I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Julia Kastner for some time now. Julia is the VP of Product at NeuroFlow, a Philly tech startup that is growing quickly. On the heels of raising a $7.5M Series A, NeuroFlow is making meaningful progress increasing integration and patient engagement in the behavioral health field.

I’ve always considered product management part science, part art. Balancing the various priorities and stakeholders involved can be tricky, but in a fast-growing, mission-based startup, those pressures only amplify. So I caught up with Julia to get a sense of what makes her tick and how she approaches her discipline.

This is the first of many interviews I’ll be conducting with technical and entrepreneurial leaders in the Philly tech world. My aim is to not only spread knowledge, but also shine a light on the deep network of talent and experience present in the community.

How would the people who know you best describe you?

Passionate, analytical, extremely organized (but also absent minded), artistic, collaborative, and somewhat impatient. I’ve always loved both math and art, which I think was great prep for product management.

Definitely. You received your MBA from Harvard. What was the most valuable part of that experience for you?

My background before Harvard was in nonprofit and government. In my first finance class, I was cold-called and asked to speak about a case that was on a small business in Africa. I said it looked like they were doing really well, with $7M in annual revenue. The class burst out laughing - they were used to working with billion dollar businesses, $7M was peanuts to them! HBS raised the ceiling for how big I could dream, as well as exposing me to incredible people and an outstanding international network that have helped me rise in every stage of my career.

That’s fantastic. Where do you believe the best product ideas originate from?

The best ideas solve big business AND user problems in a simple way. For example, at NeuroFlow we had a big business problem, which was how to help health systems like Thomas Jefferson University innovate around providing mental health. The biggest blocker was a user problem - traditionally trained doctors didn’t always know how to measure and intervene for mental health issues, and are already burnt out with their use of technology and their busy, packed days. So we designed simple integrations between our platform and their electronic health records systems that allowed doctors to take easy, quick steps to use our platform and get clear recommendations back on possible treatment options. With a product solution like this, everyone wins - the hospital, the doctors, and us, for building and maintaining a simple streamlined technology.

It’s painful to say no to some ideas. How do you do it?

At NeuroFlow, we have the value of a ‘yes mentality’. This does not mean saying yes all the time (believe me, I don’t!) but it’s about not saying “no” off the bat - every idea is considered and prioritized, so much of the time the answer is “not yet”. As an example, our customer success team recently asked for a task to be automated that takes them a long time. Our team’s response was “we’d like to know more before we prioritize this engineering work, could you do the task manually and track how long it takes you to complete?” We position ourselves as being on their side, helping them collect the data they need to make a case for what’s best for the business.  

When is it worth cutting corners?

The goal of a product team is to help a company build the best technology and solutions possible at the least cost. To achieve this goal, a PM has a few levers: time, scope, resources, quality. I really never chop out quality. With this in mind then, the goal is to match scope/cost with expected value and degree of certainty. If we’re not sure how valuable something will be to our customers, ideally we’d only release a small test “minimum viable product”, cutting out any features that don’t actually test the value of the feature. If we are very confident about a ton of value, we will chop out less scope and walk around every single corner - these are the features that become our core competitive advantage and value proposition. For example, B2C experiences often need to be built more completely. Jagged experiences can lead to UX friction, which leads to rapid drop-off. If we’re confident about a new feature through our research, we’re going to put in the effort to build thorough user experiences.  

Great point. I’ve definitely observed the same differences in B2B vs B2C.

What do you expect out of engineers? What should their dynamic with product management look like?

We should be BFFs! Kind of being serious. Having a trust-based and collaborative relationship between product and engineering not only makes for happier, more productive teams but better products. PMs need thought partners, who can help design, scope, and imagine solutions, as well as help with project management, keeping teams on track and delivering quality features. And engineers need PMs who are tech savvy enough to understand risks, tradeoffs, and scope, can conduct useful research and data analysis to shed light into business needs, and who are not trying to own all aspects of creativity, timeline creation, or strategy. It’s got to be a healthy partnership.  

It’s a tricky but rewarding balance, for sure

How do you manage up? What happens when an executive or two disagrees with priorities?

Priorities should come out of a rigorous process of research, strategy, and analysis. The goal of a PM is to be a “dream catcher” or a filter, gathering ideas and requests from across an organization (CS, Sales, Marketing, Execs, Customers, etc.) and help align those ideas with broad corporate strategy. Often if executives disagree on product priorities, it’s because of an underlying disagreement on corporate strategy or a misunderstanding of how product features align with corporate strategy. So product leaders need to build a process to help shape and align with strategy at the highest level, then articulate how that strategy translates into products. If that’s done successfully, it usually alleviates disagreement.  

What is one of your favorite products and why?

One of my favorite products is Slack. What I love about Slack is that through careful design and excellent execution, it’s extremely functional while also being lots of fun. The team has implemented an ecosystem with powerful seamless integrations (e.g. Google docs, Jira, Asana) while also allowing for gifs, custom emojis, etc. Feels fun, easy, and intuitive, while superpowering the remote workplace.

Of course, my absolute favorites are some of the fantastic products I’ve gotten to work on! But you can only brag about your own children so much, right?   

What’s the most ridiculous fact you know?

I just learned that the word is not “segway” but “segue”. I’ve been misspelling that a long time.