Today we are chatting with Anna Buldakova, who is working in the Workplace by Facebook Machine Learning (ML) Team. We asked Anna some questions about applications for ML at Workplace, how AI will transform the future of work in teams and even got some cool recommendations for you where to start to learn about product development!

Also Anna shared with us some of her favourite productivity tips and lots of useful links:)

So, let’s jump right into the interview! 🙂

– Anna, could you please describe in a few sentences your role at Workplace?

I’m a Product Manager (PM) in the Workplace Machine Learning (ML) team: we use machine learning to tackle the challenges of workplace collaboration and communication. In the age of information overload, we ask ourselves: how can we help people focus on the most important things and be productive? How could we help them establish meaningful relationship at work? How could we encourage them to leverage their company knowledge and learn? These are all questions that, before ML became prevalent, were sometimes hard or impossible to answer. But now my team is building intelligent systems that help us find the answers much easier.

– What does your typical day look like?

PMs at Facebook are usually expected to “understand-identify-execute”: understand the problem space, identify the biggest opportunities within it, and execute whatever the solution you come up with. In a more practical way it entails answering the following questions:

  • What is our product strategy? That also means answering: Who is our target customer? Who are our competitors? What are the trends on the market? Are there any emergent behaviors we should be paying attention to?
  • What are the most important problems we should be focusing on – and why? That means evaluating multiple trade offs, sizing the opportunity, and thinking about risks.
  • What is our plan to address these problems? That means generating ideas, scoping the work, understanding what is a success state for the project.

80% of this work is pure communication: with my team (engineers, designers, data analysts, user researchers), with stakeholders, with customers. Given that we work on machine learning, it’s a real challenge: for a lot of people, ML is a new domain so you need to frame the problem really well.

– How do you use ML at Workplace?

This team is relatively new so we are just starting to explore different directions. Meanwhile, there are already two really strong applications for ML at Workplace.

The first one is content distribution: how do we surface the most relevant content at the right time? Most social media users are familiar with the concept of the news feed pioneered by Facebook; this is something that we use at Workplace as well, and my team develops ranking algorithms for it.

The second one is Work Graph: essentially, this is a numeric representation of your work connections. Imagine that you work in a company with 1000 employees. Which ones should you talk to to get your job done? Which ones should you follow as they write about topics that are relevant and interesting for you? Work Graph predictions are embedded in the product and allow users to easily connect with the most meaningful people for them at work.

– How do you think AI will change (or already changing) team work in the future?

There are a lot of interesting challenges in terms of future of work, and, to be honest, I believe that AI could help us address a lot of them. With speech-to-text and text-to-speech technologies, we could make the workplace more accessible and inclusive for differently abled people. With AR/VR developments and video enhancements, we could bring remote workers closer together, make them feel more connected. With NLP, we could learn what are the topics of interest for employees and help them navigate through the overwhelming amount of courses and literature so they could learn and grow faster. And I’m not even talking here about multiple automation opportunities that would allow people to spend less time on routine, boring tasks and more time on strategic or creative work.

– You also mentioned that you are interested in productivity. Could you please share with our readers a few of your favourite technics helping you at work?

I am truly a productivity nerd and read a lot about all related topics: how do we form habits? What motivates us? How can we do “deep work” and focus? Here are my top three recommendations:

  • Make Time – an amazing book by people who wrote “Design sprint” (one of the best books on quick hypothesis validation!) and built the Inbox app at Google. They created a solid framework for managing time and shared around a hundred practical suggestions on how to actually make it work. It’s a two-three hour read.
  • How to set up your iPhone for productivity and focus – a very detailed guide on how to be the boss of your smartphone and take back control. Don’t blindly follow all instructions but read carefully to understand some interesting psychological effects of these gadgets. A one hour read (not including the time to change your iPhone settings).
  • How to find focus – a nice article about Fidji Simo (VP of Product at Facebook) and her way of finding focus at work. Concise, short and to the point. A 20 minute read.

The main technique that I’m using (and that is mentioned in all three reads above) is calendar management. Every Friday I look at my next week: define the agenda for scheduled meetings, cancel the ones that feel redundant or can be discussed async and then block one-two hour slots for focus work. Names of these meetings are usually my goals for the week. It helps me constantly prioritize and keep a high-level view on my time.

Other things that are super simple, and you all might know about: meditation, a lot of still water, sports, healthy food, and finally – getting eight hours of sleep during the night. Sounds boring but, believe me, it’s the best investment you could ever do for yourself.

– If a developer wants to learn more about product development where would you recommend to start/what to read?

I would definitely recommend to start with “Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love” by Marty Cagan: it’s a very thorough and captivating piece covering all aspects of the PM’s work. Then it depends:

  • If you would like to transition to product management, read “Cracking the PM interview” by G.McDowell.
  • Read “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days” by J.Knapp, B.Kowitz, J.Zeratsky – if you’d like to learn about quick hypothesis validation and also fall in love with product design/product management.
  • Read “The innovator’s dilemma” by Clayton M. Christensen to understand how innovations work and how they should be introduced to the market.

If you don’t have time for books, here is a bunch of great articles to start with:

  1. Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, B.Horowitz
  2. A Product Manager’s Job, J.Elman
  3. Working backwards
  4. Writing, briefly
  5. Writing is thinking
  6. Bad Managers Talk, Good Managers Write
  7. The Agony and Ecstasy of Building with Data

– How do you go about continuing to develop your professional skills and knowledge?

I guess that it is typical for PMs to think about everything as a product (here is, for example, my article about treating your resume like a product). My skills and knowledge are also a product: they should have a strategy, goals, and initiatives to achieve these goals. I analyse my weaknesses and strengths and try to understand what would be the most impactful to focus on next – usually it comes from problems I have to solve in my day-to-day life: what could I learn to unblock myself, to do something faster or more efficiently than before? And then I usually follow three simple steps: 1) read as much as possible on this topic 2) practice 3) teach (or, at least, share with friends).

– Apart from work, what do you do with your time off?

I have quite a broad set of interests. I play the piano and learn to play ukulele, I sing (and sometimes perform with a band). I learn drawing in ProCreate (it’s an app for iPad), regularly go for sports (I love playing tennis with my husband!). I also have a blog about product management with ~15k followers (it has a YouTube version as well) that requires a lot of my time. And, of course, I like actively travelling, playing boardgames with friends and reading – I think these things would be on everybody’s list.

If you want to learn more about product development you can also check Anna’s blog.

And a few pictures from the Facebook office in London that Anna shared with us:

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