in your day to day life I think there’s kind of two options. One is, again to go through this formalized sprint type process where you actually bring an entire cross-functional team together and say, "Hey, let's execute a design sprint". And again, Jake Knapp's book can be a really great reference for every step from the amount of time you need, to the type of space you need, to the type of materials you need. So you could go and actually do a design sprint with your cross-functional partners. But if that is something that's not accessible, you can even be a bit more simplistic about it and practice it independently, almost as a mindfulness kind of exercise. So it goes back to that story about me at Visa sitting alone at my desk with a stack of papers. You know, I didn't have a cross-functional team. We weren't tasked with designing a product. It was just me and a stack of papers. But I would encourage people that find themselves in that situation to really get curious and don't just approach something, the way you would always approach it. To me, design thinking starts with when you ask the question why? Why am I doing this? And then ask the question about who's it for? So who's the audience? And what do they care about? What makes this meaningful? How might I catch their attention? And then really thinking about what the end goal is. Most often with design thinking, again, the goal is to change someone's behavior or change their mind. So if you start to think about why you're doing something, who the audience is, what the desired outcome is, and then ask yourself, how might I approach this differently? That is kind of the prompt that will set you off on a different course that will be inherently more user-centric, more attention-grabbing, and more effective than just going through the motion of, replicating old processes that don't necessarily always get the outcomes that you're wanting.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  23:03

This is obviously something you've been super invested in for years now, obviously, over that time you've probably read a lot about design thinking and seen a lot about design thinking, is there anything that you've read, heard or seen, that maybe constitutes a best practice, but you wouldn't really recommend people to maybe go and follow if they were starting this themselves?

Laura Jones  23:23

Yeah, that's a good question. I think it just comes down to working with resources you have and again, going back to the idea of like a cross-functional design sprint versus you at your desk. I think it's just remembering that again, ultimately, the ideal conditions for design thinking are pretty hard to come across and even when you are a huge advocate like myself, the times when you can actually set aside a week and participate in a full design sprint, are not going to be as often as you might like. And so I think just not feeling so bound by that and not feeling like the only way I can practice design thinking is if I have this perfect setup and this perfect task ahead of me and instead just saying, "You know what, I'm going to break down the barriers and really anything I do can be a playground for design thinking if I carry this within myself."

Bryony Pearce - PMA  24:28

Okay, awesome. Thank you. Well, I have asked all my questions. However, I've put this out to our Slack community to see if anyone else had any questions and a fair few came in. So we're gonna work through some questions that have come in from the community and the first one is, does design thinking differ depending on if you're in a B2B or B2C environment? And if it does, what are those main differences?

Laura Jones  24:51

Yeah, it's a great question. I think in a way it does differ, the process is the same but the way of getting those insights is going to differ a little bit, and here's why. Because from a consumer standpoint, yes, there are different kinds of consumers or different segments, but in some ways, if I'm just trying to redesign a commute, I can talk to you, I can talk to my husband, I can talk to my mom, great, I've got a ton of people all around me that are consumers. When you get into B2B, the roles are much more specialized and so when you're thinking about what does the travel manager at a company want? All of a sudden, I can't just call you or call my mom, that's not gonna work, neither of you guys are travel managers at a Fortune 500 company, so then I have to be a little bit either more creative or more or a bit more structured in how I'm going to do my research. So I think that's where having, for example, like advisory board, so again, kind of coming back to Uber when we think we have a relatively significant B2B portion of the business in Uber for business and some of our other ventures like Freight, and so when we do need to get consumer insights it's different, you're not necessarily running a focus group or large end quant research, you might have an advisory council or work in other smaller forums where, because the customer base is so much smaller and it's more of this kind of co-creation, like I was discussing with drivers where you are going to have to engage a bit more selectively and really kind of bring them into the design process so that they can understand and feel that they're being listened to, they have a say in the roadmap, and that you are treating them both as that subject of your research but also as your client and also treating them with the deference and being careful that you're not setting expectations when you're in that ideation mode that you're going to necessarily deliver that entire roadmap that they just wished for. So I think it's definitely a bit harder and more complicated on the user research side. But once you get those insights and once you know what the core needs of that consumer, or that audience, in this case, a user within a B2B setting is you can then again, go through the same process or apply those same mindsets. But, thinking through the research and thinking through how you're going to do testing, is going to require close coordination with probably your sales team.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  27:35

Okay, awesome. And the next one, we've kind of touched on this at points throughout the podcast, but kind of day to day, week to week which product marketing activities do you or your team's mostly apply the design thinking concept to?

Laura Jones  27:50

Yeah, so I think it varies. One of the great things about having such a large team across so many different business lines at various phases of maturity is there are wildly different activities going on within the product marketing team on any given day, and so just to pull a recent one, again, the sprint in some ways is the most recognizable form of design thinking that you can point to, if you look across my team on any given week, if someone's doing a design sprint, that would be a very obvious instance of design thinking being practice. And in fact, we just wrapped up about a week ago, a really great design sprint thinking through our loyalty ecosystem. So we have a consumer loyalty program Uber Rewards, and we have a subscription product across our Rides and Eats LOB's and so we have been thinking a lot about, how do we evolve these? What do people value about these? And what are opportunities where we can actually make these more effective programs? And so that that was a very obvious design thinking activity that was going on, but another great example of something that the team does, which I think in some ways to me is like one of the things that I hold in the highest regard is we'll do employee driving. So our driver team, and certainly our entire product marketing team is encouraged to go out and drive for Uber and use the app and pick up passengers and really understand what works and what doesn't about that experience. And so that's something that we're really always encouraging people as they join the team to spend time doing, they can also do food deliveries, but really not just put on that consumer hat but also put on the earner hat. And most recently, obviously, right now we're in the midst of this global pandemic of Coronavirus, so no one on the team is actively out driving but just last week, we did have team members out at a greenlight hub distributing masks and hand sanitizers to drivers and again, that simple touchpoint of going out and interacting with drivers, especially in a moment like this, which is an incredibly stressful one for everyone, and especially for our drivers whose work has become harder, more dangerous, and frankly, obviously global demand for ride-sharing is down. So having that touchpoint and understanding, where are they at from a psychological standpoint, from a mental standpoint? How can we help them? How do we support them as best we can? That was a really powerful touchpoint. And I'm really proud of the team members that went out there and engaged in that because the insights that they gathered were invaluable. And I think the actions we can take as a company to better support drivers are going to be much better having had that one on one conversation.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  30:45

This is kind of going off-topic a little bit from design thinking. But in terms of when you get these insights and the company-wide impacts of them, what's the culture like at Uber in terms of product marketing? Do you have quite a big voice, level of influence, support, and that kind of thing?

Laura Jones  30:59

Yeah. I mean, I think that people over time have really come to value the insights that product marketing and really the whole marketing team are able to garner both through these real-life interactions, through focus groups, through quantitative research. And Uber is a company that really values data, and is very data-driven. And in that way, because we have so many different types of data from quantitative to qualitative, we are able to really influence leadership, to influence product and influence ops in decisions that get made because we are serving as the voice of the customer and Uber is ultimate, because it's data-centric in that way, it's also customer-centric because we really want to know what is going on and use that as the basis for the decisions that we're making.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  31:53

Okay, awesome. And then the final question from the community. So design sprint, which is a declination of design thinking born at Google Ventures has been growing big in recent years. One of the main challenges of product marketing is to align sales, marketing, and product teams around this common vision and strategy. Do you think the principle of the design sprint could be applied to product marketing topics?

Laura Jones  32:19

Yes, I mean, we do that all the time, as I said, one of my team members he's just finished up the design sprint, and again, because I don't really distinguish between product and product marketing to me they are the same activity, just different phases in the life cycle if you will, or different work streams that both span all the faces of the lifecycle so we will frequently do design sprints where we have both product managers, product marketers, as well as designers, UX researchers, coming together and uncovering insights which then inform the product roadmap, they inform the value proposition, the positioning, the go-to-market strategy and certainly the actual creative itself. So yeah I think design sprints to me are in some ways the purest form of practice of design thinking that you'll get in at least a tech company and I would certainly encourage people to familiarise themselves with that methodology. Again, Jake Knapp has a great book called Sprint, he's really the founding father of the sprint methodology. And try those out in your workplace. Again, one of the key insights that Jake will often reference in the creation of the sprint methodology was very much around marketing and it was the insight that when he was at Microsoft, they would develop a product with whatever specs and hand it over to marketing to do the box design, and often what marketing would want to put on the box didn't really match what they had built and that was a really good indication that what they had built wasn't going to be marketable. And so instead, I always say product marketing and marketing cannot be an afterthought, it has to be built into the product from day one. And by going through a design sprint as a cross-functional team together, you can make sure that the same insight that informs the product is the insight that informs the marketing so that when you get out there and market it, you're marketing, something that really reflects a true user need, and that the product faithfully will deliver when someone takes it out of the box or downloads it from the App Store so that you're really delivering that value that you know is going to resonate with the user.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  34:38

Okay, perfect. Well, that's all the questions from me and the community, I just want to say thank you for taking some time out to speak to us today, I really appreciate it.

Laura Jones  34:47

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for having me. I'm really great to have this conversation.

Written by:

Bryony Pearce

Bryony Pearce

Bryony's the CMO for Product Marketing Alliance. She's been with the company since day dot and leads our marketing, courses, content, community, and customer success teams

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Product Marketing Life [podcast]: Laura Jones