Taste of Instacart
Building an Inclusive PM team for Instacart Ads with Ali Miller, Instacart’s Senior Director of Product Management
“I had a wonderful high school History teacher who showed me that history isn’t always just the big names, events, or the victor’s version—it’s a story behind those stories and the individual personalities, motivations, and decisions that shape massive change,” says Ali Miller of why she studied History in college. “I didn’t get a history major to pursue the job I have today, but it’s informed how I work in many ways.”
As a history major, Ali learned to craft a good argument by considering different sources and points of view, and understanding people’s motivations. Turns out, the skills she developed provided a foundation that she still uses to build product strategy, which is where her career has taken her to today.
Her path to product management
Ali started her career at Google—fresh out of college, in search of warmer weather, and intrigued by the generous perks. “At the time, I didn’t even know what product management was,” she says. She started in a role supporting advertisers on Google Ads, working directly with customers at Google, Ali learned that having empathy for your customers is critical to building the best solutions. As she worked with customers one on one to solve problems, she was motivated to move closer to fixing problems at scale. The first step in that direction was to move into a Product Specialist for ads, where she acted as the go-between for the Sales and Product teams.
Soon after, Ali raised her hand—she wanted to take the leap into product management (PM) for ads. “You have to learn the language of both sides as a Product Specialist, so I got familiar with the technical requirements of ads as well as the customer needs and pain points,” she says. “Through that time, I got a clearer understanding of what it takes to develop a product; becoming a PM was a logical next step—and I knew it would be an interesting challenge for me.”
In her role as a PM, Ali overcame her impostor syndrome, dove into the details of the ads technical stack, learned how to hold her own with deeply technical engineers, all while weighing the wants and needs of customers, advertisers, sellers and striving for the balance of an ads experience with organic content. Later, she became a manager and scaled her team. She loved the opportunity to support other PMs who came from both formal tech backgrounds and less traditional backgrounds, as she did. “It was an opportunity to grow personally, look at the business from new angles, and see my role as a PM from different perspectives, too,” she explains.
Looking for a new challenge
When it came time to find something new to work on, Ali was up for a new challenge. “I was drawn to Instacart for three reasons,” she says. “One, it’s a more complex, four-sided marketplace which, from an ads perspective, is very interesting; two, Instacart is at an exciting stage of fast growth, building the foundations of a scalable, sustainable business—and the role of ads in making that happen is critical; and three, I love food, discovering new products, and creating excitement in that discovery process—and that’s what our ads can do for our users.”
A unique ads platform: More players with one common goal
For Ali, the four-sided marketplace of Instacart means ads play a role in connecting more parties. There are advertisers, retailers, shoppers, and users to consider in the ads strategy—and, because of Instacart’s model, everyone’s interests are aligned in growing together. When adopting ad solutions, brand partners want to achieve the same thing as Instacart: help people discover and buy products.
“A lot of ad platforms need to monetize an entertainment or social experience, but Instacart is selling products that can really bring joy to our users while completing their shopping baskets and generating revenue for our partners,” Ali explains. “We work to help CPGs and retailers succeed, which in turn drives our own success, too.”
Ads that lead to purchase
Anyone in ads knows that a closed loop with purchase information is the golden place to start—and that’s the foundational Instacart use case–buying groceries. “Grounding ad experiences in the path to purchase is inspiring and ensures that our work has true impact on our–and our advertisers’ and retailers’–bottom lines,” Ali says. This end to end customer journey provides Ali and her team with concrete insights on which to build ads while giving them a much more relevant understanding of which ads will resonate.
The mission-aligned nature of ads at Instacart
“Instacart’s mission is to create a world where everyone has access to the food they love and more time to enjoy it together—which our ads align with naturally,” says Ali. “Our ads business creates a more affordable experience for customers, and ultimately drives increased sales for brands and retailers; it’s perfectly aligned with our company’s mission,” she adds.
A people-first approach to PM
In her role, Ali now brings all ads PMs into one team, developing a real team identity and building connections across the team. In her career, she’s learned that any team can work hard together, but if you start by building strong, authentic relationships and align around the same goals, collaboration happens far more effortlessly than if you only focus on the work. “As a new lead for this org, I felt like we should take the time to focus on who we want to be as PMs,” she says. “That started with getting to know each other as people—I believe that having fun together is one of the best ways for a team to be successful.”
Who they are as PMs
As PMs, Ali and the team are focused on building a longer-term vision for ads at Instacart, thinking several steps ahead while continuing to deliver on immediate goals. “The stage of growth we’re currently at requires our team to be proactive and clear about where we’re going and why, as well as how that connects to the story we’re going to tell about Instacart in the long run,” Ali says. “All of which is creating room for the team to figure out where to do more, where to specialize, how to align, and move in the same direction. It’s truly exciting to see us building on existing foundations and seeing how all of our individual contributions and strengths connect to each other.”
The added dynamic of a pandemic
For Ali, joining a company remotely “Is an entirely new kind of leap of faith,” she says. “My experience at Instacart goes to show how welcoming the team is and how committed Instacart is to fostering our culture.” That’s part of why Ali has focused so much on connection across her team—she believes it’s especially important to create that connection with each other now that people can’t meet in person, or easily grab lunch in the office.
The value of diversity of experience
As a leader who comes from a non-traditional background, Ali thinks a lot about diversity. “My biggest mentor as a PM was a woman who built a highly balanced team that was inspired and motivated to do the best work of their careers,” she says. “More than a mentor, she was a sponsor to me—pushing me into rooms, conversations, and decisions I wouldn’t have otherwise taken on. I keep that in mind and try to push my teams—yes, I’ll catch them if they fall, but moreover, I believe in them to succeed.”
Ali is inspired by her women-led management chain at Instacart and focused on building her team to include PMs from both underrepresented groups and underrepresented experiences (just like her) since some of the best PMs she’s ever worked with came from non-traditional backgrounds. “They bring different approaches to problem-solving and, having done it myself, I love helping others make the same transition and seeing the diversity of experiences that lead to making great product decisions,” she says.
But diversity doesn’t stop at experience or background for Ali: “This is, of course, just one aspect of the diversity of a team—we believe our product team should reflect our customers, shoppers and the communities we live and work in since they’re who we’re building Instacart for,” she iterates.
“I’m excited to be leading and building a team that is contributing to Instacart’s mission, our users’ experience, and the success of our brands and retailers—all while valuing our different perspectives and experiences that help us do so,” Ali says. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have Ali on the team and look forward to her insights, leadership, and the connections she builds for our teams and ads at Instacart!
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