Discoveries through a career as both PM and engineer at Mercari
Tomohiro Furusawa (@furufuru), a member of Mercari’s AI Team, has always been involved in improving the discovery experience in his three years at Mercari. In the first part of the interview, Tomohiro talks about how Mercari’s Recommendation Team has developed since its establishment, and some of the things he wants to work on in the future.
In the second part, he talks about the things he’s focused on while working at Mercari, and Mercari’s unique organizational culture, as someone with experience in a range of positions, including PM, engineer, and scrum master.
Tomohiro Furusawa (@furufuru) | Product Manager
Tomohiro discovered the joys of data science and software engineering, and before he knew it, he made the leap to the world of IT. After finishing graduate school, used his background in library and information science to develop products for information retrieval and recommendations. He joined Mercari Inc. in 2019 to work on search evaluations as a member of the Data Science Team. He then established the Recommendation Team and is currently handling product improvement as a Product Manager.
Why experience as both a PM and an engineer makes the development process smoother
──You have held a variety of positions in your three years at Mercari, including PM, engineer, and scrum master. Have you ever felt like you’re able to add value at Mercari precisely because you have experience as both a PM and an engineer?
Yes. One way is that I can approach technical debt in the same way I approach functional improvements. When you build a product, you might create technical debt that doesn’t directly affect customer value but does affect the development experience, and thus the speed of improvement over the long term, and that’s something I now pay attention to. My engineering background also made it easy for me to figure out things like how much time it would take to develop a certain function, and which elements I should focus on. I feel like I’m able to communicate with engineers quickly and smoothly.
Another way is that I can look at things from the perspective of a PM even when I’m working as an engineer. When we launched the Recommendation Team, the internal organization and development environment weren’t as mature as they are today. So, when it came time to launch the new recommendation function, a lot of changes needed to be made in the system, and I was able to communicate with everyone with a good idea of which members we’d need to push forward with the development.
To give a little more detail, at that time, we had to make all our changes while striking a balance between the client code, the back-end microservice code, and the code for multiple peripheral microservices. That required communicating with the engineers on each team, and talking to the designers and the CS team as well. I remember communicating with a bunch of different people throughout the company just to put out one function.
Those sorts of efforts made it possible to move forward with the development of the recommendation functions.
As a Tech PM, the ability to work with data is essential
──What are some of the skills you need to be a Tech PM at Mercari?
The first thing I think a Tech PM at Mercari needs is the ability to work with data. You need to be able to analyze data to drive your decisions—to look at the data in front of you and interpret what’s happening, define “success” and “failure” based on customer behavior as seen in the data, and if something is failing, determine the cause and plan your next move.
When we put a feature in place, we decide in advance how we will measure success before we release it. The easiest way to measure success is to see if the feature increased sales. That said, a single function rarely causes sales to explode, so we often follow our customers’ behavior to see if there has been any change from before a function was deployed. Sometimes the numbers change as expected, and sometimes they stay the same. Sometimes they get worse! Sometimes figures we were monitoring which led to sales improved, but sales themselves actually dropped. A situation like that means the hypothesis was wrong in the first place and needs to be reworked from scratch. This is a job where you’re constantly looking at data, making decisions, and repeating the process, so I think data analysis skills are essential.
I also think it’s essential for any PM, not just Tech PMs, to be able to keep ROI in mind constantly. Being able to think intuitively and build strategies on how to implement effective measures at a lower cost is an important skill to have.
“Mercari engineers aren’t just people who build whatever a PM comes up with” was a shock to me.
──Tell us about any particular skills you gained or growth you’ve experienced in the Mercari organization.
Maybe the ability to communicate things clearly. Mercari is a diverse organization and there are members from a wide variety of backgrounds. When I first started, there were a lot of times where I thought I was speaking clearly, but the other members and I weren’t understanding each other. When I would tell my team “this is what we’re going to do,” I would sometimes get comments like “I really don’t see the value in working on this feature.” When I looked back on why they weren’t seeing the value in what I was saying, I realized I’d been trying to communicate it too carefully, which had the opposite effect of making it harder to understand. I thought about, first, what was most important to get across and, second, where the value of what we were doing lies, from the standpoint of conveying information to members from different backgrounds in an easy-to-understand manner. Then I worked hard to strip down the amount of information and extract just the most important points. I found that as a PM, focusing on choosing information to keep or discard based on the backgrounds of the other members made it easier for us to work together.
Also, in a pyramid-shaped organization, information flows from the top down, right? Mercari also has a bottom-up flow, where information moves horizontally, and members communicate with each other to get approval from upper levels. The unique communication style Mercari uses to create this bottom-up flow is something else I’ve picked up.
──Is there anything else you can tell us about the unique culture at Mercari?
One of the things that struck me when I joined Mercari was that there are so many ideas coming from engineers. It really hit me how Mercari engineers aren’t just people who build whatever things a PM comes up with. Their stance tends to be “we’re not going to build something if we don’t want to or if we don’t see its significance,” so I always try to make sure I can explain the meaning behind what I’m creating.
On the other hand, from an engineers’ perspective, it’s not considered acceptable to just say “OK!” when a PM asks you to create something. The entire team must be convinced, in terms of whether there are any systemic problems, what the cost of implementation will be, and what the feature’s significance is.
So, as a PM, I have to communicate the value and context of the feature to the engineers and get them on board, even if the company has already decided it’s a feature that has to be made. Nothing good comes from one-sided communication where I just say, “Build this!”
Since I have experience as both an engineer and a PM, I understand how both sides feel. As a PM, I learned the necessity of having engineers work after accurately communicating background information and meaning to them, and as an engineer, I felt like I needed to be proactive about giving my opinions to PMs.
The Mercari discovery experience “still has a lot of room for improvement”
──Have you achieved what you set out to do at Mercari when you first came on board?
I’ve consistently been working on improving the search and discovery experience ever since I joined Mercari. Although I think the customer experience has actually gotten better, it still has a lot of room for improvement. Mercari doesn’t have any boundaries that say you can only go so far as an engineer, so you’ll be encouraged to take on challenges, and in my experience, I was able to actually put the Recommendation Team on track as a PM. The will of individual workers is something the company values, as long as it matches the direction of the company.
Looking back now, I was lucky to have the chance to work as a PM despite joining Mercari as a data scientist, so as long as it fits the direction I want to follow in the future, I’d like to keep challenging myself in that role.